L. Ron Hubbard – Writer


L. Ron Hubbard is the founder of Scientology. He has described his philosophy in more than 5,000 writings, including dozens of books, and in 3,000 tape-recorded lectures

Yet, one of L. Ron Hubbard’s greatest impacts was to help reshape whole genres of writing through the 1930s and 1940s. And in the 1980s his eleven consecutive New York Times fiction bestsellers marked an unequaled event in publishing history. So never lose sight of all he represented in the name of authorship as a profession.

L. Ron Hubbard was a prolific writer. He has millions of words in print.

If you have an ambition to be a writer, read the essay below, The Manuscript Factory. Enjoy it.

The Manuscript Factory 

by L. Ron Hubbard

So you want to be a professional.

Or, if you are a professional, you want to make more money. Whichever it is, it’s certain that you want to advance your present state to something better and easier and more certain.

Very often I hear gentlemen of the craft referring to writing as the major “insecure” profession. These gentlemen go upon the assumption that the gods of chance are responsible and are wholly accountable for anything which might happen to income, hours, or pleasure. In this way they seek to excuse a laxity in thought and a feeling of unhappy helplessness which many writers carry forever with them.

But when a man says that, then it is certain that he rarely, if ever, takes an accounting of himself and his work, that he has but one yardstick. You are either a writer or you aren’t. You either make money or you don’t. And all beyond that rests strictly with the gods.

I assure you that a system built up through centuries of commerce is not likely to cease its function just because your income seems to depend upon your imagination. And I assure you that the overworked potence of economics is just as applicable to this business of writing as it is to shipping hogs.

You are a factory. And if you object to the word, then allow me to assure you that it is not a brand, but merely a handy designation which implies nothing of the hack, but which could be given to any classic writer.

Yes, you and I are both factories with the steam hissing and the chimneys belching and the machinery clanging. We manufacture manuscripts, we sell a stable product, we are quite respectable in our business. The big names of the field are nothing more than the name of Standard Oil on gasoline, Ford on a car, or Browning on a machine gun.

And as factories, we can be shut down, opened, have our production decreased, change our product, have production increased. We can work full blast and go broke. We can loaf and make money. Our machinery is the brain and the fingers.

And it is fully as vital that we know ourselves and our products as it is for a manufacturer to know his workmen and his plant.Few of us do. Most of us sail blithely along and blame everything on chance.

Economics, taken in a small dose, are simple. They have to do with price, cost, supply, demand, and labor.

If you were to open up a soap plant, you would be extremely careful about it. That soap plant means your income. And you would hire economists to go over everything with you. If you start writing, ten to one, you merely write and let everything else slide by the boards. But your writing factory, if anything, is more vital than your soap factory. Because if you lose your own machinery, you can never replace it – and you can always buy new rolls, vats, and boilers.

The first thing you would do would be to learn the art of making soap. And so, in writing, you must first learn to write. But we will assume that you already know how to write. You are more interested in making money from writing.

It does no good to protest that you write for the art of it. Even the laborer who finds his chief pleasure in his work tries to sell services or products for the best price he can get. Any economist will tell you that.

You are interested in income. In net income. And “net income” is the inflow of satisfaction from economic goods, estimated in money, according to Seligman.

I do not care if you write articles on knitting, children’s stories, snappy stories, or gag paragraphs, you can still apply this condensed system and make money.

When you first started to write, if you were wise, you wrote anything and everything for everybody and sent it all out. If your quantity was large and your variety wide, then you probably made three or four sales.

With the field thus narrowed, and you had say two types of markets to hammer at, you went ahead and wrote for the two. But you did not forget all the other branches you had first aspired to, and now and then you ripped off something out of line and sent it away and perhaps sold it and went on with the first two types regardless.

Take my own situation as an example – because I know it better than yours. I started out writing for the pulps, writing the best I knew, writing for every mag on the stands, slanting as well as I could.

