Thursday, January 5, 2012

Counting Your Chickens Before They Hatch - Wiser Than You Think

Kris Rusch just posted a great post about the short-sightedness of writers who work for cheap or free, because they can't seem to do the math to see that patience will be better for them and for their work. She runs the numbers, in her usual very well researched way, and shakes her head at the foolishness of both traditionally published writers (who sign awful contracts) and indie writers (who go after marketing gimmicks like publishing is a lottery).

The most striking part of her post is the beginning, where she points out that during the depression, writers were paid much better than writers are now. And that the average beginner and midlist advance has barely changed in over a decade, and where it has changed, it's shrinking.

That post caused some strange flashbacks in me. I remembered running those numbers myself as a young writer and being horrified and disappointed when I realized that I couldn't afford to succeed at a professional writing career. I ran the numbers a million times, and you just had to do more work than there was time for if you worked a day job... but if you quit the day job, it would be years before you got any money.

I was always shocked at how few writers actually did do the math like this until they were in the middle of a horrible situation.

However, Kris' post reminded me of one more thing, and maybe it's part of the explanation of why our culture breeds people who can't plan ahead. It's a folktale, and I remember this particular version very very vividly -- though there may very well be other versions which are not so idiotic.

There was this milk maid who was carrying a bucket of milk to market. It was her own milk and she could keep the money she got for it. As she walked, she thought about what she was going to do with the money.

She figured she'd get some chicken feed and some eggs to raise in an incubator. When they hatched, she could raise those chickens, and they'd lay eggs for her, which she could sell at the market. But she wouldn't sell all the eggs. She'd let the hens hatch some, and then she'd have more chickens to lay eggs.

And with the money from the eggs, she might buy her own cow, and then she could sell milk and eggs, and maybe hire a milk maid to do the work. She could pay her in buckets of milk, after all. And if she kept growing the business, she would eventually become a leading lady of the town, and be able to afford a find dress and some horses and carriage....

Ah, but as she was dreaming about this, she tripped and spilled the milk and had nothing to sell at the market.

Which only goes to show that you shouldn't count your chickens before they hatch.

And even as a child I wanted to scream NOOOOOOOOOOOOO! You MORONS! That is not the lesson here!

That milk maid did exactly what she needs to do if she wants to achieve her dreams -- she actually bothered to THINK IT THROUGH. So she had a setback. As far as I know, cows need to be milked twice a day. So there's going to be more opportunities, you know? ( Unless she was an utter idiot who never learned from her mistakes, she'd be more careful next time.)

Let's face it, folktales like these often have their roots in a time when people were supposed to know their place and accept what they were given. (Especially girls -- they shouldn't be dreaming about earning the money for fancy dresses, because their husbands are supposed to supply that.)

And it seems to me that writers are treated like Victorian damsels -- told not to think ahead or run the numbers, but just accept their lot and hope a lovely man can come and rescue them. (And this is true of male writers as well as female.)

And that's why I never fit in and never could accept the terms and conditions of publishing. Because I preferred to think ahead and count my own eggs, thank you very much. For the amount of work I did, I didn't want some shiny dime. I wanted some compound interest, dang it.

See you in the funny papers.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'd forgotten about that folktale! Good analogy. We definitely have to look out for ourselves in this one else will do it for us. And do some out-of-the-box thinking, too.

David Michael said...

When I got my first nonfiction book contract back in 2002, I briefly considered the possibility of writing nonfiction tech books for a living. Then I did the math. I had received a decent advance for my particular market, but it was less than the advances had been even a couple years before. To turn that advance into a living wage (for my family of 4), I would have to write such a book at least 5-6 times per year. Which was hard enough. But I would also have to think up and pitch even more books than that and negotiate contracts for each of them, with a 2-3 month lag on 1/3 advance payments...

I decided it was OK extra money and a fun sideline. I did one more nonfiction book on a similar topic, and that was that.


The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. Yeah, we're writers -- we're supposed to be good at thinking through options. I wish more would.

David: That was once our only choice -- be hobbyists, work like prisoners for next to nothing, or forget it.

For fiction writers there was this hope that once you reached a certain level you'd get higher advances and could count on booksellers actually keeping your books around a little. But there's a huge chasm before you get there.

But now we've got indie publishing. I don't know how well it would work for non-fiction writers, but with fiction, it gives us a chance to benefit from our work from the start. And it fills that chasm.

Hunter F. Goss said...

Camille, great analogy. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the tale of the milk maid.

To take the lesson you draw from the milk maid’s experience (thinking through what needs to be done to achieve her dreams) just a bit further, what the milk maid actually did was come up with an excellent business plan for expansion funded entirely out of her own revenue stream. No borrowed money, no grants, no loan guarantees. And perhaps more important, she owns it all.

And that fine dress and horse and carriage? Nothing less than tools allowing her to expand beyond markets that can be reached and serviced on foot.

Now how do those lessons apply to the indie model?

Of course, I prefer to call what we do the ‘entrepreneurial model’. But that’s a lot of syllables 

The Daring Novelist said...

You know, I really do think that there is a major cultural divide between the enterpreneurial mindset and the nine-to-fivers. It isn't so much the surface things people think about, but a really basic world view -- especially what you can and can't change.

Some people find it disturbing that you can change things, that you can make plans and survive consequences and keep going. I know people who hate their boss, but are disturbed when other employees make complaints about that boss... They are more bothered by the fact that an employee can actually fix what's wrong than they are about what's wrong.