A Taboo Subject in the Publishing World: Money

If you’ve been around the publishing, book blogging, reader-ish world on-line last week, you probably already know all about the kerfuffle that erupted when a writer decided to try to crowd-fund the sequel to her previously traditionally published book, using Kickstarter, after her publisher decided not to pick up the sequel.

I’m not going to get into the issue of why people got upset with her, or the possible misunderstandings that went on, or the argument that art is work and artists should be paid for that work (which I obviously agree with). Not because I don’t think those things need to be talked about, but because a lot of other people have already talked about it and I want to talk about something else.

Through this whole thing one issue has come up again and again, an issue that we are conditioned not to talk about, or not be wholly truthful about because it says something about the artist if expectations are not met. And that thing is money. The concept of money in publishing is very strange. We’re not really supposed to talk about it, but we all have to act like we’ve got it. But then people get confused when we get angry about books being pirated, or try to explain that, while we understand that some readers don’t have the funds to buy every book they’d like to read (coughlibrariescough, yescoughevenforebookscough), we still need and expect to be paid for writing. Yes, need. Not just want, but need. People don’t understand why we need to be paid because aren’t all successful writers rich?

Because of the few authors who have gone on to be millionaires, there is a serious misconception about how wealthy writers are. If you’re not wealthy (sold a bazillion books or have been contracted for six-figures for four consecutive books) you therefore must not be a good writer. Your books must suck. Clearly you should keep your soul-sucking day job and give up.

So most of us are faking how “successful” we are.

I’ll be honest with you, I feel the shifts and changes in the economy more as a full-time writer, than I ever did at a soul-sucking day job. Two years ago I was making enough money as a self-published writer that I was able to support me and my husband while he was going through getting certified and trained for a whole new career. It was amazing and thrilling and terrifying because I knew at any moment it could all change. And it did. Now my husband is supporting me while I wait for the pendulum to swing back in my direction. And believe me, I wasn’t in a place of privilage to quit a day job to be a full-time writer. The economy hit the business I was employed through and I was laid off. So I hit the self-publishing ground running. But because things have changed, does that mean I’m not a successful writer? No. I don’t think so. And things can (and hopefully will) change again. But I don’t talk about it because a lot of people judge you if you’re not making beaucoup bucks.

I mean, I cannot tell you how many people ask me how much money I make as a writer. I don’t know if this is true of all writing professions because I’ve only ever been a novelist, but never before has anyone asked me “How much do you make?” after asking me what my job was. I’ve had many jobs, some paid very well and some not, but if my answer to the question was “waitress” or “writing tutor” or “claims adjuster” the follow up question was never “How much do you make?” It was always “Do you like it?” or “Wow, that sounds (fill in the blank)” or “What made you go into that line of work?” I don’t know why people don’t respond like that now.

Now the conversation goes:

“What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a writer.”

“What kind?”

“A novelist.”

“Oh, have you published?”

“Yes, I self-publish. But I’m submitting other projects to be traditionally published so I can be a ‘hybrid author.'” Now, see what I did there? I gave them another topic to ask about, hybrid authors, the idea that I have more than one project out there. But 99% of the time the next question is:

“How much do you make?” or “Do you make a lot of money that way?”

Maybe that’s not strange to everyone, but it is to me. That’s super personal to me. The only other time someone’s asked about my income is when they might have been considering entering the same field. I get that, I do. But to just want to know how much money someone makes is strange and intrusive to me.

If I’m honest and say, “It’s up and down, some months are better than others.” I often get an awkward smile, a sniff, and a nod followed by a thick silence. And don’t get me started on the “real job” comments. But if I say something like, “Oh, yes, I don’t need to have a day job so that’s nice,” they often blink at me, their eyes go wide and they say, “Wow, that’s amazing. So how much do you make?” Yep, they ask again. I don’t answer that because it’s none of their business.

The only time someone asked me without sounding intrusive was my doctor who, instead of asking me how much I make, he asked, “And are those books selling?” I said simply, “Yes.” And he said, “Good! Don’t want to do all that work and not get paid!” He had no idea how much I make, he just cared that I was getting paid for work. It was refreshing.

People who aren’t in this world don’t realize that it isn’t common to sell tens of thousands of copies of your book every month, that’s actually incredible and can take time. Even those authors often have another series the masses never realized was out there because it didn’t do as well as the one that finally hit the NYT Best Seller lists. They don’t know that if you sell a few hundred a month then you’re actually beating out a huge percentage of authors because there are thousands of us out there, especially with the self-pub evolution.

And speaking as a self-published writer, I can tell you that it takes a lot of money to invest in this venture. But people don’t look at that investment the same way as investing in any other start up, but that’s what we’re doing. I started self-publishing when I realized there was a chance I was going to be laid off, while I still had some income coming in. Because as a self-publisher you have to pay for editing, cover art, and formatting if you don’t know how to do those things on your own. And believe me, I’ve learned a lot of it to off-set so much up-front costs. And it will take time for a book to pay out that up-front cost before you start to make a profit.

So no, not all of us are millionaires. Some of us are struggling even as we’re building a fan base. Some of us did great last year only to do just okay this year. And every day some of us are thinking, “If things don’t change, I’ll have to cut back on writing and get a day job.” Some do well enough to contribute to the household income while another member goes to work 40-50 hours a week. And some of us are writing in the wee small hours of the morning before rushing off to a day job, dreaming of the day we’ll be able to quit because the writing is finally paying out.

