Maureen Ogle has not allowed her Ph.D. in the history of American technology to shackle her life and her work to the academic world. Having discovered early in her career that writing scholarly works on narrow topics for a small audience of specialists was not going to make her happy, she left academia in the late 1990’s to begin writing histories for a general audience.
By writing about what truly interests her, Maureen has been able to share her enthusiasm with her readers, and her work has thrived. First with Key West: History of An Island of Dreams and then with Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer, she has found contentment, an audience and more than a few writing and speaking gigs. Her articles and op-ed pieces have appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, U.S. News & World Report and a host of other publications. She is a frequent paid speaker and a regular contributor to the Fox Business Network. Maureen has also appeared in several documentaries, most recently Beer Wars.
Of course, even with respectable advances and a variety of paid secondary services, writing is still one of the most difficult ways to earn a living. Following Tao Lin and Sarah Wendell, Maureen is the latest writer to answer some of my questions about money and writing.
Interview with Maureen Ogle
David Nygren: If you’d stayed in academia, achieved tenure and published “scholarly” books and articles, you’d probably not have made much from your writing itself but potentially could have had a reliably comfortable salary. I know your decision to leave academia was not made for financial reasons, but how would you compare your ability to earn a living as an academic vs. your ability to earn a living as a writer of histories for a general audience?
Maureen Ogle: Financially, I would be better off in academia. I’d be miserable, but, hey, I’d have money.
The reality of “writing” is that almost no one earns a living from it. Yes, some writers hit the equivalent of the writers’ lottery and make millions.
In fact, I know someone who did, and I was delighted for her. She worked hard to land where she did. (The downside was that various writer-rats crawled out of the sewer, asking her for money. Ugh!) I have other friends and acquaintances who’ve been able to generate a small but steady income from writing, thanks to print runs of 60-70,000).
I’ve not had anything like that kind of success, so I am painfully aware of how difficult it is to build a financially stable career as a writer.
It takes a long time, longer than most people can hold out without some kind of “financial aid.” (I’m lucky: my husband suggested that I leave academia to write for a general audience, and has supported the process over the past decade with his own paychecks.)
Unfortunately, many writers assume and believe they’ll be the exception; that their book will earn a huge advance and land on the bestseller list. They may be, but I doubt it. (The writer I knew who “won” the jackpot was aware of the role that luck played. Yes, she worked incredibly hard, and she’s ambitious and savvy and smart. But she knew that things could have turned out differently.)
I suspect most writers’ experiences will be more like mine:
I landed a $100,000 advance for the beer book. My agent took 15%; taxes devoured another 35-40 percent. I spent five years writing the book, which came out in the fall of 2006. I’ve not earned out the advance, and I doubt I ever will. Put another way, the advance is all I will likely earn on that book.
Yet agents and publishers alike regard me as a safe bet, safe enough to contract for another book with a slightly larger advance. (Yes, publishing is an exercise in irrationality.)
The public’s lack of awareness doesn’t help. The average reader doesn’t understand that I only earn money from a book from sales of new copies.
If I had a buck for every person who said “Oh, I found a copy for a dollar,” or “Found a used copy at Amazon” or “I borrowed a friend’s copy” — well, let’s just say I’d have a fatter bank account than I do.
DN: When choosing a topic for a book project, what do you do to help determine the topic’s commercial potential?
MO: I don’t think about commercial potential so much as I think about “readability” and “interestability.”
A project has to hold my interest for the five or so years it takes me to research and write; that’s the interestability.
But it also needs to be something I’d like to read, and, because I’m a typical reader, I believe others will also find the topic interesting.
The “commercial” aspect follows from that: If I think it’s interesting, others will, too. As far as I’m concerned, a “good” book is one that I want to read. (Just as a “good” beer is the one that I like.)
The worst thing any writer can do is try to predict or write for the market. Writers need to write what they want to read, and what interests them. (Agents and publishers, by the way, eye writers’ projects from the same perspective: they buy/acquire books that they themselves find interesting as readers.)
For some writers, that guarantees a big income: Authors of romantic thrillers, for example, know that there’s an enormous audience for their work, and I’m guessing that those authors enjoy reading romantic thrillers as much as they enjoy writing them.
That’s not a criticism of genre writers. Indeed, more power to ‘em. They know what they like; they know what their readers like.
And — isn’t it interesting that publishers cater to and accommodate that genre’s audience by publishing first in inexpensive paperbacks whose price makes them affordable? And, because more affordable, all but guarantees that those writers will make more money than other writers? If only publishers were that savvy about other genres!
DN: The topics of your books for a general audience have been Key West, beer and now meat with your current project Carnivore Nation: Meat and the Making of Modern America. Since these subjects are all so different, do you have to build an audience from scratch for each new book? Or do you think you’re at least partly retaining an audience that appreciates your voice?
MO: Heh heh. I love that you assume I have an audience. I’m not sure if I do. Michael Pollan, I’m not.
Smart-ass answer aside, I don’t worry about building a new audience from scratch, because in my mind, my books are all about the same subject: The American experience. With each book, I’m exploring the same questions: What does it mean to be an American? How does the fact that I’m an American shape the way I respond to and act in and upon the world around me?
