The current DOJ antitrust trial about the Penguin Random House acquisition of Simon and Schuster has got the publishing and writing worlds chattering about some of the facts and stats coming out in the procedures.
Most sobering are those like this: of the 58,000 trade titles published annually, fully half sell fewer than a dozen hard copies (see industry expert Jane Friedman’s addendum about this here). Or that 90 percent of books sell fewer than 2,000 units. Or that PRH spends just 2% of their 2.7 billion annual sales on marketing those titles. (Learn more from Jane’s roundtable discussion about the trial here.)
These trials are spotlighting some harsh facts of our industry, chiefly that most books do not sell well and most writers do not make a living from their writing, even as they are increasingly responsible for bearing the costs.
And yet in my 30 years working in the publishing business I have never seen the level of industry that has grown up in recent years around services and products marketed to authors.
Writers have become not only the product but the customer.
The writing-career business model
Imagine pursuing a business where your chances of success and profit were small, but the overhead costs to operate it were significant and ongoing. Where your vendors were doing quite well in their businesses, even while yours might be struggling just to break even, let alone turn a profit. Where even if you do sell your product, it is likely to yield less than a living annual wage. And that doesn’t even factor in things like health insurance costs, sick leave, or retirement savings.
Most people would look at these P&Ls and step far away from this business model.
But dreams are powerful things, and artists are powerful dreamers. It’s one of the most magnificent and sublime things about creatives. Not only do they stay connected to those most hopeful and tender parts of being human, but through their art they share it with others.
That can also make creatives uniquely inclined to follow their dreams—sometimes at the expense of reality.
We all hope we might be among that tiny fraction of authors who catch fire—become bestsellers, sell foreign and movie rights, reach—and make—millions. But the reality is that most won’t.
There is no part of me that wishes to discourage writers or any other artists from their art. The value of art in our world to me is incalculable.
But the cost of living is calculable. And it’s a key consideration in how we run our writing careers if we want to build and sustain them for the long haul.
I’ve written about the upside of this knowledge in operating the product side of your business—how understanding the financial realities of the publishing business can give you more autonomy over your own writing career, rather than leaving authors feeling their success is at the mercy of the gatekeepers.
Read more: “The Happy Harsh Truths of a Writing Career”
Today we’re talking about operating the customer side of your career—you as a writer hiring other professionals and services for your business. I am not denigrating or dismissing those professionals or services, or their potential value to writers. I am one of them, making my living offering services to writers and publishers.
But I am encouraging you as an artist and a businessperson to be an informed consumer and make sound, practical investment decisions. That starts with asking yourself two essential but entirely subjective questions.
What do you need versus what do you want?
To be a writer the overhead is encouragingly low. Since time immemorial the main requirements are writing implement and something to record your thoughts on, whether that’s a cave wall, a stone tablet, paper, or an electronic file.
To run a writing business there may be more costs involved. Your job is to determine what you actually need to operate your career, and what you want.
You may desire someone to help you with the writing itself, like a writing coach or teacher. You may want to invest in classes, books, conferences, and other educational opportunities. You may want editing help, or to pay for critique or beta-reading services. You may consider hiring someone to assist you with design, marketing.
But how much of it do you actually need?
Read more: “’Leave Me Alone—I Know What I’m Doing’”
Here are just some of the many services and professionals you can pay for, and a few considerations in deciding whether they are “necessities” for your goals:
- Do you need an MFA, for instance, or an expensive writing program that claims to replace one? Nope. Many MFA grads are also not making a living from their writing, and many published authors do not have MFAs. That’s not a requirement for or guarantee of success. There are other ways to learn your craft and your business.
Do you want an MFA? That’s something different—and that becomes a subjective cost consideration—is that expenditure personally worth it to you, considering that it is unlikely to yield much measurable ROI?
- Classes, conferences, retreats: You can find excellent ones priced extremely reasonably, and mediocre or even poor ones priced exorbitantly—and vice versa. I promise you that price is not the indicator of value. Caveat emptor—do your research: Vet the offerings and those who are providing them, and look for ways to see what previous attendees have thought. Quality writing education and training don’t have to cost a mint.
