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.”
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.