by Steve Laube
Hope that headline got your attention! Those of us who work with authors find that an area of consistent turmoil is where money is the topic. A major challenge is teaching authors when to talk about money and when Not to talk about money. Let’s explore some of these challenges. And first, let’s assume you already have a literary agent.
With Your Publisher/Editor
Never. That is your agent’s job. And if your agent is not doing their job, find one who will. It’s simple. Do not call your editor and complain about your abject poverty. Do not call your editor and ask for an advance on your advance. Do not call your editor and say that if you can’t get a new contract soon you will be bankrupt. Do not call your editor and ask for help with your storage facility rent.
Complain to your agent who is thereby fully informed and can negotiate on your behalf on these issues. When you do it yourself it puts the editor in an awkward position of having to defend their company’s bottom line or policies while keeping you “happy.” Be aware that anything you say may be turned into a sound bite and then passed up to management where seeds of doubt about your stability can be planted. Your agent should be able to navigate many of these waters by translating your concerns into “publisher-speak.”
Yes, your editor is one of your key partners and your relationship with them may be marvelous. But never forget that they work for a company and that layer can affect how your information is filtered. I suspect some authors might misunderstand this section and say I’m being too rigid. Maybe. But over the years agents have had to do a lot of damage control with an author’s publisher due to an author’s requests or stories of woe. Common sense should prevail here. Use your agent’s experience and understanding of the inner-workings of a publishing house to your advantage when appropriate.
With Your Author Friends
Never. It is like sharing your salary with your office or cubicle mates at work. I know of a person who commented on their year-end bonus, and assumed the other person got one too (which they had not). I have had more authors go into a tail-spin of self-doubt and even depression after hearing what one of their author friends got as an advance on their last contract. Or heard the sales number their friend enjoyed on their last book.
While most authors want some number or measure against which they can compare their own experience, they rarely like the news when it make their dollars or sales numbers seem puny by comparison.
Again, this is an area where your agent should be able to bring expectations and reality into harmony with each other. We are not going to tell you how many books your competing romance author had last quarter, but we can help put your earnings in perspective. Literally each and every author will have a different earning experience. Of that I am certain. It not only depends on the size of the advance, it depends on the eventual success of the books, and upon the number of titles that remain in print and continue to generate income.
I once had a client declare that their earnings, as a writer, for the year was nearly six figures and wondered if that was any good. (And less than 20% of the money was from advances.) I was able to put it in perspective that those numbers were not the norm for most writers. But then had to explain that in this case the author had written many books that had become perennial high volume sellers, and had also published an additional half dozen books that were all in print. In other words the author had worked over ten years to get to that point and was blessed that all but one title the author had ever written was still in print.
For another author their annual income from writing for the year was less than $6,000. In this case the author had only written a couple books and one of them had just released. This author is at the beginning of their career. This author wasn’t sure that all the work was worth it. I told the story of a famous bestselling author who said in their keynote speech that in her early years she figured she was working at writing at a rate of 90 cents per hour. She nearly gave up too.
Hearing what another author makes or sells cuts right to the problem of jealousy and self-doubt or self-recrimination. When you dare-to-compare you set yourself up for despair.
With Your Agent
Always and often. Remember that your agent deals with money issues every day. But also realize we rarely can change your circumstances. When money is tight and you write full-time you may end up creating more material than the commercial publishers can successfully release. Thankfully there is now an outlet for those type of authors we described as hybrid in a recent post “H is for Hybrid.” They publish some under the traditional method and some under an independent method.
This is where your agent can help. Discuss which options work best for you, strategize and plan. Sometimes it means biting the bullet and waiting a while before shopping that next idea. Sometimes it means learning the ins-and-outs of Indie publishing and marketing and sales. But your agent should be able to help you there.
But I Don’t Have an Agent
If you don’t have an agent and are traditionally published it is still good advice to keep money woes to yourself when talking with your editor or publisher. You may gain sympathy but might also weaken your negotiating position. (The question of why you don’t have an agent is for another day!)
If you publish on your own or even under a hybrid model and don’t have an agent, I still recommend being very close-hold with your money details or successes with fellow authors. Your desire to share may hurt another author who is struggling. Or you may give another false hope that they too will replicate your success without any work at all. If you want to share your Indie publishing details on your blog, do it with grace and humility and emphasize “Your mileage may vary.”
What About the News Stories I Read?
You read about amazing news stories of author’s success both traditional and independent…because they are amazing. They are the exception and thus become newsworthy. That is why we read about the numbers for Rowling, King, Patterson, Howey, Konrath, Hocking, Grisham, etc. Their successes are truly exceptional, in every sense of the word. For some they are an inspiration and a model upon which an author can build their own successes, and that is a great thing. I applaud the effort to teach others how to achieve success.
But it isn’t the exceptional stories that create consternation. It is the mid-level author who talks to another mid-level author and says “I made $22,000 last year and am so depressed” not knowing that their friend earned $8,300 and is now ready to give up after hearing your numbers.
As mentioned earlier, please use common sense. Keep your “business” to yourself and your most trusted advisers. And remember, money is important for survival in our culture, but writing only for monetary reward is not where most of us should live.