One the greatest gifts Sherlock Holmes gave to the world is popularizing the science of deduction. That is to say, he showed the layperson how to think a problem logically backward.
To address the question of figuring out the ideal writing life, we should think about the final result. Most of us writers write so that others may read our craft. The end goal, then, is the reader. How do you want readers to find and read your story? Do you want them to find your book in a public library? Or do you want to make it available online for anyone who has an Internet connection? Or do you want readers to purchase your story? How you want readers to find your story is important because creating a story that is read is not the same as creating a story that sells.
The Internet Changed Everything
There is a reason why we may equate a well-read book with a well-selling book. For the longest time, to a read a book, a reader had to either purchase a physical book or rent it. Even if you yourself didn’t purchase a book, some other party— be it a bookstore, a library, private book-lender or your book-loving aunt— had to buy the book to make it available to you. But now with the Internet, you don’t need a physical book to read a story. Sometimes, you don’t even have to pay.
Take A Study In Magic and its sequel. Both are available online for free. I can’t use “sales” as a metric to see if they are being read—unless I do sell it, and put myself on the fast track towards bankruptcy via expensive lawsuits. Instead, I check its view statistics and reader reviews. (Combined 3 million+ hits and 5219 reviews! You guys are awesome!)
For Amazon Kindle books, I can think of two metrics: number of downloads and number of purchases. Authors can set their Kindle book price to zero to promote their work, so these two numbers can differ wildly. Wattpad.com tracks reviews, the number of views and number of votes for all stories. In short, it really depends on your platform.
To reiterate, the Internet changed the story availability game. Writers now have the option of divorcing sales from being read. So let us ask ourselves: If you had to choose, would you rather have lots of people read your story or do you not mind your story gathering dust as long as it sold well? Your answer to this question will and should define what you do. And your ideal writing life is one that best lets you do what you need to do.
Reaching Your Reader
If I just wanted to get my story out, nothing stops me from posting it on AO3, FictionPress.com, and Wattpad. Self-publishing has come a long way, and there are plenty of online tutorials that show you how to self-publish a book (here and here just to name a few; both are geared toward selling). One need not go through the traditional route of finding an agent and getting a deal from one of the big publishing houses. Unless you want to, or it’s a means to a different end.
One of my author daydreams is getting one of my books in a public library. I much rather readers borrow any book I publish from a public library because that is what I do as a reader. Just imagining my book on a library shelf somewhere makes my heart flutter. (Sidebar: Perhaps there will come a day when all published books will available online, and readers everywhere can access them with a very nominal fee, if any. The mere thought of this puts me in a state of bliss.)
Let’s say I make it my goal to get one of my books in a public library. How do I do it? In general, library staff relies on reviews in standard journals (Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal) as well as in the mainstream media to select books to add to their collection. Amazon reviews do not count. There is also a limited window of opportunity for a book to be considered. My local public library, for example, will generally not consider a publication that is older than 2 years. An author can submit their own work for consideration, or a library card holder can do that on their own. Either way, the book needs to go through a review process, and the process seems to greatly favor books that are published through the big name publishers. Therefore I should focus my energies creating a book that will garner the interest of an agent, can score a book deal and get favorable reviews from journals.
Yikes! Talk about hurdles! At least it’s concrete, yeah?
Read or Sell
I didn’t put the above header to say you can’t have both. On the contrary, widely read books tend to be books that sell. It just, neither may happen in your lifetime. A depressing aspect, but a realistic one. I’m fully aware the chances of me staying in obscurity is far higher than me achieving even modest success as a published author.
And that’s fine. When it comes down to it, I want to create something that makes readers send bootlegged PDF copies of the story to all their friends. I love the process of writing. I love the activity that goes behind plot construction. Having enough time to write something worthwhile to readers is enough for me.
Hence my conclusion my ideal writing life is one that has enough time for writing, and one where my livelihood doesn’t depend on my writing. I’m grateful and privileged to already have a career that makes more than enough to fund such a life.
To find the ideal writing life, writers should think about how they want readers to find their stories. Once that is clarified, you can think about how to structure a writing life that is most suitable for that end goal.