Some Writery Things on My Mind, 1/22/14
Posted on January 22, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 61 Comments
First, an observation from earlier today, which is as true now as when I first said it, uh, like, four hours ago:
“The problem with being a writer is that one’s Asshole Phase is unusually well documented.” — me, to another writer
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 22, 2014
Second, I’m seeing various people commenting on these poll results from Digital Book World, in which it is pronounced that most writers — no matter how they publish — earn less than $1,000 a year from it (here’s a longer article in the Guardian about it).
My thoughts about it: Well, the poll doesn’t seem particularly rigorous, as it appears the participants were self-selecting; there’s some bit of selection bias going on there. So take the numbers with the appropriate grains of salt. That said, even if we discuss only the universe of respondents to the survey, the results aren’t telling us anything we don’t already know, both factually and anecdotally, which is that most writers aren’t making a whole lot from their writing, and that having a diversified set of income streams is the way to go (also, day jobs and awesome spouses/partners are nice to have when you can get them).
This isn’t necessarily an excuse for despair or resignation (i.e., the “no one becomes a writer to get rich” gambit, which I dislike). But it is useful in remembering that writing is work and that while finishing a work — and then publishing it! — is the end of one process, it’s additionally the start of another process entirely, one that takes as long (or longer) than being published, and which has its own set of victories and frustrations.
Third, along the line of that last sentence, see this piece by Kameron Hurley about the long, long path of being a writer, and what “success” looks like from the inside and outside.
Fourth, as a piece of personal archaeology, here’s the page for Scalzi Consulting in 2002. What? You’ve never heard of “Scalzi Consulting”? It was the name of my company when I was doing a lot of corporate and marketing work, before the whole “writing novels” thing took off — which, incidentally, it only really has in the last few years. Before then, consulting with tech and financial services companies was how I paid most of the bills as a freelancer, and should the novel writing thing ever collapse out from under me (and it might, you never know), it’s probably where I’ll go back to. Hey, bills won’t pay themselves. Mind you, for now I plan to ride this novel-writing train as far as it will go. I think it’s got a few miles left on it. We’ll see.
I think you’ve just found another way in which baseball is like writing: it’s probably a bad idea to depend on it as your source of income.
If I ever get to publish any of the manuscripts I have (working on the second, first one needs some editing before I’m ready to send it anywhere), I’ll be happy to make 1000 bucks out of them, but then it’s a labor of love for me, not the way to bring home the bacon. Considering the glut of books out there, I’m not surprised they don’t all make six figure salaries. If that were the case, everybody would be a writer.
Also, the Kameron Hurley link seems to be down. At least at the moment.
It used to strike me about people who lived in Alaska, that they all seemed to have multiple jobs, some seasonal, some not, but nobody did just one thing.
Now, we do the same. Instead of having one source of income, we have multiple streams, each of which contribute a bit, none of which could possibly cover all our needs. People all around us are doing the same. “What do you do?” becomes more complex to answer.
In our case, we’re lucky that none of our income streams require working for another person. All self-employed or self-published. Makes life far more precarious but much more interesting.
Any type of self-employment requires near constant hustling on one’s part. Perhaps once one is established and known, one can slack a little bit, but as OGH points out, he’s got a fall-back plan in case the creative well dries up. (As long as there’s a market for cats and bacon, I doubt that day will come anytime soon)
Actually, gaining employment, sufficient to makes ends meet, at what one really wants to do requires near constant hustling, or a reevaluation of what one really wants to do, or what ends one really wants to meet.
Sometimes these articles can be helpful; a dose of reality. Other times, they can be the straw that disables the proverbial camel, in scaremonger you to listen to the voice of doubt. I think ultimately, trying to fathom an average or “realistic” wage from writing fiction is not only difficult, due to the sheer abundance of variables, but also a little pointless in that, if you want to write, you’ll write and work a day job. If you can afford to quit your day job because you make enough writing, thats great, if not, someone who is compelled to write will continue, the others will quit. All in all, you’ll only know if there’s a heaven when you die.
During my 7 years as elected officer in NWU, we had a statistic that of North American authors who actually had a book published within the past year, the median income from all writing was between $10,000 and $15,000.
Has e-publishing reduced that?
I’m curious to learn more about your consulting business. What kind of consulting did you do? How did you find your clients?
I think it’s got a few miles left on it. We’ll see.
Please, you could easily milk the OMW universe and pump out novel after novel and we would buy them. The real question is: at what point would you get bored to death milking a storyline and have to move on.
So I have to ask. Any change to the Desert Island Disc collection?
The consulting I did is at the link. And I rarely went looking for work; I had work referred to me by clients.
Yes, but I would have to think about it.
Hey, are those phone numbers at the bottom of your old page still good? If so, I say we all call John RIGHT NOW!
Awwww, OK, I won’t…still, it’d be pretty funny.
To paraphrase Mel Brooks and others: “After all, the difference between comedy and tragedy is that comedy happens to others – I mean, the 3 Stooges wouldn’t be funny, if it was happening to *you*, would it?”
This certainly seems feasible. There is vastly more supply than demand. But even if it was off a factor of 10, and the real average is ten times the reported amount, does it change anything?
So, that writing consultancy? I assume you are currently too busy to take new clients? If not your bill rate would probably have increased beyond the the means of a guy making $1000 a year.
As a guy who did consulting (tech, not writing) I believe the only way to stay continually employed is through referrals. You need to get your name out there at conferences, magazine & blog articles anywhere you can, for the tech world having your name on a book helps too. I would guess that your current string of successes would keep you in high demand no matter what happened after that.
The way i’ve always understood the “… to become rich” comment, and the way i use it myself is that “becoming rich” is implied to be the primary goal. So if someone says that you don’t become a writer for the money, i understand them as meaning that if you want to make a lot of money, becoming a writer shouldn’t be your first (or tenth) choice. This looks like just one more confirmation for that, even if the data might be sketchy.
