Last night I received something I didn't think I would ever see: a royalty statement. Specifically, a payout notice from Amazon's Kindle store, for sales of my e-books from December and January. (Mostly Summerworld, from what I see.)
Total payout: $10 and some cents.
Granted, I haven't sold very many books yet. A big part of that is because, well, I'm one guy and it's a big world out there, and it's difficult — maybe even deliberately so — for a writer to distinguish himself in a world this crowded with any number of agencies all in competition for our attention.
One of the smartest things I ever did, now that I think about it, was divest myself early on of the idea that being a writer of fiction would be a livelihood. It is such a thing, albeit for a vanishingly small percentage of people whose tastes and inclinations (or at the very least their disciplines and habits) lead them to produce things which can be mass-marketed readily. I doubt I'm one of those people, in big part because so much of what makes the bestseller lists (save for nonfiction) doesn't interest me, and if I don't want to read it there's a good chance I don't want to bother writing it either.
That said, the fact that I am willing to settle for less doesn't mean I'm willing to settle for nothing. I very much like the idea of making money from my work, in big part because I live in a world where there are a great many other people who use pricetags as one of the few easy gauges of something's value. I sell my ebooks for $5 because that seems like a good compromise: not too expensive that I price myself out of the market; not too cheap that I come off as desperate.
But whether or not I'll make anything more than pocket change from it will largely revolve around whether or not I can find a way to distinguish myself in a wider context. I have no delusions about how much attention you can get by simply sticking something on Kindle or CreateSpace and calling it a day. The competition is fierce, in big part becuse there is just so much of it.
The other night I poked around more or less at random in Goodreads's "newly arrived e-books" section and felt like the unsuspecting stranger who opens FIbber's closet. The sheer amount of stuff there is enervating and dispiriting — not simply becase it implies that you, a fellow writer, are in competition with so many other fellows, but because so much of what is there is so self-evidently bad: the sub-John Grisham political techno-thrillers, the sub-Twilight horror fantasy, the sub-David Drake military space fantasy, and endlessly on. Most of it is mediocre; a fair amount of it is outright awful.
What's more, the digital age guarantees we will be stuck with it all forever. It reminded me of Joseph Mitchell, musing in "Joe Gould's Secret" about how a given book he'd been tantalized with might not ever have been written:
... if there was anything the human race had a sufficiency of, a sufficiency and a surfeit, it was books. When I thought of the cataracts of books, the Niagaras of books, the rushing rivers of books, the oceans of books, the tons and truckloads and trainloads of books that were pouring off the presses of the world at that moment, only a very few of which would be worth picking up and looking at, let alone reading, I began to feel that it was admirable that he hadn’t written it. One less book to clutter up the world, one less book to take up space and catch dust and go unread from bookstores to homes to second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes to still other second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes ad infinitum.
The great delusion any writer has — the delusion that sets him apart from anyone who isn't a writer, really — is that it will be his work, his vision, his insights and understanding and imagination that will vault over the ever-expanding rubbish heap of everyone else's work and make itself known. That is why he writes it, in the naïve hope that someone else will read it and maybe like it — or in the even more naïve hope that it will be part of a whole bunch of peoples' lives. I once heard Henry Rollins say that he was "just pretentious enough" (I loved that phrase) to assume someone else cared about what he did, which was why he had spent his own money to set up his imprint, 2.13.61, and get his memoir/diary stuff out to the world.
Hope and enthusiasm alone aren't enough. The mere fact that you have the nerve to write something does not also mean you have the discipline to improve it to the point where it stands unmistakably apart from everything around it. And in order to make sure people know that at all, you can't rely on word-of-mouth or simply crossing your fingers. As I said to someone else, it's all about getting peoples' attention without being a jerk — but it's hard to do that when you're surrounded by people who don't mind making a jerk of themselves.
The only alternative I can offer right now is a few tips I'm trying to enact myself: forge key connections with people who matter; walk it like you talk it; learn from your mistakes (and from others'); and regard every aspect of your own success with skepticism.
... and I just realized the worst part about getting an electronic payout is that you can't frame the resulting check in your office.