Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Paying Writers What they Deserve

Traditional Publishing is no Longer Fair or Sustainable. This was the sad but accurate headline in The Guardian this week. It followed a report on author income from the ALCS, the results of which led Nicola Solomon, head of the UK’s Society of Authors to declare:

Authors need fair remuneration if they are to keep writing and producing quality work. Publisher profits are holding up and, broadly, so are total book sales if you include ebooks, but authors are receiving less per book and less overall due mainly to the fact that they are only paid a small percentage of publishers’ net receipts on ebooks and because large advances have gone except for a handful of celebrity authors.

This comes right on the heels of The Daily Mail’s piece about Hillary Clinton’s latest book. The memoir has sold well by most measures, moving 161,000 copies in the first three weeks and 86,000 in week one, but the book has dropped in the charts, and it appears Simon & Schuster will take a loss due to the $14,000,000 advance paid to Hillary.

Forteen million dollars.

By publishing math, this advance was warranted. Her previous book sold well enough for the bean counters at S&S to come up with what seemed necessary to both retain Hillary and turn a profit. But this methodology flies in the face of recent rhetoric about the role publishers play in the protection of literature and the nurturing of “the writing life.”

With that sum of money, you could pay 500 writers $28,000 to enjoy a full year of the writing life. Or you could pay 250 writers $56,000 if they don’t understand how to squeak by as a starving artist. Not only that, Hillary Clinton doesn’t need another penny for as long as she lives. She didn’t need to be supported while she wrote the book. So how exactly are publishers the patrons of the literary arts? Nicola Soloman nails the problem with the current blockbuster model of entertainment: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We shovel money at the outliers and drop everyone else.

I have no problem with the capitalist argument that Hillary deserves every penny of what she can command, or that Sylvia Day deserves 8 figures for her next trilogy. Both are hardworking people who bring a lot to the table, including the potential to make publishers a lot of money. But is this the system we want? If publishers deserve special treatment and protection from the law (there are some who think publishers should be allowed to collude or that the government should have purview over the health of bookstores), then why aren’t those same people suggesting modifications to how we pay authors?

There is nothing to say that the current system needs to be retained. One idea would be a salary cap, which is used in sports to increase competition between teams so that wealthy markets don’t dominate with bloated payrolls. What if publishers had to select their celebrity authors through an open draft? That way, everyone gets a fair allotment of big-name writers at some max price, rather than competing on outsized advances that funnel money away from those who actually need it? Before you balk, consider that sports franchises adopted a system of salary caps to save them from themselves. Overspending was threatening to topple entire leagues. Publishers need similar saving. They can’t be trusted with blank checks to do what’s right for culture, much less their own bottom lines. (Once they got over the revulsion of a draft, savvy publishers would see the great benefit to themselves.)

Another idea would be to mandate that for every advance over 6 figures, two authors who are going be dropped because of disappointing sales get a $40,000 lump sum in order to write one more book, regardless of whether or not that book is picked up. Every 6-figure increment means two more writers getting another lump sum. So if you are going to pay $500,000 for a book, it will really cost the publisher $900,000, and ten other authors get a year’s wage that they don’t have to pay back. These lucky writers would be selected at random from the pool of writers who were dropped over the past five years, so no playing favorites or pretending to drop someone you were going to otherwise pay. The publisher would then get first refusal on the book, perhaps. Publishers would have to think twice about outsized advances, and do some good when they simply can’t help themselves.

Does it seem crazy to punish publishers for paying more than $100,000 for a book? It shouldn’t, not if the purpose of a publisher is to support the writing life. How much should that life cost? The argument for publishers as the saviors of literature is that non-fiction, literary works, and “think” books only come through the system of advances. Even if those books take three to five years to research and write, should that ever amount to millions of dollars? Should advances exceed $100,000 per year? $50,000 per year? If so, why? And if no one can think of a reason, how come more people aren’t advocating publishers to spend their advance money more wisely?

If a book does well, certainly pay above and beyond the advance. I (and I believe many authors would probably join me here) would much rather see smaller advances and a higher share of profits. Or smaller advances and finite terms of license. Or both. Instead of giving me $500,000 and a paltry share of royalties, how about $50,000 and an even split of revenue? The tax advantages would be immense. Much better to be in a medium or small bracket for decades than pay 40% the year of your sudden windfall. And much easier to plan your finances and to save.