I don’t really think (many) people saying that you don’t become a writer for the money want to imply that writers who like getting paid for writing aren’t “real artists”.
I gave a MEDIAN because the AVERAGE is severely distorted by the likes of Rowling, King, Grisham.
That is, the curve of distribution of how many authors earn how much is VERY nongaussian.
I vaguely remember reading an SF novel where the SF was kind of lame but the descriptions of the life of a consultant were riveting.
Here’s something I’d like to see in the writing world – a “Market Suggestions” blog. It might help writers. Sadly, it might only mean you’d have to write “zombies in love” novels because that’s the market; but at least it might reveal avenues for some writers to stay afloat in. And some of us at least would be able to show folks some things we might buy into.
Example. Reading the Michigan Daily awhile back, I came across an interesting article, “Cadavers get personal,” with a subheading, “Getting to know the bodies,” The writer explains that folks who donate their bodies to science will now on be allowed “to voluntarily prerecord videotaped messages to accompany their body.” Well, it’s not exactly zombie material, but I have been waiting ever since that article, with some frustration, for some aspiring writer at Michigan University to pick up on this; and maybe write a fictional “Our Town” for our modern age. (I can see this: a young male taking a cadaver apart with a girl — once the owner of that body, speaking over him!) I think it would sell.
I am in fact in the phone book. But as I say on the site’s contact information page, people who try to contact me that way in an unsolicited manner aren’t likely to happy with the version of John Scalzi they get. However, very very few people have ever tested that proposition, because most people get that calling people out of the blue is a little rude.
I am doing very little consultant work at the moment, although I have a couple of clients who I still do (very) occasional work for.
On the second point, its actually gotten a lot of traction on many of the self pub boards because Stephen Zacharias, CEO of Kensington Publishing, was using it as one of his arguments in the traditional vs. self publishing route in a series of posts on a couple of self pub websites (Passive Guy and Konraths site are the two big ones). To his great credit, he was very engaged on the issue, although I suspect he didn’t fare as well as he thought he would.
To the DBW “Survey” Jami Gold did a pretty good review of that poll on her blog here:
I didn’t know you were a film critic. Are any of your old columns available online?
I’m curious, John, what you mean by “last few years” and “taking off”. I know from casual readings of Whatever that you’ve still brought in revenue from non-novel writing. I know when you started to get *paid* for writing novels, but can you break down when you went from “Getting paid” to “getting paid enough that the per-hour time investment begins to look make it look like a real job” to “majority of income” to “stable source of income”?
Not really. The newspaper has an archive of them, but it costs money to access.
That was kind of overly complicated for me to follow. I tend to consider 2010 as the year I officially became a full-time novelist, however.
Then you spent some time writing for a computer game. Full time fiction writer?
No, full-time novelist is accurate. The video game was something I did elsewise.
Whoa, cool! I didn’t realize until reading this post that you were an Actual, Real Writer (as opposed to just another anonymous blogger with delusions of Internet fame, I guess)! I looked you up in the catalog of the library where I work, and here you are: http://coolcat.org/record=b2794604~S1.
For me (an anonymous blogger with delusions of Internet fame), it’s not the Asshole Phase I regret. It’s the unfortunately well-documented Sad Phase of the early 20s, when every breakup was worth at least a dozen dire blog posts, often linked to Elliott Smith music videos.
Growing up on the Internet. Ouch.
Note: writing “I am not an asshole” on the internet has all the credibility of Chris Christie saying “I am not a bully” or Richard Nixon saying “I am not a crook.”
JS– Given this information, why would you ever encourage anyone to take any money for publishing a work, no matter how small? Again, even if these numbers are off by a factor of ten, if you get even $1000 from a published work you doing better than not just the vast population of the world who wish they could be writers, but in fact, most other published writers.
Back a few days when you were telling people to hold out, wasn’t that amazingly bad advice because even those authors who “hold out” make far less money than they would if they simply got a regular job at a car wash, Burger King, or Foot Locker?
I take the view that asking someone who has an offer to be published, no matter how bad the deal, is asking a person who has a winning lottery ticket for $1,000 to double down and hope they win the Powerball. Everyone very rarely it will work out, but most of the time they’re just out the $1,000.
“Given this information, why would you ever encourage anyone to take any money for publishing a work, no matter how small?”
Because money lets you do things like pay your rent and buy groceries, and generally speaking work should be acknowledged to have value? I honestly don’t understand your question. You seem to be saying “writing work generally pays close to nothing therefore there’s no point in asking to be paid,” which seems weird and defeatist at best.
To be honest, dpmaine, your post reads like it might be missing a few critical words here and there, and in other places like autocorrect changed a couple of words.
Sorry, English is not my first language and I have a hard time with it still.
I think what I meant was:
“Given this information, why would you ever NOT encourage anyone to take any money for publishing a work, no matter how small?”
You regularly tell writers they should hold for better, more traditional publishing contracts, when even those authors who do, on average, make next to nothing. Isn’t a little bit of money that will get for sure better than just tiny a bit more money you will probably never get?
Ah. I was thinking that was probably what you meant but was not sure. Thank you for the clarification.
And the answer is: The reason to encourage people to ask for more is that they are entering into a business negotiation and the nature of a business negotiation is that both sides seek to make any resulting contract as advantageous to themselves as possible. In the case of a book, that can include asking for money, negotiating a higher royalty rate, seeking to reserve certain rights and so on. Remember that the author in this case has something the publisher wants, specifically, the book the publisher seeks to buy. This means that the author, generally speaking, has at least some leverage.
That being the case, there is nothing to be gained (literally) by not seeking to negotiate a better contract. A book publisher’s reaction to a writer (or his/her agent) seeking better terms will almost certainly not be to fly into a rage at the temerity of the author seeking to better his/her position and stomp away, leaving the author emptyhanded (and if it is, that’s a signal to walk away from that publisher as quickly as you can); they will simply say yes, no, or make a counteroffer.