But you know what? If someone makes $10 a month on their writing or $10,000, it’s no one else’s business. But the bottom line is this: writing is hard work and if you want to consume the product of that hard work, you have to pay for it, whatever the dollar amount is, or check it out from the library. And it shouldn’t bother you if the author is rich or poor. But if author can’t support themselves with their craft, they may stop writing and, if you’re a fan, that should make you care and want to support the author.

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The Importance of Good Alpha/Beta/Critique Readers

When you first start out writing, it’s incredibly difficult to let go of your pages and let someone else read them. Even a trusted friend or mate, the idea of someone else reading your work is so terrifying, it is probably the main reason so many people never pursue publishing. And it’s a sad thing.

Husband puts tiny faces on the bottoms of pages depicting his reaction to what he's reading and as a marker of how far he is.

Husband puts tiny faces on the bottoms of pages depicting his reaction to what he’s reading and as a marker of how far he is.

When I first started out, I held back my work as well, never wanting people to read it until it was totally polished and perfect. Yeah, I know, impossible. That’s why writers always tell people, don’t read your old work because you’ll want to fix it. There comes a point where you have to accept that something is done or just never finish.

But I have to say, it is having trusted beta readers and Critique partners, that has given me the courage and confidence to put my work out into the world for mass consumption – even though it is still terrifying! When people tell me they’re writing, or they’ve finished a project and don’t know what to do next, I ask, “Have you let someone else read it and give you feedback?” Often that answer is either met with complete shock and terror or a common answer of, “Yes, my spouse/mom/girlfriend/boyfriend/bff read it and they loved it!”

I mean, that’s great, but is your spouse/mom/girlfriend/boyfriend/bff a writer? Or an editor? Or anything to do with the writing world? Oftentimes, not. And oftentimes that spouse/mom/girlfriend/boyfriend/bff wants to love it to support you, or can’t see the errors because they love you, or don’t want to hurt your feelings so there is a tiny chance they’re lying to you.

Don’t get me wrong, if your spouse/mom/girlfriend/boyfriend/bff is in the creative world, or if they have a skill set that is imperative to your work so you need their insights, then yeah, let them read and critique. But they have to critique. They have to be honest with you. And you have to take that honesty.

Honesty. And then we talked about how to make it possible.

Honesty. And then we talked about how to make it possible.

My husband reads all my work. Mostly just to support me as my spouse and so that, when people ask him about my work, he can answer intelligently and I really appreciate that. But he is my Alpha Reader for the ASH AND RUIN TRILOGY. Why? Because he has many skill sets that are essential to the plot of the book, the fight scenes, the survival aspects, and the weaponry used in the books, that gives him the qualifications to critique the book for me and give me feedback, constructive criticism, and help to make it correct and better before I send it off to my beta readers to critique the book as a whole. For my other books, he helps me with fight scenes, but that doesn’t make him an alpha or beta reader for those.

What do my betas/CPs do for me? They help me make the book stronger. They tell me what works in the book, what they loved, what made them laugh or cry. Then they tell me what didn’t work for them, and why. Where my story might’ve gone off the rails and didn’t make sense. They tell me when I left a plot thread hanging, so what the hell happened with character x? They ask questions so I know that other readers will have those same questions and I won’t have the luxury to answer them so I need to fix it.

That little line made my whole day.

That little line made my whole day.

Having readers look at your work, give you honest feedback, and opinions on what to do to make it better, is not a slight against your genius. It is an opportunity to make your work shine, if you’re willing to take it. Now, believe me, if you have a reader who just tears you down, without giving you any praise, even tiny things to hold on to, it’ll break your spirit. So you have to find the right balance in your team of readers. Yes, team. One ain’t gonna cut it. I like to have three betas, and I like for all three to be different kinds of people. It really helps you weed out personal taste responses and know when things are really working or not in a general sense.

But the way you make that happen is by being open and honest with your readers as well. Ask them what kind of Beta/CP are they. Do they like to do reader reaction with in-text notes as they go? Or do they like to read the whole thing and then type photo 2up a critique letter with generalized reaction but comments on core things that stuck out to them? Or maybe they like to do a bit of both? I, myself, like to put reader reaction notes in the document itself so that I can make sure I don’t forget something I wanted to bring up later. And I like to put little “lols!” and “Good line!” comments when something gets me. But then I like to give the writer a short letter at the end, recapping and maybe making broader comments on issues I found, or illustrating things they did particularly well.

So let go of that baby. There is no way to know your book is ready for the masses or an agent to see if you don’t let someone who isn’t emotionally connected to it read it and tell you what they think. Even if they hate it, it’s okay. It’s not the end of the world. The best thing about writing, is that you can always rewrite, but you gotta do it before you hit “publish” or burn bridges with agents because you sent pages prematurely. Have faith! Have courage! Build your team!

And, if you want to be someone’s beta, keep these things in mind. Constructive criticism doesn’t mean ripping someone to shreds. People need to know they did do some things well. We are not in the business of crushing dreams. The pie is big enough for everyone to have a slice.

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