NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 144, Spring, 2000.
MIKE: We keep skirting and tiptoeing around the issue of money, so maybe it’s time we addressed it.
I’m writing this during the Republican debates in early December, and one of the interesting things is that every single one of their tax-cut plans — and each of them has one — exempts a family of four that makes $36,000 US a year, so it’s pretty fair to say that’s the new poverty level in this heated-up economy.
Now, it seems to me that if you choose to enter the field, it’s realistic to assume that you want to make at least double the poverty level in a reasonable period of time. Otherwise, why bother? There are lots of easier ways to make a buck.
So . . . how do you go about it, barring a bestseller or a movie sale?
I’d say that within four or five books you should have your advances up past $15,000 US if you expect to have any kind of career at all. So let’s say you’ve been in the field four years, long enough to establish whether or not you can sell, and you’re able to turn out two novels a year.
And let’s say you get $17,500 US apiece for them. Do you pack it in and go dig ditches?
You remember that for every dollar you make in America, you’ll make at least one overseas. England, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, and Poland are the most likely markets, but there are dozens of others. Some will only pay $500 US for a book; some will pay $7,500 US; most pay somewhere in between . . . but when the dust clears, your foreign money should come to at least $17,500 US. OK, it won’t be $17,500 US on the same book in the same year that you get your US advance; it takes a few years. But it’ll be money from your first or third or fifth novel. All that matters is that you keep producing regularly, so you can keep selling overseas regularly.
So now you’ve got a pair of $17,500 US advances — that’s $35,000 US — and you’ve got another $35,000 US coming from overseas. Now, just to keep your name in front of the public, you sell 2 shorts, a novelette and a novella (or the equivalent) each year. That’s another $2,500 US.
So your advances aren’t up to $20,000 US, and you only write two books a year . . . but yeah, after your pay your dues for a few years, you can double that $36,000 US we mentioned. Without being a superstar, or a Hugo/Nebula winner, or grinding out Trekbooks or Wookiebooks.
Is there a flaw there somewhere?
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BARRY: Well, as is your wont (or your will as one of your characters might assert) you take the cheerful, positive, forward-looking position. Get your advances to $17,500 US in four years, write two books a year, double your income per book on the foreign and subsidiary sales, and live happily ever after, even if the movie option money is somewhat delayed.
Me, I have an, ah, somewhat bleaker perspective on all of this. For several reasons. Here they are:
A) It’s no certainty that our hypothetical writer will be able to get the advance to $17,500 US in four years or forty. The going rate for first novels in the genre markets — unless you’re a Star Trek actor fronting for a SFWA member actually writing the book — is maybe $5,000–6,000 US, and about the best the first novelist can expect is a two-book contract with little likelihood that a third novel will be contracted before the first is published. If the novels sell poorly — and most do, Mike, most first novels sell somewhat under 10,000 copies in mass market paperback now — there’s a substantial likelihood that the writer will be dropped right there. A funny thing has happened on the way to those $17,500 US advances; the writer has no advance at all and will have to scramble for another contract.
This of course is not an extreme case, a case which represents only a kind of more likely scenario. The first novel could have sold to Harcourt Brace, could have sold to Spectra or del Rey on a hard-soft deal, might be a TOR hardcover with advances of $15,000–20,000 US and the substantial possibility (as there is not in paperback original) of significant royalty income. But these are less likely instances; the reality for most first novelists is as I’ve noted above and more than half of them face the likelihood of having to seek a new publisher — and thus in effect restart a career — with that third or fourth novel. It can be done, of course — maybe a pseudonym, maybe a different kind of novel, maybe the editor at the first house turns up in a new job and is able to bring over parts of her list — but it’s not routine and in any case it takes time. Time is a relative concept, of course, a part-timer writing novels as an adjunct to full-time employment, a neo-Hal Clement, say, can take a long view, but a writer who has on the basis of a couple of sales leapt into full-time freelancing has either a short view or nothing at all. What I’m trying to say is that it’s an exceptional — not impossible, just exceptional — instance to move to an advance level of your $17,500 US without hindrance or difficulty and many writers (perhaps even most) can find themselves scrambling along at the four-figure level if at all for many, many years.
