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).