The Shocking Truth About What Writing Fiction Pays (a personal comparison)

librarianEarlier this week, I got my royalty statement for Little Red Hen Romance for September 2015 from Amazon and went into a full-blown fidget. In spite of the fact that we had outsold our previous best-selling month, June 2015, by more than two to one, moving more than twice as many books to paying customers (excluding promotional freebies from both months’ sales figure, of course), we made less than one-quarter as much money. How the fuck does THAT happen? I shrieked, racing figuratively around the internet squawking for most of the afternoon.

The villain who had stolen from me, I soon determined, was that damned Jeff Bezos with his double-damned Kindle Unlimited – specifically, the new rules for Kindle Unlimited that went into effect July 1, 2015 (you know, the day after our big month). Under the new system, publishers and self-pubbed writers get paid by the page read instead of by the copy downloaded. In June, the Hens were paid $1.25 per KU download, quite a trick since our books average about 25 standard pages and only cost 99 cents each. We were, to be perfectly bald-faced frank about the thing, one of the short works publishers who were unintentionally scamming the KU payment system, collecting as much payment on our short stories as novelists at comparable sales rank were getting for full-length books. Even in mid-squawk, I had to admit that wasn’t fair and that some sort of correction had been required. But I still felt screwed by the steepness of the sudden drop.

After a little arithmetic, I figured out that for KU downloads, we were now being paid about 12 cents a book or $0.005 per page. Since the royalty on those books when sold outright is about 35 cents, Kindle Unlimited still seemed like a really bad idea for us, money-wise, and I met with my fellow Hen, Alexandra Christian, to discuss how much we wanted to continue to help Amazon sell free shipping and baby diapers with our books.  We’re still working on that, and to that end, I sat down this morning with my calculator and contracts (including the stone tablets on which my traditional publishing contracts were carved back in the 2000s) to do a little comparing. I also took into account good points made by friends on both sides of the issue about what something like KU takes away from authors and publishers versus what it offers in exposure and promotion. My findings surprised me, and since I know a lot of other people are trying to make the same kinds of decisions at the moment, I thought it might be helpful if I shared them here.

I have published just about every way there is except Xeroxing my fan fiction and selling it out of the back of a van in the parking lot at Comic Con. For my purposes here, I’ll compare traditional publishing (contracts under Pocket Books/Simon and Schuster for full-length romances under the old template, about 400 pages/100,000 words), independent small press publishing (contracts under Purple Sword Publications, a fairly typical, better-than-average small press for full-length romances under the new template, about 250 pages/60,000 words), Little Red Hen Romance (a sort of self-pubbing co-op my sister and I started for short story romances, about 25 pages/7500 words), and Kindle Unlimited downloads of those same shorts. (None of the other stuff is available from Kindle Unlimited; the people making those decisions have already voted no.) All of these figures are for e-books; the Pocket contracts were primarily negotiated for print sales, but they do establish an e-book royalty that I’m still collecting on e-book editions of those books today.

Traditional Publishing: My cheapest e-books from Pocket retail for $8.99 (yeah, I know, no kidding), and I get paid a 15 percent royalty or $1.34. The books are about 400 pages long, so that works out to be about $0.003 per page. My two most successful books with them retail in e-book for $15.99 for 400 pages, with the same 15 percent royalty. So if anybody is desperate enough for medieval vampire romance in e-book to pay that, I make $2.39 or 0.005 per page (which, incidentally, is the same rate KU downloads pay–probably a coincidence, but I don’t know). The obvious advantage for Pocket in print is scope and reach–those books in print sold in the tens of thousands, not the tens, because Pocket was able to ship and place multiple copies all over the world at once and did; you could buy my books in any mall in the US and most of the world. But them days are over, for chain bookstores and for me, and these e-books are competing on the same digital playing field as stuff that’s much, much cheaper. I suppose there are probably readers who are more likely to buy a book from a traditional publisher (assuming they happen upon it in their keyword search), but at those prices? And by this royalty scale, if the sales figures aren’t hugely better, I’m not making any more money; my share comes out to be about the same in spite of the inflated price tag.

