Dan McCarthy asks, “Do you really want to write a book?” Excerpt:

John Winters describes himself at Salon as “a self-publishing failure.” His mystery novel couldn’t find a publisher, so he brought it out himself and undertook its promotion as well. It turns out that only are self-published books usually not very good, but self-promoted ones usually aren’t promoted very well, either. At least, not until they become material for a Salon piece.

Winters links to a Joseph Epstein column of about 10 years ago in which Epstein reveals that “81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them.” I wonder how many of those people really want to write a book rather than merely have a book to their name. Ask any actor, rapper, politician, or professional wrestler the difference between the two.

Writing a book is hard work, doesn’t pay well for most who try it, and isn’t necessarily all that satisfying once it’s done.

I am days away from publishing my second book, one that I was well-compensated to write, and one that I’m satisfied with, insofar as one as neurotic as I can ever be satisfied with his work (an armless man has more success satisfying the itch at the end of his nose). But I want to say a few random things about this.

People have no idea what writers do, and how they do it. I asked my dad once why my sister was so ticked off at me. He said that he thought she couldn’t understand how I made money writing. Writing! Just words on a page. She thought I was getting away with something. If memory serves, this was around the time I was a film critic, so not only was I getting away with making my living by writing, I was getting paid good money to go sit in the movies and write about that. I might as well have been lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills!

The thing is, most people can’t write five good paragraphs explaining why a movie is good or bad, or five good paragraphs about anything. Try it sometime. Think about the last movie you saw that made a strong impression on you. Can you explain why? Can you explain why the film worked, or didn’t work? Can you explain why in a way that makes other people want to read you, and a way in which others can understand, and take your opinion seriously? It’s a lot harder than you think. Ebert made it look easy because he was a thorough professional. The people who look like naturals are in part naturals, but they also worked their butts off to hone their craft.

You can’t do this, or at least, you won’t do this with enough dedication over time to learn to do it well. Well, you, reader, might, but most people won’t. I like to cook, and I like to cook a lot, but I know that I don’t have the innate skill or dedication that my cousin Daniel, a professional chef, does. Do I have a natural gift for cooking? I think maybe I do, a small one. But it will never amount to much because I don’t have the passion or the opportunity to devote myself to the kind of hard work necessary to develop what talent I have into something really fine. Along those lines, a long time ago, I thought acting was pretty easy, all things considered, until I got roped into reading a play aloud with some friends. You should try that sometime. Acting is hard. 

Point is, writing is hard, and it’s hard to make money at it. I’m making money at it now, but the writing profession has never been as uncertain in my lifetime, in terms of remuneration and stability. People really have very little idea how this works. They think that if you get on TV, or have a book in the bookstore, you must be rich. When I was living in New York and working at National Review, I was on TV a fair amount, but my sister and her husband, both public servants in one of the poorer states in the Union, were more financially stable than I was. You don’t get paid for being on TV, and unless you’re in the tip-top ranks of journalists, you don’t make serious money. Being relatively well-known is not the same thing as being well-paid.

Plus — and people find this so hard to believe, but it’s true — more than 95 percent of all books fail to earn back the advance for authors. Go into your local bookstore, and know that most books you pull off the shelf will have lost money for its publisher. Crazy, I know, but that’s how it works. I worked really hard on Crunchy Cons, and sweated over it, and hoped for it, and put my family through the wringer while writing it, and it got good reviews and publicity that most books can only dream about. And yet, the book was not a big seller, not even close. Mind you, The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming is a vastly different book, and one that is far more accessible to a much wider audience. Still, I believed my own good press with Crunchy Cons instead of what my publisher friend M. warned me about, and became really discouraged by the sales figures. I’m trying hard to tamp down expectations for Little Way, simply because if it breaks even, it will have defied the odds.

I bring this up to ask you to imagine what it’s like to have written a book that was widely discussed, at least among political people, hated by some, loved by others, covered by talk radio and TV and the national media … and still, it failing at the box office, so to speak. That’s the professional writer’s life. Please don’t read me as complaining! I still make a good living writing, and who knows, maybe I’ll strike gold with this next book. The point I want to make here is that Dan McCarthy is right to say that writing is hard, doesn’t pay well, and can be pretty disappointing even after you’ve done the thing every writer wants to do, but few accomplish: publish a book that receives a lot of favorable attention.

Twice this week friends have mentioned to me that self-publishing is the future. Maybe it is. I’m skeptical. Radically skeptical. It has its advantages, for sure, but I know the kind of book I would have published had I had no one to edit Little Way, to polish my prose and rein in my excesses, which I couldn’t perceive because I was too close to the story. Yes, I could have hired a freelance editor, but I don’t know that I would have done that, because it costs more money than I had to spend. Besides, how would I market a self-published Little Way? I have a far bigger platform than most writers, thanks to this blog, but that’s still very small, given the number of books I would have to sell to make more than a pittance on the thing.

What I want to say is that from the outside, I am a reasonably successful professional writer, but this stuff is hard to do, hard to sustain, and extremely hard to make work as a profession, no matter how hard you try. Maybe you do have a book in you. Maybe there is a David underneath that block of marble. The thing you should know is that exposing the David within is not like sweeping away cobwebs. Even an artist of Michelangelo’s stature had to use hammer and chisel; most of us have to get to David with our fingernails — and that’s presuming that there’s a David to get to, as opposed to, I dunno, Ziggy.

That’s the thing that kills you: when you’ve worn your fingers into bloody stumps trying to pull David out of the stone, and you get Ziggy instead. Or let’s say you really have pulled David out; how the hell do you get people to come down to your studio and see the miracle you have accomplished?

I don’t mean to discourage aspiring writers. I really don’t. I would say, though, that the only reason to even try this stuff in a serious way is if you have no choice, if not writing — is more intolerable than the alternative. Some people are like that. I am one of those people. And you know, I get letters or e-mails sometimes from people who say, You don’t know me, but that thing you wrote? It changed my life. Here’s how… . That right there, that is satisfaction, and sometimes even exaltation. I don’t know anything else I’m capable of carrying out that can do that for others.

For my sister Ruthie, it was teaching middle school, something I could not have done unless forced, and would have done badly. She was a Michelangelo of eighth-grade math instruction.

(Hey, buy my book!)