Authors: Don’t quit your day jobs

A friend once confided in me that he was nearly finished with his first novel, but that he was keeping it secret from his co-workers. He planned to quit when the novel sold and earn a living as an author.

He was young, optimistic and enthusiastic.

I didn’t want to crush his dreams, so I said nothing.

We all believe we will defy the odds, and maybe we will. Maybe my friend’s novel will earn a huge advance, the movie rights will sell immediately and the never-ending sales of licensed t-shirts, trinkets and video games will keep his coffers full. Then, maybe the second novel will take off, too.

But a new survey from the Authors Guild, the largest of its kind, suggests otherwise. The Authors Guild, in cooperation with 14 other author organizations, collected surveys from 5,067 published authors who are U.S. residents about their 2017 earnings, and the picture it paints is rather grim.

The median incomes of all published authors (This includes part-time, full-time, traditionally published, self-published, and hybrid-published authors) was $6,080, and that’s not just royalties. That figure includes money earned from freelance writing, speaking engagements, teaching — anything writing-related.

From books alone, authors earned a median income of $3,100.

But those figures include everyone.

Here is a more specific breakdown:

  • Median income for full-time authors for all writing-related activities: $20,300.
  • Median book-related income for self-published authors: $1,951. (That climbs to  $10,050 for self-published romance and romantic suspense writers.)
  • Median book-related income for traditional authors: $12,400.

These figures do not include the 25 percent of all published authors and 18 percent of full-time authors who earned no royalties on their books in 2017.  Yes, that happens. Books often take a long time to write. In a year without new publication, it is possible to earn nothing at all.

It’s not all bad news though. The highest paid authors in 2017 still did well:

  • Traditionally published: $305,000.
  • Self-Published: $154,000 

But that is for just one year. It is possible to get a large advance from a publisher for a book, and then never make anything more. A writer’s income is rarely consistent, which is another reason so many writers need day jobs.

Does that mean my friend should give up his dream? Absolutely not. Most of us write because we have a passion for writing. It’s in our blood. If we can make money doing what we love, even if we still need to hold onto our day jobs, why shouldn’t we?

We can also work together to improve the situation for each other. We can share ideas on marketing and promoting books. We can join organizations like the Authors Guild, which advocates for writers by keeping them informed and providing access to free and discounted services.  We can promote the love of reading and writing in our communities.

Maybe I should have warned my friend about the financial status of the industry, awakened him to the reality, but I was selfish. I wanted him to enjoy the ignorance a little longer. I learned these things piecemeal, beginning in my college days, and each time a bit of industry news got me down, something else pulled me back up — a published short story, a friend’s success story, a contract offer from a publisher 17 years after starting my first book. (Yes!)

I want that for him.

A career as an author does not make financial sense, but a trip to a local book store is evidence that writing is about more than the money. All those authors. All those books. They happened anyway. He will find out soon enough, or maybe he already has, but I still expect to see his name on those shelves someday alongside my own.

 

 

 

Traditional publishing and the gift of patience

A wise woman (my agent) once told me to have patience.
Publishing has changed, she said, and what once took four to six weeks can take months.
I admit.
I thought maybe that was a bit of an overstatement.
But here we are nearly seven months into the submissions process with two passes and four editors still undecided. Well, I say undecided. The reality is that as of last month, they still hadn’t read my manuscript. They are busy.
Busy.
Busy.
Busy.
I understand better than ever now the pull toward self-publishing. This age of electronics and technology should have made things easier, and it has in many ways. But it has also added new layers of complications to the publishing process.
Advances in technology have made it easier to bombard editors with manuscripts. In the old days (like less than a decade ago) agents had to be more selective because each manuscript cost money to print and mail. Not so anymore.
Editors and agents are reading manuscripts on their Kindles, their Nooks and their iPads.
They are easy to receive, easy to edit and easy to read.
The savings in paper, printing and shipping costs is undeniable.
For the planet, this is a good thing.
Yeah, for the planet!
But for editors, it means this:
Bigger slush piles.
Heavier workloads.
Higher expectations.
Slower turn-arounds.
And, unfortunately, that’s not so good for me.
I have options, and self-publishing is one them. But there’s a huge trade-off. Self-publishing has no gatekeepers, no one evaluating manuscripts pre-publication, helping readers decide how to spend their time and money. Successful self-publishers must have more than great books. They must also excel in business, especially in the realms of marketing and promotion, and they must be willing to make huge investments of time.
Um, that’s not me.
I don’t want to start at the base of the publishing mountain, pushing through all the other climbers and struggling to the top. I don’t mind a good promotional workout, but I’d like a lift, please. I’d like the lift to the midway point that comes with traditional publishing via the publisher’s credibility with booksellers, readers and reviewers.
I know.
There is a price.
I have to pay with patience.
So here I am, trying to forget the manuscripts that sit in those editors’ in-boxes, focusing instead on the novel I just finished, the one that will most certainly need revisions when beta readers pass it back to me.
Here I am, turning back to my first novel, which I shelved for a while, trying to pick up the pace in the first one hundred and twenty pages.
Here I am, thinking up characters, plots and settings for yet another novel.
Here I am re-thinking.
Maybe patience isn’t a “price,” but rather a gift. Without patience, I’d be out there promoting and marketing self-published novels while juggling my home life of four young kids and a traveling husband. I wouldn’t be writing, at least not as much.
Writing is what I love.
So the patience that is necessary for traditional publishing is allowing me to do what I love.
Hmm.
I guess that’s a pretty good trade-off.
I’ll take it.

