After not changing terribly much from the early 2000s to the pandemic in 2020, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the traditional publishing industry has lurched into a new era.
Things that were once unthinkable have become the new normal. Remote work! Agents struggling to get their projects even considered by editors! Electronic contracts and record keeping (gasp!)!
The industry enjoyed record sales during the pandemic, but this was largely driven by the backlist. New breakthrough successes like Colleen Hoover are exceptions that prove the rule: word-of-mouth (and particularly TikTok)-driven groundswells rather than concerted publisher marketing campaigns. It’s ridiculously difficult to break through the noise.
Authors (and the established agents who represent them) who publish once a year or more and hit the bestseller list with regularity are doing just fine, but there are not that many of them and it’s harder than ever to become one, putting pressure on new authors and agents trying to break into the business.
And yet? Books are still getting published, finding their readers, even hitting the bestseller lists. There are tons of readers out there looking for great new books, and they might love yours.
It’s not all doom and gloom, far from it. But the climate behooves authors to temper their expectations and have a laser focus on their goals and strategy.
And at the end of the day, there’s never been a better time to be a writer.
Good luck making a living solely as a writer (seriously: you’ll need luck)
I was advising authors against quitting their day jobs back in the 2000s, and it would be even more foolish to do so now.
I haven’t seen a reliable estimate of the number of self-made writers who make a living solely from their books, but… there aren’t many. I’d bet under 1,000 in the entire world. And some of those “livings” are very modest indeed. According to one Authors Guild figure, the median income of people who describe themselves as full-time writers in 2017 was $20,300.
The math (and especially the amortization) just isn’t on your side.
Let’s say you get an advance of $100,000 for a debut novel, which is a tremendous achievement and fairly rare. Your agent gets 15% of your advance, so you’re at $85,000. And oh yes, you don’t get the full $85,000 right away, as it will be broken into installments.
Let’s say you have a fantastic agent and they’re able to get you half on signing, but the overall advance is still broken down like so:
- $50,000 on signing
- $30,000 on D&A (delivery and acceptance of the manuscript, which you’ll get after you move through the editing process)
- $20,000 on hardcover publication
- $10,000 on paperback publication
Oh and the publishing calendar is crowded, so your novel is being published two years from now, and the paperback a year after that. And the publisher is short on support staff so your contract takes six months and they drag their feet on every payment.
Your book’s timeline can very easily look like this:
- Year 1: Writing the book
- Year 2: Navigating the publishing process to the offer stage
- Year 3: Contract negotiation and editing
- Year 4: Waiting for publication
- Year 5: Hardcover publication
- Year 6: Paperback publication
That $100,000 advance that became $85,000 has now been spread over six years of work, so you’re at a little over $14,000 per year before taxes. And that’s an extremely positive, rare scenario.
But what about royalties? What about your next books? Well, in order to “earn out” your advance to see additional money, you’d have to sell tens of thousands of copies. Meaning you’re not just hitting the bestseller list, but staying there for a sustained length of time. And oh yes, remember the opening of this post: publishers are struggling to make this happen with any consistency, and if you don’t hit your numbers, it may be impossible to get another deal.
The only people making a handsome living from writing are consistent mega-bestsellers, and there are only a tiny less-than-a-handful of those added to the roster every year.
Self-publishing profitably is no less of a grind, particularly if you’re not the type of author who can crank out multiple books a year and stay abreast of algorithm changes and digital marketing.
Did I mention you shouldn’t quit your day job?
Don’t expect to rise above the noise
Did you find this last paragraph discouraging? Then ask yourself this big bold question: WHY?
The only reason the preceding paragraph might be depressing is if you’re dead set on netting book income to quit your day job. Which, in my opinion, just isn’t a rational thing to hope for, any more than you’d quit your job after purchasing a lottery ticket.
There have always been far more books being written than there are readers to read them. The vast majority of books that have ever been written have languished with few if any readers. And now that the middle has been hollowed out of book publishing, it’s nearly impossible to carve out a niche as an author consistently getting $25,000-$75,000 advances every year.
Yes, you are different!
If you’re even reading this far into this blog post you are already more diligent in your publishing journey than the vast majority of authors. You have a much better shot at making your way through the process. But it’s still just a shot.
If you are writing a book with the expectation of material riches, you are a very foolish person in my humble opinion. Might I suggest drilling for oil instead?
If you are writing a book because you love writing books and see any income you generate as an extremely nice bonus, you’ve already won.
Hone your strategy
Once you’ve reset your expectations, you can approach the process with clearer eyes.
Some questions to ask yourself:
- Why am I really doing this?
- How can I live creatively to strike the right balance between financial security and time to write?
- How patient am I?
- How am I going to reach my first readers?
Getting in tune with those questions will help you devise a plan on whether to publish traditionally or to self-publish, how to maximize the time you’re spending doing something meaningful, and giving your book the best chance of finding your readers.
Don’t listen to people who say you have to be on social media, that you have to buy Facebook ads, or that you have to write a certain number of books a year or you’re wasting your time. (There are only a tiny handful of must-dos).
No one has a universal strategy for rising above the noise. All you can do is to stay attuned to what’s important to you, play to your own personal advantages, and strike off on your own journey.
It’s easier than it ever has been to sell one thousand copies of a book. It’s also easier than it ever has been to sell over one million copies of a book. What’s become more difficult is that vast middle between one thousand copies and one million copies.
But this is why it’s a golden era! Every book has a chance to find its readers. There are more options than ever. And with those chances, every book has the potential to catch fire.
It’s absolutely frustrating to pour a massive amount of time and energy into a book with little chance of seeing a return. But until we dismantle the capitalistic structures we’re living under that require us to sacrifice our time to capital for lesser wages than our labor is worth (a desirable outcome, but outside of the scope of this post), it’s going to be a constant struggle to make writing a book a breakeven proposition.
As long as that’s not why you’re doing it, it’s a wonderful time to be a writer.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Detail of Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket by James McNeill Whistler