- Writing/book coach: Having someone to help in the process, to keep you motivated and focused, may be a lovely luxury, but is it necessary? This field has exploded lately, but since time immemorial writers have managed to write without them.
- Paid beta reading or critique services: This is another field that has expanded in recent years, but the time-honored way of doing this—trading crits with other authors, enlisting educated readers, etc.—is free (or just the price of a thoughtful thank-you gift or dinner) and can be just as useful if you understand what you need from these other sources and how to get it. See my Editing Toolbox page for a free downloadable questionnaire you can offer your beta readers, for example, to elicit useful, actionable feedback.
- Editing: A good, experienced dev editor can be a marvelous luxury, someone who can offer you objective, actionable input to help you make your manuscript as strong and competitive and marketable as it can be, and push your writing and your story to the next level. But if you are contracted with a traditional publisher a dev edit is generally encompassed in-house, as are copyediting and proofreading.
For authors self-publishing, or with small/indie pub houses, I often suggest at least a copyedit may be a “need,” as readers can be brutal about mistakes and typos, and you are competing with every polished professionally published title out there.
But authors have long succeeded without hiring an independent developmental editor—if you can find good, solid crit partners/beta readers, often they can help offer the objective input that will help you see whether your intentions are on the page and show you where the manuscript may need more development or clarification. Editors often make this process much easier and more focused—but I’d still qualify this as a “want,” not a need.
- Formatting and cover design: Personal choice. I know many self- and indie-pubbed authors who do this for themselves, and there are good programs to help you with both (which are also an investment, FYI). But you can also hire this done if you need it and worry that your abilities won’t match your expectations.
- Audiobook production can also be done with little overhead (if you are willing to sacrifice part of your royalties for it), or you can bear these costs yourself if you choose to self-publish your book in this format. Those expenses usually involve equipment to record with; a space to record in, whether you create that or rent it (I created a very affordable and effective version of my own recording studio in my closet with shower rods and moving blankets); and an engineer/editor if you decide not to do that yourself, or the software to do it if you do.
- Marketing, publicity and advertising services can similarly be as much or as little as you choose. Know that spending more does not always guarantee more exposure nor more sales. Spending less may not get the results you want either, though. And there are plenty of marketing/outreach efforts you can do on your own without needing to hire a publicist or other pro. This one is, again, a “want” item.
Depending on your career and personal goals, you may weigh which of these services feel necessary to you. With a traditional publisher, most will be provided in-house. If you choose to go with a small or indie press you may deem more of these services “needs.” If you go hybrid you may still be financially responsible for a great many of them, if you/your publisher deem them necessary. (Make sure you fully understand what you are getting in return with a hybrid publisher—the costs can be exorbitant and the benefits unclear. Jane Friedman has some excellent info about hybrid publishing on her website.)
Adding all these services up, you could be looking at a very significant investment into five figures.
Will you make that back? It’s unlikely.
I’m leaving that statement as stark as it seems because I think it’s important that authors understand the realities and likelihoods in this business.
Which leads us to the second question: Knowing the slim chances of fully recouping those investments, are they still worth making to you?
Is it worth it?
It’s important to define “worth it” by metrics specific to you:
- Your personal goals and desires
- Your career/business goals and needs/wants
- Your financial situation
These considerations will help you decide whether what money you do decide to spend is a worthwhile investment. That means vetting what you’re getting, and the ROI (return on investment) for each—and this is a subjective equation.
In deciding what is worth it to you, ask yourself some key questions:
- How important is this to you?
This is a purely subjective assessment of where this expenditure/service falls on your priority list for your personal and career goals—the more specific you can be in defining what those goals are, the better. Are you seeking a traditional publishing path? Self-pubbing? Do you want to hit bestseller lists? Garner X number of reviews? Just share your work with an audience of any size?
Read more: “Why Do You Write?”
I once paid several thousand dollars to buy my rights back from a small publisher to whom I had sold them for zero dollars. Think about that: It cost me money to own a story I had written.
When I did so, though, it felt worth it to me—even not knowing whether I would recoup those costs—for important personal and professional reasons. But I took into account several other considerations in determining that as well:
- What will you get out of it?
