Thursday, November 19, 2009

Changing reality

by Suw on November 19, 2009

Everyone with more than a passing familiarity with the publishing industry knows that writing is a tough gig. For most authors, it’s almost impossible to make writing books your primary job because the income just isn’t enough to live on.

“No one writes for the money,” we are told, but there is a dream that perhaps – just perhaps – you could be a best seller and, if not make it rich, then at least make enough to be comfortable doing what you love. I think that is the dream that many author’s hope will come true. It’s not about being the next JK Rowling or Dan Brown, although no one I know would turn down that kind of income, but about not having to worry about the rent anymore.

As a freelance, I know all about worrying about the rent and I know that for me, financial pressures make it very hard to be in any way creative. I can’t write when I’m worried about money. I’m sure that I’m not alone in that.

So I was saddened to read Declan Burke’s post, saying that he is giving up writing, although I totally understand his position. I’ve never read anything by Declan, but was pointed at his post by friend and author Steve Mosby.

Declan has had two books published, Eightball Boogie and The Big O, both of which, as he puts it “were decently reviewed and both of which sold like cheese-graters at a leper convention”. He has two more books ready for consideration. He goes on:

[…] lately I’ve started to hear a little voice in the back of my head suggesting that it might not be the best thing for me right now were either book to be published. That’s because, barring a miracle, what will happen is this: an offer will be made that will amount, in practical terms, to no more than a couple of months’ worth of mortgage payments. Following acceptance, edits and rewrites will follow (a good thing, by the way, because I like both stories and their characters, and I wouldn’t mind at all getting back into the stories, especially if doing so is going to improve them). Then the pre-publication promotion will begin, which is very time-consuming; then the publication promotion; and then the post-publication promotion. Most of this will be conducted via the web, given that I am (a) not wealthy enough nor remunerated enough to do it in person; (b) married with a small child, of whom I don’t see enough of as it is; (c) a freelance journalist who works a minimum of 70 hours per week at the job, and can’t afford to take time off, let alone spend good mortgage money on hauling my ass around the world at a time when house repossessions are starting to climb at an alarming rate back home.

There’s no doubt that being a freelance journalist is tough at the moment. Budgets for freelance writers are being slashed, if they even survive. Being a freelance journalist and an author is a double whammy of hard work. I sympathise with Declan and the choice he’s had to make.

I was then pointed via Zoe Margolis on Twitter to a couple of articles by author Lynn Viehl about her royalties statements for her book Twilight Fall. Again, I haven’t read Viehl’s books, but Twilight Fall has been in the top twenty of the the New York Times mass market bestseller list, which is usually perceived as quite an achievement.

Lynn has written two posts that give an insight into her earnings, the first in April this year which looks at her first royalties statement for Twlight Fall, and a another earlier this month that looks at her second statement. Now, I don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of the numbers, because the details aren’t important. What’s important is this bit from the second post:

So how much money have I made from my Times bestseller? Depending on the type of sale, I gross 6-8% of the cover price of $7.99. After paying taxes, commission to my agent and covering my expenses, my net profit on the book currently stands at $24,517.36, which is actually pretty good since on average I generally net about 30-40% of my advance [which was $50,000]. Unless something triggers an unexpected spike in my sales, I don’t expect to see any additional profit from this book coming in for at least another year or two.

To my mind, Lynn’s take home pay, as it were, is surprisingly low compared to my expectations of what a best seller would get.

I had a bit of a to-and-fro on Twitter about this, and Jared Earle made this point:

@Suw Most importantly, she writes more than 4 books a year. I’d guess she’s on over $200k a year. Poverty line my arse.

Writing four books a year is a big ask even for a pulp fiction writer and having looked at Lynn’s listing on Amazon, it would seem that she does one or two books a year, not “more than four”. I don’t know any authors who could or would want to write four books a year, and several who take one or two years to finish a single book. Volume isn’t a viable option for increasing auctorial income.

