One of the many awesome things about the cruise I was on last month was the sheer number of creative people in attendance: musicians, artists, and of course, writers. And I particularly enjoyed this class given by science fiction author John Scalzi, who provided a crash course in the business side of the craft based on what he teaches at Viable Paradise, well-researched and complete with consultation from financial advisors. What follows is what I think is a lot of very useful information, as well as some painful truths about money. But like I tell my physiotherapist when he jabs needles in my injured leg to stimulate the nerves and facilitate healing: I get it, it's the necessary kind of pain.
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The Business of Writing: Publishing, Money, & More
Types of Publishing
- Subscription Models
Publishing Formats and Typical Earnings
- The rise of electronic models, e-readers, and electronic books
- E-books are a significant part of the landscape. in 2005 they were 1-2% of the market; now authors often sell more in e-books than in hardcover. Frequently, they now make up 30-70% of a writer’s business.
- Hardcovers: There is flat amount paid per unit sold; writers usually get 10% of that cost
- The fixed cost is based on cover price set by the publisher.
- With e-books: the author gets a percentage of the net. 30% goes to Amazon, 70% goes to publisher, then the author gets 25% of the rest.
- The chunk of money authors receive gets progressively smaller the lower the price goes. Meaning the writers sometimes get less from e-books. This is a substantial change in the landscape for writers and authors.
- Traditional publishers have been challenged by the electronic marketplace, but that appears to have settled.
- Borders filing for bankruptcy meant that a national chain was gone, and e-book sales became even more important.
- The good news: things have stabilized somewhat
- Independent booksellers have rebounded (because Borders is gone, and because independent bookstores have gotten smart and have diversified – featuring tabletop games, coffee shops, events and book clubs, etc.). This makes for a more diversified market, which is positive.
- Brick & Mortar sales have stabilized, while independent bookstores are on the upswing.
All About Amazon
- Amazon is a major player in the publishing game, regardless of whether you’re traditionally or self-published.
- Their feud with Hachette involved an argument over a percentage that Amazon would receive for sales, plus an advertising percentage. This subsequently pitted indie vesus traditional writers, which became an unnecessary conflict.
- Contracts always come up for re-negotiation.
- Get used to it, it will happen a lot; be aware that Amazon has a lot of sway and will use it to their advantage.
A Look at E-Publishing
- E-publishing: A great place to be, but sales have flattened out a bit for the e-readers. Their market has settled because everyone now has e-readers.
- Once people thought electronic would take over print, but it appears that print will continue to be around for a long time.
- Pay attention to the new trend: Audiobooks! This has also become a thing. Now people really like audiobooks. This is a growing field, and a fantastic opportunity. As a writer, this will be part of your landscape. In particular, Audible.com.
- This also affects writing: how will it be read aloud? For him, this has led to him cutting down his dialogue tags as a result.
- This will make things more difficult for new authors because Amazon/Audible will be able to dictate the terms.
Publishing Options and What They Mean
- Self-Publishing: Very easy to do, has never been an easier time.
- Downside: it is trivially easy for anyone to do so, so the market is flooded and it is difficult for things to stick out.
- Every year, there has always been that one guy to stand out and be successful. DO NOT RELY ON THEM AS THE FACE OF SELF-PUBLISHING.
- It’s a very competitive market. Many self-published works sell less than 500 copies.
- Amazon is the 500-pound gorilla of indie publishing. Meaning they have an exceptional amount of control over the market. You sign their Terms & Conditions; with a traditional publisher you sign a contract that you’ve negotiated.
- This applies to all of the e-retailers (iBooks from Apple, google play, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Wattpad, etc.). Know what you’re getting into; read the fine print. If you’re okay with the terms being one-sided, rather than negotiated, then go for it.
- Another option: Kickstarter/Indiegogo – Something that works that you can do, particularly if you have an existing audience (Twitter/Tumblr/Livejournal, etc.) – but this is work.
- He sticks with traditional publishers because good at writing and good at talking – he’s not good at copy editing, regular editing, page design, cover design – so for him, it’s worth it to be with a traditional publisher. These are valuable partners and worth it. And if you do the Kickstarter route you then also have to fulfill the stretch goals. If you’re not willing to do that, then don’t. Screw up a Kickstarter, and it’ll follow you to the end of your days.
- New wrinkle in the process: Subscription Models: Pay a flat fee per month (e.g. $10) and get access to many books. For writers and publishers, it is more ambiguous. How do the writers get paid? There’s a schism between indie and traditional writers. For traditionally-published work: if the reader has read 10% of the book, you get credit for the sale. For self-publishing: Amazon creates a monthly pool of money; everyone who’s an indie author, whose sales get triggered, gets credited as a proportion of that pool. And only the amount Amazon decides to put in. Which is bad news for indie authors because it turns it into a zero sum game. That may be a downward pressure that Traditional authors might also have to fight with. This is potential bad news for bookstores. For writers, the market can collapse, with fewer bigger publishers.