I turned out about a half a million words, making sales from the start because of heavy quantity. After a dozen stories were sold, I saw that things weren’t quite right. I was working hard and the money was slow.

Now it so happened that my training had been an engineer’s. I leaned toward solid, clean equations rather than guesses, and so I took the list which you must have. Stories written, type, wordage, where sent, sold or not.

My list was varied. It included air-war, commercial air, western, western love, detective, and adventure.

On the surface, that list said that adventure was my best bet, but when you’ve dealt with equations long, you never trust them until you have the final result assured.

I reduced everything to a common ground. I took stories written of one type, added up all the wordage, and set down the wordage sold. For instance:

DETECTIVE

120,000 words written

30,000 words sold

= 25%

ADVENTURE

200,000 words written

36,000 words sold

= 18%

According to the sale book, adventure was my standby, but one look at 18 percent versus 25 percent showed me that I had been doing a great deal of work for nothing. At a cent a word, I was getting $0.0018 for adventure, and $0.0025 for detective.

A considerable difference. And so I decided to write detectives more than adventures.

I discovered from this same list that, whereby I came from the West and therefore should know my subject, I had still to sell even one western story. I have written none since.

I also found that air-war and commercial air stories were so low that I could no longer afford to write them. And that was strange as I held a pilot’s license.

Thus I was fooled into working my head off for little returns. But things started to pick up after that and I worked less. Mostly I wrote detective stories, with an occasional adventure yarn to keep up the interest.

But the raw materials of my plant were beginning to be exhausted. I had once been a police reporter and I had unconsciously used up all the shelved material I had.

And things started to go bad again, without my knowing why. Thereupon I took out my books, which I had kept accurately and up to date – as you should do.

Astonishing figures. While detective seemed to be my mainstay, here was the result.

DETECTIVE

95,000 words sold

= 29.65%

320,000 words written

ADVENTURE

21,500 words sold

= 71.7%

30,000 words written

Thus, for every word of detective I wrote I received $0.002965 and for every adventure word, $0.00717. A considerable difference. I scratched my head in perplexity until I realized about raw materials.

I had walked some geography, had been at it for years, and thus, my adventure stories were beginning to shine through. Needless to say, I’ve written few detective stories since then.

About this time, another factor bobbed up. I seemed to be working very, very hard and making very, very little money.

But, according to economics, no one has ever found a direct relation between the value of a product and the quantity of labor it embodies.

A publishing house had just started to pay me a cent a word and I had been writing for their books a long time. I considered them a mainstay among mainstays.

Another house had been taking a novelette a month from me. Twenty thousand words at a time. But most of my work was for the former firm.

Dragging out the accounts, I started to figure up on words written for this and that, getting percentages.

I discovered that the house which bought my novelettes had an average of 88 percent. Very, very high.

And the house for which I wrote the most was buying 37.6 percent of all I wrote for them.

Because the novelette market paid a cent and a quarter and the other a cent, the average pay was: House A, $0.011 for novelettes on every word I wrote for them. House B, $0.00376 for every word I wrote for them.

I no longer worried my head about House B. I worked less and made more. I worked hard on those novelettes after that and the satisfaction increased.

That was a turning point. Released from drudgery and terrific quantity and low quality, I began to make money and to climb out of a word grave.

That, you say, is all terribly dull, disgustingly sordid. Writing, you say, is an art. What are you, you want to know, one of these damned hacks?

No, I’m afraid not. No one gets a keener delight out of running off a good piece of work. No one takes any more pride in craftsmanship than I do. No one is trying harder to make every word live and breathe.

But, as I said before, even the laborer who finds his chief pleasure in his work tries to sell services or products for the best price he can get.

And that price is not word rate. That price is satisfaction received, measured in money.

You can’t go stumbling through darkness and live at this game. Roughly, here is what you face. There are less than two thousand professional writers in the United States. Hundreds of thousands are trying to write — some say millions.

