When I read this nonsense yesterday, I knew I was going to have to fisk it. As a full-time working author who actually makes a good living off my writing, I hate destructive crap like this.
Of course the article is trash. It comes from Buzzfeed. They get everything wrong. But worse, some of the quotes in there from certain writers are agenda driven garbage, which give aspiring writers a completely ass backwards view of how publishing works.
I want to see writers be successful. I’m rooting for you guys. This crap right here? It is defeatist garbage, and if you buy into this pity party, you are going to artificially limit your career. Making it as a writer is already really challenging as it is. You don’t need to make up additional fake bullshit to get upset over. Do you want to be angry, or do you want to make money?
This article is mostly authors I’ve never heard of complaining that they aren’t getting paid enough, and apparently the inevitable conclusion is that must be because of racism. As usual, the original article will be in italics. My responses will be in bold.
Book Authors Are Getting Real About How Much They Are Paid
The hashtag #PublishingPaidMe has reignited a conversation about the disparities between how much Black authors and non-Black authors make.
Of course, the party that hash tag fucking loves science is able to draw conclusions about industry wide payouts based entirely upon a series of tweets from a handful of authors out of thousands. Thank goodness those tweets just so happen to fit their preconceived notions!
Today, many publishing houses are participating in a day of solidarity, pausing their work and donating to organizations that support the Black Lives Matter movement.
I was going to try real hard to avoid politics, because the goal of this post is to teach aspiring authors how publishing actually works. But I can tell already that is going to be damn near impossible, so what the hell. Here goes. If you are new to this world, the publishing industry is predominantly based in Manhattan, and is so overwhelmingly liberal that conservatives are virtually nonexistent. Seriously, when they did that big survey of careers by political affiliation, the pie chart for publishing was so blue that I don’t even think you could see the red line on it. Keep that in mind, because we will come back to this fact again later.
But some Black authors are calling out publishing houses for the glaring disparities in how much Black and non-Black authors are paid for their book advances.
Well isn’t that interesting, since those amounts are determined by an industry totally dominated by white liberal self-proclaimed “allies” who love to label everybody who has ever disagreed with them racists.
This past weekend, two Black YA authors, Tochi Onyebuchi and L.L. McKinney, began a Twitter campaign to prompt the publishing industry to reckon with this gap. “Publishing houses, y’all BLM statements are cute but I’ma need that SAME energy when we start talking Black writers and book advances. If y’all think the receipts are bad now, it’s about to be CVS on this website, and y’all don’t want that,” Onyebuchi tweeted on Friday. McKinney picked up the momentum, tweeting on Saturday: “Do y’all need a hashtag? #PublishingPaidMe. There you go.”
The hashtag soon took off as prominent authors, such as Roxane Gay, Jesmyn Ward, Shea Serrano, N.K. Jemisin, and Kiese Laymon, were frank about the money (or lack thereof) they received for writing their bestselling, critically acclaimed books.
I am only familiar with one of those authors, and she hates my guts. But then again, that’s probably because I think she is a grifter.
Ward, a two-time National Book Award winner for 2011’s Salvage the Bones and 2017’s Sing, Unburied Sing, tweeted that even after she won the award for the former book, she had to fight for a $100,000 advance for her next book deal. In contrast, white literary fiction author Lydia Kiesling sold her debut novel, The Golden State, for $200,000; a year and a half after publication, she tweeted, she is still “very far from selling that many books”.
Okay. This part is HILARIOUS.
First off, all those advance amounts? Comparatively speaking, they are both HUGE. I’m dead serious here. I’ll get more into how advances work later and break down how authors get paid, but we’ve actually got people whining that their six figure advances weren’t good enough? To put this in perspective, most advances are in the $5,000-$10,000 range. Racism? Hell. I know a hundred white authors who would murder their grandma to break six figures.
Second off, winning an award is utterly meaningless when it comes to the actual financial worth of the book. This dumb article eventually gets around to explaining how advances are actually calculated, so I’ll talk more about it then, but it is mostly about expected sales, and in that case, awards mean dick. In some genres the awards are so polluted with politicking and social justice nonsense, that they actively scare customers away from buying them.