Not only that, a large advance can kill a writing career if a book doesn’t earn out. Plus, I’d love to know the money saved went to supporting my fellow writers. So why aren’t we advocating for changes like these? Why are we paying multi-millionaires millions of more dollars? I don’t think it has anything to do with the writing life that the Authors’ Guild espouses.

What about benefits? The full-time employees at major publishing houses have medical coverage and other perks like sick leave, paid vacation, maternity, etc. The authors who do the actual creating have none of that. Does that not strike you, dear reader, as unfair? If the reading public understood what most writers made a year, and how contracts are growing more pernicious over time, I believe they would be outraged. Most writers don’t even understand what’s happening and how their livelihood is being eroded.

Take “high discount” royalties, which is a smaller royalty paid on books sold in big-box discounters. These are becoming a larger share of book sales, and the pay is paltry. Or what about “basket accounting”, where you aren’t paid when a book earns out its advance because other books in the series haven’t earned out their advances? These clauses, along with non-competes and reversion terms, are increasingly harming artists in order to improve the publishers’ bottom line. Someone has to pay when a celebrity book tanks, afterall.

Here’s an idea I would love to see implemented on all print books: Beside the price of the book, right there on the jacket or back cover, print the amount the author makes when that copy is sold. Sure, it would be a rough guess, because of high discount and any bulk deals the bookstore secures, but you can get in the ballpark. Right beside this measly sum, include the author’s direct PayPal address. You don’t have to appeal for anything; just inform us, as readers, and let us know where to go to make things right.

When I finish a novel that I enjoy, I would love to be able to send the author my thanks with a few dollars. Enough to buy a coffee or a beer. Seeing that he or she earned $1.20 for the $15.00 I spent would be motivation enough. While you’re at it, include the amount that goes to the bookstore and the publisher. I think readers would be interested in seeing this, and I think authors would benefit greatly. For one thing, friends and family would stop expecting free books from their writer friends.

Some musicians have played around with a pay-what-you-want model, and book bundles often employ this as well. A slider shows you how much you are paying the artist out of the full amount. I’ve seen accounts of fans paying more when they can see how much is going to the artist. Why not add this feature to the book page at online retailers? Show me how little an author is making, and give me a place to leave a tip.

The reason we are generous to our server who brings us our coffee is that we know they aren’t making minimum wage. Newsflash: Neither are most authors. If I can give a waitress a few dollars for taking my order, topping up my water, and walking my breakfast to me, I think it isn’t ridiculous to suggest I give a little to someone who poured blood and sweat into their keyboards.

Why won’t this ever happen? Because publishers would have to admit that they pay their authors shit. And they would have to lower themselves to asking fans for help. Amanda Palmer has an excellent TED talk on how difficult it can be to ask fans for help. She also explains how necessary it can be, how honest, how liberating, and how bonding.

When I promote self-publishing, it’s because I know from the cumulative experiences of thousands of others along all paths that it provides a much higher chance of earning a living as an author. Not a high chance, but a higher chance. When I advocate for publishers to change their contracts and pay structures, it is because I care equally about all writers. I stand to gain nothing from this advocacy. It’s just what’s right. I would be just as loud and annoying about this if I were an avid reader who knew what I know.

So let’s be creative. Let’s be more open and honest about author pay. Let’s think of solutions to help foster great literature instead of applauding a system where the rich get richer and the poor get dumped on. This is a trend taking place across many forms of entertainment, from film to music, and we need to find solutions. While the news is sad, I applaud the Society of Authors and Nicola Solomon for saying what needs to be heard. Let’s just hope someone is listening. Or thinking of a fix.

47 replies to “Paying Writers What they Deserve”

Nice breakdown of the reality and the somewhat ridiculous notion that publishers are the protectors of literacy. Your voice, and the voices of other writer advocates who have a platform, are giving readers an awareness of publishing practices and the difficulty of making a living as a writer. Thank You!

Hugh, i do hope that all authors realize how hard you fight for them. i know that some of them do. as a fan and as a reader, i appreciate all the ways you keep us informed. thank you for caring.

A lot of very good points. The traditional publishing model is very flawed, especially the print consignment model, which is out of date.

