Writing Full Time - A User's Guide by Author Robert Weinberg

Writing Full Time - A User's Guide
Robert Weinberg

     So you want to be a writer? Here's a recent article I wrote for the Horror Writers of America. While focused on writing and selling horror, the advice applies to writing anything for anybody.

      FACT # 1 -----

     The horror market might be recovering - or at least so I've been told by some people. My prices could be off. Anyone who knows better, please feel free to make corrections.

      In 1990, Leisure Books paid between $2500-$5000 advance for a horror novel. In 2003, they still pay the same amount. In 1990, Zebra/Kensington was in that neighborhood. Now, I believe they pay slightly better.

      Berkley Books used to pay $5,000 for a first novel or novels by not-well-known authors. I believe that's gone up somewhat, but I doubt if it has doubled.

      Del Rey rarely bought horror. Same is true now. They paid more for books, sometimes up to $25,000 a novel, in some rare cases (like being a famous author's sister), more. DAW and NAL I believe are pretty much set at that $25,000 ceiling, and it's not common for a newcomer.

      Pocket Books paid $5,000 - $15,000 for original novels. I suspect they may have gone up somewhat but I don't think the average is much different.

      Get to be a regular with a house and they'll start paying better. But not that much better. Hopefully, you'll get a better contract.

      FACT # 2 -----

      The money you are being paid is an "Advance AGAINST ROYALTIES." Most new writers seem to forget the 2nd and 3rd words. Usually, you get paid half the advance when you sign your deal and the other half when you deliver the completed, accepted manuscript (i.e. if they want you to rewrite the novel three times, you don't get paid until the book is to their liking). Then, the waiting starts.

      Let's use an example to be clear. You have a great idea for a novel, write a proposal, give it to your agent. An editor at Pocket Books likes it and you get a contract to write the book for $10,000. You sign the contract. Your agent gets a check for $5,000, and sends you a check for $4,500. (the agent gets 10%, often 15% off any money you make on the sale). You start writing the book.

      You're a pretty fast writer and since you're doing nothing else, you get the book written in 3 months. You submit it to Pocket Books. Your editor asks for some changes. You make the changes in a few days (you write fast and the changes are minor). The book is accepted and your agent gets another $5,000 check, and you get your $4,500. Then you wait.

      Now, it usually takes a year or so for a mass market paperback to appear in print. So, you immediately start writing a 2nd novel. Oops, one minor problem. In your first contract, there was a clause (there always is - sometimes you can get the publisher to drop it, sometime not) saying that you must submit your next novel to them before you show it to any other publisher. And that they have a certain amount of time to decide if they want to publish it. Still, you write. So far, you have $9,000 in the bank.

      Now, your editor calls. Pocket Books foreign rights division showed your novel around at a book fair and a German publish wants to buy German rights for $2,500. It's a fair offer you're told, and besides, being a new author you have no control over your foreign rights. Pocket sells the German rights. According to your contract, you're entitled to half of the foreign rights --- $1250. Pocket keeps the other half. That part of the contract and is pretty standard. Still, $1250 is something not to be sneered at. Don't forget though that your agent gets 10%. So you only are owed about $1025. But, you don't see any of that money. Remember, you were paid an "Advance AGAINST ROYALTIES." That $1025 counts as foreign royalties. Before you can collect any new money from Pocket Books, you have to pay them back $10,000. That $1025 you earned goes to Pocket so now you only owe them $8975 until your book earns out.

      Now, you're living on $9,000 along with some money you made writing short stories - a few hundred here and there. So you finish up your proposal for book 2. You send it to your agent and she gives it to your editor at Pocket Books. Fortunately, Pocket Books isn't flooded with manuscripts (it is, but let's lie) and your editor reads it fast and likes it and wants to buy your second book. She makes an offer. The same amount, $10,000, as your first book, which still has not been published.

