Friday, December 19, 2008

The Economics of Hobbies

Writing, I have always maintained, is a great hobby for unambitious skinflints. It's idiot-simple and dirt cheap; pick up a notepad at the £1 store, 'borrow' a pen from someone, and Bob's your uncle. Even if you're a bit more technically motivated, a PC, or even a laptop, is not going to set you back too much. And once kitted out, you can practice your hobby most anywhere you like: on the bus, in the coffee shop, during your gemological exam, etc.

Compare this with other hobbies, even something as innocuous as arts and crafts; talk about a constant money drain, and you really can't whip out an easel and pastels on the 451 Flight from Heathrow to Newark. And when you consider how much SCUBA diving, parasailing, wine collecting or joining a Dungeons and Dragons Cult can cost, writing, as a pastime, begins to look very attractive.

If you decide to go pro, your expenses will surely rise, but that will only include postage, office supplies and the occasional fee for a short story contest. Again, not a huge drain on your budget and, unless you become irrationally obsessed, your partner will appreciate that you're not funneling money into the local pub, or traipsing around the countryside dressed as Gildor the Green searching for Prince Bartog and his army of Gnomes.

The main problem with going pro is that you are unlikely to make much, if any, money. Never mind the success stories you hear about on the news; they are news because they so rarely happen; I hear about people winning the Lottery all the time, but it doesn't make me want to go out and buy a ticket.

Even so, after a lifetime of happily dabbling in writing, I decided to go 'pro' six years ago. This brought about many changes. If you're going to treat something seriously, you need to start tracking production, output, markets and all that boring stuff. Plus, if you're a geek like me, you set up a spreadsheet charting how much time you spend on each individual project.

I didn't mind watching the hourly totals rise (in fact, that was the point) or the budget deficit grow (that's just to be expected) but after a time, I felt I should be bringing something to the "Income" column. My goal was to make some money by the end of year four, which was purely an arbitrary decision based on an article that said if you haven't made any money after four years of trying, you probably should take up another hobby.

So year four arrived, but not any money. On New Year's Eve of that year I received an E-Mail from a webzine accepting one of my articles. For $5. With just hours to go on my self-imposed deadline, I became a professional writer. Since then, I've made a bit more. But not much.

It is because of my obsession with record keeping that I can reveal these numbers. They are not pretty, but I suspect they are remarkable only because they are so optimistic; I'm sure many others have fared worse.

Since I resolved to "take my writing seriously" back in 2003, I have clocked a total of 1,713 hours. My expenses have been just over £2,400 (that may sound high, but it's a lot less than other hobbies cost – just £300 a year – and it includes my ill-fated foray into self-publishing; without that expense, my outlay comes down to a more reasonable £230 a year). In all that time, however, I have earned just over £300, making my hourly rate somewhere in the neighborhood of £019 an hour. Not exactly something you want to give up the day job for.

Still, in terms of pure job satisfaction, you can't beat it, and it certainly makes improving one's performance an easy task.

My goal for next year is to make £0.25 an hour.

Friday, December 12, 2008


I like reading about how other writer's made it, and I'm not alone; in every writing magazine I subscribe to (four, if you must know) there is a section devoted to writers telling about their first sale.

I think that's marvelous. First of all, it keeps alive the idea that it really is possible, and it demonstrates that there is no 'right' way to go about it. Even JA Konrath's story: on the surface it seems to be a standard "write book, send to agent, sign three-book contract" fairytale, but the saga of the nine unpublished novels, and what he learned from the experience that led to his tenth being picked up, serves as an inspiration and a reminder to never give up.

My story is no different, meaning it is different than anyone else's. It didn't follow a traditional route, it is not a path I recommend but, as this is my blog, I'm going to tell you all about it. I'll try to be brief (and after this I promise to stop banging on about it and find something else to write about):

After four years of consistently posting humorous articles on my website, my friends began telling me I ought to write a book. After a while, I believed them.

I gathered together what I considered to be the best of the articles into a manuscript and began sending it to publishers and agents. The response, oddly enough, was positive but the rejections all contained the same theme, which ran along the lines of, "very funny, but who are you and why should anyone buy your book?"

