Decisions, decisions…

All writers get moments when they feel like giving up. It’s difficult to say why this is. A long wait for a response, a snarky comment at the worst possible moment, the longest winter that a person can remember… Bad news can make other areas of life seem unworthy and, for the writer, sometimes their work takes the brunt.

I doubt I will ever give up writing but I am aware I need to attend to more than just one genre — I love to write as I read, meaning anything and everything, and getting to join the Space, 1889 steampunk project was a proverbial deep breath of crisp air. It was also exhausting. One title had to be turned over at brief notice, was the second story I worked on and my first ever co-authored book. The first piece I wrote came out a few months later and required a good deal of research. It would probably amaze anyone reading to see the list of study material. It’s not immediately obvious, and no reason should it be — the whole point is the reader shouldn’t know it’s there.

I’m straying a little, though. The project reminded me of how I like many styles and genres, and that we all need a rest. I was with three publishers who take romance, two of which specialised in erotica, and one who was a multi-genre publisher. I had considered approaching a fourth, but at the fear of spreading myself too thin, I never did. Any decent writer or publisher will say it’s best not to have even the most delicious eggs (even chocolate ones) laid by one hen in one tiny basket.

Publishers go under. Writing is like any business. Sometimes people fall out, there are differences of opinion. Many reasons exist why a writer may one day wish to part ways with a publisher or vice versa. It’s good to have somewhere to go. Being with various publishers also extends an author’s presence and readership. And let’s not forget, different publishers are open to contrasting products. The best ‘business’ decision is choosing the right story and the correct publisher, matching a suitable pair, and deciding whether to spread the work or take on extra. Writing isn’t all about the story — it’s about seemingly straightforward decisions having consequences. Even the writer can be so immersed in the story to forget that.

Prepare to be Poor

“The average earnings of a professional full-time author is just £11,000.”*

*Findings of the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society 2014.

This is as much a message to readers as it is to all those who freely file share whether they do or don’t perceive the harm, pirates, and wannabe writers who believe a writing career will change their lives. I’m not up to date with the most recent statistics, but let’s just run over a few possibly eye-opening figures.

My father was one reader who mistakenly believed whether a writer made £1 per book or 1p, the trading of a million titles added up to ‘a lot’. Even if every author was guaranteed that number there’s a huge difference in earnings if the royalties are a pound or a penny, but the main trouble with this thinking is most writers cannot sell even close to such an amount.

Let’s look at sales:

Before the 2014 findings released I’d read articles reporting many printed, in the store, mainstream paperbacks sold on average 500 copies. Reports said celebrity-written novels selling between 100-200,000 were deemed flops owing to publisher expectations the books would retail well on celebrity status alone.

The situation can be even worse for electronic publications. I know many who never sell more than around 100 copies. I’ve been told some e-books won’t trade significantly above 200.

So which writers are making money from book sales? Those often seen in the top ten positions in the bookstores, but their success is the dream and does not include the ‘average’ writer. Which isn’t to say one cannot make a living in the industry. I know people who have given up the day job to survive on their writing income, but many have supporting spouses, and almost all say they live ‘carefully’.

One of the draws of electronic publishing in recent years was their higher than average royalty share. The usual contract for rates on print is between 7-10%. It doesn’t require a maths genius to calculate a paperback of £5.99 being approximately 60p a book earned by the author of the cover price. Understandably, royalties of 35-50% are highly attractive. When the print market got on board with e-books, there was a lot of resulting disagreements over the percentages these previously print-only companies were offering with many well-known writers demanding more favourable terms. Some of those early negotiations reached 25%–still lower than some electronic-only publishers.

Now let’s take these figures and see how the income starts dwindling in other ways:

Another pull of these markets is many sold primarily in-house so the royalty percentage received was based on the total cover price. When a distributor sells, their cut is first deducted before these contracted percentages apply between writer and publisher. We’re talking the differences between net and gross here.

To be fair prior to the existence of e-books, publishers were always distributors but one draw of e-book publishing was they did sell more in-house, translating into higher profit margins. A large portion, which usually disappeared in printing costs, found its way to the writer. Lately, I’ve been noticing these publishers immediately sending titles to multiple marketplaces so a writer’s slice cannot be construed from the full price on initial sales. One likely reason for this is that many are finding Kindle to be where most purchases now generate. Where many believed the invention of a good e-reader would increase readership, unfortunately, it took the exchange out of house. The app also allowed those who had no wish to own such a device to read on computers and tablets with the same ease. Readers like the ability to buy without difficulty and this is something Amazon does. Many publishers and writers have suffered because of simple single-click buying. I’m not claiming that this is the sole problem but I, like many, do believe it’s a contributing factor.

