Some things were drummed into me in childhood. One of the them is that you don’t talk about money. You just don’t. If you mention how well you’re doing, you’re bragging. If you, instead, mention how poor you are, you’re whining. There is no winning with money.
And yet, yesterday Francis brought up the fact that one SHOULD discuss money if one is a writer, and he’s probably right. Lines like, in Sliding Doors “You’ll finish your novel and we’ll be rich” lead the general public to believe this is true. I have a friend who got five thousand a piece for her first two novels, and when her husband lost his job had to take work with a mega store as a night stocker. And every time she told someone she’d published a book, she got told “So you’re just working here for research, right? Because you have that money socked away somewhere.” Right…
So, let’s start at the beginning. When I was a wee little writer, knee high to a grasshopper, or at least only 22 and green as grass, I didn’t expect one book to make me rich. But I’d read autobiographical writings from Heinlein, Simak and other golden age writers (before Heinlein made it big) and I expected book writing to pay roughly a living wage. The way I saw it, writing a competent book took a year, and so you should at least get entry money, right. Say 20 thousand or so.
Needless to say, I was wrong. It is true that when Heinlein was a midlist writer, he got paid per novel about what the average secretary or office worker got, about 5 thousand a year or so. But, oh, man, have times changed.
In this year of our Lord most writers – at least beginners – are making less than five thousand for a first book. And a lot of us, established midlisters are making… about the same. NOT adjusted for inflation. (This has consequences, like most writers being people who have someone else to support them, which means that most writers have a certain view of life. But never mind that.)
And until recently we never talked about it. EVER. Why? Because it might influence your next advance. Though of course, all the insiders of the industry knew so if your advances were pegged at “sucky” that was all you were ever going to get.
Now? Ask me if I care. If no one buys the books, they go Indie. If they lowball me (and anything under ten thousand is lowball) the books go indie. Over ten years, which is the minimum amount of time before I get the rights back (and nowadays the time seems to be never) there’s at least a very good CHANCE that the books will earn more than ten thousand. I’m willing to bite it for a decent offer, but less than that? No. I’ve found I have trouble writing books that pay less than that. Worse, I have trouble respecting myself for doing it.
And what, you’ll say, if no one gives you that money and your books don’t sell indie? Well, before the indie option opened up, I was ready to go take a community college course in cabinet making, or open a Daring Finds style operation doing what my older son calls “flipping furniture” – which I did in my younger days when strapped. Because, guess what, it pays very little. About what writing pays. BUT I sleep at night.
First, let me point out that the myth that a book sells or doesn’t sell because of what’s within the covers is just that, a myth. Or at least it was, back in the days when you had to depend on your publisher to get you on the shelves. And you had to depend on your publisher to tell the bookstore to stock you because you were “important talent” or something of the sort. I’m not going to reprise that. If you haven’t read it, read my post “He beats me but he’s my publisher.” If no one knows the book exists you can’t sell it. End of story.
The important thing – the most important thing – determining how your book would sell was the amount of advance you got. Because that determined how much effort the publisher put into recouping that money. And that, in turn had more to do with how “sexy” a “package” you were, which had to do with how well… how you looked, how the publisher perceived you, whether your story was “different” (and by story I mean your bio, not your book.) Of course, you could also get a great advance by having an agent who really believed in you. Or… a fluke. But in most cases it had nothing to do with your book.
For my very first book, I had a C level agent, and I took the first offer – five thousand dollars. Next two books I had an A level agent (at least he considers himself that) and he told me to take the first offer, at 10 thousand per book because “we could get more money, but I think we’ll sell them more books this way.”
Was he right? Well, in a way, but I hate to think what he meant by that “we’ll sell them more books.” If you believe the statements for my first three books, they were all terrible failures. Or at least the house told me they were failures. And yet, the first book – taken out of print on the anniversary of the MMPB release – sold enough to earn back the advance and pay me royalties of about 1 thousand. Which by definition means it sold more than they expected it to. So what sense does it make? It doesn’t. Never mind.
For the next two, they supposedly lost money because they never made up the advance. Thing is the advance is a small part of this. I’m sure they lost money on paper, yes. But I’m also sure they’re not a charitable organization and I did sell them more books. (The writer for the movie Liar Liar, talking at the Nebs told us how his statements showed he’d lost the companies millions of dollars with that movie and all others, so that he was afraid his next movie would collapse all of Hollywood. One wonders if I was at risk of doing that to publishing.)
I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I think each book sold about 6k combined hard cover and MM – according to the statements. Again, I have no clue how realistic this was, but possibly not too far off, as both were taken out of print to the day a year after they came out. So, you couldn’t get a hardcover if you liked the mass market. And if you first found the second in hardcover and wanted to buy the first, your only bet was used, and not many of those. After I gave away my share of books, I had to buy copies at a considerable markup and often those advertised as “like new” were old library copies.
