Tag Archives: writers

Do Writers Deserve to Eat?

The job title “writer” covers a lot of ground. Writers can be, among other things, journalists, web content writers, technical writers, script writers, legal writers, fiction writers, or song writers. They can be staff writers or freelancers.  Their work can appear in print, electronically, on stage or screen.  Some lucky writers earn a great deal from their work. And then there’s the rest of us.

According to a 2017 survey conducted by freelancewriting.com,  65% of freelancers in the U.S. earn less than $10,000 per year from their writing, while for over half of freelancers, writing is their only job. The “top tier” freelance writers work full time and earn $40,000 or more per year, not enough to get rich but enough to pay the rent and eat.

The writers involved in this survey do a broad range of work. Most of them aren’t writing books, but web content, technical material, advertising copy, articles, and so forth.  They’ve sought out work, sold themselves, and negotiated a rate (or accepted what they were offered). Somebody is paying them to do a specific job. Those of us who write books to share knowledge or tell a story have to find a publisher, or failing that, self-publish. We make our money off of sales of our work to the reading public. You are our clients. And you pay us not according to a contractual rate, but by buying copies of our work.

So the big question is, how much are you willing to pay? That’s been a burning question for independent book authors for quite a few years now. Scan the ranks of books by indie authors, and you’ll see ebooks selling for anywhere from nothing to a few dollars. Our print books typically cost more, but generally less than $15.00 and frequently less than $10.00. That’s great for the reader, but horrible for the writer. Why? Because at $0.00 per copy, the author makes nothing no matter how popular her work may become, and even at $2.99, the profits don’t exactly mount up.

Consider what goes into making a book. While we all write at our own speed, it’s not uncommon to spend six months to a year writing a book. Let’s go with the lower end of that range. Now, after that book is written and revised to the author’s satisfaction, it goes out to an editor. If a writer is very lucky–as I am–an “in house” editor like my wife Kathleen may be available for free. But most often, the writer has to pay for editorial services. That can run anywhere from several hundred dollars to over a thousand, depending on the skill of the editor and the length and complexity of the work.

So let’s say after six months hard work and maybe $500 editing expense, you have a book. You’re not done yet. You likely purchase an ISBN for each book format you intend to publish (about $25 if you buy them individually, although considerably less if you can buy them in bulk), possibly a bar code for the print book (another $25), and of course cover art. You might do the cover work yourself, but if not you’ll spend a few hundred to a thousand or more for that. And let’s not forget the copyright registration fee, another $35 to $55, depending several factors. So the writer has invested six months labor and probably anywhere between $100 and $1,000 in expenses to produce one book.

Now it’s time to make back that investment. The book goes on sale.

Many indie authors are lucky to sell 100 or so copies of a book. Even at the “high” price of $2.99,  that can fall well short of what they’ve spent in bringing you the book.  If they keep costs low, they might actually make a small profit, but let’s face it, how many other laborers would settle for a payout of $300, or even $1000, for six months’ work?

At the $2.99 price point, an indie author would, assuming a lot of do-it-yourself, need to sell well over 13,000 copies of their book in one year to hit that “top tier” income level of $40,000. That doesn’t happen too often.  Achieving “bestseller” status can require selling about 1,000 copies within a few days of release. That’s five to ten times what many indie books sell over a year or two. To make serious money as an indie author requires writing bestseller after bestseller.

If you’re a writer, this may seem discouraging, but don’t be disheartened. Consider this a call to keep writing good books while learning the art of promotion. A series of good books well-promoted can, given time and effort, earn you enough to enable you to eat.

If you’re a reader, consider this is a call for understanding and help. Please don’t expect to get something for nothing. We work hard to bring you stories and intellectual excursions you will enjoy. Be willing to pay at least as much for a good book as you pay for a good cup of coffee. You only get to drink the cup of coffee once. The book will stay with you through re-readings and conversations and happy memories. It’s also lower in caffeine. And if you do enjoy our product, please let others know about it by leaving reviews and telling friends and family. Praise from satisfied customers goes father than almost anything we can do ourselves.

The Indie Author Dilemma

Ah, technology. It makes possible so many wonderful things. And so many terrible things. And so many mediocre things. And so many books.

