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Writing and publishing

The economics of writing

An unusual post from me, but I found I had some blog-length things to say about a currently ongoing conversation on Twitter.

Short version: If you want to support an author:

  1. Buy their books (or ask your library to)
  2. Tell other people about their books (leave a review, tell your friends, etc.)
  3. Support a reasonable copyright term that allows them to plan for the future and benefit over time from the work that has gone into the book.

Me and my background:

I am a self-published author of 10 books and counting. I am a librarian. I also have more education under my belt about copyright law and where it comes from than most lawyers who haven’t focused on intellectual property.

(I took the CopyrightX class in 2017: it is a by-application but free to take class offered by Harvard Law School. I did quite well on my final exam, thanks. You can access the lectures and readings on the course site, but much of the meat of the course comes from the discussion sections.)

I’ve been putting out a book every three months since the end of 2018, and I just had my best month ever in February 2021. Keep reading, and I’ll tell you what that actually means.

Disclaimer: I’m speaking in generalities about publishing here, except when I’m talking about my own personal numbers. Otherwise, this would be vastly longer.

The conversation:

There’s been a lot of discussion on Twitter the last couple of days about changing the copyright term for written works. One of the things someone tossed out was limiting copyright to 30 years, or to the life of the author.

Both of these are incredibly damaging to authors and future works.

Books are a very long-tail business.

People come to books at different times, different paces. There are fashions in books and genres, and sometimes a genre will toddle along amiably for a decade or two, and then everyone wants more of that genre.

An author might have a whole string of “sure, that’s a fine book” and then have one book decades later that gets all the buzz (and all their previous books suddenly get a lot more interest and sales.)

In today’s media market, of a few super huge companies, there is a real risk that they will wait until the term expires, grab the property, and put out whatever they like. As opposed to the current system, where authors can choose to agree to options on their work or licensing, as they see fit.

Here’s Courtney Milan on the topic (romance author, and previously intellectual property lawyer) and here’s a thread from Ursula Vernon (a hybrid author). To give you a tase of the issues. And here’s my editor Kiya with several more important points.

(Note for Commonwealth country and European readers: the US does not have a moral rights clause in its copyright law. This means that after the creator sells the rights to publish, they do not have a say in what happens with the work after that. They may if they license, or if there’s some other contractual agreement.)

The current system is already abused (see the case of Alan Dean Foster, recently), but there are at least systems that avoid much of that. But you might see why creators are dubious about the idea the big corporations wouldn’t just take what they could, as soon as they can. We’ve seen it happening already.

Thinking about the long tail

A lot of authors – trad published, self-published, and all the hybrid folks out there – rely heavily on backlist sales. Each time a new book comes out, you have potential for some new readers. If they discover your books (because you have included their favourite trope or setting or plot device, say), they might give the rest of your books a try, or mention it to someone else they know.

The other problem is that authors are not islands of their own. They may have kids (and may have kids who have disabilities or needs that will need ongoing care or support into their adult lives). They may have a spouse. They may have elderly parents (or other family) who rely on the extra income they get from the author.

If copyright expires when the author dies, what happens to all of those people? What happens to the book they spent a year or more on, that just came out, and has not earned much yet?

The work that goes into a book makes money over a long period of time, and that work should be valued in a way that supports the creator before anyone else. Books that were written fifty years ago can still be tremendously popular, or a hundred years ago (look at the Golden Age of Mystery authors…)

On a somewhat more pragmatic level, think about it as a reader. If an author you love gets a diagnosis of a medical issue that means they will die sooner than later, what incentive is there at that point for them to finish writing the book you’ve been waiting for? Why should they spend their time doing that, rather than with their family, or their friends, or whatever else they want?

(This is not at all hypothetical for me. My father died when I was 15, after a cancer diagnosis that gave him about a year to live. He was an academic who also wrote about 30 books over his career, including one novel. I’m very clear that copyright laws influenced his decisions to keep writing as well as spend time with us as a family. Various people (including his entire field of study) benefitted from that choice, and not just financially.)

A lot of people also don’t understand the mechanics of how a book makes money.

How authors make money

Traditional publishing

In traditional publishing, generally the author writes a book, then the author and maybe their agent convince a publishing house to buy it. The most usual mode is that the publishing house pays an advance (a flat sum of money, usually in two or three payments that might stretch over a couple of years).