      Well, you learned a lot from writing your first book, and you think the 2nd book is better than the first. You feel you should get more money for it. But there's a problem. You can turn down the offer from Pocket Books, but if you get a better offer from another publisher, the contract has a clause that they can match that offer and still buy the book. So, they might end up publishing your book for more money, but with some bad feelings raised. Or, maybe they won't match the new offer and your second book is sold to a different publisher. Since Pocket is only going to be publishing your first book and then lose you to another publisher, maybe they won't publicize your first book too much. Why should they try to make you successful when your second book isn't going to be published by them? Sound crazy? Just a little. Publishers promote authors who stay with them.

      Why only offer you $10,000 when the second book is a lot better? Because your first book hasn't been published yet so there are no sales figures (nor will there be any for months afterwards) to tell if the book is going to sell well or not. Your editor can't pay you more for your second book if your first book flops.

      So you sign the contract (making sure that your agent crosses out the next book clause) and get your $4500 and work to finish the new book. In the meantime, you're still waiting for the first book to appear. But, even then you realize that you're not going to become a rich writer immediately, because the publisher doesn't report sales on your book until approximately 6 months after it's been published. That's standard in the industry.

      Now, one night you sit down and do some calculating. Your book is going to cost $7.00 (your editor told you). For every copy sold (I'm going to simplify here as it gets complex), you get a royalty of 7%, or in simple terms, 50 cents. Now, you owe just about $9,000 to the company for the advance they paid you. So, for your book to "earn out," your book has to sell 18,000 copies.

      18,000. That doesn't sound too bad. Not until you do some checking and discover that most mass market paperbacks, especially by new authors sell around 10,000 copies.

      Well, fortunately, you know that advances are not returnable, so you won't have to give the publisher back any money. But you also know that you've been writing steady now for close to a year and only made $13,500, with another $4500 due when you finish book two. So you check out publicity.

      That's when you discover that Pocket Books has two-three people who handle all of the publicity for all of their releases. And that their time is allocated by which authors were paid the most money (and thus have the most to earn back). That while they want to help, their job is devoted to making sure expected best-sellers become best-sellers.

      So, you start your own advertising campaign as discussed elsewhere on these boards. You spend some money and come up with a brilliant plan (involving human sacrifices, but what the hell, publicity is publicity!). Your book gets a lot of notice, a heck of a lot of good reviews, and sells really well. Goes into a 2nd printing and sells a total of 50,000 copies, which is damned successful for a first horror novel.

      Six months go by. You turn in book 2 and start writing another proposal, one you plan to submit to several companies and see if you can get a better offer. Finally, You get your royalty statement. Your book earned $25,000. Deducted from that is $9,000, your advance minus the German sale. Deducted from that is another $5,000 which is held in reserve for returned copies (books that were ordered by bookstores but never sold, and are returned for credit. That's the way the system works. Since they were your books, they can't pay you for a book that was ordered but never actually sold. A reserve of only $5,000 is extremely low-- it's usually much higher). So, there's $11,000 left. Your agent takes her 10%, and you end up with $10,000. The money held in reserve is often given to you if they don't have a lot of returns, but usually it takes several years before you see the money).

      So, in around 1 1/2 years, you've earned $28,000, having sold two novels, one of which has been a success in paperback. Plus, you've sold some short stories, so you've made about $30,000. This assumes of course you can write two novels in a year or less, that the publisher prints enough copies to sell 50,000 copies (oftentimes, this doesn't happen), and your crazy publicity stunt works.

      And this assumes you are working with Pocket Books who gave you $10,000 a book, not Leisure, who only pays $5,000 or less.

      Any questions so far? Things only get worse.


      Let's switch gears for a few minutes and leave the financial matters for now. Instead, let's discuss the non-financial aspects of being a full-time writer.

      1) It's hard. It's very very hard. The basic rule to always consider before you make the switch to being a full time writer is that you become your own boss. You need discipline, and you need it on the good days and the bad days. The only one who really can get you working is yourself. Your editor and your agent are not going to call you (like they do on TV shows) to ask how your manuscript is going. They are going to assume you are working. You will get a deadline and you'll be expected to deliver a manuscript on that deadline or before. When you're asked to do a rewrite, you're going to have to do that rewrite and do it quick. You can't wait to be in the proper "mood." Nor is the fact that the baby is sick or your wife is away on business going to matter. You're a writer and it's a job and you have to deliver just like any other job or you're not going to have your job very long.