But here’s the thing. I’m not going to bother you with numbers and calculations. Dave Freer has done them several times, and if you want the numbers go to him. I’m a walking math disaster anyway. What I’m going to tell you is this: I got about 8% royalty on the hardcover, six on mass market. If the publisher truly lost money on my books… why did they buy the next one? Because they liked me? Pull the other one. It plays jingle bells. THAT might hold for one book, but … ten more? Right…
Right. They didn’t buy the next FANTASY. No, the demand was that I write historic mystery under another name. It turned out to be my maiden name Sarah D’Almeida (well, archaic spelling. But no one would know how to shelve de Almeida.)
So I wrote the musketeer mysteries. Those sold for seven and a half thousand a piece because “mysteries pay less, and honestly we have more submissions for mysteries than for romance.” Maybe mysteries do pay less. I do know that they sell considerably more than science fiction, something my indie short publishing is proving. But never mind that. The first book had a laydown of seventeen thousand. It supposedly got half the printrun returned. (Yes, I’m putting supposedly before all that. Most of the statements make no internal sense and it’s hard to tell. It’s not so much a matter of doubting them as a matter of “huh?”) However, it also sold to book club as an alternate selection. I don’t remember getting royalties for it, so if I did, it was insignificant. None of the others paid royalties. The first one was taken out of print, the subsequent ones should have gone out of print through lack of sales years ago, but they refuse to take them out of print. They also refuse to REPRINT them (at this point the “in print” is academic) and, oh, yeah, I don’t have the rights back. At my last enquiry I was told my agent would have to request the reversion, even though I’m no longer agented. Yes, this is something I have to deal with, I just have had neither time nor patience to go digging out all documentation. The sales on those are 20 e-copies or so per year, if you believe the statements. (They might be, who knows? At this point e-sales are free money. Do that to 200 books and you’re talking more than chicken feed. So, of course they’d hold on to as many as possible.)
BTW, those books were contracted at four and then three per year. Yep. Four and then three. This on top of work for other houses. But Sarah, why did you work so much? Because if I couldn’t make from this what I would make as instructor at the local community college (the most recent work I’ve done) I’d have owed it to myself to get a real job. And I had hope I could make more from writing. And my husband believed in me. So I bit the bullet.
Anyway, look up on Amazon the cover for the original paper copy of Death of A Musketeer and the one for The Musketeer’s Apprentice. I don’t know how alike they look online, but in paper they are virtually indistinguishable, particularly spine out. SHOCKINGLY the third didn’t sell very well. So they offered me six and a half thousand for each of the next three.
For these some marketing genius decided the problem was NOT that they were bringing them out four months apart with no push whatsoever or even that they were making the covers too similar. No, the problem is that the covers said “the musketeer” – so for fourth and fifth I had to change the title completely. The style of cover changed too. I got panicked emails asking me if I had dropped the musketeer series. Some of them from book sellers which tells you how well these books were signaled in the catalogs.
Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention, when the third book came out, the first was listed as in print, but the house wouldn’t ship it. I got phone calls from book sellers. And emails, through my website. Because they’d reorder the first book and it never came. For six months. Then it came.
I could be paranoid about this, but it’s actually a fairly normal snafu for publishing houses and midlist books. However, it MIGHT just marginally have something to do with the fact that by book three the series was in trouble.
Meanwhile, in the middle of all this, I wrote Plain Jane under a house name. Strangely, Plain Jane, supposedly, outsold all my “under my own name” books. I still get royalties. This despite the suckiest cover in the universe. (Trust me. Go look up Plain Jane by Laurien Gardner if you don’t believe me.) Why? Again I could come up with conspiracy theories, but who knows? Maybe it’s the fact I wrote it in three days?
When these two books didn’t increase in laydown, the marketing decision was that this was SOMEHOW due to my writing – of course – or perhaps my name. I was told to submit a contemporary mystery and that my name should not have Sarah in it and should be “something white bread.” (because Hoyt is wild and exotic!) (Note how this presupposes by then I had enough distro that people associated my name with books that didn’t sell. Or something. For these books I was offered 6.5 thousand a book.) I wrote two and a year after the second came out, I was offered a contract on the third. This was five thousand. “Pressures of the market” and all that. That book was delivered eight or ten months ago. I’m told it’s scheduled for October.