The competition is keener in the writing business than in any other. Therefore, when you try to skid by with the gods of chance, you simply fail to make the grade. It’s a brutal selective device. You can beat it if you know your product and how to handle it. You can beat it on only two counts. One had to do with genius, and the other with economics. There are very few men who sell and live by their genius only. Therefore, the rest of us have to fall back on a fairly exact science.

If there were two thousand soap plants in the country, and a million soap plants trying to make money, and you were one of the million, what would you do? Cutting prices, in our analogy, is not possible, nor fruitful in any commerce. Therefore you would tighten up your plant to make every bar count. You wouldn’t produce a bar if you knew it would be bad. You’d think about such things as reputation, supply, demand, organization, the plant, type of soap, advertising, sales department, accounting, profit and loss, quality versus quantity, machinery, improvements in product, raw materials, and labor employed.

And so it is in writing. We’re factories working under terrific competition. We have to produce and sell at low cost and small price.

Labor, according to economics in general, cannot be measured in simple, homogenous units of time such as labor hours. And laborers differ, tasks differ, in respect to amount and character of training, degree of skill, intelligence, and capacity to direct one’s work.

That for soap making. That also for writing. And you’re a factory whether your stories go to Satevepost, Harper’s, or an upstart pulp that pays a quarter of a cent on publication. We’re all on that common level. We must produce to eat, and we must know our production and product down to the ground.

Let us take some of the above mentioned topics, one by one, and examine them.

SUPPLY AND DEMAND

You must know that the supply of stories is far greater than the demand. Actual figures tell nothing. You have only to stand by the editor and watch him open the morning mail. Stories by the truckload.

One market I know well, publishing five stories a month. Five long novelettes. Dozens come in every week from names which would make you sit up very straight and be very quiet. And only five are published. And if there’s a reject from there, you’ll work a long time before you’ll sell it elsewhere. That editor buys what the magazine needs, buys the best obtainable stories, from the sources she knows to be reliable. She buys impersonally as though she bought soap. The best bar, the sweetest smell, the maker’s name. She pays as though she paid for soap, just as impersonally, but many times more dollars.

That situation is repeated through all the magazine ranks. Terrific supply, microscopic demand.

Realize now that every word must be made to count?

ORGANIZATION AND THE PLANT

Do you have a factory in which to work? Silly question, perhaps, but I know of one writer who wastes his energy like a canary wastes grain just because he has never looked at a house with an eye to an office. He writes in all manner of odd places. Never considers the time he squanders by placing himself where he is accessible. His studio is on top of the garage, he has no light except a feeble electric bulb, and yet he has to turn out seventy thousand a month. His nerves are shattered. He is continually going elsewhere to work, wasting time and more time.

Whether the wife or the family likes it or not, when the food comes out of the roller, a writer should have the pick and choice, say what you may. Me? I often take the living room and let the guests sit in the kitchen.

A writer needs good equipment. Quality of work is surprisingly dependent upon the typewriter. One lady I know uses a battered, rented machine which went through the world war judging by its looks. The ribbon will not reverse. And yet, when spare money comes in, it goes on anything but a typewriter.

Good paper is more essential than writers will admit. Cheap, unmarked paper yellows, brands a manuscript as a reject after a few months, tears easily, and creases.

Good typing makes a good impression. I have often wished to God that I had taken a typing course instead of a story writing course far back in the dim past.

Recently, a lady who once wrote pulp detective stories told me that, since she knew nothing of detective work, she went down to Center Street and sought information. The detective sergeant there gave her about eight hours of his time. She went through the gallery, the museum, looked at all their equipment, and took copious notes.

And the sergeant was much surprised at her coming there at all. He said that in fifteen years, she was the third to come there. And she was the only one who really wanted information. He said that detective stories always made him squirm. He wished the writers would find out what they wrote.

And so it is with almost every line. It is so easy to get good raw materials that most writers consider it quite unnecessary.

Hence the errors which make your yarn unsalable. You wouldn’t try to write an article on steel without at least opening an encyclopedia, and yet I’ll wager that a fiction story which had steel in it would never occasion the writer a bit of worry or thought.

