How To Be A Professional Author And Not Die Screaming And Starving In A Lightless Abyss

Your reading today comes in the form of this Medium article by Heather Demetrios: “How To Lose A Third Of A Million Dollars Without Even Trying.” It’s a good article. I feel deeply for the writer, because this shit we do comes with no real map. No creative map, no story map, no industry map, no money map. “HERE IS A BUNCH OF MONEY,” a sinister shadowy figure says in an alley. “IN SIX MONTHS, WE WILL EXTRACT FROM YOU A BOOK, AND THEN THE DEAL IS COMPLETE.” And then the shadowy figure is gone, and all you’re left with is the crisp smell of burning paper and a mysterious whisper in the well of your ear that says, “deckle edge.”

But, the good news is, there exist answers to a lot of these conundrums, and so I’m going to do some painting-with-shotguns here and try to broad-stroke some thoughts and answers about the challenges this writer faced in her Authorial Journey.

Your Agent Is There To Help You

You need an agent, and a good agent who will explain to you this stuff — an agent who answers questions you don’t know to ask and who also (obviously) answers the questions you do ask. Now, an agent isn’t psychic, and I’m gonna guess a lot of them default to expecting you know some of this stuff, or they’re so brined and pickled in the industry they’re like fish swimming in water who don’t know what “water” even is anymore. Which leads me to highlight the next point:

Definitely Ask Questions

Deeeefiniiiiitely totally utterly absoflogginlutely ask questions. All kinds of questions. No questions are foolish, especially when it regards your career, your finances, your future. Ask your agent. Ask your editor. Ask anybody you know in the industry. Ask other writers! I have found other writers to be a wonderful well of fresh, clean water when it comes to that sort of thing. Certainly I must acknowledge that I feel the SFF genre is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to industry folks willing to share their experiences and offer answers. Oh! Speakawhich, may I recommend Dongwon Song’s PUBLISHING IS HARD newsletter?

Definitely Ask Questions From Multiple Sources

Crowdsource better answers by getting multiple answers. That’s it, that’s the deal. One answer may not be comprehensive. Also, authors are not always right about how things work. Hell, I’m probably wrong about stuff in this very post. Also, if your agent isn’t clear on this stuff, or won’t answer questions, fire that agent out of a cannon, and into the mouth of a great white shark.

Publishing Money Is Fucking Weird

Publishing, particularly big publishing (sorry, Big Publishing, aka Big Book, or The Bibliodeities of Mannahattan) pays advances ahead of your royalties. Smaller advances mean you’re likelier to earn out, but a small advance also does little for you up front. Larger advances mean you’ve got a considerably larger “cost of life” cushion, but are less likely to earn out.

Your contract likely stipulates you get paid a certain amount up front — a third of the contract, let’s say — upon signing, and then you get paid the rest of your advance usually in chunks when you meet certain milestones. Turned in first draft, or final draft, or upon publication. I have found these milestones to be different at different publishers (and I’ve worked with a lotta publishers).

You owe 15% of that to your agent/agency.

Earning out is a theoretically straightforward affair — calculate how much you make per book based on the percentage royalty driven by format. Let’s say 10% per hardcover sale, or 25% of an e-book. But there, we enter into squirmy, less certain territory already. If Amazon discounts your book, do you make the 10% on the cover price, or the sale price? (My understanding here is, it depends on who initiates that sale. Amazon initiates, you get it on full. Publisher initiates, you get on the publisher’s choice of price.) So, every sale of a book is earning you a specific amount of money —

So, if my book Wanderers is a hardcover at $28.99, I theoretically make ~$2.90 per sale of that. And an e-book at $13.99 earns me ~$3.50, so from there I should easily be able to calculate what it would take in this round to “earn out,” but I’ve done that math on other books, and I’ve never found it particularly accurate. Why? Because it actually isn’t that simple. Between audio sales and library sales and less traditional sales channels and then book returns (yes, bookstores return unsold stock sometimes and that can ding you), it starts to become a bit of occult calculus that only sorcerers can understand. You can kinda eyeball it? You can make some educated guesses as to how many books you’ll have to sell to earn out, but even then, how many in what format? Some books sell 75% in e-book. Some sell only 25% in e-book. Wanderers, to my shock, has had a rough split of 33/33/33% across print, e-book, audio. Could I have foretold that? Nope.

If you know how many books you sold, that would help, but —

It’s Hard To Know How Many Books You’ve Sold

Publishers are starting to catch up to the fact that authors want to know how well they’re selling (weird, who knew?) — Penguin Random House has a pretty robust, snap-to-it site that has daily updates to your book’s sales. It’s nice to have, if not necessarily useful at every step. And it’s not always wholly accurate, either, which honestly isn’t their fault — we imagine an age where every strand of every industry is plucked with every sale, neatly and nicely updating the total, but as with every industry, it’s less an elegant web and more a clumsy knot. Retailers are independent and not plugged into one another. Each store is not lightning fast in how they respond to things. Even Amazon on the back-end is, from my understanding, kind of a hot mess.