Gay received a $15,000 advance for her 2014 New York Times bestselling essay collection, Bad Feminist. In comparison, white author Lacy Johnson tweeted that her 2018 essay collection, The Reckonings, sold for $215,000.
For the record, I am baffled that anybody would actually pay money for a collection of feminist essays at all. I can’t speak for this genre, because frankly I’d rather suck start a shotgun that read a collection of feminist essays, but are you trying to tell me that the only reason one collection sold for 14x the other… is racism? That’s it. That’s the only possible explanation? Was one of these more sellable? Did the market somehow change in four years? Did one of these people appear on Oprah? Beats me. Not my genre, but if New York liberal feminist editors are just that racist, then that’s fucking hilarious.
“I think one of the most surprising things is how far [the hashtag] actually went,” McKinney said in a phone interview on Monday. “Like, I expected maybe a few people, the usual good eggs, to be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll say something.’ I did not expect it to reach the likes of Roxane Gay and people outside the YA sphere, because that’s the circle that I usually travel within on social media.”
Heh. On that note, the “YA sphere” is notorious for being infested with angry social justice harpies who will find something to be super offended about and then scream at the writers until they pull their books and beg for forgiveness. https://monsterhunternation.com/2019/01/31/to-the-book-community-go-fuck-yourself-an-anti-apology/ It is the proverbial wretched hive of scum and villainy.
A note on how payments work:
FINALLY. You know, if you were honest you probably should have explained this before blaming everything on racism.
An advance — which most of these tweets are referencing — is the amount a publisher pays for a book ahead of its publication; it’s an advance on the royalties the author could receive from book sales, so it is theoretically a projection of those sales. In most cases, the advance is broken up into three installments, paid upon signing of the contract, filing the full manuscript, and the date of publication.
Oh my gosh… Buzzfeed was almost factually accurate for a whole paragraph. Don’t worry. It won’t last. Now let me explain how this actually works.
A publisher and an author agree to a contract. Part of that contract says that the publisher will give X number of dollars to the author in an Advance Against Royalties, and in exchange the author will provide a contractually suitable book by Y date to the publisher.
The reason it is called an advance against royalties is because this is just the money you get up front. You don’t get paid again until after the book “earns out.” What that means, basic short version, is that for every book sold, the author gets a percentage of that. However, the publisher isn’t sending you any more money until the amount given to you in the advance is covered.
To illustrate, I’ll make the math super simple. Say that you got a $100,000 advance (which remember, is actually really fucking good, especially for newbs). Each book sells for $10, and the author gets 10% of the cover price, so $1. That means that when the book comes out, it will need to sell 100,000 copies for your advance to earn out. You will not get any more money until that number is reached. Then for each book sold after that, they’ll send you $1.
Their bit about getting 1/3 on signing, 1/3 on turn in, and 1/3 on pub is useless obfuscation. That depends entirely upon your contract, and how it is spaced out is pretty much irrelevant to this conversation EXCEPT for when we get to the bit about marketing.
I’ve talked about advances here many times before, but basically a large advance is nice because A. money in your pocket now, B. it’s a good indicator that the publisher will actually promote you, because they have invested in you. However, B is not guaranteed, because publishing is filled with idiots. Which brings us to the downside of a large advance. 1. It takes longer to earn out. 2. If it fails to earn out, your publisher may now look at you as a financial loser, and no longer want to purchase any more books from you.
The payments are pretax, so money has to be set aside for that;
Duh. Remember kids, we’re independent contractors. You have to do your withholdings.
there’s also the agent’s cut, usually 10%–20%.
15% is industry standard. And honestly, you don’t need an agent. I don’t have one. They are becoming increasingly superfluous. You can choose to have one if you want, and the idea is that they work for you, and negotiate you better contracts in order to pay for themselves. (and really, if your agent is such shit that you are getting paid less because of your skin color, FIRE THEM)
If you are writing nonfiction and you would like to have it fact-checked, you have to personally pay for that, too.
Oh my gosh. You mean if you want to pay a professional for services rendered it costs money? Whaaaaaaat? Now you’re just padding the list. Also, I don’t write non-fiction, but that sounds like total bullshit to me, and I’d have a conversation with my publishing house about why their contracts suck so badly.