You must have raw material. It gives you the edge on the field. And no one tries to get it by honest research. For a few stories, you may have looked far, but for most of your yarns, you took your imagination for the textbook.

After all, you wouldn’t try to make soap when you had no oil.The fact that you write is a passport everywhere. You’ll find very few gentlemen refusing to accommodate your curiosity.

Men in every and any line are anxious to give a writer all the data he can use because, they reason, their line will therefore be truly represented. You’re apt to find more enmity in not examining the facts.

Raw materials are more essential than fancy writing. Know your subject.

TYPE OF WORK

It is easy for you to determine the type of story you write best. Nothing is more simple. You merely consult your likes and dislikes.

But that is not the whole question. What do you write and sell best?

A writer tells me that she can write excellent marriage stories, likes to write them, and is eternally plagued to do them. But there are few markets for marriage stories. To eat, she takes the next best thing – light love.

My agent makes it a principle never to handle a type of story which does not possess at least five markets. That way he saves himself endless reading, and he saves his writers endless wordage. A story should have at least five good markets because what one editor likes, another dislikes, and what fits here will not fit there. All due respect to editors, their minds change and their slant is never too ironbound. They are primarily interested in good stories. Sometimes they are overbought. Sometimes they have need of a certain type which you do not fill. That leaves four editors who may find the desired spot.

While no writer should do work he does not like, he must eat.

SALES DEPARTMENT

If you had a warehouse filled with sweet smelling soap, and you were unable to sell it, what would you do? You would hire a man who could. And if your business was manufacturing soap, your selling could not wholly be done by yourself. It’s too much to ask. This selling is highly complex, very expensive.

Therefore, instead of wasting your valuable manufacturing time peddling your own manuscripts, why not let another handle the selling for you?

There’s more than knowing markets to selling. The salesman should be in constant contact with the buyer. A writer cannot be in constant contact with his editors. It would cost money. Luncheons, cigars, all the rest. An agent takes care of all that and the cost is split up among his writers so that no one of them feels the burden too heavily.

An agent, if he is good, sells more than his 10 percent extra. And he acts as a buffer between you and the postman. Nothing is more terrible than the brown envelope in the box. It’s likely to kill the day. You’re likely to file the story and forget it. But the agent merely sends the yarn out again, and when it comes home, out again it goes. He worries and doesn’t tell you until you hold the check in your hand.

The collaborating agent and the critic have no place here. They are advisors and doctors. Your sales department should really have no function except selling – and perhaps when a market is going sour, forward a few editorial comments without any added by your agent. This tends for high morale, and a writer’s morale must always be high. When we started, we assumed that you already could write.

By all means, get an agent, and if you get one and he is no good to you, ditch him and try another. There are plenty of good agents. And they are worth far more than 10 percent.

ADVERTISING

Your agent is your advertising department. He can tell the editor things which you, out of modesty, cannot. He can keep you in the minds of the men who count.

But a writer is his own walking advertisement. His reputation is his own making. His actions count for more than his stories. His reliability is hard won and when won is often the deciding factor in a sale. Editors must know you can produce, that you are earnest in your attempt to work with them.

To show what actions can do, one writer recently made it a habit to bait an editor as he went out to lunch. This writer met this editor every day, forced his company on the editor and then, when they were eating, the writer would haul out synopsis after synopsis. The answer is, the writer doesn’t work there anymore.

If a check is due, several writers I know haunt the office. It fails to hurry the check and it often puts an end to the contact when overdone. Many harry their editors for early decisions, make themselves nuisances in the office. Soon they stop selling there. Others always have a sob story handy.

Sob stories are pretty well taboo. It’s hitting below the belt. And sob stories from writer to writer are awful. One man I know has wrecked his friendship with his formerly closest companions simply because he couldn’t keep his troubles to himself. It’s actually hurt his sales. You see, he makes more money than anyone I know, and he can’t live on it. Ye gods, ALL of us have troubles, but few professionals use them to get checks or sympathy.

