It’s Not About the Money

Last week author Tony Horowitz wrote an op-ed in the New York Times detailing his tragicomic experience writing an e-book:

Last fall a new online publication called The Global Mail asked me to write about the Keystone XL pipeline, which may carry oil to the United States from the tar sands of Canada. The Global Mail promoted itself as a purveyor of independent long-form journalism, lavishly funded by a philanthropic entrepreneur in Australia. I was offered an initial fee of $15,000, plus $5,000 for expenses, to write at whatever length I felt the subject merited.

At the time I was researching a traditional print book, my seventh. But it was getting harder for me to feel optimistic about dead-tree publishing. Here was a chance to plant my flag in the online future and reach a younger and digitally savvy audience. The Global Mail would also be bankrolling the sort of long investigative journey I’d often taken as a reporter, before budgets and print space shrank.

Alas, things did not go well. If you’re eying the e-book boom Horowitz’s piece is a must-read because it comes from someone in the trenches, not someone selling you a shovel that you will eventually only use to dig your own grave. Based on the totality of his experience I don’t begrudge Horowitz his eventual retreat, but if you’re new to the writing game I think it’s important to understand what has and has not changed during the past few years of publishing upheaval.

Making money as a writer — to say nothing of making writing a career, even for a few years — has always been brutally hard. If you’re passionate and lucky and plucky and willing to do whatever it takes, and you meet the right people at the right time, and you have the chops, and you’re less trouble than you’re worth, you can, maybe, get a gig. If you do a decent job and meet your deadline you might get another gig, or even an actual job with regular hours and benefits and somebody else paying two thirds of your social security taxes. But it’s hard. Always.

While the e-book craze is in large part being driven by people who hope to profit from doing so, and it’s always nice to make a buck, the real value of e-books, and by extension, self-publishing, is the fact that you no longer have to ask someone for permission to write what you want to write. You may not make any money following your bliss, but when was that ever guaranteed? The best you could usually hope for was to write for hire, to get someone to pay you for services rendered, then use that income to cover the cost of personal projects. Even if you were a literary lion your high-dollar advance came with expectations and limits.

If you want to make money as a writer you’re looking at a hard life, but it was always thus. What’s changed — what the e-book revolution and self-publishing are really about — is that everyone now has access. So while you’re right to think about how much money you can squeeze out of the marketplace with your talent and guile, take a moment to ballpark the opportunity cost of the self-publishing and internet distribution options currently available. What would it take to replicate those opportunities if you had to pay for them yourself? A billion dollars? Ten billion? A trillion?

The e-book market will sort itself out in time, at which point it will become just another market you can sell your services to if you aspire to be a working writer. What you no longer have to do is wait for someone to say yes if you’re willing to bet on yourself, and I see that change as priceless.

— Mark Barrett

Time, Money, Stupidity and Self-Sufficiency

A couple of weeks ago I was compelled to open the case on my balky computer and dig into its guts. My goal was diagnosing a long-running and progressively worsening series of program crashes and operating-system reboots, all of which were crimping my productivity and putting my data at risk.

It took more hours than I would have liked, but in the end I had my culprit: a bad stick of DDR2 memory, now upgraded and replaced. Along the way I also updated the BIOS for my computer, stress-tested and reconfigured various bits of hardware and software, and killed several trojans and a dormant worm.

I am now suffering no computer ills. My machine is running like an electronic top. I’m confident going forward that I have a stable platform from which to work, and that’s no small comfort given that I hope to do a great deal of writing over the next nine months. My computer is, after all, my workshop, and I don’t need a workshop that blinks out at random intervals.

Optimus Perfecticus
While diagnosing my computer problems I ran a series of tests, including MemTest86+ — which proved decisive. In order to run that program I had to download and install it, which I was able to do after a couple of faltering attempts to decipher the geek-speak instructions.

While performing this relatively simple task I found myself confronting an age-old debate that seems almost generic to human existence:

When should you hire someone to do a job for
you, and when should you do it yourself?