Bear in mind legitimate publishers will expect you to negotiate the details of a contract; sure, they’d be happy for you just to suck up their boilerplate contract, which is hugely advantageous to them, and not just in the category of the advance. But they don’t count on it.
Leaving aside my noted reservations about the methodology of the survey, I would note that even if the sums being negotiated are low, more money is still better. Negotiating a $2,000 advance instead of a $1,000 advance means you now have twice as much money as you did before. They’re both low, but one’s better. And you won’t get it unless you ask for it.
Beyond that, it should be noted that with this survey, there’s a lot we don’t know about it. For example, if an author negotiated a book deal that included a $25,000 advance, it’s likely to take the book time to earn back the advance money and start paying royalties, if it ever does. If the survey is tracking only one year and the writer is between projects, the survey will note the author making nothing (or very little) this year and miss the $25K the author earned the year before. Author income is, generally speaking, highly variable.
Going back to the contract negotiation issue, I will say that one recurring problem, especially with newer writers desperate to be published, is that they don’t see a book offer as a business negotiation but as ZOMG THE THING THAT WILL CHANGE THEIR LIFE FOREVER AND WILL NEVER EVER HAPPEN AGAIN, which, to be honest, is probably incorrect — assuming that the publisher in question isn’t a scam organization, the fact a publisher wants to buy your book means you’re working at a level of competence which suggests you could make other sales too. But the desire to be published is so strong that people feel that anything they do will mess up their chances. So they often take worse deals than they could have gotten.
I would prefer people know that deals are negotiable, and get used to the idea that they should be thinking of their careers in a business-like way, earlier than later. Doing so means better deals early and a better negotiating position later. At the very least, it worked for me.
Aha! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_(novel) That’s the one. Yeah, it was way more interesting reading about how the protagonist was going to keep his clients rather than how he was going to save the world from self-aware Cy-droids.
really deserves to be on the front page. Possibly even weekly.
Thank you so much for point 4. As a freelance writer / editorial consultant for big companies, I tend to forget I’m also allowed to keep my creativity and write novels. It’s always good to know I’m not alone in this market.
. Doing so means better deals early and a better negotiating position later. At the very least, it worked for me.
I think this is a bingo moment. What leads you to believe that worked for you over the last X years (and even though you are only recently full-time, you’ve been this for quite a few years) will work again for any future author?
a. Since you got a big break and made mid-list, there are fewer traditional publishers.
b. There is substantially less profit, and as we can see from even this flawed survey, there is substantially less money going around than most people think. Even the mythical $25k advance that you mention, well, think on that for a minute. That’s the equivalent of a $12/hour job for a year. That’s the best case scenario you can imagine. To get that back you are talking about selling a fairly serious amount of books. Enough to break you into the middle ranks of authors, or very close to it.
c. There are many more publishing options, all of which don’t involve getting paid upfront.
We are all happy to hear what worked for you. Telling someone to negotiate is fine, but you have straight out said not to do business with certain nameplates and publishers that you feel don’t offer a good enough STANDARD (pre-negotiation) contract.
The bottom line question is, does taking a $500 or $1000 fee and a slice of each book, should an unpublished author walk away from that?
You presume that they are good enough to get a second look by someone else, but that is assuming that the publisher doesn’t already have a large supply of unpublished authors who can replace you. There is literally no guarantee that you will ever get looked at again, by any publisher, or any price.
Is, in your opinion, having a bad contract now better than never having any contract at all?
Isaac Asimov told me: “In a contract, everything can be negotiated, including your name and today’s date.”
“What leads you to believe that worked for you over the last X years (and even though you are only recently full-time, you’ve been this for quite a few years) will work again for any future author?”
Ah, but we’re not talking future authors, we’re talking about authors working now, which is, as it happens, the same timeframe in which I work. I negotiate contracts in the present time; indeed, I’m negotiating two at the moment. So the framing of your argument (among other things) is inaccurate. In the here and now, negotiating from your very first contract is something you should be doing.
And in any event, none of your points argues that individual authors shouldn’t be negotiating. Your c) point leads me to believe you’re not aware that not getting paid up front was always an option. This is, well, wrong, as there have always been publishers perfectly happy to relieve writers of their work for as little as they could get it, including nothing up front. Beyond that, the fact there are alternate publishing options strengthens an author’s negotiating position rather than weakens it because it causes a publisher to need to make the argument that they’re offering something better than the other options. Your b) point is an assertion without evidence: “substantially less profit” than what? Then there was in the past? Are you sure about that? Data, please. And even if there were, so what? That doesn’t mean an individual author, whose work is desired by an individual publisher, can not and should not negotiate. Likewise, your a) point doesn’t mean much in terms of individual authors with individual publishers who want their book, especially as your c) point notes there are more options.
“There is literally no guarantee that you will ever get looked at again, by any publisher, or any price.”
There’s literally no guarantee you won’t wake up dead on any given morning, either. However, the problem here is that you’re buying into the myth of the writer (and her book) as a wholly replaceable cog. They’re not. Publishers are interested in a particular book because they think they can sell that book. Flip the equation around: There’s literally no guarantee for the publisher that they will ever find a book that works exactly as well for their needs as that book. So, once again, the publisher has an interest to get that book. Which means they should be willing to negotiate. If they are not, that’s a huge warning sign not to do business with them.
“Is, in your opinion, having a bad contract now better than never having any contract at all?”
This is not worthwhile question to answer seriously because it’s not how the world actually works. Walking away from a bad contract does not mean you would or could never get another contract offer, and that’s something I know from experience both in the early and later stages of my career. If you refuse a bad contract now, your name does not go out on a secret list which means you are blackballed from all good publishing society henceforth. It simply means you’ve avoided a bad contract that one time. As that is the case, asking the question you have makes as much sense as “Is, in your opinion, a bad contract better than all the kittens everywhere spontaneously combusting?”
