This is a post that’s been in my draft file for awhile, so I thought I’d set it free. I did do a quick rewrite–I’m not a complete sloth–but basically I’m hip-deep in Lavender right now, so I’m throwing this out to feed the blog. Feel free to disagree; I’m often wrong.
For some reason, I’ve been hearing all of these a lot in the last year, so in the interests of efficiency, I thought I’d put my refutations in one place.
1. Myth: Agents and editors are out to steal your work, so you have to be really careful.
Truth: Stealing ideas is notoriously difficult, unprofitable, and stupid, which is why nobody does it.
Writing fiction is hell even when you love the story. If you don’t love the story, if it’s something your agent or editor has suggested you write because it’s hot right now, it becomes a special kind of hell where you’re whoring yourself out for the dime and ignoring the story you need to write. Plus it makes no sense from a business point of view. This post by Moira Allen (ignore the egregious use of quotation marks; I know it’s like a fingernail down a blackboard, but she says really smart things [also thanks to Another Editor on the Cherry Forums for the link]) explains it in much more depth but essentially, nobody is going to steal your story. It’s a lot cheaper for editors to just buy it from you if you can write it well. Ideas are easy; good writing is hard.
2. Myth: Editors today don’t know a good book when they see one.
Truth: Editors today are just as smart if not smarter than editors in times past but they have a different mandate than back in the day when publishing was subsidized by rich guys: They have to buy books that will sell.
I was on a panel once with an author who was bitching because no editor would buy his VietNam novel even though they all told him it was good. He suspected a plot, but he should have known better: it was marketing. I’ve never met an editor who didn’t love good fiction, who didn’t want to publish good fiction, who wasn’t willing to go out on a limb for something she thought had a chance. But none of them were dumb enough to go out on a limb for something they thought didn’t have a chance because their jobs depend on them buying books that sell. In the VietNam guy’s case, the market at that time was flooded with VietNam books and they were all sinking like stones. It didn’t matter that his was well-written; if they published it, it was going to sink under the public perception that VietNam books weren’t interesting. It was awful for him, but not because editors were plotting against him. If you offer a book to an editor, you are taking that book to the marketplace, and if the marketplace doesn’t want it, she has to reject it.
3. Myth: Publishing your writing is a good way to make money.
Truth: You can make more money doing almost anything else.
Big numbers are bandied about all the time in publishing news, but they’re pretty much meaningless to the average published writer who is working a second job because the vast majority of writers do not make enough to support themselves. Don’t believe it? Look at the numbers.
Let’s say you’re an author who just got a $100,000 advance for a book. Very few writers get that, especially now, but let’s use that figure because it’s easy to do fractions with and I’m not a math whiz.
First you have to remember that you don’t get $100,000. You get $85,000 because your agent gets 15%, and if she got you a $100,000 advance, baby, she deserves it.
So now you have $85,000. No, you don’t. You need to take out national, state, and local taxes because nobody’s doing that for you. Figure about 30%, and now you have $59,500 in your hot little hand. Let’s say $60,000. And no you don’t.
You contract will stipulate that your advance pays out in sections. You’ll get about 10% when you sign the contract, another 30% when you turn in the book and it’s accepted, another 30% when the book is published in hardcover, and another 30% when it’s published in paperback. Sometimes the payments are dragged out even longer than that, but we’re not going to go there. So you’ll get four payments of $6,000, $18,000, $18,000, and $18,000. The key is when. Let’s say you sold a finished manuscript so right now in 2010, you’ll get $24,000 (signing and acceptance). It takes a year for a book to come out, so that’s it for this year. In 2011, you’ll get another $18,000 when the hardcover comes out, and in 2012, you’ll get another $18,000 when the paperback comes out. That’s not peanuts, but it’s also not high-roller numbers.
But, you say, you’ll write another book and get more money. From your mouth to God’s ear: more than 90% of writers only write one book. It’s called Second Book Syndrome and it’s real; that second book is a nightmare to write because you probably wrote the book of your heart on the first one. But you already know what you’re going to write next? Well, you have to sell it. SMP rejected my second book proposal even though we had a two-book deal. They wanted another book from me, just not that one. Earlier, Harlequin rejected two books after my first one even though they were already written.
But don’t you get royalties? Yes, you do. When your advance has earned out. Sometimes the publisher doesn’t print enough books: I still owe Bantam on The Cinderella Deal and Trust Me On This even though they had a 97% sell through because there weren’t enough books out there for me to earn out. Plus there’s something called Reserve Against Returns which means your publisher can hold onto those royalties for a very long time in case bookstores return their unsold copies. Do not count on royalties ever.