Small Press:  Most of my e-books from Purple Sword cost $6.99, run about 250 pages, and pay me a more-than-fair royalty of 50 percent. This works out to be about $3.49 or $0.01 per page paid to me, which for me is as good as it gets. (Writers who self-publish AND self-distribute are working in a different office.) Problem is, I don’t sell any books through Purple Sword. It’s not their fault; other PS writers are doing much better through them than I am. I’m pretty sure the problem here is me and my books–not enough active promotion on my part of those titles and books that don’t really fit the brand of the press as a whole.

Little Red Hen:  My sister and I started Little Red Hen as a way to try to give the people what they want – good, cheap romances short enough we could afford to sell them for only 99 cents each. (Because it takes us a couple of weeks to write each one versus the six months to a year we’d put into a full-length novel.) Currently, we distribute them only through Amazon, and our royalty for each one sold is 35 cents. This works out to be $0.01 per page, the same as the small press books, except that I’m actually selling quite a few. So while I’m still not pricing summer homes in Tuscany, I am able to call the experiment a success; the co-op is self-sustaining. But obviously I’d prefer to do more.

Little Red Hen – Kindle Unlimited: And here’s where we get to the problem of today. Little Red Hen shorts downloaded through KU pay us $0.005 per page or about 12 cents per full book, less than half what non-KU sales pay. We also tend to have 3 KU downloads for every 1 outright sale. (This is not an exact statistic – some books do better in KU; some books do better in regular sales. But it’s a fair generalization for the press as a whole.) Amazon is obviously committed to promoting KU; consequently books listed through KU are treated more kindly by their sales ranking algorithms. We’ve also been doing a free book promotion for every new release, something that’s only available through Amazon for KU books. Like a writer friend who is listing his on-going serial with KU pointed out, we are almost certainly reaching readers through KU that we would never reach without it, and that can’t be easily dismissed. But are we losing royalties to Amazon on readers who would want the book enough to buy it if they had to but are downloading it through KU instead? The many KU haters would say of course; Amazon would say certainly not. Me, I just don’t know.

I’m still mad at Amazon for the snake oil salesman approach they’ve taken with writers about KU. I get emails from KDP every month congratulating me on my brilliance for signing up and promising the moon when in fact, best case scenario, it’s paying me at exactly the same page rate as the fat cat traditional publishing model Amazon keeps saying it means to vanquish forever. (As I wrote more than a year ago in an open letter to Jeff Bezos, stop pissing on my shoes and telling me it’s raining.) But KU’s sins aren’t nearly as black as I wanted to paint them when compared to the alternative. My guess is Lexie and I will end up compromising, listing some books through KU for the sake of the promotional push and withholding others; in any case, we will have to take a hard look at every step in our current protocol. And I would advise any other author who isn’t James Patterson to do the same.

For the Love of Writing

librarianAs a writer, I’ve only made one New Year’s resolution for 2015: To enjoy the process more and worry about the product as a product less.

Publishing right now is batshit crazy, and it’s changing so quickly, I seriously doubt anybody can really keep up. When I started writing seriously with the intention of profit, the process was cruel but simple. You wrote the best book you possibly could. Then you sent it out into the world to be brutalized by strangers until you wanted to kill yourself. If you were blessed in talent, timing, and/or acquaintance, you eventually found an agent to champion your poor battered baby and hopefully get you published. By and large, you took the agent you could get who found you the publisher they could get, and you considered yourself lucky and kept your whining to yourself. The actual marketplace was considered to be a mystery beyond your ken in which you were invited to participate in only the most peripheral way. (Though if your book didn’t succeed there, it was always your fault.) I published 6.5 books in this system, and it still exists. Too many people depend on it to let it die any time soon. Even Amazon, the big giant head that’s been threatening to vanquish it for years, doesn’t really want to kill it. They don’t want to slay the dragon; they want to keep it as a pet.