Good agency goes bad

Originally posted March 19, 2009

Objective Entertainment is a big agency that deals with lots of celebrities, so I really didn’t expect much when I queried agent Ian Kleinert a few months back.
I was more ignorant then too.
I thought my journalism experience and my years as a stay-at-home mom were a strong enough platform for my nonfiction book.
My eyes are open now.
The proposal has changed and it’s much stronger.
So is my query letter.
So I expected rejection this afternoon when I found a response from Objective Entertainment in my inbox. But Objective Entertainment surprised me. The e-mail was not from Ian and it was far more appalling than a rejection.
It was from a woman named Tracey Ravenelle.
This is what she said:

“Thanks so such for querying us, but we are unsure that this premise would work in this tight market. All said we would encourage you to do what many of our clients have done prior and self- publish with a reputable, and recommended, publisher. This is a new age in publishing, and as evidenced time and time again, neither The New York Times bestsellers list nor major booksellers discriminate against the self published. Oftentimes, authors choose to get proactive in order to build a sales record and boost their chances of being picked up.
I would like your permission to pass along your information to someone who can help you get started on your path towards getting published. If you are ready to become proactive about your career we will let them know more details about your manuscript and how to get into contact with you. There are a lot of publishers that seem to have gotten the better of new authors, the two that we refer you to are not of that ilk, they have had a number of successes.”

Needless to say, I was floored.
This person has decided that she has the authority to speak for every agent and publishing house out there. Since she believes the market is too tight, apparently every agent will feel the same way. And I am supposed to accept that.
Hmmm.
Now, I don’t want to reveal too much about my agent search, but I will say that I have every reason to believe that I will get a contract sooner or later and that I will publish in the traditional way.
Fortunately, I am not so easily deterred.
But I worry that other writers might be.
A little searching on Absolute Write proved that I am not the only writer who recently received communications from Tracey after querying Ian. In fact, other writers received precisely the same note.
I can assume only one thing.
Tracey, Ian and maybe some other folks at Objective Entertainment, are making money off these referrals to self-publishing houses. They are making money and they are preying on the ignorance of writers who might be inexperienced with publishing, and on their potential lack of self confidence to do it.
There is nothing wrong with self-publishing if that is what a writer wants.
But this is not friendly guidance.
This smells fishy.
Very, very fishy.

Why self-publishing is not for me

Originally published Nov. 16, 2008

Even before I started querying literary agents, the queries came pouring in from friends and family.
Why go through all that?
Why not self publish?
Well, here is my answer:
I still have faith in the gatekeepers.
Self-publishing has its place.
Some people want full control of their written work. They want to retain all rights; They want to retain all profits. Other folks don’t have the time or the patience for agents. They see the flaws in the system and they are discouraged. And who can blame them? Some agents will toss manuscripts in the garbage for reasons as simple as margins that are too big or too small.Then there are the people who write only for limited and personal audiences. They write for themselves, their families and their friends. Retaining agents make no sense for them. It’s not worth the time or the effort.
But this is my career, or the career I want.
I want to be writing novels and non-fiction books when I am 80 and I want people to be confident when they go to a bookstore and pick up one of my books that it has passed certain tests—the tests of the industry.
The industry is not perfect, but agents and publishers do the best they can in a world in which paper prices are rising and the competition from electronic media is ever-increasing.
I have read some awesome self-published books and I have been saddened by the knowledge that those books will never reach their sales potential. That saddens me, not because the author is missing out of fame or fortune, but because I know so many others would enjoy reading those books as much as I have.
But those books will never get the distribution and exposure of an industry-published book.
I have also read some self-published novels that left me embarrassed for the author and wishing for a refund. Not only were they poorly written and poorly plotted, but they were riddled with errors.
That’s where the gatekeepers come in.
Sure, some lousy books slip through the gate. But 90 percent of the novels and non-fiction books that make it to the presses through non-vanity publishers are pretty darned good.
And yes, I’ve encounter some agents who were egotistical jerks. I even hung up on one. But 90 percent of the agents that I’ve queried or spoken with have given good, solid and well-intended advice along with their rejections. Some have rejected me with form letters, but the letters were constructively written and professional.
So I will plod on.
I will continue taping my favorite rejection letters to the wall above my desk. I will continue honing my novel, my query letter and my non-fiction proposal based on the constructive criticism of those agents who have nothing to gain by spending time addressing me individually, but who do so out of a passion for the industry.
I will continue to have faith in the gatekeepers.