But, to play devil’s advocate, the reality is also that many bestselling authors who make money for their publishers also “fund” new and midlist authors that the publishers do take chances on. Since 90% of first novels fail to earn out, this money comes from somewhere. I remember an author breaking down Stephen King’s advance years ago and how many midlist authors could get $50,000 each, etc. etc but the fact is they wouldn’t sell what Stephen King does. We see the same thing at Cool Gus where my backlist helps fund the company while we work with authors getting their foothold and building sales.

We’re seeing this creep into indie authors too– the rich get richer and it’s very difficult for new writers to break in. The good news is, the gatekeepers for indies are readers.

Bob, even with your vast wealth of experience, you appear to be falling prey to a myth.

Even when an advance “doesn’t earn out,” the *publisher* has usually made a profit on a book–often quite a substantial one.

Remember, at a 25%-of-net royalty rate the publisher earns $3 for ever $1 applied against the author’s royalty advance. So the only thing an advance “not earning out” means is that the publisher’s profit on that advance was less than 400%.

Industries don’t change because the incumbents see the light. They change because the new people and models take the market share away from them. Then we have a new set of incumbents who make up the industry. People forget about the old ones.

Publishers aren’t going to change to help writers. Writers have to change to help themselves. They have to hit the Amazon KDP Upload button rather than submit a query to an agent. Writers are making the choice.

I sooooo agree that writers need to help each other! Have you heard about Bookarma (pronounced book-karma), the new book marketing platform where authors help authors market their books globally through shared social networks? It’s a new platform that had its international launch at BEA. The traditional publishers couldn’t figure it out, but all the indies and print-on-demand companies wanted to form partnerships to help their authors gain visibility. Here’s how it works: http://bookarma.net/how-it-works

This is an example of authors banding together as colleagues, rather than viewing each other as competitors! I’d love to hear more cooperative ideas!

Totally agree with you, Hugh. Whether a writer is Indie or not, I really do think that we should all help one another. We can host fellow authors on our blogs/websites, share posts, leave reviews, etc. Why not? Sure publishing is competitive, but come on, we all need a little help and I believe it’s the right thing to do. I love to host fellow writers on my blog :)

Because I’m in a privileged position (I will be writing supported by retirement income), I’m in a different subgroup of wannabees.

I would rather see barriers removed – equal access to places in distribution, no secret deals that make it impossible for me to get a review, indies having a more level playing field – than support.

My perspective, though shared by fewer writers, is just as valid as that of those who will get more millions (also a small group). Let the awards and prizes be open to all – so that merit might succeed rather than force-of-publisher (assuming I have merit).

Don’t protect me or support me – let the readers do that if they like my words.

Instead, use your considerable prestige to find those mountains on the playing fields and level them.

My 2 cents worth.

Great ideas. It’s a shame they won’t ever happen. Publishing companies have no interest in helping creative people, only squeezing more money out of them. But it’s the same in the music and movie industry.

Hugh, I watched your interview with the SciFi Geeks on Google + the other night and it’s too bad more people don’t see stuff like that. You are such a genuine person and really care about helping others. It’s extremely refreshing, so thank you!

For those of us struggling to make ends meet or without a broad platform from which to educate, what can we do to help shed some light on the truth behind the legacy system? I write blog posts and point other writer colleagues to blogs like yours, Konrath’s, PG, Eisler, et al, but it would be nice to be able to contribute in some other way.

Thanks again for all you do. I know my works would have never seen the light of day if I’d thrown myself on the query-go-round and now I even get to buy myself a nice dinner once in a while from money they’re earning me. When has there been a better time to be a writer?

This current publishing industry debacle is but one small part of an overarching issue that affects most anyone who wishes to be paid fairly.

Whether you are a writer, a musician, a photographer, an actor, a film maker; in short, anyone who produces creative work; then you have likely noticed that what used to pass as “starving artist” level wages a few years ago are now considered “not bad.” If you plot the rise in the cost of living over the past decade against falling income levels for creative professionals, it doesn’t take an economist to see that we crossed the “threshold of ridiculousness” a while back.

The difference is that in the battle between work and money, money won.

If you consider the perspective of the “publisher” then it makes sense. I want to make money selling books and I have thousands of authors who want me to publish theirs. Of those thousands of books, I can find a dozen amazing ones and from those, I can extract the best possible terms for my publishing company as possible because let’s be honest, if the author doesn’t want to play ball, there are thousands of others who will.

The hubris in this mindset lies in the fact that as a creative worker, you are basically a disposable resource to be used when convenient and discarded when not.

So how did this happen?