Suddenly that $100,000 advance, spread over the course of a year (which would be an incredibly fast turnaround for publishing a book, but let’s go with it)
I’ve averaged two books a year for the last 12 years, you giant crybabies.
becomes around $60,000 — a decent salary as long as you don’t live in a major city.
Cry me a river. No seriously, if you have a job that can be done literally anywhere in the world that has an internet connection, why would you choose to live someplace super expensive? I’m fresh out of pity for the struggling artistes who simply have to live in $5,000 a month apartments in order to find their muse. Because muses are bullshit anyway. Shut up and do your job.
Now imagine that same process with an advance of $60,000,
That’s still a giant ass check for most Americans, who also have to pay taxes and bills. Now imagine that advance was $10,000, which is far more common. Which is why the vast majority of us didn’t quit our day job until something like book #5.
which is what New York Times bestselling author N.K. Jemisin received for her most recent book, The City We Became, which came out in March. As Jemisin noted on Twitter, “Advances aren’t an indicator of earnings and they aren’t an indicator of book quality. … What, then, do they indicate? Let’s call them an indicator of ‘consumer confidence.’ Specifically, the publisher’s confidence in consumers. And *yeah,* racism has an impact on that confidence. In a racist industry trying to sell books to a racist public within a racist society? Come on. Implicit bias alone will make negotiations harder. There are overtly biased gatekeepers, too.”
Oh my gosh. What a bunch of horseshit that was. There’s so much nonsense in that one quote I’m going to have to break it down in depth.
$60,000 is actually a pretty good advance, far above average, and the part this extremely disingenuous person is leaving out is that most working professional authors don’t live off a single advance. Advances are merely one part of our income. Because if your previous books actually sell, you have earned out your previous advances, and you are now collecting new royalties every royalty period.
Honestly, advances are bullshit anyway. Authors who do this for a living live off of our backlist. Advances are nice, because they are a big chunk of money at once, but the vast majority of my income comes off the twenty something books that which have already earned out, which are still selling. I’ve beat this dead horse many times, but the key to financial success as a writer is consistent production. The best thing about when I have a new book come out isn’t the advance, but rather the sales bump it gives to all of my previous books which have already earned out. The back list keeps turning over, I keep getting paid.
EDIT: Because I used to be an auditor and I get curious I actually went and checked. Advances made up 13% of my income in 2019 and almost the same exact percentage in 2018. 2017 was 32%, 2016 was 30%. 15% in 2015. So maybe a better title for this article should have been Authors Get Real About A Third Of What They Get Paid.
Basically, if you want to make it as a writer, you have to actually, you know, sell books. Crazy, right? Advances are only one part of the equation. And if you don’t sell enough to earn out, oh well. Better not quit your day job yet.
Since all of my books have earned out in the first advance period anyway, I honestly don’t care too much about advance sizes. Yet, my advances have grown considerably since I have started. Why? Buzzfeed would assume it is my warm beige privilege. Nope, I get paid a larger amount because I have a consistent track record with my publisher, so that she knows to expect a certain minimum level of sales from my product.
Now, I mentioned marketing earlier. One nice thing about large advances is that it indicates the publisher will put work into promoting you, because they have made a greater investment in you. However, this isn’t always the case, and I’ve seen some truly shitty marketing for first time authors who got advances 10X the size of my first advance.
So seeing an author who gets a marketing push better than what 99% of authors get from their publishers, complaining about the racist industry treating her badly is pretty funny.
Also, keep in mind, this industry is so overwhelmingly liberal that conservatives are about as rare as unicorns, so I find that bit hilarious. Especially when she gets to the part about “biased gatekeepers” because I seem to recall when I started a campaign to prove how politically biased the gatekeepers of a certain award were, the author quoted above wanted me burned at the stake. She then won that award three years in a row. 😀
I remember one time she got on Twitter and declared that she heard that Larry Correia had been “rude and racist to an author of color at GenCon”, so of course 10,000 people went GASP WHAT A MONSTER and retweeted it. I responded, saying “Cool, every single panel I was on was recorded. Which one? Let’s watch the tape.” So she promptly blocked me, and everyone patted her on the back for being so stunning and brave.