- Is this a scary time to be a writer? No, it’s an exciting time to be a writer. But it’s always been an exciting time.
- 30 years ago, science fiction and fantasy books were sold on racks at the grocery store; now that’s mostly romance, action-adventure thrillers, and very little sff. But back then, bookstore chains were on the rise.
- Every era has this experience, with market models going up or down, and different authors thriving on different models. There will always be people who thrive, people who fight for the scraps. We’ve always been in a crisis in publishing.
How to Be Financially Successful as a Writer
The Truth About Income
- Here’s the tough-love: Be responsible with your money.
- It’s always been a challenging time to be a writer. Prepare to be broke if that’s your only job.
- Many authors make less than $2-3K per year for their writing. Advances are typically not very high. The average starting advance is $6500; sometimes, up to $12K for science fiction, $15K for fantasy.
- And remember, this is spread out, divided into chunks. Upon acceptance, upon delivery of accepted revisions, and upon release.
- If you go the indie route: there’s no money up front; the money you receive is based on sales and payout from the retailer.
- Writers have always starved. Aren’t we lucky?
- Prepare to be broke. Don’t quit your day job. Especially if it gives you benefits and a stable base of income. It’s about the security.
- Even full-time writers can only write for a few hours a day. He spends time answering e-mail.
Keep Your Day Job
- 90% of writers do other things, too.
- Nearly every writer you meet has some other job. Do that.
- When to give up the day job? Never if you can avoid it. Even Wallace Stephens kept his.
- If you are going to quit your day job: If you are making 30% more with writing than you do on your day job from your writing, it could be worth it. But remember, you’re now on the hook for taxes, insurance, benefits, and you have to file quarterly, and other things you. So the amount of money you make will drop. So 30% more will work out to only 80% of what you had before.
- It helps to have a supportive partner. It particularly helps to have a partner who has a good job, stable income, and is good with money. But make sure you reciprocate in the quid pro quo of relationships if that is the case.
Financial Management Advice
- Save as much as you can. Specifically:
- Immediately take half of your income and put it away, for dealing with taxes and life. Your day-to-day like rent and bills comes out of the *other* half.
- This seems excessive, but in his experience, life appears to have a 10% fuck- you surcharge. Broken bones, broken down cars, other problems.
- It’s ok to have credit cards. But use them like cash, pay them off at the end of the month.
- Debt creeps and crawls, especially credit card debt. It’s the highest interest rate. Your cc company wants the stable income of you carrying that debt. Uses Amex as a charge card that must be paid off. Have credit cards but use them wisely, use them as cash.
- If you have debt, consider paying down the debt rather than saving.
- Clear out as much as you possibly can, as quickly as possible.
- Related to this: pay cash for what you want to buy or not buy. Also, saving up for the thing you want makes you think about the thing you want and whether or not you want it. Save a little every month and think about what you really want. Is the new computer really worth it? Besides, as you save up, prices drop down.
- The idea: do not spend what you do not have. Do not get used to spending more than you have. And when you buy something, buy the best you can and run it into the ground. Don’t just buy the new shiny. You’ll save money that way, even if it means paying more for something up front.
- Try not to live in a super expensive location if you can avoid it. Writers can work anywhere. He has a huge house, but it’s not expensive, because of where he lives. There are advantages to living in big cities, but if you can, live somewhere cheaper and it’ll make a big difference in your quality of life.
- All of this is about the fact that writing is a business. Treat it like a business. No one will look out for your interests more than you. If you don’t look out for yourself, you’re screwed. Even amicable relationships will push to make it as good to them as they can. But creative people don’t want to think about business, they want to think about art; that’s fine if you want to starve. Treat it seriously. Or else have a reliable spouse.
Questions from the Audience:
How can I find an editor for my work?
- Look for the references, see what they’ve edited.
- With traditional publishing, it will be taken care of.
- Indie: it’s work, and will come at a cost, but a good editor can be very helpful.
Which format makes more money for writers?
- Doesn’t matter; it evens out.
- First week of release: NYT bestseller list. But in terms of the money, it typically doesn’t matter.
- It’s okay to try a writer on sale, but if you want to support the writer, buy their books, and for a reasonable price.
- Writers may need to argue for when the prices go down, their royalties go up.
What kind of incentives and punishments do traditional publishers use to keep writers on the schedules?
- If you get a reputation for being unreliable, you won’t get published.
- Contracts help. Authors receive one part of their payment at signing, one part at delivery/acceptance, and one part at publishing. Finish the book, get paid.
What is the best way to find a trustworthy agent, and do they need to live close?
- Not important for them to live in the same area
- Perform due diligence when researching agents.
- When submitting, follow agent guidelines to the letter.
Is it better to get an agent first, or go for a publisher?
- Whichever works, but agents understand the money side. It helps to hire people who know how to do the job.
Writers' conventions: are they worth it?
- If that’s the thing you want to do, then yes; if not, stay home.
- Often there are writing panels at very inexpensive SFF conventions.
- He goes because he likes seeing and spending time with other writers.