Opinion, Publishing

Many, Many Words…Because Internet.

Aargh. Okay. So, there is yet another flare-up on the internet—more specifically blogs and Twitter and probably Facebook and maybe Goodreads and Kindle Boards and even Snap-whatzit and Insta-whosey and that other site that people link to and it’s usually a thing linked from some other thing that takes you to some other thing.

Anyway. There’s this flare-up, and I followed it off and on over the weekend, and lo and behold here we are on Monday and it hasn’t died down yet.

I wasn’t going to add to it. For one, there aren’t that many visitors to this blog—and quite often the ones that aren’t bots haven’t come for me or my books but because some search engine brought them to my sketch of “The Animator at Work.” Here it is again, in case Google forgot.

Not that many people read this blog and that’s okay. I’m not a blogger, I’m an author and occasional animator. I have a blog mostly so I can promote my books (and the stuff on my Crazy Trips was a lot of fun) and, more recently, offer them for direct sale.

I don’t want to alienate whoever might happen by here—human or bot—and I certainly don’t want to call over a bunch of people who want to debate to the point of argument or, worse, hostility.

But I am concerned.

I don’t want to get into specific flare-up details—that’s been done (hence the flare-up; so much re-hashing). Nor do I want to go back and try to locate specific comments in order to prove I read them—and that I read them “correctly.” Maybe others read things but didn’t see the same ones or maybe did see the same ones but didn’t take them the same way that I did.

By the very nature of a flare-up, there are a heck of a lot of blog posts written and ten times that number of comments posted or tweeted or messaged or—you get the gist. It is not possible, unless far too many hours are given over, to read every one everywhere. I read what I read, and I interpreted it how I did. If my interpretation was/is in error, or what I read was a misstatement…that’s up for discussion. Discussion, not argument. Not even debate. Discussion—and then it would be time to try to track down those original statements. (UPDATE: Okay, so I grabbed a few in the course of writing this post. They are included, but not the source or the names. Is that fair?Not fair? It’s a public site, but one so popular I don’t want to attract it’s…eye. Not like it’s Sauron or anything. Or, I don’t know, maybe it is. Oh, dear.)

But there have been some statements made and some ideas put forward, and I would like to discuss a few.

As a self-published author, you’re actually a small business.

More specifically, a self-published author is more like a sole-proprietor (publisher) and independent contractor (writer). Two different guises, not worn simultaneously. Different skill sets, different responsibilities, different expenses. The publisher is responsible for creating the book-product, not the story-product—that’s on the writer.

When dealing with cover artwork, formatting, interior design, proofreading, and so on, I am wearing my Publisher Hat and working on the book-product. When I am working on the story-product, I am wearing my Writer Hat (not literally…although maybe sometimes I have had such a real, physical thing).

In my case, I do a lot myself to keep publishing costs down. If I were to contract for those same services, the costs of such would be based upon hourly or per-word rates (figures which take into consideration the skill and expertise of the artist/editor, the quality of service, industry standards, and so on). These publishing expenses can vary widely—as can the quality of the results.

A traditional publisher would most likely have editors and proofreaders “in house” (meaning: salaried employees) and possibly even cover artists as well. Very costly in comparison to contracting independently, but cost effective when dealing with a high volume of projects. These publishers also purchase the content of the book—the story-product—from the writer.

This puchase is done in a variety of ways—and forgive me if I’ve misunderstood something, as I am not a traditionally published author—but it essentially comes down to royalties. The publisher keeps a percentage of the profit from sales of the book-product and pays the writer a percentage of the same. Also, the traditionally published author usually receives an advance, a lump sum payment made by the publisher with the expectation (hope) that they will get that money back through book-product sales. Until they do, that writer will not see any royalties.

Less this:

If I were a professional author, I would be a small business owner, and my writing would be part of the duties I would perform as a business owner. If I wanted a salary, I’d be paying myself, out of the profits I earned as a business owner…So I agree…that writing is a “job” in the sense that it’s a crapton of work…But it’s NOT the same thing as work for hire or a salaried job in the way that, say, my job is. And I think that difference is being elided in these discussions, along with its significance.

(To which I might point people to this page on the Editorial Freelancer’s Association website, which lists suggested per-word or hourly rates which could be charged for writing, ghost and otherwise—so there are situations in which storytelling writers are paid as if it were a job.)

And more this:

Sure, the act of writing is creative/art, etc. But the act of publishing that art is a business…The way you earn back the money you invested in your product (in this case a book), and earn your living expenses, is by placing your product on the market. Market forces dictate whether you make enough money to earn a living.

And yet not exactly.