Let’s follow the logic. So because she is only getting advances that are far beyond what most authors get, and she is also getting a better industry reception and marketing push than what most authors get from their publishers, and she is collecting royalties for whatever sells that has already earned out just like every other author, obviously the real problem here is that Nora Jemisin is a victim of systemic racism, so you’d better go donate to her Patreon. Which I just checked, is taking in a whopping $5,687 A MONTH! I shit you not! That’s $68k annually off of just DONATIONS.
Heh. I’ve actually got to respect the hustle. Once she complains about this blog post I bet she’ll bump that a couple hundred bucks a month. 😀
Contrast Jesmyn Ward’s trajectory with Emily St. John Mandel’s: In 2014, Mandel published her breakout novel, Station Eleven, a finalist for a National Book Award, for which, according to her, she received a $210,000 advance. The advance she received for her next book, The Glass Hotel, was subsequently much higher, at $800,000 for US rights only, which means she likely received even more with foreign rights sales. The point here isn’t to claim that Mandel is not deserving of this money, but merely to once again highlight the disparities between what Black and non-Black authors are paid.
First off, holy fuck balls. I don’t care who you are, $800k is crazy awesome. Good for you.
But here is the problem as far as this article’s point goes. That information is completely useless without context. So one author got a shit ton more money up front than a different author, ergo racism. But hold on. There are a million other factors at play here. The biggest being, how much money did each of these two books actually make? How profitable were they?
Usually when I see giant advances like that there is a reason, often a bidding war between publishing houses (and that is when agents are actually semi-useful for once). Where for some particular reason, publishers really want that book (usually because they think they can make a shit ton of money off of it). This usually isn’t for some scrub nobody heard of though. It’s for a product that has gone viral for some reason or has some form of marketing tie in or narrative that makes it exceedingly valuable.
I mentioned marketing a bit earlier, but one thing about super huge advances like that is that they are often publicity stunts by the publisher. They throw out an epic huge advance as a show that they think some author is going to be The Next Big Thing, in the hopes that bookstore buyers go wow, they sure do have faith in this guy, I’d better order tons of books and put up big displays. Sometimes this works, usually it does not. When you go into the bookstore, and there’s a giant pile of the same book, marked down 80% in the clearance bin? That’s when this ploy failed. It’s a marketing gamble like any other. But if you’re the author lucky enough to blunder into this deal, cash that giant fucking check and celebrate.
This is where the 1/3, 1/3, 1/3, break up is actually pertinent though, because if it’s a multibook deal, the super mega huge advance sounds awesome and important in Publisher’s Weekly, but it’s broken up in such a way that over time that the publisher isn’t actually risking that much financially.
The size of an advance can be the determining factor in who can afford to be a writer and who can’t — or who is paid enough to be able to spend two years writing, editing, and then promoting a book and who has to make time for that while working a second, or even multiple, jobs.
Yeah, that’s just nonsense. The vast majority of us who do this shit for a living now probably wrote five or six books before we had enough money coming in consistently from our back list to justify quitting our day jobs. That’s totally normal. If you get a nice advance and immediately quit your day job to be a full-time writer, you’re probably an idiot, or your spouse has a good job you can both live off. I can count on my fingers how many authors I know who took that first advance and immediately jumped into being a full-time writer and made it stick for a whole career. The one book wonder kid does happen, but so does winning the lottery. The odds are similar.
It’s worth noting that some authors who get paid low advances are able to “earn out” their advance, which means that their books sell enough for publishers to recoup so the author can start receiving royalty payments, which usually starts at 10% of the retail price of each book sold.
It is truly pathetic that they made it this far through the article before explaining the single most important financial concept in all of publishing. Earning out is life or death. Advances are nice. Actually selling books is what keeps you in business, and means that you’ll have more advances in the future.
And look at that loaded language “worth noting some authors with low advances will earn out”? What bullshit. Those of us who stick around and make a career of this do so by consistently turning out product. And why do publishers keep buying our stuff? Because it ALL earns out. If it didn’t earn out, they quit giving us contracts. And our advances will be approximately in line with our sales level. If your sales are good, then your advances are correspondingly good.