At the same time THIS house was saying I had to change my name because no one would buy a book with Sarah Hoyt on it, Jim Baen offered me ten thousand for a fantasy under Sarah Hoyt. I took it. I asked him under what name he wanted it. He didn’t ask me if I was daft but said “your name is fine.” So I did that. Yeah, that cover was horrible (if you haven’t seen the hard cover you haven’t lived.) Yeah, that affected sales. The cover got changed for the mass market. They bought Gentleman Takes A Chance, I THINK at 10.5 thousand. And Darkship Thieves for the same, at the same time.
Bantam bought the British Empire trilogy for ten thousand a piece.
I also sold No Will But His (the Story of Kathryn Howard) for 12.5 thousand.
Then there was this year hiatus which might have been due to my being exhausted. If you’re saying, “but Sarah, you can and have written forty thousand words, corrected, over a weekend. Six books a year? No problem.”
Well, in an ideal world (there I go sounding like the rejections for Science Fiction Age again,) no, not a problem. Except this is not an ideal world. My writing happens around other things. And by other things I don’t mean JUST illness or the year I had to homeschool the younger child. No, I mean that writing is not just putting words on paper and getting them published. There’s negotiations, there’s the occasional short story, more and more there are promotions and (at least) blog tours and conventions to attend. There’s also research, particularly for my historic works. Then there’s editing and tweaking to suit the editor and figuring HOW to do it without killing the book, when the editor’s “vision” had very little to do with what you wrote, much less what you want to write. There’s page proofs. There’s concordances to keep up to date. I can work an eight hour day and do cold nothing on WRITING. And if I give THAT the time it deserves and you include things like reading friend’s books for an opinion, mentoring, and some (light) editing, it ends up being a good half of my work time. Could I cut it down? Oh, hell yes, but I’d need an assistant, and I simply don’t make enough money for that. (Though I’ve had contract ones now and then, but I either have to underpay them or give them up.)
In case you’re wondering, I also can’t afford household help. And I’ve told you what the vacations are. We think we’re in paradise if we get four days in Denver. The best vacations I’ve had in recent memory (other than over Christmas which was all points on airline and hotel this year) were the two days at Left Coast Crime in Denver, in ’08, when we got an upgraded room through a fluke, and my husband and I hung out in it and wrote, when I wasn’t at panels; and the wonderful time that Liberty con gave me and my husband when we were special guests (and we got to take the boys too.)
Anyway, there I go whining again. Never mind. Again, it’s my choice to write. I could, instead, have undertaken honest work. Housecleaning for instance.
So, after oh, five six years of this, I was exhausted, and I simply couldn’t come up with a proposal for more books. Also Dan put his foot down and told me I WAS taking a break. When I finally sent a proposal in, they took a while to be bought anyway.
And then I sold the aforementioned third daring finds for 5 thousand, and two books to Baen (Darkship Renegade and Noah’s Boy – which is overdue) for 11.5, (I think) a piece.
I just got my tax form from my former agency. For 2011 my total income (three books sold for 3k a piece, one delivery payment on the mystery, Japanese rights) from my novels was 7.8 thousand. If you count non-fiction work, shorts and – THANK G-d – my indie work, I probably made ten thousand.
The good news? Well, I probably won’t owe taxes.
Because here’s the thing, the years I’ve made “real money” – defined at about a secretarial salary for someone with my age and experience – say between 30 and 50 thousand, (though I was so mad at PG’s blog I think I said I made fifty thousand, I never really got to that number – I just confused what I sold some years with the actual payments. Not the same thing) – between my self employment taxes (the equivalent of medicare and social security taxes, of which I have to pay both ends), and my agent’s fees and … well… on average I keep thirty percent of what I make. Which means most years I worked nights, weekends, bought expensive books and had to behave like a professional for around ten thousand a year.
Was it worth it? Well, I could work in my pajamas.
(If you’re wondering about the 3 thousand a piece novels, that was the price of selling them under a pen name and having no track record in vampire fiction. I was told the only house that would take them was a medium size press and at the time I viewed it as either selling to them or leaving the books in the drawer forever. So I sold. Do I regret it? I don’t know. Depends on what I see from them in terms of due diligence and royalties. They’ve treated me nicely and they’ve done the best they can. In principle now I resent having gone traditional with them, but that’s not the publisher’s fault, and I have a contract. Again, they’ve been decent to me, and I’m not even writing off working with them in the future, if they treat me well now. Just as I’ll continue working for Baen, unless things change drastically – at least for some of my science fiction and fantasy. Loyalty and gratitude are not suicide [or starvation] pacts, so if I find I can make a lot more indie, I can’t guarantee I won’t take some of the non-directly Thena verse books indie. Though I suspect most of my indie stuff will be fantasy, mostly urban fantasy, and light mystery. I have even – heavens – planned some romance. [Don’t worry, it will have fantastic elements])
And if you’re trying to add the money above, what you have to remember is that writers don’t get their advances in a lump sum. No, we get “signing money” usually a third or half (For Baen it’s half) then delivery and acceptance money (I just got that for Darkship Renegades) and then, if it’s three payments, you get publication payment. And yes, the mystery money, all of five thousand is three payments.)
