Saturday, March 29, 2008

MONEY With A Capital M-O-N-E-Y

Let's talk about getting paid.

As writers, we're often so grateful that someone would actually want to publish our words that we may devalue them. Hell, sometimes we pay others to publish us.

This mentality won't help you make a living.

But the problem is that so little is written about money, we really have no idea how much we're worth.

Unlike other professions, where salaries often stay within a certain range, a novelist can earn anywhere from some contributors copies to tens of millions of dollars a book.

So what are your words worth?

If you're writing poetry, they're worth pretty much nothing. Sorry poets.

If you're a short story writer, they're worth between 2 cents and 20 cents a word. There are exceptions, of course, but the most I've even been paid for a short story is $1500, and they mostly pay in the low hundreds.

If you're a freelance article writer, the price can go up a bit. But you have to publish a lot of articles to make a living, and finding places to buy your articles is actually more work than writing them.

Now if you're a novelist, I've heard the average advance is still $5000. A tiny amount for something you spent a year of your life on. And this average includes all of the huge bestsellers making big bucks, so you have to assume there are tens of thousand of writers out there making much less than $5000 a novel.

I've talked money with a few close writing friends, and I've learned something pretty shocking; there's no rhyme, reason, or sense as to who gets paid what and why.

First of all, we need to dispel any bullshit about "talent" and "hard work." We're all talented. We all work hard. That's how we got published in the first place.

Next, we need to shatter the time-honored myths about "deserving success."

Here's your wake-up call, Mr. or Ms. Entitlement. I've gotten over 500 rejections. I wrote 1,000,000 words before earning a dime. In the last four years I've travelled to over 35 states, visited over a thousand bookstores, attended over a hundred book events. I've mailed out over 7000 letters to libraries and bookstores. I've signed over 10,000 books, and 30,000 drink coasters. I have 13,000 MySpace Friends, and my blog and website combine for more than half a million unique hits a year.

I still do not deserve success. And neither do you.

There is no arbitrary power controlling fairness in the universe, making sure everyone gets their due. There is only luck.

Those writers who make more money simply got lucky.

I have peers who earn 20 times what I make, even though our sales numbers are pretty close. I have friends with over a million books in print, who make less than half of what I make.

It's not fair. It never will be.

Now that we've got that established, let's talk about what we can do to get more.

1. Be Confident. You must have faith in your writing, and your efforts. Being cocky, or feeling entitled, won't work. But knowing your strengths, and your platform, and being able to show that to a room full of editors will go a long way to getting a better contract.

2. Ask For More. Waiting for someone to notice your genius and get behind your books is a fools game. The only way to get more is to ask for more.

3. Change. Often the only way to get a big bump up in net worth is to change something. Genres. Houses. Agents. Working with new people means new excitement, new enthusiasm, new expectations. This translates into more money.

4. Be Willing to Walk Away. This is something that VERY few writers can do. We accept offers, don't negotiate hard, and perhaps devalue our writing because of it. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. A house that pays less will have less of a marketing budget, which means the book will sell fewer copies.

5. Earn Out Your Advance. It's your name on the book. It's your responsibility to sell it. I've heard agents say that if a book earns out, the advance wasn't high enough. I think the opposite is true. if your advance is so large that you'll never earn out, it's going to be very difficult to sell your next book.

Can you earn out your advance through your efforts? Maybe not. But I'm pretty sure my efforts contributed to my earning out. While you don't have to be as psychotic about promotion as I've been, every single book you sell goes toward your advance, and toward your future sales when that person becomes a lifelong fan. The more you do, the more you'll sell.

6. Take Control. So much is beyond your control in this business. But a lot of things are within your control. You do not have to wait for your agent or your publisher to tell you what to do. You can't fight the power by reacting.

You're the boss in the agent/author relationship. Your agent is probably savvier than you are, and knows more about the business. That's not an excuse to stay ignorant. You should learn as much about this business as possible. Trends. Gossip. How it works. Who is buying what.

If your publisher doesn't tour you, doesn't put down money for coop, doesn't have a wide distribution, that doesn't mean you can't fill in a lot of these divots yourself.

No, you can't personally sell 100,000 books. But you can personally sell 10,000. And that's not small potatoes.

7. Know Your Worth. This is a hard one to figure out, because comparing yourself with other authors does zero good. But you can't enter any sort of contract negotiation without having a number in mind. If you accept any old number, that's like dogs begging for scraps.

The dog that is content begging for scraps will never get the whole steak.

You need to go for the steak. That means placing a value on your work, and sticking to it.

"But JA," you say, "What if I don't get that number I have in mind? Isn't this more bad advice, like telling authors not to use SASEs and recommending they give exclusive submissions to a bunch of agents at once?"

If you can live with what you're being offered, that's fine. But then you've lost your License to Bitch. You can't complain about your shitty deal if you didn't have the stones to ask for more.

Also, SASEs and exclusive submissions suck.

"But JA," you insist, "You say this is all about luck. What if I do everything right, and I still can't earn enough money writing to support myself because I haven't gotten lucky yet?"

It sounds like you think you deserve this career. I've already stated my thoughts on that. The world doesn't owe you. And may not get out what you put in. Quit writing and buy stock in Kleenex, so at least you'll recoup some of your money during your life-long pity party.

"But JA," you say, "With everything you've said and done, with all your hard work, you still haven't gotten lucky. Why should I listen to you? You're not a millionaire bestseller."


I'm not going to become rich because I deserve it.

I'm going to become rich because nothing is going to stop me.

What are you going to let stop you?