Rags to Riches

In the words of those old poets, the Backstreet Boys – “Oh my god, I’m back again!”

That’s right, friends. I am back from my hiatus – and a little earlier than expected, no less. Thank you for bearing with me during these busier-than-usual weeks. I’m very happy to be back!

Actually, there’s a reason I came back early. See, there’s been a rash of self-publishing stories recently and for the most part, I don’t really have much to say about them except, “Hey, good for them.” But then I read something that made me want to respond in more than 140 characters, and I didn’t think I should wait to post it for the sake of waiting.

Future (current?) publishing superstar, Meredith Barnes, recently wrote in a blog post (which you should read), “Agents today, if they have one forward-thinking bone in their body, consider self-publishing a viable option.” Very, very true.

Much like online dating, self-publishing is no longer attached to the stigma that it should be only considered as a last resort. There are many reasons why I’d suggest taking the traditional publishing route. Self-publishing means you will be unedited, unmarketed, and generally only sold via a few retail outlets – among other problems. If you’re fine with this or you are willing to put in a LOT of work in addition to writing the actual book, then who am I to stop you?

Like I said, there have been a lot of self-publishing success stories lately, especially in this past month. I think this is a great boon to this often chastised method of publication. But it’s also dangerous to writers who may not have the same resources or popularity to make their self-published book rank up there with Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath.

That’s why when I read this post on Mr. Konrath’s blog last week, I felt that the self-publishing rags-to-riches stories needed to be addressed. (I had been letting others, who are much smarter than I, handle this ’til now.) Like I mentioned above, there are TONS of blog posts about how self-publishing is hard and that you probably won’t be as successful as the authors who are benefiting from it. Most writers know this and will still turn to self-publishing because they just want to see their book in print.

This is perfectly acceptable, writers. And it is especially fine for the writer who wanted to thank J.A. Konrath for “saving her life.” Sometimes all we need is to retain our creativity in order to feel we still have self worth. This writer was frustrated with rejection and became depressed because she did not see a point to keep writing if it could not be her career.

I feel for this writer. I do. And I’m happy she found peace again by releasing her book on her own terms. But there is more to this story. Or at least, there is more to this blog post.

More than the writer’s own feeling of rejection, what’s referenced several times here is the lack of money in traditional publishing. She laments that with “rock-bottom advances,” she saw no point to keep writing. Mr. Konrath also admits that he had been counting on his next advance to “feed his family.”

Now, writers. I don’t mean to cheapen anyone’s financial concerns here, but… seriously?

I will elaborate.

No one – I will repeat: no one (not agents, not editors, not publicists, and not booksellers) – goes into the book business for the cash. Writers are a huge part of this business; they are not excluded from this list. All books, even ones destined to be bestsellers, are passion projects. We do this because we love it. We love writers and we love the written word and we love stories. Despite our four-walled offices and health care, we are all just starving artists who believe you can’t place monetary value on what we do. Hence the lack of money being passed around.

But on a less idealized level, we already know about the notoriously low wages in publishing and the dwindling advances that have only gotten lower since 2008. The fact that our cups do not exactly runneth over is not news, which is why published author, J.A. Konrath should not have relied on an advance to avoid malnourishment.

If publishing is a business, which we constantly remind people that it is, then debut writers are our entry-level employees. For those of you with day jobs, try to remember what your entry-level salary was. Sucked, right? Well, whatever that salary was will probably be more than your debut advance. People like Amanda Hocking exist, of course, but if you are expecting publishers to play tug-of-war with two million dollars over you, you might as well just play the lottery.

I will take this opportunity to pause once again and say I’m sorry if this comes off harsh. I hate playing the role of the realist because rags-to-riches stories are supposedly what “the American dream” is all about. Crushing dreams is not fun for me. Plus, I like you.

Moving on.

If you are a writer waiting for your advance to “save you,” remember that publishing takes forever (as we learned in more detail from Jennifer Laughran). If you sold a book (yay!), you might receive half of your advance upon signing the contract. This comes relatively quickly. When the advances are split like this, the rest of your money could come after the publisher receives the full manuscript (most common with sequels in a series or nonfiction projects) or upon publication. Friends, publication might not happen until two years after you sign the agreement.

Ask yourselves if you’re financially secure enough to wait that long in between paychecks. If you have a day job, you may want to keep it until you no longer need to worry about when your next royalty check is coming. If you don’t have a day job, and are impatiently waiting for an advance, it probably wouldn’t hurt to call a temp agency. 

The reality of this situation is sad for those who want writing to be their career. That’s why I get self-publishing. It’s a way to avoid inevitable disappointment. Plus, it is awesome to see your book in print. I get that too.

But I guess my point is this – why be disappointed in something you already know to be true? Most jobs won’t pay you enough in your first year. You’re expected to prove yourself and work up the ladder and break ceilings. Then, usually, you’re able to get a raise, some extra perks, and eventually a summer home. So why should your first year in your new career as “writer” be any different?

