Friday, 15 July 2016

The question everyone seems to want to ask


Jo-Anne Berthelsen
I had been invited to speak to a community group about becoming a published author and had reached the end of my input. Now it was time for questions. What would I be asked today? Perhaps someone might want to know how long it takes me to write a novel. Perhaps someone else might wonder which I enjoy writing most—fiction or non-fiction.  Perhaps others might have questions about the book industry as a whole, such as how e-books have affected authors and publishers and bookstores. I waited, hoping I could respond well to whatever queries might surface.
Then I saw him. He was seated towards the back and smiled as he raised his hand. And, before he even opened his mouth, I knew what he was going to ask.
‘So ... have you made much money from your books?
Why is it that it is often a well-dressed, important-looking gentleman up the back who dares to ask such a question? Perhaps it is because he has had a career in business, where the bottom line counts. Perhaps he is simply curious. Or perhaps he hears his wife or others around him whispering this very question and decides to ask it for them! Nowadays, I simply join in the ensuing slightly embarrassed laughter and respond as calmly as I can. But the first time I was confronted with this question, I was a little shocked. After all, I doubt I would ask this gentleman how much he made in his own job—especially in public!
This time, I decided to explain first off how most Australian authors know it is not a good idea to give up one’s day job! Next, I mentioned how even quite well-known authors here in Australia usually need to supplement their income via presenting writing workshops or lecturing in creative writing or such like. I then talked about how smaller publishers in Australia do not have the resources to pay large advances or to fund extensive promotional campaigns and how, in my circles at least, we battle for sales with many books written by well-known overseas authors. Finally, I let this gentleman know that, while I might not have made my millions, I am at least in the ‘black’ and not in the ‘red’! And I am grateful I have always earned enough to buy my next lot of stock, so that I can continue my writing and speaking without any drain on our day-to-day finances.
If I am ever asked this question at a Christian event, I usually add that I regard my speaking and writing as a ministry, which changes the focus for me. I might mention too the many hours that artists of all kinds put into their creative endeavours and how difficult it is to put any monetary value on this. Yet we have the joy of knowing that our loving God sees all the effort that goes into our work and is delighted that we are using our gifts to bless others in this way.
On the other hand ... um ... well ... the worker deserves his (or her) wages, don’t you think (1 Tim 5:18)? Hmm.
So ... over to you. How would you answer my ‘favourite’ question?

Jo-Anne Berthelsen lives in Sydney but grew up in Brisbane. She holds degrees in Arts and Theology and has worked as a high school teacher, editor and secretary, as well as in local church ministry. Jo-Anne is passionate about touching hearts and lives through both the written and spoken word. She is the author of six published novels and one non-fiction work, Soul Friend: the story of a shared spiritual journey. Jo-Anne is married to a retired minister and has three grown-up children and four grandchildren. For more information, please visit www.jo-anneberthelsen.com

22 comments:

  1. A question very well answered, Jo-Anne. I agree with your thoughts on this. Enjoyed the way you have written about this very impertinent question which I have been asked by aspiring writers but fortunately not at a speaking appointment!

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    1. Thanks, Mary. I can understand aspiring writers needing to ask this question in order to make decisions and be realistic about what they can expect to earn. I'd be happy to give them an honest answer as best I could. But with a general audience, it's not the place to go into details, so I just try to satisfy everyone on a fairly surface level!

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  2. I would respond that it matters if my focus is to make money from my writing. Maybe that's not my focus.

    After this I would say that returns don't always show up in the form of money. Being a bestselling author carries some credibility in that it can open doors which previously were closed. This can lead to many different opportunities which are not always recompensed with money.

    There is no amount of money in the world that would be able to adequately replace the joy and love that I have experienced whilst writing books and sharing these books with my readers. Usually you cannot 'buy' 'invitations'either or 'goodwill' or 'gratitude' and 'friendship.'

    You cannot put a price tag on 'Satisfaction-about-a-job-well-done' or 'The blessed-opportunity-to-be-in-a-place-to-be-able-to-reach-out-and-help-others.'

    I can go on and on. I am smiling and grinning from ear to ear when anyone asks me about my writing career.

    Have I made much money from my books?

    I have received more joy, happiness, friendships, open doors than I could ever have imagined in my wildest dreams. All things that money cannot buy.

    And yes, I get regular royalty cheques too. Which is money that I did not have before. Praise The Lord!!

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    1. Thanks for your lovely, enthusiastic reply here, Mimi! That's a great suggestion to focus on the more intangible returns that writing brings such as opening doors for us, the huge personal satisfaction it brings and the opportunity it affords to help others in some way. I have just realised I actually cover most of that though in the type of talk I usually give at more secular venues, so obviously some still want to know about any financial return I might receive!

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  3. In addition I would say, if the question was not pertinent to the talk given, this is quite a rude question. Because when does anyone ever ask a speaker in public about their income?

