Crime doesn’t pay; Neither does writing

 

I’ve known a lot of writers over the years. Many dreamed of making big money from their writing. But of all the writers I’ve known, only one or two have made any significant amount of money.

But I know plenty of writers who have spent lots of money trying to reach the level where the payoff comes. I know writers now who spend thousands every year to sell hundreds of dollars in books. They spend big bucks on conferences, travel, writers’ swag (gifts you give away to induce readers to buy your books), book doctors, contest fees, reading fees, postage, and books and magazines to improve their writing.

There’s a whole industry out there devoted to separating hopeful writers from their money and ninety-nine percent plus of all those writers will never make any real money off their writing. That’s the harsh reality of the economics of the writing business.

Just like in most businesses, but especially in the arts, a few lucky souls at the top reap huge rewards while millions at the bottom get a pittance at best. J.K. Rowling is a billlionaire. All the writers I know are thousandaires, but those thousands came from something other than their writing.

If I sound bitter, it’s because the system sucks. It’s another instance of income inequality. Instead of taking all the money from book sales and divvying it up in some kind of equitable way, the distribution of the money is extremely skewed to reward a few lavishly and deny the rest of the writers. J.K. Rowling doesn’t need or deserve a billion dollars. She would be adequately compensated with a small fraction of that, and many excellent writers producing fine work deserve way more than they’re getting.

One editor told Emily Dickinson her work was not poetic.

One editor told Emily Dickinson her work was not poetic.

Yeah, I know life isn’t fair. Capitalism is flawed. All that crap. But it’s not easy to see people dream their life away, devote themselves to producing good art, and go almost totally without financial reward.

It gets worse. The two writers I know who have made some money from writing aren’t even very good writers. What they are is good promoters, smoozers, back slappers, snake oil salesmen. Their sales skills are a lot better than their writing ability. They crank out mediocre books, and then huckster the hell out of them. They don’t deserve to be the successes they are, but they still get lots of adoration from writers who dream of fortune from their work. Somehow, lots of aspiring writers are blind to the pedestrian quality because they are dazzled by the money these somewhat financially successful writers have made.

Herman Melville's Moby Dick was a publishing flop.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was a publishing flop.

Writers who dream the dream of big money would be well informed to consider some fine writers who made little or no money from their scribblings during their lifetimes. Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Henry David Thoreau may be writing icons today, but during their lifetimes they had limited success. Getting money from your art is a lot like chasing a rainbow. Van Gogh paintings go for hundreds of millions today, but during his life, he sold a total of two.

Here’s another harsh fact writers should know: The average ebook or on-demand book sells less than 200 copies in its lifetime. And for POD books the largest portion of those sales are to the writer of the book, who then takes it out to readings and conferences and tries to hawk it to the public. Lots of those books end up sitting in a box in some closet. That means that the average book produces, over many years, a few hundred dollars. The phrase “starving writer” would be an understatement if most writers had to live on the income from their writing. They wouldn’t be starving; they’d be dead from starvation. Maybe you’ve heard of places in the third world where people live on a dollar a day? Most writers don’t earn that much.

If money is your goal in life, buy a lottery ticket. Become a doctor, stock broker or a CPA. Rob a bank. Start a Ponzi scheme. But don’t expect big bucks from your writing.

Am I saying that writers should just give up and quit because the odds of  earning any real money are almost hopeless? Definitely not. Thankfully, there are other rewards that have nothing to do with money. Excuse me for a moment while I transition from cynic to hopeless Polyanna.

Recently a really fine local poet named Miller Williams left this world. Though he achieved about as much as a modern poet could– awards, publication, and the respect of other artists –I don’t think he was wealthy in terms of dollars. An excellent article on his life that was just published quoted him as saying that he would be fulfilled by the prospect that someone might read one of his poems a thousand years from now and be moved by it.

So maybe a better goal for a writer is a form of immortality. Most people are forgotten just decades after their death. But writers, along with other creative types, leave something behind that enriches humanity while memorializing the creator. That’s the kind of thing money can’t buy.

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Disconnected

Two recent movies comment on a disturbing direction we seem to be traveling in American culture. Over the past few decades, communication technology- notably the internet and smart phones –has made it more possible than ever for Americans to be in touch with one another, and yet, somehow, many people are more disconnected than ever.