      More to the point, you need discipline not just for the first book, or the second book, but for every book. After you've been a full time writer for three or four years, you still get deadlines. Oftentimes they're shorter than before because you need to write fast so you can get more books published (remember, the more books you get published, the more money you make). When you're a writer, you can't coast along. It's not like a job where you know the routine and can get away without concentrating. Writing means you have to give your best, again and again and again. It's not easy.

      2) You need to learn everything you can about the business of writing AND publishing. You may have people you can count on like your agent or your editor - or you may not. More than one agent has given a client bad advice, and more than one editor has lied to their authors. Ditto on publishers. For that matter, you need to learn which writers you can trust, because some writers are not trustworthy. I hate to be the one to break the news to anyone, but writing is a business just like every other business and their are some very nice, very wonderful, very caring people in this business - agents, editor, publishers, and writers. And then there are people who will stab you in the back for a nickel. There are publishers who can't be trusted to pay you the money you've earned, and there are writers who will steal your ideas if you ever dare mention a thought in public.

      Around three years ago, I got a letter from a fan in Mexico. He asked me if I would like to be one of the guests of honor at a Mexican horror convention being held in October. I was flattered and wrote back and thanked him. But I was curious why they wanted me? I'm not a big name horror writer - I wish I was, but I'm not - and as far as I knew, I only had a few short stories ever published in Spanish.

      The chairman of the con wrote me back. He was confused, because three of my novels had been published in Spanish, and were bestsellers in Spain and in Mexico and in most of South America. In fact, several of my books had outsold Anne Rice's work. This was news to me, and I wrote to the original publisher asking about this. A few weeks later I got a letter from the president of the company admitting that foreign rights for the books had been sold to Spain in Mexico, but he wasn't sure if they had ever actually collected the money. He would check into it. By then, I had been sent copies of the Spanish editions by the chairman of the con in Mexico and saw the books had actually been in print for two years. So, I sent a letter to the publisher and said that if I didn't see my share of the foreign rights money quickly, my lawyer would be handling future letters. I got paid very quickly. Turns out there had been a payment after all.

      Trust people worth trusting. In this field, that's a must.


      The most important advice I can pass on to any of you who plan to become professional, full-time writers is "learn to be HONEST with yourself." In our world, in our lives, honesty isn't always easy. We want so desperately to believe that certain things are true that sometimes we end up fooling ourselves. Sometimes we end up actually believe the stuff that we tell other people. And, for a writer, that's death.

      Being honest means thinking for yourself and not blindly accepting the advice of others (including me!). For years, SFWA has run articles by people on how to self-publicize your book, giving examples based on their own experiences. They include such advice as doing signings at all the local bookstores, making up special bookmarks, publishing a special newsletter, etc. etc.. Sounds great when you read this advice and I'm sure that more than one person has followed this advice. Maybe some of it works. But most doesn't. A vast majority of the writers who wrote those articles are now long forgotten. They're working for insurance companies or in doughnut shops, not as writers.

      Signings can be fun, but if you do a signing at a Wal-Mart and three people show up and buy your book, you've earned perhaps $1.50 (or less) in royalties. Supposedly, based on the articles written, you've made a good impression on the staff who will order more of your books. Sure, if they are working for Wal-Mart next year when your next book comes out. If they even remember your name. Change the location from Wal-Mart to Barnes & Noble. Get them to publicize your signing in the newspaper (spending several hundred bucks on an ad). Sell 25 copies (a good number for a signing). The store lost money on the ad. You earned $12 in royalties if that. Will the store ask you back a year later? Maybe. Will their sales affect your royalties? Not when you need to sell 20,000 copies to earn out your advance. those 25 copies are a drop in the bucket. Do a signing tour to every B&N in the USA and maybe it will help. Figure out how much that would cost. Then see if your publisher is going to pay for the tour.

