Mark Terry

Monday, January 31, 2011

Managing Expectations

January 31, 2011
I, like many, many writers, I suspect, partly got into this gig with the notion of bestsellerdom, fame & fortune, movie deals, etc.

And for the most part I bet 99.9% of you discovered nothing of the sort. In fact, I'm fairly confident that not only did you not get rich or famous, but once you did "break in" to publishing, that the financial aspects of publishing your novel totally underwhelmed you. I'm pretty certain I'm not the only one.

I was at a Sanchin-Ryu karate weekend retreat this weekend and one of my Sanchin-Ryu friends is fantasy novelist Jim Hynes. We chatted briefly before the workout and I mentioned that he had been at Con Fusion the weekend previously, which is held annually in Troy, Michigan, which is only 20 or 25 miles from my house. I'd been considering going with my oldest son, but life got busy and I never quite pulled it off. Our conversation went something like this:

Jim: Well, it's mostly science fiction and fantasy people.
Me: Yeah, I know, but I was working on an SF novel for a while.
Jim: Oh, you're going to pay a visit to our low-paying ghetto?
Me: It can't be any worse than the one I write in.
Jim: Oh, don't underestimate how bad we can get.
Me: Don't overestimate the thriller market, either.

Ahem. Yeah, two real-world novelists facing up to the fact that we could probably both make more money delivering pizzas on the weekends than we do writing novels. (Well, I can't speak for Jim on that).

Partly why I'm writing this today is because I recently completed a nonfiction book proposal and sent a query out to one agent who promptly said it was a tough market, blah, blah. And another agent who asked to read it immediately, did so, and got back with me Saturday morning to say she liked it. And in the midst of her comments she said something along the lines of, "I can think of 3 markets right away that this would work for, but their advances tend to be low. What were you thinking of money-wise?"

I told her and haven't heard back, although I'll talk to her sometime today, probably. Because here's the thing: this book would be a tremendous amount of work and I just can't go as low for it as I have sometimes done for novels. It's impossible and I'm just not that deeply dug into pursuing it if I'm going to make pennies per hour.

Which also coincides with a couple other things that have happened this year to-date. Business slowed down for a while (but has picked up again), and during that period I not only wrote that proposal and really dug in on a novel proposal, but I put out a lot of feelers for new clients in nonfiction. Two of them came back asking for me to do a test-edit/test-writing thing. It's not unheard of, although rare for good markets who can tell whether you write or not based on published clips. And there's always a possibility they're just looking for someone to do free samples for them, even when they claim they're not.

The first one, I knew from their ad that they weren't offering much money so I blew it off.

The second one I didn't know, so I asked before I'd do the test: how much does this pay. She responded two days later with, "Between $17 and $80 per article."

To which I responded: "I'm sorry, but I have a business policy of not working for that low a rate."

Which is absolutely true. I make a living doing this. From time to time I might do some relatively low-paying work to break into a market or to fill in the time... it really depends on the project. Sometimes a project might pay $100, but I know I can do it in one or two hours. My hourly rate starts at $40 and that's fairly low-paying for a lot of freelancers.

$17 to $80 per article--that's ridiculous. And there have been a lot of job postings for freelance writers in this range--or worse. It's not a living wage and for that matter, it's so far below minimum wage you'd think it was practically illegal. It also tells me a couple things. First, that client doesn't value professional writers or professional writing, and second, they don't have any money. Neither one makes me want to work for them.

I realize that this can throw people for a loop, saying, "Gee, he's all about the money."

Well, yeah, I make a living doing this. If you were a plumber that typically charged $75 an hour, would you suddenly start telling people, "Hey, I'll install your dishwasher for $4 an hour."

No. He or she would tell you to do it yourself.

I'm not sure the title of this blog post is going to be helpful, because it's suggesting I have some way of dealing with the industry and the fact that you hoped you'd get a book advance that was, you know, $25,000 or $100,000 or upwards. And you got $1000 or nothing or $4000 or whatever.

One of the questions Leanne asked me--this nonfiction book project involves World War II--when I told her what the agent said about low advances was, "What kind of advance did Doug get for his book?"

Doug Stanton is a friend/acquaintance of mine and the author of two nonfiction books, the first one about World War II, In Harm's Way, and the second, Horse Soldiers, about special forces in Afghanistan. I don't know what Doug's advance for Horse Soldiers was, but I do know what it was for In Harm's Way--$500,000.

So I'm aware that there is money out there to be had. But if this agent comes back to me with her "low money" figure that's, you know, $5,000 or something like that (or worse), I'm likely to walk.

After all, I just got an assignment to write on a vaguely related topic for a magazine and that article pays $2000. Now, that's a very good-paying magazine article assignment, but increasingly I look at a good-paying magazine assignment of $1000 or $2000 and then look at a book publisher that wants to give me $1000 or something similar as an advance and I look at my life and my time and my energy and quite frankly think, "Fuck it, life's too short for this. Book publishing is crazy."

So we'll see.

