alternative publishing. Here’s another one.
I am largely catholic in my views on the matter. Books will be written; books will be published; books will be read. The mechanism by which that happens is largely irrelevant – except to those who make money from it. Because ultimately this is about: the transfer of information/ideas/art
from creators to consumers in exchange for value. I use the term value deliberately because not all writers (or musicians, painters, actors) are in it just for the money. Some want recognition; some want to make art. But make no mistake; a value transaction does take place. It all depends if you are feeding the id (money), the ego (recognition) or the superego (art).
Personally, I tend to side with Samuel Johnson, who said: “None but a blockhead writes except for money.” Obviously, I’m not simply in it for the money – if only because I can make way more money doing other things. I write because I like to tell stories and putting words on paper (screen) is more socially acceptable that dominating social gatherings with endless blah-blah-blah. Who wants
to be a bore? And it gives me an excuse for avoiding things I don’t want to do: “I’d love to come to your son’s recital but I’m trying to finish my novel,” or, more commonly, “Honey, I’ll clean the bathroom as soon as this chapter is done.”
Of course, people are always cagey about their income – they either are making a decent income and don’t want to make you feel bad about the fact you’re not (or are worried you’ll ask for a loan or, worse yet, a recommendation to their agent/publisher). Alternatively, they are making very little and are embarrassed to tell you – because low income from art is another way of saying: “no one cares about my work.” Take comfort – even the most successful writer in the world has more people who don’t care about their work than do. (Harry Potter books have probably been read by 200 million people; that leaves 5.8 billion who haven’t read even one – including me).
The first thing to know is that the vast majority of people who work in the book business make little or no money from their efforts. Writers, editors, publishers, distributors, book sellers – far less than 1% of them ever get rich from doing it. Only a minority have made decent livings (and all I mean by that is a lower middle class income). Most – even those who do it full-time – live in poverty or depend on a spouse to support them. I have a friend who won the Governor General’s Award twice but only had a regular income when the Old Age Security kicked in. I have another friend who has been widely published but has never earned more than $30,000 a year from their art, usually a lot less. There are lots of publishing interns in NY living on less than $10000 a year (how, I don’t know).
Oh, some people are still making big bags of money – Rowling and Brown, the owners of Amazon, a few of the biggest publishing companies (though maybe not for much longer). At the same time, advances to new writers are in free-fall and the average a typical writer makes per book has
declined too. The most successful writers are taking an ever larger share of the market at the same time that the total number of books available (thanks to e-book self publishing) have sky-rocketed. Meanwhile, no one seems to know if the total market for books has increased at all.
The impact on writers incomes suggests it isn’t or at least not much.
I spent six years writing full-time (well except for the teaching, acting and occasional stint as a bartender). In my best year I made the princely sum of $18,000. Let’s say $24,000 in 2012 dollars. But on average I made about $12,000 ($15,000). Doesn’t sound like much does it? It isn’t but, thanks to a supportive spouse, I could live on it. Then came year six, when a combination of factors dropped my income to a mere $6000. End of full-time artistic career.
Since I went back to a regular job, I’ve averaged between $1500 and $3000 a year, writing part-time. This is despite a significant web-presence and having won numerous awards for my writing. It’s a nice hobby (one I spend 20 hours a week on – earning $1 to $2 an hour, before expenses.)
Yes, I know there are people who claim to make millions self-publishing their e-books. They even write books to tell you how you can do the same. You probably can’t.
There have always been people in the right place, at the right time, with the right product (yes, I called books, a product). In other words, luck, persistence, talent –those are the keys and you not only need all three, you need them in just the right mix. Oh, and sheer volume helps too. Six crappy books a year might make as much or more than one good one. There is nothing new about this and it is equally true whatever delivery system was used. (Tennessee Williams – who always claimed poverty – died before the Internet was born with an estate of $11 million; Bulwer Lytton (“It was a dark and stormy night”) lived like a king off his writing: hundreds of plays and novels, proving quantity is an alternative to quality when it comes to making dough.)
Does this sound discouraging? Maybe – but if you can be discouraged from writing by what I’ve said, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it anyway. The fact that bank-robbing is a low income, high risk job doesn’t discourage bank-robbers either. (Maybe because there is nothing more high status in prison than bank-robbery – feeding the ego!)
Money. Just a couple more thoughts. Does e-publishing (self or through traditional publishers) give more money to writers than traditional publishing?
First, writers receive a royalty based on sales. For traditional books, that royalty runs from 8% to 15% depending on format (hard-covers pay more but sell less; mass market paperbacks, the opposite), publisher and fame/success of the writer. That means roughly $0.80 to $5.00 per book sold. Given the bias toward paperbacks: $2 to $3 a book seems about right.
E-books pay a higher royalty – quite often about 25% but given that e-books sell for less than an equivalent paper book, that works out to, oh, about $2 to $3 a book. Self-published e-books often sell for even less (to attract more buyers to make up for the loss of even the minimal publicity publishers provide) but can garner as much as a 70% royalty. Oh, look, $2 to $3 a book (and no guaranteed income from the advance).
So how many books do you need to sell to make the poverty line in the USA? 5000 a year. That’s 14 a day, every day for a year. To make my best income as an artist. 10,000 to 12,000 books a year. To make a decent lower middle class living –at least twice that. Which by the way would put you half way to being at the low end of best-seller.
And free books? 70% of nothing is still nothing. And as for 10000 downloads of your free book.
I suspect, they suffer the same fate as Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. The most widely
distributed science book ever – but how many were actually read? I’ve downloaded a few free books (not counting the famous public domain ones) even a few for 0.99. I’ve started few and finished none. I don’t bother anymore – my experience has confirmed my prejudice that if it’s
that cheap, there must be something wrong with it.
And pirates? Oh, I know they’re just sharing (though how so many of them get rich from doing it is unclear to me). I’ve heard all the arguments – they increase your readership, your fame, your
popularity and influence blah, blah, blah. And it will eventually increase sales. Yeah, you know, like the way shoplifters return to buy things in the stores they stole from.
Have I discouraged myself? Not in the least. I still hope to make enough money to pay for travel to SF conventions and book fairs, to subsidize my own reading and art consuming habits, maybe even pay for a trip to Paris or a few meals at a five-star restaurant. Strictly research, of course.
Besides what else would I do to fill my empty hours? Housework?