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The morass that is publishing

It's been a week of online discussions about authors' income, where various friends are placed, where I am placed, who has an agent, who has a trad deal, who made nothing on their last book, who made something, who made lots (ha! haven't actually had that conversation, anywhere...).

During that week I've learned lots of things. Like, for instance, if I had a big publisher I might not be allowed to bring out material, unrelated to the book the publisher has, and expand my writing output. In other words, if I went trad, I couldn't be a hybrid writer, picking and choosing the market as per the project's needs.

For me, that means two things. Firstly, I would lose my freedom to publish as I'd like to - and as much as I like to. But, more importantly - all those little short stories related to worlds, the Christmas freebies, the ability to expand and promote wherever feels best, would be lost. And yet, I'd have a big publisher and a bigger income. Perhaps. Or at least an advance.

That was the first conversation and it was very much left on a 'horses for courses' note. The trad authors were very happy with their model, I was happy with mine.

And that is the crux of  this blog. There is no right way to do things anymore. There is no perfect career trajectory.

In another conversation I'm part of writers have been sharing their stories of where they sit in the market and how they see their future and it has been, by and large, a bleak one - and that's from agented writers, traditionally published writers, small press published writers, self published writers and hybrid writers. Few are making much money from their fiction (bar the bigger names - and it has always been the case that the bulk of writing income is earned by very few), even fewer could think of writing for their living (unless they took on freelance writing and wrote content for websites and what not), and most were pretty demoralised.

Now, as many of you know, I'm a management nerd when I'm actually earning money and I wanted to break the model down.

The current model is broken. There are not enough readers and too many writers and, unlike in the past, those writers don't sit with their masterpieces in trunks with no means to publish it until they get picked up. No, those writers go onto Amazon and publish their books (and I'm one of them, so I'm not, at all, getting at any self publishers. In fact, I think it's great that if you have a dream to write a book you damn well can. But it does lead to a confused market.)

So, the first thing I thought I'd look at is where the market currently is for me. Now, a different writer might have a different take on this, or they might be placed differently, but this is my take on it. All opinions are my own, play nice etc etc.

The ending of the Net Book Agreement is old news. It happened when I was still working as a retail manager in a book store, and that's going back at least 15 years, probably nearer 20. At the time, book retaillers were opposed to it, as were some publishers.

What the NBA did was set a price for a book, below which it could not be sold. That price was based on what was considered a fair price to the consumer, the retailer, the publisher and the author, both of whom got their cut. Once the NBA was abolished, supermarkets were able to sell reduced-aisle books and Amazon was able to really get into the print market by slashing prices.

The outcome of that, some 20 years on, is that we have a product where consumers' expectation of value for money has shifted downwards, but publishers and authors still need to get paid. The pot is smaller, going further, and the mid-list authors, in particular, have struggled in it (as a big reader of the mid-list, I feel its loss).

Further to that, to access a range of books - since bookstores came under pressure within their margins with all these reductions and were not able to stock the same breadth of range instore - the consumer increasingly had to go online. Which meant, mostly, Amazon. Amazon sell the vast bulk of all ebooks purchased, the vast bulk of all audiobooks purchased, and a huge chunk of all paper books purchased. Amazon are, by far, the biggest retailer of books we have.

The NBA will not come back. We want our entertainment cheap. But it does leave writers in the position where charging anything more than a couple of quid for an ebook can impact on sales (although the big publishers continue to try to maintain a high cost for ebooks - but the indie market cannot.)

Today my books are on sale with a range of prices, from 99p for an ebook of Waters and the Wild (bargain - you should buy 10, except you can't...), up to 3.25 to an ebook of Inish Carraig. Paperbacks range from £7.99 for Inish up to a tenner for Abendau's Legacy (which is currently off sale on Amazon while I decide what price to put it back up for etc etc).

How much of that 3.25 do I see? Since Inish is self published I see 70% of that, minus tax. But for Waters and the Wild? Very, very little. (Amazon pays 35% for books priced at 99p, my publisher takes their cut - rightly, they paid out for the cover, the editing, the printing etc etc - and what's left comes to me.)

But! I paid all the upfront costs for Inish Carraig. For Abendau, this year I paid for new covers and to get my rights back. I reckon a good quality self published book takes me around a grand to release, between covers, editorial, buying stock etc etc. (Some of the indie authors might say they can do it cheaper, others might say I'm cutting corners doing it so cheaper). So, before I see any of my 75% I have to clear £1000 in sales, first. Do the maths. Realistically, the self publisher needs to look at getting four figure sales - and that's damn hard to do, especially if you write in genres that have smaller markets (see above, re the mid-list. That's your literary gems, your ground-breaking prose that took years to build a readership, your quirkies and thought-provoking.) And that's not to earn good money - that's to cover your costs for production only. That doesn't even touch on the writing time (and, suffice to say, books don't deliver themselves by magic). Or the promotion time and costs (I'm looking at doing some promotion in March. To advertise my free book would cost me 70 dollars for one site only. That's 50 of your GB pounds, for those on this side of the pond)

So for me to say that I'm not exactly bringing in a lot from sales is no great shame. The fact I'm bringing anything in at all is killing the market!

