Kate Flora here, with a question I’ve been pondering on this week. Usually, published writers like to paint a glowy picture of the world we inhabit. It is true that, having struggled often for years to finally become published, we are grateful for the chance to get our work out there and have it read, and I beam with pride when I look at my row of published books. But this week, after putting together some figures for the past twelve months, I estimate that I’m working for about a dollar a day. I thought it might be interesting to readers to have some insight into the published author’s reality.
I published my first mystery, Chosen for Death, back in 1994. For those early books in my Thea Kozak series, the advances ran around $5-6,000, and I usually earned royalties on top of that. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the way publishing works, when a publisher buys a book, they usually give the writer an advance of some amount that will be offset against the amount of money the work ultimately earns. Often this is divided with some money due on signing the contract, and another part due when the book is actually published, which may be a year or more down the road.
I puttered along with my advances in this range until I sold my breakthrough book, Steal Away, (published as Katharine Clark) which had a big advance, was a book club selection, and was sold as an audio book. The book did not earn back that big advance and so, since publishers considering buying a book look at sales numbers, my happy midlist career was ruined.
But I am stubborn, so I kept on writing, and eventually sold my Joe Burgess series. Some time had passed and the advances had gotten smaller. Then I sold my first true crime, Finding Amy, to a university press. Another small advance that I shared with co-writer, Joe Loughlin.
And so it has gone. Selling something it has taken a year or more to write for a few thousand dollars does not seem like a sensible economic model.
Last year, I had two books published, my second true crime, Death Dealer: How Cops and Cadaver Dogs Brought a Killer to Justice, which I had worked on for five years, and the fourth Joe Burgess. The advances, combined, didn’t add up to the $6,000 I used to receive.
There are a lot of expenses involved in promoting a book. Many readers (and even writers aspiring to be published) don’t realize how many expenses are not covered by the publisher. For example: designing and maintaining a website, designing and printing publicity materials like flyers and bookmarks, buying copies of the book to give to people who’d helped me during the writing process, and buying copies of galleys to mail out for reviews, along with the expenses of the 3000 miles I put on my car.
And that’s not all. I was lucky enough to have Death Dealer be named an Agatha finalist, so I attended the Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda in June, along with Sleuthfest in Florida in February. With airfare, hotels, and registration, a conference can easily cost a thousand dollars. In addition, I decided to take a chance on hiring a publicist to see if I could break out and get my books greater recognition.
Even when a book earns royalties, publisher routinely pay them only once or twice a year, and usually several months after the money has been earned, and traditionally hold back part of those earnings “against returns.”
So here I sit, nearly a year after my books have been published. The writing community has been generous. Death Dealer is an Agatha and Anthony finalist, and won the Public Safety Writers Association 2015 award for nonfiction. And Grant You Peace won the 2015 Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. I am humbled at the recognition and deeply grateful to my peers.
I have received nothing beyond those initial advances.
I am deeply in the hole, though I am lucky enough to have my backlist available as e-books, which brings in some steady income.
Obviously, I am not going to stop writing, and neither should you. But you should be warned: despite the honor of the thing, unless you have a best-seller, it is hard to make a living at this. That’s why we speak and teach and do manuscript reviews and a zillion other things and why we tell aspiring writers: don’t quit your day job, or be lucky enough to have a partner with benefits.
Thank you, Kate, for your honesty. This piece, along with your June 4th post, “The Underappreciated Benefits of Being Unpublished,” has offered hard truths that are not often discussed. As I sit here with an unpublished mystery, your thoughts have given me quite a bit to consider. I still want my characters to have a life beyond the readers who have critiqued the book, but this very clear information helps me assess the path forward with more clarity.
What a great post. I won’t say I enjoyed it–different genre, same place–but it’s certainly the truth of the matter.
The more I read and learn, the more I am convinced that publishers are the worst, and not really all that interested in selling books. What other explanation is there for making an author responsible for submitting galleys for reviews? Of everything, that seems like it ought to be done by a publisher, who would (theoretically) have more clout to get books reviewed.
Andrea, my publisher did send out galleys, they just didn’t plan to have any for me to use to send to reviewers I had relationships with or who’d reviewed my books in the past, or for influential bloggers in the crime fiction world, or people my publicist wanted to contact.
I have to say that Five Star/Gale is extremely generous with galleys.
But overall, it isn’t the very logical collaboration between publisher and author you might expect, even though we should be working together.
