Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Writer’s Income: A Hard Look at the Facts

Source: Hugh Howey, "The 7K Report," authorearnings.com

Recently, I read an Associated Press story about how changes in health care laws have given workers a new sense of freedom, a way out of jobs they’ve stuck with primarily because they feared losing insurance benefits.

Two American workers were held up as examples of this phenomenon. Both plan to leave their day jobs in order to write. One is a 50-year-old IT guy who has spent his free time on a team that’s scripting a start-up web-based comedy series. The other is a 62-year-old nurse who, after quitting her job, plans to move to the West Coast and promote her self-published book by blogging, doing radio interviews, and speaking to groups.

Both writers are pleased that they’ll be able to replace the health insurance provided by their employers with plans priced at $400 to $650 per month. And I agree that’s a good thing. Where I worry is that they may be misinformed about the income they’ll earn as full-time writers.

Let me say first off that I’m all about pursuing your passions. One of the nicest things my son ever said to me was how much he admired me for doing what I truly love­­—making writing my career—even though I could make a lot more money doing something I truly hate.

Still,  no one wants their dream to turn to a nightmare. And one of the fastest ways for that to happen is to count on your dream for paying the bills, only to find that it can’t and it won’t.

After my first novel came out from a big publisher, my editor gave me this advice: Don’t quit your day job. She didn’t mean this as a reflection on my work—the book was doing fine—but rather as a cautionary note. At the time, the average author was making $5000 a year.

I was only a year from retiring; my hope was that I could live on my pension (an admittedly sweet deal that allowed me to retire after twenty years of teaching with full benefits, including medical coverage) and fulfill my dream of writing books. But a couple of royalty statements convinced me that my editor was right: It’s not easy to make a living off book sales.

When there’s a large gap between the life you’re living and the creative passion you hope to fulfill, it’s easy to get caught up in “if onlies.” If only I didn’t have this job, I could write a blog. Do radio interviews. Speak to groups. If only I did those things, which everyone says writers must do to sell books, I’d see a dramatic increase in sales, enough that I could live off the proceeds.


It really doesn’t happen like that.

Live your dream. Live your passion. But if that’s writing books, realize that very few published authors earn a living wage from the proceeds of book sales alone. I’ve never seen a statistic, but given the number of published authors (rising by the minute) and the challenges inherent in both kinds of publishing, indie and traditional, I’d ballpark it at maybe 2 percent.

Passion is among the very best reasons for writing books. But rarely do passion and profit intersect as fully as we wish. Most authors, regardless of how they’re published, either keep their day jobs or supplement their income from book sales with freelancing, pensions, investments, and the link.

At the risk of coming off as a dream-killer, I offer these considerations before you quit your day job:

·         Study the facts. Don’t Google “writer salaries”—what you’ll find are the easiest of writer salaries to report, those whose day jobs (technical writers, grant writers, journalists on payroll) involve writing. Instead, check out Hugh Howey’s recent author earnings report; the Guardian’s 2012 report on the earnings of “DIY” authors; NYT bestselling author Lynn Viehl’sreport on income from her book sales; and Chad Harbach’s recent book MFA vs. NYC—particularly the essays that describe how quickly authors burn through their six-figure advances. Among the interesting stats: only 800 authors earn $10,000 per year on the sales of their genre Kindle titles; half of self-published authors earn less than $500 from sales of their books; proceeds from sales from an NYT bestseller will nudge your family income above poverty level, but not by much.
·         Beware the echo chambers where writers talk up how they saw jumps in sales figures from doing this, that, and the other thing. It’s true that regardless of how you publish, you’ll have to work to promote your books. But promotion will not necessarily yield a significant, sustainable jump in sales. Promotion is mostly about the long haul, the slow building of your fan base and brand. To think that extra time for promotion will launch your slow-moving self-published title into the sort of sales that will allow you to quit your day job isn’t all that different from planning your retirement around winning a lottery—it could happen, but it’s not likely.
·         Recognize that few authors live on the proceeds from book sales alone. Most of us freelance, teach, do paid events, and the like in order to make ends meet. To live our dream, a lot of us forsake what was standard fare from our paycheck days: eating out, shopping, travel. I know published authors who choose to be homeless and who live without running water so they can afford to write.
·         Create a viable business plan based on conservative sales estimates. Consider the underlying economic principle of supply and demand. An estimated three thousand new books are published every day in the US. With e-publishing, few if any will ever go out of print. Awash in choices, what exactly will compel readers to buy your book from among the thousands and thousands of truly fine books flooding the market? Yours is brilliant. Unique. Okay. But a more brilliant, more unique title may well come out. Then what? Make sure you’re ready to launch your Plan B if sales don’t spool out as you’d hoped.
·         Delightful though it may be (there’s no work I prefer to writing), authoring is a tough way to make a living. And that’s if, like most authors, you’ll spin out several books in your lifetime. For a single book to be your ticket to financial freedom is extremely unlikely.

