Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

What if…?

Here’s a bad old joke I remember:

A man walks up to a woman in a bar. He introduces himself and asks, “If I paid you a million dollars, would you go to bed with me?”
The woman considers the question, and then says, “Yes.”
The man then asks, “Well, if I paid you five dollars, would you go to bed with me?”
The woman looks outraged. “Of course not. What kind of girl do you think I am?”
The man says, “We’ve established that. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”

On Friday, Rachelle Gardner (if this keeps up, I’m going to have to start calling her my muse) posed this question: What if there were no money in writing? Would you still write? Like most of Rachelle’s posts, it generated a lot of comments, quickly: 179 as I sit down to polish this up now. The overwhelming run of comments went one of two ways:

1. There’s money in writing? Lol
2. I don’t write for the money. I’d still write.

Reading the post, and those responses, the next logical question occurred to me: If a publisher told you that they would devote their top team to your book – the best editor and proofreaders, the top typesetters and layout designers, their number 1 cover artist, and the best of their marketing department; if they told you they would spare no expense in getting your book into book of the month clubs, and on ‘Off the Page’; if they could do all that, but told you they wouldn’t pay you a single dime for it, that the book was either going to be given away for free, or they were going to keep all the money from sales—would you do it? Would you give it away?

Keep in mind, there are no guarantees. Your book might flop. Or, it could be critically acclaimed, a mega-bestseller that moves a generation and becomes a beloved classic, read for generations to come. It could be just another throwaway read, the sort of thing that ends up in library book sales for $1, quickly read and enjoyed, but just as quickly forgotten. It could launch you on a career path like Stephen King’s, or it could go absolutely nowhere. You could end up toiling in anonymity for the rest of your days.

Would you do it?

As a businessman, I know there are times when it’s a smart decision to take a loss on something in order to build reputation and goodwill. But setting out an entire book (at this point, almost a year’s worth of labor) for free is not the same thing as tossing a few hundred bucks at a community event, or giving away a few dozen widgets at cost. My inclination is to say no. But pondering it in the theoretical world is a lot different than having the question posed in the real world, so I would have to think about it, very carefully.

What about you?

9 Responses

  1. This is tough. On the one hand, I want my stories to be read, first and foremost, and I have a spouse who supports my writing and pays the bills. OTOH, I don't know why a publisher should keep all the money (in your scenario) from my art.

    So, if presented with your hypothetical offer, I'd take it. Perhaps it's my ego, but I'd rather be read than rich.

    Would I keep writing if I knew that I'd NEVER made a dime? I think, yes. I like the creating. I like it when someone reads something I've read and reacts to it. I like my imaginary worlds.

    It might get tough, after a while. How would I justify my work to my friends and family, who would surely see a lack of monetary "reward" in my writing as a failure? There's where it would get tricky for me. We assign value to work that makes money – and the more the better. I'm guessing most people work for money. My husband says he loves his job/work, but he also says he wouldn't do it if he won the lottery.

    Artists are always considered a bit mad because they often go against the tide – & working without the guarantee of return is one of those little rebellions.

    I'm rambling a bit, now, so I'll sign off. You've got me thinking. Thanks, Jeff!

  2. I would have to think about it carefully too. For example–what about my next book? If I don't make a dime from this one but it is a smashing success? Do I make money from the second one? That would be a question but on the other hand, if the answer was you'd never make a dime ever but you would be widely read–I'd go for it. Because I think it would be very sad if no one ever read it. Ever. Even if only a handful of people were ever interested in reading my book, I'd still want to put it out there.

  3. There's a bit of a difference between me writing for my own pleasure with a side benefit of being published, and someone else potentially making bank off my efforts.

    Author Brandon Sanderson said one of the biggest things writers struggle against is obscurity. If you want to get your name known out there, it might be worth it to have the publishers do all those things you listed–even if they never paid you a time. How much would it cost you to pay for those services?

    Now, with the next book? I doubt it.

  4. Oh man…tough question! My brain tells me "No", but I don't think that's really true. One of the main reasons I write is to tell stories that mean something to me, and if the opportunity was there for my stories to be widely read, even without compensation, I would probably take it. Plus, getting your name out there could help with the sales of your next book, right? 🙂

  5. Tough indeed! I want my stories to be read by others and have it mean something to them more than get paid a lot of money. There must be some middle ground. There's a lot of "it depends on" scenarios (like if it's a first novel) so there is no one simple answer. Good food for thought.

  6. Good question. My brain immediately went to the possibilities for the second book if my first were really given the best shot from a publisher's marketing department, so that kind of corrupts my answer, but: Yes, I'd do it, but it would be painful to give those years of work away. I might even do it once if the question were changed to never being paid. But more than once? I might still write stories, or write a book slowly, but I don't think I'd have the same discipline with my writing that I do now. I don't think I could justify the time commitment I'm giving writing if I never expected to make anything from it. But it's a good question.

  7. In general, would I write if there were absolutely no money to be made from it? Of course. Would I give it this deranged level of devotion? Probably not. 😉

  8. Great comments, everyone, thanks for joining in.

    I think Donna really hits on something there–it seems all well and good to not make money off something (not ideal, perhaps, but acceptable on some level), but we tend to balk when someone else makes the money off of it, instead. That feels too much like exploitation. And then there is that social pressure that Jennifer mentions. It's hard enough as it is, isn't it? "Oh, you're a writer? What have you written?" mumbles "Well, I haven't sold anything yet…." It's funny how we judge others so much on 'work' and 'contributions to society'.

    Still, I would think long and hard on this one. Part of my answer would be based on how strong the novel in question is, and how much faith I have in myself to produce another one that *could* potentially make money. I just might say 'yes.'

    Thanks again, everyone.

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