After a while I believed them and self-published the book on Lulu with predictable results. Still, it was a fun and rewarding exercise and provided me with a pile of, what I liked to call, "really expensive business cards."

About a year later, I made the cyber-acquaintance of Toni Hargis.

==== begin shameless plug of new best friend Toni Hargis ====

Toni Hargis, aka Expat Mum and author of "Rules, Britannia," a funny and informative book, and a must read for anyone planning a trip to the UK.

==== end shameless plug of new best friend Toni Hargis ====

I sent Toni a copy of my book and she loved it. She was so effusive with her praise I thought she must have mistaken me for someone who could do something for her, like get her on Oprah or Richard and Judy, or something. But eventually I believed her and re-read the book.

It was (and here comes the part where I twist my arm patting myself on the back) a surprisingly good read. And that inspired me to package it up again and send it back out into the world, with predictable results.

So I set it aside once more.

Then Toni contacted me with this news: a small publisher specializing in expat books was looking to start their 2009 list. They contacted Toni, Toni sent their e-mail to me and encouraged me to send them my manuscript.

And that was that.

So the ingredients that made up this sale include:
- My website and my unwavering devotion to it lo these many years
- My friends, especially Cindy, harping on me to write a book
- Toni getting in touch with me to promo her book, but staying in contact because (I like to believe this, anyway) see sees me as a kindred spirit, or at least a funny guy
- My self-published effort that I could send to Toni
- A growing belief in myself
- A small publisher coming around at just the right time
- Toni being willing to help out a fellow writer

If any of those ingredients were missing, the book would not exist.

I don't know if there is anything to be learned from this, other than the fact that you never know where luck is going to strike, so it's a good idea to be in as many places as possible to increase your chances of getting hit.

Friday, December 05, 2008

What We Do

I just had an interesting conversation with the young lady who lives next door.

First, a bit of background: the flats I live in have balconies (or what passes for balconies in Britain—in the States my balcony measured 5 by 22 feet, here I can fit a chair out there with just enough room left over for me to sit in it) and while it is not expressly forbidden to smoke in these flats (well, in mine it is) most people seem to regard the balconies as al fresco smoking rooms.

This is how I met the young lady from next door; she and her partner are both smokers and, while I'm out there with a cigar and a beverage enjoying the English climate, they occasionally pop out for a fag. So I knew she was in her final year at uni and I knew she was working on some essays, which are due before they break up for the holidays.

When I asked about them, at 8 o'clock in the evening, she said she was working on both of them at once and needed to have them completed by the following morning. Not an enviable task.

So I told her about the writing I was doing and about how, as it was not due anywhere at any time, I couldn't be arsed to work on it so I was having a cigar instead. She was curious as to why, if no one was forcing me, I was bothering to write anything at all.

"Well, it's for my web page."

"Is anyone waiting for it?"

"No, not really. I just sort of post things there."

"But you don't have to."

"No, it's just, well, it's what I do."

I might have told her that some people putter in the garden or build scale models of Buckingham Palace out of toothpicks or stand on train platforms writing down numbers, and what I'm doing is basically the same except it doesn't cost as much and I get to do it from the comfort of my living room. I might have told her that, to give her an insight into the psyche of the writer, but I didn't. So, instead of an understanding nod, she gave me one of those skeptical smiles you give to people who show you their scale model of Buckingham Palace made entirely out of toothpicks, stubbed out her cigarette and returned to her work. Because she had to.

And I finished my cigar, went back inside and went back to my writing. Not because I had to, but because I'm a writer, and that's what we do.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Revenge of Lulu

After blogging about how luluing your book is an invitation for grammar and spelling errors, I managed to post an entry with two glaring spelling mistakes. Let that be a lesson.

Poor proof-reading skills are something that have plagued me all my life, which is strange considering both my vocation and avocation demand I communicate effectively and accurately in writing. It hasn't always been easy.

As a young man, my writing habit led to a number of unfortunate forays into self-produced pamphlets and magazines, all of them comically replete with errors.