In the movie Her, a man (Joaquin Phoenix) has a romance with a computer operating system. The operating system has no physical presence. It’s not human, just a disembodied voice (Scarlett Johansson), yet he connects with it passionately.imagesXGMG8ZTS The movie makes an interesting point, that the core of interpersonal relationships is communication, that even without touch, or sex (they have a form of sex, sort of like phone sex, a poor substitute for the real thing) or a face and body, romance can still flourish. There are, of course, certain real advantages to such a romance. She’s available all the time, never sick, or tired, or sleeping. She doesn’t age and she never dies. She’s whip smart and socially adept. In the ways that matter most, she’s just about the perfect companion.

That’s a little scary. Humans have been bonding with other humans for eons now. Those relationships have always been the center of our lives. But now, as Her predicts, we may be moving toward relating more to media than we do to each other.

The other movie, Don Jon, stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a man who’s had a lot of success getting a lot of women into his bed.untitled But over time, he comes to prefer porn over actual women for sexual release. He makes arguments that porn is preferable. It’s less work, always there, never unwilling. You can find and enjoy every fetish imaginable. You need absolutely no social skills to get sex. You don’t even have to leave the house. All you need is a computer and an internet connection.

Both these movies explore the same theme, that media is now capable of competing successfully for the most important parts of our lives. In the past, the idea that a machine could displace other people for these needs would be the stuff of science fiction. But it’s rapidly moving from science fiction to science fact.

In the span of about six decades, since television became ubiquitous in the 1950s, we’ve been increasingly abandoning each other and turning to media for entertainment, information, companionship and gratification. During that same period we’ve seen a decline in marriage, the traditional family, friendship, group activity, and dating. Maybe that correlation is not a coincidence. Maybe as our media consumption has grown, it has eaten away at our social lives. Maybe before many more decades, media will be our dominant life partner and other people will play only a small role in our lives. If that happens, it will be a major shift in human lifestyle.

Some time ago, I posted a blog about what life was like in a small Arkansas community in the late 1800s. I had read the diary of a woman who lived near a small farming town and what struck me was how connected the community of neighbors was. Not a day went by that they didn’t go visit each other, or have visitors in their home, or both. Contact with other humans was not only the heartblood of their lives, it was also a support system. They shared their food, their labor, helped each other out in every way you can think of, cared for each other from the cradle to the grave,  and entertained each other. Life was almost entirely about your connection with the people around you, family, friends, and neighbors.

We’ve pretty much lost that now. I know lots of people who don’t have any friends. They’re distant from their relatives. These days, it’s not unusual for parents to lead separate, insulated lives from their own children. Lots of people who have lived in the same place for years don’t know their neighbors.

Sure, today people have Facebook friends, and a bunch of numbers in their smart phone, and lots of followers on Twitter, but, really, how close are they to those people? They may share cat videos, and selfies, and inspirational quotes, but when their cars break down, they call AAA.

It’s a new era. People are out, media is in. How will it all work out in the long run? Who knows? We’re headed into uncharted territory, all racing headlong somewhere we’ve never been before.

Euphemisms, When the Right Word Just Isn’t Right

euphemism

Euphemisms

There are some words in the glorious English language that speakers avoid using, because they’re just not comfortable saying them. Those awkward words fall mostly into three areas, sex, death and bathroom (and here I’m already resorting to a euphemism).

One of the most prolific areas for euphemisms is sex. Can you imagine a man trying to get a woman into bed by saying, “I really want to have sexual intercourse with you.” No, to increase his chances, he says he wants to make love, go to bed with, or sleep with her (no sleeping involved).

Sex has inspired so many euphemisms, a big lexicon of slang that’s in everyone’s vocabulary. There are many, many terms for having sex and the body parts involved in having sex, none of them ever the correct technical terms like penis, vagina, or breasts (notice how uncomfortable those three words just made you).

Death is so scary we can’t bear to say somebody died. They passed away, expired (which makes them sound like they had a use by date), went to their reward, went to be with Jesus. Then there are the more impersonal ones, when we don’t give a damn about the dead person: croaked, kicked the bucket, bought the farm, or took a dirt nap.

Bathroom stuff is gross. The real words are almost never in everyday use. For example, in toilet training a child, nobody ever says, “It’s time for you to go defecate.” Or urinate. Universally it’s poop, potty, pee. P words dominate. And think of all the expressions adults use for their visits to the bathroom. Even the word bathroom is a euphemism, because most of the time you go there it’s not for bathing. I’m not going to mention examples of the euphemisms people use for what actually goes on in there, but I’ll bet my bippy you know and use them.