B) And can a $17,500 US level of advance be taken for granted, seen as a kind of financial floor? The problem with making this kind of money if you’re not a Niven or Benford or Resnick — which means most of us — is that sales level is not likely to sustain that advance; the unearned advance can in fact be substantial and the publisher may be inclined to say, “I can find someone who sells this badly at one-third of the price,” and that’s a blow to yet another hypothetical career. Unless you’re at a high sales or prestige level and $17,500 US is the kind of anomalous figure which is really too low to indicate this (while being high enough to be really exposed), you — our hypothetical writer — is at precisely that level which is most vulnerable. In fact, this represents the kind of writer — been around a while, obviously has some talent, can write but hasn’t cultivated enough of an audience or halo for the really big money — who is most likely to be cut. I can think of two writers right away — there are, alas, many, many more — who are well-respected novelists, have been around for quite a while, have sold somewhere between 10-20 novels, are sterling members of the SFWA who got their advances to the $10,000-15,000 US level who were let go by their publishers and have been until to find another outlet. Their sales figures are locked and predictable, their range is well-known and it’s below the level of their advances, they can’t be paid more and it’s pointless to offer them less, and they have been in the words of a mystery writer I know “depublished.” Yes, they can find a pseudonym and start again or maybe they can do franchise work, but it’s going to be for a third or less of their previous advances and these two writers have probably elected not even to try.
As so many writers have discovered, while there is indeed no ceiling to a writer’s income, there is also no floor, no fail-safe mechanism for all but well-established writers. “Kill the body and the head will die” is a well-known trainers’ aphorism for boxers; for freelance writing (and publishers for that matter) it translates, “Kill the frontlist and the backlist will die.” Without a steady flow of new work, the backlist shrivels, decays, becomes ultimately impractical. Everything is hedged about continued production and sales; take that away and everything can collapse.
Which brings around Hemingway’s advice: “Writing is not a full-time occupation”; I think he had something else in mind (Big Ernie made Big Statement in Big Ketchum) but it certainly applies here. If you’re not moving forward constantly, you’re regressing. General managers in pro sports understand this very well. So keep the day job.
All that being said, I’d note that doubling advances in foreign and royalty income isn’t exactly an automatic process. It’s certainly possible, but one has to struggle here as in almost every other place. Bad contracts can make subsidiary income disappear. I leave it to you to explain this.
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MIKE: Ah, Barry, you make me feel old and tired. We see a glass that’s filled halfway to the rim. I say it’s half full; you want to know who pissed in it.
I’m not holding the figure of $17,500 US a book as a Holy Grail. Hell, it’s a minimum. If you want to make double what Al Gore, Bill Bradley, George W. Bush, and that whole crowd considers the top of the poverty level, then that’s the least you can get away with.
Can everyone make it? Of course not. But if they can’t reach that minimal level after 8 or 10 books, then they’d better cling to their day jobs and their working spouses. On the other hand, I can rattle off the names of 40 to 60 SFWA members who make at least $30,000 US a book.
What has happened is what we used to pray would happen: computers have taken over the field, there are no more secrets, and for perhaps the first time in history, advances are based on performance and not on hype. We all used to sit around and bitch about it: we pretty much knew who sold and who didn’t, and it didn’t have a hell of a lot to do with how much they earned. We watched writers bludgeon publishers with hype, and we watched them deftly change houses in order to stay a step or two ahead of their returns.
Well, that’s all changed, with one or two exceptions. Computer returns have made it impossible to lie about sales, to use hype rather than figures. The money’s still there — just look at some of the deals that are reported in Locus and Science Fiction Chronicle — but it’s going to different people. We have a new generation of stars, accepted by the public if not their peers, and they’re accomplishing that stardom at the newsstands and the book racks, not on the convention circuit and the publisher’s lunches. There’s probably more money in science fiction and fantasy today than there’s ever been — but it’s no longer going to (generic) you just because it went to you last year and four and seven years ago. Now it’s truly a matter, from the publisher’s point of view, of: What have you done for me lately?
And they’ve done a little bit for us lately, too — or at least the economics of publishing has. I’m not a new writer, but I’m not an old-timer in the sense that Jack Williamson and Fred Pohl, or even Algis Budrys and Robert Sheckley are. My first hardcover advance was $800.00 US. My first paperback advance — my first three, in fact — were $1,500.00 US apiece. My first paperback books carried cover prices of 50¢ US and paid 4% royalties. That means I made a whopping 2¢ US a book, once I’d earned out my advance (and at 2¢ US a book you didn’t earn it out very fast, take my word for it.)
Today your typical paperback seems to go for about $7.00 US, and your average royalty rate — not your best, not your worst, just your average — is 8%. That means you make 56¢ US every time you sell a book.
10,000 sales back when I broke in meant you made $200.00 US to apply against your advance. Today it means you make $5,600 US to apply against your advance.
