Enclosed please find the cheque for your million dollar book advance.
Love and kisses,
Ah, no. I’ve published book-length work a few times now, and sadly, this was not the outcome for any of my books. I do get lovely Christmas cards from the publisher of my short fiction collection, Freehand Books, along with my royalty statements…but they fall far short of the million dollar mark.
I’m not expecting things to be any different for my next book either, which will be another poetry collection.
And yet, when I received positive responses from my publishers and knew the books would find their way in the world, I was SO excited. My heart-rate soared and I felt like I would burst if I didn’t tell someone the great news right away. I think I floated around the world for a few weeks at least. There was definitely champagne involved!
Having spoken in whispered detail to lots of writing friends about this, I know I’m not alone. In fact, the average income for a writer in Canada is $12,879 — and that includes incomes from all sources, such as grants.
Clearly, we’re not in this for the money. So, why bother?
What is it about publishing a book that is rewarding enough that millions of writers around the world still want to do it? UNESCO keeps data on traditional publishers for over 120 countries and their data shows there are over 2.2 million books published each year. In addition, in 2018, over 1.65 million writers self-published their books — a 40% increase from the previous year, with no signs of this trend slowing.
I can’t answer the “why publish” question for you, but here are a few reasons why it matters so much to me…
Why Publish: Books Mark Us
The first books I can remember reading were the Bobbsey Twins series. I devoured these and they were quickly followed by Nancy Drew, Trixie Beldon and a set of English kids known as the Five Find-Outers.
I was a smart kid living in a small town in Newfoundland and these books exposed me to places and things I’d never heard of: the American Civil War, the pyramids, safaris, showboats, stagecoaches, and something called a “caravan.”
Later on, I remember discovering Cherry Ames, Student Nurse. Cherry was a career woman who never got married — how radical! Especially in 1943 when the first one was written.
These books made me feel it was okay to be smart and ambitious. (Because otherwise being a smart kid in a small town is no picnic on the playground, lemme tell ya.)
By the time I met Jo March and Anne Shirley, I was well primed. I recognized Jo and Anne as true kindred spirits. I was Jo and Anne — in many ways I still am. When I’m not busy being Lizzie Bennett.
I suspect that if you’re reading this right now, you know exactly what I’m talking about and these books (and others!) probably helped form who you are as well.
I don’t think I would be a writer now if I hadn’t connected with these books as a young girl. Books helped me understand the world outside my immediate experience, introduced me to history, people and emotions that I would otherwise not have known and fundamentally shaped who I became.
And now we have science to back this up: books build better (more empathic) humans!
I don’t know about you, but I think we could use a heck of a lot more empathy in the world right now. (Here's a bonus reading list for this week.)
I don’t write children’s books or young adult novels. (Not at the moment. All bets off for the future.) But knowing how it feels to read a book and have the world expand out in front of me, I can’t help but believe that having more books in the world is a brilliant, beautiful thing and I'm on a mission to help writers do precisely that.
There are over 7 billion of us on the planet and our experiences are both common and unique. I’m 100% convinced that someone needs the next book I’m writing, and someone also needs the book still sitting in your desk drawer right now.
Someone may need your book for comfort or company. Your book might contain the words that offer them solace, or sustenance, or just blow their minds open as they meet characters or ideas they’ve never encountered before. That is all possible (if you write it!).
But I also agree with Neil Gaiman on “escapist” fiction. (In this article he quotes Tolkein “…the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.”) More and more of my friends are confessing to reading things just for pure escape and enjoyment — the world’s a stressful place, more so than usual these days, what petty mind would begrudge someone a few precious moments of escape?
You might be writing the book that offers someone a few moments of delightful escape from the stress of their life: isn’t that a noble calling?
But no one can escape into the book you’re keeping locked up in your drawer, so bring it out into the light again and imagine what’s possible.
Why Publish: We Want to Connect
As much as readers want to find the books to help them understand the world and see themselves in it, to help them feel like they’re not all alone in what they’re experiencing, I believe that writers also need to connect with readers.
After my first book of poetry came out, I had a launch and did some readings from it at festivals, bookstores, reading series, etc. As one does. A year or so later, and there you go: it was all done and over. The book was written, published, celebrated, and that was it.
Fast forward a few years: a work colleague is in town from England and a few of us are sitting on a patio outside for drinks. Two women walk by and one of my colleagues know them, so she invites them to join us. I’ve never seen the women before, but as we’re introduced one of them says “Wait, are you THAT Rhonda Douglas, the one who wrote Some Days I Think I Know Things: The Cassandra Poems?”
It turned out I had written the book she needed to read.
(And my colleague from the UK thought I was famous, which was hilarious! Because the reader cute-meet is pretty darn rare.)
I’ve received emails from readers saying more or less this same thing: thank you for writing the book I needed to read. It means so much to me that people connect with my work the way I’ve connected with, and drawn strength or wisdom from, other writers all throughout my life.
We write to connect, and we write to give back, to be an intimate part of the ongoing world of books and the conversation about them.
Don’t get me wrong: if you think your book has the chance to earn a significant cash advance and future royalties, then you should aim for that. (Hey, we can’t all be poets!)
But you can’t earn anything with a half-finished draft of your book stuffed in a box at the back of your closet. So take action RIGHT NOW: go find wherever you’ve hidden your draft or work-in-progress, bring it out into the light of day again and blow off the dust, then set it on your desk ready for your next writing session. (And if you've had trouble finding enough time to write, you can find a Cheat Sheet here to help you problem-solve and think up some new ideas: 30 Ways to Find More Time to Write.)
This is my invitation to you to finish your book and join the conversation.