Someone wrote to ask, “Is it a big deal if my book doesn’t earn back its advance? What percentage of books earn out? And does a publisher lose money if a book doesn’t earn out?”
I frequently get questions about advances, and to answer them I need your patience… Let me answer this with hard numbers, so that I can make my case. It will take a couple minutes to run the numbers.
First, you always want your books to earn out. Every time. If your book earns out, it means your book is selling, the financials on the book aren’t going to be an ongoing concern, and the publisher is happy and is going to want to work with you again.
But second, keep in mind that only about 25% of books earn back their advance. That number goes up and down according to the year and the economy, but over the years that’s been the figure publishers have used. Which means that of all those books out there, roughly three quarters of them are in the red. That can give you a bit of perspective. (That said, remember: with the massive growth of ebook publishers and smaller houses that pay no advance, there are many more books on the market in which the author was paid nothing — he or she is earning all their income on sales.)
Third, to answer your question about a publisher losing money, keep in mind that every business can lose money. Retail shops, service business, investment firms, everyone. If you own a shoe store, order in shoes that don’t sell, and then have to drastically reduce prices, you can lose money on each pair sold. That’s business, and publishing is no different. The publishing house pays out an advance, they pay an editor, hire a cover designer, buy ink and paper, pay a printer, and cover overhead such as the light bill
A few years ago, I created a talk about how an author can make a living with his or her writing. I called it The MacGregor Theory (with apologies to the MacGregor who came up with all the Theory X and Theory Y stuff back in the 90’s), and over the years it’s been picked up and discussed by all sorts of writers and editors in the blogosphere. I’ve revised and tweaked it a few time, but now, with the recent changes we’ve seen in the world of publishing, it’s time I go back and revise my theory of making a living at writing. So if you’re interested…
I have five rules for authors who want to make a full time living at writing:
1. You need to have four-to-six books earning you a royalty. In other words, you’ve done some traditionally published books in the past, you’ve had some earn out, and you currently have some books that are making you a passive income.
2. You need to have 18 months to 2 years of contracts. This is much harder to do in today’s publishing economy, but if you’re going to do this full time, you probably need to know clearly what you’re going to be writing for the next year or two. If you have your calendar filled up for the next 18 months with projects that are contracted, so that you know you’re going to be generating some income, you’re at least afforded the clarity that comes from knowing what you’ll be working on.
3. You need to be self-publishing. These days, most successful authors are generating income by regularly posting new projects, earning some sort of income by self-publishing books, novels, novellas, articles, and/or short stories. With fiction, it’s clear an author needs to have a number of titles gong (having one or two books isn’t going to cut it — a series of books will
We’ve been talking about “making a living at writing,” and I had several people ask what essential tools are needed if someone is going to do more than just type up a manuscript at home. A fair question…
I suggest there are nine essential things every writer needs:
—A time to write. That is, a set time when you’re going to sit down and write every day. When I decided I was going to make my living at writing, I had a regular job, so I got up early and sat down at my computer every day from 6 to 8 in the morning. I’m not a morning person at all, so this was a sacrifice… but I had three small children, and it was the only time when I thought I could get uninterrupted writing time.
—A place to write. You may need peace and quiet, or you may do best with the buzz of a lot of people around. You may like music playing, or you may insist on silence. Some writers use a spare room in their house, others want to take in the atmosphere at Starbucks. But whatever the exterior trappings, most writers do best if they have one place and one time, when they KNOW they are going to write.
—A project to write. When you sit down to write, you’re not journaling or searching for your muse — you’re working on a project. It might be a blog post, or an article for a website, or the next chapter in your book. But when you start, you know exactly what project you’re going to work on.
—A writing goal. Many writers set a goal of creating 1000 words per day. Others set it much higher. When I was writing full time, I had a goal of a chapter per day. The trick is to set some sort of goal, so
We’ve been exploring the idea of “how to make a living at writing,” and I’ve saved up a handful of questions from people who have written to ask about becoming a career writer. Someone wrote several months ago to ask, “What would you say is the ONE PIECE of advice you’d give a career writer to help them succeed?” I love the question, and I’ve been mulling it over for a while now. We could talk about writing goals, or butt-in-chair time, or all sorts of tips and techniques, but if there was just one piece of advice I would give, I think it would be, “Develop a writing calendar.”
