It's a gray, lazy morning in London, and I'm sitting at Aleksandr Voinov's kitchen table while we drink our coffee and wake up. Bear with me, because there is a point to this.
Today, we'll finish the book we've been working on, and we'll continue with the efficient system that's become our routine--Aleks write his part of the story while I work on one of several edits that have come in from my various publishers, and then I'll write my part while he works on expanding the third book in a fan-favorite fantasy series. We'll go back and forth like that until roughly midnight or until we're finished, whichever comes first. Then it's on to the next projects--some joint, some solo.
I've been here for the past three weeks, crashing on Aleks's couch in between writing together in the house, libraries, coffee shops, and wherever else we can set up our laptops. It was a somewhat impromptu trip, a plane ticket bought on less than a month's notice. Why? Because Aleks suddenly had the opportunity to be at home for several weeks, and we both realized it would be the perfect chance for us to co-write face to face rather than over the internet, not to mention without the six-hour time difference between Aleks's home in London and mine in Nebraska.
So why does he suddenly have all this time on his hands? Because he's been laid off from a relatively comfortable--if soul-sucking and miserable--job in the financial world.
For a lot of people, the loss of a job is a crisis. And for Aleks, it was certainly stressful, but he did have one ace up his sleeve that a lot of his colleagues did not--a second income stream.
Specifically, royalties. While it's not a full-time income yet, the pattern over the past couple of years is extremely promising. By putting his nose to the grindstone and releasing books regularly, it's absolutely possible for him to catch up with what he was making at his previous job. Indeed, by writing and selling ebooks -- primarily queer romance and historicals -- Aleks is optimistic about meeting, if not exceeding, his previous paychecks within 1-3 years.
Sound like a pipe dream?
Yeah, it kind of does. And a few years ago, I would have been guarded with my optimism about it. But not now.
Because, as I mentioned before, I'm currently writing this at Aleks's dining room table. In London. Where I traveled from Nebraska on nearly a moment's notice.
Writing is my full-time job. It has been since late 2008, starting with a couple of books that brought in enough money to allow my husband and me to breathe easier. He is career military, and we were stationed overseas, struggling with one full-time income while we paid a mortgage on a house we couldn't sell because of the housing crisis. In 2009, a few hundred dollars coming in not long after we'd had to make $20 last for two weeks meant we could sleep a little better.
In 2010, with a steadily growing backlist and fan base, my income turned us from sweating over every dollar to being able to go out to a nice dinner (not terribly expensive, just not "fries with that"), and in 2011, the royalties roughly equaled what I'd been making at my previous day job. In 2012, it doubled. In 2013, it doubled again. It's entirely possible the pattern will continue in 2014.
Why am I sharing this?
Because this morning, Aleks and I read this article.
Essentially, several literary authors are mourning the way the publishing industry and the marketplace have changed, threatening them with poverty and uncertain futures. Basically, authors are having to consider giving up writing altogether because it simply isn't sustainable. The culprits? Amazon, naturally. People putting up free content. Essentially, the digital age has come along and destroyed the way of life for authors.
Now that Aleks and I are done scratching our heads over it, I need to rip it apart and make a few comments about it. Because quite frankly, this...
"So I asked [an editor who said he wanted to publish me but couldn't afford it] what he would pay, and he named a figure for a two-book deal. That was the first time I noticed the drop in advances because the figure that he gave was only a fraction of what I'd been getting up to then. I went home and sat at the kitchen table and drew up a balance-sheet. I thought: I'm going to have to change the way I live."
Why? Because the man giving the quote is an author named Rupert Thomson, who also says...
"For some years he has rented an office in Black Prince Road, on London's South Bank, and commuted to work. Now this studio life, so essential to his work, is under threat. Lately, having done his sums and calculated his likely earnings for the coming year, he has commissioned a builder to create a tiny office (4ft 9in x 9ft 11in) at home in his attic, what he calls "my garret"."
Aleks has also considered opening up the loft in his house for similar reasons, but has put that on hold for the time being because that project -- in a mid-sized terraced Victorian south of London -- will cost between £27,000 and £30,000. ($45,000 - $50,000)
Instead of coughing up that kind of money -- particularly since he just lost 70% of his income and benefits due to, you know, being laid off like millions of other people who also couldn't afford to maintain offices in London -- Aleks has chosen to make use of a cramped second bedroom, his couch, the library, and as he's doing today, his kitchen table. In my house on a military base in Nebraska, I currently have the luxury of a spare bedroom that has been converted into an office, but I've previously used my couch or dining room as well. I have written in libraries, restaurants, airplanes/airports, trains, coffee shops, bookstores, waiting rooms, and my parents' dining room. I have literally written while lying on the floor of a cargo jet 35,000 feet over the Pacific, and in an emergency room with an IV hooked to my arm.
So you could say that for Mr. Thomson's predicament -- sacrificing his London office in favor of a home renovation rivaling the income of the average British tax payer (source) -- the combined sympathy coming from Aleks and me is roughly on par with... well... nothing.