But, again, check out that rates page by the Editorial Freelancers Association. Clearly, people are out there being paid to write that creative/art stuff. And plenty of other artists are compensated for their time spent making something. So, yes a writer may be paid for a finished product—as a product alone—or a writer may be paid for their time or the number of words involved. The traditional publishing advance/royalty system is not the only way.

But where was I…Ah.

Regardless of the traditional publishing specifics (paid up front for finished product, paid up front for a proposed product) the traditionally published writer is generally paid a chunk of money at one time. Royalties, should they ever come, are delivered every few months or so.

In self-publishing, all payment happens after publication—no advance, only sales—and is done on the “every few months or so” schedule. From the standpoint of a publisher, this is wonderful, akin to when a film actor forgoes his/her usual fee and works only for union standard and a percentage of the gross/net. From the standpoint of the writer, this is a terrible deal. Hours and hours and hours of work done—a massive initial investment of time, not to mention effort—with only the hope of compensation at some unpredictable future time. Months. Years. Or maybe never.

As a freelance animator, I would never take this deal. If I were savvy, I would ask for half of my fee (estimated time + hourly rate) up front and the rest upon delivery, but even to work trusting that I’ll get the entire fee within thirty days of delivery is better than relying upon the whims of the book-buying masses (assuming they know about my little-to-no-publicity books in the first place).

This comment again, because there’s more:

And, of course, [as a self-published-author-business] I’d also be benefitting as a business owner, with all of the tax breaks and potential profits that come with owning a business (as well as the risks and difficulties and long, hard hours and potential failure).

What? No…What? Okay, hold on.

I’m glad to see that, along with those beneficial potential profits, you also mention the (not so beneficial?) potential failure. Maybe we should figure those polar-opposite potentials cancel one another out, except in terms of stress, and only consider actual things for this discussion/internet-flare-up—since I can’t actually value my “business” in terms of all those gazillion-billion book sales I would like to have…and could well imagine, right along with my Academy Award acceptance speech for the potential role I may one day perform, and the world music tour I may one day embark on when my potential singing career really takes off.

But let’s talk tax breaks.

As a freelance animator and because of the 1099-misc forms I receive, I am considered a small business (sole proprietorship, actually) and I fill out my paperwork accordingly. And, because of how I set up my publishing and the forms I receive, I fill out another set of that same paperwork for my “author business.”

Where are these breaks that are so beneficial they warranted mention? As a salaried employee, or a contracted hourly-wage employee for a business, I consistently received tax refunds (some small, some large) because of withholding. My employers paid money “ahead” on my behalf—and because of the standard deduction and various individual tax breaks (make work pay credit), it turned out to be too much and so I got some of my earnings (wages) back. As soon as I went freelance (independent contractor) I could look forward to paying tax (some small, some large)—because nothing had been withheld/paid in advance.

Also, to get tax breaks there must be income from which to break…and therefore benefit. No government entity is going to pay me for my expenses and/or loss. All I might get out of the deal is not having to pay tax because I had no income. And in that case, I either won’t have anything to pay into Social Security/Medicare (that’s a problem) or, depending on the numbers and ways the forms calculate, I might still have to pay in—despite whatever expenses or loss I’ve declared.

Writing is a privilege not a job. Selling books is the job, and if you can’t make a living at it, you should do something else.

Ignoring that first part for a moment or two, yes, obviously…and yet that simplifies things a bit. If the person has failed to make a living because her/his product is no good, fair enough. Yet there are many other reasons why a someone’s books aren’t selling in quantities that would keep her/him above the poverty line, or why the books don’t even pay for their production costs. Wait, now—what’s that you say?

Production costs for self-published books *are* low, so I’ve scratched my head when I’ve seen other indies launch one [crowd-funding project].

Oh! Okay…let’s talk numbers. Costs are low if the author wants to do everything through Createspace—including their automated cover generator (but not their paid services)—and then pop it straight from there onto Kindle Direct. And Smashwords, of course, if s/he doesn’t mind too much what might happen with the site’s automated converter thingy. And there’s the self-publishing platform for Nook. And others. (How hard can it be to make all those different formats and manage so many different sales portals, right? Right.) So much money saved.

I went a different route. My first book , The Stone of Shadows, was converted into various e-book formats through eBookit; they also handle its distribution and give me consolidated royalty payments. The second book, The Darkest Midnight, also went to them except when it comes to Amazon—I decided to handle that myself to see if it made a difference.

Almost forgot. I wanted to maintain ownership of my ISBNs and figured I would publish more than one book and definitely more than one format in my lifetime, so I skipped right over the 1 for $100 deal and bought a package of ten for $250. Such a low price! Total bargain for a set of auto-generated identifying numbers. (I’m being facetious—again—by the way.)

