Self-Publishing, Transparency, And Why The Basic Premise of The Publishing Industry Needs to Die a Speedy Death
When I started self-publishing back in 2011, I was obsessed with transparency. Specifically financial transparency.
Writers, in general, do a shit job of talking about money, and we’ve created an odd DODT policy where we all assume everyone is probably doing better than we are. A few years back Anne Bauer wrote beautifully for Salon about how writers make money (including a considerable amount of personal disclosure), and it’s a conversation I think is essential.
It’s also one that is difficult, uncomfortable, and most often disheartening. Writing is a challenging career choice. No matter how you cut it, it’s a struggle to make a living as an author. And when it comes to books–fiction especially–it gets even harder.
About a year ago, I was sitting in an agent’s office having a friendly chat about my new book, and he said, “Well, we all know you can’t make a living as a writer.”
And my first thought was, but you can make a living as an editor. And as a publisher. Or a publicist, cover designer, proofreader, literary agent, book marketer, printer, etc. etc. etc. We expect every single person in the long chain of book publishing to make a living except for the one who wrote the book.
As I’ve continued to write, and continued to publish books, I’ve mostly decided to stay on the self-publishing path. Because if every person in the industry I’m a part of tells me I can’t make a living doing what I do, then I suspect they’re not going to be especially helpful when I tell them that I would, in fact, like to support myself with my work.
Which brings us back to transparency, because hidden within that is a type of collaboration and supportive guidance that I think writers–especially the more competitive ones–miss out on. If I’ve figured out to increase my sales by 100%, then you might like to know. And if you’ve found an ad platform that offers a positive return, then send it over.
The publishing industry knows that secrecy allows for a considerable number of things. It lets them maintain an element of mystery which continues the cycle of every writer thinking every other writer is doing better than they are. In keeping advances under wrap and only hinting at rising sales figures, writer’s constant doubts and hopes are left hanging in an uncomfortable balance of envy, suspicion, and lottery-winning daydreams that keep us all going.
The truth for most authors–especially those of us who write books–is that the money usually comes from someplace else. Maybe it’s an inheritance, often it’s a spouse or partner with a more stable and lucrative job, and frequently it’s a separate full-time job which allows someone to crank out a book at far below minimum wage.
In June of 2018, I’m firmly in the “stop the bleeding” phase of my writing career. When I lost my father, I ended up with some money from the sale of his house, and a small life insurance policy. After paying off my debt (from trying to write for the previous seven years) I was left with enough money to fill in the gaps after I’ve spent all those royalty dollars. At least for another few months.
Two years ago I moved from my studio apartment in Manhattan where I was paying $2000 a month for 200 square feet to a two bedroom apartment way out in Brooklyn with two roommates, bringing my monthly rent down to just $500 a month. Since I’ve been here, I’ve also thrown myself into writing, publishing and promoting myself full time. I typically work somewhere between forty and fifty hours a week, not counting the times I’m sitting around working out one thing or another in my head.
I’ve built a new author website with landing pages for each book, links to retailers, categorized free stories, original photos, a ton of big bold reviews, and the ability to sell directly to my readers. Including my complete collection of 46 books which I’ve currently priced at $25.
I’ve published as many of my titles as possible to Amazon, Apple, Google Play, Kobo, and B&N, and I’ve begun to monetize my short stories on Medium. I run google ad campaigns to sell that big bundle along with driving traffic to my free stories and smaller bundles. My books are on Goodreads, and I’ve solicited as many reviews as I can.
More recently, after analyzing the best selling book in erotica, I created a female pseudonym who publishes keyword focused smut all of which is available on the Kindle Unlimited program (of which I get a small amount of $ per page read.) She’s most often ranked higher than Guy New York on Amazon, and I say good for her.
Along with that, I have 20K followers on Tumblr, about 2K on Twitter, and a handful on Instagram. Oh, and an email list of around 500 people. Last month I also created a Patreon page to see if could bring in some regular income by offering unique content to willing patrons.
None of this is to brag or rest on my laurels, but to instead point out after doing all of this work (mainly in the last 18 months) I’m finally at a point where I’m bringing in around $1200/month. In a 40 hour work week, that’s about $7.50/hour.
If you want the details, it’s about $500 from Amazon, $400 from direct sales, $100 on medium, $120 from all other retailers, $50 from PayPal donations, and about $80 from Patreon. And to keep that up, I have to keep those ads going, promote my bundles on Tumblr and Twitter, add two or three new stories to Medium each week, share new things on Patreon, and above all keep publishing more books.
So that’s my landscape right now. The money I earn goes to pay my rent, my groceries, and my phone bill. After that, I pull money from my dwindling savings to cover things like therapy, medication, transportation, eating out, doctor visits, visiting family, and the four pieces of software I need to keep myself in business.
It’s not a sustainable model for sure. But right now, it’s what I have.
So, how is this helpful to anyone else? I suppose it’s part warning and part inspiration. Because the truth is, that $15K/year as a writer is better than most. When you consider the average advance is $6K (minus 15% for the agent) for a book which might have taken two years to write, you get a better picture of it.
Moving forward, as always, it’s both easy and fun to question the future of authorship and publishing. Its possible writers will always find other ways to make enough money to subsidize their craft, but I don’t believe it needs to work that way.
Personally, I’d love to see a publisher–any publisher–make the radical moral and ethical decision that everyone deserves to be paid for their work. It’s a shocking idea, I know. I’d suggest $50K as a minimum advance for a novel, but even the mention of that sends publishers screaming into the night. We’d go broke! It’s not possible! We don’t even pay our publicists that and they’re working on 50 books at a time!
My answer to that is that if you can’t afford to pay your people, then you’re not really in business now are you? And for a company like, say, Bertlesman, you’d think they might have some understanding of how business works. Or could work if they prioritized their writers. In other words, they could do it if they chose to.
Aside from that unlikely scenario, I can picture a world where it’s less easy to game the search algorithms which allow people to title books with keywords regardless of content. I can imagine a world where the right books find the right people and vice versa. A world where the bar to entry is low, the ability to produce a beautiful and mostly error-free book is inexpensive and straightforward, and authors can eke out a living doing what they love to do without having to marry up.
I like the dream for very selfish reasons, but when we look at it through a lens of economic, racial, and gender equality, it becomes bleaker. Because in the current state of affairs, the people whose books go to market are the people who can afford it. Whether it’s the privilege of a small inheritance like mine, the privilege of a partner making money, family generosity, or a paid job which allows both enough money and enough free time and energy to pursue art, published authors most likely have had some economic advantages.
And if we’re serious about hearing other voices, especially from people of color, queer folk, immigrants, disabled people, and other marginalized and economically disadvantaged individuals, then we need to do a far better job at fixing the problem.
But of course, before then, we’d have to recognize it as a problem.
“Everyone knows you can’t make a living as a writer,” is a classist, racist bit of wisdom that needs to die.
And not just for the sake of writers. But for the sake of everyone who wants to read books written by people with vision, insight, passion, and brilliance, but lacking in the financial support to let them tell their stories.
Things are changing; there is no doubt about that. But more than new platforms, new ad mechanisms or revolutionary social sharing opportunities, we need to change our mindset. We need to destroy publishing’s most basic assumption: the idea that a writer’s time is without value, their effort should be one of love (and only love), and most importantly, that’s it’s morally acceptable to build a $118B* industry on free labor.
And we need to do it now.
*I previously misstated the size of the global publishing industry at $3.4B. $118B is the correct number.