02 September 2019

Taking Stock

by Steve Liskow

When I was in kindergarten, we started school the day after Labor Day, and somewhere in the next few years, we backed off a day until Wednesday. when I was teaching, we retreated to the week before Labor Day. Now, most of the kids in Connecticut have been back anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks.

For most of my life, the first day of school was my "real" New Year. After grad school, summer became sort of mental hibernation until early August when I practiced cursive writing on vertical surfaces again and thought about updating my reading lists. I still consider autumn a new beginning and tend to take stock of the year up to this point.

Other people have shared less than radiant news about how the writing landscape is becoming more barren and challenging. Climate change, indeed.

Me, too.

Over the last several years, I have conducted eight to ten writing workshops a year. This year, I have done five and have two more scheduled. But one slated for this coming weekend with three other writers needs several more people to sign up or it will be cancelled tomorrow. I've already had three events cancelled this year because of low attendance. My only previous cancellation was in 2010, and it was because of a blizzard.

I've published stories since 2006, but the bulk of my income (cue the laughter) has never come from sales. It has been from workshops and editing. I haven't had a new editing client in about 18 months, and I'm reading more and more work online that tells me I'm probably not the only editor who is increasingly idle.

I've published three stories this year, one of which sold last fall. True to my New Year's resolution (the real new year), I have submitted five others to various markets and will send two more out in the next few weeks. Four of the five submissions have been out five months and several would appear in anthologies, which means my fee would be a share of the royalties.

Four independent bookstores have opened in the state within the last two years--three of them in the last year--but they all favor traditional authors. The one that will carry self-pubbed and indie writers charges a fee for shelf space and takes a 45% consignment cut.

What is on the horizon?

Well, I will publish a novel around the end of this year when my beta readers and I agree that's it's ready. The cover is complete, but I have regretfully told my designer that even though I love his work--which is true--I can't afford to pay him after this book. I have no novel in any stage of development: research, outline, drafts. The last time that was true was 2003 before I retired from teaching.

Because of Draconian budget cuts, I have conducted only two workshops at a library since 2017. I used to sell a book for about every three attendees, but sold two books TOTAl at workshops in the last two years. Significantly--and more about this in a minute--my digital sales are climbing.

That upcoming novel is the last work I expect to publish on paper. If I write other novels, they will go directly to digital format. Maybe because of the new year's resolution, or maybe because my attention span is shrinking, I'm thinking much more in short story mode. But as deteriorating advertising revenue, rising print costs, and sagging subscription sales decimate the print markets, I look seriously at going straight to digital for short stories, too. I'll submit them to those vanishing markets, but the increasingly long wait for a response means I have time to find stock photos and learn to design covers...at a fraction of the cost of my designer.

I'm not a presence in bookstores, and while I may not make much on the digital sales, it costs nothing to upload material, so selling one or two copies puts me in the black. Now that's depressing.

It's easy to assign blame for this state of affairs, but it's pointless. Everything changes, and sometimes progress comes with unexpected costs. You can only figure out how to work with them.

At my health club a few days ago, a woman wore a tee shirt that captured the situation perfectly. It wasn't about writing, but it applies to almost every aspect of life that I can name.

Science doesn't care what you believe.

13 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

A sobering post, Steve. I wish I had some encouraging words, but I share your frustration. As my wife says, we have to do it because we love writing, cause we sure aren't getting rich from it.

janice law said...

If it's any consolation, you are not alone. I'm afraid we have seen the end of what in retrospect looks like a pretty golden age for midlist writers.

Love the T shirt.

Steve Liskow said...

Janice and Paul, I don't think it's really THAT discouraging because I've never depended on my writing for anything other than maybe gas money or enough to buy a few more books. While I'd like to sell more, this just feels like re-learning the lessons I had to master the first time 15 years ago.

It DOES bother me that the workshops people have always praised aren't filling up now, though.

Trying more short stories may give me reason to branch out into other genres. I never tried supernatural or sci-fi or romance because I don't know the forms intimately enough to try a novel, but maybe short fiction will be easier to do.

I seem to be coming up with more ideas for short stories now that the novels are drying up, so maybe this will be a good thing.

When life gives you lemons, open a used car lot.

Eve Fisher said...

