A year or so ago while doing research for my new book, Harmonic Highways: Motorcycling Virginia’s Crooked Road, I spoke with a musician in Franklin County. I asked him if he played professionally. He said, “There are very few musicians throughout the region who make a living from their music. You have to be extremely talented, work very hard, and then have a lucky break. For example, Ralph Stanley over in Coeburn has been playing music for decades but he only became well known and then rich when his rendering of O Death was featured in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? Most of us play to entertain ourselves and our friends, and to keep the music and the heritage alive. We’re lucky if we make enough money to pay for strings and driving expenses.” I featured over 85 people in the book, most of them musicians. I’m guessing that I could count on the fingers of my hands those who make a living playing music.
I’ve come to realize that writing is in many ways like making music. I know many writers now, and those that make a living at it are talented, hard-working, and yes, lucky. Most of us seem to do it because we believe it is important to maintain the craft. I am motivated to help my readers understand the culture of Southwest Virginia and West Virginia because we are too often misunderstood and viewed derisively. But if I counted the hours I’ve spent during three years and three books of writing and calculated my income by the hour, I’m sure it would be less than at any time in my professional career. Luckily, I have other income, generated by my real estate investment, but this has diminshed greatly during this recession.
In each of my two non-fiction books, I feature dozens of people and help my readers to know them, what motivates and inspires them. People have been generous of their time and are typically thrilled and flattered to be included in a book. In return, the modest notoriety they receive from being included may or may not help them monetarily, but minimally will help readers understand the culture from which they originate.
As I have been promoting Harmonic Highways, I have sent reception invitations, press releases, and other notifications to the people featured in it. I struggled with the decision as to whether to give each person a book, something that would have cost me several hundred dollars out-of-pocket. I decided to offer a copy at half-price to anyone in it.
Over the weekend, I went to the workshop of someone in the book to see if he was interested in buying a copy. He was gone, so I left a copy with an assistant, leaving a message asking him to call me. He didn’t, but I called yesterday to follow up. When we spoke, he said tersely he’d gotten the book but had no intention of paying for it. Then he hung-up on me. Later, I wrote him an email explaining my position as politely as possible. He replied saying, “You probably don't know this but I have been on thousands of recordings in my life so far, I've done hundreds of articles, magazines, books, newspapers etc. Until today no one has ever asked for money except for you for anything I had ever been part of.” He went on to say that he was disappointed in how short his section was, relative to the length of the transcript.
So who’s right? His point seems to be that if he was willing to take the time to speak with me and participate, surely it was worth the cost of a book. My point is that I took most of a year of my life to research and write the book with only a glimmer of hope of one day recouping a fraction of my investment, largely to promote him and many others like him. Maybe I'm being too parsimonious, and I should spend the money to give dozens of books away. I’m still scratching my head over it.