The distributor deducts their cut before anyone sees anything of percentages. As most distributors have clauses that allow them to set their own cover price and not the RRP of the publisher, and even the freedom to determine when a product should be available at a reduced rate, this percentage can be lowered even more.

If a £6 novel is given a 30% discount that generates £4.20. Let’s say distribution subtracts 35% of that customer’s outlay. We’re left with £2.73. If the writer’s segment is 50%, the earnings will be £1.36. If the cut is 10% that approximates to 28p.

We’ll be generous and use the average of 500 copies sold.

£1.36 x 500 = £680

28p x 500 = £140

Now, if applicable, calculate the removal of income tax.

Divide what’s left by the hours, days, months taken to create the draft. Shall we also throw in the anxious pursuit of a publisher, the editing rounds, and the promotion time put in, all of which I’m sure I’ll cover in other blogs?

For now, let’s use NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) as an example and say it’s a short novella, with a draft produced in a month and the writer is fast. Even if we round it up to a generous minimum of 50 hours of work, oh look… Based on the lower rate before tax amount provides an income of £2.80 per hour…before we take into account all the additional days required. Consider that some may take 3 months, or 6, or a year to construct a book and you quickly see your ‘average’ writer wakes up daily questioning what motivates them to do this job.

“At least writers can boost their income by attending conventions. They get paid to go, and there’s all that prestige, and they’re sure to sell a load of books at these things.”

Only recently, best-selling author of His Dark Materials trilogy, Philip Pullman withdrew from the Oxford festival, having grown tired of ‘writers expected to work for nothing’. As he rightly said, everyone else, “from the cleaners to the people who put up the marquees” get paid, so despite being a patron for the last five years, he resigned.

Now tell one of these writers he or she is ‘rolling in it’, that authors can withstand not to be paid for some of the things they do, that it’s ‘okay’ to pirate their work, that £5.99 for a full-length novel is too expensive. Better yet accept my challenge of waiting behind at a writers’ convention until you’re the only reader in a room full of authors and say it aloud. If your family doesn’t have reason to wonder why you never made it home, then do anticipate being killed in a few new releases. Many writers know where to hide the bodies.

The reality is a sad truth. There’s money to be made, but don’t expect to become rich overnight, if at all. One of the first things I was warned of when I chose to be a writer was unrealistic expectations. If fame and fortune are the main reasons to put pen to paper or hands to the keyboard, the wannabe might turn into one of those who makes the ten top slots regularly, but may also be extremely disappointed to hear he or she has only sold 200 copies. Success, like how much a book is ‘worth’, is largely subjective.

You may wish to check out these articles:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/08/authors-incomes-collapse-alcs-survey

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/philip-pullman-quits-as-oxford-literary-festival-refuses-to-pay-its-guest-authors-a6813066.html

Amateur

Let me stress I mean no insult when I use the term amateur. Every new writer is a nonprofessional. Some have an advantage of a journalistic or similar writing background but they, like everyone, learned their craft. Stories follow certain patterns and by studying these layouts one learns how to produce effective narratives; even if wishing to alter these standards to create something new, it is a good idea to recognise plot. Understand the ‘rules’ to break them.

I’m not going to catalog all the errors editors pick out in many draft manuscripts, but I will list one of which almost every wannabe is responsible. Even the successful author can be guilty although often the story-teller will catch this error in self-edits. If the writer doesn’t, a good editor will.

Many new writers begin their stories with long-winded paragraphs of exposition and description. Trained authors do this, but with good purpose. In those instances, the writers in question set the first chapter aside to use for their own information, extrapolating the necessary particulars into the narrative of the book, breaking up the details and ‘peppering’ the facts between the pages.