So, is there anything to be done? Short of suddenly getting a huge advance (unlikely for an unagented writer, which I currently am), how can this be made viable? Other writers are making money through crowdfunding, and putting in huge hours of work to do so. I don't think that model is the one for me, for various reasons. There is no easy model. 

I looked at the breakdown of my writing related income. I'm basing this on last year's writing income (the first 9 months of it, anyhow) and here's what it worked out at:

My sales were 7.5 of my income. They would have been up near the 1/3 mark but for my purchase of the Abendau rights and covers which took a big chunk out of them. This year, given I won't have anything new on the market, I'm expecting the sales to reduce. On the other hand, unless I get my ass into gear with Inish Carraig's sequel and have an editorial spend in this year, I won't have many deductions. Read for that, I expect that figure to come up to around 15% this year.

Grants provided 12.5 % of my income - and that's from the Arts Council in Northern Ireland who work really hard to support the writers and keep some sort of production level happening.

Events and conventions broke even. I did bring in some income from the Belfast book festival and from Women X Borders, but going to Octocon in Dublin pretty much wiped that income out.
SF conventions are the lifeblood of our community. But an author (unless featured) doesn't get paid, often has to buy their own ticket (although Octocon generously allowed me gratis tickets), pay their own travel and their own accommodation. Now, me and the family had a great weekend, we considered the whole weekend to be a holiday and I don't begrudge it. But it does mean I have to try to justify the expense or ensure I carry out activities to cover the cost. In this case, my non-sff appearances subbed my sff convention attendance.

So where did I get the other 80% of my writing income? Where did I actually manage to say I made a profit, I can write for another year.

I took classes in writing. I go out one night a week and talk. I go out at weekends and talk. I really enjoy this work, don't get me wrong. I train for a living anyway, so I'm comfortable in that role. I've met some really talented writers, got introduced to some fabulous worlds and am thoroughly looking forward to beginning a new course tonight. But it's still time when I don't write. Today, I've printed off materials, reviewed and updated the materials, put them together, and didn't write (apart from this blog - but that's okay, as I think it's important for me to capture these thoughts, for myself).

I didn't write yesterday, either. Instead, I worked on a research proposal for a journal.

I didn't write on Tuesday. Instead I worked on a proposal for a possible future income around writing.

I won't write tomorrow, since I'm working.

More and more I am looking at non-writing activities to sub the writing. That varies between training, and talks, and festivals, and research and facilitation. A lot of that is reliant on funding, and the pots are small with many of us trying for the same funds.

I might get an agent in the future. I am subbing a new project at the moment which has had some interest. But I am already published and I am already self published. I'm a known quantity to publishers now. They have to decide if, given a bigger platform, I can deliver the sales. That's a hard one to call.

I might not get an agent. In which case, we can ditch the 'nothing is coming out this year' scenario as I look to possibly bringing The Wildest Hunt out through a small publisher or self publishing (and that decision would have be carefully weighed up, as ever, assuming there was interest in the title).

I might decide to start a one-woman sell-out tour regaling people with the life of being a writer.

No one knows. I don't know. But I do know I'm going to enjoy the hell out of it. Because I came into writing because I love doing it. I came into it to tell my stories.

I can't change the market. I can only respond to my part of it. But I genuinely feel that these next few years will shape the future for writers, and their income, and not, I fear, for the better.


Nick Larter said…
I've realised a lot of things since I decided to just go and do my own thing. Let's say it costs me €12k for editing, typesetting, illustrations, printing, publishing and misc services for 1000 off, of a high-end hardback. If I shift all of them at 25 quid a pop, that's €13k in my pocket. Do that twice a year and I'm surviving. Three times and life is good. Of course there are a lot of ifs, buts & maybes in there but it's a model.

I do find some of the myths perpetrated by the agent/trad publishing world to be dishonest. There is the old chestnut of the money always having to flow to the writer, which is beguiling of course. I was hoodwinked by it for a few years. It's bullshit - they say that because they know damn well that the reading public has a finite amount of dosh and every book bought outside of the agent/trad publishing cartels is a direct hit to their bottom line.
Jo Zebedee said…
I think finding the truth is increasingly difficult - as is selling books!
Mark McClure said…
Jo, I wonder how the design and delivery of eBooks will change in the next 5 to 10 years as more and more of the world comes online with smartphone-type mobile devices? I doubt that these folks will also have Kindle-like devices too.

Something will surpass the marketing punch of the mighty Zon (outside of the US) but am not sure what it is just yet.

Mark Boss said…
Thank you for this honest post. I found my way here via an article by Tim C. Taylor, and I really appreciate your explanation of the writing life.

For most types of creatives, the competition is more numerous than ever before due to the availability of tools and the variety of entertainment content. Yet I still believe it's possible for creatives to carve out a niche in their field and make a modest living.

Story delivery systems change, but I hope people will always enjoy (and pay for!) a good story. :)
Jo Zebedee said…
Tim’s a great guy (and writer!)

I think there will be ways - it’s just the medium and model might change. :)