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.