How much is your fiction worth?

When you write a story, how much should you sell it for?  Whatever the market will bear, right?  It’s a capitalistic society, so we can make a ton of money!  Huzzah!

Well, it turns out that a lot of writers (including me) will sell a story for whatever the market will give us, not what it’s worth by any reasonable standard of the work we put into it.  Take a look at standard royalty rates: anywhere from 7-12.5% gross, right?

Why is it that low?  Because as writers, we all know that what publishers do is at least seven times more important than what we do:  without publishers, there would be no product!  And we all know that most of us won’t make the publisher any money–we won’t earn out our advances.  Poor, poor publishers, doing all this for…well, what turns out to be nice profits in 2010, and will probably be better in 2011.  They’re so noble, giving us the chance to get published–not!

I’m not saying that it’s a bad idea to try to get published rather than doing it yourself.  That’s a decision you have to make yourself; there’s a lot of cachet in getting published, and it does build a resume that will help with other freelance work.  So I can’t say that I won’t be tempted by a low advance and crappy rates; I have been before, and I will be again.  However, know that when you’re considering a publisher, even a big publisher, you may not be getting paid minimum wage to write.

My guesstimated numbers:

Number of words/hour on average first draft: 1000.
Words edited per hour for cleanup (NOT including client changes/revisions/copyedits/etc.): 2500.
Time taken to write/edit 10K:  10 hours writing + 4 hours cleanup = 14 hours (if everything goes smoothly, and not including submission time, and not including research/brainstorming time).

For self-employed people, you have to take the hourly wages x 2 to get about the same take-home pay, due to taxes and hours spent doing non-production tasks, like managing your business.  Working for the man means you get paid to answer emails from your employer.  Working for yourself means you don’t.

Minimum wage in Colorado: $7.36/hr.  Self employed: $14.82  Skill level:  can’t spell, cardboard characters, unbelievable plot, could be outsourced to a monkey.

Average wage of HS graduate*: $25,000 women/$32,900 men ($50K women/$65.8K men–$25/hr women, $32.90/hr men).  Skill level: can spell but can’t handle grammar, has read a few of the greats in HS English, has one or two decent strengths, has no idea why things work or don’t.

Average wage of college graduate: $40,100 women/$51,000 men ($80.1K women/$101K men–$40.10/hr women, $51/hr men).  Skill level: spelling/grammar proficient, can think analytically about a text and is aware of genre requirements, is decent at all areas of writing with a few real strengths, is starting to recognize personal style and audience.

Note: we still haven’t hit the skill level (or pay grade) of a professional writer yet.

I’m going to guesstimate my average book length as about 85K, and my average story length as 4K.

Short story (4K):

Time to write: 4 hours; time to edit: 1.6 hours.  Total: 5.6 hours.
Minimum wage: $82.42 (just over 2 cents/word)
HS graduate: $140 women (3.5c/w)/$184.24 men (4.6c/w).
College graduate: $224.56 women (5.6c/w)/$285.60 men (7.1c/w).
Note:  still not to pro writer skill level yet.

Conclusion: assuming that writers are fast and work cheap, and the editors ask for no changes or help with promotions, semi-pro rates should be 7.1 cents/word.

Pro rates should be more than that; the fact that pro rates are generally defined at 5c/word implies that pro writers are more skilled than a monkey but are only writing at the same level as a high-school graduate.

Novel (85K):
Time to write: 85 hours; time to edit: 34.  Total: 119.
Minimum wage: $1751.68
HS graduate: $2975/$3915.10
College graduate: $4771.90/$6069
Again, not to pro writer level yet.

Conclusion: assuming that writers are fast and work cheap, and the editors ask for no changes or help with promotions, an advance at a smaller publishing house should be $6K.  Advances at large publishing houses should be proportionately larger.  Advances for books requiring research should be proportionately larger.

But wait! The publishers are taking all the risk, right? No.

The writers are taking the risk that the publisher will ask for edits (and they will); they are taking the risk that the publisher will ask us to do promotions (and they will).  If the publisher is taking all the risks, the writer should be paid hourly for those tasks–at $101/hour, for smaller publishing houses and more for larger houses.

If that work is worth nothing, then writers with platforms (or track records) are not worth more than writers without platforms or track records, and that is clearly not the case.  The writers are also taking the risk that the publisher will screw up somehow on the book.  The writer is investing in the publisher as well: if the publisher isn’t making money for the writer, why?  Is the publisher incompetent?  The publisher thought the book was good enough to make them money, or they wouldn’t have bought it.  Or shouldn’t have bought it.

How important is the writer to a book?

Is the writer more or less important than the publisher when it comes to a project?

Let’s (generously) say that the publisher and writer each contribute about half the value of a book, that what they do is equally important to the success of a book.  Then why aren’t writers making 50% net, with net being “retail minus the physical cost of the book, if any, and bookseller discount”?

Because the publishers will pay us whatever we will put up with; that’s capitalism for you.  They can make a ton of money!  Huzzah!

I mean, I can’t blame them:  wouldn’t you?

