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June 12, 2003

Guest Posting --Stephen Bodio on Writing

Friedrich --

Tons of good thinking, reacting and writing in the comments to the posting below about writing a book (here). I hope visitors will treat themselves to a very lively and classy conversation.

I want to be sure that one of the comments especially doesn't get overlooked. Stephen Bodio, a professional freelance writer who lives in New Mexico, wrote in with a lot of interesting thoughts and observations. I'm lifting what follows from the comments as well as from a few emails he and I exchanged. He's given us permission to use what he wrote on the blog:

Great discussion -- I read it through going yes, yes, yes, all the way. You have summed up the current dismal state of publishing perfectly.

Despite which: I am a well-reviewed and utterly ill- paid writer (mostly "creative non-fiction" -- nature/travel/bio for lack of a better definition) with 4 or 5 books in print, and I can't think of anything else I'd rather be. I should add I haven't had a "real" job in close to 30 years, and have no independent income. I do write an awful lot of magazine work, from well-paying (Atlantic) to stuff that pays $125 a pop (newspaper book reviews).

You have to do it because you love it; you must -- otherwise it's really pointless. If you do, you do it because you must, and do on some level enjoy it.

One alternative to job versus starvation may be to live somewhere off the beaten track that is very cheap. I have lived for 22 years in a small New Mexico village 75 miles by air from the nearest city, and in a determinedly un-chic part of the state.

I live in a 100 year old stone house with 4 main rooms (a nice piece of "Alexandrian" vernacular architecture) that cost me less than a cheap new car does today. My newest car is 13. My wife currently works part-time in the local post office. At times she has worked full-time, and often had no job at all. Our main expenses are books and travel.

And travel itself can help pay the bills. We have in the last decade spent time in London, France, Zimbabwe, traveled twice to Mongolia, and are heading for Kazakhstan in the fall. All trips were at least work-related, and the last 3 paid for up front. What other life would give me freedom to do what I like and write about it? A job that paid for a month here and there would take all my time ... expensive!

Isolation was more of a problem 20 years ago. Now, with blogs, e-mail, and internet it's not even a factor. I "talk" every week with people in England, New York, Latvia, Finland, Russian, Kazakhstan and more. There is more info a click away than you could have had in, say, Victorian London.

Blogs (and websites, etc.) ARE dessert -- "Mmmm--bllooggs!" -- but also the best news and culture source there is. I can't imagine a week or even a day without Glenn, you, Roger Simon, Chris Muir, Fred Turner, and many more. Maybe I should start one -- though I fear total addiction ...

I have written one novel --- enjoyed writing it immensely, and couldn't get it published. But almost a half has gradually appeared in everything from glossy mags to an anthology to lit quarterlies.

Still, you are right -- it's no way to make money. But if you love it, and are any good, you will write and even be published, even in today's godawful publishing climate. I expect doing such things as "putting it on the web" will make a difference, and new and interesting alternatives will emerge. (Look at Andrew Sullivan's current pledge drive).

I think it was a lot easier to start out in the 70's, and I wonder if it would even be possible today. I (once in a great while ) could crack, without an agent, such markets as (once) Sports Illustrated, when I had mostly been published in sporting mags, on nature, and in underground newspapers on books & such. In '84, my first book -- a literary book on falcons, no less! -- got reviewed on the book pages of People, with a photo of me! I can't imagine my next (travel) book being reviewed there, never mind some kid's first nature book.

Things have changed. Pitching projects to editors is sheer hell. Editors tend to want either bestsellers or the kind of prestige haut-lit fiction that has been criticized here. They make encouraging noises and don't answer, or only do so to ask if you can have something for them in two days (after waiting two months). I actually make less than I did in the 80's, though I get better known, and publish in better places. Luckily my "infrastructure " is in place -- I can live incredibly cheaply -- so it doesn't matter as much as if I lived with an urban level of expense or a suburban mortgage.

I'm hoping Stephen starts his own blog, and pronto. I'd certainly be a regular reader.

Many thanks to Stephen Bodio for letting us run this. Visitors who'd like to get in touch with Stephen can email him at



posted by Michael at June 12, 2003


I had my first novel published last year and I've almost finished my second one. For what they're worth, here are a few thoughts on writing and publishing.

Clearly, only a fool would become a writer to make money. Writing, for me in any case, fulfilled some kind of psychological need to create, coupled with a desire to explore the perplexity I feel about the world. That said, I think Michael was a little too downbeat about the financials of authorship. I'm sure there are way more than 200 people making a living from writing in the U.S. From my own humble perspective, my 2-book deal enabled me to give up other work for 18 months, which is pretty good going - and my novel was far from bestselling material. Advances remain pretty healthy, even in the present economic climate. Add a few foreign rights deals or a film option to the mix and your average, non-bestselling author can certainly scrape by. The publishers don't imagine they'll recoup all the advances they pay out. They're banking that one in 10 or 20 of the books they buy will hit the big time and pay for the rest.

I think both Michael and Stephen were a little too downbeat on one's chances of getting published as well. Getting anyone interested in the material of a total unknown is hard work but I remain convinced that if you really have something worthwhile to sell, and you're ready to do anything within your power to sell it, then you'll find a publisher. Hell, my brother just sold a non-fiction book on Brazilian history to Bloomsbury - how obscure can you get? Sure, if you're young, good-looking with an exotic background, it might all be slightly easier - but isn't everything slightly easier with that profile?

