My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Mailbox: 3 Bits of Insight and 3 Implications From an Author Marc Lawrence on Reddit

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer them each Thursday as long as I have enough to do.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox.  My mailbox is currently empty, so don't hold back.]   

Mike says:

This seems like one of those stories that would fit in very well with your blog.  http://www.reddit.com/r/Fantasy/comments/17k0wp/prince_of_thorns_1_best_selling_fantasy_for_a_day/

"So Amazon.com ran a promotion on Prince of Thorns before Christmas and I was very glad to get it. For a day they offered the ebook at $1.99 and put it on their daily deals...."  (Read Marc's thoughts at the site itself...)

My reply: 

It was a slow week in my inbox, so I'm actually putting up something that someone shared with me on my Facebook wall.  (Be sure to send me questions, or I'll have to do more jazz hands and hairography like this.)  The link here is to an Ask Me Anything Reddit written by Marc Lawrence about his experience with Amazon on his book Prince of Thrones.  Though he does very well for a fantasy writer, on the day Amazon put his book on sale, and blew the charts away, selling a thousand books (and even beating G.R.R. Martin for just that day), his actual royalties were only $120.  Then, as a cherry on the sundae, one of his fans wrote to him saying that he illegally downloaded the book because it was too hard to find.  If you dare to read the comments, you will find that many of the replies are quite unapologetic about illegal downloading.

I'm also going to let Ima Lister field this one with one of his lists since tomorrow is the first of the month and we'll be putting up polls, poll results, and end-of-the month reports and all that crap.

This is actually a great link.  It exists at the intersection of so many things that are going on here on this blog and it's worth thinking about it.

1- This is not a glamorous industry.  If you have a vision in your head of your idyllic life of writing, four hour work days, sipping coffee in a cafe with a smashing view of the river while the people two tables over argue about whether it's really you, threesomes with groupies (are you reading this Chris?), power negotiations with movie moguls fighting over the rights to your books and you insisting on writing the screenplay and a cameo, a salon of your enthralled fans hanging on your every word, and royalty checks that rocket you into the next tax bracket, I'll put this as simply as I can:


You can make some money in this industry if you work very, very, VERY hard, but statistically speaking, you're probably never going to break minimum wage.  The tiny fraction of writers who can get by without some kind of day job (even something like editing anthologies or writing reviews) or are famous in any meaningful way is minuscule.  Odds are, even if you have pretty decent writing career, you're going to end up doing a lot of your own marketing in nearly-empty book stores, and dealing with harsh realities like Amazon sales that cost you money.  You'll be confused for "that guy on that one show" if you're recognized at all (which you won't be).  The only position of esteem you will have is being the person in your social circles who everyone is chomping at the bit to argue with about something you wrote to prove they are better than a writer.  You'll do all this for what would be, in any other job, less money than sweatshop labor exploitation.  And then you'll be confronted by some asshat proudly bragging to you how they stole money out of your pocket.

1a- So it's really important to love writing.  So you better love writing for its own sake.  The bliss should never be dependent on royalty checks and fans.  Because the minute you're wordsmithing as a means to an end (like fame or fortune), you're not only power-deluding yourself about what being a successful writer even means, but you are literally picking one of the least efficient ways possible to go about achieving fame.  You are the writing equivalent of the girl from Iowa getting off the bus in Hollywood with the hopes of being discovered.  What you should be doing is trying to surf your pick up truck into a tree or singing along with Numa Numa.

Fame.  Fortune.  They are his. 

2- Piracy is really, really easy.  It takes about 3 seconds over high speed wifi to transfer an entire book--I know this because that's how long it takes me from impulse by to instant gratification on my Kindle.  Mmmmmm.  Lending a book is not quite the same. You can pass a single book to a lot of people before it disintegrates into paper-dust and leaves the original owner screaming "KHAN" (in planet-cam), but each time it is given to a new person, it does not replicate itself; it leaves those before without their own copy.  Someone can file share a book thousands at once with the press of a button, and each person has their own copy at that point.  Those people can then do the same.  There are also no consequences.  If someone has stolen a book by illegally downloading it, nothing happens.  No security guard will approach them outside the store and ask them to produce a receipt.  No federal agents will come looking for them at work.   They won't have their picture window shattered as a canister of tear gas flies into their living room, an instant before S.W.A.T. smashes the door and bursts in with laser scoped submachine guns.

Hey, these thieves don't even have to feel bad. Stealing content isn't just logistically a snap; it's emotionally and mentally easy as well.  There are entire cultural movements dedicated to justifying and rationalizing illegal downloads as doing artists a big, big favor of exposure at the expense of publishers or distributors. Because everyone knows it's really great for an artist if thousands of people aren't paying them.  ("Brah, you know someone will support the artist.  Just....you know....not me, brah.")

