Musings on Writing – and Money

Meeting with booksellers is a perk you don't get on the internet!

It is so tempting, having heard that a second very senior policeman from the Met has decided that his career is better off curtailed, even though he doesn’t see that he did anything wrong, to launch into a long spiel about the newspapers.

But I won’t. I have interests in the story, which I’ll explain a little later. However, what is the point of yet another armchair expert commenting on things. I’m better off commenting on things like books and work. So I will.

I was driving back from a gig at the Historical Writers’ Association at Kelmarsh this morning, and while idly whipping down the M5, I heard Stephen Leather talking about his latest venture: putting his books on the internet. It got me thinking.

When I started out, I was younger and desperate. I’d had thirteen jobs in thirteen years, and because two of those jobs lasted five years apiece, I had to work hard to cram in the remaining eleven. All the companies went bust, because this was during the last recession, and companies tended to disappear.

I moved from selling computers into writing not because I had an inspirational spark that had to be committed to paper. I am not that kind of writer. I had some decent ideas for stories, and I wanted to write them out. Plus, I knew damn well that I was a hard worker. I always have been. In four years at Wang Labs, I had a total of three weeks holiday – and two of them were in one year because Wang sent me to Hawaii. I loved it.

So when I started out with the idea of writing, my first problem was, what was the likelihood of success? I checked. It was lousy. No. LOUSY. The chances back in the early 1990s, of writing and completing a novel were 1:100. Add to that the fact that fewer than one percent of finished books ended up in print, and you’ll see that while the National Lottery is dreadful odds at thirteen million to one, writing a book with odds of ten thousand to one ain’t that good either.

I delved a little deeper.

It didn’t take long to figure why my agent told me I wouldn’t have a living wage (not a good wage, a living wage) for at least four years.

I finished my Last Templar in March 1994. It was accepted in the August, and the hardback came out in March 1995, the paperback November 1995, with the second book in the series in hardback published that week too. So the idea was, one book every nine months.

Now we have all heard of massive advances paid to hard-up hacks like me. So you’ll not be surprised to learn I had one too. But an advance is an interest-free loan, which has to be paid back by royalties. I was lucky, sort of. I could hope to pay the advance back fairly quickly because it was so small. I was given £3,000 for the first book, £3,500 for each of two more. A round total of £10,000.

But I didn’t get that in my hot little hands. No, I had to wait. You see, publishing is like acting as a jobbing builder. There are specific stages when the author is allowed the next chunk of cash. I knew that from my research. So, my first book, being written, earned me a lovely £1,000 for signing the contract. I’d earn another grand for publication of the hardback, and the last third on pub of the paperback. The second book earned me a quarter of the £3,500 for signing contracts, a second for delivery of the manuscript, another for hardback pub, a last for paperback pub.

Work it out. £875 at each stage for the second two, £1,000 for the first. This meant that I earned a total of £2,750 in the first year. The next year I would earn a little more, if I worked hard and delivered quickly. Would I be a millionaire? Er, no.

A selection of books in my office. No space!

I knew that no matter what happened, I would not earn anything until there was a track record on the shelves. By that, I mean that I am not a good new reader. It is rare that I will go into a shop and buy a book by someone I have not heard of. Apart from anything else, my income won’t support my reading habit. So I have to use criteria against which I can measure a writer. One measure is the faith that the publisher has.

What this means is, I am not likely to buy a hardback by someone I don’t know. They’re too expensive. And if there are paperbacks, I’ll still probably only buy when there are at least three paperbacks by that author on the shelf. And I don’t think I’m that rare.

So, I knew that I’d have to wait until the third book was in paperback before I started to earn money. Which is fine, and I factored that into my projections.

I knew the first paperback was out November ’95. The second would be middle of ’96, the third in early ’97. That would mean I’d start earning from about then.

No. Because the royalties aren’t paid immediately. They are paid three months in arrears. So if you sell tons of books in January, that falls into the first six month period, and you won’t see a penny until September. Likewise, books sold from July to December are paid in the following March. Hopefully.

My titles a while ago

Because there are other considerations. All publishers hold back sums against possible returns. So for every hundred books sold, it’s assumed twenty five will be returned by booksellers as unsold.

I knew all this. So when I started out, I knew that the earliest I could possibly earn some money, if I sold a lot of copies and actually paid back the advances, would be in September ’97. For the book I wrote in early 1994.

And this is one area where the income model starts to look a little screwy. Authors cannot, by and large, get by without a real job.

It does get worse, too. Publishers will negotiate discounts with booksellers now, without telling the author. This means the author can sometimes come to the royalty period expecting a bumper cheque on the back of the number of books sold, only to learn that because of a 50%, 60%, or higher discount offered, the income has fallen. You see, many authors are paid on “net receipts”. That means, the publisher pays a percentage of whatever they have managed to take. Which is kind of fair, and kind of very unfair. If the author was involved in the negotiations, he or she could at least budget for the bad periods. But most authors get no warning of such sudden income collapses. Which is not nice, when it happens.

However, I knew when I started that there were all kinds of pitfalls, and when I began, I was determined from the first moment. I sat down, and the computer was switched on from about 06:30, and I typed with two short breaks, until 23:00 or occasionally later. I worked all through the week and through the weekends, because I was determined. And then, when the book was written, the typescript all edited and reworked and posted, I got straight on with the next book. I didn’t see much merit in being self-employed as a holiday maker. I am a writer. And so: I write.

