For those who don't follow my social media feeds, I complain about being broke a lot. I'm not currently in debt to my landlord, and I'm managing to hold things together as best I can while the pandemic rages, but I'm still well below the threshold for a lot of public aid programs. And while I'd love to suddenly have the fickle finger of the zeitgeist make me an overnight bestseller, until that happens I just keep chugging away and putting out as much content as I can (books, articles, blogs, and more) in the hopes that something gets traction.
What a lot of folks (particularly aspiring writers) don't seem to get, though, is that books are an investment. Something you write today might not catch on by the end of the month. It might not get popular till next month, next year, or even ever. Worse, the bigger the project is, and the more time and energy that goes into it, the more of a risk it is as an investment.
|Smut projections look good... if you've got steampunk, off load it yesterday!|
I wanted to talk about that this week. Because I've been getting dozens of ideas for novels while I've been staying home and out of circulation, but I also know that a lot of them are a big risk for me as a creator when it comes to time versus profits. And I want me readers to understand the thought process that determines what comes out next from my work desk.
Writing a Book Isn't Free
When a lot of people think of books, they imagine creating something out of nothing. It's just words on a page, after all, and in today's digital world where ebooks are a huge part of the market it's possible to build a successful career for yourself by making and marketing an entirely ephemeral product. However, even if you do the writing, the editing, the book layout, the cover design, and the marketing on your own, that book still cost you something to produce. It took your time, your energy, and your creativity, along with parts of your sanity in many cases.
|Speaking of, go get your copy of my book today!|
In exchange for all of that time, that energy, and that sheer mental sweat, this thing you've created has the potential to give you money. That's the nature of work, after all; you perform the task, and in exchange you are given money so that you can cover your expenses while also indulging in the occasional bit of excess.
What a lot of folks don't seem to realize, though, is that the more return on investment you need to make a project break even, the harder it can be to actually justify the project in the first place.
Let's Talk Numbers
So, let's say I wanted to write a novel. For this scenario I'm possessed by the ghost of Robert Louis Stevenson, and so I will be able to complete a manuscript in one month (for those wondering where I'm getting this number, it's the length of time it originally took him to pen The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). My average expenses throughout the month, for the bare minimum, include:
- $400 for my part of the rent
- $40 for Internet
- $80 for utilities
So discounting food, transportation, and other expenses that can go up and down depending on my household's status, I would need to make at least $520 from spending my month's energy writing that novel for it to really break even.
|Yeah, that math checks out.|
That is a tall order to ask for one project, working at the level I'm working at. The important thing to remember is that books can continue to sell over time, though. So if your monthly expenses remain relatively stable, and you continue making sales, you actually need less performance from future works to make sure you break even. And in an ideal world you have enough popular material on the market that your cushion will carry you from one month to another regardless of what else you put out.
Let's say I've been at my desk for a few months, and I've kicked out 5 novels in as many months. Now I just need each book to make about $104 every month in sales to cover the expenses I listed. That would be impressive, but far from unreasonable. And if I had 10 books on the market? Well, each one would need to make $50 and change in sales every month (on average) to maintain that cushion.
So on the one hand it's true that the more stuff you put out on the market, the better the chances you'll be able to keep your bills paid. On the other hand, nothing you do as a writer is guaranteed... and that's the rub.
It's All About Time, and Luck
Let's go back to that above scenario. That first book I wrote while I was harboring the spirit of a famous author had to sell a few hundred copies in order to pay my expenses for the month. If it manages to do that, great, I have essentially bought myself time to work on the sequel. And if it really captured the reading public's attention and sold gangbusters? Even better.
But what if it only sold 100 copies? Or a few dozen? What do I do then?
|Well, I tried. Guess my luck wasn't good today.|
If that happened in that first month, that would be devastating. Now I've got the power company wondering where their money is, a landlord threatening eviction, and on top of that I'm not eating. But what if it happened with the third book? Or the fourth one? It would still be inconvenient, but if the others were doing well enough that they could shoulder the weight then it wouldn't be as much of a problem, and I could probably muddle through to the next month where the next new release would be able to help boost my earnings.
You know the real issue, though? It doesn't take me a month to write a novel. That's an unrealistic turnaround time for most authors out there (for those of you citing Stephen King and other prolifics, the exceptions prove the rule on this one).
Maintaining a solid daily word count, I can write a first draft of a novel somewhere between 7 months and a year. If you want a cleaned up and edited version that I've gone over, and which the beta readers have seen, you're looking at a minimum of 10 months if I had a serious fire under me. If that novel is going to a traditional publishing house, it could be an additional 6 months to a year before it comes out, depending on their release schedule.
So that one novel would need to earn me more than $6,000 in sales just to make up for some of my bills in the time it took me to write it (to say nothing of additional time waiting for the publisher to put it on the market). And that's assuming there are no hiccups, no delays, no re-writes that add onto the time, and that I can immediately turn around to work on the next thing as soon as it's done.
Then, just to add insult to injury, even if the book does do well it's going to take more than a month for earnings to clear and be sent to me. Sometimes I'll only get a check during a particular quarter, depending on the publisher. So even if the book is clocking sales, I need to have the resources on-hand to wait for the money to actually get to me no matter how popular my work was.
|If the game sounds rigged, that's a feature, not a flaw.|
This is an even bleaker break down of what I talked about back in "You Can Only Be A Writer If You Can Afford It" Tells An Uncomfortable Truth. Because it takes time for you to get good at writing books, and it's unlikely the first one you write is going to get published. It's also unlikely the first book you publish is going to soar onto the bestseller lists. So you have to sink in even more time, more energy, more sweat, and more research to (as many Dark Souls players will say) git gud.
The Audience is What Really Makes The Difference
With all of this said, the important thing to remember is that writers aren't the ones with the power. You, the readers, are the kingmakers in this game. You are the ones with the power to help ensure that we can keep doing what we're doing.
Because it doesn't matter if we've written one book, a dozen, or a hundred... if no one reads them, our checks will all look the same.
|Basically the opposite of this.|
This is why I stress so much that if you know an author who's struggling, they need your help! And if you're not sure what to do, just follow the 10 Concrete Ways You Can Help The Authors You Like. If you have money, buy their books, contribute to their patron, buy their books as presents for your friends, and so on. If you don't have money, boost their signal, leave reviews, write blogs or make videos about them... spread the word so other people can find out about the creator you want to support.
Because there is only so much we can do from our side of this equation. And if you help open those floodgates, you're going to get a lot more books into your hands a lot faster.
Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!
That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife as well as my recent collection The Rejects!