(It’s funny, I’ve met with Amazon multiple times under the auspices of, “Tell us how to help authors more.” Arguably because they want to help more than publishers do, making friends of authors directly, beyond publisher relationships — which, ennnh, okay. Still, I always tell them one thing: GIVE AUTHORS MORE DATA. Tell us our sales! Tell us our Kindle sales in particular! Tell us when people quit reading our books! And they say OOH YES GOOD POINT and then it never happens and hahaha good times.)

Treat Your Publishing Money Like A Demonic Bargain

You should always be fairly dubious of that money. Not that it’ll disappear — it’s just, it’s wildly inconsistent, as I hope I’ve made clear. It’s inconsistent in its timing, in its amount, in everything. It’s constantly shifting ground, and that unsteadiness of the financial earth should leave you particularly touchy. The ground can crack and fall out at any point, which is why you need to budget. Planning is key for a writer’s life, and that’s hard, because we’re a sack of cats, mentally. But you gotta know how to portion it out, and you have to see down the road to where the money is coming from. (As a sidenote, it’s why it’s vital not to give up too many rights — foreign, film/TV, other licensing opportunities — to the publisher. Those random drops of money, while totally not-count-on-able, can be helpful just the same.)

Oh also ha ha ha the taxes are killer.

You’re gonna pay taxes on that.

And they’re not fun.

Budget, budget, budget. At any meaningful levels of money coming in, GET THEE AN ACCOUNTANT, and possibly even hie thee hence to forming an LLC, which can, at high enough income levels, drop your tax burden a little bit. Others will sell LLCs as also being able to defer liability but most lawyers and accountants I’ve asked about this suggest it’s a bit of a myth.

It’s hard to get a mortgage as a writer, if you’re the only income.

Trust me when I tell you that. Doesn’t matter what you earn, you don’t fit into a box that they can neatly check on the application, so you’re a strange animal to the mortgage broker, like a Zebra who fucked a Dolphin and who is also from the future? We’ll talk more about DAY JORBS in a minute.

Cost Of Living Is A Real Thing

The cost of living is tied to where you live. And so, your Publishing Dollar goes a lot farther in places where the cost of living is lower. In other words, if you’re going to choose to live in The City (that city being NYC, SF, whatever), you are almost certainly fucking yourself in every uncomfortable position.

Now, the opposite of that is, sometimes you get advice that amounts to demanding you live in some unpleasant nowheresville — and that’s fine, if you’re fine with it. I’m not. My publishing money could go much farther if I lived, say, 100 miles to the west, but instead, I live where I live. It’s not a profoundly expensive place, especially compared to, say, NYC, but it’s also not as cheap as, say, Ohio. But (nothing personal) I do not want to live in Ohio, I want to live where I live, because of culture, because of education, because of access to places like NYC or Philly or the Lehigh Valley, and so here I dwell, even if my Publishing Dollar would go farther in Nebraska or even in the middle of my own state. As writers, I find we do thrive a little bit based a little on the place we live — and so, live where you want to live, just be aware that there are concessions to be made if you do, and costs for that choice. But also, probably don’t live in NYC or SF. Live near them, ok. In them, not so much.

Back To Those Pesky Advances

I have been fortunate enough to have a somewhat gentle arc to my career — a nice hill of slowly advancing advances. I started small, with four figures, and have added zeroes as time went on. It’s been a slow boil but I prefer that, because it demonstrates what I hope is an increasing audience and quality of books. The worry is when you jump through the gate and someone hands you a fat sack of six figures and it’s like — boy howdy, you’ve probably got nowhere to go but down. Debuts tend to get an almost weird amount of attention (same as how the first book in a series nearly always gets 1000% more publishing attention than the second or third), but even with that, it’s hard to see how a New Author is going to just Rocket to the Moon on a first, big book. It can happen! It has and will again. But just know that opening big is a trickier gambit. It’s like, you wrote some songs and have a guitar and OOPS now you’re headlining Coachella ha ha good luck I’m sure you’ll be fine.

Wait I Didn’t Even Talk About Bucket, Or Joint, Accounting

Back to the tricky calculus of “earning out” — it gets trickier when you realize that some deals don’t just demand you earn out one book, but rather, all the books in your contract. The advances-per-book are put in a bucket, and so you must out-earn the bucket amount, not the per-book amount, before you start seeing royalties beyond your advances. This can be tricky with a series, let’s say, where the first book does well, and where no subsequent book is likely to do better than that first book — it robs you a chance of earning out with one book even if you don’t on the next two, let’s say.

How Marketing Is Tied To Advance

In general (and nothing is ever universal in this industry), the higher the advance, the more money the publisher has in their budget to support the book, particularly in terms of marketing, advertising, and publicity. On the one hand, this makes sense, right? Your book is an investment, and so they don’t wanna invest a bunch of money and then just have it fail — so they contribute more money and infrastructure toward paying off that investment. But it also means that lower advances can mark you in the “uhhh let’s throw it at the wall and see what sticks!” category, which is tough. It puts a lot of burden on you. And that burden is often unfairly thought of as being high effective buuuuut

You Are Never As Effective As A Publishing Budget

Trust me when I say, you can do a lot as an author to encourage people to read your books. But also trust me when I say, a publisher’s efforts in this realm is multiplicative compared to what you can achieve. Stay in this industry long enough — and so much of this industry is exactly that, just staying in the goddamn game — and you will reliably detect when a publisher is spending money on a book. You can tell because it’ll have buzz, it’ll get media placement, you’ll have appearances, and so on. You can also tell when they haven’t done shit for your book. Even if you yourself have done a lot!

