There’s a vast horde of people who desperately want to become writers. They’ll dream about it, read advice books, and badger published authors for tips. If such people ever achieved success as an author, you’d expect that they’d spend their days writing in a bliss-filled reverie.
Instead, you find that at every step, people drop out as they develop as authors.
Apparently, 81% of Americans say they want to write a book. It’s amazing that the vast majority of people want to do this! I’d be hard-pressed to think of anything a larger portion of people has aspirations of doing. Fewer people than this want to get married (73%) or have children (72%)!
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that 145,900 Americans are authors, which includes part-time and self-employed. Apparently, 97% of people who start writing a novel never finish. Using some math, this would indicate that 98.5% of people with the desire to write a book never even start.
Success! Or Is It…
After overcoming such long odds, someone who finishes a book seems like a huge success. The vast majority of people who finish writing a book will be unable to find a publisher or, if they self-publish it, will get a tiny number of sales and reads. One measure suggests 1% of submissions at a publisher will be accepted and published.
I think many writers, myself included, delude themselves by thinking there’s a group of people waiting to read their book once it’s finished and ready. The reality is that even your friends and family will find it an imposition to read your book and say some nice things about it. For a debut book from an unknown writer, NO ONE wants to read it. It’s an uphill battle to convince people to give it a try. Writers are continually shocked by the apathy that greets the book they’ve poured their heart and soul into.
It’s very common for writers to complain about endless rejections from agents and publishers and, especially for self-published writers, to complain about lack of sales. Many indie authors pay to give away their books for free, then complain that no one who takes the freebies leaves ratings or reviews. Often, those authors doubt that the people taking the free books even read them.
Do Successful Writers Keep Writing?
A recent twitter thread tracked 88 debut authors who were recognized in 2015 by The Qwillery. These are all traditionally published authors. They found in the 8 years since then, 2 of them are “big successes,” along with another 23 who are “working novelists.” This leaves 63 who have honed their craft to the point that they wrote a sellable novel, found an agent (probably), and completed a deal with a traditional publisher. This is the dream of aspiring authors. And after this, 72% of them decided it wasn’t worth continuing after 8 years.
Jane Friedman wrote about how 80% of published authors give up within 3 books and only 10% make it to 6 books. Only 5% make it to 12 books.
This feels correct to me. A high school friend was writing at the beginning of the self-publishing explosion (2013-2014), put out a bunch of books (14 in the two years), then suddenly stopped. He’s recently posted on Facebook that he’s going to start writing again, but it’s been months and he hasn’t.
Another friend launched a series in a romance subgenre that was HUNGRY. She put out some books quickly and was able to quit her job and write full-time, replacing her income with the books. She went strong, with all of her work selling well. Eventually, she found that writing full-time had ruined it for her, she wasn’t enjoying it anymore, and she’s given up and got a new full-time job.
A *THIRD* acquaintance was a massive success, had multiple series that were selling well, founded a publishing company and published a bunch of other authors’ books, then suddenly seemed to lose interest, stopped responding to people or moving forward with any projects, and hasn’t released anything in years. About six months ago he posted that he was writing again, got an enthusiastic reaction, then nothing has come out from him since.
What Does This All Mean?
I’m not sure that it means anything. So many writers dream of being published, having a bunch of readers, and being able to earn a living from their writing. Those who have achieved this, don’t seem to find it as appealing as they imagined.
Daniel Gilbert, a professor at Harvard who studies happiness, has found that humans are incredibly bad at predicting what will make us happy. He advocates that a better approach is to find people who have done what we’re considering doing and assume that it will make us roughly as happy as it’s made them.
From this perspective, writing books doesn’t seem like a great bet. It’s incredibly hard to do, and the tiny number of people who are successful don’t seem that happy with it as a group. Only the minuscule, lottery-winner writers, like Stephen King and J. K. Rowling, seem to have the outcome people are looking for.