If you can stomach it, read the comment thread on this story.  Just don't eat a lot of rich foods before hand.  Some commenters are flat out telling Lawrence that piracy is good for him and he should be happy as a pig in shit for every smug e-mail he gets telling him that he was denied even his meager 17 cents.  (Because...you know...everyone who steals a file online will do the moral thing if they enjoy it and either buy a physical copy or donate to the author.  Totally.)  Even when the author says, "Yeah, that's crap.  Please don't steal my stuff," people continue to argue with him that he should be thrilled to be illegally downloaded for all that free exposure.  ("Free exposure"...where have I heard that before....oh that's right--that's what companies say when they don't want to actually pay a writer for freelance work).  File sharing is ubiquitous, most artists have lost thousands to piracy.  Sadly for writers, book sharing and web plagiarism is easier than some other mediums.

2a- So don't don't pretend it's going away any second or that people will get over it.  It's a new world.  We live in interesting times--in all the full fury, Chinese-curse sense of that word.  Artists will get ripped off in a world where the press of a button provides guilt-free, perfect copies of their hard work.  Get over that fact and move on.  (You can acknowledge that computers just make stealing media too damned convenient without necessarily agreeing with the little buttcrack sweat drips who claim it isn't actually stealing because...well....because they don't want it to be.)  Offering free or extremely low price access to art (knowing that it will be stolen) is becoming more and more common.  The music industry went through the same thing until they rethought the whole system from top to bottom and started letting people buy just one song.  (It's not a perfect parallel--I doubt people will pay $0.99 for just their favorite chapter.)  Illegally downloading something is easy, consequence free, and doesn't even cause wibbly wobbly feelings, so it's time to stop pretending that the industry hasn't been fundamentally altered by computers.  Yes, it's good to know the pitfalls of the emerging industry and precisely how hard Amazon will be lubelessly butt-fucking authors, but it doesn't mean the 1979 playbook is still good.

3- The numbers (for the writer) in traditional publishing are a little terrifying.  Notice the numbers?  Lawrence gets 25% of what the publisher makes.  Lawrence gives 20% of that number to an agent.  Leaving him with 80% of 25% of what the publisher nets--usually 70%....AFTER COSTS.  That's not the retail price.  It's AFTER things like shipping and distribution (which is one of the biggest reasons to go through traditional publishing, just FYI.)

Now it's true that every day isn't an Amazon special deal day, so I looked up a full price copy:  $8.

Let's assume a generous post-publisher cost of $5.  (Publishing costs are usually more like half the cover price, but $5 makes for a rounder number.)

Lawrence says that the publisher usually makes 70% of that number= $3.5.

Lawrence makes 25% of that number= $0.87 per copy.

He gives 17 cents to his agent

Leaving him with a little over a sixty cents per book he sells if I did the math right.

But that's only for new books bought through a retail distributor--not for anything bought used from Amazon, used bookstores, or downloaded illegally.  Lawrence is correct--he is doing quite well for a fantasy author.  Well enough that his agent was able to negotiate a better deal than some of the new author contracts which would probably be closer .40 or .50 cents per book-not including special discounts and third party licensing.  So if you had a damned respectable 20,000 book run, you'd be looking at about $10,000 (give or take) for something that probably took you a year or more of hours long days to finish.  Let's say you put in six hours a day on your novel (a decent clip that would probably be the absolute minimum to go from the very first word of rough draft to second draft through revision through edits through proofs to finished product in only a year).  Congrats!  At this extreme pace, you would be making just over $4.50/hr.  Federal minimum wage for the U.S. is $7.25 Also, your chances are better than a face-planting six year old losing a tooth that you're going put in a lot more hours both before and after publication--not including time spent doing your own marketing (like book signings and readings and stuff).  Especially if you want to sell 20,000 copies and your name doesn't end with a K Rowling or Phen King.

3a- So think about how you want to monetize your writing.  There is no longer one route to be a paid writer.  Computers are changing EVERYTHING.  The days where you simply had to go Short Story Publications-Cover Letter-Agent-Publisher-Book Deal-Book are gone.  That is ONE route--and it has its merits and flaws, but now there are other routes with their own merits and flaws.  E-publishing, self-publishing, and even print-on-demand does not carry the social stigma that vanity press did a couple of decades ago.  These have become viable ways to make a living with writing as more and more successful self-publishers can attest to.  (Many who have had books traditionally published as well and can compare and contrast.)  When an author's share of a book is 50%-75% of the price, rather than something closer to half a dollar, they can offer cheaper books, sell fewer copies, and still make more money than through a more traditional route.  Many authors are using paid blogs and offering up writing for free or as cheap as possible.  There are all kinds of new ways to write creatively and make money doing it.  It worth taking the time to learn the industry and not simply fetishizing the single approach of a generation ago.


  1. The worst thing about this is that it's such a buzzkill, and yet it's probably optimistic to expect a career like Marc Lawrence.

    1. Yeah, he really isn't kidding about the fact that he's actually doing pretty well.

  2. I think I'll answer this as a mailbox, but my short answer is that is something that people like to tell themselves when they're pirating, but it doesn't bear out in real numbers.