Today, anybody can write and publish a book, so everybody does. Far more published authors inhabit the world now than ever before, and most of them are independents–indie authors. They don’t need no stinking traditional publishers. By vanity press, print-on-demand publisher, or online tool, they fearlessly bring their creations to life. How great is that?

Well…

Once upon a time, it took a lot of work to achieve publication. Self-publishing is nothing new, but the vast majority of books were brought forth by publishing companies. The occasional genius notwithstanding, most writers suffered under this system, spending years collecting rejection slips before making a sale. It hurt, and often the hurt never ended. Not every writer entered the paradise of publication. Most suffered in the hell of endless rejection.

But that wasn’t all bad. Because through those long years of failure, writers gained experience, honed their craft, grew from novice to expert. They didn’t get published. They became publishable.  And then they were rewarded.

Today’s indie writer may think she’s got it good, because she can skip all that, but actually she doesn’t. Because it’s horribly tempting to skip all that. It’s not uncommon to hear an indie ask, “I’ve just finished my first novel. How do I get it published?” The occasional genius aside, the answer ought to be: “Please don’t.”

Disclaimer time. I’m not trying to insult indie writers. Conceiving and writing a book is no small feat. Beyond that, it takes a lot of courage to send it out into the world for people to read. Anyone who gets that far deserves respect and encouragement, and they definitely have mine.

But let’s face it: nobody is born capable of writing great literature. Some people have greater aptitude for writing than others, but even they learn through years of reading and writing.  I’ve never heard of a four-year-old writing a deathless novel, and neither have you. Very few 20-year-olds have done so, for that matter. Writing is a skill that must be learned, practiced, improved. And that takes time.

Consider me. I spent years writing, principally science fiction short stories. I never sold one, although near the end of those years I got a few words of encouragement from editors, including one from Shawna McCarthy at Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. She rejected my story, but told me I had promise. Oh, that felt great! I’d never enjoyed a rejection so much. I wrote one mystery almost-novel after that. (Almost because it was too short for a novel.) I then wrote an SF novel, a fantasy novel, and two mystery novels. My SF novel almost found an agent, except she was going out of business. Rats!

By this time, I think I was very close to publishability. I hadn’t hit the big time yet, but my writing was starting to get the attention of at least a few editors and agents. And then disaster struck: I landed a contract with a con artist claiming to be an agent. I won’t go into details now. Suffice it to say that I stopped writing fiction for ten years.

Ten years later, I pulled myself out of the writing doldrums and wrote my first Howard County mystery, The Fibonacci Murders. By then, the indie revolution was in full swing, and my wife Kathleen and I had started our own publishing company. So we published it. It was a pretty easy sale, even though Kathleen didn’t let me off easy. She wields a mean editorial pen. Since that time, I’ve written two more novels in the series–True Death which we also published, and Ice on the Bay which we hope to have out by the end of the year. I’ve also written an SF/humor novel, Space Operatic, which is with some beta readers now, and started two more novels: Howard County mystery #4 and a crime/humor novel.

Now here’s the thing: In reviewing my recent work, I find that only HCM4 and my crime/humor novel are equal in quality to the last things I wrote before my ten year hiatus. Those dead years set me back, and I only got back up to speed by writing several more novels.

Think about that, all you indie writers. Scads of short stories and five novels to almost become publishable, then a decade without practice, then three more novels to regain my skill. And someone who  has just finished their first novel wants to publish it?

It’s been said that a writer must write a million words to become a good writer. That’s ten 100,000 word novels. The exact number isn’t important, though. The point is practice, practice, practice. The traditional publishing model forced most writers to practice. The indie model does not. Which means, fellow indies, we must force the practice on ourselves.

I can see a possible new paradigm emerging here. We publish book after book. Some of us pay attention to our writing, commit to learning, and over time get better and better. The trail of books we leave behind us is public testimony to our development as writers. Scholars might appreciate that someday, but meanwhile readers have to wade through piles of trash before they find one of us emerging from it with a gem.

The only question is, how many readers have the patience for that? Curious, isn’t it: before, the writers had to have patience, and the readers got instant gratification. Now it’s the other way ’round. Hmmm.