That may not sound terribly deep or sexy, but if you’re going to make a living at writing, you need to seriously consider creating a writing calendar. This is, you need to have a document that details what you’re going to write each day. Think about buying a big paper calendar, and jotting down a writing goal for each day of the month. For example, perhaps on Monday you’re working on chapter five of your book; Tuesday you’re completing the chapter; Wednesday you are creating that article you’ve wanted to do for the writing magazine; Thursday and Friday you are doing a paid edit. In each day on your calendar you’ve got something that focuses you on the task at hand, to give clarity and direction to your writing. Maybe it’s as simple as, “I’m going to write 3000 words on my novel” or “I’m going to finish chapter ten.” But you have a calendar, and you treat writing as a job by having your goal for what you plan to accomplish each day.
To figure out what you put into each day, you look at your “to do” list and do some prioritizing. What needs to get written today? What will pay off? What will push your career
The other day we were talking about making a living at writing, and I had a couple of people suggest good ideas (check the comments section) and ask a couple great questions. I’ve talked about the importance of having a place and a time (among other things), but let me suggest there’s one other thing you’re going to have to learn to do if you are to take the next step in your writing career: learn to think quarterly.
This may be new to you, so hear me out… Let’s say your goal is to make a part-time income with your writing — say, a thousand dollars per month, so $12,000 for the year. That would be enough to suggest this is a real part-time job, and not just a hobby. It’s a realistic goal for many writers. But it can be daunting to think you need to earn $1000 this month. So here’s what you need to know: Many writers find it far less daunting to think in terms of quarters. In other words, you don’t need to make $1000 this month — you need to make $3000 over the next quarter. Sure, the math is the same, but the fact that you have the extra time allows you to shift your priorities around, and give yourself enough breathing room that you can earn the money. So don’t think the pressure is on you to make all the money NOW — assume you’ve got a three-month goal.
By the way, the federal government already thinks that way — it’s why they ask self-employed writers and editors to pay quarterly taxes instead of monthly. Writing income never arrives on a monthly basis (with the exception of earned royalties from Amazon), but it’s fair for a writer to plan for a decent paycheck four times per year. So move your projected income into quarterly groupings, lowering the pressure, and give yourself
I’ve been talking about authors trying to make a living at writing recently, and a couple people have written to ask me, “Is it realistic to think of actually making a living with my words?”
To me, the answer is personal. One author may feel she is making a living when she’s earning $1500 per month; another may feel she isn’t really making a living until she’s making $3000 per month; still another won’t feel she’s really making it until she’s at $6000 per month. I think you have to pick an amount based on your own situation, look at your options, and determine if you can make it work. What are your household income needs? What’s reasonable for you to earn over the course of a year? How much time do you have to devote to writing?
There’s nothing sacred about making a living at art. Some can do it; others (who are just as good artists) struggle to do it. Today’s book publishing market makes it easier to try than it used to be, since you can post projects on Amazon and SmashWords and try to generate income. Just recognize that it’s hard. Our industry tends to get filled with people claiming they’re making huge money self-publishing, when in fact making real money at writing (or at ANY type of art) is hard. I believe in writers making something from their self-published books, but I’ve grown tired of the BS from those claiming all you’ve got to do is post a book on Amazon and suddenly the Publishing Fairy will show up and sprinkle you with golden coins.
The fact is, whether you’re writing books or painting pictures or playing your guitar or dancing on stage or acting in a play, art is a tough way to make a living. So most of us probably don’t do it for the money — we do it because we have
Over the past few weeks we’ve been answering questions about writing and agents, and while reading over the questions, I’ve heard from several people who asked, “What advice would you give to someone who wants to make a living at writing?” I love the question, and it’s one we’ve tackled here before. Some of my thoughts:
—Have a time and a place for writing. If you really want to make a living at this, then treat it as a business. Get up, get dressed, and go to the office (even if your “office” is a little desk in the corner of your bedroom). You need to show up to the office every day and write, so have a start time. My world changed when I read an interview with the great American writer Tom Wolfe, and discovered he started getting up every morning and putting on a white suit to go to his office (even though his office was in his home) just so he could begin to think of his writing as a “job.” He started at 9, an alarm went off at noon so he could take a lunch break. A time and a place — a great start to making a living with writing.
—Keep your mornings protected for writing. Move your other work to the afternoon, but write every morning.