Is having a bad contract now better than no contract at all? No, it’s substantially worse, as a bad contract can cause you to lose the rights to your work and be obliged to offer future work to the same people who screwed you the first time, meaning that your career is hamstrung even before it begins, if you’re a new author, or severely waylaid, if you are someone who has published before. No author should ever take on a bad contract. Ever.
Thanks John. Posts like this and the Big Ideas posts are why I like your site. You do a very good job articulating your profession. One thing I think you may want to blog about is the difference between being an employee and being self employed. When people get frustrated with writers taking too long to finish books, etc… they don’t realize they are self employed. It is completely different being self employed and working for someone and getting a paycheck every 2 weeks. I have done both. I actually have a company with my consulting for IT contracting I have done.
There is alot more to writing than just writing. Your business owners. So you have to work with contracts, marketing, taxes, etc… This blog is a form of marketing. I don’t think most people realize that.
I am pretty amazed at how you guys sit home all day every day in front of a computer all by yourselves and stay focused. I work in IT and I sit in front of a computer but I have people around me to interact with. If I was home alone all day, everyday. I’d go crazy.
I for one hope your writing gig lasts and lasts. I mean as long as you enjoy it.
John, I’m surprised that few people have ever called you directly, as you say “out of the blue”. Yes, that would be rude, but when did that stop people? I certainly hope nobody actually took my post seriously enough to do so, if so, my bad.
I actually find it pretty encouraging that you *can* keep your number listed and not be pestered…maybe people aren’t quite bad as they sometimes seem.
Good information for the developing writer. I’m in the process of finishing my fourth novel (70 000 words, probably around 120 000 finished) and after that I’ll work on editing/formatting/assembling. There’s a plan, if I live long enough.
Will my books sell? Indie writers I respect have said it takes about ten books in e-book format to begin making a living. This assumes people like the first book and buy the second and subsequent ones for a little more money. But I won’t be depending on a legacy publisher. For better or worse, I’ll go Indie.
Also for better or worse, I have an independent income so writing is a hobby. How important it will become remains to be seen. I write about 5000 words per week now and have kept up that pace for about 9 months. I’m nowhere short of plot ideas, and my four novels fall into two totally different series. About the only similarities are that humans are involved.
As was mentioned above, I’ve become one who is compelled to write. And if I end up offering my works for free on my blog, so be it. I’ll write, people will read.
When you write because you’re compelled to, that’s enough.
Or, people just don’t call other people on the phone anymore. Which I think is at least part of it.
“Ah, but we’re not talking future authors, we’re talking about authors working now, which is, as it happens, the same time frame in which I work. I negotiate contracts in the present time; indeed, I’m negotiating two at the moment. So the framing of your argument (among other things) is inaccurate. In the here and now, negotiating from your very first contract is something you should be doing.”
I am pretty interested in young authors, specifically the ones you have advised to pass on contracts you don’t approve of because they’ll get better ones in the future. You negotiated your first contract quite a bit in the past, so perhaps you don’t have any recent data on this.
” There’s literally no guarantee for the publisher that they will ever find a book that works exactly as well for their needs as that book.”
Of course there is. There is all the evidence in the world because if you don’t sign with them, the publisher isn’t closing down and going out of business. They must be doing something to keep the lights on. It appears that except for a handful – maybe 1000? – outliers, most authors who are published are published in a way where they will get very little money. Even if the data is lowered because pay is variable, the median doesn’t lie. Some others should be having good years, some bad, but the median is the median.
1. Unfortunately, most authors, like yourself, are far too selfish to reveal their actual contract details so that other authors can make informed decisions. It’s the prisoner’s dilemma writ large. Even in trade-groups or associations like the SWFA there is no standard way to share the data so that other authors have the leverage they need to get the best deal. A few who do share the aggregate information have taken baby steps to open the doors of disclosure. Most authors negotiating contracts have to listen to only irrational or unsupported advice from other authors without being made privy to the details that would allow to make an informed decision.
2. I agree completely that publishers want what you have. But the reality is that the barriers to entry are lower than they’ve ever been, and publishers are squeezing the entire supply chain. They have more competition from non-traditional sources. There is a lot of evidence to support this. Namely, traditional and niche publishers going out of business regularly and the fact that they are experimenting with new labels and imprints that have less favorable terms to new authors. On top of that, you have what they have been saying about the industry, which correlates to the general activities we have seen to be happening.
Finally, you started to say that answering my core question was a waste of time, but then you did it anyways. Of course walking away from a contract that you disfavor doesn’t mean you are never going to get another chance, but statistically speaking there are so many more potential authors than publishers and books to be traditionally published the odds are not in your favor.
It seems that you deny there is a bell curve of talent. There are surely people who are so exceptionally above average, on the right of the bell curve, that there chances of getting a good or great contract are very high, no matter the circumstances. We all like to hope that a writing powerhouse like, say, Dan Brown or Dean Koontz would have always gotten another chance, had they missed their first big break. Talent for the business and talent for writing move their odds very close to 100% of getting that break and getting a great contract. SImply put they have a very high market value.
In the middle of the curve, which is probably where you are (and this isn’t an insult, on average most people are average), there are authors who are talented enough to get a big break, but are not a sure thing. Circumstances such as connections, luck, persistence are the differentators between making it and not making it. You have made it. And since prior success is a strong indicator of future success, your market value continues to increase.
On the left of the curve, which is likely where a lot of potential or would-be authors live, are people who are not talented enough to have many chances. Many are just awful writers and they have insufficient talent to be published. Many are published one time, achieve no results, and have very short unprofitable careers. In this band of authors, luck and persistence are the factors that are most likely to make the difference between published or not.
Your position makes sense for everyone dead center or to the right. What about all of the rest, those to the left of the median talent level? What is your advice to them?
