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.