Reputation is everything.

It does not hurt to do extra work for an editor. Such as department letters. Check it off to advertising. Answer all mail. Do a book for advertising. Write articles. Your name is your trademark. The better known the better sales.

QUALITY VERSUS QUANTITY

I maintain that there is a medium ground for quantity and quality. One goes up, the other comes down.

The ground is your own finding. You know your best wordage and your best work. If you don’t keep track of both, you should.

Write too little and your facility departs. Write too much and your quality drops. My own best wordage is seventy thousand a month. I make money at that, sell in the upper percentage brackets. But let me do twenty thousand in a month and I feel like an old machine, trying to turn over just once more before it expires. Let me do a hundred thousand in a month and I’m in possession of several piles of trips.

The economic balance is something of your own finding. But it takes figures to find it. One month, when I was used to doing a hundred thousand per, I was stricken with some vague illness which caused great pain and sent me to bed.

For a week I did nothing. Then, in the next, I laid there and thought about stories. My average, so I thought, was shot to the devil. Toward the last of the month, I had a small table made and, sitting up in bed, wrote a ten thousand worder and two twenty thousand worders. That was all the work I did. I sold every word and made more in eight days than I had in any previous month.

That taught me that there must be some mean of average. I found it and the wage has stayed up.

There is no use keeping the factory staff standing by and the machinery running when you have no raw material.

You can’t sit down and stare at keys and wish you could write and swear at your low average for the month. If you can’t write that day, for God’s sakes don’t write. The chances are, when tomorrow arrives, and you’ve spent the yesterday groaning and doing nothing, you’ll be as mentally sterile as before.

Forget what you read about having to work so many hours every day. No writer I know has regular office hours. When you can’t write, when it’s raining and the kid’s crying, go see a movie, go talk to a cop, go dig up a book of fairy stories. But don’t sweat inactively over a mill. You’re just keeping the staff standing by and the machinery running, cutting into your overhead and putting out nothing. You’re costing yourself money.

Come back when you’re fresh and work like hell. Two in the morning, noon, eight at night, work if you feel like it and be damned to the noise you make. After all, the people who have to hear you are probably fed by you and if they can’t stand it, let them do the supporting. I take sprees of working at night, and then sleep late into the day. Once in the country farmers baited me every day with that unforgivable late slumber. It didn’t worry me so much after I remembered that I made in a month what they made in a year. They think all writers are crazy, take the writer’s license and make the best of it.

But don’t pretend to temperament. It really doesn’t exist. Irritation does and is to be scrupulously avoided.

When all the arty scribblers (who made no money) talked to a young lady and told her that they could not write unless they were near the mountains, or unless they had the room a certain temperature, or unless they were served tea every half-hour, the young lady said with sober mien, “Me? Oh, I can never write unless I’m in a balloon or in the Pacific Ocean.”

One thing to remember. It seems to work out that your writing machine can stand just so much. After that the brain refuses to hand out plots and ideas.

It’s like getting a big contract to sell your soap to the navy. You make bad soap, ruin the vats with a strong ingredient and let the finer machinery rust away in its uselessness. Then, when the navy soap contract ceases to supply the coffee and cakes, you discover that the plant is worthless for any other kind of product.

 Such is the case of the writer who sees a big living in cheap fiction, turns it out to the expense of his vitality, and finally, years before his time, discovers that he is through. Only one writer of my acquaintance can keep a high word output. He is the exception, and he is not burning himself out. He is built that way.

But the rest of us shy away from too cheap a brand. We know that an advanced wage will only find us spending more. Soon, when the target for our unworthy efforts is taken down, we discover that we are unable to write anything else. That’s what’s meant by a rut.

 As soon as you start turning out stories which you do not respect, as soon as you start turning them out wholesale over a period of time, as soon as your wordage gets out of control, then look for lean years.

 To get anywhere at all in the business, you should turn out the best that’s in you and keep turning it out. You’ll never succeed in pulp unless you do, much less in the slicks.