That’s important to remember, because with 1,200 or so titles a year compared to the 150 or so when I broke in, the average number of copies sold is less. But believe me, it’s not 28 times less, and we’re making 28 times more money per sale.
Do you see what I’m driving at? If not, let me spell it out. There was a time when 22,000 sales of a paperback was death to a beginning writer who hoped to make more on his next book. But if you’re making a 10% royalty, you will actually earn money over and above amortizing a $15,000 US advance with 22,000 sales. And of course, the publisher’s break-even point is always lower, usually much lower, than the figure the writer needs to earn out his advance.
Can bad contracts wipe out your subsidiary earnings? Sure. They can wipe you out domestically, too. If there’s room after your response, I’ll give you my favorite example of such. But I’d also point out that when I say your foreign earnings will equal your domestic earnings, that’s a minimum for a journeyman writer. Most will testify that they make between 150% and 200% as much overseas as here.
And of course there are other sources. We won’t count book club income, since that goes directly to the publisher, who will be reluctant to part with it until (and sometimes after) you earn out. But there are specialty editions, where you keep 100% of the money; there’s Easton Press, where again you won’t see the advance, but you’ll make between $3,000 US and $5,000 US autographing signature pages; there’s Hollywood, which is becoming more and more active in optioning science fiction and which you don’t share with your publisher; there’s computer games; there’s role-playing games; there’s a legitimate market in comic books, now that DC and Marvel no longer own all of that world. I won’t even mention electronic rights, since no one knows what they’re worth, but the day will come when they’re probably worth as much as all the others, bar Hollywood, put together.
So, Barry, how about admitting that the glass is maybe 60% full, and suggesting how else to make the most of it?
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BARRY: Okay, the glass is half full. With sparkling water. All the winds are mild and every prospect pleases.
And here is how to make the most of it: write in series, link the novels and extend the series as much as feasible. Publishers love series because readers do. The first novel of a series is no more difficult to launch than a stand-alone work and subsequent volumes are easier; if the series has any success at all, the audience will build from book to book and the material is pre-sold.
Of course some series launches fail; in many cases series even with a successful launch begin to fade after the second or sixth or sixteenth novel. Nothing is predictable in this business. But there is far more predictability in the series for reader and publishers than in the stand-alone; the series deals in assured expectation and nothing is more important in genre publishing. Science fiction is in marketing terms a genre, has been termed such by the book publishers for more than half a century, will continue to be so. A genre involves a kind of prepackaging and the series is the more definitive.
Campbell, a reflective descendant of the pulp editors and a loyal employee of Street & Smith, the great pulp chain, certainly knew this and urged his writers to produce in a series format. His magazine published them in profusion: Bullard of the Space Patrol, Baldy, Weapon Shops, Ole Doc Methusalah, Mixed Men, Foundation, Robotics, Gallegher, City, Lensman, Okie, Nicholas Von Rijn, Paratime Police, Bureau of Slick Tricks, on and on. Campbell would urge writers to consider series even when a story seemed a stand-alone; surely Wilmer Shiras’ Children of the Atom developed this way. Harry Harrison thought that Deathworld was a novella, but it turned out to be a considerable series, three novels of which appeared in Astounding. Series were the staple of pulp fiction.
In fact, series are a staple of any kind of fiction. Literary fiction? Leslie Epstein has written several novellas about his Steinway Quintet, Roth’s Zuckerman has been the patron of four novels, John Updike’s Bech has been gathered into three volumes of short stories, and they are still, from the standpoint of market and career, the way to go in genre today. Raymond Chandler’s six canonic Marlowe novels are a series; Sherlock Holmes is self-evident. Hammett never wrote series or sequels but film did it for him in The Thin Man property and he was happy to take the money. Beyond this refractory advice, my suggestion would be: if you can’t or won’t write series, then at least use a common background. Niven’s Known Space, Heinlein’s Future History, James Schmitz’s Tales of the Hub, and so on. Try to make the work as coherent, as unified, as connected as possible. It is true that the greatest science fiction novels are stand-alone (this is not true of fantasy: Tolkein, Narnia, Darkover), but most successful works in the genre have been connected by plot or background or both. Branding is what it is now called in advertising and circulation.
It would be interesting to make a list of prominent or successful science fiction writers (not quite the same thing, of course) who never worked in series format or at least in common background. Norman Spinrad and Alfred Bester come to mind. Walter Miller, Jr.? No, not a chance: a sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz occupied Miller for close to 40 years (he published nothing during that period), and of course was finished for him by Terry Bisson and published posthumously.