It comes down to “globalism.”

Globalism and “free-trade” agreements have served a single purpose — To allow money to flow unimpeded between countries while prohibiting the same freedom to individuals and/or the products they create.

Let’s break this down.

I want someone to write a book about poker. I could hire someone in New York to do it and it will cost me $5000. Alternately, I could hire a writer in Mumbai who will do it for $400. Because I can spend my money anywhere, why would I hire the New York guy? I’m going to sell the book for $29.99 so as a basic business decision, I am going to select the less expensive option in order to reduce the “cost of goods sold.” Since my other costs for advertising/promotion, printing, etc are all the same, reducing the cost of the writing lets me pocket lots more profit than the more expensive option. Let’s say the book is a hit and I sell a million copies. Yay me! I had a great quarter so I’m going to take my kids to Disneyland. Oh yeah, the guy who wrote the book? I might send him a thank-you card and suggest we maybe work on another title again soon but why would I send him a bonus or any more cash than we agreed to?

What about New York guy? Manhattan is freaking expensive so perhaps he should move to Mumbai where he can afford to live on $400 a book. Problem is, he’s not allowed to.

Globalism means that money can go where labor is least expensive but labor itself has to stay put.

We live in an age where the companies have money and power while those of us who actually create things have very little. We have a weak position when it comes to negotiating so most publishers don’t bother — after all, we are doing what we love, right?

If you are writing fiction and hoping to strike it rich via traditional publishing, then I have some good news and bad news for you.

The good news is that yes, you totally can break into traditional publishing and do really well. The bad news is that unless you are: well-connected to someone in the industry who will champion your book or incredibly famous for some reason then you have a higher probability of winning the Powerball than getting a meeting.

Before we start to think that this is all hopeless and perhaps we should just stick to one or more of our day jobs, there is a light at the end of this tunnel.

Time, as they say, is a heartless she-devil and is as fickle as the day is long. The time of these “publishers” is almost over. You see, these guys have forgotten what made them successful in the first place – their customers.

Publishers of all kinds are quickly discovering that their customers — you know, the ones who buy their stuff, are abandoning them for better options. The old way of doing things just isn’t working any more and companies in music, film, books and other industries are feeling the burn. Sure, they have contingency funds, in-house experts, congressional lobbyists and legal teams to help them try to shore up a dissolving business model but those measures will fail much as your kid’s sandcastle crumbles when the tide comes in.

This whole direct publishing thing is a freaking tsunami that is steadily demolishing traditional publishing as we have known it. This, above all else, is good news for those of us who create things — as the former gatekeepers of what is considered “good” have lost their validity with customers, we creators can now speak directly to those who want the things we make. This direct connection between you and your fans means that you, the person who write/composed/filmed/worked on that thing they loved are a real person that the can talk to, like on Facebook, or learn something about. Mr Howey blazed a trail that anyone can follow, and best of all, you don’t have to be famous or well-connected to get started.

If you plot the rise in the cost of living over the past decade against falling income levels for creative professionals, it doesn’t take an economist to see that we crossed the “threshold of ridiculousness” a while back.

An economist would say there is nothing at all ridiculous about it. almost all the unfavorable aspects of publishing that people highlight are due to the huge supply of authors and books. He’d say authors are subject to the same supply and demand forces that everyone else in the economy faces. There is nothing special about them.

He would also warn the supply is increasing, and the supply and demand forces will prevail no matter what the structure of the industry is. If all fiction moves to independent eBooks, those same forces will still rule. They will manifest in different ways, but they cannot be ignored. This happens in just about every other industry. Same with books and authors.

There is nothing wrong with all this, and if we are to operate in a market, it’s good to know how they work. They are very harsh. Eliminate one result of a high supply and it pops up in another place.

Then he would say, “Let the games begin!”

Ben,

That was a nice discussion on globalism, but is only peripherally related to the problem of making a living in a creative field. Terrence gets at the point a little more directly by looking at supply and demand. The issue is that there is more supply than there is demand, which is what you indirectly say with your NY-Mumbai example. However, neither of these explanations gets at the real dynamics at play. NY publishers aren’t rushing to find their next manuscript in Mumbai, no matter how low the cost of living. They don’t have to in order to pay Mumbai money.

There are a number of fields that suffer from the same problems of excessive supply that put employers at an advantage. Many of them are creative fields like literature, music and film. However, video game software developers get paid substantially less than other people in software, work longer hours and probably are often more talented.