When e-books became a thing for the masses instead of a novelty for geeks, a whole new world opened up for writers. Sort of. Now you could publish your own stuff without that clunky apparatus that took so long and treated you so mean. For a while, it looked like writers would take over the publishing world. If we were willing to do all the work of packaging and promotion (a viable option when it all happened in The Cloud), we didn’t have to answer to anybody but our readers. Best of all, we got to keep all the profits. This system still exists, too, of course; the mainstream media is still touting it as the brave new world. The problem is, without those profit-skimming, soul-sucking gatekeepers of mainstream publishing standing in the way, the marketplace got flooded with anything anybody could type and slap up. And prowess in packaging and marketing doesn’t necessarily equal writing talent. A whole lot of “writers” are skipping that step where you write the best book you can. Either that, or the best book they can write is a big, old, stinky turd. And in this brave new world of indie publishing, that turd carries just as much cachet and earning potential as a good writer’s polished diamond–more if the turd maker is better at marketing. And turds, by and large, sell cheap. And readers just loooove cheap. And they love to bitch about turds in reviews, too. They bitch, but they buy–if they don’t have to pay more than a dollar.

So right now, everybody–writers, agents, publishers, bloggers, marketing gurus, and Jeff Bezos–are scrambling to stabilize the process, to find a compromise that provides readers with books they actually want to read at a price they want to pay, keeps the great machine of traditional publishing adequately fed, sends Amazon’s profits up, up, up, and oh yeah, makes writing books a viable occupation for grown-ups who aren’t necessarily on anti-psychotic medication. And believe me when I tell you, that last item is last on way more lists than mine. Believe me also when I say this is the stuff that keeps me up nights wondering if it’s too late to go to law school.

Luckily while I do write to be read and I do want to make money at it, I also write because I have to. My mental health demands it. My soul is nourished by it. The construction of story is my favorite pastime and has been since I was a child. I can’t control the marketplace. I can’t predict it. Most days I barely understand it.

But I can write great books. I can pour my heart out in a story and touch a reader’s heart in turn. So while I know I have to keep trying to market and make good choices and be smarter about my work as a widget to be sold, I’ve come to realize that I don’t have to lose my mind over it. I can revel in the joy of making stuff up. I can write the book I really want to write because why not? Writing to the market, for me at least, for now at least, makes no sense. In 2015, I just want to write a great book.

 

A Letter to Amazon

librarianDear Mr. Bezos,

I was very excited to receive your Email request this morning, asking for my help in your battle against Hachette. Not since Carrie White got invited to the prom has a girl been more pleasantly shocked to be included. And you’re right; those big publisher types are just fuckers. I was a mid-list romance author for Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster all through the 2000s, and let me tell you—

Oh, right, sorry, you want to talk about your thing. No, yeah, of course; it’s totally fine. So anyway, okay, Hachette and its other big nasty “media conglomerate” friends have been being all hateful to you at Amazon about your e-books. I heard about the whole collusion thing – those bastards! You and the Supreme Court are so right; I don’t blame you one bit for being upset. I mean, I know in my heart that if you hadn’t already put every other bookselling outlet that could possibly affect the market at your level out of business, you and those peers you don’t have would never, ever sit down in a New York City restaurant to try to come to some sort of price fixing agreement. I can just see them all in there, smoking their big cigars, drinking their martinis – they probably pinched the pert derriere of the cigarette girl as she passed. Kudos to you and your lawyers for bringing them to justice. So now they’re coming after you one by one, starting with Hachette, and you’ve come to me for my help as a writer to fight back. I’m flattered; I really am.

But let’s talk about the pig’s blood before I put on the tiara. (Sadly, unlike Carrie, I don’t have evil superpowers, but this also ain’t my first prom.) You talk in your email about the “invention” of the paperback “just ahead of World War II” and how some writers like George Orwell didn’t like it and how they were wrong and how the current debate about e-book pricing is just like that. Leaving aside the nagging knowledge I have of yellowback novels being published way back in the 1870s and magazine serials blazing the trail for pulp fiction decades before that, let’s talk about Orwell’s fears about what paperbacks would do to what you call “literary culture.” At that time, there was no such thing as “literary fiction” or “genre fiction;” there was just “fiction,” and Orwell, who wrote dystopian sci fi with straightforward political commentary, was part of it. So were Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. So were the Bronte sisters, who wrote romance, and Sir Walter Scott, who wrote historicals, and Mark Twain, who wrote YA and comic satire, and Mary Shelley, who wrote horror. And all those books from Orwell’s era that we now consider classics too dense, boring, and “literary” for anybody but aging academics and film directors to read, like The Great Gatsby and The Sound and the Fury and Moby Dick and Ulysses, those weren’t considered “literary novels,” they were considered “novels,” and everybody who read novels read them right alongside the lighter stuff.