      Honesty. You need to ask yourself honest questions about your work and how you are going to promote it. Will spending $100 of your own money help sell 50 of your books? If so, you're wasting money. Will $200 sell a 1,000 of your books, then it's a great idea. Quotes: do they really sell books? A good quote is nice, but do YOU buy a novel because it has a quote from Clive Barker or Peter Straub on the back of the book? If not, then don't start counting your profits if you get a quote for your book. Most publishers (and editors) will be honest and admit that very few quotes sell books. And I mean VERY few.

      If you are honest with yourself, you won't be disappointed as often. It's great how much publicity you can get in a small (or mid-size) town or city about your first book. Articles in the newspaper, a TV interview, etc. But, on the second book, you're not going to get as much publicity. You're not big news. Book three and four and five, you're lucky if they notice. The world is a cruel, harsh place and sometimes you get lucky and get lots of publicity for free. But not too often.

      So far, I've discussed a little about earning money being a writer and how it takes a while to make much money. I'm not going to discuss POD publishing, as at the moment, I truly don't think of it as being a source of enough income to help a new, full-time writer. Maybe someday. I've also talked about some of the many difficulties in just being a writer. The mental challenges that face anyone who wants to go out there and become rich and famous (or moderately so) as a writer.

      I have lots more to discuss on dealing with set-backs to your career, the challenges of being a writer in a work-world not aimed at writers, and so on. But, after all this depressing stuff so far, let me leave you with one cheerful thought.

      I always wanted to be a writer. Since I was 11. I started writing when I was 16, on a 5,000 lb Smith Corona typewriter (previously used as an anchor for a battleship). I never gave up and now I am a full-time writer. What's the best thing about it - the best thing about being a full time writer?

      I can wear my slippers all day around the house. Since I don't go out to work, I rarely ever have to wear shoes. I hate shoes. Along with that, I have worn a suit and tie twice in the past four years. A funeral and a wedding.

      Slippers. That's why I'm a writer. No doubt about it.


      If you want to write full time, learn to deal with reality.

      1) The world is not against you. Nor is the world on your side. The world just doesn't care. (Thomas Hardy). If you are going to live off the money you make writing, you better be prepared to work hard at the job. If you depend on luck or circumstances, you are going to starve. Talent is wonderful and the most talented writers should always rise to the top. But, if you read what is published you know that's not true. Plenty of great books were rejected by good editors. If you're doing everything you can to get your work noticed and it's not working, then sit back, toss out all your old ideas, and come up with new ones. For every person who makes it by a lucky break, a thousand other writers succeed by never giving up and trying hard constantly.

      2) Writers' groups are overrated - If you are lucky enough to belong to a group of professional writers who criticize each other's work, fine. Otherwise, if you are in a group of writers who are unpublished, or most who are unpublished, forget it. Being an unpublished writer does not make anyone a critic. I'm not saying that the people in a writers group might not be helpful, but the best way to learn to write is to go over your own work again and again and find out what you think is wrong with it. If you need cheerleaders (and don't we all sometimes), meet with other would-be writers on a social basis. But getting advice on how to rewrite your manuscript from unpublished writers is a mistake.

      3) Read a lot, especially not horror fiction - read good writing. Classic stuff, modern stuff, genre stuff. Read horror but just don't read horror. A writer writes from what he knows of life or what he (or she obviously) has learned. If you've only learned from horror novels, then your books will read like they are copies, not originals. Ray Bradbury claims he learned to write by reading Theodore Sturgeon - by going through every Sturgeon story and dissecting it to see what made it work - why every line was where it was, why every section was written, how the story built to an ending, etc. etc. Read and dissect. And not just horror!!!

      4) Network: if you are going to be a full time writer, you need to network with other writers. You need to meet writers, editors and publishers. You don't need to be a suck-up. Nor should you be rude and obnoxious. But, the old saying of it's not what you know but who you know contains a spark of truth. I think editors are the most honest, upstanding people in the world, and I know they would never let their personal feelings and friendships weigh in their decision making. But, I also know that when I'm editing an anthology, and I receive two great stories, one from someone I know and the other story from someone I don't know, and I'm stuck because I only have room for one of the two, the person I know is usually going to win. If that upsets you, then start thinking about working as a plumber. Reality does intrude, my friends. Even in publishing. A good editor wants to publish the best stuff possible. But, if you write a letter to an internet magazine saying what a miserable editor John Doe is, then two weeks later submit a story to John Doe's new anthology, you are very naive.