What all of these situations illustrate is that the exchange in an employment arrangement isn’t as simple as $$ for work. The employee looks at a large number of benefits from a job when making employment decisions. If they value the work being done, they will work for a pittance. This is why creatives will always be underpaid in a market economy. If you really want to do a particular job, you will compete hard and make sacrifices to get it. When there are a lot of people willing to go an extreme, then something has got to give.

The ebook distribution model has made self publishing viable. It reduces the ability of bad actors to take advantage of people desperate to become an author. More of the revenue will go to authors as distribution becomes compressed and the middlemen take less of a cut. Probably, more authors will make a living at writing, though that isn’t certain. However, as good as all of this is, there isn’t enough room for everyone to make it. Writer will never be a sensible career choice so long as one needs to seek employment to meet everyday needs.

Hugh, brilliant post! You skewer these trad publishing peeps.

Rabid self interest, massive-ego perks and a sense of white-gloved grandeur are signs of an industry heading into it’s death throes. I expect all this to continue, to get worse even – $25M for Michelle Obama’s final thoughts anyone? – and for the self publishing horde to take the field beneath the castle walls over the next few years.

Come join us at BooksGoSocial, Like you, we have a mission, high value, true change, breaching the walls at their weak point. And we know where it is. Under Tech Gate. Stay safe, from Ireland!

It’s clear-eyed, rational, makes-perfect-sense diatribes like this, Hugh, that not only keep me coming back to your site, but also inspires me to figure out how I, if even in some small way, can do something to help my fellow Authors.

Not because I have to, but because “it’s just what’s right.” :)

Hugh,

I’d be interested, based on your idea of payout disclosure on book covers, if you’ve seen a reasonable amount of people donate to your, “Aw man I pirated your book, but damn it was so good I just can’t live without giving you some money for it” button.

Not looking for numbers, but as a long-running trial of your idea, I’m curious if you’ve seen any gains there. Otherwise well written post.

The traditional publishing industry has so many flaws. The money is spent on those who don’t need it, on books that will sell without any advertising at all, while new authors will see tiny advances, even tinier royalties, and very little in the way of marketing.

Kudos on an excellent blog post.

-D

Hugh, I love the blog. Read it daily. I had a traditional legacy book deal with the now bankrupt MacAdam/Cage 10 years ago this October. I was given a $5,000 advance and $3,500 a year later for WELCOME TO THE FALLEN PARADISE. The royalty rate–with several exceptions–was 10% per copy for hardcover ($2.40) and 6% (78 cents) for trade paperbacks. 78 CENTS! I was never paid a penny when the ebook rights were sold and never paid a royalty on each ebook sold thereafter. A movie option was made, and I never received my half and was never told about the deal. I spent 5 of the last 10 years trying to get my book rights back. Now I have all rights. My book sold about 5,000 in hardback and 1,000 in trade paper. For an independent press, that’s not bad. Half the time it was out of print, including 6 weeks after the initial pub date when the books sold out. Again, I gave away my rights for life, spent years fighting to regain them, and only made $8,500. That’s $850 a year. What would I make today on 6,000 copies of my next novel as a self-publisher? Selling 6,000 paperback, I stand to make between $30,000 and $75,000. This is not counting ebooks, eaudio or movie options. And I get to keep ALL RIGHTS. If I could do this with a new book(s) every year we’re talking about a decent living. You, JA Konrath and others inspired me to go it alone. I’m starting my own micro press. My real world experience in rights hell changed everything. I’m trusting my abilities as a writer and as a businessman. I will trust my readers. I trust my readers, not MacAdam/Cage’s or FSG’s or Random House’s readers, my readers. I’m a mid-list author with a celebrated book and made $850 a year. This summer all rights were regained through the MacAdam/Cage bankruptcy and in a direct purchase to one rights owner. I would rather make $30,000 a year for the next decade than land a six-figure advance and go through another decade of hell. Since deciding to self-publish, I have for the first time realized that I could make a living as a writer. I never had the pretense that it was possible as a midlist legacy published author. The numbers, 78 cent per book royalties, just didn’t make any sense. Thanks for providing the facts, Hugh. I really appreciate it. –Dayne

The current model is broken.

Because any future model that is invented by trad pub is based on the lion’s share of the profit going to those who don’t actually write the books, that model will also be broken.

