where the writers are
Who Works for .35 cents an hour?

In a recent NY Times article about the coming price war in ebooks, NY Times bestselling author Douglas Preston is quoted as follows:

“The sense of entitlement of the American consumer is absolutely astonishing,” said Douglas Preston, whose novel “Impact” reached as high as No. 4 on The New York Times’s hardcover fiction best-seller list earlier this month. “It’s the Wal-Mart mentality, which in my view is very unhealthy for our country. It’s this notion of not wanting to pay the real price of something.”
Amazon commenters attacked Mr. Preston after his publisher delayed the e-book version of his novel by four months to protect hardcover sales. Mr. Preston said he was not sure whether the protests were denting his sales. But, he said, “It gives me pause when I get 50 e-mails saying ‘I’m never buying one of your books ever again. I’m moving on, you greedy, greedy author.”

Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “sense of entitlement” because I don’t think people are unwilling to pay the “real” price for a book. What I think the problem happens to be is a combination of things.
First, I think it has to do with a general devaluation of writing in our anti-intellectual society, combined with a malicious dumbing down of the literary landscape: we praise and reward writers who, essentially, abuse the craft. It’s a topic I’ve gone on at length about here and won’t get into it again. However, I think it is important to point out that the financial reward that these types of writers receive - the million dollar advances, the automatic million dollar movie deals, etc - creates for the average reading audience a certain skewed, and warped sense of how writers actually work, live, and earn money.
I’ve had conversations with people about the publication of my book where the word “famous” has gotten thrown around, partly as a joke, but also because, I assume, they either think I was paid a princely sum for my work, or they assume it’ll sell so many copies I’ll be able to live off my royalties (or they’re mocking me because they think I self-published). They are surprised when I tell them that it took me 8 years to write and sell “The Evolution of Shadows,” that I racked up 50 rejections from agents, and that my advance was considerably less than $10,000. Then, if they stay around long enough after that to find out all the inside nastiness of the publishing world - especially that most writers rarely see a royalty check and, even if they do, it’s based on a measly 10-15% of the cover price - they end up telling me that they didn’t realize how tough it is to get published and make a living at it.
Whether that translates into them making the connection between that and Amazon’s cutthroat pricing tactics is hard to say. So, I did a little math to help out - and just like in high school algebra, I’m going to show my work:
Now, to make this easy to grasp, lets say that the average writer puts in a five day, 40 hr work week on his book (granted its 40 hrs crammed around his regular 40 hr a week job sitting at someone else’s desk, in someone else’s office, doing “the man’s” work). That roughly, that translates to 2,080 hrs of labor a year on the book (research, planning, writing, revising, on the creative side, then there’s the business side of submitting). Over an 8 year stretch that comes to 16,640 hrs of labor to get that one sale.
Depending on where the writer is able to sell that book, and how much the publisher thinks it will make, the writer could receive an advance from anywhere around $250 to $250,000 (or more even, but let’s be rational). For argument’s sake, let’s pick a nice round number: $10,000. Our writer gets a $10,000 advance. Divide that advance by the hrs worked for that 10K and it comes about .60¢ an hour.
Now, ask yourself, who in their right might would work for a .60¢ an hour wage?
Now, just for argument’s sake, let’s give it another perspective, let’s say the novel came in at exactly 60,000 words. That is the bottom range of what the publishing industry considers a “novel” length manuscript. A $10K advance on a 60K word manuscript comes out to .16¢ a word.
That’s the toughest .16¢ anyone will ever earn. And, that’s all before any copies of the book are sold. In order for a writer to see a “royalty” that writer has to earn back that advance. If the writer never earns back his advance, that $10K he got up front will be all he ever gets for 8 years of gut wrenching effort. But, let’s say the writer gets lucky and makes back that advance and starts earning the mythical royalty.
Now, let’s specifically address that $9.99 price point that Amazon is charging out there. Sure, some of the stuff I’ve heard is that Amazon and other ebook retailers are offering to pay authors 65% to 70% of that price in royalties. That means the author will get anywhere from $6 to $7 dollars for each book sold. It sounds good on the surface, but it doesn’t effect our hourly or “per word” rate very much.
Let’s figure high and say our writer gets a $7 royalty for every book sold: that figures out to be an additional .0004¢ per hour, or an extra .0001¢ per word.
This, sad to say, is the pay scale that 99% of novelists work in. Only 1% or so, work in the per hour/per word pay scale of the J.K. Rowling’s, or the Stephanie Meyer’s or the Dan Brown’s who pull down multimillion dollar advances on books they write over two years, which means they’re earning several thousand dollars an hour/per word.
So, a $9.99 price point wouldn’t hurt the likes of J.K. Rowling. A few extra .0001¢’s per word won’t make a difference to someone pulling down a million dollar advance. But since most writers don’t land million dollar advances, that ten-thousandths of a penny is a big deal to the rest of us writers who are all working two or more jobs to support this crazy passion we have for telling stories for other people to read.

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Great blog, Jason. Thank you.

Why authors persevere in believing in the publishing industry in its traditional mode is beyond me. Since the evolution of conglomerates, it has hardly proved itself commercially efficient and survives only on the demented hope of netting another J K Rowling. Since she, of her own luck and talent, bucked all the trends, such scenarios have to be engineered and based on mainly futile attempts to clone success. This means that there's no money in the pot for anyone else.

Whereas, the opposite used to be true. A Jean Plaidy or Harold Robbins made it possible for new and original talent to be nurtured and there was a deep and respectful bond between author and publisher.

Now it's just a cattle market. The industry can't blame the consumer for responding as he does if it stoops to the selling tactics of the soap manufacturer. Authors have always been at the base point of this upturned pyramid - it's one of the laws of creativity and true art - but now they scarcely exist! And in the short term, there's not much they can do about it.

Be glad that you have found an excellent publishing house who is on the lookout for all that's intelligent, daring and different, and that you appear to have found it without an agent. Very well done! It says a lot for you and for them.

You may be amused to hear that the leading mantra of The Society of Authors in the UK is the following quotation from Doris Lessing:

"It does no harm to repeat, as often as you can, 'Without me the literary industry would not exist: the publishers, the agents, the sub-agents, the accountants, the libel lawyers, the departments of literature, the professors, the theses, the books of criticism, the reviewers, the book pages - all this vast and proliferating edifice is because of this small, patronised, put-down and underpaid person.'"

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Thanks, Rosy.   I am

Thanks, Rosy.  

I am incredibly glad to be with Unbridled Books.  And I share your general view that the conglomerates have set up a model for themselves that is untenable over the long run.  Basing a business model on the hard-to-predict Celebrity writer of the year, will eventually hurt them.  

However, I am glad that the conglomerates have decided to stand up to the likes of Amazon to try to retain their right to set the price on the books they publish.  That's good news for all publishers, even the small ones, and every single writer and aspiring writer out there.