Beyond This Point You Die

I’ve got a message for you
and you’re not gonna like it
The poison is in you
It’s something you’re born with
and you’re not gonna fight it
You’re too weak to fight it
Nothing left but to feed it
until it’s strong enough to feed on you
–Acumen Nation, “Message From the Grave”

The is a signpost for all who are considering a career based solely on their writing talents. If you’re like me you will meet all sorts of wonderful authors, agents, artists, actors, directors, special effects people, fans, librarians, retailers, and more during your time in the business. Unique people you would not otherwise encounter. They will encourage you, respect you, assist with your career, and just overall actively like you. You’ll see them at events all over the country on a regular basis.

“This sounded like a warning was on the way,” you’re likely saying, oozing relieved exasperation. “Hanging out with famous people is a problem?!”

As much as they make you feel like you’re part of something, as much as they make you feel like a rock star for the weekend, there’s always the return to real life. The life that involves not having friends because you’ve spent the last thirteen years locked away in your house furiously keystroking away. The life that involves groceries and credit cards. Airplane tickets and hotels each cost hundreds of dollars, not to mention the fact somebody needs to take care of your child when you travel for business.

It’s tempting to fall into the trap of attending every fan convention and business conference you hear about because one more tip might pan out, it might make all the difference this time. One more editor of magazines or anthologies or books might take a liking to you and help secure your financial future. And whether that happens or not, there’s still the addictive feeling of being around people who actually like you–which is one reason why I expressed such concern over certain happenings at industry events in a recent post. But it’s not all rainbows and pancakes, folks. There is a limit to resources such as time and money. Where does one draw the line?

Okay, so, I’ve been an author for thirteen years. If you are imagining me sitting around wearing–or not wearing–whatever I want, you are correct. No need to maintain the hygiene standard or one’s personal appearance in the dark cave of creation. Surely that has merit. And by working from home I’ve saved tens of thousands in childcare costs over the years. Yeah, I live in the Washington, DC area when I should be living someplace like Oklahoma, where the cost of living is forty percent less. I don’t purchase anything new, nor do I buy things used. I buy food. In other areas I tend to rely on hand-me-downs and freebies–it’s amazing what you can find on Freecycle. Sometimes I go to a thrift store. But I don’t get books, movies, music, or collectibles. That’s what birthdays and holidays are for.

My high school wardrobe is all gone, save for one T-shirt. And yes, I still wear it. When I say that you should know my high school 20th reunion is coming up in two months. My mother tends to buy me slacks, jeans, and shoes as gifts, meaning I don’t worry about purchasing those items; I must make those two or three pairs of pants and one or two pairs of shoes last until the next year. Sometimes she even buys long sleeve shirts for me, and shirts–as noted above–can last quite a while.

Still, though, a person needs money to get by at some point, and eventually you cross a responsibility threshold. In my case I have to cut my losses and abandon four conventions I was thinking of attending in the second half of 2012. I’ll be updating my events page shortly, and to any who might have been counting on seeing me I offer my apologies. For now isolation is the best option. Of course, it’s not true isolation: I interact with the people in my household, my next door neighbors, and clerks at the post office or grocery store. Occasionally I see my in-laws, or my mother. For the most part, though, I get through the day without having to use my voice, and that’s not entirely bad. Other people might wither and die under such conditions, I suspect, and I worry about them choosing this career path.

“Okay, okay,” you’re saying. “Enough bellyaching. We all know that writing is art, and as an artist you’re living the art life. You’re living the dream.”

There is a difference between being a writer and an author. I attempt to relate this to people all the time, but my words seem to slide off the Teflon of their meninges. The message is this: if you want to be a “writer” pick up a pen or pencil. Commit words to paper. Better yet, go contemporary and use an electronic device such as a computer or tablet. Boom! You’re a writer. Put your creations in a drawer, go about your business, and perhaps you can take the Emily Dickinson route to posthumous fame and fortune.