The answer, always, is found at the intersection of time and money. How much will it cost, and how long will it take, either to pay someone to solve the problem or to do it yourself? (Here I’m assuming that the goal is not one of self-satisfaction, but simply solving a problem by the most effective means.)  Read more ]

Following the Money

What are the economics of being a professional author? I know how much I’ve made as a storyteller in various mediums, but the book business is still pretty much a mystery to me.

To the extent that I’ve been able to fill in any blanks I owe individual authors for having the courage to talk about their own experiences. While each story is different, they’re all adding up to a useful composite, and particularly so given all the forces at work and changes taking place in the industry.

For example, today I ran across a follow-up post by Lynn Viehl on Genreality, talking about The Reality of a Times Bestseller:

So how much money have I made from my Times bestseller? Depending on the type of sale, I gross 6-8% of the cover price of $7.99. After paying taxes, commission to my agent and covering my expenses, my net profit on the book currently stands at $24,517.36, which is actually pretty good since on average I generally net about 30-40% of my advance. Unless something triggers an unexpected spike in my sales, I don’t expect to see any additional profit from this book coming in for at least another year or two.

Is that a sobering reality? Easy money? I have no idea. I don’t know how many hours Lynn put into that title, so I can’t do the workaday math. Still, if you didn’t live a big city or have any consuming vices you could probably squeak by on that money, provided you had the same amount coming in next year…but then that’s not a given, is it? (Speaking of givens, Lynn blows up a number of myths in the post, and in the prequel.)

In a previous post I noted Joe Konrath’s sales figures for both traditional publishing and self-publishing of his novels, and that’s also worth a look.

For pure self-publishing numbers I’ve been relying on posts by Dan Holloway writing as a pair of shoes. You can read his initial accounting here, and his latest here.

If you’re a literary fiction writer, how many books do you have to sell to call yourself a success? 7,000.

If you’re an online fiction writer, are there ways to monetize your content? Sure.

Update: Publishing your own RPG? Here’s what it cost someone to do just that.

I’ll post more as I find it. If you’ve already found it, let me know.

— Mark Barrett

GeoCities, Scribd and Your Content

I ran across a short note on Mashable yesterday announcing that Yahoo will be closing GeoCities this month. While the post rightly notes that GeoCities was one of the first social networking sites, that’s not what I first thought about when I read the news.

What I thought of was this:

In January 1999, near the peak of the dot-com bubble, Geocities was purchased by Yahoo! for $3.57 billion in stock, with Yahoo! taking control on May 28. The acquisition proved extremely unpopular; users began to leave en masse in protest at the new terms of service put out by Yahoo! for GeoCities. The terms stated that the company owned all rights and content, including media such as pictures.

Yes, you’re reading that right. Yahoo paid 3.5 billion dollars for an online community, then one of the first things they told every user in the GeoCities community was that Yahoo now owned all of the content on each and every GeoCities web site. In the business world this type of decision is known as the dumbest thing anyone has ever done.  Read more ]

Walking the Ditchwalk

In my parasites post I advocated spending money only when you absolutely have to, and only when you know you’re getting something of equal or greater value in return. As an independent author I followed my own advice in putting up this site, and in this post I’d like to walk you though the process I followed in considering blog software options, blog theme options, and a number of graphics options.

For blog software I was fairly sure I would go with WordPress, because it’s free and because I had a positive experience with it several years ago. What I got for my effort then was pretty impressive. The functionality you get with WordPress now is almost absurd, and I couldn’t recommend the application more. (I use the self-hosted version, but WordPress.com is also available if you prefer something hosted and less technical.)  Read more ]

Publishing Parasites

I’ve been working on a post lately about what I call publishing parasites. Rather than bringing focus to the post, however, my initial attempts only led me off on wonderful rants about various injustices.

Last night, however, I came across this hilarious tweet from Guy Gonzalez

Red Room sends me an email saying I’m “one of [their] self-published authors” and thinks their site is worth $30/mo? Seriously? #fail

— and a follow-up tweet pointing me to this post of his from July:

These are the three fundamental steps to building yourself an author platform, no matter what kind of writing you’re doing, and precede any discussions of SEO, Freemiums, URLs, etc.

As to his post, I think he’s right and you should read the whole thing. As to my fixation on publishing parasites, I now have my focus. Money.  Read more ]