I just read this article advocating self-publishing, “Why Writers Must Self-Publish Their Books,” and I have to say that I agree with several points. The most cheerful one is that self-publishing is liberating. You can publish what you want, when you want it, how you want it. Considering the glacial pace of traditional publishing, and the growing impossibility of getting anything published — no matter how stellar or genius or impressive — the freedom to get your work out there is not only liberating but significant. It’s akin to the joy of realizing you can hop onto the nearly empty carpool line. Whee, you think, I’m finally getting somewhere. And you are. Or at least your work is.
The other aspect of the article that hit home is how nearly impossible it is to make a living as a writer. I’ve had people tell me that their goals are to be full-time writers, that it’s just a matter of time before they quit their day jobs, that one day they’re going to publish their novel, etc., and I try to smile and often change the subject. Unless you’re Stephen King or John Grisham or any of the other few names at the top, or have a trust fund, or a wealthy and supportive partner, chances are writing will never be your day-job.
When i published Seduce Me, I got an advance of $12,000, which my agent said was HUGE, and it certainly felt that way. Seduce Me also did relatively well, or so I was told by a friend in the business. I sold around fourteen thousand copies and Harpercollins put out a second edition. Wow. I’m a big shot.
1. Considering Seduce Me took about a year to write, $12,000 isn’t that much money. If that had been my annual salary, I’d probably be living in a cardboard box. Or not eating. And again, that advance is not normal. I’m sure most first time authors are not getting anywhere near that today.
2. After Seduce Me sold, I got a publishing deal with Random House in Germany for Lovergirl. I got a $6,000 advance for that. A nice chunk of change, but then considering that Lovergirl also took about a year to write, not very glamorous as an annual salary. Luckily, writing has never been my day job.
Despite getting such bling-worthy deals, despite thinking that my career was made and I would be a full-time writer At Any Moment, my career died. Much like many artistic careers (acting, screenwriting, etc.), writing can be very feast or famine. You may sell a screenplay and think you’re the next Alex Kurtzman, and then never sell anything again. So even supposing that one year out of your life you make a big ticket advance (whoa, $12K), that might actually be the last penny you’ll see. It was for me.
I sold I’ve Been a Naughty Girl to an online publisher who seduced me (pun intended) with talk of heavy volume sales and high royalty percentages, sales that would compensate for my low upfront advance. Well, those didn’t manifest, and because I didn’t have creative control, I hated the cover of the book and never wanted to promote it too heavily myself. I finally convinced the publisher to give me back the rights to the book this year, primarily so that I could republish it with a different cover.
So yes, the moral of the story is thus: it’s really sad that writers can’t make a living from their writing. Writing really is a classic example of the 1% ratio, where only the very tip top of the lot are pulling in all the big bucks, while everyone else is writing for spare change and the love of it.
(When Stephen King was asked what he thought about writing programs, he said, they’re great because they give writers jobs — as teachers.)
BUT, on the other hand, self-publishing is kind of awesome, because it does free up the playing field. It may be excruciatingly difficult to get people to pay attention to your book once it’s out there, but at least it’s out there — and then the rest is up to YOU.