And just as an addendum, Joe Konrath's got a lot of people thinking they'll e-publish and pretty soon they'll be rolling in money, that like Joe they'll be making $100,000 a year from their e-books. Well, maybe. Writers are. And a lot of writers aren't. So maybe you should manage your expectations there, too. It's okay to be optimistic, but realistic isn't a bad idea either.

p.s. My comment about pizza delivery made me want to do some math, so I looked it up--federally mandated minimum wage is $7.25 (may vary from state to state, apparently). So let's say you got a really minimal hourly part-time job, let's say at McDonald's, and you work one Saturday every other weekend. That's $7.25 X 8 hours X 26 weeks, which equals $1,508. Which, by the way, is $508 more than my last book advance (and at 208 hours, probably about right for the actual writing of the book, but not enough to cover promotion, etc).


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Writers tend to be treated like dirt. I guess there are so many people desperate for a by-line that people can get away with paying laughable amounts for articles. If you are actually writing for a living you can't work for nothing.

Generally the pay for books is bad also and any kind of a book is a large, time consuming undertaking. Mary and I have not written a ton of books and we keep writing our Byzantine mysteries. We both enjoy the historical aspect of those and given the compensation we need to enjoy what we're writing to make it worthwhile.

I would not bother trying to write a book just to fit a market -- some sort of book I was not personally enthusiastic about -- because even if I did manage to sell it, the money involved would probably not be worth the aggravation.

Of course if you write something you really want to write but can't sell it then that is an even bigger waste of time. So I keep looking around for some idea that I am both enthusiastic about and which has some chance of being published.

8:02 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks, said...

I attend a lot of cons and conferences in the SF/F realm. And there is NO talk about money. None. I've sat at tables with fresh starters and at tables with bestsellers. No talk of money. I've literally NEVER heard a discussion of advances or money at the con bar.

At Bouchercon, while participating in and eavesdropping on conversations, I'd say well over half the conversations were focused on money, and many others touched on it at some point.

My feeling is the thriller market sells well. And Joe is featuring all thriller/crime/mystery writers. I don't think I've caught one fantasy or SF writer on his blog, much less heard of one who's making a living off Kindle. Of course, that's probably who he knows best, though. And I've wondered if any romance writers are making a bundle off their backlists as well.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I wonder what that means. I know a lot of SF/F people just assume there's no money to be hand. And SF/F has had the reputation of being a lousy paying market, whereas thrillers sell (although in my experience that's all over the board).

My impression is that erotic romance seems to be doing fairly well on Kindle self-publishing, although who knows? Joe's bringing up a lot of people with no publishing history who are making it work, but overall I'm seeing more people who already have a reputation and a healthy backlist making it work, and even their numbers aren't terribly consistent across the board.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I, too, find what some companies want to pay to be ridiculous. It's insulting, and it's why I find the concept behind DEMAND studios and other mills to be ridiculous. I've heard it argued that it's a way to build clips, but really? So you would accept $5? It's capitalism . . . i.e., there are people desperate enough to take it. But like the outlawing of piecemeal work at the end of the factory-mill age, there's something about that just irritates me. Seems to lower the bar across the board.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yes, exactly. Demand Studios and and numerous others like it. As for getting clips, hey, you need 3, okay? Or even 1. Then you're on your way.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Down deep, I understand completely that the only reason to write a novel is because you want to. In that I'm a full-time writer with bills to pay, however, I sometimes look at the novels as if I can feel insanity creeping in.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

It also tells me a couple things. First, that client doesn't value professional writers or professional writing, and second, they don't have any money.

It's as Erica said. Market-driven capitalism. The plumber can charge $75 an hour because few people can do what a plumber does. And everyone needs a plumber at some time or another. There are no job ads for novelists.

One of the biggest disappointments I've faced (and you're as familiar with my path as anyone) are the friends and family members, particularly the boys, who have no interest in what I do simply because they don't read.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

The family and friends thing can be disconcerting at first. I will say that my brother and sister and nieces and nephews have been very supportive--they're all readers, which definitely helps (on my side of the family, anyway; I'm not sure anyone on my wife's side except for one or two cousins and an uncle have actually read any of my books, and my feeling from the two sisters-in-law on that side any time it comes up tends to run more toward resentment, but I'm hardly recognized as being alive by one of them, so maybe that's okay).

It can throw you to discover that a friend hasn't read any of your books, but I've mostly gotten over that. I suspect most artists--musicians, actors, writers, painters, etc., are largely ignored by their relatives unless they make it big, then everyone comes out of the woodwork with their hands out.

Michael Moore grew up in my home town (graduated with my sister, as a matter of fact, and my brother worked for him) and years back one of my parents' neighbors came over to chat with me and commiserated with me that my books weren't in the library, noting that Michael Moore's bestselling novels weren't in the town's library either. His comment was the Bible quote along the lines that the prophet is never recognized in his hometown (or something like that).

11:32 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Stephen, I think it's tough for friends and family to reconcile sometimes the person they know with what we write. I know my writing is pretty true to who I am, but it doesn't fit with the image certain others have developed of me.

I often say my facebook friends and blog friends know me much better than my family. And you know what, blog friends TRY to know the real me. My family already thinks they do and won't hear that they're wrong on some counts.

My darling husband hasn't read any of my books (though I ran off QUENCHER for him and I suspect he skipped to the sex scenes). But he's generally willing to listen to me about my projects, to a point. But then I'm not that fascinated by his work: helping businesses do better with technology. (YAWN). He's more interested now that I'm selling more stuff and he does have good marketing ideas too.

As for money, I find it odd that people ask me what I make (non writers, mostly). I mean, they'd never ask my husband or other people in other jobs that. But again, it's like I have to prove myself with money.

3:43 PM  

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