Restless employees can go on to do great things. Biz Stone left a sweet gig at Google to help create a silly little start-up called Twitter. Pretty much everyone drops out of Harvard and becomes gazillionaires. And Barry Eisler can walk away from half a million dollars in traditional publishing to go rogue.

When these things happen, they are newsworthy. And the reason they become news stories are because they are rare and they provide hope. The millions of writers who continue to do their jobs well and stay loyal to their companies (i.e. publishers and agents) aren’t reported on so much because, well, they are the norm. Likewise, the millions of writers who go directly to self-publishing and don’t make a million dollars by far outweigh the writers who do make millions, so they tend to go unnoticed in the media too.

Like in any career, you want to get paid for what your work is worth, but rarely is that reflected in your paychecks (aka: royalty checks) when you are new to the game. Just because a system should change doesn’t mean it will change. At least not any time soon. Publishing is not Wall Street. Most of us (writers included) won’t be able to retire after our rookie year. If you were expecting to, then maybe you are in the wrong business. But if you’re willing to accept the realities of most new employees, advance on your own merits, and continue to be awesome at what you do, then we’d love to have you.

11 thoughts on “Rags to Riches

  1. “Pretty much everyone drops out of Harvard and becomes gazillionaires.”

    Lol. As a non gazillionaire Harvard grad, I really wish someone would have told me the secret was to drop out 😛

    Seriously though, nice well balanced post. Thanks.


  2. I think you make very good points, Sarah. I have often wondered how anybody cranks out a novel a year if they're balancing children and a job (or even just a job!), but perhaps it's simply because for most, it's the only way to do it in their circumstances.

    I have to wonder if a combination of decent epublishing and the traditional print/agent route is the way to go; a good epublisher pays monthly and the wait for publication is often less. You can also sell shorter projects, so less of a job to produce a few of them in the same time as writing your print publisher's novel. Hmm.


  3. Thank you so, so much for this post!

    As a beginner writer (I have sold one short), my mindset is that I have to work at it, but all these stories about huge advances and earning through self-publishing have made me wonder if I'm the last of my breed.

    Thank you for reassuring me that aiming for the long-term achievement rather than the instant hit is still best foot forward 🙂


  4. On Saturday night I got to listen to Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, when he came to my nearby library. He said that writers write because they have to, even if you may never get published. And I think that's so true. He also said that when he wrote Book Thief, he thought it was going to be the least popular of all his books. But he had to write it. It was something he was passionate about. I think it's easy to get distracted by the hope of getting published and making money, so as a writer I have to remind myself that I love it. Even if I get rejected from now until forever, I wouldn't stop writing.


  5. @Scott

    $0.99 lit would be awesome. Yesterday I was looking for a new book to read on my Kindle and was unable to dish out $10 for the standard “published” stuff. $10 for an e-copy, wut?


  6. There are soo many writers out there. Seems like everyone with a word processor has a story to tell. The odds of making it are on par with becoming a World Series pitcher (yay Giants). So, you've got to love the game.

    I am excited about self-pub on kindle providing an open market place and level playing field. And I for one like the idea of 99 cent disposable lit. It kind of reminds me of the pulps back in the day. Gives the writer a chance to get out in what has become a shrinking market. And really, if kindle and cheap lit gets more people reading, that's good for everybody.

    However, the abundance of really bad self-pub lit makes it harder for the writer. With so many choices available you absolutely have to be exceptional. Or lucky.

    My sustaining belief as I type down my own story despite the odds of success is this. Good writing will create its own luck, in either arena. So, that's where I concentrate on for now.


  7. Sarah LaPolla, dream crusher.


    Seriously, though, great post. As a writer, I didn't take it as a downer. For me, this post is about being cautious and realistic, not telling anyone that their dreams are unattainable. I came away thinking about how important it is to take care of one's creative life–and sometimes, that means maintaining a day job because, without it, writing would have too much financial pressure attached to it to flow freely.


  8. Great post. It's reality that many people are simply never going to be able to do what they love full-time–and that counts writing, visual art, performance, stay-at-home mom, refurbishing old cars, and a million other things. I love writing. I want a career as a writer. I know that a writing career will likely always be in addition to another job/career. If this turns out to not be the case? Incredible dream come true. If not…well, I'm doing what I love. And forty hours a week of something I love less so I can eat and enjoy the benefits of a roof.


  9. My wife and I considered swapping places so I could stay home and write, but it didn't take long to realize that wouldn't work. Her creative endeavors go well with small children, or at least don't conflict. Mine? Not so much. I'd have to lock them in the garage (like Krista V. does. 😛 ).

    Sent from my day job. *shhh!*


  10. I think most writers nowadays work day jobs or are stay-at-home wives. Seemingly, if a writer wants to do what they love without working (ie, “getting paid to do what they love”), they're better off getting married.

    I might self publish one day. It is true I am in this for the creativity, and after a while it's depressing that no one is reading your shit.


Leave a Reply to Ben Spendlove Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s