I’ve said this before and will no doubt say it again: one of the coolest things about the intarwebs and growing up to be a writer is having become friends with some of my writing heroes. People I wanted to grow up to be, or whose work touched me, or who I admired the holy living bejeezus out of, or I learned from by reading their books, or all of the above. Usually all of the above.
One of those people is Judith Tarr. She’s a tremendous writer and a splendid person, and if you’d told me ten years ago that I would chat with Judy (see!? I get to call her Judy now, and everything!) on a weekly basis, if you’d said, “and you’ll get worried when she hasn’t posted for several days, especially if the weather’s been bad where she and the fat white ponies live,” if you’d said anything like that I’d have–well, I’d have sat in a corner giggling hysterically and peeking through my fingers and saying, “Really? *Really*?” and then giggling some more.
If you’d told me Judith Tarr would end up writing a three-part blog post about the changes in the publishing industry, inspired by my post on the myth of the rich writer, for my blog, I just wouldn’t have believed it. But she’s done just that, and I’m really ridiculously delighted to present her words to you here over the course of this week.
So Catie and I have been having this conversation. It started with her post on money, and I finally snapped, after years of keeping politely quiet. I said, “I am horrified at what I see writers of your particular generation having to do in order to pay your bills/satisfy your publishers/keep your careers alive.”
I’m not really as old as God, but I came in at a younger age than many of my publishing peers, so I’ve been around a while. I made my first sale in 1983, having had an agent for a couple of years. So I’m having an anniversary this year, come to think of it.
My first agent was young and fierce and determined to conquer the world. She started as assistant to Virginia Kidd—whose clients included Ursula K. Le Guin and Anne McCaffrey. Le Guin was a great name even at the time, but Annie while beloved within the genre had yet to become a monster bestseller. She was still a midlister, though a very popular one.
So I came in, all fresh and dewy, and I got the Talk. The one that lays out the agent’s hopes for the new author’s career, cools the author’s jets when she tries to go roaring off in every direction, and sets her up to establish a nice professional profile right from the get-go.
Two things she told me that I want to go into here, because they’re relevant to Catie’s interests.
1. Don’t be too eager, too fast, too prolific. Don’t inundate publishers with ideas, or swamp them with proposals. It’s not just that you’ll saturate the market, it’s that they’ll start to think you’re buyable by the gross. You want to keep them a little bit hungry. Make them want you. Get them bidding on you and fighting over you, because you’re not giving away all your ideas at once or for cheap.
The same applies once you’ve sold. Don’t let them find out how fast you really can write that book, do those copyedits, read those proofs—or they’ll start pushing you harder and making you work faster and demanding more and more and more until you can’t work at all. Take the full time, and insist that it be enough time. Not 24-hour turnarounds. Get ten days or two weeks in those contracts and make them stick to it. Publishers are inherently inclined to slop all over the place—and the author, at the end of the line, ends up paying for everyone else’s missed deadline. Don’t let them get away with it.
2. What I see for you is a long career, well grounded, with sales sufficient to bring in around $40K in royalties a year, and advances around the $50K mark. Solid high midlist. A book a year, consistently. No more than a book every nine months; see above re. market saturation, but also, author burnout. Many authors can do a book every other year and still maintain profitable careers, but if you can do one a year, that’s better. We’ll hope for a bestseller, but realistically, what you’ll do is build a career that keeps you going for decades.
Right. The tissues are over there. If you’re done weeping, with grief or laughter or both, I’ll go on.
That was what a good midlist writer could expect in 1983. Even in 1993, midlisters could make a decent living, though there were signs of tightening up. More authors were getting cut after two or three books. Willingness to wait on an author the house had confidence in was pretty seriously eroding. Building careers wasn’t happening so much any more. The first sidesteppers had begun—authors whose original books hadn’t done so well, but by changing their bylines, they found new life and stronger sales.
Still, a decent but not wonderful midlist advance was $25-30K, and two books a year were looked at somewhat askance; if one was a little too prolific, one looked a little desperate, you know? Mass market was still strong; top sellers sold in six figures (that’s units sold, not money earned), and a title that sold around 20,000 hardcovers was nice but not exceptional. Debut authors might be paid peanuts ($5000 or less), but they could hope that if they caught on, they could head to that $25K level and beyond, to $50K and higher.
At the lower end, the book would usually be a paperback original. Hardcover was where the money was: higher cover price, bigger royalties. Hardcover, and mass market a year or so later, regular as clockwork. Hardcover got money and reviews. Mass market brought in the tens of thousands of readers that made a lasting career. Paperback writers dreamed of breaking through to hardcover, and quite a few did.
Payment was still, for the most part, half on signing and half on delivery of the completed ms. Gradually as the decade went on and publishers started being gobbled up by huge conglomerates, payments became smaller, more frequent, but also wider spaced. A third on signing, a third on delivery, a third on publication, was not uncommon. If one’s agent was tough enough, the publication payment might be turned into a time-limited deal (signing/delivery/6 months post-delivery), but it got harder and harder to move that mountain. The days of one’s editor running over to accounting to physically chase down a lost or delayed check were fading fast; accounting might not in be in the same building, or the same city, or the same continent.
Those were the days. Authors could make an actual living writing midlist books at $25-30K a pop. My best year, when I signed the six-figure contract, was $80K. My average was $50-60K. Advances ranged from $25K to just shy of $50K.
And that was US and Canada English. World English didn’t come along until later, and agents were not happy with it and got it cut back to North America if they could. World rights? God, no.
Option clauses? As restricted as possible. “Next book-length work in this exact subgenre or specific series.” Non-compete clauses? Bitch, please. Basket agreements and joint accounting? Not if you could possibly avoid them. Rights granted? First North American English serial. Nothing else. Ebook, audio, video/film, all that? Not in the deal. Life of copyright? No effing way.
That all came crashing down at the start of the new millennium. For me personally, two things happened: computer sales figures available to anyone who looked, so that publishers really knew what authors were selling for, and I was always a critical success but the readers never shared the enthusiasm; and the general implosion of the industry, which hit everyone hard, even the big bestsellers. When Publisherdammerung hit in 2008, along with the general crash of the economy, I was able to scrape out a contract or two more, but the world just wasn’t the same.
I stepped out and over and found another way to survive. So much so that after the first couple of years, I stopped even trying to come up with proposals that my agent believed he could sell. I’d changed worlds, not at all voluntarily at first, but as the industry continued to evolve, it became a conscious choice.
So what does all that ancient history have to do with Catie and her peers?
Well, for one thing, it’s why I’m so horrified by the sheer, massive number of words they are all expected to produce every month, every year, to keep their bills paid and their publishers satisfied. A book a year? Dream on. Three, four, five, more—they are grinding out multiple thousands of words per day, day after day, and being paid well below $25K per book. They’re being worked to death.
Some successful midlist writers have shared their numbers. $30K a year is considered a good living these days. $17K a book? Edging toward the high end. $10-15K is good money. That $30K represents multiple works, short and long, rather than one work, let alone royalties.
Oh, sure, there are a few millionaires, and some bestsellers who have to be making six figures a year. (Maybe. That’s an illusion, too, I’ve been told here and there. Bestseller numbers ain’t what they used to be, by a long shot.) But mostly? It’s a sweatshop.
Part two continues tomorrow!