Last summer, my wife and I went to the block party in our old neighborhood, just to hang out and see some of our friends. We’ve been gone four years, and while we don’t live that far away, we rarely see most of these people anymore. Their social structures are all churches and children. Ours are not.
Anyway, the point is that we spent the afternoon wandering from group to group, having pretty much the same conversation. It went something like this:
Them: And what are you up to now?
Me: Well, I just signed a three book contract with Titan, and (a bunch of details they don’t care about)
Them: Great! (turning to my wife) And are you still working?
There’s this fundamental misunderstanding about the financial metrics of writing. So in the interest of openness, I’d like to talk a little bit about how this business works, and why your favorite writers are probably either struggling to make ends meet, or have a day job, or, as in my case, are dependent on their spouse to pull the financial weight.
Just to start, the above conversation was really difficult for me to have. It had been a very trying few years for us. I made roughly $10000 over the course of that time, almost all of it in the form of a single check I had just cashed. I also knew that I wasn’t going to be able to make that much for the next few years, because my pay schedule for the three books was contractually established, and there was no single year during the course of that contract when I was guaranteed more than $6000. If the books do well, then the advance can be earned out and might start seeing more money, but none of my previous three books earned out. There were a variety of reasons those books didn’t make it, but the point is that I’m not willing to count on earn outs, at least not yet.
So when people turned to my wife and ask if she’s been able to quit her job yet, because obviously your husband just signed a three book contract so that must mean big money, it’s difficult to not laugh and cry and run screaming into the night. Obviously.
But let’s be clear; book selling is a business. Writing is only a part of that business, along with editing, agenting, cover design, marketing, distributorship, retail and wholesale… there are a lot of moving parts. And while you would think the core employee in that system would be the writer, that’s just not the case. To understand why that is, you need to understand how publishing works. This is a very broad overview, but I feel like it’s a pretty good nuts-and-bolts breakdown. Enjoy!
The first thing you need to understand is that publishers don’t know what books are going to sell well. In some case they can follow trends, in other cases they know a certain author has moved so many books in the past and will probably move that many in the future, but when they consider a new book from a new author, they really only have their own preferences and experience to depend on. And books are terribly subjective. Two very well read and experienced professionals can read the same book, and one of them might hate that book and one might love it.
The best and most gloriously capitalist way to decide which books will succeed is to publish a bunch of books and let the readers make that decision. I’m in favor of this, mostly because it means a wide variety of books, and a more diverse catalog of authors, genres, subject matter, protagonists and stories. But in order to do that, the publisher needs to watch the margins on those new authors with unproven profitability. That means lower advances, lower levels of support in marketing, less of a push with the distributors, etc, etc. Simple math.
And if any of those books do well, then they get more marketing, better advances, higher exposure in the critical world, etc, etc. And then maybe those authors can start thinking about possibly quitting their day jobs, maybe, if they have some way of getting insurance.
And for the rest of us? Well. We struggle on, taking other jobs and cutting our budgets, and putting a lot of our hope in the success of the next book. Because without hope, the math doesn’t look too good.