Then I started a printing service as a side business to help fund my deepening writing addiction. Even now I can't explain what caused me to think I might be good at this. One of my biggest accounts was a local restaurant owner who asked me to produce his menu. I set all the type (and, to be fair to myself, had the customer approve it) and the next thing I knew I received an anonymous letter containing nothing but the printed menu with all of the errors (rest assured, there were many) circled in red. I closed the printing business down shortly after out of terminal embarrassment.

By this time, computers were arriving on the scene. I couldn't get one soon enough. Not only did they make it easier to correct errors, they also opened the way for spelling checkers. My first one was a separate program that had to be run after the article was complete. The program would go through all the words in the piece and print out a list--in alphabetical order--of all the words its internal dictionary did not recognize. Then it was up to me to go through the document, find the words and fix them. It cost me $50; I thought it was brilliant.

Spelling checkers have improved vastly since that time, but my proof reading ability has, sadly, not. This, coupled with the richness of the English language, has lead two awl sorts of interesting linguistical mishaps. Sentences lick tees our jest a simple of the may ham eye am cape elbow of.

The upshot is, I just know when The Book arrives in its finished form and I pick it up in excited glee, the very first page it opens to will reveal a glaring, horrific error.

And there won't be a thing I can dew abut tit.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tangled Up In Blue

My cover art arrived today. Color me pleased.

It's a lot bolder and in-your-face than I would have done, but then that's what's needed these days to grab people, and that's why I'm not in marketing.

This arrived right on time. I had just finished the line edits of the final proof and was well sick of the book. Now this has peaked my interest again: this is going to be a really good book.

I certainly hope so, because I don't have much else to show for 45 years of writing (I was not quite nine when I started; do the math). Granted I've had my share of funny articles in various newspapers, magazines, websites, fanzines, etc. But I have never had anything as concrete as a book.

And it has not escaped my notice that, after nearly half a century of wanting to be a novelist, I have not yet published a single word of fiction.

I suppose that will be my next goal (aside for selling more than 12 copies of this book). But that will have to wait; right now I'm too busy dealing with reality to make stuff up.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Old Dog, New Tricks

I'm at a point in the writing process that I have to assume takes many writer's by surprise: marketing.

No writer who I have ever talked to--aspiring or professional--has ever indicated to me that they decided to become a writer simply for the marketing opportunities it would afford them. Most writers (I'm generalizing but stay with me) are introverted, if not misanthropic, and would gladly leave anything involving interacting with other people to other people.

That, I am told, is no longer possible, at least if you want to sell some books.

Up to this point, for me, it hasn't been much of a problem. In fact, there has not yet been a hint of social interaction during this entire process. The publishers and I communicate solely by e-mail, I have done all the blurb-begging via e-mail and much of my embryonic marketing campaign is focused around the Internet. The only physical item to come out of all this is the hard copy of the contract the publisher mailed me.

But still, what I've been doing over the past weeks is not writing, so even though I've not had to approach strangers directly, I'm still out of my comfort zone. Add to that the fact that I haven't a clue as to what I'm doing or supposed to be doing and I can see I am in for a rough ride.

I thought I was well positioned for marketing: I had a long-running web site and a solid fan base as well as a presence on many UK-US forums. Not enough, I was told. So I started a blog to go along with my website, only to read that blogs are passé and anyone who is anyone should be on Facebook.

Like everyone else on the planet, I have a Facebook account. I opening it some time ago just to see what it was about and, not able to comprehend it, I left it alone. Now that it has become the (alleged, and likely self-proclaimed) newest, cutting edge tool for marketers (if you don't count Twitter) I figured I ought to generate a Facebook presence. So I logged back in, and I still can't figure it out. Invitations to virtual Scrabble Tournaments and other, less savory activities keep popping up and people I've never met keep telling me that they are looking forward to getting drunk, are drunk, or are hung over from having been drunk, but I can't find any way to tell them what I am doing (i.e. trying to sell a book) or load any meaningful content.

So I signed up for Twitter; sure it's pointless, but at least it's easier to understand.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Why You Shouldn't Lulu

I wasn't planning on this, but I think I'll start using the word "lulu" to mean self-published; I think it might stick.

