On The Financial Motive

There is something deceptive about success stories. You hear a story of someone else’s success, and it is sometimes hard not to assume that you can do the same.

Author success stories are no exception. For Mormons, Stephanie Meyer is the most recent example. She is just like so many LDS authors — a suburban housewife with kids who writes in her spare time. I’m sure she has a Church calling, worries about how well her kids are doing in school and probably finds inspiration in the people she knows. In fact, her life is just like that of half the women in my ward.

The problem is Meyer’s success — or that of Orson Scott Card, Dean Hughes, Rachel Nunes or whoever — is really very difficult to replicate.

It comes down to sales. Authors usually earn royalties (in general from 5% to 15% of the cover price) on the number of copies sold. Normally that works out to anything from $0.50 to $2 or more a copy. Now to earn the median US income for a family of 4 (about $60,000 a year), an author’s books need to sell 40,000 to 120,000 copies, depending on price and royalties.

Of course, the average book published by a large New York publisher is fortunate to sell 5,000 copies during its life (not per year, like the number needed to make the median income). But for most books that life means large sales in the first few months, declining rapidly at first, and then slowly later in its life. Books that break that lifecycle, and see an increase in sales later in life, are often successes to some extent.

The same is true in the LDS market, but the quantities are smaller — 2,000 copies might be a good selling title. But the lifecycle is similar, if shorter.

All this means is that for an author to make a living at writing, successful strategies are few and
few between. Since sales naturally decline, authors must regularly write new books. The problem with surviving on royalties is that the number of books necessary is often more than most authors can write! Even after years of writing many books a year, most authors still don’t earn enough in royalties to really survive.

There are, of course, alternate strategies. Academic authors generally write more for improving their curricula vitarum, than for royalties, and they gain financially by gaining an academic position. Experts on a subject can write books to improve their reputations. The reputation then helps them get speaking engagements, consulting arrangements, and other money-earning opportunities.

There are other strategies, also. Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired magazine, talks about some of them in his article and forthcoming book, Free. [Although, I think the alternate strategies for fiction are weaker than those for non-fiction.]

In the end, authors who wish to earn a living from their writing should probably think carefully about the strategy they choose to use. Authors need to actually do the math and make sure the strategy used will actually work — that it can actually provide an income.

But, perhaps more importantly, authors should also decide whether or not (or to what extent) they are writing for financial reasons. There are other motivations for writing. [I hope to get to those reasons later.]

8 thoughts on “On The Financial Motive”

  1. I just finished reading a book on marketing strategies for writers, and yeah, it’s a lot easier to market and make a living (or at least get a bit of a financial reward for the time put in to writing and marketing the book) from non-fiction.

    This is partly why I think that:

    1. We need to increase the number of short stories published in the Mormon market (if you are going to write for free anyway at least you could write for free and have a chance of being published more than once every couple of years).

    2. Mormon literary fiction authors should embrace the novella.

  2. Replying to the post — that’s “suburban homemaker,” not “housewife.” 🙂

    Replying to William: I would love to write literary fiction. Novellas included. But the LDS customers aren’t buying literary novels. They want genre novels. Writing literary is the kiss of death right now with most publishers. I do hope this will change someday, but right now Zarahemla and Parables are the only publishers really doing literary, and they’re both small houses.

  3. Tristi:

    I doubt it will change much. I don’t see literary writers who write for the Mormon market ever actually making money off of it. It must be done for fame and glory rather than lucre (that’s a joke — I’d love it if every Mormon author who writes a good to fantastic novel could at least get a return of $5k on it).

    When you say “writing literary is the kiss of death” — does that mean that you have no chance of submitting it? Or does that mean if you become known as a literary writer that your chances for your genre novels will suffer?

    I’m curious because it seems to me that if you really wanted to write literary every once in awhile you could always do so and post that work on your own Web site. But that won’t work if it makes publishers uneasy.

  4. Tristi:

    I’m sorry if I’m not quite PC.

    As for literary fiction, I don’t think that anyone really makes much money on literary fiction, except for the biggest names. It does get published – but sales are generally low – a few thousand copies.

    (FWIW, there are even publishers in the LDS market that will publish literary fiction — Signature does about 1 a year, Zarahemla has done 3 titles and I believe will do more, I’m interested in doing some, and I’ve probably left out others)

    Regardless of whether you are writing for the LDS market or the national market, I think you need to find a non financial motivation if you are writing literary fiction.

  5. Kent,

    I was just wondering if you had any thoughts about how used book stores (especially online used book stores like Amazon and the like) affect and are affecting book sales and how much an author takes from royalties. Do you know of any kind of figures?

  6. To be honest, Trevor, I don’t know all that well. Off the top of my head, I don’t think that used sales have a big effect on most book sales (textbooks are an exception). Used books, like new books, are purchased by the same 15% of the public that actually buys most books. They mostly seem to purchase books used that they wouldn’t purchase at all otherwise.

    But, I also don’t want to say that used books have no effect at all. I’m just suggesting that its not such a big effect that most publishers worry about it (they mostly can’t do anything about it any way).

    As for royalties, I think I mentioned in the post that authors get royalties of generally 5% to 15% of the book’s suggested retail (aka cover) price. If you mean royalties on used books, the author gets nothing, since royalties were paid (usually) when the book was sold as new.

    There is one thing that may give authors some additional payments in the future. The UK has a program know where authors get paid a small amount for how much their books are checked out of libraries. It remains to be seen whether such a program will be adopted elsewhere.

    Don’t count on it in the US anytime soon.

  7. As I understand it, the government pays for the library check outs, probably as part of the library budget. The question then becomes what affect thismight have on library acquisitions. Do the libraries then skew their purchases a little more toward the obscure titles, since they might not be checked out as frequently?

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