Some authors, like fantasy writer Nnedi Okorafor, prefer this route. “Note: I took no advance and a higher royalty percentage for Binti. Great decision,” she tweeted.
Good for her. Seriously. That’s fantastic.
But there’s no question that a disparity exists.
Uh… no. Anybody with any critical thinking skills at all has come up with a bunch of questions about your assumptions. For example, if publishing bases its advances upon skin color, and publishing is overwhelmingly liberal, why are liberals such flaming racist assholes?
If agents, who are also overwhelmingly white liberal, self-proclaimed “allies”, are such garbage at their jobs that their clients are consistently being paid less based on their skin color, why haven’t writers fired these assholes and hired someone who will actually represent their interests? Why are you giving racist morons 15% of your money?
I can keep going, but you get the idea.
For McKinney, she hopes the hashtag and the conversation it provokes is the beginning of concrete change. And she urges publishing houses to actually support Black authors whose books they acquire. “I hope that [the publishing industry] stops treating Black authors and Black stories like they’re there just to shut us up. It almost feels like at times, like, ‘Here, there are some Black stories coming out this year, now shut up and let us go back to doing what we do’ — because those Black stories don’t get a marketing push, they don’t get the budget that you see these other authors get.”
Now this might surprise you, but I don’t disagree with what she’s saying here. She’s right about one thing. There’s a ton of shallow, vapid people at various publishing houses who love to virtue signal. They don’t actually give a shit about black authors, but they sure do like to posture about how much they do.
Which is why I always tell aspiring authors, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, do not let liberal publishing assholes stick you in a box. Don’t let them declare you are an X Writer. Black Writer. Gay Writer. Muslim Writer. Or whatever box that angsty liberal is trying to check today so they can brag about signing an X to their snooty friends at a Manhattan dinner party. You want to be a writer. Period. I don’t just write books for libertarian gun nuts. Don’t limit yourself. If your stories are awesome, you will entertain people from all sorts of different backgrounds. And that’s amazing.
If you are going to a convention, and they are sticking you on programming, same thing. Don’t let them just stick you on the Mandatory Diversity Panel. That’s bullshit. You want to be on the plot panel, or the character panel. Don’t let these assholes stick you in a box.
Because ultimately all that matters is selling books and making readers happy so that they’ll buy more books. Hanging social justice labels all over books does the opposite. It scares readers away. They’ve been beaten over the head so much with unsubtle heavy-handed message dreck for so long that when they see that kind of marketing they run away. You want your publisher to push your work because its entertaining, not because you are some specific demographic. You deserve better than that. Guilt doesn’t sell books. (though apparently it kills on Patreon!)
“The bottom line of the #PublishingPaidMe conversation is that many publishers clearly have the funds to pay Black authors more money, so they should pay Black authors more money,” romance writer Alyssa Cole tweeted. “The end.”
No. Sadly, it’s not the end. Because regardless of how big your advance is, the only thing that matters is if you sell books after it comes out. You could get that six-figure advance, which is great in the short term, but if it doesn’t come close to earning out, your career is toast. Play the long game. You are in it to win it.
This whole article is really kind of stupid. I can think of authors who I think suck, who make a lot more money than I do, and I can also think of authors who I think are way more talented than I am, who make far less money than I do. This is a business with a thousand inputs determining success or failure. Only a fool would blame the entire output all on one single input.
And one last thing, gatekeepers got mentioned above. Yes. They do exist. And they are incredibly biased, and often very stupid people. So if you do run into somebody who shuts you down because of your identity, fuck ‘em. Go around those gatekeepers. You can do that now. Right wingers have been doing it for years. We live in a golden age of indy publishing. You are no longer beholden to one inbred monoculture out of Manhattan. Now indy has a whole different set of challenges, and I’ve written articles about those on here if you are interested (go to the Best Of Tab and look for the Ask Correia writing advice posts).
Good luck. This business is tough to make it in for anybody. Don’t make up new reasons to make it even harder for you.