You don't know what you don't know…

This week a friend called me, her tone a bit tightly-wound, and asked if I had a few minutes to talk.  My friend is a writer, someone I’ve met only recently, and she’s just published her first book.  It’s done pretty well.  A few nice reviews, a bit of attention.  She should be happy.  But she didn’t sound happy.

“Sure,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“I feel like an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot.  What happened?”

“I just got my first royalty statement.”  She groaned.  “I’m an idiot.  I thought I’d get royalties.  I thought I’d get some money.”

Ah. We don’t know what we don’t know until it pops up right in front of us.

Oh dear. I almost chuckled, remembering back when I started publishing and entertained similar fantasies. Writers?  Thinking we’ll quickly be cashing in royalty statements?  You HAVE to laugh.  Most of us never see royalty payments, and if we do, they’re mighty small. Why do agents and publishers assume we know these things?  Why would we, unless someone tells us?

Alas, she’s not the first new writer who’s called me with a disappointment like that.

“And of course,” I said, “There is no money.”

“You could say that.  It seems I owe them $13,000.”

Ah, you're royalty statement's in!

Ah, your royalty statement's in!

You see, my friend received an advance from her publisher of $15,000 which is about right these days (even though there’s nothing right about being paid $15,000 for five years work!), but she didn’t understand it was an advance-against-future-earnings.  She thought those lovely publishing people had simply paid her some money for her book, and would later pay her royalties.  She’s been knocking herself out trying to sell books since her publication date, too.  She’s been going to readings, and on the road, and doing television and radio interviews, and generally exhausting herself doing all the things we hope we’ll be asked to do if ever we publish a book.  (I don’t mean the royal ‘we’ just “we writers.”)  With all that work, she’s sold a couple of thousand books.  And it’s a good book. She’ll have to sell another $13,000 worth of books before she sees any royalties.  With royalties figured at roughly 10% of the cover price for hardcovers, and 6-8% of paperbacks, you can see how many books she’ll have to sell before that happens. It could take a while, and an enormous amount of energy.

I went through all that with her, since her agent apparently hadn’t seen fit to educate her (which I suppose isn’t really that surprising — agents and publishers often forget that new authors are, like all newborns, totally ignorant of this strange world called Publishing.)

My friend paused and then said, “So, this really isn’t why we do it, is it?”

“No,” I replied.  “Exactly.  We don’t write for the money.  It’s nice if it comes, but if that’s what motivates us we won’t keep at it.  Look: almost no one publishes a book, and of those who do publish, almost none of those publish a second book.  Money’s part of the reason why.  Very, VERY few people make enough from writing to live on, even modestly.”

“Right,” she said.  “I didn’t write this book for money.  I wrote it so I could understand something about ___________ (the subject of her book). ”

“And you wrote it in the hopes it might be useful for someone else, yes?”


“And you’ve always known that, right?”

“Sure,” she said, “But I wish to hell I’d known about the royalties.”

Yup.  Well, now YOU know, in case you didn’t.  I’m happy to answer any other questions you might have.  Just ask.


  1. Lynne Spreen on May 9, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Holy crap! What a wake-up. I mean, not like I was pre-ordering a Mercedes, but I wouldn’t have thought to bank the advance in case the above happens. But Lauren, given the above scenario, why bother with a conventional publisher? This lovely woman is doing all her own marketing. What justification could there possibly be for going the traditional publishing route, esp. since that means one would have to pay an agent for the privilege of being guided to said publisher?

    • Lauren B. Davis on May 9, 2010 at 9:45 am

      Well, Lynne, the point is that a traditional publisher paid her an advance. If you’re self-publishing you’ll have to pay someone else — i.e. whatever company is “self-publishing” you, or POD publishing you. At least my friend got paid $15,000 for her book. For fiction — I’ll repeat that — for FICTION, it’s quite difficult to find an audience, (for non-fiction you can use the book as a tool to sell the real product, which is your speaking fee) and so you’ll be doing even MORE marketing than my friend, since self-published books are not eligible for many reviews, nor for awards (outside the rather incestuous self-published awards named cynically almost like traditional awards), and at least the traditional publisher will help set up SOME publicity, like lit festivals, and radio/tv appearances (if they can), and some reading events. Yes, the author has to do a lot of work, still, but hey, $15,000 in hand is better than $15,000 in the hole. Remember, if it costs you $15,000 to produce your book, including editing, design, printing, etc., you’ve spent $15,000 with, as yet, only a product to sell, which you then still have to do.

      I’m not saying self-publishing/POD publishing isn’t one day going to be viable, but I don’t think it is yet, unless you have a considerable amount of cash lying around that you can spend without missing it.

  2. Lynne Spreen on May 9, 2010 at 9:28 am

    And one more thing, if I may. This seems to explain this strange phenomenon I’ve noticed recently: the many new agents starting out. Every few days on Chuck Sambuchino’s blog, Guide to Literary Agents he profiles a new agent, and I wondered what are these people banking on?! Now I think I know: they sign an author, sell the book and get 15%. Which ends up being paid by the author via selling her own books! All I can see of value in the traditional equation is the slim chance of additional sales due to the endorsement implied by the books association with a publisher.

    • Lauren B. Davis on May 9, 2010 at 10:34 am

      Actually, Lynne, a good agent does A LOT! For one, the agent is the first reader, and often has invaluable advice. Second, an agent should have splendid relationships with editors, and thus s/he can get your manuscript in front of a suitable editor. Anyone can scattergun a submission, but knowing which editor might be perfect for your work is worth a great deal. My agent works unbelievably hard pitching my work, and having someone (other than a relative) out there selling your writing is valuable. They can also find other financial opportunities for you, such as magazine articles. An agent should have great literary street cred, which takes a long time to built. They read and read and read again, making sure your work is the best it can be, preserving your vision, while being realistic about the market. They don’t give up on you, even if a ms doesn’t sell, which means they’ve worked long hours for nothing. If you can get an agent, you should. It often makes all the difference in an emerging writer’s career. Believe me, a good agent earns their 15%!

  3. Lynne Spreen on May 10, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    Thanks, Lauren. I guess I’m still learning. I’ll go the traditional route when my ms is ready. Am now feeling much less depressed.

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