Friday, March 20, 2009

Why I Write

by Jean Henry Mead

Publishing is a crazy, unstable business and few writers earn enough money to pay their expenses. The last I heard, 95% of us earn less than $12,000 a year and the average book sells 99 copies.

So why would anyone in her “right mind” devote so much time and effort to writing and marketing books? Is it the desire to give birth to something unique? A need for recognition? Or the desire to inform and entertain? I can’t answer that question. I just know that it’s imprinted in my DNA.

I sold my first book in 1981, a collection of interviews with politicians, authors, artists, craftsmen and ordinary people who had accomplished extraordinary things. The book was published by Pruett Publishing in Boulder, Colorado, and sold some 2,000 copies. I traveled around the state to take part in signing parties, and sold 40 books the first time out at a small town in eastern Wyoming. My marketing successes slid downhill from there.

My second book, which I wrote about last week, was a centennial history that required more than three years of research and writing. I shudder to think how little I earned from the book although it has sold steadily over the years from two publishers. My third was a book of interviews with well-known writers of the West, including Louis L’Amour and Hollywood screenwriters. It’s still selling online but I've never received a royalty payment because I was told it didn't earn out its advance.

After checking WorldCat, the library site, I found that there are still copies of Maverick Writers available in 114 libraries, including Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Baverische Staaftsbibliothek in Munich, Germany. Now, there’s a reason to keep on writing. The advance I received barely covered expenses, so satisfaction and eternal hope are also motivations to continue typing.

I then decided to write my first novel from leftover research. Escape on the Wind took a number of years to write and was helped along by the advice of two award-winning western authors, Richard S. Wheeler and Fred Grove. I recently noticed that a used hardcover copy of the book is being offered online for $152. That’s silly because the book was republished last year as Escape, A Wyoming Historical Novel, and is selling on the same Amazon page for $14.95 in trade paperback. Do readers actually pay those exorbitant prices? Or is it a seller's delusional dream?

I then started working on my first mystery novel, originally titled Shirl Lock & Holmes, a humorous senior sleuth novel, which was originally published in 1999 as an ebook and later in hardcover with another publisher. I changed the characters' names and last December it was republished again as A Village Shattered, available in print, Kindle and multi-format. Sounds as though it should have earned a lot of money but, all told, it wouldn’t pay one dentist bill. And I'm obviously not alone in that respect.

I wrote a number of nonfiction books along the way, none of which sold more than several hundred copies, so I wrote another mystery novel, Diary of Murder, the second in my Logan & Cafferty series, which just appeared at this week in Kindle and print versions. Next week it will also be listed in multi-format at Fictionwise and other online sources. I really enjoyed writing again about my senior sleuths, Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty, two 60-year-old, feisty widows who aren’t afraid to push the envelope when it comes to crime detection, or to brave the elements by driving their motorhome through a Rocky Mountain blizzard. I hope my readers enjoy the book as much as I did writing it.

I think I’ve found the answer. I write because it’s fun!


Mark W. Danielson said...

One thing is certain: if you don't have fun writing, then you'll go bonkers. My magazine articles pay for my novel expenses, and as for income, I probably earn more from the tax breaks than I do from sales. So I'm with you, Jean. Call us crazy, but neither of us could ever stop writing.

Beth Terrell said...

Well, I can take comfort from the knowledge that I've sold more than 99 copies of my book, but I'm still a ways from being able to give up the day job.

It's worth it, though. Like you two, I love writing and can't think of anything (much) that's more fun.

Ben Small said...

And I'm glad you do! I just don't understand how you manage to be doing so much and being so many places at once. Are you a female Chester Campbell? :<)

You and Chester may be the two writers I admire most.

Pat Browning said...


What a great post! It breaks my back just to read it. (-:

BTW, my apologies for stepping on your Friday with my post Words and Music. Honest to God, I had so many irons in the fire I didn't know what day it was. This has been a weird, weird week! I've lost a day somewhere.

Pat Browning

Beth Terrell said...

Thank you, Ben!

I'm TRYING to be more like Chester, but I still have a ways to go.

Chester Campbell said...

Looks like we're all in the same leaky boat. When I got my figures out to do battle with Uncle Sam, I found I'd had my best year ever for sales in 2008. But when I got to the bottom line, expenses were double that. Nevertheless, I keep on writing. It's the thrill of the chase, to use a somewhat fractured metaphor.