Sunday, June 07, 2009

Show Me The Money! What?

When I tell people that I write and publish mystery novels, one of the first questions I’m asked is, “Wow, how much money do you make?” The question still catches me off guard now and then. After all, when I meet a doctor, artist, teacher, or chiropractor, I never ever ask them about their income. But it’s different with writers. People hear about Stephen King’s income or about the unknown writer whose first book landed her a six figure advance, and they want to know if that’s happened to me. What they really want to know, I think, is could it happen to them if they wrote a book?

You see, there’s a weird idea out there that novelists make money. For reasons I don’t quite understand, too many people assume that because King makes a lot of money, I’m probably doing well too. I mean, I can practically see the gleam in the eyes of these curious people. I also see the disappointment in their faces when I tell them the truth. And the truth is that I’m an unknown Canadian fiction writer who would earn a better living working part-time at the McDonald’s drive-thru than I do with my novels and short stories. And this is true for most Canadian novelists I know.

I tell people this because I don’t want wannabe writers obsessing over the idea that they can build a retirement nest egg by writing books on the side. The competition is so fierce that they might as well buy a lottery ticket. Although—and this startles me—I’ve heard reports that a small percentage of middle-aged or near retiring folks are pinning their hopes on lottery wins and big royalty checks from publishers to supplement their pensions. It’s so far off the reality mark that I’m afraid for them.

But here’s the thing, last month Scribner paid $5 million for Audrey Niffenegger’s second novel Her Fearful Symmetry. And that’s what people notice. Your average aspiring writer doesn’t even know who Audrey Niffenegger is. I don't either. But I'm certain that some people view her as an unknown writer who got lucky. Do they stop to think that maybe she’s been working at her craft for forty years or that she’s exceptionally talented? Do they realize the odds of this happening to anyone else could be over a million to one? Some people are willing to take those odds and sacrifice regular paycheques to write in hopes of landing the big advance, and I really do wish them success. But I prefer the security of a regular cheque and the pleasure of writing for the joy of writing without worrying if I’ll have enough to live on when I’m eighty.

Here’s to your prosperity.

To read excerpts of Fatal Encryption and Taxed to Death, which won’t cost you a dime, please visit

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