Publishers are not evil, greedy, lazy or manipulative. Especially small presses, where the work is unending and the profit low. We cover all sorts of overhead, including insurance that protects our authors from bearing the costs of frivolous lawsuits. We deal with bone-crushing wholesalers (Amazon is the worst) who take more than half of the profit from every sale. We manage increasingly complex platforms not only for major retailers and library distributors but now, the subscription services–which are kicking out some of our best books in romance and mystery because, go figure! They’re too popular with subscribers. That’s just a tiny sample of the obstacles we face. On top of which, authors think we’re cheap for not printing ARCs and shipping them out — despite what we tell authors about the proven uselessness of such efforts (we’ve learned the hard way.) Authors come to us with fanciful promo ideas that we KNOW aren’t cost effective. We tell them the truth and they think we’re just dodging. The marketplace is brutal–very brutal. All those authors crowing about their successes–whether indie or trad–are a tiny fraction of the competition–and trust me, a fair number of them are exaggerating.
You will notice, Deborah, that I didn’t say they were. What I did say was that often publishers aren’t willing to work with their authors for the best results. I agree that small presses often work harder and are more collaborative.
It’s also true that there is little information out there, from your side or ours, about the realities of publication and the importance of realistic expectations. I still remember going to New York when my first book was going to be published, and the publisher said, basically, “what are you doing here?” I said I was there to talk about the marketing campaign for my book. He said, kindly, that there was no marketing campaign for a first time author. I was still thrilled to be being published, and I still take delight in the moment when that published book arrives and when someone e-mails and tells me how much they love my books. But it only seems fair, as Barb Ross notes in her comments here, that if we stick with it, we can make thousands.
Wise words, Kate. Of course, it won’t discourage any of us from scribbling away – but without illusion. Thanks for the honest posting.
Makes me glad I ‘sell’ books on Amazon. What you wrote, coupled with the amount of time involved in promotion, is what had made me a writing coward for the most part.
Thank you, Kate. It’s important to hear the reality of the situation. And it makes me so grateful for all the wonderful writers that contribute to my reading pleasure regardless of the outcome.
Thanks for this, Kate. This kind of transparency, into process and specifically into numbers, helps everyone.
Yes. Absolutely. The invisible (to non-authors) truth behind publishing. Just this weekend I as talking with an old friend who now spends part of the year in Florida. She invited me to visit, and I told her I’d love to, but couldn’t. I had deadlines … and couldn’t afford the airfare. Her response? “But you must be rolling in money! You have 15 books out!” The financial realities of publishing are very hard to understand for those not coping with them. Thanks for sharing the truth.
Dear Kate, too true! Every conference will cost about a thousand bucks, no matter what. And every self-published book will cost about a thousand bucks, no matter what (professional cover; editing; formatting; small promo). Yet the enjoyment of time with other writers/readers, and the absolute control over one’s books is priceless. PS – if the publicist has worked out well enough, sharing a name would be great! Hugs, Mary
You’re spot on with the income/output situation, especially these days. Publishers make the money, the rest of us are slaves to the system, but the truth be told, in the end, we are grateful for having been published, that we have a faithful audience, and that we get tot ell stories and stop the characters voices in our heads. LOL It’s true, we are blessed to be talented enough to write, but the cost is great. Wonderful article! Thanks.
Kate, you’re dead on. We’ve talked about this, and I feel as you do. I don’t want to stop writing but when I look at what I’m earning, I wonder how this came to be. I have ideas about that, of course, but no solutions. Thank you for being so candid. It’s important to get the conversation going.
Kate, It’s good to hear someone willing to tell the truth about this world of writing. That’s why, for me, it has always been just a hobby, a very enjoyable one. In the end, for most of us, story telling has to be its own reward. If a few others enjoy our stories, that’s icing on the cake.
You are a fabulous writer, Kate. The world is a better place for the books you publish. Brava! Kudos! And serious muchas gracias!
This reality you’ve shared? Priceless. Thank you.
Thank you, Kate, for your unflinching honesty. Regardless of being a traditionally published author or an entrepreneurial indie, there are many ways to spend money, but very few ways to make it. It’s a strong argument for authors to keep as much control (read: royalties and rights) as possible or to seek publishers that function more as partners in the success of a book. This is not a tale of Evil Publishers, but of an industry struggling to make sense of new and disruptive technologies.
The industry struggles, and we struggle. Be nice if we talked to each other now and then.
I wasn’t trying to tell a tale of evil, just sharing a part of the reality.
Connie…I think I’ll need to pick your brain about your approach to indy publishing…something else everyone is curious about.
Yes. Kate this would be a good follow up for us neophytes.
Better late than never with a reply….would love to chat. When I read that authors are buying back contracts from their publishers due to lack of marketing support, I wonder if traditional houses are hearing the message loudly enough to make changes. I have lots to say on this. Coffee beachside?