To be an “author,” however, your primary goal is making a career of writing in the here and now. That requires writing for profit as opposed to writing for fun, being professional in your interactions, and making the same investment of resources in “yourself as a business” that would be expected from any other entrepreneur. Allow me to supply a quick checklist of facts to assist with a smooth transition into your career as an author:

  • On the average it takes six years before getting your first sale.
  • The average first-time novelist is 40 years old.
  • Six percent of authors are able to derive their full income from writing alone. The other ninety-four percent are not.
  • As a freelancer you do not have a benefits package. There is no retirement plan, there are no paid sick days, paid vacation days, paid holidays, or paid “family leave” days–you know, like being able to go and bury your family members, help take care of their children, estate, and all that good stuff. There is no health, dental, or eye coverage. Sure, you can buy insurance as an individual, but for the cost you better hope you fall gravely ill to make the expense worth it. Although, in fairness, there are a couple organizations–such as SFWA–through which you can get coverage.
  • Speaking of organizations for authors, a pay scale considered professional by them is often in the neighborhood of five cents per word. With the average novel being 80,000 words in length that comes out to $4,000, meaning to break the single person’s poverty line you have to not only write and edit but also sell three novels per year. If you have a spouse and child you need to write and sell five books a year to break the poverty line. If you intend to be the bread winner, that is. Remember the term “professional” implies a career. Is this sounding like a career so far?
  • Post script: I’ve been told the standard in Charles Dickens’ came out to five cents a word. When you research the matter you find that adjusted for inflation they were getting $1.47 per word.
  • The National Writers Union has been pushing for $1 per word for about eleven years now. I like to think it will be the standard someday, even though it’s a third lower than the going rate back when slavery was legal.
  • No, this is not all the product of mendacious altruism on the part of author organizations. That’s just what happens when the burden of establishing payment is on the employees as opposed to being on the employers. Not unlike professional wrestlers us authors are viewed as independent contractors, and as such don’t qualify for the benefits received by the “real” employees of the companies we work for, often have to cover our own travel to events, and so forth. And like the charity wrestling events to raise funds for sick pro wrestlers we authors have charity anthologies and other such drives to generate funds for the sick in our ranks. What incentive do publishers have to change this system? Everything else in place a century ago for business and society is still in place, right? Why not do the same in publishing.
  • Last time I checked the average member of WGA–the Writers Guild of America, which is the union of screenwriters–makes $90,000 a year from sales and residuals (aka royalties). Hollywood studios are allowed to only work with WGA members. How to get into this organization? Easy, just have a movie deal in place already. Joseph Heller wrote a book about it one time.
  • Back to the real world of publishing–such as it is–McGraw Hill is the lone book publisher in the Fortune 500. Of course, they generate significant income from sales of software, professional development for teachers and administrators, testing materials, lab manuals, study guides, and self-published textbooks through McGraw Hill Create. But yeah, they also find time to sell books.
  • On a panel at AWP (the Associated Writing Programs conference) SPD (Small Press Distribution) said their average book sold fifty-six copies per year. That may sound bad, but the average self-published title sells about 100 copies total.
  • In 2002 there were 247,777 books published in the United States; in 2011 there were 3,092,740. Yes, in less than a decade competition for each book sale or review is 12.5 times higher. And somehow there was a nine percent DROP in book sales from 2010 to 2011? During a sickening increase in the number of books made available to the public? Is Congress running the publishing industry? Actually, the government does regulate everything associated with the economic crash that left less spending money in the hands of consumers…but I digress…
  • In Fortune 500’s listing of fifty-three major industries in the USA the printing/publishing industry ranked #49. And that’s only because when you broaden it to printing and all forms of print media there are fourteen companies in the Fortune 1000. Only two of them are book publishers. McGraw Hill, and Scholastic–who, like McGraw Hill, derives much of its revenue from teaching tools as opposed to just book sales. Sooooooooo…maybe it’s not just authors in the poorhouse, eh? Publishing in general isn’t looking so hot.
  • Technical writers make $53,000 a year on the average. Go write corporate letters, reports, and best practices binders. No? You’re not a “corporate whore,” you’re a “serious writer?” Be prepared to make–surprise!–between $2,000 and $10,000 a year. Even a “good” contract with an advance of $50,000 could be three years in the making when considering writing, revisions, getting an agent, doing the revisions requested by the agent, then the agent generating interest and finally a sale. Fifty grand split between three years’ work breaks down to less than $17,000 per year–Walmart wages!
  • If you are an author you function poorly as a citizen of the United States. Get it? Poorly? Ha ha.
  • But seriously folks, you’re likely stroking your chin and thinking, “Hmm. That Lawson guy’s grape harvest is sour this year.” Or, “Hey, you don’t want it to turn out like that then just don’t be a failure!” On the contrary I’m quite happy with my accomplishments–and yes, I do have accomplishments. I’ve been a finalist for the Stoker Award. I’ve been a finalist for the Wonderland Award. I’ve had two nominations for the Rhysling Award. I’ve had two nominations for the Dwarf Stars Award. I was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I’ve won all kinds of writing competitions which came with all variety of prizes, the largest of these being the Fiction International Emerging Writers Competition–which paid what was at the time a pro rate and publication in a prestigious literary journal. I get paid to travel the country and speak, be a guest of honor, teach workshops at places like Rutgers University and Seton Hill University among others. A lot of authors have told me I influenced them; in fact my core audience seems to be authors, judging from my sales–yeah, there’s not a lot of authors. While I might be able to get by on street cred and admiration I cannot feed it to my son, nor clothe him in it.
  • I’ve also heard editors at major publishing houses are not in the business of subsidizing art. They are in the business of massaging egos. The logic is this: make the story progression simple enough that somebody who may or may not have a high school education can guess each outcome before it happens, making them “feel intelligent.” The sensation of possessing intellectual prowess is gratifying, inducing the reader to purchase more titles from that author/publisher. This is the advertising strategy they employ, because they are throwing the books at anybody and everybody, using shelf space in grocery stores and airports and anywhere else somebody who isn’t a devoted reader will be. Look up the Lester Dent writing method. Print it out, put it in a place of honor, and grovel before it daily. It will be your formula from now on if you want to “make it.” It’s a buyer’s market, so you have to do whatever they please if you want that $$$. O-ho! Thought you could get away with not being a corporate whore? The truth is you are correct in that whores actually get paid, but authors not so much, making you just a corporate slut, because as we all know sluts do it for free. Treat the reader, and yourself, with as little respect as possible.
  • There are a few authors who are able to pull off the formula while at the same time creating something beautiful and full of art, without ever making a whore, slut, or lowest common denominator fool of anybody involved. It gives me hope to see such authors doing well; I was fortunate enough to evaluate one such manuscript for a friend earlier this summer, and have every confidence she will conquer the world. I intend to emulate her approach from this point forward, despite knowing at this late stage I can’t achieve the success she has. My track record of low sales disallows “big” contracts. Still, if I can get even “modest” contracts that will be an improvement for me.