However, it's almost pointless to approach publishers directly. Most publishers only read agented submissions. My publisher told me that although he does look at his slushpile, he has never published anything from it. The publishers are bombarded with MSS and regard agents as a necessary filter. My publisher already gets around 20 agented submissions a week, more than enough to get through, considering that he'll only publish 10 - 15 new authors per year. So you need an agent and if you can't get one, you must seriously question your material. Agents aren't stupid, and if they can't see the quality and commercial possibility of the material, you've got to take a deep breath and wonder whether they're right. Personally, the first novel I ever wrote was rejected by everyone I sent it to - it was painful to accept that it wasn't good, that it was an apprentice work, but in the long term it did help me work out what constitutes a good, sellable novel. I got lucky with the next one I wrote.

Posted by: Hugo on June 13, 2003 06:39 AM

Great post! Stephen's life is very like the sort I'd imagined for myself years ago...maybe it's not too late. I'm curious if he always lived in the boondocks or if he settled there after doing his very sensible cost/benefit analysis.

Posted by: Nate on June 13, 2003 11:04 AM

Nate: I was born and raised in Boston and Cambridge and know New York well (and still love it). My wife, who has lived in the Rockies ten years longer than I have, was raised and got her degree in (pre- PC) Berkeley! But we both decided long ago that it was easier to import the city to the country (truer today than ever, as I mentioned in my post) than vice versa. We still enjoy cities immensely, but can afford to visit them often, whereas the converse would not be true.

Posted by: Stephen Bodio on June 13, 2003 01:00 PM

Hey Hugo -- Thanks for your tales and insights. As for the "couple of hundred" figure, I got it from the head of an authors' organization, so I figure it's probably accurate, or accurate-ish, in any case. But my definition of making a living writing books may be narrow by your standards -- I specified to him "people who write the kinds of books you'd buy in a bookstore," though we decided to exclude people who write computer-instruction books. Lots of people make a living from writing -- writing for TV, or on staff at magazines and newspapers, or copywriting for ad firms, or writing company brochures and newsletters. But making-a-living-from-writing-books? Rather few, at least over here. Most people whose primary activity is writing books have to support the habit with day jobs, teaching, grants, fellowships, etc.

I realize that I can sound dismal sometimes, and not that it matters, but in fact I'm not at all down on people's chances of getting published -- with 50-60,000 new books being published each year in this country, that's a lot of authors getting into print.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 13, 2003 08:23 PM

I just discovered this site, and of all the comments posted, Stephen Bodio's resonated with me most.

I too am a professional freelancer. Have been, for about 20 years. I have written a couple of nonfiction books, several monographs, and countless articles: book and film reviews, audio scripts, investigative journalism, interviews, philosophic essays, political op-eds, self-help -- you name it.

I've written for newspapers and magazines and think tanks and Web sites. My pieces have appeared in Reader's Digest and Writer's Digest, and in journals you've never heard of or that have folded. Yes, you can find much of it with a Google or Yahoo search. You can search on my name at Amazon and buy my books.

Much of my stuff has been for small, niche audiences. But because almost all of my work has been controversial, it has generated a lot of attention. Some of my essays and speeches have profoundly affected the lives of individuals, or so they tell me; some have resulted in changes in state and federal laws; some have won national awards; one article even impacted the outcome of a U. S. Presidential election (no joke).

That has given me some great experiences and opportunities. Like Stephen, I've been able to travel a lot in conjunction with my work. I've addressed innumerable audiences on public platforms, on radio and TV, at press conferences hosted by congressmen. I've met, interviewed -- and been interviewed by -- some very famous people. And when my book, _Criminal Justice?_, appeared in 1995, I did a 30-city book tour, with dozens of bookstore signings and talk shows.

This is probably the kind of fantasy "lifestyle" most would-be writers imagine, right?

But there's a trade-off, my friends. It hasn't been lucrative. At all.

In fact, during the same election year that my most famous article was causing a national uproar, I was so preoccupied doing interviews and talk shows that I had little time to do other work. Bills piled up, unpaid. When the phone rang, I never knew if it would be an editor, reporter, radio producer...or another dreaded bill collector.

Without a regular contractual affiliation with some magazine or institution, I found I could barely support myself...let alone my (ex-)wife and young daughter. Over the years, my work has caused untold gallons of ink to flow...but a lot of that ink was, and is, colored red.

So why do I do it?

Maybe it's because I can't fit my motives and interests and LIFE into a standard box that's sized nine-to-five, and forty years long. Maybe it's because I hate being an employee, with someone else telling me what to do, when, where, why, and how. (Tried that again in recent years, and it didn't work this time, either.) Maybe it's because I like the freedom to set my own schedule and priorities, and say what I want, my own way.

All those motives might sound immature and adolescent. Perhaps they are.

Or maybe it's something else. Maybe I do it because there's something inside me bursting to get out. Ideas and perspectives and visions that I need to drag from the inchoate mists of inner fantasy, and give life and form and reality out in the if they were one's children.

All given urgency by the thought that I have but one life, that its clock is ticking, and that whatever I need to say, I must say NOW.

Folks, you won't last in this kind of work if you are looking for big paybacks and paychecks that come from other people: boundless wealth, public attention, adulation, love, glamor. No, and you don't write because it's just something to do.

You write because it's something you ARE.

Robert Bidinotto

Posted by: Robert Bidinotto on June 17, 2003 02:55 PM

In searching for 'what's up' with Stephen Bodio, I came across this site. For those who may not know, Stephen wrote what is probably the most literate ode to firearms (Good Guns, and the revised Good Guns Again) ever penned. His novel Querencia was enjoyable. From what I can tell, he is publishing mostly about raptors these days. Interesting topic, but limited audience. I'd like to see him tackle a book that focused only on the 'classic' calibre rifles, with a full chapter on his 7X57 custom rifle experience. In these bi-polar times, it is good to keep in mind that one can enjoy fine (rifles/shotguns, wine, music,etc.) without being a 'nut'.

Posted by: Greg Filzen on September 3, 2003 05:22 PM

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