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?


Steve MC said...

About asking for more, I remember reading an interview with Tom Brokaw in which he said he was trying to cut back on how many appearances he made, and so he doubled his speaking fee. Much to his surprise, he found himself even more in demand.

Anonymous said...

This is very inspiring. I've also heard that some agents and editors will ask new authors how they will help promote the book before they take them on. What promotional tools do you think worked best for you out of the ones you mentioned--or the ones you didn't?

the author said...

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

When I was younger I used to sell some of my poems to greeting card companies, magazines, and university presses, and made about an extra $1-2K a year. Doesn't sound like much, granted, but it helped out. Hallmark actually paid pretty well back in the eighties, as did Blue Mountain Arts.

The poetry market is rife with contributor-copy-only ops, but there are still plenty of mags, contests and card companies actively looking for well written verse and are willing to pay on a scale equal per word to what short story writers make. If you're a prolific poet, and you're willing to write to guidelines, you can make as much as the average freelance article writer.

Sherryl said...

Thanks for this good kick up the rear end. I'm in a period of my writing career where I need to strongly resist whining and look at what I can do to make more good things happen.
I have little control over things like shortlists for big awards (fingers crossed, all the same) but I can work harder on my web presence and promo stuff.

Steve MC said...

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

Jack Benny would agree: "I don't deserve this award, but I have arthritis and I don't deserve that either."

Terri said...

Oh my gosh! That was frickin' awesome. The entitlement culture we live in drives me bonkers. Let's hear it for personal responsibility. Easy for me to say. I'm too chicken to actually try my luck and write the great American novel inside me just dying to get out. I stick to writing reviews for online book review sites instead. Yeah. That's an "L" tattooed on my forehead.

Stacey Cochran said...

Great topic, JA. Like you before you were published, I've now written eleven novels. 1,500,000 words of fiction.

I've done somewhere around 75 bookstore and library discussions. I have my own TV show that reaches 90,000 viewers. I produced and moderated a panel discussion last night with 3 New York Times bestselling authors, and I'm driving this afternoon to lead a discussion in Wilmington with a publisher and author at a bookstore. On Friday, I taped our weekly in-studio TV interview.

However, I still receive nothing but rejection for my writing. I've sent out close to 2000 query letters in the past ten years as a fulltime writer. Over 200 just this calendar year.

I just don't understand how to ask for more money when nobody will publish me in the first place.

Not that I don't totally agree with everything you're saying. I think you're right. I need to get paid.


Precie said...

Thanks for this! Just this weekend, I attended a writing conference, and a few of the very successful presenters made similar recommendations. It's a great reinforcement that getting a book published isn't the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In many ways, it's just the beginning. And a writing career is exactly that...a career. You take it seriously. You work your ass off. You never stop.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, JA. I just received an acceptance from a small press for a short story. I won't earn any money from it-- I'll get paid in copies. I think sometimes establishing friends in the small presses are worth the lack of payment--sometimes.

BTW, great TV show Stacey. I enjoyed working with you and am glad to find you here.


Stacey Cochran said...

Hey Trina!

Long time, no see... How have you been?

Hey everyone, here's the interview I did with Trina and RAWW.

That's still one of my favorite ones. How's the RAWW gang doing?

Anonymous said...


I'm fairly new to your blog, but I do have a question. What's up with the "give exclusive submissions to a bunch of agents at once" line in your most recent entry? I understand what exclusive submissions are, but is that what you did, give them out to a bunch of agents at once? Just curious. I'd like to hear more about that, and I imagine you've written more about it in earlier posts, I just haven't had the chance to search out this info yet. By the way, I really enjoy your blog. Thank you for all the wonderful advice/information.

Cheryl Pickett said...

New to your blog and just wanted to say I like this piece as well as the recent one with all the quotes.

I'll be back.

Mary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

There's a reason most of the time when agents and publishers reject work: because it's not very good.

