The Rich Writer Myth
One of the biggest myths about becoming a successful novelist is that it means you must be rolling in it. ‘Six-figure-advance’ trips off the tongue very easily, as if it were normal. ‘Royalties’ sounds juicy. Money: still something that people who want to write a novel want to write a novel for. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I got a very handsome £75,000 advance for my first novel, The Marlowe Papers. But that was £75,000 for four years’ work, and paid over another two years, so in essence £12,500 a year (before agent’s commission and tax). Add to that the fact that I had, like many startup businesses, launched my career through getting into debt to an amount almost equalling the advance, and you’ll realise it wasn’t actually a life-changing amount of money.
I also hadn’t realised that unless your debut novel becomes a best-seller, you’ll not get that kind of money for the second book. My advance for Devotion (2015) was £5,000. That’s £5,000 for two years’ work. This is not because it was 1/15th as good as The Marlowe Papers. Some people are liking it very much indeed. But that low advance (which is actually a pretty average advance) is causing me headaches. Thanks to the critical success of The Marlowe Papers, and nearly 20 years of teaching experience, I now have half a job (2.5 days a week) as a creative writing lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. But that’s half a salary, which means that every month I have to find ingenious ways to drum up the other half to meet my living costs. Those ingenious ways are time-consuming, not always money-generating. In short, what they do is get in the way of writing any more books.
What about royalties? Surely if you’ve written books that win prizes and get reviewed in the mainstream press, you must be getting regular royalty cheques? Only if you’ve earned out your advance, because an advance is an advance on royalties. And the way things have gone in the publishing makes it increasingly hard for an author to earn out their advance.
Yesterday, as I was finally bracing myself to put out the begging bowl, I pulled out my publishing contracts and put my royalty figures into a spreadsheet. I found out that in order to earn back that £5,000 advance on Devotion I would have to sell 12,500 copies of the paperback through Amazon, or 7,500 copies through independent bookshops. (That’s because Amazon and other large retailers press publishers for large discounts, and the publisher passes on the effect of those discounts to the author.) If you know anything about publishing, you’ll understand that literary fiction doesn’t sell in those quantities unless the book makes a major prize list. So there’ll be no royalties on either of my novels in the foreseeable future.
The best way to support an author is to buy their book, read it, and, if you like it, tell other people about it or even buy it for them. But as far as supporting an author financially, buying their book doesn’t help them out as much as you might think. Here’s what I get if you buy a paperback of either The Marlowe Papers or Devotion (RRP £8.99). (I say, ‘what I get’, but in truth, this is the amount that will get offset against my advance, reducing the debt I owe to my publisher).
- Buy directly from the author at full price: author gets £4.50* (minus any postage)
- Buy from an independent bookshop/Hive: author gets 67p
- Buy from large-chain bookshop: author gets somewhere between 40-67p
- Buy from Amazon: author gets 40p
- But second-hand from Amazon marketplace: author gets nothing.
- Buy from second-hand bookshop or charity shop: author gets nothing.
- Borrow from library: author gets 7.67p. (And I actually receive this money. It comes through the PLR system and not via my publisher. For 2014-15 I got £69.41).
[* authors can buy their own books from their publisher at 50% discount. But some contracts will stipulate these books are ‘not for resale’ or will attempt to limit how many copies an author can sell direct to readers.]
I noted that my US sales (the US paperback is released in April) will net me even less, because they are based on “price received” rather than the recommended retail price. The US paperback retails at $15.99, but the publisher will receive something on a sliding scale between 70% ($11.19) and 30% ($4.80) of this amount from the retailer, and my paperback royalty rate of 7.5% is calculated on that figure So in the US:
- Buy from an independent bookshop at non-discounted price: author gets 84 cents (59p)
- Buy from Amazon.com (at maximum discount): author gets 36 cents (25p)
The audio book of Devotion has just been released (hurrah) but my royalty on this is also on price received, and frankly I can’t even tell what that will be, because though it retails for £16.62, I can’t imagine anyone will pay that when the most prominent price is £0.00 next to a notice that potential listeners can get it free with a trial of Audible (£0 for 30 days, then £7.99 a month). What the author will get from that is anyone’s guess.
I should add, these are not abnormal contracts. They are vetted both by my agent and by The Society of Authors. It is just where publishing is going, and is the reason why average author income continues to shrink year on year (see ‘Author’s Incomes Collapse to “Abject” Levels’).
It is clear that authors, like other creative people looking to make a living doing what they love and are good at (bringing joy to many people in the process), are going to have to look to new ways of supporting themselves. In the olden days, writers, composers and artists needed wealthy patrons. Then for a while, there was Net Book Agreement and substantial funding for the Arts, and we could mostly survive directly from the fruits of our labours. Then came funding cuts, and the internet: for love it though I do, it has ushered in Amazon and their erosion of author royalties, the free and 99p Kindle, e-book piracy, and a ‘free content’ mindset. Authors need patrons again – and hey, where are the wealthy people? Not sponsoring writers, as far as I know (though I’m prepared to be proved wrong!). The modern model of patronage, Patreon, is based on crowdfunding. You can become a patron of the arts for as little as $1 /84p a month. That’s $1/84p you probably won’t notice, but if enough people do the same, your chosen artist/author really will. Check it out. The continued survival of literature written by anyone other than the wealthy and privileged could depend upon it.
If you like anything I’ve written; if you’d like me to write more; if you’d happily buy me a cup of tea if you met me, then maybe you’ll consider becoming my patron. You can do this for only $1 (84p including VAT) per month. Patrons will get regular ‘insider’ updates and at certain levels get other rewards too (first edition signed and specially inscribed copy, name in acknowledgements etc). Find out more by clicking here.