The Struggling Writer

Author Tess Gerritsen is saddened because her book only reached #17 on the NY Times Bestseller List.

I’m sorry to report that I didn’t drink champagne on Wednesday
night. Alas, the first partial week’s paperback sales of BODY DOUBLE
only got it to #17 on the NYT list. Sigh. Then I looked at the other
authors whose books debuted the same week: Nora Roberts. Dean Koontz.
Clive Cussler. Catherine Coulter. Janet Evanovich. And I realized —
whoa, there’s some pretty tough competition there! I’m going to hang on
tight this coming week and see what happens next Wednesday. And hope
that there are enough readers out there who care enough about Jane and
Maura to want to find out what happens next in their lives.

Publishing lesson: Success is never a sure thing in this business.
Ever. This is what keeps me humble and always feeling like a struggling

Gee, life is tough.  I guess when you reach a certain level of success, you lose all perspective. Having a book reach #17 on the NY Times bestseller list may put Tess  in the doldrums…but for the vast  majority of published authors, cracking the list at all would be cause for celebration. Surely, she knows that, right?

On the other hand, here’s a peek at the real world that most authors have to live in. Author Beth Ciotta has had three mass market paperbacks published but isn’t making a living at it.

Last week, I visited my family in Indiana. When I mentioned this box
office gig and the one I’m waiting to hear about, my mom said, "What do
you mean you had to get a job? Don’t you make money from your books?"

night my husband and I met up with a group of musician
friends. Everyone asked if I was still gigging a lot, to which I had to
answer ‘no’ and then I mentioned the ‘jobs’. Again I got a strange look
coupled with comments like, "But I thought you had another book coming
out."  The thought behind it… can’t you live off of that?

no. Not yet. Just now I need to supplement my writing income to make
ends meet. It’s a reality many writers face. Another reality is
juggling the alternate job, writing, and promoting multiple
books–building a ‘name’. It ain’t easy.  Every now and then I allow
myself to dream and think, someday I’ll be writing full time and all
this angst will be history.


I bet if Beth reached #17  on the NY Times Bestseller list, she’d not only be drinking champagne, she’d be bathing herself in it.

26 thoughts on “The Struggling Writer”

  1. Gaye Hicyilmaz, who has been greeted as one of the star children’s writers of her generation, lives in a bedsit in Brixton, south London, too poor to afford email or a mobile phone. She earns £66 a week.
    Deprivation, by an irony, is one of her themes as a novelist. Her 10 novels have been translated into 13 languages. Some of them are recommended reading for the national curriculum.

    This from an article in the UK Guardian. Another, from 2000, paints a bleaker picture: only 1 in 7 authors can afford to live on their writing. Publication is no guarantee of success, and certain successes are no guarantee of wealth.
    Gerritson should really get herself checked. That was just an alarming thing to say.

  2. I doubt Tess needs any defense, but I would suspect that bestsellers face at least some perhaps paler version of the–“your last book didn’t do as well as your previous books, so we’re maybe not going to give you as an big advance, or we’re second-guessing the contract or…” Or, given what we know about the publishing industry, I suspect the thinking is: “Your last book didn’t do as well, so we think you’re on the way down, so rather than really putting up a good fight and promoting like hell and encouraging you, we’re going to cut back on marketing and advertising and put the money on somebody else.”
    When my first book came out I answered some questions by nosy people that apparently stunned the hell out of them. They thoughte that since they were paying $17.95 for Catfish Guru, I must be getting about $10 to $15 per copy sold. Sorry to disillusion them, but I was lucky to get $1.80 per copy, and of course the government takes large chunks of it, as do agents, and oh, gee, promotion expenses and, uh, you know, overhead, things like computers and websites and paper and postage and photocopying…
    1 in 7. I wonder if that’s just Britain. 1 in 7 in the U.S. for authors making a living off their writing sounds wildly optimistic. I should clarify–make a living off their fiction. I’m doing fine on my nonfiction.
    Mark Terry

  3. If you read Gerritsen’s post, it doesn’t come across that bad. All she’s saying is, she’s a little bummed that the book isn’t doing better. Just because she might be more successful than most writers doesn’t mean she can’t still wish she were doing better.
    (Granted, I wouldn’t advise her to go public with these thoughts… for this very reason.)