If one views publishers and manufacturers, and authors as suppliers to those entities, it all falls into place. The mfrs want to pay as little as they can to get the product they sell.

Fair enough.

I cry bullshit on ideas wherein mrfs should pay more than they absolutely must for their supplies. Even if I’m one of the potential suppliers.

Happily, there exists a competitive channel for authors: self publishing. That channel is the only one I considered when starting my career, and I’ve cheerfully built my little fledgling business into a seven figure cottage industry.

Writers don’t “deserve” squat. They, like the rest of the world, must go out, find a niche or whatever success they can, and eat what they kill. Successful authors don’t owe me or anyone else shit. This isn’t a socialist entitlement program. If some group of jerkoffs want to pay Hilary X millions because they calculate they can make Z millions, that’s a business decision. As it turns out, a terrible one, but my point is those making the decisions don’t owe anyone but their shareholders an answer.

If authors are willing to continue signing deals giving away most of their cash, guess what? Fine by me. They’re idiots. Idiots pay a price for being so. I don’t think anyone should subsidize idiots.

Deciding to write is a personal choice. Being paid to do so is a frigging gift. Readers make that gift to us, whether filtered through trad pub or directly via Amazon. It’s not an entitlement. The money readers pay is not an endowment, or some kind of fund to be spread across all the less fortunate. We, as authors, are in the toughest business I’ve ever seen, and we are in it of our own volition. If we want to keep signing stupid contracts that give away most of our rights, hey, super, doesn’t change my outcome at all.

You are an exception. This is a business of exceptions. Most don’t or won’t make any money at it. That’s always been the case. Happily, now, the odds of making some are better than ever before, and that has zero to do with trad pub, and everything to do with Amazon. Like it or not, the great Satan has enable you, me, and countless others to prosper outside of the trad system. I think that’s awesome.

So rather than wasting your time chastising the broken model for being flawed, I’d say, flush it, and focus on forging the new model.

Because that new model is already creating itself, regardless of what who paid Hilary what.

And that’s the exciting part. The rest is just noise. Sound and fury.

Great post, Hugh.

The publishing system is collapsing. Once the whole thing breaks down to compost, publishers will be forced to change. Publishers are used to manipulating data, but there ability to do so is eroding as technology changes.

Capitalism at the expense of art is soulless. We need to honor the arts.

Thanks, Hugh!

I watched Amanda Palmer’s TED talk. I think it’s something every author and musician needs to see.

Both of my parents worked at a television manufacturing factory (Mom quit when I was born), so growing up I had a very blue-collar way of looking at work. You put in x amount of hours, you’re supposed to get x amount of money. This helped me in school and college in terms of grades, but it’s not enough when it comes to writing as a career (or anything that has a residual or royalty element to it.). A lot of writers work hard, release their books (self-published or traditional), and don’t make what they would if those hours had been spent making widgets for someone else. It discourages people–and you see the same thing happen in small businesses in general. It’s not a work ethic issue. It’s a thought process issue. Producing and marketing any form of art isn’t something most people are taught in school. You have to learn from other people who are successful at it and apply what you can to your own projects.

There’s a positive side to this, too. When you manage to figure out a system for yourself and get the overall picture of how things work, you can begin to make more money and have more personal freedom than a typical job. It also helps that you’re doing something you already love. It still takes a lot of effort, but it doesn’t feel like “work” in the sense most people use it. The writing and art itself are worthwhile. Pursuit of the business side gets you free to do it as much as you can.

Something I need to work on–and Palmer mentions it in her video–is learning how to receive and even ask for help and not feel like I’m begging. That’s a lot scarier thing for me than giving, but it’s the difference in having a one-sided situation and having an exchange between author and reader.

Have a great day!

Hugh, I thought of this when I visited my NY publisher and said hello to the receptionist –who had the posh job of sitting in a beautiful reception area greeting the occasional visitor — and met my editor’s assistant. I’m sure all the employees get full time benefits, paid sick leave, and vacation time. My last advance was 10K.

While I was in NY, I had something to drop off. I made the mistake of stopping Friday at 1:30. The offices were closed Friday afternoon. Summer hours.

I write morning, noon, and night.

I have 5 books traditionally published, with one due out this fall and one scheduled for early 2016.

Fortunately, I hired Laura Resnick’s lawyer, so nothing in my contracts limits my ability to self publish. (she reworded the options clauses and noncompetes so I have complete freedom.)

