On being an Amateur.

12 Be warned, my son, … Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. – Eccl. 12:12

Figured it was time to get my lucky stormtrooper off the front page, so over the weekend, I rousted some Google-facts on publishing.

What I discovered was that roughly 300,000 books were put out last year in the US via the traditional agent/publishing house route. Three hundred thousand.

Self-published titles were more than twice that number. So that’s close to a million titles overall in the U.S. One million.

Stay with me for a sec. – – assume your average trade paperback is one and a quarter inches thick. That means for the self-pubbed, you’re staring at a pile of hard copies 68,750 feet tall. That’s thirteen miles, or fifty-five Empire State buildings stacked up. And your little indie book is somewhere in there.

How’s that for a mental picture? (And you thought you’d be driving a new Audi, signing Japanese language rights, juggling speaking engagements with Oprah…)*

Indie or traditional, those are humbling numbers.

Puts a different perspective on it, don’t it? And for me, it begs the question “So why are you doing this?”

An amateur is someone who supports himself with outside jobs which enable him to paint. A professional is someone whose wife works to enable him to paint.
– Ben Shahn

“Amateur” has negative connotations these days. It smacks of immaturity, of shoddy but earnest material, of little or no monetary reimbursement. But remember it’s derived from the French “to love”. Love, eh? In other words, it’s not a statement on remuneration or quality, but motivation. You do it for enjoyment. You’re inspired. For love.

Now I’m not justifying myself with semantics here, or charging Little Round Top in the supposed “Civil War” of Modern Publishing. I’m a mean advocate for being “professional,” in the sense that sincerity is an over-rated virtue and no excuse for piss-poor quality. I take my work seriously.

But that 13-mile high reality-check demands to know why I spend so much time pecking away at my keyboard, agonizing over the same paragraph for the third time, read yet another book on character, stay faithful to writing groups, scheme on how to scrape up time and money for Viable Paradise, and on and on. Why?

So what’s Love got to do with it? If you mean emotion or feelings, then no. I sure as hell don’t feel like writing sometimes. And those Empire-State building numbers have enough heft to make me re-think the odds on that three-book deal that I’d have sworn was right around the corner. Percentage-wise, I can’t be sure I’ll ever make the NY Times Bestseller list, let alone get two thumbs up from the Tree Fort Louisiana Gazette.

I could just drop the whole thing and watch Fringe and The Walking Dead instead. I mean, who cares about my ideas? One in a million ain’t the best odds, right? There already are plenty of writers out there, some of them great.

Believe me, that temptation squats in the corner of my office every day. But despite the numbers, surrender feels like a missed opportunity. Like a bad prognosis. Like that sad, sick feeling after you’ve let someone down.

There are plenty of things that spur me towards the keyboard. But I stay there because underneath it all, love is commitment. And as a Christian, love is obedience.

What do I do with the ideas that pop up unannounced like uninvited, enthusiastic guests? (Party! Whoo Hoo!) What about my characters? I wrangle over plot-twists, word choice/choise, dialog, how to choreograph firefight scenes… I obsess over expressing my faith intelligently and articulately, and how to integrate Christian themes organically in the storyline without it coming off as forced or contrived.

You see, my responsibility is to run with the inspiration. To be a steward that hones the ideas and skills. To obey. Sure I want money. Recognition. Foreign language and film options. A double portion, please. But I have to trust, persist, and finish because there are consequences for me, and far beyond me. God help me if I ever start doing this out of sheer ego, gain, or duty. Sure, I want a good agent, an editor and an advance. But if the love that drives me dries up or gets smothered, I’ve lost the sole item that’s genuinely valuable.

And the results? They’re where they’ve always been – – in God’s hands.

*I know, I know… you’re the exception. The next Stephen King or Danielle Steel. Or Amanda Hocking. And you might well be, and that’s great. (remember us little people, will ya?)

4 Replies to “On being an Amateur.”

    1. Well that’s not all “professionals”. In the same way, all “amateurs” aren’t impatient hacks.

      But yes, it’s a shame when you detect that vibe coming off anyone.

  1. Do you know how many meals were cooked yesterday? If so, do you know how high the plates and bowls will stack? Millions upon millions I assume. Just in this country alone there are 300 million people, and hopefully 90% of them ate one meal yesterday. Even if only half ate a meal that’s 150 million.

    But you still feed yourself, right? And presumably your family….

    If God has called you to write–wherever God has called you to write–you are preparing a meal meant for someone. Someone who has eaten before and will eat again but will at least once need to taste your food.

    I’m done arguing against the prejudices about where the book is published. I want to lift up the books that are finished, are published wherever they are published and say “God, you saw to it that this meal was prepared. Now I trust you to see to it that the people who are hungry for it can find it and enjoy.”

  2. Yep, you’re right.

    Funny you should mention that. I was working out a post titled “Somebody, somewhere” along those same lines.

    Thanks for weighing in.

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