—Group similar activities. If you do all your phone calls back to back, you’ll get through them faster. Ditto emails, snail mail, budgeting, project planning, looking over proposals, etc. Stick all the activities that are the same into one block of time, and you’ll get through them more quickly.
—Organize your day first thing every morning. If you have a plan, you’re much more apt to stay focused. So at the start of each day, make a list (or check the list you made last night) to give yourself an advance
I’ve been receiving a number of questions about authors and agents, so I wanted to take a few weeks to explore agenting. Someone wrote to ask, “How long does it usually take for an agent to respond after receiving a requested manuscript?”
Everybody is different. I try to respond to people within a month, but this past year it seemed to take me two or three months before I could read and react to all the submissions. If you’ll check out the web site of literary agents, most will offer some sort of timeline in the two-to-four month range. I’ve heard stories of authors having proposals in to agents for eight or nine months, but my response to that would be: “Maybe you aren’t picking up the hint.” Look, if you’ve had something in with an agent for six months, and they haven’t so much as responded to your idea, it’s clearly not ringing their bell. Move on.
I should also note that I have a couple people who work for me who review manuscripts. Like most longtime literary agents, I don’t promise to read everything that gets sent to my company. I work with a couple people who have great editorial eyes, and they frequently take a first look at stuff coming in over the transom. And if something isn’t a fit, we may not respond at all. (In fact, it may not be read at all if it’s written in crayon, is a vampire novel, or warns me that I’ll go to hell if I don’t immediately read and get excited about the idea. Just so you know.)This question also came in: “If an agent has asked you to send in a manuscript, is it wrong to continue sending out queries to other agents?”
Not in my book. The way I look at it, if I’m taking a couple months to review a manuscript from you, then
Someone wrote to say, “I notice there are a lot of authors who seem to spend every waking minute on Facebook and Pinterest and Twitter. From your perspective as an agent, is social media an effective tool for selling books?”
I’m of the opinion that internet marketing by authors is not only helpful, it’s probably essential in the new publishing economy. An author needs to engage with people in online communities in order to generate exposure and, hopefully, sales of his or her book. But I don’t think a lot of writers understand how to access it. They start a blog, but don’t understand how to make it successful. They’re on twitter, but it’s about nothing more than “what I had for dinner” and “kids are sick with the flu.” Who cares? And how is that helping to sell books? May I offer ten thoughts on the effective use of social media?
1. Know why you’re doing social marketing. You should have a purpose in mind when you join Twitter, post on Facebook, or connect with people on LinkedIn. You are trying to connect with friends, introduce yourself to people, and share your passion and message. You are NOT just trying to sell copies of your book, though certainly any book you’ve written that falls within the boundaries of your interests and personality will doubtless reflect who you are and what you think. Here’s the key: Don’t promote — participate.
2. Study the social media market. Take a look at who is going where, what’s being said, and what the response is. Get involved with forums and discussion boards, participate on consumer review sites, and stay on top of your online communities. Make sure to Google your name, and check out things like BlogTalkRadio. You should know about bookmarking and tagging, as well as content aggregation.
3. Target your audience. The core of author marketing still comes down to
Recently I had someone write to ask me about a couple novels I represented that did well in the market. Specifically, she asked, “What did the publisher do to help make each book a success? And are there lessons I can take this will help me succeed with my own novel?” I can think of a number of things that were done well, and I think they offer a model for others to follow…
First, in both cases the authors spent a couple years building a readership for her writing through websites. That took a lot of patient work and investment by the authors, and it helped immensely (and I realize that’s not a publisher activity, but I bring it up because it wouldn’t be fair to talk about the success of the novels without that fact). Both authors worked tirelessly at marketing, which also helped. I’m one of those who realizes writers don’t get into this business to become “marketers” — they want to be writers, so investing a bunch of time into marketing is a sacrifice. Both of these authors made that sacrificed and did the hard work to make their books succeed.
Second, each author wrote a very good novel. The publisher’s role in that was to push the writers to make their books better. The editors weren’t satisfied to let the novels be adequate — they pushed them toward greatness. So I think the publisher really believed in the books. That may sound trite, but I think it makes a difference. A publisher can’t believe in every book — no matter what they say, the lists are too long, and there’s only so much time to invest. They need to spend the bulk of their energies on their current bestsellers, since that’s close to being a guaranteed source of income. It’s tough to invest a lot of time, money, and manpower on a newer author