“Do you get paid by the hour?”

My chiropractor asked me that question the other day. We were talking about my second novel Loot and the writing process. Novelists are laughing right now because If you do the math – how long it takes to write a novel against average sales – most writers probably make 14 cents an hour.

I told her that publishers pay authors an advance, which is negotiated by the publisher and the writer’s agent. Then the author’s book has to earn enough money for the publisher to recoup the advance. After the advance is paid back, the author gets a (small) percent of book sales.

“That’s strange,” she said.

No kidding.

Her question represents the misperceptions people have about publishing. Even avid readers don’t know about the industry that produces their entertainment. And why would they? It’s a strange industry, and I still don’t understand it. Headlines tell us writers rake in huge advances, go on luxurious book tours, and do TV interviews with Stephen Colbert and Oprah.

I recently read some stats about book sales from Appletree Book Services:

  • The average book published by a major house sells 3,000 copies in its lifetime.
  • The average book published by all houses sells 500 copies in its lifetime.
  • The average self-published book sells 50 copies.

As an Appletree rep said, “Now, if we remember there are five major [publishing] houses, that’s a lot of duds for every Harry Potter.”

Here are the most unusual questions – and the answers – I’ve been asked about publishing and money:

What if you don’t sell many books?

The publisher has to eat the loss. (Thanks for the vote of confidence, though!)

How much did it cost you to publish your book?

Nothing. That’s self publishing. I’m going the traditional route because writing is my job, and I don’t pay my employer.

How much did you pay your editor?

See above.

How much will you make if your book becomes a movie?

A billion trillion dollars! Hah. The vast majority of books don’t become movies. I won’t punish myself by dreaming about that.

Why don’t you just sell your books yourself? If you get all the profits – instead of a portion – you’d make more money even if you sold less.

Because I don’t own a bookstore chain or even a single bookstore. Because I don’t have a distribution network for schools and libraries. Because I have a few hundred regular blog followers, and that’s a generous estimate, and the odds of those readers buying my book are … let’s say not great. Because I have a small family and they can’t buy 1,000 books each. Because I’m a writer and not a marketer or a salesperson. Bottom line: My personal distribution network is about 200 books.

How much do newspapers pay you to do interviews?

Nada. I’m a former journalist, and even I can’t shake nickels out of the pockets of reporters. (Journalism is in such dire straights, reporters don’t have nickels in their pockets.)

So there you have it.

If I get rich, you’ll be the first to know. After my chiropractor, that is.



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