So much for subject matter, this then for technique: be reasonably prolific. At least a novel a year; two would be better (two series, or a series and a stand-alone or, as was more often the case ten or twenty years ago, a pseudonym for half the work). Try to hold onto all foreign and subsidiary rights; if some foreign rights must be given as a concession, try to make sure that the author has sole and exclusive right to negotiate. If that sole and exclusive right remains with the publisher then at least — I speak from unpleasant and, I fear, widely-shared experience — demand that the foreign monies be paid out upon publisher receipt, that they not be held until the next royalty period or — worst of all and a deal-breaker — be applied to the unearned portion of the advance. In that case, there’s a reasonable expectation that the author will never see any foreign income. (I did not. Granted the publisher only 10% of the foreign money but didn’t notice that the stupid agent gave applicability to the publisher. I lost the full amount of the German advance, about $1,000 US . . . heady money in the early 1970s, at least for me, and fully half of the advance Avon had paid.) Learn from my experience as I did not, and do this.
Otherwise? Otherwise, three precepts, presented by Damon Knight as the last words of In Search of Wonder: Read your contracts. Love your work. Make friends where you can.
And if you haven’t closed it out, keep the day job. Larry McMurtry has. Louis Auchincloss has. T.S. Elliot was an editor at Faber & Faber almost to the end. Joseph Heller was still at Time more than a decade after the publication of Catch-22. This is a problematic business and never more dangerous than at the point the problems seem resolved.
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MIKE: Actually, Norman wrote a sequel, too: Child of Fortune was a sequel to The Void Captain’s Tale.
Interesting that you should mention unearned advance. It’s not a term we see much in contracts these days, but it can lead to such heinous practices that perhaps it deserves some brief discussion.
Let’s take the classic case, which is when you sell your novel to a hardcover publisher and then sell or auction the paperback rights to another publisher. It’s been industry standard ever since the invention of the paperback that under these conditions, the hardcover publisher gets half the paperback advance. (After all, the argument goes — and yes, of course it’s the hardcover publisher’s argument — he’s the one who invested in your book initially; the paperback publisher is coming around after your novel has already been shown to command some respect and attention in the marketplace.)
So let’s give the author a hypothetical advance of $50,000 US for the hardcover. It gets great reviews, and a week or two later he gets an offer of $70,000 US for the paperback. (Or, if we’re living in a Malzbergian universe, divide all sums by ten; I promise it’ll work the same.)
So how much money does the author realize from the paperback resale? Well, your first inclination is (or should be) to say $35,000 US, which is half of the $70,000 US offer, the hardcover publisher keeping the other half.
It’s possible, of course. The math is right.
But it’s just as possible, and far more likely, that the answer is Zero.
How can this be?
The author gets a letter from the hardcover house which says, in essence, “Dear Author: We are in receipt of a check for $70,000 US for the paperback rights to your wonderful novel. Now, as you know, $35,000 US of this is ours. As for the other $35,000 US, theoretically it’s yours — but your book has only earned $11,000 US of its advance, which means the unearned advance is $39,000 US . . . so we’ll just hold this check for $35,000 US until you earn out.”
And the next day, since the hardcover publisher has made his profit, the novel is remaindered — after all, his road men have dozens of books to push that haven’t yet shown a profit — and shucks and darn if the contract doesn’t also state that any book selling for less than 50% of the listed cover price pays no royalties at all.
Sure it’s a scam, albeit a legal one once you sign a contract agreeing to it. Thing is, there wouldn’t be scams like this if authors weren’t worth scamming.
Not everyone can make a living in this field. Nowhere is it written in stone that just wanting to be a writer, just trying your best day in and day out, guarantees you an audience. But the fact remains that in the mid-1960s, those science fiction writers who made a full-time living from the field numbered in single digits, and today they come close to (or perhaps even reach) triple digits.
Sure, series books make it easier, but there are authors who have made it without them. And even with this television-raised generation, eventually they get tired of the same unchanging characters and situations in every book (unless one of the characters has pointy ears, anyway.)
I submit that one (no, not every last one) can make a living from this field by writing at the peak of one’s abilities. It’s certainly easier if one panders to the whims of the marketplace, but (granting a certain degree of ability and accessibility, and an occasional push by one’s publisher) it’s not essential.
They come from out of nowhere, some with series, some without — Cherryh, Bujold, Gibson, Robinson, Kress, Willis, a few dozen others — and if they tell stories people want to read, they stick around and pay their bills.
It’s really as simple as that.
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About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg‘s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the LOCUS Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with Mike Resnick, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest.