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.

Jared Earle November 19, 2009 at 9:57 pm

To clarify my four books a year statement, Lynn Viehl (real name Sheila Kelly, aka S. L. Viehl, Gena Hale, Jessica Hall and Rebecca Kelly) is rather prolific. She’s had over thirty books published in the last decade.

If you get into writing for the money, you should be prepared for a disappointment. While the technology now allows anyone to write and get their stuff out there, the downside is that is allows anyone to write and get their stuff out there. You’ve got a louder voice, but so has everyone else.

Don’t give up, though. There’s always room on my bookshelf for new good stuff.

Suw November 20, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Your point about how many books Lynn Viehl/Sheila Kelly/etc. writes is irrelevant. Regarding Twilight Fall the main point is that for a NYT best seller, her take-home pay is lower than I would have expected. Yes it’s a thin book and sold cheap, but this all goes towards the point that the NYT best seller list perhaps isn’t the indicator of success that some of us thought it was, and that maybe things are a bit worse for successful authors than we thought it was.

You can say “Oh, but she writes loads of books so she’s doing ok from all the little advances”, but the majority of authors just can’t match that output and nor should we want them to. Volume is just not an answer.

And again, this isn’t about “getting into writing for the money”, it’s about authors being able to make a living from an activity that takes up a lot of time and thought. You don’t just sit down at a computer and type for a few hours and bingo, there’s your book. It takes time and care and thought and effort and, sometimes, tears and swearing and giving up and starting again and never letting the damn thing get the better of you. If you want good books for your bookshelf, then somehow the system has to support people so that they can write them. The system is currently broken for the vast majority of authors who have to write as a hobby because they can’t afford to give up their day job. And if “success” pays so poorly, then how do people transition from writing part-time to writing full-time?

And regarding tech, yes, disintermediation of the means of production does mean that there’s more noise to cut through, and there’s an issue of filtering that we have yet to resolve. However, the internet does provide a way to reach people that just didn’t exist before, regardless of the noise. I can still achieve things online that I could not before. I’m not aiming to be the loudest voice, I just want a voice loud enough to help me reach the people I need to reach.

And as for giving up, what on earth gave you the idea that I was about to give up?

Stephanie Booth November 20, 2009 at 6:48 pm

I went through some of this a couple of years back when I was planning to write a book on teenagers and the internet, in French.

After many months of not getting started on it, I realized that I just couldn’t relax enough to dive into such a daunting project whilst I was worrying about making ends meet.

So, I started thinking and asking around, trying to figure out if it was realistic to hope for an advance that might cover my essential needs for six months or so, the time I thought I needed to research and write the book.

Boy, was I mistaken.

I actually went to the Frankfurt book fair to meet some editors and speak to people \in the industry\. The conclusion was: fuggedaboutit. As a first-time author, with a book idea which was probably not going to be a best-seller, there was very little chance of me interesting an editor before the book was written (let alone getting an advance, what was I dreaming about?). I’d be happy to find an editor to publish it once it was written.

An author I met there, who has a bunch of book sunder her belt, told me that in her opinion, going through an editor rather than self-publishing makes sense in only two cases: (1) you’re getting a huge advance; (2) you’re given a great editor. Neither are going to happen to a first-time author, realistically.

So yeah. Ideas like Kickstarter and direct financing of artists and creatives by their audience are going to grow.

Anne Rooney November 21, 2009 at 10:05 am

Stephanie, to be fair, if you are a first time author no publisher can have any confidence in you being able to complete a book! Would you give lots of money up-front to a builder who had never handled a brick?

But in any case, that book would not have sold to a publisher. I am one of that rare breed of authors who live only by writing and I failed to get an offer of more than £2000 advance for a book on teens’ use of the Internet 3 years ago (so I never wrote the book – you can’t live for even a month on that much and that’s not long enough to write it). I have years of experience of working in the computer industry behind me and 130 books finished and published – it was entirely a commercial decision on the publishers’ part. The problem, the publishers all told me, is that such a title is hard to place on the shelves of a bookshop – it’s neither parental guidance nor technology, so the bookshops won’t take it, however good the book is. (I know, there are now lots of such books in the US – but still not in the UK.) Publishers won’t produce a book on the basis of possible Amazon sales.

Self-publishing is not a commercial option if you want to be a professional writer. You will still be writing as a hobby.

Suw November 21, 2009 at 10:31 am

Anne, to be fair to Steph, she is a leading expert in the field and has been writing about teens and the internet for longer than a lot of people have been even thinking about it. So whilst she may not have written a book per se, the level of her writing ability and knowledge of the subject is easily checked by taking a look at her blog. (And yes, I know books are not blogs, but blogs can and do turn into books.)

I agree that certain types of book just aren’t attractive to publishers. I tried to pitch a book about blogging several years ago, back before there were billions of them. Again, I was (and am) a leading expert in the subject area and have written a lot (freelance journalism as well as blogs). But publishers seemed unclear about what sort of book it was – was it a tech help book, a business book, a personal growth story? Where would it be shelved? In the end, one well-known publisher said that they liked the idea, but could it be about how blogging changed my life. I declined their kind offer.

Of course it’s a commercial decision – but so is the decision by the author whether or not to write. And therein lies the problem. Because for a lot of potential authors, the commercial decision is not to write because it’s just not worth it (even taking into account all the kudos that having a book under your belt bring, specially if it’s a tech/biz book). That means we might be missing out on some excellent books because they just never got written.

I’m afraid that I totally disagree with you about self-publishing. It has great potential for books and authors that mainstream publishers don’t want to touch or don’t know how to deal with. Robin Sloan has proven that people will support writers they like, even if they are new on the scene. And we’re only at the beginning of the self-publishing revolution.

Of course, I neither believe nor want self-publishing to replace traditional publishers, but I think the market needs to fractionate. We need to have alternative outlets for books and authors that publishers can’t or won’t deal with, and we need a new proving ground for up and coming authors. If I can build up a fanbase (and my skills) through self-publishing then I hope that one day a traditional publisher will not just value my track record, but value it enough to actually offer me a reasonable deal.

I may be wrong, but what have I got to lose? Really? I can either write books, send them out to agents and hope that one of them likes it enough to send round to publishers in the hope that one of them likes it enough to publish… Or I can write books, release them online, get read, get feedback, grow into my craft, build a fan base and maybe even earn some money doing it.

Of course, neither route is guaranteed. You’ll note that I’m not really discussing the part that talent plays. Some books will always be just awful and will be a flop regardless of what the author does. But writing off self-publishing at this juncture is premature, to say the least.

Mackenzie November 22, 2009 at 3:43 pm

The market for books is much smaller than the market for, say, movies, though. Look how many people proudly write \I don’t read\ in the \Favourite books\ section of Facebook! And then there’s the bit where reading a book takes days while watching a movie takes maybe 2 hours… Reading just isn’t a very common hobby.

I saw a graph of how the average US consumer spends which showed just $118 per year was the average amount spent on reading (books, newspapers, magazines, etc.). Of course authors aren’t making much. People aren’t buying what they produce, period. I rather doubt it takes millions of sales to be a \best seller,\ probably more like a few thousand.

Mackenzie November 22, 2009 at 3:44 pm

Oh sorry, that’s not $118 per person, by the way. That’s per family. Yes, $118 PER FAMILY.

Suw November 22, 2009 at 4:16 pm

From BISG in a presentation to BookExpo America this year.

130,477 active publishers in 2008, up 27% in 09
Total no. of publishers continues to increase, almost all of this in the sub $50m pa category

Publishing worth $40.3 billion in 2008
Sector is expected to grow moderately with increase in both net $ sales and unit sales.

And this despite the recession.

Interestingly, Bowker says that traditionaal publishing output declined in 2008 but on-demand publishing more than doubled:

“Our statistics for 2008 benchmark an historic development in the U.S. book publishing industry as we crossed a point last year in which On Demand and short-run books exceeded the number of traditional books entering the marketplace.”

(Link is to google cache because Bowker’s website appears to be down.)

