When I wrote my take on used-book sales, I originally included a question, then took it out because it turned into a sidebar. But it’s a valid question.
Would I rather be a full-time author?
The problem with asking that question there was that I had to answer it, and that made it a distraction from my main point, which was that I don’t have a problem with used copies of my book (or books in general) being resold.
But it’s a good question. So, would I rather be a full-time author?
Sure. But most of all, I would like to be a full-time professional baseball player.
I am a much better writer than I am a baseball player–I haven’t so much as played intramural softball in a decade–so we’ll be realistic and leave my baseball fantasies out of this. But the ironic thing is that it hasn’t been a week since the following conversation happened at work.
My boss: Did you get Dave’s report?
Our client: Yes, I did. And I can tell Dave talked to a lot of different people, and it has everyone’s point of view in it, but it totally sounds like one person wrote it. Dave should write a book.
Boss: He already did.
Client: Ha-ha. No, not this. I mean a real book.
Boss: He already did. He brought a copy of it in a few months ago. Maybe you weren’t here that week.
Client: A real book? How thick was it?
Boss: A couple hundred pages. Pretty thick. It was a real book, sold in real bookstores.
Client: Tell him to bring a copy of it sometime. I’d like to see it.
So then the talk around the office for a while was how my boss and I should write a book about TCP, because all of the books about “TCP/IP” only talk about IP. So then my boss and I had The Talk. The one about what it’s like to be a writer. If the publisher decides to promote you, you can do very well. But the publisher doesn’t always decide to promote your book.
It took me nine months to write Optimizing Windows. I started with about 10 pages worth of skeletal notes I had accumulated over the course of the mid 1990s and eventually expanded it to around 200 pages worth of text. I arrived home from work around 5, typically wrote until midnight, and spent most of Saturday writing too. Some weeks I took Sunday off, and some weeks I wrote on Sunday too.
The publisher took out a couple of ads here and there but otherwise did nothing to promote the book. When the book got an overwhelmingly good review in Canada and it became impossible to buy the book anywhere in Canada, I sent a copy of the review to the publisher, along with a message from a Canadian reader spinning the tale of how he almost bought the last copy of my book in whatever town he lives in and a note: Get more copies of this book to Canada!
But someone decided it was a better idea to keep thousands of copies of the book in a warehouse in Tennessee.
Enough Canadians bought the book on Amazon that it became Amazon’s best-selling book in Canada–Amazon used to track sales by region and flag hot-selling books on the product page as such–and it traded #1 and #2 spots with a, shall we say, marital enhancement book by Lou Paget for much of the summer. That led to some good jokes at work for a while. “So, Dave, do the Canadians think your book is better than sex this week, or not?”
But with inadequate supplies on retail store shelves, the impulse sales just didn’t happen. Those books in Tennessee sat unsold, and eventually ended up on remainder tables at book stores and computer shows, selling at a loss.
While all of this was going on, I had a contract for a second book, but my coauthor bailed on me, I developed repetitive stress injury, the book was cancelled, and I eventually abandoned–or at least set aside–any dreams of becoming a full-time author.
You may not know this, but when you pay $24.95 for a book, the author’s royalty is anywhere from 25 cents to $5, depending on the publisher, the author’s track record, and how good the author’s agent is. A realistic expectation for most authors is about $2, or maybe $2.50. So, to make $50,000 a year, an author has to sell a minimum of 20,000 books. An author will have to do a fair bit of self-promotion in order to move that many books.
Or that author could get a regular 40-hour-per-week job. A midrange desktop support job or entry-level system administration job in St. Louis pays about $50,000 a year. With some luck, connections, and just the right set of qualifications, it’s possible to score a helpdesk job in St. Louis that pays $50,000 a year, for that matter. And those jobs generally come with benefits: health coverage, a little vacation time, and probably even a 401(K) plan.
Get a certification or two, and you’re well outside of the $50,000 a year territory.
I have a family to feed, so having the stability of a 40-hour-a-week job with benefits is more responsible. And having set working hours and a predictable travel schedule is perhaps more conducive to family life. In the meantime, when time permits, I can still write, but then I’m writing something because I’ll enjoy writing about it, and I don’t have to worry about whether I’ll make enough from it to keep a roof over my head or the utilities on.
So do I have any regrets?
None at all, actually. Yes, maybe I sound a little bit bitter about how my book-writing experience panned out, and in hindsight, I would have done some things differently. But I turned out fine.
I get a fair number of job queries. There are a lot of security jobs that demand both a high-end certification and “excellent written communication skills.” When I respond to those queries, I can point to my publications, including that 200-page book, as testament to my written communication skills. I don’t have a lot of competition for those jobs.
So, in a perfect world, if I could make what I make now writing books rather than being a senior-level security analyst, sure, I would be up for that. And that’s much less far-fetched than the idea of me being a professional baseball player.
But in the world I actually live in, I’m worth more as a security analyst or assessor than I am as a book author. I still get to write from time to time, I get to use cool security tools and see a lot of different things, and I make recommendations that affect real systems that real people are using. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that.
3 thoughts on “So, would I rather be a full-time author?”
I’ve got a brother-in-law that, following retirement with more or less similar skills, had a successful second career with technical writing. Following a second “retirement,” he continues to collaborate, write, and publish. You’ve got plenty of time to have it both ways. In the meantime I’ll continue to enjoy your writing here.
You’re exactly right, Paul. Thanks.
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
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