There was also dispute in Lynn’s comments about how much her publisher will have made from Twilight Fall. Lynn estimated $250k but a commenter said it would be more like $3k. In my opinion, it’s irrelevant. Whilst there are many arguments to be had about the disparity between what a publisher makes and what the author makes, this isn’t what I’m focusing on.

What I’m looking at is the fact that the New York Times bestseller list tends to be perceived as a mark of success. If that success nets the author just $25k, then the system is horribly broken. I wouldn’t expect a NYT best selling author to be rich, but I would have expected them to be doing a little better than that.

Of course, the system is horribly broken and has been for ages, if not ever. More people want to write books than can possibly be published, most books that are published don’t recoup their advances and most advances are horribly small. One friend of mine was offered an advance of $1500 for a book that was going to take him six months to research and write. Another British friend got £8,000 for his book. A third got £30,000 for, I think, two book deal. They are a long way off JK Rowling.

Writing has always been hard to break into, but you’d think that all this lovely modern technology we have, which can be brought to bear on marketing and promotion and such, would help to even things out a bit. That the internet would level the playing field. Any author can be found on Amazon now, their book instantly found and bought. Yet for many authors, writing has to be a hobby. Their talent has no bearing on this. It’s just how the industry is. Writing is for rich people and retirees.

Do we value the written word so poorly? Do we despise authors so much that we want them to live in poverty? Do we look at our culture and feel that it would be better off without books?

Of course not. The monetary value of something often bears no relationship to its societal value, as Kevin pointed out the other day:

[T]he social value of an activity is often not directly related to the compensation for that activity. If our societies operated like that, teachers would make as much as bankers because shaping the next generation’s minds would be as important as funding the next generation of businesses.

We do value our authors, it’s just that the only time we get to express that value is through the purchase of a book and at all points in the chain there is pressure to drive prices down. That, for readers, is great because it means that we can have bookshelves full of wonderful words without bankrupting ourselves. But it’s hard on authors. The RRP is discounted left, right and centre; books are sold on sale-or-return with the returns getting pulped; market pressure drives prices down.

The same thing has happened with music, but musicians have a bit of a better time than authors because there’s a rich vein to be mined in live performances, merchandise and the like. Some authors can fill out a bookstore for a signing, but many will be happy if a dozen people turn up. T-shirts might well exist for iconic book covers, but without people turning up to readings there’s little chance of flogging T-shirts as an impulse buy.

For a wannabe writer, it all looks rather bleak. Except I think there’s hope, and I don’t know how much but I do see a scrap of blue sky.

People like to make a difference. We like to make people smile, like to think we’ve done something good, even for a stranger. We like to have a positive effect on the world, on people’s lives. Why else would people give money to help a stranger’s kitten get the operation he needs to survive?

You only have to look at Kickstarter for evidence that people really do value creativity. But what’s important with Kickstarter, I believe, is that you’re not just buying something, you’re supporting a process. Without your support, the project just won’t happen. Kickstarter is enabling, empowering and a sea change, especially when linked to print-on-demand (and maybe even freelance book editors).

Maybe Declan could consider a Kickstarter-like project to help him self-publish one of the novels he has written but which isn’t placed with a publisher yet. He clearly has a fan-base who will pre-order it and take the uncertainty out of deciding on a PoD print run. He also has a blog presence that he can use to promote it. And it might even net him more than going the traditional publishing route.

I really can see such a route being valuable for authors whose careers are stalling, especially as for many the stall is nothing to do with their talent and much more to do with how marketing budgets are apportioned. I hope that we’ll see more authors experimenting with new ways of doing things, because the current system is clearly b0rked and we need, collectively, to figure out what come next.

Gedanken experiments can take us so far, but we really need to start getting real world data on how the hell we remake publishing. We need more people like Lynn to publish their royalty statements so that we can all understand what’s going on here. Yes, lots of insiders know the deal, but us outsiders don’t and we need to know so that we can make informed (insofar as is possible) choices for our future potential careers. And the more data we can gather, the better.

And as for me? I’ll be putting my lack-of-money where my mouth is very soon.

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