Sometimes life doesn’t seem to be fair. Usually we feel like that when we’re the ones who see others flourish that we think are less deserving than ourselves. Less often (such is human nature), it occurs when we see others struggle that we believe are more deserving than ourselves.
I am not talking about “liberal guilt”, but about something else. Being a lifelong bibliovore, I’ve always had a lot of respect for skilled professional writers, including those who write fiction for mass audiences. It is often sobering to find out that people whose books have transported my mind to other worlds and held me in thrall have some trouble making ends meet, while I am lucky to make a very good living at what I do. (I won’t reveal here what.)
Via the blog of fellow Lizard refugee Yma o Hyd, I found this essay on the economics of being a writer at The Shadow of the Olive Tree. He links to a piece by award-winning SciFi author Elizabeth Bear describing how she has to write, basically, three full-length novels and about a dozen short stories a year just to make a (very modest) living wage.
Somebody like Michael Crichton (RIP) got really rich off his pen, and I would imagine Lois McMaster Bujold, Orson Scott Card, and perhaps David Weber live really well, but your typical mid-list author apparently needs either a day job or a well-earning and understanding spouse. Imagine being paid $10K in advances on a full-length novel, earning $1.50 in royalties on a single hardcover and much less than that on a paperback.
I had a lengthy discussion with somebody in Israel (a comparatively small market) and there the situation is even worse. Out of a book that sells for NIS 65 (roughly $18) at a Steimatzky or Tzomet Sfarim bookstore, the author may take home a lousy NIS 1 or 2 — the rest goes to copy editor, printer, distributor, book store, and various “unproductive middlemen”. Even Israel’s literary legend Amos Oz would not be able to live off the proceeds of his booksales in Israel — although in the aggregate he makes a very good living from two other sources: foreign publication rights of his work and (hefty) lecturing fees in Israel. (The latter brings to mind certain musicians who basically don’t care how much or little they make off record sales because their main income is from live concerts — and they see the records basically as advertising for the concerts.)
Jim Baen (RIP) — who had a reputation for being generous to his authors — explains in the Baen Books FAQ that, for a typical print run, setup costs are about $4500 plus another $0.50 per copy. This means in practice that any print run under 10,000 copies is an economic loss.
Of course, the coming shift towards electronic books may change the economics fundamentally. Print-on-demand technology allowed many an independent author to publish their own books with minimal setup costs, but per-copy prices were still prohibitive. As an aside: in publishing fields where unit cost is a secondary consideration — such as STM (science, technology, and medicine) scholarly works — print-on-demand allows publishers to keep their back catalog alive and exploit the “long tail”. However, STM is a field where authors generally don’t expect to earn money — their “pay” is in reputation, which translates into climbing the academic career ladder, easier access to grant money, etc.
In contrast, a self-publishing author can sell an e-book online for a much more reasonable price and keep essentially all of it as profit — at which points (s)he needs a publisher (other than a big name that may generate sales) like a fish needs a bike. [UPDATE: E-reader owners are still a small segment of readers, but there is evidence that they buy many more books on average, although this may be due to self-selection.]
The major fly in the ointment is of course that e-Books are even easier to bootleg than digital music. While somebody wishing to rip or download a full-length DVD movie may easily decide he’d rather buy the darn thing than waste hours downloading and ripping the movie, an e-book file is 4-5 orders of magnitude smaller and easily downloaded, Emailed between friends,… Unless, of course, the file is encoded/protected via DRM (digital rights management), which is its own bag of hurt.
Other models do exist. Sponsorship is one of them: an independent classical recording label such as Hyperion would be unable to operate without it. Another approach would be variants on the “threshold pledge” or “fund and release” system, which I personally regard as a form of “distributed commissioning”. If, say, David Weber were to say tomorrow he’d only start writing another Honor Harrington novel if, say, 10,000 people each ponied up $25 (in return for which they’d get advance copies of the eventual novel, autographed release copies, or whatever), he’d be assured of a tidy amount of money before even putting fingers to the keyboard (or, in his case, turning on the mic of his speech-to-text software). The trouble with such approaches is, of course, that they only work for authors with name recognition: a beginning author would have to basically release a couple of books for free until (s)he could get enough people looking forward enough to their next book that they’d pay in advance.
Baen (pretty much the first publisher ever to make real money off e-books) has been trying various creative approaches. For example, unedited “advance reader copies” of an e-book are available 6-9 months before the scheduled release date, at three times the regular price — cashing in on the small number of people who absolutely have to read the next John Ringo novel ahead of the rest. Furthermore, monthly “WebScription bundles” sell you 5-6 books — usually a mix of new, hot titles, back catalog titles, and first-time or second-time authors. After a book has gone out of print in hardcopy, Baen may put it in the “Baen Free Library“: they may generate an interest in the author and lead people to buy his/her other books. Especially if the book is the promising first installment of a good series (Weber’s Honor Harrington, Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, John Ringo’s Legacy of the Aldenata series,…) — especially with some well-calculated “cliffhangers” — it may lead people to pony up for all the remaining installments.
Established authors may also be able to sell or auction off “special packages”, such as autographed hardcovers, using somebody’s name for a minor character in the book, and the like. Again, novice authors have no such means at their resort. The one thing they can do in the digital age — rather than write the book and offer it to publishers until somebody will buy it — is circulate it online, or publish it online in installments, and thus generate interest at minimal cost. What it generally does mean is that making actual money off their craft will need to be deferred to future works.
One thing is certain: the publishing market will be subject to a process of ‘creative destruction’ no less brutal than what is playing out in the music industry right now.
UPDATE: Linked by… the great Lois McMaster Bujold herself on her Email list — I am not worthy, but thanks so much — this really made my day.
She says Zombie’s analysis (see comment #1 below) is painfully accurate. Good discussion in the responses on her Email list.
UPDATE 2: Lois McMaster Bujold herself weighs in. Some quotes:
Just for a standard of comparison, subscribers to World of Warcraft are said to number 40 million.
I, too, would be interested in some more scientifically acquired data than “a number I got off the internet”, but the [5 million regular book buyers] figure sounds intuitively right to me. The very best-selling of the best selling books maybe get up to 2 million copies sold, and those are outliers. I believe a new TV series with only 2 million viewers would be considered a flop? [...] The average successful genre paperback sells maybe 30,000 copies. (That figure was 60,000 when I started my career, 200,000 a writer-generation before.) Most books sell even less. You only need about 35k hardcovers sold, over a sufficiently short period of time, to crack the NYTimes bestseller list.[...]
Tom D[oherty], founder of Tor Books, came up [...] through the sales side. He’s been saying for years that what built book sales in the US was the casual market — drugstore and grocery store racks, airport bookstores, other places [...] where people made impulse purchases. These used to be filled by some several hundred independent distributors, all making different choices and supporting a broad midlist of writers. In the mid-1990s, this distribution system underwent an implosion/consolidation, turning into just half a dozen big distributors, where a few people make the choices for the whole country. It was a huge blow to the paperback industry, and did a lot to bifurcate it into the “a few best sellers — everyone else nowhere” that we now see. Apparently very analogous to what’s happened to the music industry, [BTW], and for the same economic reasons; people trying to market art by the same efficient means they use for cereal.[...]
It’s unclear yet what the Net is going to do to the world of fiction and fiction writing. [...] My private suspicion is that the Literature of the 21st Century is going to be fan fiction, but we’ll have to see. I’m kind of glad I got my writing career in while it was still possible to have one, though.
Read the whole thing.