Gah. I hear this a lot. When discussing various publishing realities with authors, I invariably hear, “Well, it’s not about the money,” and I always want to do a double take because I wonder what they mean.
On one hand, when it comes to art, is it EVER about the money? Does one decide to become a painter because he plans on buying Hawaii and living the life of Riley? Does one sit down to write the next Great American Novel in order to buy that darling little castle and matching yacht? If they do, they should be fitted for a designer straightjacket because there are no guarantees those efforts will yield much more than the coos from their adoring mothers.
I think it’s an established fact that we get into this amazing writing thing because we’re compelled to – that there is some burning force inside our souls urging us to put our thoughts to paper. Secondly, publishing isn’t a place where many get fabulously rich and can afford to make writing their sole occupation. Most writers still need their day jobs. That said, does it mean that authors shouldn’t be paid?
To answer that, let’s look at both sides of the spectrum:
I could be all wet, but I’ve watched advances grow to ridiculous amounts over the years. With those increasing advances, there also has to be a bottom just waiting to fall out. And sure ‘nuf, that bottom rears its ugly head in the form of failing to earn out. Last year, I talked with the editor of a new publisher who paid a well-known author an $80,000 advance. The author hadn’t produced anything new in many years, but the publisher was convinced it would pay off and put them on the map.
Since they didn’t have any distribution, they printed up thousands and thousands of books, only to have them sit in their warehouse. It bankrupted the company and my editor friend lost his job.
This is a small company. What about the large Big Six? They give an author an $8 million dollar advance. This means that they need to sell roughly 3-5 million copies just to break even. What happens when the book fails to make a dent in those projections? Lots of people lose their jobs. If you multiply that times a bunch of authors, you see exactly what’s happening right now. Big publishers are in trouble. They could afford to pay those huge advances because they had corporate benefactors. But you continue losing money, those benefactors aren’t going to be amused for long. And this is why the Big Guys are looking for the blockbuster books. They need the big payday.
Agents haven’t helped this cause either. They’re looking for the biggest payday possible. And why not? That’s their job, of course. as long as there are publishers willing to fork over the big bucks. That’s why many of the smaller commercial presses failed to attract the big names. They simply couldn’t pay the big money.
Back in the day, advances allowed authors to write their books without worrying about a day job. Writing was their day job. But as time went on, the advances grew higher and higher as agents negotiated for more money. Small commercial presses run their companies as a businesses, which means that they pay out smaller advances (because they lack the vast wealth of the Big Guys), and make their money at the back end via sales.
But all that has changed of late, and the Big Guys are in trouble. The publishing world has evolved, and many of us small fries are getting fabulous authors who, in a different time, would have been snapped up by a large press. Fewer authors are able to make a living solely at writing, and authors’ standards have withered a bit for it when they talk about money.
What compels authors continually say, “It’s not about the money.”
Based on the discussions I’ve had over the many years, I’ve developed some categories that tend to sort of bring it all home.
It Really Isn’t About the Money
Sometimes someone with a large platform has a fabulous book that will sell tons of units. They are established in their arena, and they’re looking to get the story out. They already have money, and it’s about telling their story. They want to be well published and get the book out to market asap. The Big Guys have a two-year production lead, and that’s a long time to wait if you have something you’re burning to get out. Hello, smaller commercial press. You aren’t going to get millions, but you are going to get your book fully distributed and fully exposed to the marketplace.
I Want To Do It My Way
These are the folks who feel the urge to forge their own trails, and they don’t want to be told their writing needs work. This group is susceptible to being poorly published because no reputable press will tolerate a debut author doing things his own way. After all, it’s the publisher’s money. They’ve bought the rights to pub the book, and they need to be assured it’s the very best it can be in order to maximize sales. Personally, I’d rather let the project go than yield to an author’s demands, if I felt he was going in the wrong direction.
If you are more concerned about “doing it your way,” then you are probably not going to be a good fit for commercial publishing. Just know that right now. You’ll go with a vanity or POD and have a book, all right, but your book won’t really see the light of day, either.
I Want To Be Heard
Hey, don’t we all? The beagle pulls this on me every morning when she demands vodka in her cappuccino. It emboldens to not file or answer phones. The thing to consider is whether readers want to read what you want them to hear. This is usually vetted via rejections. Since I specialize in nonfiction, I get TONS of queries about stories that are interesting only to the authors and their families. They’re either too personal, deal with obscure issues, or they are writing in an impacted category (the most common problem), and they lack a platform in which to propel the book.
Many nonfiction writers live a personal experience and decide they need to share it. What they don’t realize is that it’s usually been done before to ad nauseum. Unless you have some unique twist to alcoholism or bipolar disorder, then it’s already been done before. Unless you have a platform, publishers are less likely to be interested.
The result is that the author receives those myriad of rejections and chooses to end up with a lesser publisher because “it’s not about the money,” but about being heard. Vanity presses and POD presses are filled with these kinds of books, and they don’t enjoy good sales.
Sometimes rejection is a way of telling you to write a better, different book.
I Want To Be Experimental
I talked with an author who insisted that his manuscript be free of quote marks around his dialog. Why, I asked. The reply was that he was an experimental writer. Okay, that’s fine, I guess, but, well…why? There is a very small audience for experimental prose, so most commercial presses avoid it. Sometimes I get the impression writers are experimental for experimental’s sake. I tried to explain to the author that the quote marks are there to make it easier for the reader. He also felt comma’s were the devil’s playground. This made reading his work akin to eating my attempts at meatloaf.
“It’s not about the money, ” he crowed, when I tried to point out the problems. So he ended up signing with an obscure POD where his book has languished in nowheresville. So I have to wonder where being experimental got him.
I Want To Write What Interests Me
Hopefully, you’re topic is something that will attract many readers. But that isn’t always the case. You may be interested in vampire romance, but it’s hugely impacted, so you need to take care that your story has unique twists and turns. If you are writing about drug dependency, then it better have unique ideas because the libraries and bookstores are filled with drug dependency books.
You remain unique because you are very well read in your subject matter and know that you’re dealing with plots or issues that no one else has brought up. But what I see too often is that authors aren’t well read and simply want to write what they want to write, without giving any consideration to what’s out there. They receive tons of rejection, and because “it’s not about the money,” they make unwise publishing decisions that guarantee their book will remain the great unknown.
It Really Isn’t About the Money
And last but not least, it really may be a case that it isn’t about the money. An author may have a time-sensitive story that a Big Guy publisher can’t meet. These authors have a great story, and they know it, and they are more concerned about being well-published and having excellent distribution than they are about the huge payday. Invariably, they are experts in their field and have an established platform.
Small commercial presses live for these authors.Those authors will be their #1 title for that season, whereas that same author may only rank barely midlist with a large press. The author will have stellar editing and be treated like royalty than had they signed with a Big Guy press. And the author will probably sell just as many books, provided they have excellent distribution.
In the end, be careful about thinking or saying “It’s not about the money.” Ask yourself why you’re saying it. Is it because you’re saying it to justify your book and considering signing with a publisher who can’t deliver the goods? Do you not play well in the sandbox with others, and that’s why you’re willing to DIY? Or is it truly a case that you’re more concerned about the story’s execution and are happy to sign a solid smaller press?
‘Cause, really…it is about the money.