  4. I actually read The Frozen Waterfall, by Gaye Hicyilmaz, and it’s a great read. It hadn’t been marketed as YA book, so I just thought it was your ordinary literary book.
    Still, if you can’t support yourself through your writing, time to go out and get that part-time job. That £66 figure makes it sounds like she’s on benefits but really – with her cv, there’s got to be a teaching or translating gig out there that should more than pay the bills…

  5. I’m not sure what jolted me to life this morning–my third cup of coffee or seeing my name and thoughts posted here. Zing!
    Okay, well, yes. If I made the NY Times Bestsellers list–any number at all–I’d be filling a tub with champagne. Although I’d probably slip under and drown as I’d be in shock.
    That said, I’m a fan of Ms. Gerritson’s blog and, in general, her outlook on life. My eyes did round a little when I saw that she was disappointed in only hitting #17, but I think I understood where she was coming from as I read further on. I don’t know that she’s lost perspective, but I imagine it’s shifted. Overall, that post proved that even bestselling authors wrestle with insecurities.
    I often wonder what’s worse. Never achieving the success you dream of… or grasping it only to lose hold?
    Thanks for the morning pick-me-up, Lee. Now I have to clean up the java that spurted out of my nose. 🙂

  6. “Reporters make a meager living writing nonfiction. Do you make a living as a nonfiction author of books though? I doubt it.”
    Marky48, I guess I would require a definition of “meager living” in order to contradict you. I make a decent living, very similar to what I made working as a clinical cytogenetics technologist for a major hospital. Good money? By what definition? Identical to that made by medical technologists (not technicians, there’s a difference in jobs and money), which is at least comparable to what is made by X-ray technicians. Not as much as your typical computer programmer or automotive engineer, but more than your retail manager (in some cases), restaurant manager (in some cases) and civil servant ( in some cases). Much, much less than a New York City garbage man, politician, doctor. I don’t think my writing income is “meager,” but I think a good way to describe it would be, I’ve never gotten rich but I’ve always gotten by. I’ve a mortgage, car payments, one of my kids has braces on his teeth and we managed a week at Disney World this summer. I guess the chateau in Vail and the summer cottage on Montauk will just have to wait.
    Haven’t written any nonfiction books–yet. Thinking about it, discussing it with my agent, dancing around with a collaborator. And again, bestselling nonfiction generally pays more than bestselling fiction, or more accurately, sells more copies. Writing one nonfiction book a year or one novel a year doesn’t strike me as being a “fulltime job” in my experience, though promotion can be. And of course, if you dick around and write 200 words a day, it can take forever.
    Mark Terry

  7. Thanks for this post! I’ve been reading a lot of this on the Internet lately–successful writers whining because their books aren’t making it as BIG as they’d like them to be! You’re right, it’s a tough world–some of us would just like a contract! I think these guys need to take a gratitude check!!!

  8. Well reporters start out at as little as $20K. I didn’t notice a figure quoted in you analogy file. I call that meager. I have a degree in it and environmental biology. My current job for the government as a fisheries scientist pays $29K if it was a permanant placement and it isn’t, so pardon me if I don’t roll over claping at your great success without a book written. You write for whom? Freelancing doesn’t strike me as a full time job either.

  9. Mark T, you do a lot of book reviewing, right? It’s no way to make a living (for most of us, anyway), but it’s about the funnest money I’ve ever made. You read a book (that you likely would have read anyway), write 600 or 800 words about it and send it off. You get a check back in the mail! How sweet is that?

  10. Getting paid for hiking and fishing isn’t bad either. I’m suspicious of anyone who claims to make a living writing without a track record to consult. I made $13K acting one year. It was fun, but I wouldn’t call it making a living in LA by any reckoning.

  11. Boy, everybody wants to talk money. Yes, I review books (for The Oakland Press (Michigan)) and no, that’s no way to make a living. But they’re one client, and I also write medical features for them and general features as well. But they’re one of my lower-paying clients. I tend to write for medical, biotechnology and health trade journals as well as consumer magazines, though I have also written for corporations and other companies. Magazines I’ve written for: Genomics & Proteomics, Drug Discovery & Development, Asthma Magazine,, Honeycomb Worldwide, Veterinary Economics, Podiatry Management, Podiatry Online and a bunch others. I’ve written for a biotech company and the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute and I’ve even churned out some grants (not my strength, particularly) and I’m the editor of a trade/technical journal. It’s fun. It can be weirdly unreliable. If you really want to know more about my writing life, check out my blog, URL above, or there’s a link to it on my website, because that’s mostly what I talk about. I also write two blog-columns semi-regularly on it–Writing 101, which is about basic writing things, and I just started Writing 201, which is focused on the business of freelancing.
    Mark Terry

  12. Maslow had it right.
    I’ve had the dream of being a professional writer for so long that I KNEW I’d die happy if I ever saw myself in a library card catalog.
    That never happened (libraries switched to computers,) but I do see my books in libraries, and bookstores, everywhere.
    And for a while, it was enough.
    But human beings refuse to be happy with the status quo. The desire to better ourselves doesn’t stop once we’ve bettered ourselves. Because once you are truly satified, why try anymore?
    So now I want to crack the NYT List. And if I ever do, I’m sure I’ll be happy. But I’m wise enough to know other goals will replace that goal once reached.
    Tess candidly sharing her thoughts is manna to those of us not at her level. It’s a peek into the (fingrs crossed) future.
    Replace her desire for a higher spot on the list with the desire to be on the list at all, or be published at all, and she sounds exactly like every other writer I know.
    Wanting more doesn’t make someone ungrateful. It simply makes them human.