·         More time ≠ more productivity ≠ more sales—not in the direct proportions you’d expect, anyhow. Ask any author who has quit her day job to write.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Spring brings a Fresh Look (and a free book!)


The first day of spring. Here on Alaska's Hiland Mountain, it dawned with sunshine and fresh snow and a fine view of Mount McKinley.

With change in the air, there's no better time to unveil a fresh cover, or to offer this novel at no cost to all takers, in the Kindle edition.

That's right - to celebrate the changing of the seasons, we're offering A Distant Enemy free of charge, today and tomorrow, March 20 and 21.

About the book: In this remote corner of Alaska, survival’s no game. On the vast, wind-blown tundra, a simple mistake can mean death. But as the old ways slip away, anger pushes fourteen-year-old Joseph into a series of confrontations that pit him against an unforgiving wilderness.

“A gripping story” ~ Kirkus Reviews

Come have a read...it's on us!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Author Tips: How to Get Your Books into Libraries

If as an author your goal is to reach readers, you want your books to be in libraries. In fact, much of what happens in the new digital marketplace is a revamping of what libraries have been offering for ages: no-cost book sampling; a discovery point for readers to find books and authors they love; and book borrowing as one finds it in programs like Amazon Prime.

Librarians help readers discover books, but how do librarians themselves find the books they’ll acquire? Much depends on the type of library and the librarian’s role within the organization. From a session I attended at a recent conference, some general tips for authors and publishers:

·         Via web searches and telephone queries, find out who’s in charge of collection development/acquisitions at the libraries where you’d like to see your books. Invite these librarians to subscribe to your newsletter. (Need we say it? Don’t spam them.)
·         Besides the standard review journals (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal), librarians pay attention to book buzz on social media. They also use search engines to check the general chatter around a particular title.
·         Scheduling library events can be a great way to help librarians become familiar with your book. Keep in mind, though, that a library’s charged with serving the public, not selling your books. Therefore, your event should have a hook that will interest readers. Another suggestion: propose a multi-author event.
·         Check your metadata (everything about the book that’s not content). It must be precise and focused not merely on end readers, but on the people who are trying to get your book into the right places. Even something as simple as an unintended space in your metadata entry could mean your book won’t be found.
·         Make sure your book is entered properly in the Library of Congress. If your release is through a small publisher, the PCN system must be used (larger publishers use one called CIP). The PCN record can only be created before the book is produced. The Library of Congress number generated should then be added to the book’s copyright page. The resulting record is called a MARC record. Librarians can also create a MARC record once a book is released, but the process is cumbersome and errors may happen.
·         If you have other titles, you might also check the Worldcat database to find which libraries have them; these would be most likely to purchase a subsequent title.
·         Overall, the consensus of this panel was that the most effective methods for reaching librarians are the ones that cost only time. Aggregated fliers in which authors and publishers buy ad space are more likely to be overlooked than a newsletter from an author or small press that has cultivated a relationship with a particular librarian.
·         Write a good book. If anything about it is sloppy, it’s unlikely a librarian will want it in her collection.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Writing: Culture and Community

Write-a-thon fundraiser for the 49 Alaska Writing Center

 Recently, I joined four other authors in a panel that discussed “Isolation and Community: How We Live It, How We Write It.” At a conference that drew some 12,000 writers, the topic felt especially fitting. Were we all one big tribe, a la Seth Godin? Or was belonging something altogether different, or even insignificant for writers, whose creative work is inherently lonely?

