*Apologies in advance for the length of this post, especially after a prolonged quiet*
Yesterday, a fellow writer, Stacey Jay
, was criticized for crowdfunding a project to develop a final book in a series that had been passed over by the publisher. When I came on the scene, the public critiques had gone well past pointing flaws in the business model and way into the personal and while I wouldn’t call what I saw “bullying” because that is not a term I use lightly, there was a lot of vitriolic name-calling, stabby fingers and public shaming as well as a large heaping sporkful of presumptions that made me both angry and sad.* The result was that she withdrew from social media and our writerly corner of the biblioverse, which we in the writing trenches called “home.” I offered sympathy and support, but it nagged me—these black holes of misunderstanding—and I thought I'd try to shed some light on the cobwebby bits of writing for a living.
It’s no surprise that those outside the publishing business have little idea how it works (and, frankly, many of us inside
the publishing business have little idea how it works!) and while I know it’s frowned upon to talk about real dollars and the topic of money is considered gauche, I invite all interested parties to imagine fistfuls of colorful Monopoly play money from here on in. (P.S. I get to be the thimble.)1. It's a Job
Okay, first off: writing is a job. It may be a hobby or a wistful dream for some people—like pro basketball or performing theater-in-the-round—but for those in the business of publishing, whether traditional or indie, crowdfunded or under contract, it is a job,
which means it is work.
It's not like a desk job where some days you are productive and other days you slack off, but you still get the same paycheck in the end; writing means being creative on demand
(which, by the way, isn’t easy) day after day after day with only your integrity and grit and caffeine keeping you going, unless you’re really lucky and you have to do it on a deadline with people expectantly waiting for your to produce something brilliant so hup! hup! hup!
Writing takes time and the bottom line is if you don’t write, it doesn’t get done. Period. There are millions of things you can do by not-writing, but writing is the only way to finish the damned book.2. It's a Weird Job
Obviously, this isn’t a 9-to-5 gig, but what might be less obvious is that if you are trying to “make it” as a writer, this job includes everything from writing to social networking, researching, updating, finding/keeping an agent or finding/keeping an editor, scheduling appearances, making promotion materials, running contests, paying postage and maintaining an online presence with your pros, friends and fans, which is more like a 7-day, sixty-hour work week squished into any available time slot with—and this is the important part—no guarantee of getting paid.
That’s right. Unless you have a contract with an advance on royalties or a steady sale setup, you earn $0. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zero.3. Let's Do the Math, Jayne.
I am reminded of Jayne Cobb from Firefly
: “Ten percent of nuthin' is...let me do the math here…nuthin’ into nuthin’…carry the nuthin'…” Right. Now let’s say you are one of the lucky ducks who has a contract with an advance (Go you!), besides the fact that the amount varies widely, there is something else you have to consider when metaphorically marching in another author’s moccasins (or, more likely, bunny slippers): whether an author is getting five hundred dollars, five thousand dollars, fifty thousand dollars or a million dollars, this isn’t some flat fee that appears in a lump sum like Scrooge McDuck’s
moneybags, this is an advance on projected royalties paid out for years because a single book may take anywhere from 1-3 years (often more!) and a series is stretched over 3-5 years (often more!) and, in the traditional model, these payments are made in increments that align to contract signings, acceptance of manuscripts and publishing dates (which, by the way, can fluctuate wildly based on the whim of rabid marmots and the flight patterns of European swallows).