The books I’m working on now will be Indie published.

I could write an entire blog post about the following:

The old system worked for two reasons: (1) An abundance of demand to be let into the system, and (2) complete control of distribution.

(1) meant that there was no shortage of authors and manuscripts lined up to be next, so no need to fight for retention or treat authors with respect. (2) meant that these authors had no alternative, which meant they could never become competition to the existing system.

(2) changed with the adoption of ebooks and the rise of print-on-demand publishing. Now, any author who isn’t satisfied can break out on their own. We not only become competition, we can out-compete on price and output.

This turns (1) into a nightmare. Where before, there were always writers eager to be mistreated and sign their rights away, now there are more works pouring into the market.

The combined effects are just now being seen. I think it’ll get worse for publishers before it gets better.

It may get worse for publishers. So what? When industries change we are much better off jumping aboard the new model and forgetting about the old. Those who want to continue in the old model will do so. Fine with me. I respect their choice.

Hugh said: “I think it’ll get worse for publishers before it gets better.”

Bless your heart for being such an optimist, Hugh :) I see it a little differently.

I think it’ll get worse for publishers before… it gets apocalyptic.

You see (1) play out when editors and big publishers talk about “discoverability problems” and Indies rejoice over discoverability opportunities.

What “we have a discovery problem” really means is “when readers look for books, they are not forced to choose one of ours.”

I want to reframe the way writers are thought of and the complexity of what we do. For any pixar film they do 12,000 storyboards and then by the time they are through those have been revised 10 times. How many storyboards for one novel does a writer carry around in the creative brain. Writing is not putting one sentence after another in an assembly line, It’s , storyboarding the book, shooting the book, revising the storyboard, inventing the structure and architecture for the story or novel, editing and reediting. Working with different actors (characters) each time and then editing again. We don’t have a staff. The staff is sitting right at your desk with a huge collection of hats, the quintessential one man/woman band. I don’t understand why writers have such a problem getting paid a living wage for what is very complex work. That has to change.

Hugh,

You need to put these good ideas into practice. Start a publishing company! Build it and they will come.

I agree with Russell Blake that no one owes an author anything. Those that blaze their own trail are better off than anyone else.

But, forgive my but, there are plenty of talented writers who can’t do much else than write. Covers? Marketing? Editing? Tell them to do that on their own and they look at you like a cow looks at an oncoming train. There are people who just want to write and lack the entrepreneurial spirit. A publishing company along the lines of what you’ve proposed could be a lifeline for many a floundering writer.

Consider it a legacy. Sure, your books will last for the rest of human civilization. You have the opportunity to change all of publishing.

Now for something completely different. Why would anyone take an advance? It is a loan against future earnings with a terrible interest rate. Best to pay a license fee to a writer. X amount of dollars for print/ebook rights for X number of years.

As for S&S and the Hillary fiasco, those in their ivory towers in Manhattan failed to see how unpopular she’s become over the past years. Shame that money couldn’t go to other authors, but let’s not pass up the chance for some sweet sweet schadenfreud.

I know Hugh won’t take any pleasure, that’s because he’s such a better person than I am.

Hillary’s advance could be seen as a fiasco. I see it as an early campaign contribution–this is a woman who has a great deal of political influence already, and she got a sweetheart deal. Think she’ll favor Amazon in a pricing dispute later on? The advance wasn’t just about how many books she moves at Costco.

I agree with about 65% of what Hugh Howey says. But I am so glad at 100% that he speaks out. Man, it is great. Just the speaking out part. I just appreciate the dialog.

I do think there is a lot of room for improvement in the way profits are divided between the three parties: publisher, author, retailer. We already have a system whereby the “successful” books pay a higher price to subsidize the “failures.” The estimates I’ve seen is 80% of the books don’t earn out. If we had more books that were profitable then the cut for each book could be less…couldn’t it?

I for one would certainly take a lower advance, or even no advance, for a higher cut of the profits. And there certainly shouldn’t be exceptions to the royalty rates. For me, when my Hachette books are exported (in other words bought in Canada) or sold at a high discount, the publisher makes $12 for every $1 I make. And the $3 to the publisher for every $1 I make on ebooks is a travesty as well.