When people ask me about the money (and it’s amazing how often people do this in a public forum), I always tell this story:
My agent was thrilled with the launch of the first book in my series. He called and said something like, “Stick with it, kid. You’ll make thousands!”
Remembering this always makes me laugh. During my career in tech, at least it was, “Stick with me kid, you’ll make millions!”
He could have at least said tens of thousands. Or hundreds.
Anyway, it’s funny, because it’s true.
I used to just grin and say, “Well, I drove here today in a BMW.”
It was nine years old and I bought it used, but it made it sound like I was rolling the dough.
Truth is I love writing too much not to do it, and there is always a new adventure. But so often I meet people who think if you’re published you’re rich, and so it seemed good to share a bit of the reality.
Just chiming in to add my two cents (all I can afford) and say that in thirty-one years of being published in various genres and by all sorts of traditional publishers from the largest to the smallest, I have actually made a living in only a handfull of those years, and that’s “a living” by the standards of rural Maine–in other words I hit the $20,000 mark from my writing alone. In only two of those years has my writing income been high enough that I might have been able to live in a big city. On the other hand, it’s been better than working at a part-time job for someone else to make ends meet. I’m one of the lucky ones. What I’ve written has sold pretty regularly and I’ve always had the one thing most full-time writers need–a spouse with health insurance.
It always is good to hear the voice of experience. I do not even imagine (never mind plan) quitting my day job (nor does my spouse).
It is always good to hear your voice.
Kate, thank you for the honest admission, since many people, especially writers, are reluctant to speak of current finances, though the data can help other writers decide what path to take. I remember a talk you gave, saying one of your books sat on someone’s desk for 4 years- almost a criminal act. It was stories like this from many writers, news of smaller advances, bad contracts, and more that convinced me four years ago to switch to a more independent route, to a small press where I could keep control of most of the publishing process. Now, with the rights back, I’m doing even better, building a career a step at a time. If a top professional like yourself has reservations after 20 years in the business, what does that tell newer writers?
I’d just like to make some money, Dale.
It’s not like I don’t have books in the pipeline for next year!
For certain- we love to tell stories, but we’d like to have money to pay for food to eat while doing it! It’s just wrong when someone of your talent and experience is offered below a real market value for work. Publishers today seem uninterested in anything not a blockbuster- for example, yesterday it was announced that Steve Hamilton, another top talent, was leaving his publisher of 17 years (and a number of good books) because they couldn’t be bothered to support or promote his new book coming out. Wow. Does not bode well for anyone selling less than 100K copies of anything.
If you derive a steady income from your Ebook backlist, have you never considered self-publishing directly and cutting out that regiment of greedy middlemen, who all take their cut before you get anything beyond your modest advance?
I am a self-published author with just two years of writing under my belt and I get no advances, but I make a steady 2500 dollars per month net profit just from Amazon, and this income is still rising. No prizes, nominations or prestigious awards, but I can pay my bills. With your existing popularity and skill you should be able to do much better than this.
I feel for you. My time with traditional publishing was pretty similar. But you know what? There’s life after traditional publishing, especially for mid-listers with a following. It’s called self publishing and since I started in earnest, I couldn’t be happier. I’m finally earning the kind of money I can live on. And honestly, readers don’t care who your publisher is, only that you produce a great story.
Great honest post, Kate. I sometimes wonder if so many people would dream of writing if they had a better understanding of the economics of the business.
Thanks for sharing this information, Kate. Much of it was new to me. Good to know.
Linda…I think our readers rarely know that we pay for most of our promotional materials as well as buying the books we sell at events. Still, you know that most of us wouldn’t stop writing, and that libraries are our favorite promotion venues. There’s nothing like speaking to a room full of readers!
Thanks for being brave enough to say what many authors think! I remember being shocked the second year I attended Crime Bake and an author told me all her earnings went to marketing the book.
Kate, thanks for this post. I’m sad when I think about the writers and journalists, musicians, artists of all kinds who labor and invest time and materials, especially those on the young side or new to publishing who have yet to experience the surprise of this business. But as demoralizing as the business can be, artists persist. What I don’t understand is how places like Amazon and Barnes and Noble can invest so much in the sale of books. As Susan O. says above, the mid-list author is going away if not gone. The publishers gamble on the next bestseller instead of bringing up good and worthy authors.
Rae, I’ve watched so many good writers over the years get discouraged and give up. I always tell aspiring writers you have to have the hide of an alligator. I’m mostly referred to the rejection and getting published phase, but you have to keep on having that tough hide.
I also wonder about why you haven’t tried the self-publishing option, given your talent and fan base. You mention your backlist is making money with ebooks. Are those self-published?