During these years, authors have to pay taxes like any other law-abiding, self-employed person, which amounts to quarterly payments of roughly 25%. Also, if an author has an agent—and many do—their agent earns 15-20% of whatever book deal they brokered, which more than pays for itself since great agents work hard for their clients, and this is taken off the top. (i.e. Money from a publisher is paid first to an agency, which then forwards the remainder to the author.) Even indie authors, who control their own schedules and costs, must pay taxes quarterly and they aren’t even afforded the luxury of an advance! Okay, Jayne, let’s do the math: take X pink and blue and yellow dollars, stretch it over several years, minus 15% investment, minus 25% taxed. How is that number looking so far for sixty hours a week spread out over several years? Yeah, that’s how I feel most of the time.4. Crowdfunding
So now there is crowdfunding, the cooler, younger cousin of the publishing world, which sounds like it's in danger of becoming Scrappy Doo
. Some readers question the appropriateness of crowdfunding books, or which sites are “okay” for writers to use, but, in fact, crowdfunding sites are a perfect platform for writers because, like Kickstarter, writing is an all-or-nothing prospect. Writing is one of those jobs that you can work hard, take classes, improve your craft, invest in critique, revise, submit, tweak, and rewrite draft after draft after draft and still not earn one penny for it. Nothing. Nada. Zilch, Zero. If no one is willing to buy it—either traditional agents and publishers or customers downloading self-published e-books—then you are out all of that time and money with nothing to show for it. That’s how it goes. It may shock readers to think that they are asked to pay money for a book “and” an author’s salary, but here’s the thing: that book is an author’s salary. That’s the product of professional writing. That story didn’t materialize out of nowhere, because it’s not just ink and paper or pixels on screens, it is the creativity, the unique voice, the craft as well as the heating and the rent and the groceries and the showers and the sleep necessary to make it happen. (Trust me, you want us to take our showers!) That’s what you’re paying for as a reader and a percentage goes back to the writer, either as straight earnings or towards that advance. Unfortunately, because consumers are used to thinking that a book is worth $0.99-2.99 and that crowdfunding is for books already written—the end-investment of all that time and effort—they expect to fund the packaging and distribution for a couple of thousand dollars, citing that’s how much it takes to self-publish a book. However, this particular campaign was to create a book from scratch,
from start to finished product, so it’s apples to oranges in this case. In my mind, if you didn't want to support the project, then you didn't have to fund it. End story. (Literally.)
All of that aside, what was interesting to me was hearing what people thought it takes to write a book—how much money would or could (or should!) be spent on the creation of a story in a format that readers can enjoy. They focused on the prices of art, editing, format, layout, tallied costs and compared it to other creative efforts, when the truth is that that’s just the packaging. (Although packaging and marketing are *extremely*
important for storytelling success—despite all our best intentions, we all still judge a book by its cover.) But it was still missing the point.
The majority of what it takes to write a book isn’t the physical object—it’s time.5. "But if you really loved writing/your world/your fans, you’d just write the book, anyway!”
Wouldn’t that be lovely? To have infinite amount of lifetimes to create, hours and hours to get to every story idea you’ve ever wanted to pursue and forget all about those pesky things like bills and death and taxes? Well, yeah, sure, but life is finite—there are only so many hours (and no one knows how many), which includes such things as writing as well as bills and death and taxes. I assure you, it’s not that any writer *wants* to walk away from a story, especially one that hadn’t been fully told to her/his satisfaction, but the truth is that we have to make tough choices with the precious time we’ve been given: are we going to spend time writing something with no guarantee of return or spend that time on the next project that might go somewhere? (Check the fridge. There's your answer.) Time is a precious commodity and those of us who write make writing a priority, but lest you think that’s all we do, I must point out that we have other things like day jobs, school, family, children, significant others, friends, vacations, obligations, errands and giant To Do lists just like everyone else and have no idea what we’re making for dinner, yet we are following our passions hoping to share our words with no promise of success, recognition, praise or income. That can be a hard, lonely, thankless echo chamber and knowing that we haven’t earned enough to pay for the ink cartridge and stamps is just the icing on the cake. We miss those worlds, those characters, too, but we also have to eat.6. So
So what am I saying? Am I advocating a world where the audience becomes patrons of the arts? Well, yeah. Wouldn’t that be nice? I’d love for perfect strangers to pay for my groceries, provide for my kids, fill my car with gasoline and make sure my taxes are paid on time and in exchange, produce stories for your enjoyment, entertainment and purchase. That’s what I do. In fact, that's what traditional publishing, self-publishing and crowdfunding do! Check out sites like Patreon
to support your favorite authors. And, yes, many use Kickstarter
as a good bang-for-your-buck test to see if a project is worth doing because people want to see it. Or not. That’s our livelihood and I know plenty of writers who would love to have a crystal ball to say if it’s worth sitting down and writing their newest book idea or not and this platform is one new way to find out. It’s not the only
way, but it is a
way, and it’s far better to have many avenues to success than only one set of banded, golden doors.
Modern storytelling is one of the toughest jobs you’ll ever love and the publishing landscape is changing faster than the channels on the TV remote so forgive us as we stumble to make sense of where publishing is going and figure out new ways to make art = rent.
* There were, in fact, a lot of valid points on both sides of the debate, but the tension as far as I could tell had mostly to do with the sticker shock of honesty & transparency and then the reaction to that reaction, etc.