Sure, you might be the victim of bad luck once. But time after time? Unlikely.

Write something that the market wants and it will sell. Keep writing shit and it won't.

Chris Webb said...

Great post - direct and to the point.

I really agree with your thoughts on the advance earning out. While many authors in my line of publishing seem to just be writing for the advance, I really believe thats the wrong mentality going into a book project.

If you really want to be writing books, we publishers are more likely to pick up a project the 2nd time around if your advance earned out.

In fact, if you truly believe your book is going to sell, you should be willing to take a smaller advance in favor of a higher royalty rate.

Anonymous said...

The big pulishers do a P&L analysis of each book before deciding whether to buy and and how much to pay an author for it. A good agent will know the factors that the house uses and will be able to address those factors in the best light of the author.

The $ is actually a lot more analysis and projection than it is mush. So, get an agent who knows what they're doing. If he/she doesn't know how to value a title and an author, the author will definitely end up suffering because the house will always lowball what they pay, if the can.

JA Konrath said...

There's a reason most of the time when agents and publishers reject work: because it's not very good.


And no.

Every book has been rejected by somebody. Harry Potter was rejected.

Can you imagine how those agents who rejected Rowling feel now? They missed out on 15% of billions of dollars.

I agree that many books are rejected because they aren't good enough.

But saying "write a good book and you'll get published" isn't good logic, becasue "good" is subjective, and because "good" often gets rejected along with the "bad."

JA Konrath said...

The $ is actually a lot more analysis and projection than it is mush.

Analysis and projection isn't mush? P&L statements can't be made to fit any occassion?

I won't argue that publishers don't believe they have realistic approaches to buying books, and that they can back up these approaches with figures.

But if they're excited about a book, or in a bidding war, the P&L projections can be adjusted.

An author's track record, sales of similar books, and budgets have weight, but anything can be made to look profitable on paper, which can justify spending more $$$ on a book that a house really wants.

The author plays a bigger role in this than we've been lead to believe.

Stacey Cochran said...

There's a reason most of the time when agents and publishers reject work: because it's not very good.

I would love to hear a few agents chime in on this, but I would bet the top three reasons for rejection of a novel by an agent are: 1) the agent is simply overwhelmed with too much work; 2) the novel doesn't fit with the editors an agent has contacts with; 3) the work is mediocre or worse.

However, there are a lot of writers who could be published and make money for a publisher -- writers who know a lot of people in the business, know where they would fit into the market, know how to hustle a book, and are generally very good writers.

I've met a number of them over the past few years at conferences.

Anonymous said...

k"But if they're excited about a book, or in a bidding war, the P&L projections can be adjusted."

The P&L statements will largely depend on the number of books the publish intends to print, which in turn depends on the number of copies the publish thinks can be sold. The publisher will have the first print run fairly well defined before an author ever gets an offer.

If the publisher thinks only 5K copies can be sold, and intends to print only that many, the author will get a corresponding offer. Demanding or wanting more won't get that author anywhere, except shown to the door.

So, it's not mush. It's business. That includes risk projections too, but that doesn't mean it's not business. Sometimes the projection isn't accurate. Sometimes the book sells better than expecte, and sometimes worse. But the bottom line is that the publisher has a pretty well-defined P&L projection to work from.

James Goodman said...

You mean you actually get paid for writing? Man...I've gotta have a talk with my agent. :D All kidding aside, another informative post.

JA Konrath said...

The P&L statements will largely depend on the number of books the publish intends to print, which in turn depends on the number of copies the publish thinks can be sold.

I'm a wee bit curious who you are, because you obviously know what you're talking about.

Here's the thing: much of publishing is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Let's say a publisher is interested in buying a traditional mystery that they believe will fit into their midlist. They have data to fall back on, which shows how mystyeries of these types normally do.

They can guess how many B&N and Borders will order, and if they can't guess, they can actually ask the buyers.

