Inspired by some posts I’ve seen some writer friends make recently and a bit of a grumpy mood, I present to you the Reasons Your Writer Friend Sometimes Gets Testy. Publishing is a strange business that doesn’t always work the way the rest of the world works, and that means it can be really stressful to be a writer. Read this, and you’ll realizes how important it is to support writers you love, whether they’re your friends/family or people whose work you enjoy.
There’s no correlation between experience level and earnings.
In the regular business world, you generally expect that when you’re entry-level, you earn a lower salary, and then as you gain experience, you get paid more. That’s not always how it works in publishing. Sometimes it does work that way, with writers gradually getting higher advances and then more promotion so their books earn more. But quite often, a brand-new writer may sign a contract with a huge advance while an established midlist writer will keep plugging away at about the same advance level over time — a level much lower than that new writer starts with. In the business world, new people get lower salaries than experienced people because the new person is an unknown quantity with a learning curve, while the more experienced person has proven their ability, and their experience means it will cost less and take less time to train them. It’s the opposite in publishing. The new person may get a higher advance because they’re an unknown quantity — they could be the next big thing — while they already know what to expect from the established person.
There’s also no correlation between quality and earnings.
I’m sure we can all think of some horribly written, unoriginal books that were smash bestsellers, and some good books that no one’s ever heard of. Sometime, that’s on the reading public, but there are certainly times when publishers pay a lot for and then heavily promote horribly written, unoriginal books while ignoring far better books.
So, authors don’t have the usual ways of improving their earnings. Sticking it out and becoming more experienced may or may not pay off. Working harder and writing better may or may not pay off.
It’s almost always considered the book’s or author’s fault if a book doesn’t do well.
There are lots of reasons why a book doesn’t find an audience. It may not be a good book or there may not be an audience for it. But it might also be because the cover is terrible, the book doesn’t get distributed well, there’s no promotion, or there’s some other, unrelated issue. I know of an author whose book was being carried from the printer to a distribution center in a train that derailed. Those copies were all destroyed in the accident and never made it to bookstore shelves in that region, which meant it didn’t sell in that region. When it came time to negotiate her next contract, the publisher held it against her that this book didn’t sell as well as her previous books. Or there have been cases in which the publicist responsible for a book left for another job a couple of weeks before publication, and no one realized until later that she hadn’t actually done any of the publicity work she was supposed to have done. Still, those poor sales were held against the author. There are a few stories of publishers who admitted that they did a terrible job of packaging and promoting a book and who then made an effort to relaunch that book or author, but it’s possible that these are urban legends.
And it’s not just publishers. Imagine if you will an author on release day, and their in-box is full of messages. You hope there will be a lot of “I’ve started reading your new book and love it” e-mails. There may be a few of those. The rest are more likely “Why didn’t your book download to my Kindle at midnight?” or “I looked for your book at my bookstore, but I didn’t find it. Why isn’t it there?” I’ve asked as politely as I could if they asked someone who actually works for the bookstore, and sometimes the response is “Oh, I didn’t think of that.” I’m not sure I understand the impulse to ask the author where to find something in a store instead of asking someone who works there. This may be why your author friend’s eyes flip to black and their neck veins stand out when you helpfully tell them you didn’t see their book at the store when you checked. You may mean well and be imparting information rather than expecting them to do something about it, but trust me, they’ve already heard all about it.
Sometimes, the author doesn’t get the credit when a book does well.
I know an author whose editor called to excitedly tell her that her book was a bestseller, and then said, “And we just had a meeting to try to figure out what it was about that cover that sold so well.” Because it couldn’t possibly have been the book itself, I guess.
Publishers can’t make a book a bestseller, but it’s hard to be a bestseller if the publisher hasn’t tried to make that happen.
That’s all about print run, placement, and promotion. There are lead titles that are positioned to be potential bestsellers. Sometimes, publishers guess wrong and all their efforts are for nothing (I have to admit to enjoying seeing lead titles from the time my books were published on remainder tables while my books are still in print). For the rest of the list, it’s almost a mathematical impossibility just because not enough books are printed and distributed to make a bestseller list even if every single copy sells. In the days of e-books, that makes a bit less of a difference, so maybe there’s a bigger chance of something being a surprise bestseller, but that would really take a stroke of luck without the promo behind it. Non-writer friends think writers are being pessimistic when they don’t hope for a new release to hit a bestseller list, but the fact is that they probably already know whether or not that’s even possible.
Sometimes, the performance of other books can make a difference to your career.
Imagine if you didn’t get a raise or a promotion, or if you even didn’t get hired or lost your job because someone with a similar job at an entirely different company didn’t perform well. That happens to authors. If books in a similar category to what you write don’t sell well, your publisher might not want more books from you or might give up on books that haven’t been published yet. They don’t look at it as that one book not performing. Frequently, they decide that category has tanked. Ask anyone who got caught up in the chick lit purge, when the industry decided those books were over after sales declined, and authors found themselves without publishers — even if their books were actually performing well.
So, you can see why there are some crazy stresses that come with this job, even if it is fun work that doesn’t require going to an office and having a boss stand over you. There’s a lot of stuff you have to just let go because you can’t control it. The only thing you can do is keep writing and keep trying to be better. That’s no guarantee of success, but it might improve your odds somewhat.