This isn’t always a tangible product—like a formatted book, for instance. You might decide to spend money for an opportunity—to meet with your dream agent one on one, for instance, in a paid consultation, or to learn from an expert you admire in an intimate setting. You might do it to level up your story and writing by working with an expert.
But be clear about what you are and are not getting. Consider that paid services are just that—because you’ve paid to add in a private crit consultation with an agent, for instance, that doesn’t mean that they will sign you. The best editor or educator in the world can’t guarantee you will be offered a publishing contract. That fancy writer’s retreat won’t necessarily result in a finished or polished manuscript or key industry contacts.
Those things may happen as a result—but there are no guarantees, no magic formula. If anyone is promising you miraculous or foolproof results, you’re likely getting hustled. No one has the secret sauce or a magic wand.
Judge whether an expenditure is worth it to you by what you know you will get from those services: An agent you’ve paid for a consult is likely to provide valuable, professional input on the marketability of your story or whether it’s ready to submit, in greater depth than if you’d simply queried them. A good professional edit will likely help you level up not only your story, but your writing and craft skills and knowledge. That fancy writer’s retreat with published authors or industry pros probably at the least offers a wonderful, writing-focused vacation with like-minded creatives.
Consider what you are spending, and what concrete ROI it will yield—not the possibilities, but the realities.
- Is this money you can comfortably afford to spend?
I hope it’s evident by this point, but given the financial realities of this business, do not spend money that isn’t discretionary for you. Don’t gamble that you will make back money you need or want for other important areas of your life—including paying bills, savings, and other expenses and personal priorities.
Decide how much you can/will budget for this type of service—and for how long, based on what they may yield in terms of income—and stick within that.
- What is your time worth to you?
Many of these services are things you can find “workarounds” for with less expensive ways of accomplishing them, or by learning to do them yourself. Weigh the costs of that—in your time, effort, peace of mind, and the quality you hope for—in deciding what is worth paying someone to do, and what you might accomplish in other ways.
With Intuitive Editing, which is self-published, I spent a pretty good chunk on my book designer, graphic designer, audio engineer, marketing, and other overhead costs. However these were all services I did not want to learn or to perform myself, or that would cost me more in time and lost income than it would save, or that I worried I wouldn’t be able to do myself to the level of professionalism I wanted—and I was fairly confident I would at least recoup those costs. That made these expenditures worth it to me.
Your writing career is a business—operate it that way
I keep an extensive spreadsheet of all of my expenses and my income, and I regularly track it in ascertaining how much it makes sense to spend on what services, for my personal goals and financial situation, and often against what the time commitment of doing it myself—including learning a skill—“costs” me in income, effort, and mental stress, as opposed to what it would cost me to hire someone else to do it.
The costs I’m willing to incur for my editing business are substantially higher than what I am willing to incur for my fiction, both because editing is my main passion and focus as well as my main income, a more profitable venture I’m willing to sustain higher operating costs for.
I strongly recommend authors keep spreadsheets year on year to track their operating costs and income. That lets you see growth as well as gauge what expenditures are worth it, not just financially but for your personal goals—but it’s essential that you have a realistic idea of what those goals and expenditures are if you want to sustain and build a long-term career.
You should also vet the professionals and services you hire carefully. I offer a free 13-page Get It Edited guide on my website to help you do that with editors, and the tips I suggest there can also apply to vetting most any other service or professional. Victoria Strauss investigates complaints about professionals in her wonderful Writer Beware feature through the SFWA.
The beauty of this business is that the overhead for product development, as Flo Rida says, is low, low, low, low, low, low, low, low.
And yet judging by the marketing for some of these services, authors can’t properly do their work without whatever services they’re offering. Be cautious of those who make you believe you “need” to hire any service, that writing is best done by committee, that writers can’t write without external guidance and accountability and motivation…all of which they are happy to provide to you for a price.
Your day job should support your writing career, not your writing staff. Make sure that you carefully consider where you’re spending your money, and for what, in creating the career path you want.
All right, authors, I’m sure I’ve opened quite a can of bees here—what are your thoughts on all the many paid services available to you these days? Have you used any of them? What were your thoughts on what you got out of it? Do you have an actual business plan, complete with goals and a budget?