Sigh... But we keep on writing. Like you, I've never depended on my writing for my income - I've always worked another job to pay the bills.
Meanwhile, I too have seen a number of stories on-line that prove that no editorial work is going on, and I miss it.

R.T. Lawton said...

Steve, to some degree, it's like playing slow motion Whack-a-Mole, only this time we are the mole. When one venue shuts down, we need to pop up someplace else. Adapt, adapt, adapt. I missed the short story on the coffee can market, but managed to catch the short story on the cell phone start up before it crashed. Got 10 mini-mysteries in Woman's World before they changed editors. That type of thing. Went for several anthologies, but you are right, those royalties usually don't go very far when it comes to cash, just more publishing credits. If AHMM goes south on me then this mole will have one giant headache. And to top it all off, I'm converting my 6 e-collections to KDP Paperback. Well, I guess, in the long run, the market will tell me if that was a good decision. Now if I can only figure out how to get one of my stories optioned for a movie.

Lawrence Maddox said...

Steve, it's inspiring that you continue to write, run workshops, to edit. RT's Whack-a-Mole comparison is a good one. Writers certainly face special challenges today, especially when compared to the book and magazine boom of the not so distant past. Many writers could make a living then, not just the best sellers. So many markets back then! I guess it's important to remember the really old days: when there were no residuals; writers had no control over their works once published; reading tours were the only way to make real money; commoners had little chance or ability to see print. Keep on truckin, Steve.

Steve Liskow said...

I "forgot" to mention, or maybe I'm just superstitious, but one of my early novels is floating around the West Coast as a film treatment or possible TV pilot. I know little about such things and will count the money if it actually comes in, but it is another way of coping.

That might be a fun future blog, especially if it actually bears fruit (yes, I shine at mixed metaphors).

Peter DiChellis said...

Thank you for a thought-provoking post. Like you, I’ve never relied on selling my writing as a main source of income. (I began writing mystery stories only a few years ago.)

One (probably over-analytical and definitely hypothetical) thought your post triggered for me: Most creative artists struggle to produce substantial income from selling their art—whether actors, sculptors, painters, etc.

Writers, for a period of time, uniquely benefited from readily available commercial outlets for their work that were specific to the written arts: affordable mass-produced and advertising-supported magazines and expanding chain bookstores. These were “innovations” in their day.

When new digital “innovations” replaced them, production costs fell, supply (i.e. competition) exploded, selling prices crashed, and distribution consolidated—diminishing writers’ former commercial outlets and unique income benefit vs. other creative artists. And, of course, decimating most writers’ income potential. (Knock-on effect: less incentive and/or money to spend on workshops and editing?)

Is the above close to reality? Beats me. Thanks again for your post.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

For most of us who write, other sources of income are necessary. I'm retired now but I taught for a good number of years. However, I have been writing from my youth on. It's what I need to do and have no regrets. Only a few writers ever are fortunate enough to become best-selling authors. The rest of us choose to write knowing we won't get rich but doing it anyway because we love to create.

Steve Liskow said...

Peter,
You make some very good points. Another consequence of digital innovations was/is the decrease in print advertising. Ads have always been a major funding source for print media, and as more advertising moves online, it hurts those print markets. I suspect that's a main reason so many magazines have gone from monthly to bi-monthly, quarterly, or even less. Which, in turn, means fewer potential spots for stories to appear, and that comes back to the writers again. When there's less demand, the price for the supplies drops.

As for artists and profit, pop music stars and actors may still do well, but they're exceptions. I think Igor Stravinsky actually managed his own music sales, copyrights, and performance rights, but he was certainly an anomaly.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Steve, thanks for posting your history in such detail so some of us can see our history reflected in yours. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s I did have a steady income from editing and ghostwriting, but that ended, and now I edit only occasionally. Circumstances required I get a "real" job, the kind with a paycheck, but still I went on writing and publishing. Some of us see the rise of POD as the villain, but in the 1980s a professor whose work I edited confided that without his computer he would never write anything after his dissertation. He's not alone. Technology makes everything easy and every effort look finished when it's far from it, and fewer and fewer readers seem to recognize that. Good luck with your short stories. I can't imagine life without well written and carefully produced books, and I hope it doesn't come to pass.

badge # 979 said...
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badge # 979 said...

Thank you, Steve, for reminding me to celebrate the small successes in writing. -Lynn Hesse