  13. Sounds right to me JA. I want a publisher everyone has heard of and wants to be associated with in the business. As for Mr. Terry I still didn’t detect a dollar amount and I provided mine, while he took exception with my meager comment concerning journalism. Message received.

  14. 1. I e-mailed marky48 directly with financial details. (By the way, marky48, I heard a “This American Life” story of garbagemen in New York City, and they make upwards of $85,000 a year and it is a highly sought-after job. Of course, it’s physically exhausting (how would you like to lift people’s garbage for 8 hours a day?), probably unpleasant, and often dangerous. Garbagemen have been killed because of exploding things people take out to the garbage and chemicals and wood with nails, etc. If it’s all about money, though, hey, knock yourself out. Good money, great benefits, and who can really argue that it isn’t an important, vital job? The world’s got too many writers, but not enough garbagemen.)
    2. I interviewed Harlan Coben earlier this year for a profile and he complained–with a great sense of humor–about selling more books than the year before but only hitting #5 on one of the European bestselling lists. #s 1,2,3 and 4 were occupied by Dan Brown’s four books.
    Yes, bestsellers are concerned about their placement on bestsellers list. One, it’s the world’s greatest advertisement and it doesn’t cost them a dime. And two, it’s not unheard of for a bestselling author (or so I’ve heard, neither being one or having access to their contracts) to receive a bonus if their books hit a certain location on the list. I do know of at least one author who received a bonus FROM his publisher when his book got optioned for film. If you were in their position and extra income depended on things that were so much outside your control, you’d be fretting about it, too. That said, I’ve interviewed a number of bestselling authors for profiles I’ve written and they all seem to have a very strong sense of the writing and publishing business, marketing concerns and the needs of their audience. You want specific names? John Sandford, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, JA Konrath (Yeah, Joe, I’ll include you in that prestigious list) and a number of others.
    It’s quite possible Tess Gerritsen was merely letting the businesswoman side of her writing life seep out on her blog.
    3. I’m done posting on this thread.
    Mark Terry

  15. Since I seem to be the subject of this particular thread, I just wanted to drop in and say that Lee, normally I love reading your site, but … well, not this time!
    About my last blog entry:
    Downside: Now everyone knows I’m the same quiveringly insecure writer I’ve always been. (And also the one who’s most likely to walk into a room and say the world’s stupidest thing.)
    Upside: People are visiting my blog!

  16. Hi Tess,
    sorry if I came across like a jerk above. It’s too easy to forget that the people who write the internet are real, and sometimes read it back. Don’t get defensive, I was a bit out of line. Of course you’re entitled to your insecurities; fame is a fickle beast, success just as fragile, and knowing the next book has to perform as well as the last would make me just as anxious.
    All the same, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that many extraordinarily talented and hardworking writers will never reach the heights of 17th on the NYT list, or even get on the list at all – too many writers, not enough charts. Reading your comment, personally valid though it was, made me feel alienated and part of some writer’s class struggle! Surely not your intention, but for me at least, the result.
    But it’s just my opinion, and I’ll get over it. Good luck with the book!
    Lee (the other Lee)

  17. Writer’s Insecurities and My Open Letter to Tess Gerritsen

    Lee Goldberg posted in his blog entry titled: The Struggling Writer:
    Gee, life is tough. I guess when you reach a certain level of success, you lose all perspective. Having a book reach #17 on the NY Times bestseller list may put Tess in the doldru…

  18. Well Tess you moved to Maine, my home state so there is a degree of bravery in that. Most folks there don’t make the 50 grand at $150 a pop that Mark Terry makes so he’d get no sympathy from them either. 50K is a bad income from freelancing? Christ on a cracker. Not where I come from.

  19. Insert Foot into Mouth…

    …my foot, my mouth. My foot spends a lot of time there, I’m ashamed to say. A reader wrote this comment about my blog post Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams on Tess Gerritsen. I’m a huge fan, both of Tess

  20. Vanish by Tess Gerritsen

    Author Tess Gerritsen is back with her latest nail-biting story of Boston medical examiner Maura Isles and detective Jane Rizzoli in this years Vanish. Still reeling from the latest revelations about her family in 2004s Body Double, Mau…


Leave a Comment