      It works the other way too. Some years ago, I wrote several humorous fantasy novels that were published in America, but that I retained foreign rights. I read in LOCUS that an editor who I knew pretty well was going to be in the USA for a conference that I was attending. He had just started editing a new line of paperbacks in England. So I dropped him a line and asked if he might consider taking a look at my novels if I brought them to the conference. He wouldn't be able to read them right away, but was willing to take a look. Which he did, and a week later, called me to tell me he was buying them both. Fair? You decide when you need to pay for the new roof on your house.

      Networking involves learning the world in which you chose to live and adjusting to it. It means helping other writers whenever you can. It means returning a kindness with a kindness but without a feeling of obligation. Some writers feel that every other writer is their enemy, competition for the same money they are looking to get. Those are the writers who don't network. Who treat new writers or beginning writers like dirt at conventions. Some of them are quite talented and quite successful. And I'm sure they feel no remorse for the way they act. It's too bad. But, like I said, the world doesn't care.

      Questions, disagreements, observations? Feel free to ask and I'll do my best to answer.


      What's the best, absolute best, way to promote your book?

      Nag your publisher.

      Publishers only have so much money to spend on promotion, and they rarely spend it on books by new authors, or books that get comparatively small printings (10,000-20,000 copies). Which leads to a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that such books don't sell particularly well so why spend money on them? IF money had been spent on them for publicity, the books might have sold a lot better. But the reasoning is circular and convincing a big corporation otherwise is near impossible.

      I'm not guaranteeing that if you get a publisher to support your book with some advertising, some display space, some publicity work that your book will become a big best seller. But the chances are much much better. If you read PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, once a year they list the bestsellers of the past year along with sales figures and other info. Over the past ten years, I've studied those lists thoroughly. I've taken lots of notes and done lots of research based on that info. And guess what? Just about every book that achieves best-seller status was supported with major advertising from their publisher. There were only a few books from new authors who managed to break into the bestseller ranks, and most of those had something equally as good going for them, like a big movie deal. Or perfect timing (i.e. books on terrorism that came out right around 9/11). In hardcover best sellers, the same authors make the list time after time. There are very few breakthroughs, especially in genre fiction.

      I've done just about every self-promotion possible for my books, including hiring a publicity agent for one or two of the books I had great hopes for. We've sent out boxes of cookies to book distributors; for one of my novels that featured a killer who used a butcher's cleaver, we sent out plastic cleavers to bookstores across the USA as a promotion for the book to get it noticed. I've done readings, interviews on TV and radio, gotten plugs in places ranging from PLAYBOY to the NY TIMES BOOK REVIEW section, and guess what? The books still never made it into the best-seller category.

      I mentioned this problem when I was in NYC some years back to a friend who is CEO of a major publisher. I asked her point blank what I could do that I hadn't done to promote my books. And she told me what I've posted here. Nag your publisher. A squeaky wheel gets oiled (exactly the words she used). Publishers and editors don't want to listen again and again to authors who keep on pushing for publicity. Plus, as long as they think you work is good material, they don't want to lose you. So, they take the easy way out to stop you from complaining by promoting your book. At least to some extent. Which is what you need. For all the complaints in the world from writers who were disappointed in the promotion their book got from their publisher, there is no denying that the publicity people at major publishers have the contacts, inside info, and connections that writers do not have. Professional publicity people are the ones who are going to get you on the TV shows that count, and put together an intelligent ad campaign that will sell your book. And so on and so on.

      Difficult. Definitely. Impossible. Sometimes. Worth trying. For sure. All the work you do on your own to publicize your book, to get copies sold, to make a splash is barely noticed no matter how good you are at coming up with great new ideas. The pros do it best. What you need to do is concentrate not on promoting your book to fans, but promoting your book in your publisher's company. That's where all the big sales will be made.

      And, last but never least, if at all possible, GET IT IN WRITING!!!

Copyright c 2003 by Robert Weinberg. Reprinted by permission.

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