The fact that you’re a successful writer and you’re still concerned with the future isn’t too encouraging as a prospective writer. Thanks for linking to Kameron Hurley’s article. It seems no job is rainbows and sunshine all the time…except for kitty petting.
Can a novelist usually get an agent if he or she has an offer on the table from a publisher? It seems to me like an agent ought to be equipped to know what to ask for. Is it cost prohibitive to hire an entertainment lawyer on a fee for service basis?
“Of course there is.”
Well, no, there’s not, your “of course” notwithstanding, although I like its rhetorical placement as a suggestion you know what you’re talking about here. A publisher may choose a different book, but that book is not the same book, and may not slot in as well with the publisher’s goals. And actually, dpmaine, a publisher who can’t find and attract the sort of writers and books people want in significant amounts is in danger of going out of business. Again, you’re making the erroneous assumption that books are widgets, and one is as good as another, and that any writer is replaceable with any other writer. They’re not, in both cases.
“Finally, you started to say that answering my core question was a waste of time, but then you did it anyways.”
No. What I did was answer the question you should have asked, which was not the question you did ask. I am glad you concede the point that walking away from a bad contract doesn’t mean you will never get another contract, especially after you’ve spent a couple of comment posts trying hard to suggest that exact thing, and then immediately attempt to do it again in the next sentence:
“statistically speaking there are so many more potential authors than publishers and books to be traditionally published the odds are not in your favor”
Again, no, because once again, you’re working on the assumption that writers are easily replaceable cogs — ironic because then you go on about the “talent curve” in succeeding paragraphs. What you don’t seem to be aware of is that someone who writes well enough to get a book offer is already well over onto the right side of the talent curve. Someone who has a book offer isn’t competing with the entire universe of potential writers, she is competing with the universe of writers who are a) competent enough to write a book, b) are not otherwise engaged, c) are querying in the same general field as she is, d) have the same focus as she does with regard to the books she is writing. This narrows the field a bit. It’s still very competitive but the odds are not nearly as dire as you wish to suggest, and again makes the point that one writer (and book) is not interchangeable with another.
However, none of that is here nor there to the overarching question of whether anyone should take on a bad contract, just to be published. They shouldn’t, any more than they ought to take on a bad contract for anything. Bad contracts are called “bad contracts” for a reason. Especially in the world we live in today, in which self-publishing is easy to do and offers the same access (at least electronically) to the marketplace, if one has to choose between a bad contract and self-publishing, I know which I would advise.
As a side note, dpmaine, you’ve spent the last couple of posts blithely asserting things about how publishing works that are amusing to those of us who are actually, you know, in the field. While I understand the rhetorical use of assertion, and can also appreciate your continued attempts at professional negging on my part, intentional or otherwise, I would like to suggest to you that when you assert things about how publishing works that I, who have been publishing books since 2000, know are inaccurate (at best), you really do undermine yourself. You should work on that.
With that said, I think I’ve answered your question: No bad contracts, ever, for anyone. Not even once.
“The fact that you’re a successful writer and you’re still concerned with the future isn’t too encouraging as a prospective writer.”
The person who is unconcerned about their future is unlikely to have a good one. To be sure, I suspect I will continue to be able to sell novels for a while. But careers go up and down. It would be foolish of me not to at least consider the idea that my circumstances might change.
I hope this is not uncomfortable but you sort of opened the door and I am certainly not asking you to give away anything you are negotiating but I just have to ask. These things you are negotiating, are they books? Is it as simple as them offering you $X and you saying, “no, I want $Y?” Is it OK, you can have the hardcover for $X but I keep the paperback & movie (or ancillary – not sure all the legalese) but you can have those for $Z?
Is there a standard for how this works? I mean, if my last work sold 150,000 copies I would expect some range but if it sold 1.5 million there is a different range? If its simply them trying for the lowest number & me trying for the highest who has leverage & how much?
There were times I felt as a consultant I lost work because I asked too much & other times I felt like I should have asked for more. I never felt like I had a clue what I was doing in this part of the business.
Sorry if this is asking for TMI.
It’s usually not as simple as talking about advance money. You also talk about royalties, ancillary rights (audio, video games, movies/tv, etc), foreign language rights and so on. All of it goes into the pot. And yes, if you are a bestseller you have a lot more leverage. That said, again, anyone who is negotiating a contract can ask for anything from the other party. Sometimes, you don’t always get what you want. But you’ll often get more than if you asked for nothing.
When I was a contractor, I charged a very high rate. When people said “that’s a lot,” I said “yes it is.” I usually got paid my quoted rate.
For anyone interested in an overview of this sort of thing, Charles Stross has a series of posts on his blog called Common Misconceptions About Publishing, which I have found to be both interesting and informative.
He goes into detail regarding contracts in the third post, “What Authors Sell to Publishers.”
“Again, you’re making the erroneous assumption that books are widgets, and one is as good as another, and that any writer is replaceable with any other writer. They’re not, in both cases. ”
I am really not doing that. However, the practical reality is that there is no one mid-list work that is demanded very highly. Yes, some work is in great demand, but there is no publisher who is salivating over unpublished, first-time authors who have no specific appeal or built in market. Yes, fine, you are a politican who came out as pro-gay walrus marriage? Great, built in audience. Otherwise, no matter your talent, you are not in especially high demand. You may have interest, but your work IS interchangeable with all others in your class. It may be better, it may be worse, but it is still the same.
“I would like to suggest to you that when you assert things about how publishing works that I, who have been publishing books since 2000, know are inaccurate ”
What things have I asserted about publishing which are inaccurate? That there are VASTLY more authors producing vast sums of unpublished books who do not have the talent to be traditionally published?
It would be interesting for you lay out exactly what I have assumed that is so funnily wrong that you don’t feel the need to correct them. I am sure it’s amusing but it would much more helpful for those who aren’t in the know to be educated.
