Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Anyone who knows me, as well as anyone who has been paying attention to these essays here, can attest to the fact that I don't score very high on the false modesty scale. Most would even suggest that I don't score very high on any kind of modesty scale.

So when I say that I'm a pretty minor SF writer, you can believe me. I could do all sorts of handsprings to compare myself with those who have been even less successful than I, but what's the point? There are probably hundreds of thousands of "aspiring writers" in the land, maybe more, and most will never even get past that creative writing course, much less a sale or two to a tertiary market, paying in "fresh fruit and contributors copies," to quote my first agent. But one doesn't compare the minor league baseball player to everyone who ever played ball in high school, or even everyone who every tried out for the minor leagues. A minor leaguer is a minor leaguer because they don't play in the major leagues. Hence the "minor" part.

So: two published novels, an undisclosed number of portion and outline proposals, an unpublished Venus trilogy that I was compelled to write for reasons unknown, plus a few dozen short stories, of which maybe half are published. It's a minor contribution to the field, but if I had not written those works, no one else would have.

Then there is the money angle. There are a lot of ways to parse it, and one of them I've mentioned previously. I've done a bit of work-for-hire writing, which turns out to have paid more (for less labor) than the works for which I hold the copyrights. However, had it not been for the novels and short stories in magazines, I'd have never gotten the work-for-hire gigs, nor would it have been as easy to make the jump from unemployed smog scientist to employed technical writer. Nevertheless, discounting the tech writing career, the total I've made from both the free lance and work-for-hire writing has amounted to somewhere around a year's income, give or take, and remembering that I've had some good years and some truly dreadful ones, and it's sometimes hard to adjust for inflation, etc.

But this is just to segue into a reminder that money isn't the sole judge of merit and worth, though I'll stipulate that if I'd made more money writing SF, I'd have written more of it. You can use money to buy time, and that's an important thing about money.

Let's flip that around, though. We're on the tail end of SF publishing, though maybe not the tail end of SF writing. What that means is that, while the number of book titles has gone up over the past few decades, sales per book have dropped substantially. Moreover, the number of pages per book has also increased substantially, such that a typical SF paperback is now at least twice the length of what it was in, say, the 1950s. Furthermore, sales figures in the 1950s were more than an order of magnitude higher than now, both for novels and the magazines (i.e. the primary venue for short stories). So any given published author in the 1950s reached an audience that was, at a minimum, well into five figures, and not infrequently into six figures or even low seven, even for authors who failed to make "best seller" status.

Now let's subtract money from the equation. What do we have left?

Every book or story takes a certain amount of time to write, and takes a range of times to read, depending upon the reading speed of the reader, and what we can call the "readability" of the book. Obviously a book takes a longer to write than to read, although it's sobering to remember that some writers write at full typing speed, and their full typing speed can be mighty fast. Still, the difference between writing time and reading time is pretty large, and if we toss in the re-reading, revision, proofreading, etc., the disparity become inevitable, even for a rapid writer and a slow reader.

Still, there is also a big disparity between the number of writers and the number of readers, at least for mass market works. Here I am, minor SF writer, remember, and lacking good sales figures on most of my works, but I do know that my first novel sold around 15,000 copies, because they had to go to a second printing, and they had to pay me some more money. I suspect that this was because the publishing house was undergoing an SFWA audit at the time, and wouldn't some more of those be a good thing?

In any case, Book of Shadows (no relation) clocked in at about 70,000 words (editorially trimmed from the original 80,000). It's a bit hard to say how much time I put into the writing of it, since part of it was, shall we say, a "learning experience," taking place over a number of years. More recently, however, I have enough information in how long it takes me (now) to write fiction, and I can crank about 2500 words in a four-hour writing day, which is about how long it take before my brains turn to jelly. Other writers are much faster; some are much slower.

The numbers on this are suspect, of course, since it implies that I can write a 100,000 word novel in 40 days; call it two months of regular work. But as I say, plenty of writers are faster. In the days of the pulps, there were a number of "million worders" who churned out more than a million words a year for quite a few years, and they were using manual typewriters. The trick is to have that much to write about and that many stories to tell. But that's not an issue for someone like me; I have far more stories I'd like to write than time to write them. On the other hand, this doesn't count the time for research, plotting, revision, etc. So everything I say here is ballpark numbers.

For SunSmoke, the matter is even more complicated. I don't have good sales figures, for one thing, and for another, I sold the novelette version first, to Asimov's, and more people read that 15,000 words than the novel, which is three times as long. There is also the matter of "pass around" and used books, and so forth.

