There Must Be a Book in There, Somewhere…

The other day I came across one of those statistics that are probably based on unsubstantiated data but nonetheless sound plausible enough. I present the stat, forthwith:

Only about 3% of aspiring writers ever finish a book and have it published.

If you need a visual, that’s 3 out of 100, or 30 out of 1,000. A very small percentage, indeed. I’m not sure where the stat originated. But it has been repeated here and here.

Now, this is the kind of statistic that is almost impossible to substantiate – because it’s impossible to know how many people aspire to be writers. For all we know, 75% of the world’s population think they are writers, no matter their day job.

The barista at your favorite coffee shop might be a secret writer. Same with the dentist drilling your teeth, the carpenter building your deck, the banker reviewing your loan application – all might consider themselves “aspiring writers,” with the rest of the world unawares.

I’m not sure how many “aspiring” writers I know personally. But I bet I’ve known a couple hundred actual writers through my career as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and websites, as well as through various literary circles. I have worked with and around writers my entire professional life.

Out of those 200-plus writers, I can think of maybe 10 who have written and published a book that today can be purchased on Amazon. That’s no more than 5% — which means the 3% figure mentioned earlier might not be too far off.

Of the book authors I know, a couple have written best sellers. One of them is Steve Dubner, who I knew in college when he was a musician and I wrote about his band for the student newspaper. Steve later turned to writing and co-authored Freakonomics, which was published by Penguin in 2006 and has since sold millions of copies worldwide.

The other is Joe Posnanski, a fellow sportswriter at the Charlotte Observer’s York County, S.C. bureau, back when there was such a thing. His biography of legendary (and ultimately disgraced) Penn State football coach Joe Paterno debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

So, out of 200-odd writers I have known personally, about 1% have reached bestseller lists – and those were for nonfiction books. None of the book authors I know have published a work of fiction.


What all this goes to show is that while writing is easy enough, writing a book is not easy at all. It takes discipline, dedication, structure, imagination, a certain degree of faith, a certain stick-to-it-edness, a certain je ne sais quoi, a healthy dose of madness, and an ability to plow through another page when the last thing you want to do on this living earth is plow through another page.

That’s why so many people start books they never finish, if they start them at all. It’s simply not that fun for 93% of writers (another stat I cannot substantiate). In fact, it’s sheer torture for 39% of writers (another stat I cannot substantiate).

And while some might aim for literary fame, you’re more likely to end up selling a few dozen copies to family, friends and other writers, who themselves sold a few dozen copies to you and their own family and friends.

Like many writers, I occasionally entertain visions of a high-octane literary career. The current octane level is not what you would consider “high.” There’s still time, I suppose, but all the breaks have to go my way, and that’s something you don’t want to bet the house on.

But I have at least achieved some kind of literary career, having completed a novel (Voodoo Hideaway) that was published by a little indy publisher, and a collection of short stories (Money, Love and Blood) I published myself. Both are available on Amazon and elsewhere. Other short stories have been included in anthologies from other publishers.

I have crossed the Magic 3% Threshold, if nothing else.

It bears repeating: Writing a book is one of the most difficult mental marathon exercises I can think of. This is especially true for novels. You are essentially starting with nothing more than an idea, and you have at least 200 pages to go.

Writing a non-fiction book is also difficult, in its own way. It requires tons of research, and a logical structure, and a compelling enough narrative to attract readers and keep them reading. But in most cases it’s a labor of love. Non-fiction authors usually write about something they have a passion for and interest in.

For example, I bet I could knock out a 300-page book on the history of the ATP tennis tour in a few months – and love just about every minute of it, being an avid tennis player and fan who can recite stats off the top of my head.

So why don’t I write a history of the ATP tennis tour? (There really aren’t any I know of).

I’ll tell you why: Because I am not a tennis writer. I might have a great deal of knowledge about the sport, but I don’t have experience covering the tour, following it around, getting to know the players and insiders. Nobody in the tennis world knows me. No publisher would publish me. Hell, I wouldn’t publish me.

Still, it might be fun….


Do you know what isn’t necessarily fun? Writing a novel. It is a giant anvil on your back, every single day, for months and years at a time. I spent three-plus years writing, editing, rewriting, restructuring, and rewriting (again) Voodoo Hideaway. The print version is 360 pages long. I still don’t know how I got there.

The writing process for me was essentially inching forward, little by little, line by line, a brick at a time, like a homebuilder trying to build a McMansion with no design or blueprint to work from. I had no idea where the story was heading. I had no idea of what characters might populate it, or how they would connect with one another, or what they might do or think, or where they would go. It was all ad-lib, improv, from page 1 through page 360.