The fact that you reference your history of publishing books – perhaps you don’t know as much about how much volume is out there compared to the demands of the market. It’s been, what, 15 years since you were an unpublished author? Is the marketplace the same now as it was then?
Your position on what you call “bad contracts” appears to be coming from the position of an average or above average talent author, who had already made his footprint and has negotiating leverage. I appreciate your responses, can you please bear with me, and stick with me for three questions? They are very valuable and they are educational:
a. For authors who are below average talent, what do you think is the biggest factor in getting traditionally published?
b. For authors who are below average talent, what do you estimate the chances of being published once they try to get published in earnest? From 0 to 100, with 0 being no chance, and 100 being definitely will be published traditionally?
c. For an author of below average talent, what is reasonable to expect for a full length novel to earn from self-publishing electronically, with no special connections or niche audience. From the survey you linked, and given that we can’t trust it, it appears to be no more than $1,000 a year. And since that is an average, it is likely that there are many values from 0 to $1,000 that are below median. Do you believe this is probably accurate, probably inaccurate, or unknowable (or something else)?
JS, also, thank you. I am not sure why you take it so seriously when challenged. Yes, we know you are a very powerful author and industry figure but it doesn’t mean you know everything. Particularly it seems that you are overly optimistic about the chances of the average or less skilled author winning more than a single lifetime look from a traditional publisher. What is the basis for your optimism on this topic? There are fewer and fewer traditional publishers. Total books traditionally published are flat or declining. And we don’t know, but the anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the money being spent to get new authors published is in decline.
“I would prefer people know that deals are negotiable, and get used to the idea that they should be thinking of their careers in a business-like way, earlier than later. Doing so means better deals early and a better negotiating position later. At the very least, it worked for me.”
Well, sure, but maybe you’re just so incredibly talented and brilliant that the normal rules don’t apply to you and you can just stride down Publisher’s Row as all the publishers hurry to fling themselves at your feet in attempts to curry your favor. Furthermore, perhaps other writers must don ash-coated sackcloth and grovel, manuscript in hand, for whatever crumbs the Gods of the Barnes and Noble will toss down in exchange for their offerings.
Granted, this is not a terribly likely scenario, but I suppose it’s not 100% impossible… and it would certainly explain why all those writing supply stores have so much sackcloth on hand.
Stephen King, J. K Rowling, and E. L James might have thoughts on this point. All three were instant successes as published authors, getting very profitable contracts out of the gate with no previous publishing success to guarantee sales. (Yes, King wrote short stories in men’s magazines – hardly a guarantee of mainstream success. Also James wrote fan fiction – which wasn’t nearly as mainstream as it’s become since she sold Fifty Shades.) All three may be casually dismissed as outliers if you’d like, and there’s no reason a first time author should assume they’ll have the same overnight success. But it’d be wrong to enter a contract negotiation without at least considering the possibility your book might make that kind of splash and signing all that profit over to the publisher out of fear no one else will want the book. Doubleday certainly could have published scads of other books besides Carrie, but that doesn’t therefore mean King would have continued sticking manuscripts in a drawer.
Anyone signing a contract without having a lawyer review it first is a fool. Doesn’t matter if you’re buying a house or selling a book. Anyone offering you terms your lawyer says are bad for you, who isn’t then willing to negotiate, is literally planning to cheat you.
“I am really not doing that. However, the practical reality is that there is no one mid-list work that is demanded very highly.”
dpmaine, saying that you are really not doing something and then doing it in the very next sentence is one reason I do not prize your argumentative skills.
And you are wrong (again). Publishers like mid-listers and their work just fine: they sell well and often predictably, don’t cost a huge amount relative to “star” authors, and there’s always a chance that one will break out — in which case the publisher has a backlist to exploit.
I can even give you an example of a mid-lister who broke out: Dan Brown, who you were earlier (and erroneously) vaunting as a sure thing. Well, his first three books did mid-list business. He didn’t hit it until his fourth book, which then did so well that the three previous books went up the bestseller lists (and one of them was turned into a movie). Good thing his publisher didn’t just go “eh, The Da Vinci Code’s easily replaced.” That would have been an error.
So, in reality, a publisher who has that one mid-list work may prize it perfectly well, because she knows what it represents: stable sales and income, coupled with a chance for that work to break out. That’s not necessarily replacable — putting a new author in that mid-lister’s slot means investing time, energy (and money) introducing a new author, who may or may not perform as well as this reliable mid-lister.
So yeah, incorrect again. But again, I do like how you make assertions as if you have some specific knowledge.
“What things have I asserted about publishing which are inaccurate?”
Well, see immediately above for an example. Otherwise, see the parts in previous comments where I have said “no,” to an assertion you have made; there are several.
“The fact that you reference your history of publishing books – perhaps you don’t know as much about how much volume is out there compared to the demands of the market. It’s been, what, 15 years since you were an unpublished author? Is the marketplace the same now as it was then?”
dpmaine, you understand that I am still publishing, right? As in, I didn’t stop publishing after I got that first book to contract in 1999. I am aware of the market and its changes because I am still in it and because I know a large number of people who are in it at all levels, including people who are in the process of negotiating their first contracts and having their first novels published. Heck, I am even an author with varying levels of professional desirability: I am a bestseller in science fiction and a mid-lister in non-fiction, and have published into both fields within the last year. I think you may be under the impression that I currently laze about on a lofty cloud, untroubled by the vicissitudes of the market and isolated from anyone who does not have my exalted status. Strangely, I am not. As with any writer, I really do pay close attention. That’s part of the job.
“Your position on what you call “bad contracts” appears to be coming from the position of an average or above average talent author, who had already made his footprint and has negotiating leverage.”