I once read an excellent piece of advice: Write your story and begin at the second chapter. Many writers, but particular ‘new’, will describe their characters from their height, hair, eye, and skin colour, to the checked pattern on their garments. This over description doesn’t end at the character but extends to the environment. These details may be important, but are best passed on as an ‘impression’. Study a book bearing this in mind. Examine how the author presents the main character. Is he or she described as being six feet tall, with brown eyes, and long brown hair swept over his or her shoulders? Of does the author describe this person through someone else’s impression of them? EG:

“His eyes were the same deep brown as the colour of his hair. Such eyes should have made her feel welcome. The way his full lips twitched suggested his gaze would be twinkling with amusement. Alas, when she risked straining her neck to look up to his face, his expression appeared taut, his lips tight, his gaze narrow.”

Fine, not the greatest paragraph. I haven’t put much effort into it, but the piece is more entertaining than a list of characteristics. As an alternative to saying he’s tall, she’s having to gaze up to such a degree she may strain her neck. The section indicates brown eyes and hair, but instead of stating the man is unhappy, the reader notes his expression may be hostile, is at least far from welcoming. Is he displeased about something, or with her? Right away, questions will likely keep people reading to discover the answers.

Likewise, it is never a good idea to include an information dump whether at the beginning or later in the book. On rare occasions, this is necessary. A rather tedious chapter exists in James Herbert’s The Fog. However, the data is necessary and is presented to the reader as a meeting. Do not begin by introducing a character, describing the room he or she occupies, and listing the background of how, when, where, and why the person came to be there, who their relatives are and what they are all thinking of having for lunch. Too much explanation slows narrative, can be boring, and also requires the reader to take in a great deal of information too fast. An editor will grow weary even faster. The manuscript will go straight to the slush pile.

So You Want to be a Writer

I’ve been asked a few questions on how to write, or what it’s like to be a writer, so I intend to includ the occasional post in an attempt to answer the impossible. Just like marketing, what applies to one person, won’t be relevant to another, though some things are common to all. So for a first ‘you want to be a writer’ blog…

Don’t. Go and do something else. Anything else. Go and do something less soul-destroying.

Still here? Good.

That’s 50% of the battle won. Now I’m going to contradict myself and say if you want to write, if you possess any ability, it’s one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do. Also, one of the hardest.

Writing is WORK. Anyone ever tells you a different story doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. The task should be, and is, fun. Equally, it’s a job.

Publishing is a chore, and may influence the decision to continue as a hobby writer or to try for publication. The option of self-publishing exists these days, and there can be reasons for careful consideration, but that’s a separate subject. Hardly anything worthwhile in life is easy, and even when published, the hard work never ceases, doesn’t get any easier. No one throws rose petals at your feet. In the decade of the internet troll, you’re more likely to find manure tossed into your path. I’m not joking. Go read a few reviews of classic well-loved books and soak up the vitriol. No matter how successful, or good someone may be in any field, unwarranted abuse is guaranteed.

Some may be reading with a frown, images of Diane Keaton sitting in front of a large desk, a panoramic view of the beach through the window dancing in their heads (trust me, Something’s Gotta Give may have been a good film, but it did nothing to give a realistic outlook of what it is to be a writer). Some reading this blog will be thinking of J.K. and a certain wizard, the author sweeping down a red carpet at a London première of a blockbuster made from one of her publications. This kind of success ‘can’ occur, but ask any novelist if life started out that way and they’ll tell you a very different story. King remembers  deciding whether to buy medicine for his child or to pay the telephone bill. He rightly chose the medication. Many authors understand poverty — poverty may have even been one of the things to push them, kept them going when refusal and harsh words made them wonder why they were putting themselves through the suffering.

That’s the problem with writing: heartache is involved. Rejection. Edits. Reviews. A writer runs the gamut of emotions at every level, and even when they achieve a flourishing career, the despondency doesn’t cease unless one learns how to cope. Maybe not even then. Writers are risk-takers. They risk rejection every day.

Hearing all this, you may well ask if writing is worth the time and effort, or a mug’s game. It depends on opinion but, alas, some restrictions to the industry bode ill and creates angst for novelists, editors, publishers, and agents alike, most of which the majority of readers remain unaware. First-time writers often learn the hard way.

If you have ever heard someone of an older generation say, ‘If only I knew back then what I know now’ you will recognise the true meaning of the adage after writing for a few months, when ready to submit.

To simplify: if this is only a passing fancy, you don’t adore books, and you aren’t one of those who understand that writers write because they ‘have to’ rather than want to, I advise to go find a less distressing occupation. If you’re someone who cannot envision a life without writing, then jump right in with the rest of the wonderful crazy authors who create magical worlds, entertain us, and make us question life by turns. It’s good to be here.