Perhaps because I've been working on my taxes (all that's left it the final forms in ink!), I'm feeling very practical, which brings up today's topic. I've heard that publishers and agents are seeing a lot more submissions these days, with the theory being that with more people out of work, more people are taking this opportunity to write that novel they've always said they wanted to write, and they may be hoping to strike it rich or at least get some income coming in before they find a new job. As a public service to those people, I'd like to offer a publishing reality check.
I'm not saying that you shouldn't take losing your job as an opportunity to write a book -- that's exactly what I did, and it worked out for me. I didn't get rich, but I haven't yet had to go back to a day job. But I do think it's important to know what to expect so you can plan accordingly and so you don't get taken advantage of. I don't mean to be discouraging, but if the reality check does discourage you, then maybe you should be discouraged. This is not the path to take if you're looking to make a quick buck, but it can be a very rewarding path to take if it's something you love to do and if you have the persistence to keep doing it.
I'm not even going to get into the odds of actually selling a book because it's not really a numbers game. You can't look at the number of submissions and the number of publishing slots and calculate your chances. A really good, highly marketable book has a good chance of selling, no matter how many other people are submitting books. Instead, I'm going to assume that the book in question does sell, even though, realistically, that in and of itself is an uphill battle, especially in the current economy.
First, the timeline. This is not a "quick" business. Glaciers honk their horns and wish the publishing industry would get out of the way. Taking our hypothetical book that will sell, it could take months to find an agent. Once the agent actually reads it, she may act quickly, but it could sit in the queue for months before being read. Then once the agent takes on the project and submits it to editors, the waiting time can vary. Editors can take months to get around to reading even agented material, or if someone does read it quickly and makes an offer, then suddenly everyone else will have to jump on it. Once the book sells, it can take more months to work out the contract, and then you generally see money about a month after the contract is signed. It was about a year between the time I finished writing Enchanted, Inc. and the time I received money for it, and I think parts of that process actually went pretty quickly. It only took a couple of months to get an agent because my agent was fairly new in business at that time and wasn't nearly as busy as she is now, so she read it pretty quickly. We took some time to revise the book and get it spiffed up, and then it took about two and a half months to sell. Then it took time to get the contract and get the contract worked out. So, don't count on selling a book as a way to tide you over through a jobless spell, unless you anticipate being out of work for more than a year and unless you have some other way of covering your living expenses in the meantime (I did freelance marketing communications writing). And remember, this timeline starts after the book is complete and ready for submission. I'm not counting writing time.
With a few exceptions (like category romance with Harlequin), I wouldn't recommend trying to shorten this process by cutting out the middleman and submitting directly to publishers instead of finding an agent. When you do that, you generally land in the slush pile, so it can take twice as long to get a project read, if it even gets read. Most major publishers don't accept simultaneous submissions (if they even accept unagented submissions at all), so you wait all those months for a rejection before you can start over again with the next house. An agent can send to everyone at once and play them against each other to encourage faster reads, and agented material almost always gets read before the slush pile gets tackled.
Now, the money. You may hear about all those six-figure and multimillion dollar deals, but you hear about them because a deal like that is unusual enough to be news. Most new (and even established but not bestselling) authors aren't going to get that kind of deal without being a celebrity. There are exceptions, but again, you hear about them because they're unusual. The publishing industry blogosphere isn't going to buzz over an author getting a $15,000 advance for a book -- unless it's an author who used to get millions but whose last book bombed so he had to take a lower advance to get a publisher to take a chance on him. The lowest category of the Publisher's Marketplace deal report is "nice deal," which covers advances from $1 to $49,000. That's a pretty huge range, and it makes it hard to get a realistic sense of exactly where deals fall. Those numbers are also not entirely accurate because they often reflect a multi-book contract and bonus clauses in the contract (extra payments at certain sales thresholds). That one deal may reflect several years worth of work (and income).
Plus, that number is a gross amount. Deduct from that the agent's commission and your business expenses. Unless your book is being positioned as a lead title, you'll have to do most of the promotion for the book out of your own pocket, which can entail travel to conferences and conventions, web site hosting and design, bookmarks or postcards or any advertising you decide to do. Then you also have to pay income taxes and self-employment taxes, which include not only the "employee" FICA contribution that gets deducted from paychecks, but also the "employer" contribution. And, unless you have a day job with benefits or a spouse with benefits, you'll also have to pay for your own health insurance. All that chips away a lot from that advance. My gross income as a writer (before business expenses or taxes) is a bit more than I was making when I had a job, but my net income (my "take home pay") is significantly lower than it was in my employed days, even when I was working part-time. I'm not in this to get rich. I do this because this is the only thing I'm really happy doing, and I'd rather pinch pennies than have a regular job.