Nope. It was the position I had when I was a new author and novelist, too, which is why I turned down a couple of book offers before I got hooked up with Tor (these were publishers interested in Agent to the Stars, which I had written prior to OMW). And, to forestall the next obvious discussion point, it’s the same position I currently have when I negotiate contracts in other fields that I am entering. When I was approached not too long ago by a video game maker (not Industrial Toys, who I am currently working with, and who are awesome), the first term sheet they offered me was unacceptable, and I had a long discussion with them why. The result was a vastly better term sheet. That video game was cancelled before production (not my fault, I swear) but I still got paid pretty well for it — in part because of the fact I negotiated.
The time to negotiate is always. Negotiate from your first contract.
“[C]an you please bear with me, and stick with me for three questions?”
I’m not sure that I can answer those questions because I don’t think the framing applies in the real world. For one, I don’t know what we are talking about when we are discussing “below average” talent. There are lots of people who would be happy to tell you that Dan Brown is a below average talent, when it comes to writing, for example (and there are people who would say the same thing about me, although, you know. I disagree). Success in publishing is not necessarily contingent on being a talented author. It’s rather contingent on being a competent writer.
It’s possible you’ve created a term of art for your argument (“talent”) which has no bearing on the real world, therefore you can’t be shaken out of your argument because your argument isn’t actually addressable. In which case the problem is with your argument, and you should fix it.
Now, for writers who are not competent, the biggest factor in their being published by anyone but themselves is them learning to be competent, which, fortunately, is usually a learnable skill. Writers who are competent and who know the market have a reasonable chance of being published if they have an idea that works for a publisher (this is where it helps to have thought of several ideas to query into the market). I won’t quantify it with a number because there are other factors unrelated to the authors competence that are at play, such as the current state of the market and/or individual publisher. Generally speaking, traditional publishers do pay more than $1,000 per book, although the size of the publisher matters in this. My advance for OMW in 2003 was $6,500, which was standard for a first-time SF novelist.
“I am not sure why you take it so seriously when challenged. Yes, we know you are a very powerful author and industry figure but it doesn’t mean you know everything.”
Well, it take it seriously when people assert things I know are inaccurate, in a field I am expert in, on my own site. It’s worth taking a little time to address it. And it’s amusing that you’re calling me a very powerful author when a few comments back you were referring to me a mid-lister in the middle of the talent field. I’ve grown so much in just a couple of days!
(It’s also possible I am reacting poorly to your particular rhetorical style, which at least here tends toward making assertions as if they are facts, and then your penchant of trying to spin it when you’re called out on it. I do appreciate that you’ve reined in the ad hominems, however. Thank you for that.)
I don’t claim to know everything. I do however, know a lot, which is a natural consequence both of being a published author for a decade and a half, and a professional writer for a quarter of a century, and me being me. And more to the point here, I often know when someone else is wrong or inaccurate about the field, as the topic of what they are being wrong about often intersects with my store of knowledge about the field.
In any event, the advice of “negotiate your contracts from the very first contract” is not contingent on me being optimistic about a writers’ chances of being published, or pessimistic about it, for that matter. It’s entirely independent of it. If you are made an offer, don’t just grab it without paying attention to the details. Negotiate it and try to get a better deal.
“Total books traditionally published are flat or declining. And we don’t know, but the anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the money being spent to get new authors published is in decline.”
The thing is, dpmaine, the publishing industry, like every other industry, has its ups and downs. A generation ago, the supermarket racks were disappearing and the big chain stores were on the rise, and there was a massive change in how things were done in publishing. Now we’re undergoing another momentous change in the field. This year it looks like hardcover sales are up, e-books are flat and paperbacks are down. A year ago those numbers were different. Next year they me different still (although I suspect mass market paperback sales will continue to shrink).
At no point, however, does any of that data mean authors — new or established — should abandon sense and reason and blindly grope for a contract to sign, unread. That applies no matter who you are, where you are in your career, or your level of “talent” (or competence). If someone wants to publish your book and you want them to do it, you’re entering into a business deal with them. Treat it like a business or you’re going to get screwed.
If you want to keep suggesting that doing so today is somehow wrong because everything is different now, well. I want you to have fun with that. It’s not what I would recommend, and I think my own advice here might have some standing.
dpmaine, to this outside observer reading the back-and-forth between you and Scalzi, your switch in focus in your last two or three comments to writers of below-average talent looks like the argument of someone who is scrambling to find some case, any case, that will somehow refute the idea that a writer should negotiate a publishing contract. In other words, it appears to be a rhetorical reach, not an attempt to get valuable information.
If a writer has a low level of talent and knows it and wants to be a published author, that writer can (and, in my opinion, should) work on improving his or her writing before trying to get a contract. If you (“you” being anyone, not you personally) know that you’re not a good writer and don’t aspire to be one, and all you want is one book published somewhere, anywhere, by someone, then go ahead and sign a bad contract. Nobody will stop you. But why sign a contract at all? You can easily pop your book up on Amazon in Kindle format or pay a vanity press to publish or work with an independent packager. I’m working with two people right now who are self-publishing their books. One of them writes well and tells an interesting story, and the other’s writing is well below average but the story is dear to his heart. Both books will be published, and neither one of these authors has had to sign a contract of any kind with a publisher.
John, thanks for all your insights and advice, they don’t apply only to writers, but to many people who are trying to do better in the working world. As obviously wonderful as the arts are, they are as much a business for the producer of art as if the producer were coding insurance programs or running a small-engine repair shop.
I remember finding out about your work from Instapundit and “Agent to the Stars”. What you posted on the Internet made me buy that novel, and several more since. Your “Big Idea” columns lead to me to at least 60% of the fiction I read. I only restate this to give readers some background as to how you marketed yourself, and your success allow you to market others, it’s a form of “networking”.
Every job I’ve gotten has been the result of building a reputation for quality work in my field amongst a small but growing group of individuals; recruiters, peers, acquaintances and other who are willing to refer me to someone else for consideration. . That’s applicable to all of life. Not only that, it only gets me an introduction, I still have to nail an interview and produce results during the contract.