But let's pretend that BoS had only the 15,000 readers, and that it took each one an average of three hours to read it (probably low, at 300 wpm, it would take about four hours). That's 45,000 hours of reading, compared to 100-200 hours of writing. Even averaging only 2 written words a minute, it would only have taken 600 hours to write. We're talking hundreds of reader hours for every hour of writing time.

Heck, even here on this blog, checking the page hits and time spent on page, and you folks are spending two or three times as much time reading as I spend on the writing of it.

Reading is not a passive activity. There is real effort involved, and real imagination expended in processing the words to get at a story. The story is different for every reader, often substantially different, and surprising to the writer. Sometimes the writer may even be appalled at what the reader gets from the story, but that's the biz, sweetheart.

Intellectual property laws allow the writer to "own" the story, but it's really a collaboration between writer and reader, in fact, a large number of collaborations, sometimes more than one per reader, even. Some writers (and owners of other forms of intellectual property) believe that they own everything, even what goes on in other people's heads. Put that way it doesn't seem right, does it? But writers are clever folk. We can come up with much better ways of putting it, ways that always make us out to be the heroes.


TStockmann said...

Sorry to continually ask questions about 2 steps removed from your original posts, but curious - with the negligible monetary returns from midlist paper publishing; the virtual extinction (I understand) of the value-added editing process about which writers had mixed feelings anyway (not sure how you felt/feel about the excised 10,000 words from Book of Shadows ); the frustrations and delays of the publication process in general; and the fact that the readers you want to reach spend an increasing percentage of their time looking at screens rather than books or magazines - well, the question is probably obvious. There's still a validation to being published despite the shameful company your books might be wedged between on the store shelves (particularly right now and in your genre) and readers still get some gatekeeping from the publication process, but still. What?

James Killus said...

The answer to one question is easy: a well known writer told me to write 80,000 words and expect 10,000 to be cut. He was spot on. They cut some of what I considered fun stuff, but none of it was essential to the story. I knew that part of the job was dangerous when I took it.

But, as you say, editors don't do that any more. They don't really have time to do much of anything.

As a profession, the writing of fiction mostly sucks worms. Even good writers often have brief careers, or even none at all. The self-promotion can be a real chore if one doesn't like it. An awful lot of writers use the credential to get another job, often in academia.

On the other hand, as an avocation, writing is pretty spiff. It beats spending money on a hobby. It provides a lot of interesting experiences, including the validation you mention. At a convention, I once signed a copy of one of my novels for a guy who had brought it with him from Australia, which I found very cool.

It also changes your critical faculties, as I suspect is evident from some of the strange reviews I've made here. It's possible to hijack someone's book and turn it into something else, given a properly warped interpretation. I doubt I'd manage that warpage if I'd never swung the hoe myself.

black dog barking said...

Interesting how Value to the aspiring then credentialed sf writer is more mutable than Value to a small-town banker. Maybe it's just that the writer is more flexible on what he deems Proper Recognition, freed from having to submit to oversight from the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.

Your accounting for your time spent per project achieved contains a trap that works against the writer. 100-200 hours may account for Time Spent In Front of a Typewriter for the project but signals that a writer's main economic niche contribution is typing.

I recently undertook to evaluate how long it took complete a small computer software project; completely after the fact with access to all inputs and outputs. Surprisingly I found three or four "right" answers depending on how one measured concepts like the value of experience. (Does an especially esoteric bug fix count as the two hours it took me this time, a mark that is incredibly low because I'd seen something much like it three years ago and had quick access to that solution?)

James Killus said...

Of course you're right, black dog. It's easy to spend weeks or months researching some important story background, or scratching one's head as to how to get out of the box that one has written oneself into.

But "typing" had better not be what it amounts to; the typing rate implied by the numbers I give amount to less than 10 words a minute. And, as I noted, there are some writers who do, in fact, write at the same speed that they type, and type very fast.

Economics makes a distinction that is useful here, between "commodity" goods and everything else, with all the really dismal (from the producers' standpoint) effects falling on commodities. If what we write is a commodity, then the winners will be those who write 80-100 words per minute, most of whom will inevitably be hacks. It is the hope of every writer to rise above the commodity level, but few of us manage to do so.

As for your bug fix story, it brings to mind the math professor who scrawled a brief proof on the board and said to his student, "I believe that we can all agree that this is obvious." Then he looked again, scratched his head and disappeared out the door. Next class two days later, he appears, haggard unshaven, but announces triumphantly, "I was right! It is obvious!"

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