Thursday, March 25, 2010

Wanted: A Two-Book Deal

I’ve obviously taken a vow of silence without being aware of it. I sit at my keyboard or with an open legal pad in front of me and…


What happened to all my ideas? Where do those ideas skitter off to? They remind me of autumn leaves racing away upon the wind, migrating across the lawn one step ahead of my rake.

Think you have a lot of ideas? Just try writing about them. That seems to be the fastest way to assassinate them; tame them like toothless dogs. I’ve had people say to me, “Oh, you’re a writer. Listen, I have a really good idea for a book.” (Not a novel, memoir, or self-help…simply a ‘book’). Of course, I’m not convinced at this point, so I remain non-committal. “All I need is for someone to flesh it out. I’m sure it would be a bestseller.”

They want someone to do what they consider to be the easy lifting—the actual writing. I want to say, “Hey, no problem. I’ll just whip it out in my spare time now that you’ve graced me with the idea for a blockbuster. We’ll both be millionaires in no time.”

If it were only that easy I’d have quit my day job a long time ago.

Everyone thinks they have the idea for a bestseller, a hit sitcom, a grand slam new reality show. But that’s about the place their little idea car sputters to the side of the road, out of gas.

Writing is (usually) enjoyable, but it still feels like work most of the time. And most of it is work done on a speculative basis. It’s similar to writing a dissertation only you don’t get the doctorate until a publisher picks you up. And guess what? A lot of us optimistic masochists would still write. What’s up with that?

I’m one of those strange people who isn’t overly afraid of risk. I’m in the design/build business and sometimes build homes on a speculative basis. They can take almost as long as a ‘book’ by the time I scout locations, plod through the financing and closing process, design it, budget it out, and then get to the ‘easy lifting’ – the actual construction phase. I also get to tie up most of our savings and then leverage myself into debt up to my armpits. The difference is that at the end of the process I have an actual asset with a tangible value. Even if I have to hold it for a while, I can generally sell it for a profit. When the market is good, I build a lot; when it’s bad I don’t. Pretty simple dynamic.

Now let’s look at spec writing.

At the end of a year or more (usually a lot more) of writing, my asset consists of something the size of a ream of paper, or a CD disc if it isn’t committed to paper form. What’s the value of my asset? Nada. Zip. Nothing…unless I can sell it. And nobody knows what that market is doing, especially not the publishers themselves. It isn’t as if there’s an up or down market. From my experience, it’s always a buyer’s market when it comes to ‘books’. In home building, I don’t build speculatively when it’s a buyers market. I have to sell in order to feed my family and buy myself more ‘books’.

Unlike the home building business, anyone can be a writer. I don’t recall any government entity requiring a license, or liability insurance, or a performance bond to write. You just open a vein and go for it. What makes it that much harder for all of us hardcore word addicts is that there are a lot of vanity writers clogging up the blogosphere and driving agents nuts with silly queries. Ever heard of vanity builders – people who go through the heartbreak of it all because, well they just “like to build”? I suppose there are a few, but we refer to them as ‘rich people’. Bored doctors’ wives and the like. There’s no shortage of writers who for some reason, act as if they don’t care if they ever sell anything. That’s crazy. Could you see me doing that with houses? Money for your work is a kind of barometer of how your work is accepted. At least in the building business.

I’m one of those mercenaries who would like to be paid for my work. I get two house deals fairly often. I design/build for a client and their friend now wants me to design/build for them. It’s cool. It’s called making a living. I’d like the same opportunity when I write.

I have two novels sitting vacant right now. Anybody have a good two book deal for me?

You can move in tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent, James. I actually got into an argument fairly recently with a writer who is ONLY interested in selling books, and not so much about being an honorable representative of the craft of writing itself. There's got to be some line somewhere between selling and doing it for the love, right? I mean, I've met brilliant writers in the MFA program who have told me they NEVER want to publish anything. Sad? A little, for me, never being able to read them in published form, yes. But I think it kind of boils down to an individual thing.

    But I'm mainly with you; I'm doing it for the love of the craft and, as Mary Ruefle said, "writing because I have to." But I definitely want to be published as much as possible; perhaps that's why I'm afraid to write a novel and am sticking with short fiction. A collection can be broken into so many pieces and published in magazines and whatnot. If a publisher only likes one chapter of a novel, you're kinda screwed. That and my ideas have shrunken into short-fiction size.

    But I'm not worried about yours. You send that thing out, it'll get picked up,