The world of writing is one of the few which gets a ton of criticism from people who have no knowledge of the craft and trade. Because of this, many myths exist about writers and this profession, and some of these “urban legends” have spawned a subculture of contempt for those who ply their hand at the written word. The busting of some of these myths may serve to offer some insight into what it means to be a writer, and alter some of the preconceptions many have towards this profession.
MYTH: Writers are liberal hippie “starving artists.”
This particular myth is owed to how Hollywood has portrayed writers in movies and television series. Most writers are seen as either cutthroat journalists looking for a juicy story (Richard Gere in “Runaway Bride”), an ambitious storyteller looking for a hero to write about (Amy Adams in “Man of Steel”), or an aspiring novelist who is living in a comedic world in which nothing is as it seems (Melissa McCarthy in “Mike & Molly”). These images offer the notion that writers are subdivided into two camps; the journalist and the serious novelist and the only thing in between is the so-called “starving artist” poets and short prose writers.
FACT: Writers are a broad cross-section of professions and ideologies.
There are just as many so-called “left wing loony” writers as there are “alt right wacko” wordsmiths. We all have a role to play and a job to do. Some of us are freelance writers who are truly “Singing for our supper,” though said “supper” is often really just pocket change to blow on a nice dinner at Chili’s, if we score that. Most of writers I know are centrist politically – they are moderate in their ideology but are fierce First Amendment proponents.
MYTH: Writing is a noble art, but not a real “job.”
This myth tends to be espoused by people who hold very narrow-minded views of what writing is all about. Some of them espouse the aforementioned image of a writer being some sort of hippie liberal, while others simply don’t see a future in writing because it’s not classified as a “job” or considered a field which produces tangible products of intrinsic value. The general consensus among many is that professional writers are, again, subdivided between novelists, journalists, and starving artists.
FACT: The vast majority of writers are average “working stiffs.”
Many of us are looking for that shot at the big leagues but, by and large, are also willing to work very crappy jobs to make ends meet. It’s not uncommon to run into a writer who will do just about any job out there – even cleaning toilets – if it makes them some money to put food on the table. There are also professions, such as technical writers, contract writers, legal writers, copy writers, and copy editors, which are good-paying lines of work suited to many writers and that are where they spend the majority of their productive time. The notion of the writer being an “artist” is based in fact, but much of the stories of “starving writers” and “beatnik hippies” are the stuff of fantasy. Most writers are not afraid to “get their hands dirty,” both in a figurative and literal sense.
MYTH: Famous writers had an “insider” who helped them.
Now, let’s take a look at this myth in its most fundamental sense. How can an “insider” at a publishing house help a writer beyond getting their work onto the desk of a decision maker to read over? It’s still up to the decision maker to keep it moving. You could have a publishing CEO as a BFF but if your work isn’t even worth a roll of toilet paper, it’s going to get an extremely polite “no,” but a “no” nonetheless. We can also owe this myth’s existence to the proliferation of celebrity books out there credited just about anyone with some degree of star power. Seriously, if former NFL baller Keyshawn Johnson (remember him?) can get a book contract for the of “Just Get Me the Damn Ball,” what sort of impression does that give the public?
FACT: This is a half-truth at best.
Most famous writers actually languished for years in the pages of literary journals, poetry contests, coffee bars and artist haunts before hitting that “home run.” In fact, J.K. Rowling was not only a mother on British Public Assistance, she also had make a mild compromise of her identity – her agent recommended she use her initials as opposed to her full first name, Joanne, in order to facilitate of a publishing deal and enhance her marketing stature. A one-off crime tale written by Rowling was actually published for a very short time under the male pen name of Robert Galbraith to see how it would sell. There were, actually, rather sporadic sales until it was revealed Rowling was the person behind the pseudonym, then it took off like a rocket to the moon. While name recognition is huge in the writing biz, it is the rare author who received an insiders help – in most cases it was simply hard work, blind luck and word-of-mouth.
MYTH: Writing is female-dominated industry
This myth is owed, in large part, to the proliferation of well-known titles with female authors. Even then, it’s a bit of a gamble to assume EL James and JK Rowling were first seen as women. Of course, many movies and television series (Fifty Shades of Grey, Mike and Molly, etc) have depicted female writers and editors and this has only reinforced the image of the female bookworm setting at a desk, glasses perched at the tip of her nose as she merrily taps away at her keyboard. Yes, I did use that stereotype and with good reason, and that is….
FACT: Depending on where you look, the gap is changing and in some places, flipping
While a majority of book buyers are female and editing is becoming more and more a female profession, the fact is the overall publishing and writing field is still very male-dominated. Ad writers, copy writers, speech writers, journalists and ghost writers are still mostly male. It is when you enter the editing and writing arena where the gender scales begin to balance and, even then, it’s a very delicate and extremely genre dependent. Romance is still hugely female in both its authorship and readership, while Erotica is a funny creature, with mostly female emerging authors catering to a rather scattershot readership from a gender perspective. Still, when you get down to bottom line numbers and demographics, men still hold the edge in sheer numbers, though the gap is steadily shrinking.
Now for the last myth versus fact.
MYTH: Self published authors are persona non-grata to major houses
There was an episode of Night Court when Bull Shannon, played by Richard Moll, had a book published by a vanity publisher to whom he paid a lot of money, hoping for dreams of fame and fortune. That joke brought the idea of a “vanity publisher” to the public eye, and left many people with the rather correct assumption of “who would offer a contract to a jerk who pays to have his story published?” Years ago, self-pubbing was a big faux pas for authors because it indicated your were so wanting to take the “easy way out” that you weren’t willing to put in the hard work, blood and sweat other authors did.
FACT: It’s far more complicated than that, but TRUE “vanity publishers” are still largely off limits.
Bringing ones work to market is not just about you told the story, but how you sold it as well. At one time, the only way to get published was navigating the labyrinth of gatekeepers with the help of an agent, if you could find one. Createspace and SmashWords changed all that, as did the rise of self-published hits such as Fifty Shades of Grey. Over time, self-pubbed works which did not go through “vanity” publishers (the “pay for play” people) have gained more mainstream acceptance, forcing traditional publishers, including the famous “Big Five” to rethink their strategy. Today, it is not uncommon for submissions and acquisitions editors to mine the hottest indie sellers on Amazon and see who may be “worthy” of the big dance. Snake-oil vanity publishers, however, are still lurking in the weeds to siphon money from desperate writers looking for fame and fortune, and who lack the necessary patience or writing ability to make the story they have work, but have gobs of money to throw away on boosting their ego.
Well, I hope that helps bust some common misconceptions about the writing business. Keep your eyes out for my next post, which may or may not make you laugh.