During the meetings required for acquisitions, a P&L statement is drawn up. It can be either in support or against buying the book. And if they make an offer, that offer has a lot to do with determining the print run.

But here's the thing. The more a publisher pays for a book, the more money they'll spend on marketing, coop, advertising, publicity, so the more books they will print, and the more it will sell.

A print run can be inflated automatically if a book is bought for a lot of money. That kind of interest isn't lost on the booksellers--hell, the publisher lets them know how much they paid, and the type of promotion it is getting.

So a bigger advance means a bigger print run which means bigger discounting to the big boxes which means a bigger marketing campaign.

The booksellers order more, so there are more available to buy, so more sell.

Availability and market satuaration are key to book sales. A single title, spine out in section, won't find as wide an audience as that same title on the new Release table, stacked twenty high at 40% off.

And the cause of this?

It isn't the book. It's how much money the publisher paid for the book, and what they need to do then to recoop that money.

I'm not disputing the aquisitions process. I'm saying it can be, and often is, manipulated.

If a publisher wants a book, it can crunch the numbers to fit its needs.

Publishers often also crunch the numbers on books that they paid too much for---and they all have stories of books they paid too much for, just like they have stories of books they bought for a song that went on to become huge hits.

JA Konrath said...

Something else I wanted to add.

Just as "Good" is subjective, so too is "expectations."

As expectations change, so can profit and loss projections.

In the old days, publishers used to grow authors. They still do, but they aren't as patient, and are often stingier with the money needed to grow authors (coop, marketing, advertising.)

I've heard that a marketing budget is largely tied to the book's print run.

Consider how limiting that is. If the P&L projects that the book will be profitable at 16,000 hardcovers sold, marketing money is allocated to meet this goal.

But what if a publisher forked over double, triple, ten times the money? Could they sell ten times the books?

A publisher can push an author onto the NYT list with hype, discoutning, coop, and sales to non-traditional accounts. They're taking a bigger risk, but they still do it all the time. They can do this with debut authors, or authors they've been growing over several books.

But they have to take that chance first. They have to spend the money to make the money. No one wants to be responsible for a big flop.

So they play the wait-and-see game with authors, watching to see if they can build an audience without that extra push.

Guess what? Without coop, discounting, and widespread distribution, most books will do exactly what the P&L predicted.

So they key for the autho is to get a bigger advance, which will necessitate a bigger print run, which means more marketing dollars to protect the investment.

K J Gillenwater said...

So, I must ask...since I just saw the news this morning...what do you think of HarperCollins trying for a line with no advances?

I'm hoping this means that new authors will get a chance to prove they can sell b/c the risk is so much lower with the type of model they are suggesting.

I'd love to hear thoughts on this...

Anonymous said...

The trouble with this, is that even with a top story market giving 20 cents a word (and the pathetic thing is that I'd like to know who's paying even that right now), but the big trouble with it is that we should be getting 63 cents a word if we want to be paid the equivalent that mainstream writers did in the 1930s. What they also got was a mass audience -- which is why the world remembers these guys, the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds of American writing. Without markets like that, what hope do we have to make it that big? Not much, I think.

JA Konrath said...

what do you think of HarperCollins trying for a line with no advances?

I'd try it in a heartbeat. If I ran a publishing house, that's how I'd do it.

Anonymous said...

"There's a reason most of the time when agents and publishers reject work: because it's not very good.


And no.

Every book has been rejected by somebody. Harry Potter was rejected.

Can you imagine how those agents who rejected Rowling feel now? They missed out on 15% of billions of dollars. "

You hear this all the time--well, this bestselling author was rejected upteen times. So publishers do reject good books. The argument only makes sense if we know her submissions/queries remained static.

As authors, we tend to tweak and revise. Esp with each rejection. A book that sells on the 100th submission may look very different than it did on its first.

When I hear a book was picked up after so many rejections my first thoughts are jeez, why did the author take so long to revise?

Anonymous said...

Good Job! :)