That was seventeen years ago. Times change. Money certainly changes. I cannot keep up the effort to the same extent now. Apart from anything else, I have to work on blogs, on twitter, on facebook. I cannot subscribe to other sites, purely because I don’t have time to physically log on and comment on more sites.

I also have a young family. Children need a certain amount of time with me. And the dogs need their walks. As do I!

So now my days are different. I don’t get up at six any more. Ye Gods! There are limits!

No, I get up at seven or so, to help get children fed and off to school. I take the dogs out for at least an hour, and then spend a half hour at the desk dealing with Tweets before throwing myself into the real work, writing. A half hour for lunch, then on again until the kids get back from school, and then back to the desk again at about eight, and then I work through to midnight, usually.

Yes, I do still work weekends, although generally I’ll work both mornings rather than all weekend. I have to in order to keep the story fixed firmly in my head, apart from anything else.

I am fortunate. I have the time to see my children growing. That is a massive benefit – to me and I hope to them. I feel privileged to be able to help, occasionally, when people in the village have problems. It is good to be able to help by the simple virtue of being here.

An author allowed out for the day! Talking at Tavistock

Another huge benefit is the honour – and it is an honour – of being able to go to events and meet people I’d otherwise never have seen. To go to Kelmarsh this weekend, was marvellous. I saw hundreds of people in the audience, and as a result sold a large number of books. Many thanks to Selena Walker and Manda Scott for their amazing efforts and the incredible response. I have been fortunate enough in the last few years to travel to Alaska, to Colombia, to Italy, to Portugal, and all over the UK, all at the expense of literary festivals.

Yes, it is an honour, but it is growing increasingly difficult. The internet has copies of my books, illegally copied and placed on download sites so that people with better incomes than most writers can steal them and read them for free. Authors generally earn less than the national average wage – in fact most earn less than the minimum wage, I think.

And this is the problem. It’s two-fold. There isn’t the money there to support writers. The discounts, the expansion in second-hand sales, the long time-lag between the effort and the reward, all militate against authors. There is an easier alternative: the ebook.

An author can upload his or her novel in seconds. Depending on the price of the book, they will receive a marvellous 75% royalty. Even publishers are paying 25% to the authors. And the money, from Amazon and similar sites, will presumably be paid in a matter of days or a couple of weeks, rather than the slow-burning reward of the real publishers.

So, clearly, it’s far better to go straight to the internet, upload books, and crack on. Like Stephen.

Is it? He spoke of getting 7,500 sales on Christmas day. So, probably he earned over £5,000 that day. Great. I am very pleased for him. I may try something similar (I have an anthology of all my short stories, which would work well as an ebook, I think).

But, and this is a huge but, there are all the self-publishing problems to cope with.

If you go straight to the web, you have no USP. Yours is one of a number of books put out there, and what will make someone go to your book rather than one of the other million or so? Have you ever looked at Apples store for books? I have. It is not easy to sift through the titles to find the one you want. Apart from anything else, there is the vast number of Japanese titles to wade through.

So, if you want to sell books on the web, you need to work at it. Stephen spoke of getting himself onto fora (OK, forums, then), establishing his credentials, and keeping up with comments. He spoke of twitter, facebook, and all the other aspects of marketing. Then there is the cost of getting someone to design a good cover. The cost of a copyeditor and editor – because however good you are, you will never be as good and objective while editing your own work. You must market and sell those books as hard as the publisher’s sales team.

Stephen said it took him half his time. His writing time, for his books, for his primary function, has been halved. That, my friends, is miserable.

So for now, I’ll be sticking with writing as the day job. I don’t want to be a publisher. I cannot copyedit. I know that. But even so, my time is eaten into with blogs, tweets and other ‘social’ media. I enjoy writing.

4 Responses to “Musings on Writing – and Money”
  1. Mark Morritt says:

    Thanks, Michael. A really interesting post on the realities of making a living as an author. I think this dispels a lot of myths.
    As for E books, as an iPad user I do make use of them but I honestly believe (and fervently hope) that authors stick with publishers and the tangible product of their efforts.
    You can turn off an iPad, but you cannot put a good book down!


    • I do agree, Mark. I love my iPad dearly, and wouldn’t be without it (unlike my laptop which I’ve given to the kids), but there is nothing like a real book. Still, from the perspective of a writer depending upon cash to live on, there’s no argument that the electronic version is infinitely more profitable. But there are plenty of pitfalls, as I say.


  2. Avril says:

    Thank you for this, Michael. A friend sent me a link to a blog detailing the state of the American publishing industry – my agent is American. I know she works her socks off to try and get editors interested in my books. To date, from 2009, I have earned the princely sum of £220 from my written work. Why do I write? Because I can’t not. And, because I have a wonderful and supportive husband who believes in me. Not everyone is so lucky. One day I know my boat will come in. Until then…..


    • Ach, all best of luck. There are plenty of writers who do get out there, and successfully, but getting the first contract is hard – and getting new ones afterwards never seems to get any easier. It’s a very hard business. I remember once being told that it was easy to make money from books. So long as you’re the publisher, not the author!


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