You may be pondering the age-old, “If you could do it differently would you?” Irrelevant. If I were capable of something different I would be doing something else. My neurological and experiential composition preclude all other courses of action. That is why I am returning to the dark cave of creation from whence I came. Plus the fact a thirteen year gap in your employment record doesn’t help at job interviews, nor does a lack of even an undergraduate degree. Once you’re this far along the only way out is to find a way further in.

Now, if my signpost reading “Beyond This Point You Die” has not been constructed with letters blarlingly large and gaudy enough to be seen from the other side of creation…I offer a selection from my latest poetry collection, SuiPsalms, because, well, I feel like it:

You Will Not Meet Me

When we bump into each other
on the street, when we are
introduced by an acquaintance,
when we are pressed together
by the tides of a party: you will
not meet me. Not halfway, nor
a third. Your vision is blurred
by the retroviral
suspicion that I could be
a degenerate descendant of Yahwe’s
anger and remorse. My approach
is cloaked in a rotten egg
smell that begs the question
Did somebody pull God’s finger?

You will not greet me.
Despite the countless lumens
exuding from my pores a darkness
slips through, eclipsing your
smile. You will be assured
I am merely dirty from my travels,
my long fall before deplaning,
my meat slow-smoked and full
of carcinogens, soot circling
in my eyes.

You will not embrace me.
Instead your vigorous hand-
shakes sweat and suffocate
within the confines of your jockstrap.
The back-pat of camaraderie
is tucked away in the pocket
of your other jacket, the one that fell
victim to a Korean dry cleaning conspiracy.
The brittle peck on the cheek
is stuffed in your bra,
its sincerity enough only to fill
one side, the mastectomy
of etiquette.

You will not meet me
.000000000000001 to the 10 billionth power %
of the way. What necessitates this
calculus of avoidance? What cultural
steroids were administered to make
you + me non-Euclidian
in scope? This withering
divisibility, this non-reciprocal
subtraction, this utterly predictable
stiletto massage administered
with intimate familiarity.

You will remember
some man, some pretender, some
time you wish had not been
wasted, soiled by misrepresentation.
But you will remember.