So you can see why the young lady over at PG said “no one can make a living from writing” – you can also see why I’m furious. Yeah, I’ve barely made a living from writing all these years. (To be honest, if I were single and not taxed at my husband’s rate, I probably could have scraped by and it could be defined as “a living”.) BUT that’s not the point. The point is that we should aim to, and demand to make a living. Even I wouldn’t have persisted if I hadn’t had the HOPE of eventually making a living. And now with indie, I do have that hope.
“So, Sarah, how much does indie pay?” Well, right now not terribly much. My indie press, started out making $30 a month with ten short stories out. Now depending on outlets, I have between twenty and thirty stories/collections out, and this month so far I’ve made about 80 on Amazon. Other outlets report slower, so I expect I made somewhere between 100 and 200, and I can’t quantify it for probably another three months, when I hope to have other stuff out.
I’m told novels – at least some novels, and no one is ever sure why or which – make a lot more. I haven’t had a chance to try.
Meanwhile, at Naked Reader I get 50% of raw receipts and for the last quarter I got a couple hundred dollars. Again, the only novel I have there is A Touch of Night, which might or might not be representative, since it’s Jane Austen Fanfic. Oh, I have Death Of A Musketeer too, but I haven’t been pushing it at all, since we don’t have the rights back to the other books. So I think sales on it are almost incidental. I would like to push it, I’m just trying to clear the other books first. For one I’d like to rewrite the last one.
And this brings me to where I am. I THINK I can make a living from indie, better than I’ve ever done from traditional and I think I can do it without killing myself. But I find myself blocking on my traditional work, because at this point I resent it. There is, if nothing else, a strong flavor of throwing babies into the volcano. Because once they’re out of my hands, I have nothing to do with the fate of the traditionally published books. Maybe, as with Darkship Thieves, gentle breezes will waft them onto verdant slopes. And maybe they’ll crash straight down and burn. There’s nothing I can do, and the quality of the writing or even the amount of promotion I do does very little. (BTW, I almost wrote that as throwing the babies into the Vulcan, but I’ll note there’s a lack of RATIONALITY to the process.)
Right now it’s come down to what I call “playing mind games with myself.” I can either completely block on both my overdue books AND the indie stuff and write nothing all year OR I can write for contract during the day and for myself weekends and evenings. I hate to do that, because I owe those books and I’d like them out of the way. But my mental processes too are not always extremely rational.
Oh, and if you say “perhaps your distinct lack of breakout books comes from being a lousy writer, Sarah” – I’ll concede that’s entirely possible. But I’d like to point out there’s any number of non-lousy writers stuck where I am/was, and a whole lot of lousy writers gracing the bestseller lists, all through the magic of “publisher push” or lack thereof… Something that no longer seems to matter with indie publishing, which is why I’m filled with hope.
Now, all I have to do is give up sleeping, and I can put things up (I have a backlog of about 225 stories written, but prep, cover and putting them up DOES take time), write new novels and fulfill my contracts. Best of all, no fifteen percent percentage out of anything indie or anything I sell now. So, even though I still pay 55% in taxes, I got a 50% raise! Even if I never sell more than I did. More importantly, the indie novels will never go out of print. Even if they earn very little, they’ll earn SOMETHING. AND half the bs is cut out of the process – no rewrites that have no purpose or make me grit my teeth. (Oh, I’ll still have them edited. I’m fortunate to be friends with the world’s best editor and some excellent copyeditors. But the “vision” will be mine.)
And that, my friends, is the subject ladies never talk about.
If you’re scratching your head and wondering why I didn’t give up along the way… Well – see, there was always the hope. (Curse Pandora’s gift.) Even though I knew the game was rigged, there was the hope if I made the next book REALLY good I’d sell a decent amount and then I’d get a bigger advance. And then… Well… at that it happened in a way. Darkship Thieves seems to have done slightly better than the rest, and well… The hope is still there. Also, when I tried to quit (every other month and three times in the last five years VERY seriously) my husband told me to try just a little longer. He’d endure the hardships, because he believed in me. It’s hard to give up when someone thinks you can walk on water. So I continued. (Some days I think I used up all my luck in finding my husband and in having our kids.)
And now, you see, unless I’m reading the signs wrong, he just might be right, and I might be able to make not only a living but a good living.
Let us hope so. And now, I will take my ear infection to bed (In case you wonder why I sound so tired as well as angry. Yeah, I have antibiotics.) I’m office-ish-ing tomorrow. Catch you late afternoon my time.