Saturday 21 January 2012

How Writers Earn Money

At what point should writers be paid? Do they qualify for the job like a doctor or a teacher does, after a lengthy apprentice and is part of what they are paid for all those years of training?

Parallels with other professions

I used to be a language teacher and it looked to many as if I worked 9.00 until 3.30 39 weeks a year.  Of course, that isn’t really true: teaching weeks tended to involve 52 hours’ work and some work carried on during the holidays. I had to keep my languages up also. This meant going abroad and reading books and watching films in other languages. Or were those leisure activities? Did it ever really stop?
It is similar for me now as a writer. Is reading work? Or thinking about my plot and characters as I drive, cook or iron? Or perhaps watching and critiquing TV dramas?
Or are we rather like those who work in the catering and beauty industries? The basic wage (the advance or the fee) is very small so we rely on tips to bolster our income (royalties, PLR and ALCS payments, and revenue from advertising)?

Content cannot be free

One of my books has been downloaded several thousand times from a site that is displaying it illegally. It’s getting good reviews, mind. My publisher has requested its removal twice. It has been removed but up it has popped again. I’d be at least £2000 better off if those people who had downloaded it had bought a copy of the book or borrowed it from the library. There is still the impression that if something is available electronically it should be free.
No guys, people who write, produce music and make films, need to eat, be clothed and be sheltered.  They also need some money in order to be able to carry on producing content.
But for goodness sake, IT people, shouldn’t it be the easiest thing in the world to be fair to everyone? Charge a low rate for the content – there are fewer overheads, no stock to carry or ship - yet pay enough so that the years of experience and hours of work are rewarded – including those of the IT experts?


Writers often do other things to keep the cash flowing. Here are a few examples:
  • Offer  readings. Again there is a strong parallel here with the music industry; the live performance is a type of value-added commodity
  • Edit others And why not? It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to edit yourself.
  • Teach creative writing - hopefully because they have something to offer and not because “those who can’t, teach”. In fact, most people who teach creative writing accelerate their own learning as they teach. There is, anyway, a sort of obligation for those who can to pass it on.
The point is, even those who are recognised as writers who produce something worth reading often have to supplement what they earn directly from their writing by earning something from extra activities.

Who should write?

Anyone who writes is a writer. Only the very best, so it seems, however, are allowed to earn purely from writing. And many who eventually do serve that long apprenticeship. Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, and more recently David Almond and Philip Pullman, worked as jobbing writers before they found the big time. J K Rowling may seem to have struck gold at the first attempt but she had a long creative development and a few hard knocks first. 
The Dutch offering state benefits to any artist who has sold anything in the last five years and the Irish exempting writers from tax recognise this a little.
It is hard, but anyone who truly wants to get there can, if that person perseveres. But it’s a big if. It is certainly not easy. We have to pass the gatekeepers. It’s probably going to be a little easier if you have some talent and a heck of a lot of self-discipline.

Who are the gatekeepers?

If you are published traditionally, then agents and editors are quite significant. Then come the booksellers, the reviewers and the general public.
Anyone can self-publish directly to the Internet. Then the popularity of the writer can have an influence on what is read and what is liked. We all become gatekeepers as we select, recommend and comment. The writers themselves play a role as they ensure a fine balance between maintaining visibility and overloading others with information about their texts.    

Can it be done?

Get it all right and eventually you may be allowed to spend your time writing and doing activities related to it. Pass all of the gatekeepers and you may even eventually earn enough that you do the secondary activities out of a sense of moral obligation rather than because you need the money.
Above all else, you must, of course, write brilliantly.     


Sunday 8 January 2012

Which services should self-publishing authors pay for?

More and more people are self-publishing. Print on demand facilities and Amazon’s Kindle have made it extremely easy and you can now do this without the fear of ending up with a garage full of books.
The message seems to be, particularly from writers who have gone the conventional route but who are now resurrecting their out-of-print backlist, that people who self-publish will have to market like mad, but then those published by the Big Six have to do than anyway, and that you should never pay huge sums of money to have your book published.

Some services you need

I agree with the former argument, I’m not so sure I agree with the latter.


Your book needs editing. Even the best writers need editing and copy-editing and the writers themselves are not the best placed persons to do that. Editing takes time. I’m a publisher as well as being a writer and even a beautifully and competently written 1000 word short story will take me at least 30 minutes to edit. Now think of a patchier 100,000 novel. I can edit, copy-edit and critique, but find it best not to do all three for the same text – especially if I actually wrote the text. Even at minimum wage, you’d soon be racking up the £s. It’s absolutely accepted that freelancers charge more per hour than staff earn per hour – because so much of their time is spent in tendering for more work – and for publishing houses / indie authors they’re still better value for money than employing someone full time.  
£240? Low estimate?  


Your book needs designing. You may be able to learn how to do this correctly but this will take time. This isn’t just a matter of getting it to look nice. It’s also about making sure that the software that’s going to print the book understands what you want. Different formats require different formatting. The Unicode you use in a Word programme is not supported on Amazon Kindle, for example. Just look what it does to foreign accents. You save a lot of time and effort if you let someone in the know deal with this. Also, if you use a proper designer, they’ll know about all of the conventions.
£120.00  / 12 hours? (after you’ve learnt the ropes?)

Cover design

You can use a stock picture for a few pounds or pence but you’re still need your designer to make sure the title, spine, bar-code and blurb all look right and end up in the right place.  Of course, again, you can learn this yourself but remember this will take time and actually designing each cover will also take time.
£60- £300? 6 hours if using stock photo /art work

Marketing / publicity

Word of mouth always works well but you have to be established. Do you want to get someone to do the nitty gritty – getting out press releases, contacting indie bookshops, nagging W.H Smiths and Waterstones  etc? Or is that just more time you’re willing to steal from your writing day? Buy £150 worth of someone else’s time? Or expertise – they might be better at press releases than you are.   
I’m not counting all the social networking here – we all do that anyway. You’ll have to do that as well.

Book trailer

If you have the expertise, the insight and the time to do this yourself, great, if not I’ve seen people charging €30 - €150 – and much more, I’m sure. They do seem necessary these days.   

When you should pay and when you shouldn’t

To sum up, I’d say most of the above you can learn and if the budget’s tight you could even swap editing procedures with a group of colleagues. Whatever happens,  however, you should own your own ISBNs or you could form a cooperative with writing colleagues.  
If you add the above up, and then throw in the costs for setting-up printing costs you’re around about the £1000 mark. This is remarkably similar to what some self-publishing companies and some vanity publishers charge.
The crucial difference comes in what happens once the book has been set up. If you’ve paid these charges for someone to do all of these activities for your book, that company should have no more profit from it. If they handle the orders for you, fair enough, an admin charge should come in every time. And probably it’s best not to use the same company for each procedure. Employ people according to their strengths.
If you’ve paid those upfront charges you should receive all of the profits.  You have become the publisher. Vanity publishers and less scrupulous self-publishing companies want to charge you an upfront fee and merely give you a royalty. Steer clear of them.

The way forward

The traditional publisher risks those services on you and pays you a royalty on every book sold. These days royalties on electronic books are quite generous. There are still many advantages for going this route to the writer.
Personally I’m enjoying having books published in a variety of different ways – some are by traditional publishers, some are merely on Kindle, some are self-published but in print and some are published by small presses. Diversity is probably healthy anyway these days.