So there’s your income for three years, not counting the money you’ll spend on computers, paper and ink, postage, websites and whatever other promotion you do, and all the other expenses that accrue (babysitting while you try to meet a deadline, aspirin and antidepressants, therapy, divorce attorneys . . .).
Oh, and chances are overwhelming that you’re not going to get $100K for your first book. The average advance used to be about $5000, but that may be lower now since publishing was hit just as hard in the economic downturn as everybody else. The good news about $5000 is that you’re probably in paperback so only one pub payment and your taxes aren’t as high, maybe nothing, which means your payouts are probably $3000 this year and $2000 next year when the book is published, not that much waiting. The bad news is that you’re midlist, so you’re not going to get promotion and you’re going to have to spend more time and money on your own to get the word out, fighting your way up to lead title which can kill your soul and wreck your life.
Being a published writer is a terrible way to make money. I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m saying keep your day job. You’re going to need it for a long while (it took me ten years to be able to support myself with my writing and it’s still touch and go sometimes).
4. Myth: If your book is published in hardcover, it means it’s better than a paperback; that is, you write paperbacks until you get good enough to be published in hardcover.
Truth: Hardcover, trade paperback, and mass market paperback have different audiences. Your book will be put into the format where it will make the most money.
Paperback readers buy by genre: they browse mysteries and SF, romance and horror, and they buy a lot of books because they are (relatively) cheap. Hardcover readers buy a specific hardcover: They buy the book they have to have, the book that got the great review, the latest book by their favorite author, the book that everybody’s talking about. Paperback and hardcover readers can buy the same book, but they buy it for a different reason. Hardcover buyers may pick up a paperback in an airport because they’ve heard of it and they missed it the first time, paperback readers may buy a hardcover because it’s by a favorite author and they can’t wait for the paperback. (Ironically, it’s the paperback that’s probably the most important: many publishers consider the hardcover advance publicity for the paperback which is where the majority of sales will be.) But generally the different readerships buy for different reasons which means that putting a writer who writes books that would appeal to a paperback crowd into hardcover can kill or at least seriously wound her career. Alternately, a paperback author who becomes a big name often finds that her backlist is being reissued in hardcover: since her name is so recognizable, the hardcover audience will now buy her. It has nothing to do with how good a book is, and everything to do with how the different readerships buy. (Note: I have no idea how e-book readers buy, but my guess is they’re impulsive, self-indulgent, and addicted to convenience; that is, me.)
5. Myth: If a book is on the New York Time’s Bestseller List, it means it’s a success with lots of copies sold.
Truth: Bestseller lists are about velocity, not total number of copies sold. Lots of books on the lists have failed in the long run.
This one is self-evident once you really look at it. Bestseller lists are about how many books were sold that week; that is, bestseller lists are about velocity of sales not total number of sales. If Author A sells 50,000 copies the first week and Author B sell $10,000, A makes the list and B doesn’t (depending on who the other authors are that are vying for a place on this list). But then word gets out that A’s book isn’t really that good and the next week she only sells 10,000 copies, while the buzz starts on B’s book and she sells 10,000 again. After five weeks, A’s book is dead in the water, and B’s book is riding buzz and still selling 10,000 copies a week, still not enough to hit the list, but now outselling A. A year later, B’s book is still selling a hundred or so copies a week, and A is trying to sell her next manuscript to a publisher. Okay, that’s exaggerated on a lot of levels but it illustrates my point: The bestseller list only means anything for the week it surveys. It says nothing about the overall success of the book.
6. Myth: If your hardcover book shows up on the remainder table at Half Price books, it means you failed.
Truth: If your hardcover book shows up on the remainder table at Half Price books, it means it was published.
Publishers send the hardcovers that don’t sell to booksellers to be sold at deep discount. They’re basically dumping their hardcover stock to make way for the paperback. All published hardcover titles end up on the remainder pile. But isn’t that bad, shouldn’t the publisher have sold all the books? Nope. If the publisher sells all the books he’s printed, he’s screwed up. It means the bookstores ran out of copies, which means that some people came in wanting to buy the book and couldn’t find it, which means the publisher lost sales, which is bad. So how many books should a publisher sell? The rule of thumb used to be 70% of those printed (aka a 70% sell-through). The norm today appears to be 50%. Which means if your publisher prints 50,000 books and he’s done his math right, 25,000 of those books will end up on remainder tables. Congratulations, you’re a success!
There are a lot more myths out there–the only thing I know for sure about publishing is what William Goldman knows about moviemaking: “Nobody knows nothing”–but these are the ones I keep tripping over. Ignore them and write the best book you can. It’s the only thing you have control over in this business and at the end of the day, it’s the only thing that matters.