One of the things that is most frustrating to me, is the more successful a book is, the larger the gap grows between relative profit share between author and publisher. In many ways, its those that don’t earn out that have a better ratio. Notice I didn’t say the book wasn’t profitable…as books become profitable long before they earn out…but at these lower numbers the share the publisher gets and the share the author got (because they have unearned advances) can be a fairly reasonable split. But once you earn out, you’ll see huge incomes for the publisher and much smaller ones for the author. I would like a system where the shares shift as the books become more successful. Some contracts have “escalators” (at least for print books) but this doesn’t go nearly far enough. The publisher has a fairly high investment at the front…so they deserve the big cut they are getting. But once that investment is earned back…shouldn’t the royalties shift to reward the author for writing something that became so popular?

ACX had this kind of model…where royalties could go up to 90% for the author and only 10% for the Audible if the sales were really good. I thought this was an amazing model that rewarded success.

I for one would certainly take a lower advance, or even no advance, for a higher cut of the profits.

As would I, and I keep suggesting this, and my agent keeps reporting that the publisher says that if they give it to me they’ll have to give it to everybody. I finally lost my temper and said, or, possibly, yelled, “MAYBE THEY SHOULD!”

I never wanted to self publish. I am a fundamentally lazy person, I never wanted to do all the grunt work, all I wanted to do was write my books and make a living at it. I didn’t have to be a blockbuster or even a best seller, all I had to do was be able to do my work and pay my mortgage and maybe have enough left over for a steak now and then.

My incredible shrinking royalty payments have been a brutal lesson in how legacy publishing is no longer an option for any author who wants to actually, you know, make a living.

Hugh, again, many thanks for articulating what the hell is going on here.

“My incredible shrinking royalty payments have been a brutal lesson in how legacy publishing is no longer an option for any author who wants to actually, you know, make a living.”

People still deny this is happening. And they think the people earning more once they move to self-publishing are flukes, but the trend is real and it seems to only be advancing in one direction.

Excellent article. I’ve been debating whether to self-publish my novel or try going for the traditional route. It seems to me that self-publishing is the better option. The only problem is the marketing part of it, not having an organization with means behind you.

Well, back to writing.

Life ain’t fair. How many times have we heard that, right? But, here’s the rub – there are indeed people that can outperform others in all fields of endeavor, and the capitalist model favors — people that can outperform others in ONE field of endeavor. Care to think about just whom that may be? For instance, and not to be negging on her, Ms. Clinton is probably a good enough writer that she can parse some sentences coherently. I don’t for one second believe she did anything other than dictate, or corroborate some anecdotes, and a TRUE writer, or team of them, did the ghostwriting to produce the product. Much like shoe factories, someone had a new design, someone drafted it up, and factory workers made it. This happens endlessly.

Now, I also want to toss inventors and patents into the mix, since the patent process is similar to copyright. An inventor such as Edison used other people’s ideas to MAKE MONEY.

What was his genius? His particular ability had squat to do with outperforming others in the field of electricity. It was his ability to MAKE MONEY.

Ok, enough with the capslock…You get the point. Throughout history, people have paid others to get their work noticed enough so other people will pay the first people, who then give the actual workers a pittance. I think Dickens even wrote a book about it, but it’s name escapes me at the moment…

The difficult problem, as the factory owner, banker, publisher, or hospital manager will be glad to tell you over a lunch that you are paying for, is how to assure market dominance. That is accomplished not by having the best product, mind you. It’s about having the best legal infrastructure supporting you.

Most of the business world is operating on centuries-old philosophies of class, wealth being equal to nobility, and fawning over people whose only claim to fame is…well, fame itself.

Until THAT changes, (sorry), then don’t expect fair. My daddy owns the shoe factory, but your daddy owns the trucking company, then they can make a deal. If you work in the factory or drive that there truck, you are in for the duration. The best you can hope for is to move into something that will sustain you and your family for a time.

That argument about globalization is a good one until you figure out that not everyone even has an Internet connection in which they can participate. And, if you aren’t making money, you aren’t paying the bills, and there goes that pipeline.

Oh, it’s a devious web, for sure. But not one that will unravel for some time, I am afraid.

Thanks!

A.E. Williams

[…] No I don’t sell like hotcakes, but here’s the thing: traditional authors don’t really sell like hotcakes, either. Unless you’re Neil Gaiman, your books will not sell enough to let you quit your day-job. (This has been more than proven, but if you want some varying opinion on it, check out Hugh Howey’s post.) […]

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