Show me the money. (Or not...)

It seems supremely ironic to me that the three topics that occupy the majority of human thought are the Three Evils we're told should be stricken from both polite conversation and marketable fiction: Politics. Sex. Money. Politics because we wouldn't want to piss anyone off. Sex because we don't want to offend anyone. Money because...well, what is that about? We want people to assume we're doing better than we are? Or we assume others are doing better than they are so we're embarrassed by our comparatively puny income -- never mind that we have no frame of reference with which we could actually define the word "puny". We've all read about the dismal sales figures on most books that make the National Book Award short list. It has to compute that those "famous" authors got "modest" advances. Depending on what you take either of those words to mean. The problem is arriving at any definition without a frame of reference.

A while back, I blogged about the non-dollar considerations that factor into a book deal and related the sad tale of how ineptly I negotiated my first advance...
I placed my first novel with a small literary press. (A book presciently titled Crazy for Trying .) I had no agent, so I fielded The Call on my own.

"What sort of advance were you hoping to receive?" asked the editor.

"Advance?" I gasped liked I'd been goosed. "Oh, I never expected you to offer me an advance."

He cleared his throat and quietly said, "Um...Joni? You're not supposed to tell me that."

"Ah. Right. I meant..." (Backpedal, girl, backpedal!) "I meant eight million. Yeah, eight million is what I usually get."

Back then, I had no clue where the average book advance fell on a scale of zero to eight million. Add to that the reality that I'd just come out of chemo, which left me and my husband bankrupt. My personal definition of "a lot of money" had shifted to the three figure range. I can honestly say, if he'd offered me $500, I'd have Snoopy-danced like it was eight million. In some nonsensical quadrant of my brain, I truly thought that "published" meant "rich and famous".

Obviously, I knew nothing about the publishing industry.

I'd done very little homework on marketing; I'd been utterly focused on the crafting of a book. (And that's a good thing. One should think about writing while writing and worry about the rest later, in my humble opinion.) When it came time for me to approach my next book deal, I scoured all available resources in an effort to find some frame of reference, but no one was willing to share that information. Same thing when I got into the ghostwriting gigs. No one was willing to answer the simple question "How much did you get?"

And with good reason.

First, there's the idea that it's just bad form. Rude. Invites comparison, which invites jealousy if you're lucky and schadenfreude if you're not. Money is the great American yardstick, so there's a terribly mistaken idea that the better writer you are the more money you're going to make, when in reality, it has more to do with how good your agent is, what the market will bear, how hard-working and/or prolific you are, how your last book performed sales-wise, and a certain amount of plain old Gump luck. Truth be told, the advance says nothing about the literary quality of a book and is no guarantee of its performance in the market.

Second is a fear of reprisal or punishment from publishers or agents who don't want their own performance judged by those numbers and don't want to deal with disgruntled authors who got less than so-and-so who's less educated, doesn't work as hard, or whatever. Information is power, and if there's one thing writers are not supposed to be, it's powerful. We're supposed to be demure, grateful little alcoholics who don't trouble our artsy heads about such tawdry concerns. And God knows I would LOVE to be that. (Well, not the alcoholic part. I'm just a talented dabbler in that area.) But darlings, in case you haven't noticed, things are not going well for writers in this economy. The value of our work is being degraded daily, and being bound and gagged by our own timidity is not helping.

I've been agonizing for an hour over this post. My original intention was to lay out the numbers: "I got XYZ dollars for this book." But for the very reasons stated above, I'm not sure that's the right thing to do, so I'll leave you with this: I'm not going to advertise what I've gotten/not gotten for my work, but if you want to know, ask me, and I will give you a straight answer.

Last year, Colleen posted this epic rant by author Harlan Ellison from the film "Dreams With Sharp Teeth", in which he expresses huge frustration about the way writers devalue their own work, which devalues the work of all writers in the market. The Harlan Ellison code of authorial self-value: "I don't take a piss without getting paid for it." It may sound harsh, but that's what separates the pros from the amateurs.

Comments

This is a fantabulous post that ought to be required reading for anyone getting into the biz. Like you, I'm pretty cautious but will talk dough with those I'm pretty sure want to and need to hear it. Tomorrow, I'll post a little "cone of uncertainty" info on mm (mass market original) romance, since it's the market I know best. I know it made me feel a little better when other authors told me I was being completely screwed on my first advance. Though I was pretty shocked because, as you put it, I had zero frame of reference.

Maybe the biggest truth about the money issue is that there is no "fair" in publishing.
Lark said…
Great post. I've heard moanings and rumors but until a friend sat with me a few months ago and showed me what her advances and royalities were for her first 4 books, I had no idea what a successful new author could expect to make in the romance market. She gave me hope that a good living can be made in the genre even if you aren't Nora Roberts.

In contrast, I was shocked by a discussion among some e-published writers, none of whom had made more than a couple hundred dollars on any of their e-books.

We're all put at a disadvantage not knowing what publishers expect to pay for a book--at least the range. That's where a good agent comes in,I suppose. Those of us still trying to snag an agent, however, seem to have few options to educating ourselves.
Jo Anne said…
As a woman who has run a successful (that means I get paid well for what I do) bookkeeping service for twenty-eight years. And as someone who (put off and) is now looking at (pubbed in) the romance genre as a second career, a retirement career, because I had to take care of my retirement income with the first, I have only one thing to say...

AMEN!!!!
Oh, I wanted to add that I crack up every time I think about your first hard-core negotiation. I still stink at this, which is why I have an agent.
Chuck said…
The woman who wrote The Timetraveller's Wife was advanced $5,000 by MacAdam Cage, a small press, for the hardback. She was caught up in the success of the book but had no $ to travel to all the places that wanted to see her........... as her royalties wouldn't be coming anytime soon -- like 6-8 months. Can you imagine going into a bank and asking to borrow money against your coming royalties when the banker can't get the publisher to report how many copies your book has sold to date?
When I went to a book signing at Murder By the Book in Houston about 3 years ago, Stephen J. Cannell (Rockford Files, A-Team, etc. and now successful novelist) stated he remained totally stunned by the lack of valid and timely information on book sales. When he produced a movie, he had all the Friday and Saturday gross viewing reports by Sunday evening, I believe.
Yep, Chuck, it can be a long, thin stretch between a book's release and the end of the first royalty period, anywhere from six months to well over a year. So even if one has a hit on his/her hands, there's quite a wait, and some publishers can be cagey with the sales figures. Others are quite good about it, getting reports within the first weeks. But I don't know any that would say, "Hey, we're making money hand over fist here, so we'd like to send you your cut early." Unless it's planned for in the contract, it's not happening.