Paperbacks are awesome; I’ve built my life as a reader and my career as a writer on paperbacks. And they did “rejuvenat[e] the book industry and mak[e] it stronger,” in that a lot more books got published and read because they were so much cheaper, and ultimately publishers and booksellers made a lot more money. (Authors maybe not so much, but maybe so. Bigger business meant bigger demand which meant bigger paychecks for the bigger names, and more people probably got published, too.) But those bigger numbers created the need for some kind of genre categorization, at least in the minds of those publishers and booksellers, which led to the big divide between so-called “literary” fiction and “genre” fiction that plagues every author alive today and threatens to destroy any notion of a “literary culture” in English completely.

So maybe old George was on to something after all.

You (or to be fair, your spambot) also talk about how paperbacks, because of these snooty objections from the literary establishment, were first sold in drugstores and newsstands, casting Amazon as the humble newsstand/drugstore of today’s e-book world. Well . . . maybe. If we’re talking about a drugstore that first puts all the other drugstores out of business. Then sells their paperbacks at somewhat less than cost so they can sell more candy bars and condoms by luring in more customers. Then decides to just give the paperbacks away to special customers who have credit accounts with them to buy their much more expensive prescriptions, explaining to the people who make their living off the paperbacks that they’ll pay them a percentage of the nothing they’re charging, they promise. And when those people who make their living off the paperbacks object, accuses them of wanting readers to die because they’re being denied access to cheap medicine. Then, yeah, the comparison is probably pretty apt.

So in response to your request, I would like to suggest a new marketing model to you and Facebook and Google and all the other companies who hire marketing copy writers (most of whom probably wrote at least the first couple of chapters of a novel at some point) to write this kind of mass communication to me and the rest of us content providers and customers and such; sort of a new mission statement. It’s not a new concept; my grandfather was fond of it, but it has the kind of folksy charm I think you were going for here.

Stop pissing on my shoes and telling me it’s raining.

Love and kisses,

Lucy Blue

(Credit for the groovy writer girl graphic to the brilliant Isabel Samaras)

Rise Up, Kittens! Or at least stop lying down . . . .

Without writers, publishing as an industry would not exist.  Well, duh, you may well say; how obvious; how trite; how could any sane person not know that?  And I would agree.  But I begin to suspect that this truth we declare self-evident is in fact the greatest of mysteries to the rest of the monstrous machine.

One of the great traditions of traditional publishing is treating the people who write the product they sell like galley slaves, a necessary inconvenience that whines too much and smells kind of funny.  Myself, I’ve spent immense slabs of my professional life waiting around on some agent or editor to give me an answer on something even when they called me first.  Hurry up and wait and don’t ask for anything has always been the order of the day, and writers have had the choice to either take it on the chin or head on back to grad school.

The brave new world of independent and self-publishing is supposed to give us another choice.  Small presses can be more responsive, more enthusiastic, more nimble in their protocols, and for the most part, from what I’ve seen, they are.  As for self-pubbing, who could care more about getting your book out in the world and collecting golden lucre for it than you do yourself?

But over the past couple of months, I’ve seen more and more evidence that writers are still getting slapped around by the very people who live off their art.  A major independent press founded on the premise that women’s fiction could be erotic without being skeevy recently paid a huge advance for and spent big wads of cash promoting the memoir of an amateur porno princess who can’t even spell just because she’s a “reality star.”  And when some of the authors on their roster, many of whom have made them a great deal of money and very few of whom have ever received any advance at all dared to protest, they were basically told to suck it up, buttercup.  And by the way, where’s your registration fee check for the conference?