DN: Do you feel that your very prolific blogging ultimately helps sell your books and your self?
MO: Good question, and if publishing weren’t such a total exercise in irrationality, murkiness, and swamptitude, I might have an answer. The truth is, I have zero idea if blogging generates sales, although my gut instinct tells me that it’s good for business.
I initially resisted blogging, which I regarded as a waste of time. And because I couldn’t see the point, I couldn’t figure out what to do with a blog.
But early 2008 marked the 75th anniversary of the return of legal beer. I realized I’d be a fool to waste the opportunity to promote my book, so I wrote a series of blog entries that served as a historical countdown to the big day (April 7).
To my surprise, people read them. (I knew that because I got occasional comments, and other bloggers linked to my entries.)
And the halogen bulb finally switched on in my dimly lit brain: blogging is an incredible tool for “marketing” and “promotion.”
It took me another six months or so to figure out what my blog was “about.” The standard wisdom is that blogs should be focused and targeted.
I decided the standard wisdom was wrong. I should blog about whatever interested me; if people wanted to read, great. If not, okay.
I quickly discovered that people will read blogs for the blogger’s “voice,” regardless of content. What’s “focused” and “consistent” about my blog is — me.
Then some of my readers, including you, urged me to try Twitter.
Twitter, dear readers, is THE greatest marketing/promotional tool ever. I use it to comment on whatever, but also to post links to new blog entries. My blog traffic has soared (plus, I’ve “met” a whole bunch of interesting creative people that I otherwise would not have known about).
So I’ve traveled a long road from my “blogging is pointless” stance. It’s time-consuming and requires good time management. But I believe it pays off.
And, of course, ours is a media-saturated world, and it’s difficult to gain anyone’s attention. But blogging/ tweeting/ facebooking (is that a word?) can create an audience. (And, as you’ll read in answer to another question below, it can also pay off.)
DN: In April of 2007, Hustler magazine selected your book Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer as its book-of-the-month. Were you able to determine whether or not this increased sales? That is, did an endorsement from a popular yet non-book-focused entity help?
MO: I used the “honor” as a jumping off point for an essay I wrote about historians’ work, but other than that, I don’t know if it had any impact or not. (Do Hustler readers read the magazine? Or do they just look at the pictures?)
I think too many writers take too limited a view of their own knowledge.
If you’ve written a novel about, say, schizophrenic war veterans, use the knowledge gained from your research and writing to pen op-ed pieces or to blog about the subject. Someone out there will be interested in your perspective.
I know that my skills as a writer and a historian have been honed, exercised, and stretched because of my “outreach” work. I use what I know to inform and communicate with other people who, I remind myself, don’t have that same knowledge.
I also blog about the process of research and writing. Remember, we writers know about that, but the average person does not. (Just as I have no idea what computer programmers and bridge engineers do.)
I also think many writers take a too-limited view of their potential audience. If someone is literate, that someone is a potential reader. The worst thing writers can do, in my opinion, is hang out with other writers.
Ditto for hanging out at sites for “readers.” I’m a devoted reader, and I never spend time at readers’ forums. I hang out with people; they’re where the action is. And with luck, I’ll persuade them to become readers, too. (In some sense, of course, if they’re reading my blog or my tweets, they’re reading.)
DN: You’ve written on several occasions that you’re not even sure what a book will look like once you’ve finished Carnivore Nation (scheduled to be published in 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Are the uncertainty in the publishing industry and the growing popularity of ebooks affecting the way you’re writing in any way?
MO: I’m a disturbingly optimistic person, so my attitude is: Onward, onward, onward. I suspect that by 2011, my publisher will have been acquired by another house or simply won’t exist (its financial woes mount by the day). But I figure some entity or other will publish the book, in some format or other.
But I regularly ponder (and blog about!) the possibilities for and the future of “the book.”
By the time my next book comes out, it may, for example, contain embedded hyperlinks that can take a reader to more information about one of the topics discussed in the text. So I’ve debated whether I should include urls in the manuscript now so I won’t need to look them up later.
I’ve also thought about ways to weave my research and writing into my blog.
For example, I run an ongoing series call “First Draft Follies,” in which I post material that I edited out of the final manuscript of the beer book, and which would otherwise never see the light. I’ve already acquired material and text that I doubt will end up in the final manuscript of the meat book, so at some point I’ll do the same thing with it.
So I’m constantly thinking about the ways in which I can and should adjust to a digital world, and to make the interface between my three-dimensional desk and my online life as seamless as possible.
Let me add that I arrived at this place only after a struggle. For a long time, I resisted the internet (I’m 55, and I’ve used a PC since the mid-1980s, but I didn’t grow up with a computer or the internet).
Only in the past two years or so have I accepted that life as I knew it in the pre-digital era is over, and I need to adjust accordingly. So the project of meshing my writing life and my digital life is ongoing (which, of course, provides fodder for the blog.)
