I suppose most writers envy the careers of authors like Nora Roberts and John Grisham and Stephen King. I’m no exception. But I’ve also stood in Barnes & Noble and looked around at all that square footage filled with books by authors who will never see that kind of success and wondered what my own odds are. Even if I manage to get published, will my book sell? Will a second book sell?
Seeing as I’m a pragmatist, I decided I really did want to know the hard truth. One particular author (who shall remain anonymous) caught my eye as a possible source of information. She recently published her first novel through a traditional publishing house, is getting a fair amount of press, and is enjoying a good deal of success. She’s not a New York Times bestseller (yet) nor is she that author whose dusty book hides unread on a shelf at B&N.
So, I emailed her to find out the details of her writing life, and as busy as she is, she took the time to answer my questions.
First off, let’s start with the numbers:
1. Eight years after she wrote her first novel, she sold it for $8,000.
2. After a good initial showing, she sold the remainder of the series for low six figures. (For some easy math, let’s assume that’s $200k.)
3. Of that six figures, her agent will get 15% ($30k). By the author’s estimate, 30-40% ($60-$80k) will go to taxes.
4. There are myriad scenarios for how she might receive the remainder of her advance ($90k): (a) 1/3 at signing, 1/3 on delivery of the last book, and 1/3 on publication of the last book; (b) any number of installments – 5, 10, could be anything; (c) payment over 3 years, etc.
5. She won’t know any of the details until she receives the contract, which, of course, the publisher draws up.
6. If the books sell well, she may receive $20-40k in royalties annually, which her publisher pays only twice per year.
7. Her very smart, very cautious agent has admonished her not to quit her day job until she is completely debt free, even mortgage free, and has six months’ income saved up.
8. Her agent also told her that multi-book deals like hers are rare these days and that publishers are mining the fan fiction community for the next “sure thing” (a la Fifty Shades).
9. The author told me that if a debut author sells 8,000 copies of her first book, she is doing better than most.
What did I take away from this email exchange?
Glass Half Empty (forgive the cliché):
1. Don’t quit your day job. Even though the author I contacted has had some success, you have to consider how long it takes to write a book, much less a series. Hers is four books. Assuming a year each, by the time she receives the net $90k from her advance, she’s only making $22,500 for every year of writing.
2. The success of an author is as evanescent as fog. It’s possible, although I hope it doesn’t happen, that the author I spoke with may see a burst of sales for a while, maybe even a few years, and then nothing.
3. If a new author is lucky to sell 8,000 books, then getting published is no guarantee of success.
Glass Half Full:
1. It is possible to get a six-figure book deal. I had thought those were long-gone.
2. Being unable to count on writing for a living provides a certain artistic freedom. It can remain a joy rather than an endeavor, a passion rather than a job. Plus, it eliminates the pressure to please an agent or a publisher or even a market. I can simply write what I like.
3. Self-publishing looks more appealing than it did before.
As my husband said, this information was “sobering.”
But . . . someone out there will be the next Nora Roberts or Stephen King. Why not me? Why not you? It could happen to any one of us as long as we write, and that is the crux of it all. We need to write and follow our passion and give ourselves an outlet for the creativity brewing inside us regardless of where the work takes us.
As the author pointed out in her email, publishing is a business, but writing is still an art.