When I first started writing it, it was supposed to be a short story – and even then I was maybe 20% sure it would get completed. When I reached 10 pages I wondered how I would ever get to 20. When I reached 20 I wondered if I would reach 30.

When I hit around 50 pages I decided it was no longer a short story and would have to be a novel, and that’s when the real terror strikes – because now you have another 200 pages to go so it will fit into the right publisher’s box, and you have no idea how to get there.

I pressed forward mainly because I thought the story was getting interesting. Hope turned into excitement – but then excitement turned into the usual grind. Every new character brought new challenges and headaches. Every scene required a tedious little excursion into the writer’s toolbox, trying to describe this or that, to inject this feeling or that plot point.

You spend countless hours suffering over how your plot will carry you to the next chapter. There are times when you bring yourself to exhaustion just trying to type out a few lousy GD paragraphs. There are days when it is like swimming through a big tub of chewed-up bubble gum.

(Okay, there are also days when you are on a roll, and the story pours out of you, and your imagination hits high gear. These are the best days. They are also the fewest days. Mostly, it’s swimming through bubble gum….).

Every so often you decide this is bullshit, horseshit, shitshit, and you want to just delete the file and walk in front of a speeding bus.

Then you reread parts of it and pump yourself up again, tell yourself, “Hey, it’s not so bad. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Don’t give up.”

All the while, you are doing this all on your own, in complete isolation. And it is sucking up the time – hours and hours a day, every day of the week. You don’t dare take a day off for fear that doing so will become a habit and you will abandon something you have already invested years in.

Oh, and there’s this: In the back of your mind you know the novel you are writing might never see the light of day. It might never get published, never reach a reader. And even if it does get published, you might be lucky to earn a few thousand dollars after everyone else gets their cut (this, I know). It adds up to a wage of pennies an hour.

But you have to block all that out while you are writing it.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why maybe 3% of writers ever finish a book and have it published.

Even so….

It’s a great feeling to have finished a book. A great, great feeling. Worth a pat on the back.

If you aspire to be a book author, the only worse thing than writing a book is not writing one. So hit the keyboard and get busy….


  1. Vance, I always wonder what the accepted definition is for “aspiring writers.” I think a ton of people feel like they have a book in them, but of course that’s a much higher number than those who actually set out to write one. I have always been more interested in tv and movies than books, and never aspired to write the “great American (or British!) novel.” If anything, I’d set out to write a screenplay or treatment. That itch hasn’t been scratched yet, but perhaps this post will inspire me to spend some time kicking around some creative thoughts. I will credit you accordingly if I venture forth!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Bruce, that’s probably the main point — what is an “aspiring” writer? That’s why these stats can get fuzzy, although I think in this context it probably means people who already write regularly and have completed short stories, essays, that kind of thing.

      I also think that writing a screenplay for a feature-length film is the equivalent of writing a book. The same with writing a full three-act play. Maybe writing a TV script for an hour or half-hour show is like writing a short story, so if you knock out about six or seven of them that should be the equivalent of a short story collection.

      I always thought about writing screenplays, too, and wish I had taken a course in it just to get the structure and technical details down. I have read books about it. It can be a complicated process because you are switching scenes a lot. I guess there are different theories about how much effort you should put into describing a scene (e.g., “the inside of a kitchen” vs. describing the kitchen, lighting, etc., in detail).

      If you ever do take a stab at it, I’d love to see if sometime. Good luck|!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Man… Writing fiction scares me. And you just reinforced that! It takes some serious commitment to push through to the end, and you did that with an end product which was excellent, so I commend you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Yacoob, I really appreciate it. I started writing the novel after being downsized out of a job, so for about a year I could devote a lot of time to it before my free-lance work began to pick up speed. That gave me about enough time to push forward just far enough that I couldn’t abandon it even after I had a lot of working coming in. But it was always a form of slow torture. The thought of writing the sequel I had always planned gives me nightmares. 🙂 But we’ll see. Maybe when the workload lightens up. For now, I gotta earn the money while it’s there.

      Personally, I admire you for writing a full book of poetry and essays. That sounds like the impossible from my POV.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Vance.The thing is, though, everyone talks like I sat and wrote a whole book, but for both books, it wasn’t like that at all. I’m always writing and publishing to the blog. The books are just collections from there, panel beaten into a theme or set that flows. So the perseverance is in actually pushing through to finish…not writing from scratch.

        Either way, I’m happy to be in the 3 % club 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Oh right, I forgot that it’s a collection of pieces you had worked on previously. But as you say, getting it into book form and pressing forward with all that entails is part of the battle as well and one many people fall short on.

      Liked by 1 person

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