The population keeps on growing, and it keeps getting easier to be one in a million at something. Or does it? One of the most startling things about being an author has been realizing the number of people out there who want to be authors. It’s a little mind-blowing. There are numbers on the internet that I never would have believed before, saying that somewhere between eighty and ninety percent of Americans want to write a book.
Having been published for a few years, I believe it now.
According to the numbers, wanting to write a book is not enough to make you one in a million. Viewed mathematically, it is enough to make you what could roughly be estimated as one in one.
Although most people want to write a book, the vast majority never do. I couldn’t find any numbers on how many folks that have that desire act on it, but I did find out how many people that do act on it follow through. It’s an even more shocking number, but everyone I checked with seems to agree: 97% of people who get started writing a book never get it finished. So let’s be unrealistically generous and say that everyone who wants to do it at least gets started at some point. By the end of the race, almost everyone has given up. Even just finishing makes you one of the few, so congratulate yourself if you have completed a book. You’re special…but are you one in a million?
We’re being generous to the slacker who never gets started, but we’ll do the math on the low side of the ‘folks who want to write a book’ to kind of make up for it. We’ll say that they stand at a solid 81%, and leave the other 19% to feel special for not wanting to do what everyone else seems to want to do. It’s not shaving things down until you chop out that other 97%, the folks who never finish.
Marvel at all those nines, carry the fish, and…
2.42% of people write a book start to finish.
Well, that’s nowhere close to one in a million. That’s more like one in fifty. Wait, what’s that? Only 20% of those books ever get published? Oh, well…that’s better, I guess. Lots of twos going on now…what’s our new number? Ah, yes. We made it to the other side of the decimal point. Barely.
0.48% of people publish their first book, less than one half of one percent. What’s that, slightly less than one in two thousand? Not bad, but hardly exceptional. We’re still pretty far off from one in a million.
It gets hard to find a through line at this point that inarguably makes an author a one in a million anything. Publishing a second book is way more rare than publishing a first; as is publishing a third, and so on. But it could be argued that quantity does not equal quality, and I’d be either nodding along or making the argument myself. So I don’t like that path.
Sales seems obvious enough, considering how few of the books published sell more than a hundred copies in a lifetime. Yet a hundred copies isn’t really all that many; most authors could afford to buy that many of their own books over the years, and be one in a million by the time they died. We have to step it up, and ask who is doing this professionally. When we ask how many authors are making a living on book sales, we really have to ask what they consider ‘making a living’. If we go with an arbitrary number that Google seems pretty fond of, let’s see how many authors make fifty thousand dollars or more annually.
Everyone seems to agree that at least 2500 authors make that much. Well, that’s not even one in a million Americans overall; it’s more like seven in a million. If we do a little more of that dreaded math, we remember that only 0.48% of Americans actually write and publish that book they intend to get started on or finish someday and figure out how many that percentage represents in living breathing writers.
That’s 1,680,000 authors, just in America. If even only 2500 of them (a number that is hotly disputed) are making fifty thousand dollars a year, a little more than one hundredth of one percent of authors fall in that category. It sounds so small when you put it in those terms, but you know what it is still several decimal points away from?
That’s right: an author making more than most of the country is not a one in a million author, or even a one in a million American.
Another number that’s hard to find is how many authors out there make a hundred thousand or more a year. It’s at least thirteen hundred, and speculated at more like fifteen hundred by some. That’s still not one in a million Americans; and it’s far cry from one in a million authors.
After a bunch of chasing my own mental process around in circles, I finally had to face the hard truth: a one in a million anything is pretty rare, and gets more rare with specificity. With over a million and a half authors in America, there are only one or two that get to truly claim to be one in a million. Or, more accurately, 1.68 authors in America can say they are one in a million.
Of course, the rest of us can play the same game with this figure that some of us play with those previously sacred words ‘Best Seller’. It used to be implied that ‘New York Times’ came before those words, at least when you said them in America. Now there are so many lists it’s hard to keep track, and so many authors forget to qualify those sacred words with which list they are referring to. Every author is a best seller in their house, or on their street, or in their car; and no one is stopping them from making a list.
You can relax in that regard, at least with me. I won’t start out my name with ‘Best Selling Author’ until I make that list that people generally think you’re referring to when you say that. I’ve been on some lists, but they weren’t that one. That’s what I’m shooting for, though; it would be weird to explain to folks that I didn’t really mean it all those times I said it before when I finally get there.
Call me crazy, but I want to be one in a million.
Not in the way parents or teachers or tricky math lay it out…but for real. That means a lot of hard work, one of my favorite things to do. It means luck, too; but luck is something that only happens when someone is working hard to make it happen, except in very rare instances.
The odds of anyone being ‘swooped up’ by anyone else are as slim as the odds of winning the lottery, and whoever does the swooping will likely want more than their share. Those are the kind of one in a million numbers that make both sound like an impatient and fruitless wait.
Guess I better get to work, huh?
Oh, and as a side note: I’m an author, not a mathematician. If I didn’t get any of those numbers wrong, I’d be surprised. This was about making a point, not showing off my feeble math skills.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,