Lately I’ve been noticing another area which is becoming rife with euphemisms. It’s the language of advertising, as businesses triy to separate you from your money, while trying to convince you they’re doing you a big favor. Just listen to the phrases that are glibly tossed around in TV ads, and you’ll find lots of weasel words. As a public service for the gullible and vulnerable, I’ve decided to provide translations of what advertisers are actually saying:

Buy one, get one – Translation: We want to sell you at least two items because that way we make twice as much money, so we just double the price, refuse to sell only one, and tell you one is free.

Free shipping – Translation: We added the cost of shipping to the price.

Starting at – Translation: We have a crappy, minimum selection that you won’t want, and the one you will want costs substantially more.

For a limited time – Translation : This is a quirky, not very good seller for us, which is why we don’t offer it all the time, and we’re marketing it as a novelty item. (Example:  The McRib.)

While quantities last – Translation : We have only two of these in stock and they’ll be long gone before you get here, but we have more expensive ones to sell to you.

Free, pay only shipping and handling – Translation : We’ve jacked up shipping and handling to include the price of the product.

On clearance –Translation: Nobody would buy this crap at the regular price.

No money down – Translation: More interest for us.

No interest until 2018 – Translation: Your good intentions to pay this off before we start charging you interest will never come to fruition and we’ll end up socking you with years of exorbitant interest.

For those who qualify – Translation: Only those who have never made a financial misstep in their entire lives can get this deal, but we have a more pricey deal for everyone else.

It doesn’t matter what your credit history is – Translation : Bend over.

Aldi

Aldi

aldi market

Most of the time here, I rant. I tilt at windmills, rage against injustice, gripe, bitch, and moan.

But not this time, This post is a positive praise piece.

It’s about Aldi, the biggest and best alternative to Walmart, Whole Foods, and all the other supermarket choices out there.

One of the things that really impresses me about Aldi is their shopping cart system. You know how when you go to most stores, you see carts that lazy shoppers have left in the lot? Aldi has solved that problem. They don’t have cart pushers, they don’t even have cart corrals out in the parking area. Every Aldi cart I’ve ever seen has been returned to the cart area by shoppers.

How did they do this? Simple.aldi carts

When you go to pick up your cart at Aldi you find the carts are all chained together. To unchain one, you have to put a quarter into a slot on the handle of the cart. Then, when you finish shopping, you return your cart, chain it up and get your quarter back. It’s amazing how much of an incentive a quarter can be. In all the years I’ve shopped at Aldi, I’ve never seen a cart abandoned in the parking lot.

Another reason to shop Aldi is the prices. Almost everything they have costs less than at Wal-Mart. Sometimes way less. Here’s an example. This week avocados are on special for 29 cents. At Walmart, they’re $1.99. This means you can buy six avocados at Aldi for less than one at Walmart. They are a little smaller, and they’re not ripe, so you may have to plan ahead and wait a few days for them to be ready to use, but you can make a big batch of guacamole at a very low price.

Another example, two 7 ounce bacon-wrapped filets for $4.49 and that’s an every day price and they’re really good. You can get most canned vegetables for 59 cents. Milk for around $3 a gallon. A big bag of chips for $1.49.

aldi canned goodsAldi doesn’t carry a lot of the major brands. That’s why they can offer great deals. Sometimes those brands may not meet your quality standards. You have to try them out. But many of the products are just as good as name brands. One example, canned soup at 59 cents, compared to 80 cents for the same size can of Campbell’s soup at Walmart, and it’s just as good.

Another thing I like about Aldi is that they don’t bag your groceries. You do it yourself, another cost cutting measure. They also encourage you to use the boxes the groceries come in to carry them out. Or they’ll sell you a paper bag for a few cents if you don’t want to scrounge up a free box.

Given that Aldi is environmentally friendly and cheaper, I’m amazed they don’t do more business. At any given moment, there are always way more people shopping at the competing Walmart. I’ve tried to figure out why. It’s true that Aldi is smaller, doesn’t have as much selection,  often doesn’t carry name brands and they make you bag your groceries and return your own cart, so I guess if you’re a spoiled prima donna who has to have full service, Aldi just isn’t for you.

But if you like to save money, and care about the environment, maybe you should stop enriching the Walton family, who pay their employees so little they qualify for government food assistance. Aldi pays their employees more, but they get a lot more out of fewer employees, because they’re not rounding up stray carts or bagging groceries.

My theory is that Walmart gets more business mainly because most people just follow the herd and go there like lemmings. So at least consider buying some of your stuff at Aldi, even if you still shop somewhere else for some things.

You might find yourself bragging loudly about getting avocados for 29 cents.