If you start at the lowest rung, do the best job of which you are capable, your product, according to economic law, will do the raising for you. Man is not paid for the amount of work in labor-hours, he is paid for the quality of that work.

IMPROVEMENT OF PRODUCT

With experience, your stories should improve. If they do not, then you yourself are not advancing. It’s impossible not to advance, it’s impossible to stand still. You must move, and you must slide back.

Take a story published a month ago, written six months ago. Read it over. If it seems to you that you could have done better, that you are doing better, you can sit back with a feline smile and be secure in the knowledge that you are coming up. Then sit forward and see to it that you do.

If you write insincerely, if you think the lowest pulp can be written insincerely and still sell, then you’re in for trouble unless your luck is terribly good. And luck rarely strikes twice. Write sincerely and you are certain to write better and better.

So much for making soap and writing. All this is merely my own findings in an upward trail through the rough paper magazines. I have tested these things and found them to be true and if someone had handed them to me a few years ago, I would have saved myself a great deal of worry and more bills would have been paid.

Once, a professor of short story in a university gave me a course because I was bored with being an engineer. The course did not help much outside of the practice in writing. Recently I heard that professor address the radio audience on the subject, “This Business of Writing.” It was not until then that I realized how much a writer had to learn. He knew nothing about the practical end of things and I told him so. He made me give a lecture to his class and they did not believe me.

But none of them, like you and I, have to make the bread and butter someway in this world. They had never realized that competition and business economics had any place whatever in the writing world. They were complacent in some intangible, ignorant quality they branded ART. They did not know and perhaps will someday find out, that art means, simply:

“The employment of means to the accomplishment of some end; the skillful application and adaptation to some purpose or use of knowledge or power acquired from Nature, especially in the production of beauty as in sculpture, etc.; a system of rules and established methods to facilitate the performance of certain actions.”

They saw nothing praiseworthy in work well done. They had their hearts fixed on some goal even they did not understand. To them, writing was not a supreme source of expression, not a means of entertaining, not a means of living and enjoying work while one lived. If you wrote for a living, they branded you a hack. But they will never write.

Poor fools, they haven’t the stamina, the courage, the intelligence, the knowledge of life’s necessity, the mental capacity to realize that whatever you do in this life you must do well and that whatever talent you have is expressly given you to provide your food and your comfort.

My writing is not a game. It is a business, a hardheaded enterprise which fails only when I fail, which provides me with an energy outlet I need, which gives me the house I live in, which lets me keep my wife and boy. I am a manuscript factory but not – and damn those who so intimate it – an insincere hack, peddling verbal belly-wash with my tongue in my cheek. And I eat only so long as my factory runs economically, only so long as I remember the things I have learned about this writing business.

oOo

Glossary

Center Street: address of police headquarters for lower Manhattan.

Department Letters: letters to the editorial department of a magazine or newspaper.

Harpers: One of the oldest and most highly regarded periodicals of literary and political interest.

Satevepost; Popular American national magazine, Saturday Evening Post.

Trips: mistakes, blunders.

Seligman: Edward Robert Seligman (1861 – 1939), American economist, a former professor of political economy and finance at New York’s Columbia University.Slicks: having to with magazines printed on glossy paper having some artistic or intellectual pretensions.

white wings: in reference to those working in New York City automats who served food and wore white long-sleeved coats.

Wordage: Dating from 1935, “The Manuscript Factory,” reflects LRH production and saless from his first professional year in the field. The bulk of the stories referenced in this article date from 1933 and 1934, and effectively represents work from that period of “honing” for the market.

Florence McChesney: Editor of Five Novels Monthly.

spar trees: the tree-like arrangement of the round timbers used for extending sails on masts of multi-masted sailing vessels.

Bloomfield, Howard: editor of Adventure magazine.

Elkton marrying parson: reference to Elkton, Maryland where marriages were performed with little formality and legal requirements.

L: an elevated railway once in existence in New York.

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