More from Bowker:

“57% of British consumers purchased one or more books last year, compared to only 50% of Americans”

So the $118 per family is a bit misleading in a way because only 50% of Americans buy books anyway. If that mapped to 50% of families, then those families that buy books, mags, newspapers are buying $236 per year, or a little under $20 per month, which is not too shoddy really.

More from Bowker via Follow the Reader:

Who was reading in 2008

* 45% of Americans read a book last year
* The average age of those who read a book was 44
* 58% of readers are women
* 32% of readers are over the age of 55
* The average reader spends 5.2 hours reading per week vs. 15 hours online and 13.1 hours watching TV (In 2008, going online surpassed watching TV as a primary activity)

Who was buying books in 2008

* 50% of Americans over 13 bought a book
* The average age of the most frequent book buyers was 50 years old
* 57% of book buyers are female and they buy 65% of books (e.g. women buy books and they buy in volume)
* 67% of books were bought by people over 42; Gen Xer bought 17% of books; Gen Y bought 10%
* Of books purchased by those who earn $100K or more, mystery and detective fiction represent 16% of sales, juvenile 13%, romance 6%, thrillers 4%, and comics and graphic novels 4%
* 41% of all books are purchased by those who earn less than $35K
* The average price of a book purchased last year was $10.08
* 31% of all book purchases are impulse buys

Reading is a very common hobby, maybe not as common as watching TV, but with 45% of people in the US reading, and 50% of people buying, I’d say that counts as common.

The thing is, it’s not just about the end product. It’s not just about selling and buying books, it’s also about the process it takes to write a book, and whether that is something that people feel they want to support through micropatronage.

Mackenzie November 23, 2009 at 8:00 am

I wonder how many of the books read were required reading for high schools? Great, everybody bought a copy of the Great Gatsby. That’s not helping new authors at all.

Suw November 23, 2009 at 9:04 am

Actually, the BISG presentation I link to above breaks sales in 2008 down like this:

27% Adult Trade
22% Professional
18% Elhi (elementary and high school)
14% College
9% Juvenile Trade
6% Religious
4% Scholarly

So 64% of book sales have nothing to do with education, so it’s definitely not all copies of the Great Gatsby.

rashbre January 24, 2010 at 1:14 pm

I scrolled back to this post based upon my own recent experiences within the book world. I’ve had a go as a sideline and it amazed me how much time and effort is required to get anything to happen at all.

A few quick observations.

– Without ‘connections’ its quite difficult to even get started.
– Many folk don’t reply to emails (presumably they are swamped).
– There’s plenty of people out there looking for ways to take money from the budding authors.
– The discussion is often prefixed with it needing to be a 2 book deal (which I assume is to weed out the ‘people with a novel in them’)

In my case, there was much time and chasing to get to a published product. I’ll put it all down to learning curve and be wiser when I try again. The first one can become the beta test.

And hopefully a better approach for book 2.

Good luck in your own efforts.

Suw January 25, 2010 at 10:04 am

Yeah, none of this stuff is necessarily easy, unless you’re very lucky.

– Connections can be acquired by networking, going to events, following people on Twitter, reading blogs, and generally taking part in the community
– Email is a bad way to make first contact with anyone! If you get to know people via events, blogs, Twitter, etc., first then they’ll be more inclined to respond to your email when it arrives.
– Yes, one has to be careful. No one worth their salt in publishing takes money from you until after you’ve earnt it 😉
– Two book deals are also good for the author in that it means you have some security for your next book, so not a bad thing unless you don’t have a second book in you 😉

And yes, huge amounts of time and chasing and luck and stubbornness and learning. I think that’s true of any large project – and we need to remember that a book is a really large project, even when we split it out into half an hour every day over several years…

Thank you, and good luck with yours!

jusstthoughtyoumightbeinterested February 13, 2010 at 5:09 pm

I’d advise following in the footsteps of the most wordy St James Joyce Patron of the Immaculate & Wholly Literate.
1) Living up to your ar…mpits in debt is a long and honorable scholarly tradition, once they’ve taken your house and all your stuff and maybe your children way you are left with little distraction and thus no excuse not to write.
2) Following Joyce means you probably don’t have a hope in a hundred hells of matching his output thus you will never be truly disappointed.
3) remember it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor as long as you have money.

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