If the book eventually earns more than the advance, the author eventually get royalties (a split of the income, based on whatever’s contracted.) Note the ‘eventually’ here – the vast majority of books do not earn out the advance.

In return, the publishing house does the work of designing a cover, doing the book design, editing, and some degree of marketing, and distributing the copies. (The amounts of editing and marketing have been generally declining for the past decade or more.)

Advances are generally not big, especially when you look at that money being paid over a couple of years. Usually it’s something like the initial agreement to buy the book, when the completed version is turned in, and when the book comes out. Note that the author controls only one piece of this timing.

Jim C. Hines has been doing breakdowns of his own income and some conversation about trends in the science fiction and fantasy community, which may give you some ideas. Here’s his 2020 writeup with a lot of context for his own numbers.

Self-publishing

I self-publish, which means basically all of the things that need to be done to make a book, I either do myself or hire someone to do (or trade skills for…) If I can’t pay for it, the thing doesn’t happen – even if that might well lead to better sales down the road.

There are lots of different approaches out there to self-publishing. Some people turn out a lot of books fast – maybe one a month, or even faster. Others take longer between books, but that can make marketing harder for all sorts of (often algorithm driven) reasons.

The people who make significant money are usually writing toward the middle of the genre, things that have the widest possible audience. In romance, this might mean shifter romances, billionaire romance, etc. The things that make the top of the sales charts, reliably, month after month. If you’re keeping an eye on what’s selling, and can turn out words reliably in that subgenre, and have an engaging writing style, substantial income is possible.

I know people who are having mid four figure to lower five figure (c. 5k to 20ishK) months on regular basis, usually noticeably higher in new release months. But to do that, they have to spend a lot of time and energy paying attention to details of what’s selling, adjusting accordingly. They usually spend a non-trivial amount of money on ads or on otherwise finding new readers. And frankly, they have to get lucky to get the traction that helps them get those sales.

There’s one other factor here: Kindle Unlimited versus what’s called “wide”. Self-published authors whose books are in Kindle Unlimited make an agreement that the ebook will be exclusive to Amazon. (Big publishing houses get different deals with Amazon.)

These books get additional money for the number of pages read each month. For most authors in Kindle Unlimited, that’s often a larger part of their income than direct sales.

For wide authors (like me), who want their books available on every ebook platform (which also means libraries can get them), you don’t get those page reads. I have to figure out how to tell people on all those different platforms that I have a book they might like.

There is no advance here for either kind of self-publishing. The only money I make from my books is when someone buys one, the vendor sells it, and eventually they send me money. I have no idea what that number might end up at. If I write a great book a lot of people love, maybe a lot. Maybe I write a great book that only a few people love, and it’s a lot less.

Let’s talk numbers

First, I have a full time job. But I have a full time job as a librarian (not a super well-paid field) in a high cost of living city. I have some debt (including from the grad school required for my current job and from some health-related needs.)

I’m single and live by myself with the cat. I dream of a future in which I could buy a condo or townhouse and not worry about getting priced out of the rental market, or where I’d have some more financial reserves in general. I worry a lot about long-term financial stability. And I like to sometimes buy books, and music, and maybe travel every couple of years.

I hope that over time, writing will fill those gaps for me. We’re not there yet, even though I’m writing stuff that some people have really enjoyed.

Besides my writing and day job, I also do monthly data wrangling for a friend (on a ‘paid per hour’ basis), and occasional consulting (mostly organisational editing).

Publishing costs

While actually writing the book doesn’t directly cost much money (I already have a computer, a keyboard, and my brain), there are a lot of costs involved with publishing, even if you do it relatively cheaply.

In my case, I hire my cover artist, do a trade of skills with my editor (a long-time friend), count my blessings for my early readers, and pay for a couple of services and tools to help the publishing parts go as quickly and smoothly as possible. When I can throw some money at it, I run some ads. I host this website. I have a big enough mailing list I’m no longer on the free tier. You get the idea.

If you think about this for a second, you’ll realise that every single book starts out costing me money (not just the time in which I might have been doing other things to earn money or save money).

Time

How long it takes to write a book varies hugely – by person, and by book! It’s especially hard to count “was reading something totally different and had an idea that improves the book” or “background reading for something that might be a small detail in the book” or the traditional “I had an idea in the shower!”