I do that well, which in turn feeds my push to negotiate for the best compensation possible. If you don’t advocate for yourself, your skills, no one else will do that for you.
It’s a constant hustle, but it pays off. “Who Dares Wins”
The alternative is to not hustle, and either take whatever I can get in a frustrating dead end job, or have no job at all.
As for being unconcerned about the future “hear, hear!” Save your money while you’re working, cut your expenses while you’re working and it feels like less of a sacrifice during lean times, especially if you are trying to break into a new field and might need to go to school. Again, it’s a hustle but it pays off.
“dpmaine, to this outside observer reading the back-and-forth between you and Scalzi, your switch in focus in your last two or three comments to writers of below-average talent looks like the argument of someone who is scrambling to find some case, any case, that will somehow refute the idea that a writer should negotiate a publishing contract. In other words, it appears to be a rhetorical reach, not an attempt to get valuable information.”
This isn’t the case. I initially asked these questions in other threads where specifically JS advised young authors to avoid what termed bad-contracts because they will be able to get a better one later. That’s the context of the question. I presume that anyone should attempt to get the best deal possible. That is not at question. What is at question is what if the best offer you can get is not up to JS’s standards. In that case JS says to walk away *even if it means you will never be published at all*. He has apparently doubled down on that. And I am trying to figure out why this would be the case.
“Both books will be published, and neither one of these authors has had to sign a contract of any kind with a publisher.”
This is a good point. Presumably if a publisher wanted to pay me, say, $1000 to publish my book but it was a “bad contract”, or the alternative is I have to pay to publish with a vanity publisher, well, that seems to be an easy decision. Take the money, and the bad terms, and be done with it. Same thing with the Amazon route. Self-publish and get essentially nothing, or go through a traditional or non-traditional publisher and get not nothing. JS would have you turn down the $1000 because some future work that you might right would have to be offered to that publisher on similar terms. It presumes a future work, it presumes that you care, it presumes a lot of things which do not always apply.
“If a writer has a low level of talent and knows it and wants to be a published author, that writer can (and, in my opinion, should) work on improving his or her writing before trying to get a contract. ”
You must accept that at some point an author will reach his or her potential and there will be no further improvements. I can practice the art for an endless number of years and never reach the level of a Eco or even a Scalzi. But my level of talent may be sufficient to attract a lower-tier publisher who only hands out “bad contracts”. If that’s the case, which MUST certainly be true for a large number of authors who are below-average talents (logic would say this is true for half of authors who are below average talents), then what? JS would have us say the author should just simply not publish in the first place.
That seems like a tremendous waste. It seems like if your career aspirations and more importantly your talent level is not at least average, JS’s advice would lead you to make irrational decisions based on optimism which is not mathematically sound.
“JS would have us say the author should just simply not publish in the first place.”
Well, except for the part where I said “Especially in the world we live in today, in which self-publishing is easy to do and offers the same access (at least electronically) to the marketplace, if one has to choose between a bad contract and self-publishing, I know which I would advise.” Self-publishing is publishing.
If you are going to characterize what I said, do me the simple courtesy of reading what I wrote.
Beyond that, your understanding of what constitutes a bad contract appears to be very limited, because all you seem to believe the contract is about is the money up front. Getting $1,000 is terrible idea if it means you lose control of the work and the publisher is allowed to exploit it moving forward without compensation to you. Even if you don’t publish ever again, there are still a multitude of ways a bad contract will screw you, in ways that $1,000 (or whatever low sum you would receive) is meager compensation for.
Essentially, what you are saying, dpmaine, is that if someone who is a terrible writer who never wants to publish again and doesn’t care what happens to his work wants to sign a bad contract, then my suggestion to him that he pass on that bad contract is not good advice. But even in that utterly ridiculous, unrealistic, highly contingent scenario, you are wrong. A bad contract will hurt you even if you don’t ever publish again. In fact, you are likely to be better off not publishing than signing a bad contract, or self-publishing and retaining all the rights to your work so you can better exploit them yourself later — as many authors have when they’ve initially self-published, including myself.
dpmaine, seriously: You have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re doing that thing people who have no idea what they are talking about do, which is to believe that if you just keep arguing, and repeating your points even when they’ve been knocked down, you’ll be able to fumble your way into a winning argument. But you won’t in this case because you have no idea what you’re talking about, and you are talking to someone who does. Which means that you’re simply moving from one pothole in your knowledge to another in a way which is obvious to other people but not to you. You’re like an anti-vaxxer talking to an immunologist.
So to spare you and the rest of us from more long posts on the subject that do nothing other than make the point that you’re ignorant in this field and don’t understand that continuing to go on when you’re ignorant doesn’t make you look smarter, but, rather, the opposite, this is where I tell you that you’re done with the thread. Move on, please.
[Deleted unread because apparently dpmaine has not read the site’s comment policy and is not aware of what “move on” means. Fortunately I’ve included the link, so he can learn – JS]
Thanks for the link I Got It.
a. For authors who are below average talent…
…You must accept that at some point an author will reach his or her potential and there will be no further improvements.
(Emphasis mine). This is a particularly annoying myth about the creative arts–that either you have “talent” or you don’t. Decades of observation of real people in the real world refutes this. What you have or don’t have is passion for and persistence at the art in question, and thus the drive, the willingness to work learning the craft until you get good at it.
“Talent” is, at best, a predisposition for the art in question that gives you a leg up in learning it–but you still have to learn the art or craft. Laziness is not “lack of talent”, neither is impatience or poor skills in the field.
p.s. The only author who “reaches his potential” is the one who thinks he or she is too good to need to learn to write better.
I should note that as I’ve told dpmaine that he is off the thread, it’s best not to address points in his arguments now because he’s not going to be able to respond, and that’s not fair to him. Thanks.