Speaking of conferences . . .  just this week, I saw a posting from a delicate flower who makes most of her book-related money from other writers who pay her to promote their work.  In this very public address, she employed the f-bomb with wild abandon to bully and castigate the writers WHO ARE PAYING HER for a conference for daring to book rooms outside the conference hotel.  Putting together a conference is a lot of work and very expensive, no question.  Organizers are certainly within their rights to encourage guests to help with costs by booking rooms on site whenever possible.  And from what I understand, the conference in question is “kind of a big deal” in the genre it promotes.  But NOBODY has the right to use that kind of abusive language toward the writers who, for lack of a better word, are their customers.  No product is that good.  I love chocolate, but if the lady from Godiva calls me an effin bitch on a public forum, be it me individually or in toto with all chocolate lovers everywhere, I’m going to make do with Hershey’s kisses from then on.  And I would strongly advise all other chocolate lovers—or conference attendees—to do the same.

Which brings me to my point.  Things are tough all over; making a living as a writer is harder right now than it’s been in more than a century, I suspect.  With traditional houses going corporate crazy and Amazon wanting to give it all away for free, anybody who says they can help can seem like a haven in the wilderness, your only hope for any kind of success, even if they’re treating you like crap.  But I’m here to tell you, it ain’t so.  You will have to be patient.  You will have to compromise.  You will have to get outside your comfort zone to promote your work.  But nobody, and I mean nobody, has the right to treat you like their bitch.  No publisher.  No agent.  No editor.  No promoter.  Because what you do is magic.

And I promise you, I absolutely swear, there are people in every one of those fields who, if you’re talented and willing to work for it, are ready to help you, not out of the kindness of their hearts but because they believe in good writing and they believe in you.  I’ve sold my last two books to Purple Sword Publications, Strange as Angels which is out now, and Alpha Romeo which is coming soon, and everybody there has been smart and professional and kind.  And Seventh Star Press has just announced a new imprint called Seventh Starlight that is going to publish truly amazing speculative romance.  I know this because under my real name, Jessica Glanville, I’ll be their editor-in-chief.  I’ve talked to a lot of writers who have written for them; I’ve seen the great books they publish, and I’ve seen the way they operate, how they acquire work, how they package it, how they promote it.  I never thought I’d ever work in the publishing side of the process; I love just writing too much.  But I’m proud to be part of their team.

In short, my kittens, there are good people out there in the dark, scary jungle of the marketplace.  Respect yourself enough to hold out until you find them.

Some end of the year housecleaning

tenderbitescoverHey kittens, guess what?  We survived the end of the world!  And with any luck, we’ll survive the end of 2012 altogether.  Just a few things before we do . . . .

First of all, thanks again SO MUCH to everybody who entered our Ho-Ho-Holiday Giveaway.  (Check out the text box to the right if you still don’t know who won.)  We had such a blast putting it together and such a good response, we’re already planning the sequel.  (Watch this space!)

Secondly, if you want to read my free-here-on-the-blog Christmas story, “Kissing Noel,” but you haven’t gotten around to it yet, hie thee hence, my darlings.  Come January 2, 2013, it’s gone . . . for-EV-AAAAAHHHHH.  Well, okay, gone until I put together another anthology at some point, but right now it’s free.  (Kindle & Nook & iPad lovers, if you really really really need a pdf, drop me a line at lucybluecastle@gmail.com before New Year’s Day, and I’ll see if I can hook you up.)

And finally, my vampire romance anthology, Tender Bites, is still very much available from Amazon for the shockingly low price of $2.49 – if you know somebody who got a Kindle for Christmas, my vamps will be more than happy to help them warm it up.

And unless there’s something somebody else wants to talk about, I think that’s it.  Thanks so much for reading this year; you guys know you all rock out.  I can’t wait to see what’s coming up for all of us in 2013!

Lucy Blue on Author Central!

My Author Central page on Amazon is now officially up and running and ready to serve the full menu of my vampy goodness. Plus a bio, links, and other goodies to help you find something to read. Writers, if you haven’t gone to Amazon and done one of these, you’re missing a great opportunity, even if you have less-than-warm-and-fuzzy feelings about Amazon – it’s your own little website within the website, and it’s tied in to their huge stream of reader traffic.
Here’s the link to mine: http://www.amazon.com/Lucy-Blue/e/B001IXQ7TQ