Then there's the timing on the money. Generally, the advance is broken into portions. You may get part of it when you sign the contract, more when you turn in the completed book (even if you sell on a complete manuscript, you may be asked to make revisions) and then the rest when the book is published. That means it can be more than a year after you sell the book before you get all the advance for that book.
There is the possibility of earning royalties. The author's payment for a book is based on a percentage of the cover price for each copy sold, with the advance being an estimate of how much the book is likely to earn in a given period (sort of -- advances are crazy things that vary widely). Once it's earned beyond the advance, then you start seeing royalty checks. Some books never "earn out" and receive royalties. This isn't necessarily bad because it may mean your agent was able to get more out of the publisher up front. If you earn royalties too quickly it means they lowballed your advance. Royalties are generally calculated twice a year, and each publisher seems to have its own calendar for this. You get a royalty statement (and maybe a check) a few months after the end of the royalty period. Even if your book is a surprise hit and earns out the advance in the first six months, it could still be a year before you see that money, depending on where the book fell in the royalty cycle. Then there's the "reserves against returns" clause. They won't pay you for every copy sold for a while, keeping some in reserve, in case books are returned unsold by booksellers. Yeah, they get point-of-sale data these days so they know how many copies have actually sold, but that hasn't stopped them from holding onto reserves just in case a bookstore finds an unsold copy and decides to ship it back to the publisher. This means that even if you have sold enough books to earn out the advance and start seeing royalties, it may take a little longer or more sales before you get that money.
Not everything is bleak, though. Depending on your contract, you may be able to sell rights to foreign publishers separately, which is like selling the book all over again. Foreign sales are generally for smaller amounts than US sales, and the money can take forever to arrive, but it creates a nice flow of income over time. And then there's always the chance of selling film rights, but that can also take forever.
In a previous post I busted the myth of the "surprise bestseller," but it's important to remember that there really isn't such a thing. The publisher knows up front if the print run is big enough for it to be mathematically possible to make a bestseller list, and that print run is based on orders, which are influenced by how much of a push the book is getting. If your book has the potential to be a bestseller, you'll know that. Sadly, even if a book with a lower print run sells its entire print run really quickly, that doesn't mean the book will become a bestseller. In some cases, the publisher may realize they might have something that could really catch on and they do something about it, but I've heard of far too many cases where the publisher didn't bother reprinting. They figured that everyone who might want the book already had it, or the major chain stores didn't reorder once they depleted their stock. The two big B chains have a lot of sway, and their automated ordering systems are basically stupid, so if a store hasn't been "modeled" for a title, it won't be automatically reordered once it sells out. It takes human intervention somewhere along the way to realize that something is selling better than expected and to adjust ordering and stocking accordingly. Getting that done may require the publisher to essentially re-sell the title to the chain if it's sold out and not being reordered, and there are times when the publisher doesn't see that as worthwhile. If the two big chains aren't reordering, then it would take a massive groundswell of independent and Amazon sales to make the publisher reconsider.
In other words, if you got a moderate advance and have a midlist book, don't count on it becoming a surprise bestseller that will end up making you a fortune. It has happened, but those cases are rare enough to be news, and they generally involve Oprah. I will confess to having been pretty naive about this. Not that I expected to be a bestseller, but I had a strong feeling about my series, and I knew that there was a good market of people out there who would like it. I knew the publisher wasn't giving it any kind of push and was probably even marketing toward the wrong people, but I had this hope that people would find it themselves and the buzz would start to spread so the book would sell beyond the publisher's expectations. Buzz has been good, and even the first book is still selling, but to really pop, a certain number of copies has to be available where people can find them, and without the high print run or publisher push, that's not going to happen.
Finally, remember that money always flows to, not away from, the author. Self-publishing or subsidy publishing (any kind of publishing where you have to pay money to have your book published, or where you're required to buy a certain number of copies or pay the publisher for marketing services) is not a quick way to bypass the New York publishing machine and make lots of money. It seldom pays off for fiction. You'll probably be out thousands of dollars and end up with boxes of books in your garage that you have to sell yourself if you want to make money. This is yet another situation where it makes the news when it works because it's so rare. Just as more people write books in difficult economic climates, the publishing scams come out of the woodwork in difficult economic climates, but the scammers are the only ones who end up making money in those deals. The authors never do. You should also be extremely wary of any publisher or agent who contacts you. In this publishing climate, they're cutting authors, not seeking them. Unless you become famous, are in the news or have a blog that gets national media exposure, the chances are very, very slim that a reputable agent or publisher is going to contact you out of the blue to ask about publishing your book.
Now, if you still want to write because you enjoy writing, then good luck. But if you're doing it because you think it's a quick path to being rich and famous, I hope this has set you straight. Yes, some people do get rich and famous with their first books, but it's probably best not to count on that or to plan your finances around that hope.