DN: Let’s pretend it’s 2011, DRM-free ebooks are equally as popular as print books and Carnivore Nation is about to be released. Market pressure for a low ebook price point and some moderate piracy have the effect of generating less revenue for ebooks compared to print. But the availability of the ebook increases the book’s readership and impact. Is this scenario displeasing to you? Do you feel that income from other sources (articles, speaking engagements, etc.) could make up for the lost income from book sales?
MO: I think writers will earn as much, and probably more, once ebooks become “normal.” I’d buy more books if a good e-reader was available (I’m still waiting for a version that worth’s spending $300 on) and the price was, say, $10 a book.
As for the piracy issue, I don’t know how that will be resolved, but as I noted before, used books are already affecting writers’ incomes.
The world’s “content providers” need to educate the public about where the money goes when someone buy a cd, dvd, or book. Most people simply don’t realize that a book or cd is more than just a physical object. Someone creates the content.
I know that sounds obvious, but it’s amazing to me how many people simply don’t get it. As long as the average person doesn’t understand the connection between the writer, the words, and the physical book, frankly, it’s not going to matter whether books are digital or e-version. Writers will still not make much money.
It’s worth noting that the only writers most people know about are ones like J. K. Rowling or Dan Brown, who are obviously the exception to the rule. And so the public makes a leap from Rowling to the rest of us, and assumes that we’re all as successfuland therefore as wealthy. We’re not. But we need to let them know that.
DN: The number one item in your web site’s FAQ reads “Yes, I love speaking to audiences. (For money, of course.) (I wish I could do it for free, and if I win a lottery, I will).” Do people frequently expect that you will speak for free? How common are your paid speaking engagements?
MO: I’m sorry to say that yes, some people think I should show up for free. I had a guy ask me to speak at his beer club. He wanted me to drive 700 miles round trip, stay overnight, etc. — for free.
But again, I think that goes back to the disconnect between what writers do and what the public knows. He clearly thought I had deep pockets and/or that I ought to be thrilled at the idea of speaking to his club, so thrilled that I’d spend tons of money to do so.
The reason I listed that first at my FAQ (none of which, I might add, are frequently asked…) is because I need to advertise my services as a speaker.
For the past two years, speaking provided good money. And then, alas, the stock market collapsed, and bye-bye to paid speaking. I am hoping that will change as/if the economy recovers, but for 2009, for example, I have no paid gigs lined up.
I should add that I’ve spoken at several events this year, but they’ve been local and hosted by groups with little or no money, and I’ve either refused or not asked for a speaking fee. (Had I been asked to speak by some deep-pocketed corporation, of which there are many nearby, yes, I would have wanted money and lots of it.)
My view is that goodwill matters as much as money (well, okay, almost as much), and it’s not going to break my bank to drive 20 miles to speak to a group. (My husband, I should add, thinks I’m a damn fool.)
Another example: a bar owner in Brooklyn asked me if I’d be interested in speaking there sometime and he asked about a fee.
I told him if he wanted to pay my expenses for a trip specifically so I could speak there, great. But I’d be glad to do it for free next time I’m in New York. He can buy me dinner and a beer, and we’ll all have a good time. Again, if I’m already in the city, why not do it? (I have family there, so I visit regularly.)
DN: Were you paid to appear in the documentary “Beer Wars” and the other documentaries you’ve been in?
MO: No. Documentary filmmakers don’t pay their “subjects.” If they did, it would like paying for a specific opinion or viewpoint and taint the project. Some filmmakers will pay travel expenses if they want you on a specific location, but otherwise, no, it’s not a source of income. The hope at my end, of course, is that someone who sees the project on television, dvd, or in a theater, will read my books.
DN: Do you actively pursue assignments writing op-ed pieces and articles? Has such work become more difficult to obtain recently? How did you get your gig as a contributor to the Fox Business Network? Have you met/seen/smelled Rupert Murdoch?
MO: I pursue those projects, but about half the pieces I wrote last year were commissioned; that is, the editor approached me. And Fox Business Network approached me for my contributing gig.
The more important question is: How did they find me? Answer: through my blog.
The op-ed editor at the Washington Post, for example, had read my blog, liked my sardonic humor (or so she said; I hadn’t realized I was being sardonic or funny!), and asked me for a humorous piece about beer for their Fourth of July issue.
So those are cases where blogging created opportunities, many of them paying.
The Fox Business Network gig is great fun; well, okay, anything that gets me in front of an audience is fun. It’s non-paying (as are most television contributing gigs), but my appearances apparently generate buckets of emails, so that’s good for me and them.
And no, I’ve never been anywhere near Murdoch. I’m not sure I’d recognize him if I saw him! [Ed. Note: He's the one who smells like sulfur.]
DN: A final non-money-related question: what is your favorite American beer?
MO: My favorite beer is whatever I think will taste best with whatever I’m about to eat (because beer tastes better with food). I’m a malty person, as opposed to a hoppy person, so the stuff in my fridge tends to be the “dark” beers. I will gladly bequeath my share of the world’s Pale Ales to anyone who wants them.
Update: Be sure to read Maureen’s thoughts on this interview here.