Do you need a website? Probably. Doesn’t need to be fancy, but shouldn’t look like a half-ass botch-job, either. Should work on mobile and all that.

Do you need swag? I’m of a mind that it moves zero needles, and I’ve never seen data that it moves needles, and it just seems to be a thing authors have internalized that they need?

Do you need a tour? I mean, I dunno. At a debut level, I’d say no. As with crowdfunding anything, you need an audience already in place to make that make sense. Better to do cons and conferences, I think, at earlier levels, though other authors may disagree.

This is part of the trick, by the way: advice for a debut author, and for a mid-list author, and for a mid-career author, and for a hugely successful author, are very, very different. It can in fact be as individual as writing process. It’s all broad strokes, so take everything even here with many many grains of salt.

A whole salt lick, even.

Your Day Job? Don’t Quit It

This will be the 1000th time I’ve said this and I’ll say it a million more: don’t quit your day job. When do you quit your day job? When the work is at such a level that you either have to quit writing, or quit the day job. That’s it. When you’re up against the wall and you see, “I can’t write these books and also still go to work every day,” that’s a signal. (And ideally it’s a decision made easily because you’re making enough money at writing that it makes both financial sense and is a financial necessity.)

But otherwise? Hang tight. You’ll have no health care. As I said, mortgages will be harder to get. Everything is a little harder when you’re a ROGUE AUTHOR FREELANCE MERC out there in the PUBLISHING WASTELAND. Bonus: have a spouse who has health care and a steady job.

Note, again, I’m fortunate enough to be the sole income for our household as a writer. And I’m doing okay, and am comfortable. But I also still have these difficulties, and the erratic payment schedules can be brutal. All of it adds up to:

Have Plans On Top Of Plans

It’s like, if you live in the PNW, you probably have an Earthquake Preparedness Kit? You need that as an author. (Er, metaphorically speaking. Authors are not subject to actual earthquakes in particular.) Squirrel away money. Have plans on top of plans. What if your genre collapses? What if your agent quits? What if your next advance is way too low to survive upon? What if the economy shits the bed? Have a plan for next year, for five years, for ten. Envision how you remain in this game. A writing career is, as I’ve noted before, a CLIFF MITIGATION EXERCISE. You are eternally speeding toward the cliff’s edge. You might careen off that edge and into a ravine and crash in a spectacular fashion at the end of every contract. And so you need to imagine how — before it happens! — you’re gonna build a ramp or a bridge or some rocket boosters or shit. You gotta Evel Knievel that cliff somehow — but how? New genre? New age range? Break into comics? Some self-publishing on the side? Have plans inside plans inside plans. Especially if shit goes sideways. My day to day is spent thinking 50% about what stories I want to write and 50% what I’m going to do to keep my career going. Which leaves me little time for like, BASIC LIFE-BRAIN FUNCTIONS, so uhhh oops?

To Add In, And To Sum Up

– Publishing is fucking nuts, and trying to understand it is like trying to win a staring contest with the Eye of Sauron, but you gotta try, or you’ll die

– JESUS CHRIST ask some questions, seriously

– Publishing is not a lottery, and you need to treat it like a serious business venture where you’re given the squalling baby of a writing career and your job is to keep that thing alive and somehow get it to college, and if someone wants to put that writing career baby in college before it’s learned to walk, you should be very very wary of that

– Drink the fancy cocktails when you visit NYC, but don’t live there, for Christ’s sake

– Not every publisher is the same, some are fucking amateur hour karaoke, and some are well-trained machine assassins who never miss their shot

– You don’t control what a publisher does; get me drunk and I’ll tell you STORIES

– You should definitely know when your book is coming out and not via Google Alert, like, just ask, just ask your editor or ask your agent to ask your editor (your agent can be a very good “bad cop” if you need them to be, and they should be eager to fill that position, because a good agent is working for YOU, not for their relationship with the publisher), AHHH ASK QUESTIONS

– Art and Commerce are fiddly, uncomfortable fuck-buddies, they’re always fucking, but they’re always fighting too — but that doesn’t absolve you from cleaving only to the art and failing to learn about the commerce side of things

– You’re never dead in this industry until you stay dead, otherwise, get up, claw your way out of the grave, write the next book, change your name if you have to, change an agent, change genre, whatever; you do it because you love this thing and being undead is cooler than being regular dead

ANYWAY

There is probably shit I’m missing.

Feel free to ask questions — I may not get to them quickly, as I am dealing with lots of LIFE STUFF right now. (I wrote this post in a bit of much-needed down-time.)

If you like this post, and find it helpful, don’t buy me a cup of coffee.

Buy WANDERERS. Or tell your friends. Or leave a review.

Lest I die starving and screaming in a lightless abyss.