It's not that we're unaware that the publishing landscape is changing. Quite the contrary. It is changing, and we both see those changes as largely positive. Neither of us has ever been offered a £100,000 advance ($167,000) for a book like Joanna Kavenna, another author quoted in the article. While Aleks has previously published with a large house in Germany, neither of us is currently working with the Big 6 -- now Big 5 -- in New York.
And quite honestly, we're doing all right. For that matter, Aleks found his experience with a large publisher miserable and disillusioning, and finds himself much more content with smaller houses, including the one he partially owns, Riptide Publishing. While the authors in this article fret over declining advances and decreasing sales, authors like us -- those involved in self-publishing, small presses, and digital publication -- are thriving.
"[B]eing a writer stopped being the way it had been for ages – the way I expected it to be – and became something different."
For example, Jaron Lanier comments that...
"...he has watched a generation of his friends – film-makers, writers, musicians – become professionally annihilated by the loss of creative copyright."
Okay, the copyright thing is two-pronged. There's the issue of piracy, and there's also the issue of publishers securing rights. When a publisher signs a book, they have the right to publish it for a specific period. Yes, piracy is a problem in the digital age, but you know what else is changing? Suddenly authors don't have to sign away their rights to their book for their own lifetime plus 70 years. My contracts vary from 2-7 years, and when that time is up, I have the right to reclaim that book and either self-publish it, sell it elsewhere, or shelve it. A life of copyright contract is exactly that. So when a book goes out of print a few weeks or months after it's released, it goes away and never again sees the light of day unless it's re-released when an author publishes another book with that house. And sometimes that re-release doesn't happen.
So, from where Aleks and I are sitting, the copyright situation has improved significantly. While we can't stop pirates from stealing our work, we have more control over our rights than ever before. Quite honestly, my bank account and I would rather cope with the irritating but largely negligible issue of pirates illegally downloading my digital work than have the same book languishing in a warehouse between the Ark of Covenant and the alien body from Roswell.
Also, in terms of books going out of print, ebooks generally don't. In the past, a book was out for a while and then it went out of print. However, those of us who publish digitally are able to achieve what authors of the past coveted: a large, thriving backlist. As of right now, Aleks has 32 books on Amazon. Between my two pen names, I have 66. It's not just novels, either. We both have short stories and novellas, which frequently don't make it into print except in collections or magazines. Those collections and magazines tend to pay token amounts if at all -- contributor's copies are common -- whereas I've made over $8,000 from a novella published in 2011. Aleks and I co-wrote a short story that was released last year and has made each of us just under $2,000.
Speaking of earnings, the financial scene has also changed. Giant or even mid-sized advances aren't so common anymore unless you're already a bestseller, which means many of us get paid based on how many books we sell. Aleks and I don't get advances for our work. We get paid after consumers determine our book -- our product -- is worthy of consuming and pay accordingly. Which is kind of interesting when the author of the article says...
"Roughly speaking, until 2000, if you wrote a story, made a film or recorded a song, and people paid to buy it, in the form of a book, a DVD or a CD, you received a measurable reward for your creativity. Customers paid because they were happy to honour your creative copyright."
Also, authors who've embraced the digital age are "rewarded" quite nicely. Royalties for paperbacks tend to range between 6-12%, but ebooks boast substantially higher royalties, with 30-35% being the low end, and some publishers paying 50% and up. Self-publishing can result in 70% or more. While it's not a $100,000 advance, those royalty percentages combined with a steadily growing backlist can easily translate into a solid and sustainable income for an author.
And that backlist is the key. Over the past three weeks, Aleks and I have spent a lot of time discussing strategies for making up for his lost income with his books, and it always comes down to the same solution: write more, publish more. Because that's how your creativity is rewarded in this business now. It's rewarded based on how many people believe it's a product worth buying. Which means it's rewarded based on how many people believe your story is worth reading.
One final tidbit from the article. Amidst a wistful commentary on what publishing once was, the author says this:
"The most urgent deadline was lunch."
Meanwhile, in the real world, two lowly genre authors are pounding away at keyboards at a kitchen table in London, sweating bullets over deadlines, looking forward to eventually having some time to write our passion projects--Aleks, a World War II book that he needs to finish before I lose my mind (it's so good, you guys), and me, a speculative fiction series that refuses to let me sleep.
Look, it's extremely rare to write one book, get a life-altering book deal, and then coast on those laurels for the rest of your life into a comfortable retirement worthy of someone like Stephen King or Nora Roberts. While this seems like a glamorous profession that's a ticket to a comfortable life in which we write what we want, when we want, and get paid huge amounts of money for it, the fact is it's a job. It is work. Authors like Aleks and me -- and we are part of a rapidly growing group -- are paid only for what we sell, and we are thriving.
Yes, the publishing landscape has changed. Yes, it's hard to get a book deal with a big advance anymore.
But writers are not a dying breed. Quite the contrary. Success in today's market means adapting. It means writing more. It means sometimes putting aside that deep, literary project that your heart is dying to write and instead writing the book that your readers want to read. It means acknowledging this is a business.
It means sometimes you have to suck it up, let go of the office in London, sit down at your kitchen table, and write.