Publishers and Money
Two years ago, I went independent after getting my rights back from the three publishers that handled my stuff. They were good enough small publishers but not one paid a dime in advance against royalties.
I didn’t make much money with them.
I’m not getting rich as an independent, either.
Some writers are so giddy a publisher will accept their stuff, they fail to study the background of those involved. Many eBook outfits are mom and pop stores with poor covers and only a token nod to POD paperback production. The writer makes more money per paperback than per electronic reader. Maybe more eBooks are sold but maybe not. The problem with marketing in paperback is it has to be on paper to the bookstore and/or reader, or in person. Free expensive books have to be given away. Online advertising might peddle eBooks but it won’t sell paperbacks.
After half a century in this writing racket wandering through just about every aspect of the craft, from tech-writing to memoirs to non-fiction to screw-and-kill to children’s book to romance to science-fiction to crime novels, I managed to pick up a few clues.
What is a sure-fire way for a writer to make big bucks cranking out wordage?
There is none.
The most bucks I ever made were writing aircraft structure repair manuals under hourly contract for big aerospace companies. That kind of money was obscene. When I moved to editor the work was less and the money more. I did it off and on direct for most of my life then retired and went contract. I was in my fifties, the wealthiest time of my life, which I had never known before and have not known since. I got there by paying my dues, started by serving my apprenticeship right out of high school as a machinist in Houston, Texas, going in the Navy to become an Aviation Metalsmith working on Navy jet fighters—and writing my own stuff the whole while. Most of those around me, who wanted to tech write, came with a scholastic background—learn writing then pick up the tech stuff as they went along. Anyone who can spell their name thinks they can write. Usually it didn’t work. As a scholastic underachiever, I came at it holding a wrench and getting dirty. I’m still not scholastic or intellectual, still banging around with that wrench, but it worked out okay.
Back in the beginning, fresh out of the Navy, having read through not only the masters of literature, but also those heavy talents in the mystery field, renting a duplex with a wife and two babies, I worked as a machinist, and wrote stories before and after the job. I was used to getting up at three and four; I grew up with a series of paper routes. What I remembered most about my ten married years while working and writing was a constant fatigue. You couldn’t take me out to dinner on a Friday night; I was liable to fall asleep at the table. Self-taught and a few college courses, I wrote a story a week and sent them out. They came right back. Since I had neither formal learning nor talent to write literary stuff for the intellectual magazines, I tried to hit the mystery mags, and did sell a story to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.
Repeated failures after convinced me, I had little talent for high-class mysteries. I started sending off to Men’s magazines and after a year, I began to sell fifty to seventy-five percent of everything I sent for $250 to $300 a story. Through advice from a magazine editor, I wrote and sold my first novel to an unheard of publisher in Las Vegas that cranked out eighty to a hundred titles a year destined for drug store magazine racks at 95¢ a copy. They paid me an advance of $500. I never made another doubloon from it.
An ad in Writer’s Digest attracted me. A huckster in New York needed twelve writers right away. He had an ongoing contract with a paperback house for a series of novels. This was screw and kill adventure stuff. He was paying $1,500 a book, half when the publisher approved the first three chapters and outline, half when the novel was completed. He required a 60,000 word novel within six weeks of signing the contract.
(How many independent writers today would like a guaranteed $1,500 for each novel they wrote?)
Where he eliminated 99.9% of rabid interested writers, he required they already have a novel published on their own by a legitimate publisher. I bundled up my one published novel and shipped it off to him. I guess that Vegas paperback house was legitimate enough because he called and asked when I wanted to get started.
Real writers I knew laughed at me for taking a cash price while they continued making the rounds of agents and publishers only to paper their walls with rejection slips. They still hoped to get wealthy with a fat advance and royalties from hundreds of thousands of sold copies, someday. I made a living writing those novels for almost three years. Divorced from the one lifetime wife I’ve ever had, I kicked around the country meeting many interesting folks, but cranking out those novels every six weeks, I had little time to write the stuff I really wanted to write. I fell into a pattern of writing fast with lots of action. Good or bad, it’s what I was. I declared myself little more than a hack, and I quit writing those books.
I hoped the books I wrote later read better. I did find publishers, especially after the eBook evolution, though many I rejected because of their lousy contracts. It puzzles me why these outfits that do so little for the writer still think they deserve the same cut as fat, advance paying publishers.
Fact: Few books ever sell more than the advance against royalties. It is uncanny how close the figures come. Polls taken prove this again and again.
So what is a writer to do to make good money?
Hit a publisher that pays an advance against royalties. Then look at the deal as if you’re getting cash for you book only you get to keep many of the rights. If your marketing skills already give you more than medium size publisher advance, you don’t need a publisher, stay independent.
However, many writers go independent because advance paying publishers will not consider their stuff. Either their subject is too off the wall, or they write what has already been done over and over, or they jump on a once-popular bandwagon that already has a broken wheel—or—they just don’t write good enough to interest publishers, advance paying or not.
I gave up on publishers to the point I don’t even let them know I’ve finished another book. I’m going to rethink that. I’ll send a few query letters to agents and advance paying publishers (not interested in any other kind) and when they ignore me, go ahead and independent publish just like I’m doing now.
Independent publishing hasn’t worked so badly for me. Certainly, I’m not making the kind of money I’d like, but I’m finding a growing core of readers and the income continues to rise. And I continue to push marketing. Lately I’ve seen a marked rise in paperback sales.
The learning process is constant. The world of publishing changes weekly.
I hope your efforts are working for you.