Those Awful Secrets

Some weeks ago, a comparatively new SF author’s blog listed his income from writing, and there was quite a flurry of comments. Much of it centered on how “secretive” the field is, and how veteran authors and editors “hide” the financial facts from new authors and how grateful some of the commenters were to the author for revealing the awful truths. I don’t know who all these people are in the field who are hiding matters. Certainly, over the years, I’ve also received a number of questions and comments about how much writers make, and often pointed inquiries about how much I earn from writing. I’ve declined to comment, except in general terms, partly because I value my privacy and partly because the issue of income diverts attention from the work at hand, that is, the writing itself.

The issue, however, remains. Is there a conspiracy to keep financial truths from aspiring writers? From what I’ve seen over the years, no such conspiracy exists, except perhaps one. That one? It’s simple. The number of writers who can tell a publishable story or novel is extremely small, and the number of those who can do so with technical skill is even smaller, and the number who can do both of the former and sell in high enough numbers for their works to be profitable is even smaller. There is a widely accepted myth in the English-speaking world, and for all I know elsewhere, that anyone who is basically literate can write a story or a book. In very basic terms, that is true, in that with a computer anyone can string together words and sentences at story or novel length. Doing so, of course, does not really make the product either a story or a book. As many editors and publishers have attempted to point out for years, given that most first and second novels lose money, editors are more than willing to publish a book that is: (1) entertaining, (2) popular; and (3) well-written. They’ll even settle for a book that only meets the first two criteria. But this should be no secret to anyone.

As for the financial “secrets” of the publishing world, in general, the information is out there. Reputable publishers do have standard contracts, with fairly standard rates and break points, and while the sales numbers of most books are not officially published, and those that are generally apply to a handful of atypical writers, just by listening and asking questions, even when I was younger and new in the field, it wasn’t that hard to figure out the ranges and the probable earnings involved, which at that time were even more modest than now. In the end, a writer’s income is largely a function of the three factors I listed above. Because royalties in a standard contract are based on a percentage of sales, even if a writer doesn’t get the largest possible advance, since the advance is taken out of total royalties, in the end the writer still gets the same amount of money. Now, some writers claim that publishing houses will commit to pushing harder to sell a book for which they have given a larger advance. This is certainly true… in some cases, but at least one well-known publisher is of the opinion that advertising does very little for book sales.

After years of experience in the military, politics and government, business, and writing, I’ve discovered that there are always those who believe in secrets and conspiracies. I’ve even had to investigate a few, and I’ve discovered one interesting aspect of it all. While there are a handful of conspiracies, most don’t last long because human beings can’t keep secrets very well. The rest of what people think of as conspiracies are just the interaction of human greed, ambition, economics, short-sightedness, and stupidity.

Over the years, more than a few would-be authors have approached me asking how they can get published, and more than a few have voiced concerns that the reason why they hadn’t been accepted for publication was that there was a conspiracy against their kind of writing. I’m sorry. There’s no such conspiracy. There is a shared concern by all publishers. It’s called profitability. Publishers have to make money. Publishing books that will not appeal to enough readers, no matter how well written technically, to cover costs is a certain way to ruin.

By the same token, with all the waves of POD, internet publishing, and the like, big-name print publishing is here to stay because reputable publishing houses provide one very valuable service that tends to get overlooked — quality control. No, they’re not perfect, and turkeys do slip through, but unless you’ve ever read through a slush pile, you cannot imagine how little literary wheat there is for all the chaff. Most readers don’t want to sort through that. They don’t have the time. They rely on publishers to do the sorting, and the better a publisher is at sorting, the more likely that publisher is to be profitable. That quality control and sorting process, combined with the lack of anything remotely comparable on the internet, is also why I doubt that internet publishing on an individual basis will ever provide a significant number of widely-read titles.

So much for all those awful publishing secrets.