In the days leading up to the panel, I was reading MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of AmericanFiction, a new collection of essays edited by Chad Harbach. As a writer, I’ve hung around the periphery of these two cultures while belonging to neither. As a reader, Harbach points out, nearly everything I read is influenced by these cultures, even if it’s independently produced.

Add to the notion of culture and community this phrase dropped often at the conference: “good literary citizen.” While the idea of literary citizenship is particularly important in the MFA culture, it’s a healthy concept for all of us who write. It means we support our fellow writers and their work, and that we value our writing communities.

When it comes to culture and community, writers have a heap of options: MFA, NYC, indie writers, hybrid writers, writing centers, writers groups, social networks of every shape and size. How to know which are best for you and how much to involve yourself? Here, a few considerations:

·         Cultivate an awareness of yourself as writer and the cultures and communities available to you. Assess your need for affirmation and do your best not to let it control your choices. Instead, consider your needs and goals. If you want to write the best books you can, seek out those who value the same.
·         We’re social creatures, wired for belonging. But every culture and community has good points and bad. Consider how yours shift and shape your thinking. Be especially alert to tendencies to view others as enemies and the in-crowd as superior.
·         Each of us assumes a role within the cultures and communities we inhabit. That’s part of belonging. But if your aim is to grow as a writer, look for new roles to embrace. Seek out communities where you can both give and grow.
·         Some communities are dynamic; others, more stagnant. Recognize when you’ve outgrown the latter and move on.
·         If you’re not finding the community you need, start one. That’s why I co-founded the 49 Alaska Writing Center, and it’s how my smaller writers group began.

·         In person and online, writers are good company. It’s easy to get all wrapped up in being part of the group. If you hang out with writers, you must be one, right? Beware this trap. You’re a writer because you care deeply about language and form and connecting with readers, because you embrace the joy of a good poem or story or book and long to create one yourself. No matter how much you love your writer friends and how much you help one another, the hard work almost always happens alone.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Independent Authors in the Classroom: An Interview with Ned Rozell

Recently, two middle school teachers chose Ned Rozell's Natural Alaska; Life on the Edge, a selection of essays about how northern creatures survive at the fringe of their ranges, as a textbook for their English classes. Rozell published the book with the help of Amazon's Createspace. He’s delighted that seventh and eighth graders are reading the essays and are such attentive listeners during his presentations following their readings.

I asked Ned to say a bit more about how independent authors can work with classroom teachers.

You wrote your book for adults. How did it happen that two middle school teachers decided to use it in their classrooms?

I always envision my Mom as my reader. She was a school nurse and fantastic tennis player who didn’t know an ATP molecule from STP gasoline additive. I don’t assume readers are experts in anything. I’m certainly not.

What prompted you to speak to the classes? What did you include in your presentations?

The teachers asked me to present. I gave them “The Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Alaska,” a Powerpoint about things that make Alaska different, such as nuclear bombs being detonated a mile beneath one of our islands.

What advice would you give authors about getting their books into schools?

I have none. Marketing is the weak part of my game. I’m just glad these teachers found it and helped me learn that engaged middle-schoolers are a great audience for my writing.

You’ve published both traditionally and independently. What made you decide to publish this book with Createspace?

Typical author frustrations of no marketing support and little control over my product with traditional publishers nudged me to self-publishing options. The smile that comes to my face when Createspace emails me a weekly report of the books I’ve sold tells me I made the right decision.

What made you decide to join an independent authors cooperative?

As we’ve all watched the erosion of traditional publishing houses and newspapers printed on paper, some of us have wondered what’s next. The independent authors cooperative is one of the answers.