What I meant to start out with was this: "You should not self-publish your book." I can say that, having self-published (excuse me, having lulued) my own book, and here's why:

The decision to self-publish, um, lulu was made for all the right reasons. My manuscript was good--several agents and publishers told me so--but as a humorist without a national platform, it was doomed to financial failure. Undaunted, I continued to send it out and received similar responses. Finally I thought, "well, if a publisher is going to loose money on it, then they are right not to publish it, but there is nothing stopping me from producing a copy to sell to my friends, family and fans."

As I said, a viable reason to lulu, so I set out to make the best manuscript I could. I culled my best and funniest essays, put them in a logical order, proof read them, proof read them again, proof read them again, had my wife proof read them, sent them to a professional proof reader, proof read them again and, you guessed it, proof read them again.

Then, with the help of my wife, I made a very professional looking cover, copied formatting from other books for copyright and title pages and all that extra stuff no one reads but would look out of place if I got it wrong. Then I proofread it all again and ran it through Lulu.

In all I sold 30 copies and gave away about as many; it was, on the surface, an enjoyable and rewarding experience, but here is why I think it should not have been done. When I read it over in book form, I found so many errors I cringed.

Nothing beats the editorial services of a professional publishing house.

And here's another reason not to lulu; the book was eventually picked up by a publisher and they found even more errors. Also, under their guidance, the chapters were rearranged and added to in a way the substantially improved the overall quality of the book, after I thought I had made it the best it could be.

Bottom line: lulued books are substandard. They might be well written, they might have even had all the spelling errors corrected, but trust me, if a publisher had worked on them, they would be better.

As I've said, I believe luluing has its place, but the prevalence of POD printers juxtaposed with the hard work and persistence required to produce a polished manuscript, synopsis and query letters and keep them circulating to agents and publishers makes luluing an dangerously attractive option.

Want to lulu your book? Fine. But keep these two things in mind. First, don't jump too soon; have you really made the manuscript the best it can be, and have you really, properly presented it to every place that might traditionally publish it?

And finally, don't expect too much; no one wants to buy a self-published book.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Level III

I said I'd be back.

I've been staring at that line for half an hour now, trying to think of a clever way to follow it up, but I can't come up with a thing. My book is being published, that's the bottom line--a real (though admittedly small) publisher took it on because they like my work and see a sales potential in it.

The e-mail came during flurry of retrenching, reflecting, regrouping and reinventing. My day job was not going well, I had recently realized that I have been dreaming of being a novelist since I was 10 years old but had yet to sell a single word of fiction and had just, out of a desperate desire to feel as if I was doing something constructive, signed up for NaNoWriMo.

I had finally put my unprofitable and distracting habit of writing humorous essays behind me and managed to send a few short stories off. Then, in the midst of all this, I got the e-mail: "We like your work; we'll send you a contract." I looked at it, thought, "Oh?" and went back to whatever it was I was doing. I didn't even tell anyone.

It wasn't my novel they wanted--I think I might have gotten excited about that--they wanted my book, "Postcards From Across the Pond," a manuscript I had given up on long ago and self-published through Lulu. The publisher didn't know about that, however; they had looked at my website, liked what they saw and offered a contract. The fact that I already had a finished manuscript and was able to add another 23,000 words to it over the next few days only meant the process could move ahead faster.

The book is currently going through the editing/processing phase; it is due out before Christmas, in case you're stuck on what to get aunt Mildred.

I suppose, by my own definition, I now have a Level III blog; I am now in The Club. But I don't really feel like it.

It's as if, after all this time of knocking on the front door begging to be let in (and even having an agent mingling with the insiders on my behalf over canapés in the back garden) I was never actually let in. Instead, someone opened a side door and allowed me slip through, not into the main part of the house, but a neglected utility room off of the main hallway.

Still, here I am. And if I'm just another schmuck with a publishing contract--nestled among the growing number of blog-to-book writers--and one of countless thousands who have had a book published (instead of the countless millions who only wish they had a book published) I suppose it's up to me to take this opportunity, no matter how slim it is, and ride it for all it is worth.