SOME Return on the Investment

money treeLast week, I proposed that being published is not necessarily the be-all and end-all of every effort at writing, that most people engage in the other arts without expectation of being paid for whatever they create. And why shouldn’t writing be the same? I also pointed out that a drive to publish may, in fact, divert especially developing writers from their best efforts.

A reader responded this way:

This is a tough one for me, I have to say. Writing and kidlit are my passion. Yes, I would want to be involved with it even if I didn’t want to be published. For me, though, it is my only true option as far as something I can pursue as a vocation … so getting published (though a long shot, especially as a financial resource) is something I don’t just want, it’s something I need. Sure, I love to write … but all the years AND money I’ve spent in the effort to get published simply pushes me further into debt… . I need SOME return on the investment, so, although I do believe it’s the journey that matters, sometimes the goal has to be achieved. … This writing life is definitely not an easy one in this way.

I’m with her, with all of you who would say something similar. And I’m very aware that the argument I make comes too easily from one who is publishing, has been publishing, for many years. But I haven’t forgotten. This writing life is definitely not an easy one. And the difficulty of it is compounded when you are spending much of your time and resources on writing and have not yet published and need to publish to survive financially.

On My HonorMy writing career has been good to me in that way, though it took a long time to develop. I spent the first fifteen years writing full-time before I ever once earned enough to live on in even a modest way. The balance was finally changed only by the serendipity of having On My Honor win a Newbery Honor Award. And I do mean serendipity. There is so much luck involved in any award. There must have been scores of other books out there in 1987 that were equally deserving, but they, for whatever reason, didn’t catch the eye of the committee. I have always watched for the new opportunity, have supplemented my income with part-time teaching and lecturing, and have worked hard and consistently, but still I know that much of my financial success, such as it is, is due to happenstance as much as to my efforts. Not an encouraging message, I’m afraid, but an honest one.

Killing Miss KittyAnd a further admission, with the exception of On My Honor, my books that bring in the most income are often not my best work. They are ones that happen to capture some market niche or to be combined with the right popular artist or to be picked up by mass retailers, all simply luck. Truth be told, sometimes the books I’ve been most passionate about—Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins being the most glaring example—don’t do particularly well in the market. Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins, in fact, was a colossal failure. When it was emerging it got a lot of buzz, an unusual number of books went out even before the publication date, and when folks got a look at the challenging contents, those books returned to the publisher in a flood.

So … am I saying if you’re hoping to make a career out of writing, to make it your work, it’s time to give up? Not at all. But I am serving warning. I suppose “Don’t give up the day job” is as succinct a way to put it as any.

Yet I will return to the point of my last week’s blog. Despite the vagaries of an unpredictable market, despite the fact that commercial and even cynical sometimes comes out on top, the shortest road to success for most of us remains the road to our own hearts. When we write what we uniquely care about, we offer the world something no one else can give.

And then, whether our work sells well or poorly or not at all, we will have fed our own souls.  And that matters!

P.S. Another reader responded to this topic and sent me this link to a blog which many of you might be interested in.  Here it is:

Marion, I understand this one all too well and just wrote about it for Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo Writing Challenge. I’m sending the link because some of your readers might not know about her blog and will find true support here. — Karen Henry Clark

11 thoughts on “SOME Return on the Investment

  1. writersideup

    Marion, I did NOT know you won a Newbery Honor! I know you’re published and successful, but have been remiss to find out the history behind that. How wonderful 😀 And you know, I agree that luck has a lot to do with it—timing—what ever creates the buzz about a book. I have a friend whose book which was released this year, in my opinion, deserves consideration for it. I tried to make the right people aware, but I think to no avail. So many books are published, many of which never achieve the success they are worthy of. I’m glad you realized such an honor! 😀

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      You’re absolutely right . . . there are so many books published every year and more each year. Worthy books slip through the cracks without notice, let alone awards, all the time. Any kind of recognition involves a lot of serendipity.

      Reply
  2. Elaine Alexander

    I’m at that crossroads. I have an agent, but haven’t sold a book and I’m wondering if I can still produce anything in the face of that disappointment. But I do want to keep going. I’m just letting the uphill journey get me down, I suppose.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      And for most people, it is an uphill journey, Elaine. The only thing I can promise is that once you do place a piece all the struggle to get there will fall away. If you have an agent, then someone believes your work is marketable. Your task is to keep believing in yourself and finding the kind of writing that feeds you most deeply so that you get the energy to keep going from the work itself.

      Reply
  3. Norma Gaffron

    Marion, I firmly believe your line, “…we offer the world something no one else can give.” Whether the memoir writers in a class I teach ever put their experiences, and thus their wisdom, in book form, is not the only goal. The important thing is that they write them down. Someone, sometime, will find their chapters in a drawer and say something like, “Look what Grandma wrote – I didn’t know she did that…”

    Reply
      1. Karen Henry Clark

        Marion, I’m so honored to be included in your blog post. My amazing connection to you is the result of your precious ALLISON’S WINGS, the first book my daughter read entirely on her own. Thank you for giving her that valuable experience and for sharing my story with your followers.

        Reply
    1. Karen Henry Clark

      Sarah, no one has ever called me heroic. I certainly appreciate your comment. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and I now see that I was always headed toward writing the important book that would tell my daughter’s early life story. For years I felt I was failing, but I was really becoming a stronger writer, collecting valuable details, finding my heart’s work.

      Reply

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