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    1. Yes, I agree--they could ask me later privately at my book table. However, I guess it is probably the question lots of the audience would like to ask, so I just try to answer it in a gentle, humorous way!

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  4. I'm almost always asked the same question, Jo-Anne, often by younger, would be writers who seem to think they will have a best seller in their hands the minute they can find a publisher. I answer the same way you did. I don't want to spoil people's dreams but being a writer definitely involves a large dose of reality re money. And I agree, with you and Mimi, that it's not for the money that one writes. Whether Christian or not, I believe most writers write because they cannot not write.

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    1. Thanks, Carol. I'm happy, as I mentioned in my response to Mary's comment above, to try to help would-be authors be realistic about what to expect, while still encouraging them and without spoiling their dreams. After all, I still remember what it was like to be in that same position myself. But often the question is just asked out of curiosity, I've found--and that's okay too, I guess! I suppose when a group has a real live published author in front of them, that's their opportunity to find out!

      Thanks too for the reminder that 'most writers write because they cannot not write'. Must remember to include that next time I have to field this question!

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  5. Great answer, Jo-Anne. I couldn't have done better. The naughty me would have said all that and added, 'How much do you earn?' But I usually manage to keep the naughty me in check ;). Well, sometimes...

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    1. I laughed out loud when I read your comment, Sue! I can just imagine everyone's faces if I did that--but, I agree, it could be tempting! Maybe if I did though, I wouldn't receive that bottle of wine I am often given at secular venues for speaking, which I usually give away to someone else in our family, or that little box of chocolates I can't eat anyway because I am diabetic! Never mind--my husband enjoys them! And as I've already said, it truly isn't about money for me--I'm just thankful for these opportunities to speak and to display my books.

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  6. Go on - ask them how much they earn!

    I guess this is an awkward and difficult question for any writer, but even more for Christians, many of whom do write as part of a ministry. It's also not helped by a culture who is used to getting more and more content free via websites and blogs and even free books on Amazon.

    And I absolutely agree a worker is worth his (or her) wages. I guess the thing with writing is that we're essentially self-employed on commission, which means we only get paid when someone buys - quite a different dynamic from having a job with a salary (and maybe even a bonus).

    How to answer ... Hard to say, as I don't yet have any books published. Ask me again in a year or so!

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  7. Well, I'd like to take you up on what is essentially a dare, Iola--but then again, maybe not! I like your point about authors being essentially self-employed on commission--perhaps that would be a good place to start in answering this question in future at such groups. It might help people understand more.

    And may you get paid in the squillions, Iola, when your own book is published!

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  8. Great replies Jo-Anne! I've got a few workshops coming up at local libraries - it'll be interesting to see if the question comes up. I might pre-empt it and get in first :)

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    1. Hopefully those nice Queenslanders will be much too polite for that, Andrea! Not a bad idea to get in first though, just the same.

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  9. When people ask me that question, I sometimes fob them off by saying that it's not a regular wage, like people who are paid by their employers for traditional nine to five jobs, so I'll decline answering :)

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    1. I really like your approach, Paula--sensible and polite but also firm. Thank you--I'll remember that one. That kind of takes in the idea Iola mentioned above about our being essentially employed on commission really. So many good ideas!

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  10. Hi Jo-Anne, Thanks for sharing your great response to a tricky question :) My standard answer is 'not as much as you probably think.' If the questioning persists, I talk about how the vast majority of authors don't earn enough money to write full-time, and how average author earnings have been decreasing in recent years. Once I start talking about the economics of book publishing and author earnings, the original question is long forgotten, lol.

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    1. I think I had better make a list of all the great ideas in the comments here as to how to answer this question--and I'll definitely have to add your 'Not as much as you probably think' idea, Narelle! And yes, I've discovered too how good it is when the original question is forgotten or at least not pursued any further!

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  11. I have always answered the question honestly, but never directly with respect to specific amounts. I've said that some quarter royalty checks were enough to make a truck payment. Sometimes not. I've paid for family vacations to Florida by saving a year's worth of royalties, but it's certainly not enough to retire on, and unlikely to become that for me, ever. I suggest that while for some writers, great financial success happens, for most it is not an endeavor that will carry them (or you) you to an easy and early retirement. For more than a few authors, hour for hour, they'd be better off taking a minimum wage job.

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    1. I really love the suggestion you gave in those last two sentences you wrote, Terry--I think that's a great, general comment to make that sums the situation up well and will definitely be remembering that for the future. So thank you. And I agree too that it's important to be honest, whatever we say in response, without mentioning specific amounts.

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  12. I don't think I've ever been asked this question, then again, I mostly speak to groups of teenagers. I'm not sure how I'd answer, though I've taken notes from this post & the comments to help give me ideas if it ever comes up :)

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  13. I hope you don't ever have to use those notes, Melissa, but I'm glad you have them, just in case ...

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