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24 May, 2007

Shock Revelation! Successful Authors Starving In Garrets!

Sometimes I feel horribly cynical. Sometimes I feel my contribution can be a little too negative. That's why I don't take part in online forums anymore, it's why I try to avoid talking to people, and it's why I try to refrain from commenting on people's blogs. I just know that what I say will tend to be a downer and, however much I tell myself I'm just being realistic and it's better that I tell people the truth rather than some sugary fantasy, that I give them the benefit of my experience rather than silly, rah-rah encouragement, it pains me to have to be such a wet blanket.

For example, in this world, the people who want to be writers are legion, most of them peachy-keen and trying their hardest. Yet it is so hard to become a successful author that I can hardly bring myself to talk to wannabe writers anymore. It is well known that having a book published is about as likely as winning the lottery. Even the people with enough talent to merit publication (and, let's face it, the bar isn't very high!) so far outnumber the actual opportunities, that they might as well not bother. The manuscript they have slaved over for years is one among tens of thousands and the chances of it getting the attention of an agent, let alone a publisher, let alone a publisher who likes it and is willing to champion it within their company and push it through to print, are minuscule.

What is not so well known is that, even if you beat the odds and get published, the chances of making any money at it are even smaller. I know plenty of authors, some with several books in print, whose earnings amount to a few hundred dollars a year. Almost nothing. The way books are marketed these days, the book shops will give a new book shelf space for about three weeks and then remove it if it isn't selling well. After that, it is almost impossible to get a book into the mainstream book shops unless the publisher is willing to stump up for another round of promotion similar to the book's launch. The turnover of new books in the book shops is therefore very high and the vast majority of them, after their initial exposure, vanish without trace. Other channels – like private sales on the Web – are almost worthless. Without constant marketing, a book just sinks below everyone's awareness.

I mention all this not just because I am a bitter, unpublished author, but because I've been reading Timothy Carter's blog lately and feeling very sorry for him. This young fella has done the impossible and made it into print with his book Attack of the Intergalactic Soul Hunters. He posted recently about how his sales were going – and they're going pretty well. In six months he has sold over a thousand copies. These are sales figures that would make most published authors quite envious. However, his royalties so far amount to just a couple of hundred dollars. Not exactly a living wage. But Carter is undaunted. He has another book due for publication soon and he expects his sales to increase as each new book he writes is added to the corpus on offer.

On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable viewpoint, so I tried to work out how long it would take young Carter to build up a decent income this way. Here's the calculation I did. Let's say Carter can write and have published one new book every year for the next ten years. Let's also say that with each new book, he increases his readership by 50% (so his second book will have 1500 sales in the first six months, the third will have 2,250 and so on.) But let us also expect that, for each book, sales will fall in each six month period by 50% (so, if he sells 100 in the first six months, he will sell just 500 in the second, 250 in the third and so on.) On these assumptions (and leaving inflation aside), Carter's annual income in year ten will be a little under $14,000. (That is about half of what someone on minimum wage could earn in a year.) And by then, we'd probably all agree that Timothy Carter was a very successful author.

(This isn't quite fair because it would be expected that sales of future books would feed back to boost sales of past books to some extent but, on the other hand, I've generously included a fifty percent growth in Carter's popularity with every new book sold. Then again I've assumed a rapid drop-off in sales based on marketing through book shops. Amazon may make the tail-off less dramatic than that.)

The point of all this is, of course, not to frighten poor Mr. Carter – after all, I haven't read Attack of the Intergalactic Soul Hunters, and he's already done hugely better than statistics would predict, and he may be the next J K Rowling for all I know – but to suggest to writers in general that their dreams of fame and fortune are not exactly realistic. This is a business where the publishers and the book shops are the only real winners.

There. See? Wet blanket.


Timothy Carter said...

Thanks for that, Graywave - a whole blog article dedicated to me! Okay, it wasn't all about me, but I still felt honoured. And thank you for posting the book cover and links as well!

And no, I'm not frightened. Yes, I'd like to be living off my writing one day, but fame and fortune aren't the goals. A comfortable living would be fine. Anyway, I write because I love it and it is impossible for me not to, and if wet blanketing were going to put me off I'd have quit a long time ago.

graywave said...

Good on yer, mate. That's why we all do it - because we can't help it. Even with my cynical attitude, I still spend every spare minute writing.

Maybe there's a cure for it...

Timothy Carter said...

A cure for writing? Nope. Sorry. You are stuck with that gift, my friend.

However, I believe there is a cure for cynicism...

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