I do track my time routinely, so I can tell you that to create The Fossil Door (my most recent book that’s come out), it directly involved:

  • About 90 hours of writing time (I average about 1000 words an hour), over the course of 90 days.
  • 15 hours of focused editing time
  • 2 hours to write the blurb/cover copy and other material
  • 2 hours to upload for publication
  • 1 hour to set up this website for a new book
  • 2 hours for release notes (mailing list, social media)
  • 1 hour for follow up edits on the website

Total: 90 hours writing, 23 hours for everything else = 113 hours. It was almost certainly my easiest book to edit so far.

When I say books vary, I mean they can vary a lot. Eclipse (coming in May) is so far my most time-consuming. I’ve spent 39 hours editing it so far, and I expect to add at least 5 more.

I also spend probably 5-10 hours most weeks on various tasks across all of my books – things like blog posts, wiki notes, replying to emails, planning future promotions, reading things to improve my skills.

Now, I’m single, I don’t have kids, so while I have to do all the household stuff (or it doesn’t happen), I’m not juggling anyone else’s schedule.

My output is linked closely to the fact that I can spend two hours a night in writing time (I also write other things, for other purposes, usually when I need to think about the next thing in the novel in progress). It also means I can devote most of my Sundays to editing and other focused publishing-related time.

Income

As I said above, February 2021 was my best month yet. I have 10 books out, and I made $704.71. $317 of that was The Fossil Door, which came out at the beginning of the month. (Thank you so much to everyone who bought a copy or told people about it!) The rest was scattered through my other books, each of which sold at least 14 copies.

Each of the places through which I sell books takes a chunk of the sales price for their fee (usually 20-30%, depending on the site and agreements). Also key: I will not see most of the money for my February sales until the end of April.

When it hits my bank account, I will throw 50% into future expenses (those covers, ads, and other things that help me sell books, basically continuing to support book output and sales).

I will put 25% toward taxes (this is a bit higher than it needs to be but it makes doing the math on a dozen payment sources easier in my budget app. The usual recommendation for self-employment is 15% or so.

I set aside 25% for actual “I made a little money doing this, yay!” salary equivalent.

$704 is less than half a month’s rent on my apartment (I live in a Boston suburb because of where my library job is. Rents are high.) 25% of that – $176 – is not nothing. But it’s not going to pay much of my living expenses for the month.

For a brand new release, that means that so far (if we don’t try to calculate expenses specific to this book), that I’ve made about $2.80 per hour of active writing and editing time. (Not counting background reading, developing my skills as a writer, doing all the admin parts of the writing business, etc.)

And if we look at my actual ‘salary’ from that income, we’re talking more like $0.70 an hour.

Now, if I’m lucky, and people keep telling their friends about my books, those numbers will continue getting better. I hope so (because I want people to love my books!)

But if you look at it purely on a numbers perspective, it’s going to take a possibly rather long while for it to have made me as much as those hours would have done at my day job, never mind more.

Back to copyright

(And the long tail of sales…)

So why would I spend my time writing, when I could be doing quite a lot of things that would make me more money? Well, partly because I do have stories I want to tell.

But it’s also because I hope that over time, as people find my books and continue to read them, people will buy more of them. I want to build up a steady income from that work, that will continue creating a great shared thing (I can keep writing more books, readers can keep reading them). But if that cuts off at some arbitrary point in my lifetime, that changes a lot of equations.

I think of Jane Yolen, who just had her 400th book come out (no, not a typo). She has a career spanning decades. (She’s 82 this year). Her work went into all the early books (as well as other people, who have benefited from salary or percentages, as suits. the role.) It doesn’t stop being her work and her effort, created by her particular unique brain, at some point determined from the outside.

And it also means we can take care of an author who had one really well known book, and a bunch of others that have had much smaller sales.

Because there’s the last part. If you’re relying on income from your writing, the copyright is the real thing you hold that gives any security. You don’t have a salary. You don’t have benefits from your job if you’re writing full time. You have to pay more in taxes (because there’s no employer paying some of them.) What do you do have is the premise that if people choose to buy what you wrote, what you created, that there will be something coming your way.

They might not buy next month or next year. What you write has to cover an indefinite future.

We can make that indefinite future a tiny bit more under the creator’s control with reasonable copyright limits. I’m fond of life+30 years or so for people. (Corporate copyright, sure, have a thirty year cut-off, or renewable terms.) But people have kids, have people relying on them, have unexpected things happen.

If you want people to create more things, give them hope of a future that treats them decently. Creativity works a lot better that way, for so so many people.

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