*Numbers taken from U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2011). The Condition of Education 2011 (NCES 2011–033),Indicator 17.  Latest data for 2009.

19 comments

  1. Liz says:

    That is some staggering data. Let’s not even consider the fact that minimum wage is higher or lower depending on the state you live in. Yikes!

  2. Chrysoula Tzavelas says:

    I have read claims (from the publisher side of things) that the royalty rate on hardcovers actually does work out to about half of net receipts after printing and bookseller/distributor discounts.

    Of course, most genre fiction doesn’t debut in hardcover with hardcover royalties…

  3. Justin Diehl says:

    Those are some pretty staggering numbers. I’m heavily debating the epub/kindle/etc route and just looking at the suggested hourly salary and how many books I’d have to sell just to match that. The number of books that would need to be sold to break even in terms of how much my time is worth sounds like a lot, but probably not too much in the grand scheme of things. Getting 2-3 thousand people to buy a book at 2.99 doesn’t sound too hard over a few years time period.

  4. De says:

    List price for Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is $35.
    60% of that (list price minus 40% discount–what I’ve heard is standard) is $21.
    12.5% of gross is $4.38.
    In order for this to come out to half of net, the cost of one book unit must be $12.24. Given that this book is 849 pages, it’s probably more expensive than your average book, but I somehow doubt it’s that much.

  5. De says:

    Looking at the numbers to make self-publishing pay off is admittedly pretty staggering, too, but for now it seems to be the case that you have years to make that pay off. I’m going to shoot for crunching the same numbers for self-pub next Friday.

  6. JR Tomlin says:

    How do you see the numbers to make S-P pay off as staggering, De?

    At the 70% royalty rate from Amazon, you don’t have to be on the NYT best seller list to make a pretty decent hourly wage if you want to look at it that way. How do I know? I think you can guess. 😉

  7. Kate C. says:

    This was a fascinating entry and I hope you do write one on indie publishing. It could be very educational for those who are trying to decide between the two.

  8. Cindie says:

    Really interesting post! Sums up a lot of the discussions we have with new authors who come to us (at Lucky Bat Books). The risk part is an especially strong point. Traditional publishing has done an excellent job at selling authors on what they do. I know many writers are disappointed when they finally get that traditional contract, only to find out their publishers don’t do half of what they have been led to believe. Although, maybe it’s not fair to say traditional publishers have perpetuated these myths. Mostly, I hear writers (especially unpublished writers) getting defensive when they hear anything about traditional publishers that doesn’t match their romanticized beliefs. From editors at these publishing house, it usually sounds like they’re not happy with not doing as much as they’d like. I believe they want to nurture writers; they want to promote every book they love; they want to work independent of marketing departments. Maybe as self-publishing, indie-publishing, small-press publishing, partnership-publishing, and hybrid companies like ours catch on, those editors will get that opportunity once again. I don’t want traditional publishing to go away, but I do want to see it open to evolving.

  9. De says:

    JR – a lot of people won’t have the patience to let things pay off, especially when they start out and are making low sales every month.

  10. De says:

    Cindie – I would love to see authors being treated with respect by their publishers at all levels. But if that respect doesn’t come with money and/or royalties, I’m not sure you can say it’s respect. No, editors aren’t publishers, but editors work for publishers, so they have to take responsibility for how the publishers act: they’re on the same gravy train. It’s hard to be objective and easy to be “I just do my job” when that’s where your paycheck comes from. I think the way the big publishers seem to be split up into departments is crazy. Why on earth would you want to have editing vs. marketing vs. sales vs. art? How could you possibly achieve a consistent vision when everyone’s throwing blame?

  11. B. S. Simon says:

    While I have issue with the gender split of the income numbers, this article is full of gold as it explains what the costs of writing should be at a minimum. It also resonates with a post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch called “Writers: Will Work For Cheap” from Jan 4, 2012 where she explains how what writers get paid hasn’t changed in decades.

    Bryon

  12. De says:

    Byron, I have an issue with the gender split of the income numbers, too. And that article is probably one of the main reasons I wrote this :)

  13. Chrysoula Tzavelas says:

    Thing Iread said booksellers take 40% and distributors also take a cut, plus printing fees, somehow ending up at 25% after allthe outside forces take their cut. I wish I could remember where I saw these numbers. I was dubious about them myself but I figured I’d throw it out there because I was pretty surprised by it.

  14. De says:

    Chrysoula – I worked out the numbers for Stephen King’s latest in the comments above; seems extremely doubtful to me.

  15. Chrysoula Tzavelas says:

    I saw that and that was what I was responding to. :). I’ve spent half an hour or so trying to find the source of those numbers and while I’ve seen the idea repeated a few places (that the margin for hardcovers is about 12.5%) I haven’t yet found my original source. It was pretty reasonable though: 40% to booksellers, 20% to distributors like Ingram and 15% to printers. They can still realize record profits etc by focusing on guaranteed sellers from already-quite-wealthy authors, which we know they do (and by not wasting time editing and marketing the cheaper authors, which I’m also pretty sure is true).

    It is, in any case, still better to avoid letting the screwed up book industry screw up your own income if it’s all avoidable.

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