A friend recently tagged me in a Facebook re-post of this New York Times article: Does It Pay to Be a Writer? After all the writers she tagged stopped laughing, we shared our frustrations and some hard truths. Not one of us was making a living solely off our writing (unless you count the patronage from Patreon, something I consider to be a side hustle because there’s so much work involved delivering content as promised).
[Editor’s Note: I’ve been known to split hairs.]
I’ve mentioned before that the authors I know (including those who have book deals with major major publishing houses) have day jobs or side hustles. All. Of. Them. Gone are the days when authors can make a modest living churning out mid-level fiction successes. Getting to live off your writing and/or book deal is akin to winning the lottery. It is rare and doesn’t always last.
Writing is a romantic notion, but the reality is hard work with very little payoff. One would presume that if you wrote a wonderful book, success would be imminent. The cream rises to the top, right? That’s what we hope for and are taught to believe. But, in actuality, how would any reader know about that stellar book if there wasn’t advertising dollars behind it? Not many independent authors have the budget for that.
Reviews, you say? Those are meaningful, especially in place of advertisement, but they aren’t free. Kirkus charges a fair chunk for their honest and highly regarded reviews. Even those that are gratis come with the cost of time and postage to deliver galleys weeks/months in advance while hoping the review is not only positive but is published before the scheduled release. Space is saved on back covers for winning phrases by recognizable names. Fingers become crooked from being crossed so much for so long. It’s a lot. (This is why reader reviews and word-of-mouth are like gold to indie authors. Please spread those generously.)
Here’s the thing: No one writes because they want to. Writers write because we have to. And, while we are going to write anyway, we hold out hope for a modicum of success. Because of that, many “writers” make a living taking advantage of that optimism by selling novice authors a bill of goods. Pay for this seminar and I’ll give you the secret of success! Buy my book and you’ll learn how to make money from your mailing list! Buy my other book and I’ll tell you how to advertise on Amazon! Want to know what readers/agents/publishers really want? Well, that will cost you. Buy yet another book or listen to yet another seminar and you will be a bestseller! If you spend enough or read enough, you are bound to learn how to break through.
Here’s the other thing: If there were a secret to any form of success, those writers would not be wasting their time creating those books or seminars. They would be so successful they’d give that information for free (either out of the goodness of their hearts or by other authors simply mirroring their methods). Instead, they’ve made the “business of writing” their side hustle. (By the way, tastes change, markets change and algorithms change. There is not a science to this art. Just put out good work and get better at promotion — that’s about all any author can do, and all of that takes time and dedication.)
The other problem is our dependence on Amazon, both as readers and authors. Amazon is the quick fix, the trusted source, and a one-stop-shop for readers, but it holds authors hostage. We need to be there because of the potential audience, but Amazon does little to help even organically well-received independent books thrive. Amazon wants not only a percentage of your book sales, but for authors to advertise with them.
When I released my first novel, I did one of Amazon’s more affordable paid promotions. I already had a decent sales ranking and five-star reviews. By their own guidelines, I should have been on the first page of that promo. I was on the fifth page, behind books that had lower rankings and lesser reviews. I wrote their support team asking about that positioning. I needed to understand what to do differently to have my proper spot if I was going to spend that money again. For the record, I’m still waiting for a reply. That proved to me what I had been warned: Amazon is shifty. They will change the rules and the algorithm on a whim, without notice, and that affects the authors who are actually gaining success and sales based on their hard work and talent alone.
I hope readers understand that authors aren’t writing to get rich, but it would be nice to cover the costs of writing. If we aren’t lucky enough to have friends who will volunteer their services (or are multi-talented enough to do it all ourselves), we have to pay for proofreaders or editors. Most need a graphic artist to design a cover. Formatting software isn’t cheap, but it is invaluable when it comes to doing the interior. There are missed workdays from lack of sleep or a need to do that final polish or promotional push. A new computer might be needed if yours finally bit the dust. If you pay for reviews or publicity, that’s another chunk. While you can put out a book for $0, the likelihood is that you will spend upwards of $500-$5000 per release.
And then you are told to sell your book for $0.99.
You’ll gain even more readers if you make it free!
Okay, fine, $3.99. But to go beyond that, you risk losing sales.
Not exactly a sustainable business model. As one writer friend put it, “I’ve basically reclassified it as the most overpriced hobby of all time.”
Price does matter. I will admit that I get utterly enraged when I see an ebook selling for $13.99 or more. (Really, I’m annoyed when I see them over $9.99.) Those are usually from the big houses. WTF, publishers? I can’t quite wrap my head around their math for the overhead of an ebook. Physical books have actual hard costs (beyond the writing, editing and design), like ink, paper, machinery, assembly and shipping. The size of your book dictates the cost of the printing (hence the price difference between my two novels). But when I see an ebook costing more than a softcover, I about lose my mind (and don’t buy either version as a small protest). I understand needing to cover expenses and keep a floor full of people in a Manhattan high-rise employed, but not at the cost of a reader. It’s insulting. (After all, the reader had to invest in the device on which the ebook is read. Something that should be appreciated.)
[Editor’s Note: You can, and should, get your ebooks from your local, independent bookstores. Really. You should. Libraries offer them as well.]
While being cost conscious, we (as consumers) can’t expect content to be free…or next to it. Music, movies, television, books, news and publications all employ a lot of people to get the work out to the audience. Those people and their work have value. That needs to be honored with a reasonable charge.
To be honest, I would love to give my writing away for free (and have). I would also love to live rent-free, get a free car with free gas, get bags of groceries gratis, have my hair done for the price of appreciation. If I could supplement my ebooks sales with classy commercial ads, I would. Would you, as a reader, kindly sit through a 30-second commercial before each chapter/every 30 pages or so? Because we have to find some sort of middle ground to give all sides what they need and want in order to make ends meet.
Writers have a wealth of words, but what are those words worth? If an average novel clocks in at 75,000-100,000 words, what’s a fair price for a book, digital or physical? Carrie Bradshaw got $4 per word at Vogue 15 years ago; do you think 4¢ per word would be fair for an author? How about .04¢? At an incredibly modest .001¢, you’re looking at a $75-$100 tome. Basically, authors are paid $0.0001 per word, if that, per book (before print costs and/or seller percentage) and would need to sell about 35,000 books per year (every year) or more to live in a major city in a modest apartment driving a mid-range car and still couldn’t really afford health insurance let alone retirement funds.
Or they’d have to get a day job and consider what they love to do as an overpriced hobby.
[Editor’s Note: The average author with a major publishing house sells about 10,000 books, which may or may not earn out their advance, which means they may or may not see another dime…or not one for a very long time (then refer to the comic strip above) and remember their agent is going to want their percentage, too.]
I love to write. I’ve been told by readers that they like my books (thank you!). When people still find them and read them and ask about when the next one will be out (much later than expected, thanks in part to my day job), it brings me joy. There is a richness in that, absolutely. But I still dream of being able to live off of my writing alone, to have my only job be writing my books, and be wealthy beyond my words. It’s a wonderful fantasy to have. I will always hold on to that hope (dreams are free, right?), but the reality is, I work five days a week to support my writing habit as well as myself. I live for happy hours and Gap sales and BevMo coupons for $10 off a $50 purchase. But I keep a bottle of good champagne on hand at all times, because I believe, one day, there will be cause for a grand celebration and, for that, I will always be ready.