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OC Leader Board: The Business of Writing Novels

Editor’s Note: Kaira Rouda, the wife of former local Congressman Harley Rouda (2019-21), wrote this Leader Board for the Business Journal.

Fun fact. One of my very first bylines was for Business First newspaper in Columbus, Ohio. I was hired as a research assistant, and my task, every week, was to compile the Top 25 list. So today, sitting down to write this Leader Board for the Orange County Business Journal is a full circle moment.

From the third grade on I knew I wanted to be an author. In fact, for a school assignment, I wrote to my favorite author at the time, Robert McCloskey of “Make Way for Ducklings” fame, and told him I wanted to be an author just like him. He wrote back explaining he was an illustrator, not an author, and to pick better next time. Sigh. That, in a nutshell, is the life of an author in today’s publishing world, I’ve discovered.

To be fair, though, it’s also the life of most entrepreneurs, filled with both highs and lows with the one truth that is a reality: you need resilience and persistence to put your passions into action and live the life of your dreams.

That’s true for me, of course. Between third grade and today, with 19 published novels and three scheduled for 2024, there was a lot of life. My mom was raised in Santa Cruz while my dad was in Sunnyvale. They met at San Jose State University.

In fact, I’m a fifth generation Californian on my mom’s side as her grandparents arrived in the state in 1902. I love history, and I love California. I happened to marry an Ohioan, so it took me awhile to get here but I’m so glad we did.

Back to the business side, in addition to my dream of being an author someday, I also loved marketing and advertising, and wanted to be Darrin Stevens on “Bewitched.” When I graduated with an English degree from Vanderbilt University, my first job as noted was with Business First.

Eventually, I worked my way up and was assigned the advertising beat, and while covering the ad agencies, knew I wanted to join one someday. So, I did, becoming a copywriter and publicist, account executive and eventually went in-house for an Inc 100 firm and franchiser.

Unfortunately, I soon discovered, there was a reason I was the first woman vice president of the company. After filing a class action lawsuit for gender discrimination and sexual harassment, I found myself without a job.

My husband, Harley, had just completed a complex roll up of 14 real estate companies in Ohio and overnight, created the fourth-largest residential real estate company in the country. Since I was free, he asked if I’d like to create an umbrella brand and I jumped at the chance.

Together we created Real Living, the first women-consumer focused real estate brand in the country. At the time when we launched in 2001, marketing in the real estate industry was to men, by men, when the fact was and remains that women make or control more than 90% of home purchases. It was fun and a challenge shifting mindsets and creating an award-winning brand. By 2008, we’d grown to 22 states.

The Real You Inc.

I sold my first book, a business book, titled “Real You Incorporated: 8 Essentials for Women Entrepreneurs” and was on a national speaking tour, telling entrepreneurs to put their passion into action and that it’s never too late to live the life of your dreams.

During a speech in Austin, Texas, a woman asked if I had accomplished my dreams. I admitted I hadn’t published a novel or moved to California. It was 2009, and fortunately, we merged the Real Living brand with a California-based company, and our oldest son chose Chapman University for college.

Although moving from Ohio to California was a big transition for the three other kids—in high school and middle school—they soon embraced it.

Harley had an employment contract with Berkshire Hathaway, but I didn’t. It was time for me to launch my writing career. In 2011, my first novel, “Here, Home, Hope,” was published. Since my breakout book, “Best Day Ever,” my stories have become darker and more sinister, psychological suspense. I write about grown-ups behaving badly, and there is no shortage of inspiration these days.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the state of the publishing industry today. Two of my novels, “Best Day Ever” and “The Favorite Daughter,” were used to train AI, without my permission or consent, and I’m now part of a class action lawsuit filed by the Author’s Guild.

Other plaintiffs include well-known authors like John Grisham and Michael Connelly. The complaint noted a recent attempt to generate volumes 6 and 7 of plaintiff George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” series “A Song of Ice and Fire” and pass itself off on Amazon as human generated.

To put it bluntly, tech companies like OpenAI are stealing the works of authors.

“Generative AI threatens to decimate the author profession,” according to the Author’s Guild. “The complaint draws attention to the fact that the plaintiffs’ books were downloaded from pirate e-book repositories and then copied into the fabric of GPT 3.5 and GPT 4 which power ChatGPT and thousands of applications and enterprise uses—from which OpenAI expects to earn many billions.”

According to the Guild’s latest author income survey, the median full-time author income in 2022 was just barely over $20,000, including book and other author-related activities. I read a stat that only 800 authors in the U.S. can make a career writing books full time. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know, it’s a tough field and getting more crowded with AI generated titles flooding the market.

Self-published authors have been allowed to upload an unlimited number of books daily on Amazon’s Kindle publishing platform. It appears that Amazon is so worried about AI flooding the market that it’s limited an author’s uploads to three books a day.

I’m prolific, but three novels a year is a lot for me. No person can write three books a day.

As for where the publishing industry is heading, nobody knows as far as I can tell. E-books are dominant, AI titles are flooding into self-publishing portals and prices keep dropping. You can download most of my books for less than a cup of coffee. I suppose that means it’s a numbers game.

Honestly, I don’t have a view into what publishers are seeing in print or digital for that matter. Information has always been murky in my industry.

A Dream Comes True

Still, I tell anyone who has a dream of being an author that it’s up to you to make that dream come true.

Resilience and persistence, again, are the key differentiators between those who dream of being an author, and those who become one. That, and a finished manuscript. Oh, and as for Hollywood, I don’t have any news on that front.

Another dream to reach for, indeed.

Speaking of dreams coming true, Harley ran for Congress in 2018 and won, defeating the 30-year incumbent. Our experiences in Washington, D.C. inspired one of my most popular novels, “The Widow,” about a cheating congressman and his wife who takes over his seat after his sudden death. And no, it’s not based on real life. Harley’s very much alive and well. It was an honor for both of us to serve.

And it continues to be a dream come true to be a Southern California based novelist.

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Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung joined the Orange County Business Journal in 2021 as their Marketing Creative Director. In her role she creates all visual content as it relates to the marketing needs for the sales and events teams. Her responsibilities include the creation of marketing materials for six annual corporate events, weekly print advertisements, sales flyers in correspondence to the editorial calendar, social media graphics, PowerPoint presentation decks, e-blasts, and maintains the online presence for Orange County Business Journal’s corporate events.
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