It’s good to see the comment from Deborah Smith regarding the issues that publishers deal with. Clearly the authors aren’t the only ones who work for peanuts. But what gores my ox is when I hear about an author who delivers a genuinely good book that sells well. Then the publisher nickles and dimes them or even cheats them on the payments. The bigger publishing houses probably cheat the authors more than the smaller publishing houses but still, it’s demoralizing to write and write until we finally produce a manuscript that has promise only to have a publisher hold back.
Two words, Kate: “Self-publish.” Why not? You’ll do at least as well as trad pub, and probably much better.
Libby…I’m planning to. Just trying to decide which book will be my “maiden Voyage.” But you can speak to the fact that doing it right, and doing it well, is not inexpensive either.
That may be so, but for all you’ve invested over the years, think how much you would have made in return?
For all the awards you’ve won, it’s obvious you know how to write, so it’s not like some people who shove any old error-ridden thing up and expect to become a millionaire.
Put yourself in charge and earn a living for a change! I think you can do it, especially if you don’t fall into the trap that you have to be a “bestseller” to be successful. Amazon is where all those mid-listers went, after all.
Go for it, and good luck!
It’s not as expensive as all those scary stories make it out to be, Kate. Certainly less than what you’re getting as an advance now and, as others have said, with your talent and following, you’ll likely make your investment back plus ongoing profit easily.
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I now publish and promote electronically only. It makes sense for me because I deal with a balance disorder and there are days when visiting bookstores or speaking publically would be impossible. The upside is that it’s more profitable. For every paperback I’ve sold, I’ve sold a thousand ebooks. It’s not for every author, but I’m happy with my decision to forgo the paperbacks.
Whoa, Kate… you tell it like it is! Thanks for the frank post and the great discussion that has ensued.
I have always made a living by writing, but it’s science writing, marketing writing (white papers, ghosting speeches/blog posts for C-level folks, proposal writing, etc.). Fiction is… fun. But it doesn’t pay the bills. Not even the bills it generates!
Excellent post, Kate. This message needs to be heard far and wide. I for one am a firm believer in keeping that day job. Now if I could only figure out how to write while doing so!! Two sides of the same coin, and an eternal debate…
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Excellent post, Kate, and thanks for sharing. After writing for 30+ years, I agree with much of what you say and have similar experiences to yours. About 7 years ago, I took a hard look at the economic side of publishing, promoting & conference going, and decided that for me, staying home and selling print copies of my books locally (they have local settings) would be more profitable than spending hundreds of dollars to travel from Canada to all those conferences. I also stopped paying for ads and wasting time trying to join every social networking site under the sun, one of which also charged me money. In the past 5 years, I’ve turned a little more profit every year because I keep a much closer watch on my expenses. And yes, I’m a hybrid author, trying to capitalize on the best options that traditional and self-publishing have to offer. Sure, the conferences were fun (I remember you at one of them when you were SinC president) but I now look at writing as a business, one where I’ve expanded into teaching and paid speaking engagements close to home. There’s a way to make money from writing but much of it isn’t based on the old models, which you’ve eloquently pointed out.
Thanks for your very honest post, Kate. We often hear very loudly from the few who want to convince everyone they can make hundreds of thousands, either via traditional or self-publishing, but the reality is very few writers are making that kind of money. And those who are making that money are often doing so not because of their books, but because of peripheral activities – like an intense schedule of public speaking engagements, manuscript critiques, workshops, conference events, editing and ghostwriting. Too bad more aspiring authors won’t read and believe your post! The bottom line is: write for love, not for income!
All you’ve said is even truer for those of us who are published by small presses. Though going to conferences is fun, it is way too expensive for me these days. (Plus, I’m not thrilled to fly anymore.) Even when I get good royalties, I really haven’t come out in the black. So why do I keep doing it? Good question–I just have to write. And like some of the others, I make money from other writing pursuits.
Thanks for sharing, Kate. My earnings history was similar to yours while I was with a small press. Unfortunately they closed down. Rather than look for another publisher I decided to turn lemons into lemon drop martinis and I’ve never looked back. During my first full year as an indie published author with 3 cozy releases I was able to completely support myself. Since Amazon came out with KU, my earnings have declined because I refuse to work with only one retailer. But I’m still in charge of my own destiny and I love it.
Thanks for telling it like it is. I make pennies a day and it’s only a love of writing that keeps me at the computer. So many big advances go to “celebrity” authors or politicians. Small wonder that writers are deserting traditional publishing in droves. That’s no picnic either. I’ve no idea what the answer is, or even if there is an answer. And then there’s poor Harper Lee who’s raking in money on a book she NEVER wanted published. Ironies abound.