WHAT WE DON’T TALK ABOUT

Writers are loathe to talk about a topic which we should all be discussing: MONEY. This comes to mind because two or three blog sites have brought it up in recent weeks and because I just finished filing my taxes. There was a time six or seven years ago when I could look at my tax documents and see I had earned a comfortable living from book sales and public speaking. Sadly, this is no longer the case. Some publishers that used to pay a royalty no longer do so and many are relying more and more on book packagers for the bulk of their lists. (Book packagers typically pay authors a one-time fee.) Books with multiple starred reviews and shiny awards no longer guarantee sales. Librarians who used to support us and our books through school visits have retired or moved on to greener pastures.

Samuel Johnson once wrote, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” This isn’t to say we don’t love our art. We do! Most of us can’t help but to write. But is it unreasonable for us to expect to be able to support ourselves and our families through our craft? You know, is it unthinkable for us to hope that our work will actually provide us with food and shelter? I think not, but we writers are our own worst enemies. When writers routinely produce work-for-hire or sign flat-fee contracts for peanuts, it hurts those of us who value our work and ask for royalty-based contracts. This isn’t to say that writers should never enter into these publisher-favored agreements. I have done when the upfront fees compensated for a lack of royalty or when there is more month left at the end of a paycheck, but I have also been willing to walk away from flat-fee offers when the publishers were being excessively greedy. For example, in one instance a publisher offered me $600 flat-fee for a book I’d written. I politely (or perhaps not so politely) said no, thank you, and explained that I expected a royalty. A few days later, the publisher raised his flat-fee offer. (This proves that all things are negotiable.) Again, I said no. A week or so later, the publisher called once more. He raised his offer yet again, to which I replied, “That sounds satisfactory for an advance. Now let’s talk royalty.” Bottom line is that because I was willing to walk away from getting the book published, I ended up with a nice (by no means, lavish) advance and a royalty with an escalation. The book is still in print and as of the last accounting period has sold more than 600,000 copies. This book was no more special than any other book produced by any other writer, but golly gumdrops why shouldn’t I also benefit in its long-term success just as the publisher is doing?!

Publishers should also understand that when an author gets to share in the success of a book, that author is more likely to promote it. It benefits him or her to do so. Why would or should an author of a flat-fee title bother to even mention it? Royalty-based contracts are mutually beneficial. Win-win always works in my book.

Many years ago when I was naïve and green, I agreed to travel some distance to a school and speak for free. Doing so was essentially money out-of-pocket for me. I don’t recall the exact circumstances of not charging my fee, which at the time was a mere $250 (for the day!), but I have vivid memories of what transpired over lunch. The librarian, who had splurged on restaurant-delivered salads for the two of us, commented that because of my generosity the school would now be able to pay a juggler $1000 for an assembly to entertain the students. I almost gagged, but managed to get through the final two assemblies (of five total) and vowed then and there never to do another school visit gratis. Of course, I have reneged on that vow, but I do pick and choose which schools and how many per year will benefit from my generosity. Writers are professionals! One certainly wouldn’t ask a mechanic to repair one’s car for free or the plumber to unstop a stopped drain for free or a doctor to practice for free. Why should a writer (or illustrator) be any different? In most cases, it has taken a traditionally-published author a lengthy period of time to reach the pinnacle of publication. The writer is a small business with overhead expenses to meet–like health insurance, writing supplies, rent, and something that is seldom thought about, retirement (although most of us will never be able to retire). Writers who routinely don’t charge or who charge so little as to almost be free handicap other writers who rely on speaking income to make ends meet. Be collegial. Those of you who are not writers are probably saying, “Yeah, but what about that royalty income?” My response would be, “What about it?” On a $17.95 book, I earn about $1.80 per copy sold (10%)–but only after the advance has been earned out (which means paid back to the publisher) and assuming no discounts have been offered to the purchaser. Many books never earn out their advances. And that $1.80 assumes that I am the sole author and there isn’t an illustrator, with whom that $1.80 would have to be split 50-50. What I’m saying is that most traditionally published authors RELY on speaking income to meet their day-to-day expenses. Any royalty income is usually small, uncertain, and comes in dribs and drabs over years IF the books remain in print.

And that concludes my rant this week.

 

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