Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I'm going to play in the NFL!

People often ask me, if you get your book published, are you going to quit your job and write books for a living?

If statistics have anything to say about it, the answer is NO.

The fact is, very few people make their living as a fiction writer. The ones we hear about – the Dan Browns and James Pattersons and Stephen Kings – are such extreme outliers that we shouldn’t consider them at all. They skew our perception of the whole field. It’s weird that this phenomenon doesn’t seem to be as strong in other professional arenas. Maybe it’s because with athletes it’s easier for us to picture the physical requirements and sacrifices it would take to get there.

Take NBA basketball. I’m pretty tall, and I like to play a pick up game as much as the next guy. Statistically speaking, I have a much better chance of becoming LeBron James than James Patterson. Yet, no one catches me shooting hoops in the gym and asks when I’m going to the NBA finals. So why is it so different with writing?

J.A. Konrath likes to say that there are more NFL players than there are professional fiction writers. Think how hard it is to be become a pro football player. First off, there’s genetics. If you’re going to be an NFL player, you must have a certain body type: freakishly strong, freakishly huge, and freakishly quick. If you don’t have this, you’ll never be a successful pro player, not matter what you do. So that’s the foundation. Then you have to cash in that genetic lottery ticket at just the right time and place – get yourself into the right program, the right coach, etc. Then you have to practice your ass off.

To look at it another way: how many unique author names have been on the New York Times bestseller list (which still doesn’t guarantee they’ll be able to make a living as a writer) over the past four years? I don’t know the number, but I can assure you it’s far less than the 11,000 athletes who participated in the last Summer Olympics. And those people were genetic freaks of nature who’d spent every waking second of their lives preparing for the event. Seems pretty unlikely that I’d become an Olympic athlete in my spare time, right? So again, why should a professional fiction writer be any different?
I’m not bitter about this – really. But lately, I feel like I’m throwing a Nerf football around the parking lot, and you’re asking me when I’m going to play in the Super Bowl.


  1. Does that mean I should also stop asking if I can quit MY job when your book gets published?

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  4. Can I quit my job when you get your book published?!

    Seriously though, I think your analogy is not quite right. Being a professional or Olympic level athlete requires genetic gift and extreme drive. Being a published novelist requires a different skill set. You must have some basic level of proficiency at writing but not necessarily, I would argue, genetic predisposition to writing. You must generate a product that is compelling so some demographic. But most importantly, you must be capable of selling your product to the targeted demographic. That probably means that the successful novelist has the additional traits, not required of professional athletes, of luck and sales acumen.

  5. Brian--I totally get your point. If I am reading you right--you're saying that athletes spend their day jobs training, correct? If you are an olympic athlete, you are expected to be practicing that sport full time as your job. With writing--it is a bit of a disappointment when your dream comes true--you find an agent, sell the book, find it on the NY times best selling list and still can't quit your day job.
    I feel writing is a hobby Its rather than a job. The Pattersons, Browns and Meyers are total products now. .02% of authors actually achieve what they have done.
    And sometimes it IS about luck. Stephanie Meyers, anyone? She took Buffy and redesigned it for a new generation and just hit the market at the perfect time.
    And if I was a genius at sales and marekting, I would self publish in a heartbeat.

  6. ...is that Stephen King?

    I don't know much about the writing/publishing world, but I can't imagine that even Mr. King would have quit his day job after completing (or publishing) his first book.

    I would think that completing your first book, while a huge accomplishment, mostly serves as preparation for writing the next one....

  7. Good points. Yes, luck is the major difference. For an athlete, if you are really really good, you'll get noticed at some point. No so with authors. Of course, it goes both ways. You could have a mediocre product and get lucky with timing, etc -- like Stephanie Meyers.