I paid about $250 in conversions, corrections, and distribution for The Stone of Shadows and then $99 for conversion (in which I did the bulk of the work beforehand, myself) and distribution for The Darkest Midnight.

To sum up, in order to get two books made into e-book form and available to the digital world at large—without paying for cover artwork or editing—it cost me roughly $350 up front ($400 if I include the $25 for each e-book ISBN). I set my e-book retail price at $5.99—which is then (usually) reduced by the retailer and from which a small percentage is taken by them, and then another by my distributor, so that I generally get something more in the range of $2.50 per book sold. Since June of 2013, when The Stone of Shadows went up for sale, 54 copies have done just that.

Just for fun, let’s calculate “royalties” at $3.00 per copy—and so we get a whopping $162. I don’t have any eBookit figures for The Darkest Midnight since it only went out in December (2014), but on Kindle so far 10 copies have sold with 1 being returned…to give a grand “royalies earned” (but not yet paid out) of almost $30. Two books, one-and-a-half years: $192.

And honestly, I’m really pleased! (I am not being facetious here, by the way.) I’m an unknown, just-starting-out author who can’t afford publicity and has very few ratings and even fewer reviews. I’m thrilled. A little worried about my future expenses, sure, but thrilled nevertheless.

I can imagine a follow-up question—let me answer it before addressing the “low” production costs of self-published print books.

Why don’t you try selling e-books at a lower price? Wouldn’t you sell a gazillion-billion if you offered them at $2.99 or better yet, $.99?

Um. Maybe? But, among other reasons, either of those prices would look ridiculous set next to the necessary $15.95 cost of the print product.

Whoa, that’s a crazy price! Why are you charging so much there?

Um…printing? Depending on which giant printing company churns it out, the cost of actually putting 112,000-words worth of ink to paper and gluing it all together is about $6 per book. So, $15.95 – $6.00 = $9.95…Except that’s the retail price. Other than copies sold directly by me or in one particular local store (done on commission with the typical 60-40% split), the books are sold first to the retailer at the wholesale price (50% of retail). In other words, it’s more like $7.98 – $6.00 = $1.98 per book.

And when it comes to those direct sales or sales on commission, there’s the pesky, hefty shipping fees—getting the boxes of books from the printing company—that I take on. So, I make about $2.00 commission; $7.25 direct.

That seems like a reasonable profit.

Does it? Maybe so. I know $15.95 is a lot for a consumer to put towards an unknown, new author. And $2.00 isn’t a bad return on a stack of paper—and $7.00 is even better. Oh…but, I didn’t mention the set-up costs. We’ve already talked about how I avoided having to pay cover artists and editors and proofreaders. Great. But what I did pay for (other than at Amazon/Createspace) was file set-up and distribution for the book as Print-On-Demand through Ingram and all its many connections. The Stone of Shadows, for set-up, proofs, corrections/updates, and (yearly) distribution cost upwards of $170; for The Darkest Midnight, only $72 thanks to Lightning Source’s end-of-the-year special offer.

It’s getting late, so I don’t want to have to poke through last year’s files on sales results…but I don’t think I’m overshooting the number if I say that since The Stone of Shadows was published, 50 print copies have sold—mostly through Unicorn Gifts and Toys, which is fantastic. (Thank you, thank you, thank you if you are one of the many who purchased from them. They tell me it has done better for them than Harry Potter, and that’s just…really cool.) The Darkest Midnight only became available the week before Christmas, so there are only 3 sales that I know of. Anyway, that’s a combined sales total of $106.

Again, I think this is wonderful—and I am nothing short of giddy about how well things went (and hopefully will go) at the local store this coming tourist season. I love my numbers. I could be way into the negatives on my investment and yet, after only eighteen months, I’m halfway to breaking even. It’s awesome, and I appreciate every single purchase.

Writing is a privilege.

Uh…um. Well, no. Yes? No.

Storytelling is not a privilege. It is an activity, a craft, an art, an occupation—and a preoccupation and a compulsion. It is both a skill and an age-old component of human existence. Cavemen and cavewomen sat around their fires and, to pass the time and to entertain and to make themselves feel better or less afraid or to educate, they told stories. My grandparents, my parents, told stories—sometimes even while sitting by a fire.

Storytelling is an expression of one’s self and is not a privilege it is a right. It is what people do.

Since the advent of written forms of communication, stories have been…you see where I’m headed with this…written down. Or drawn. Or both.

This is writing.

To be able to form letters using tools is a learned skill, easier for some to learn than others, and not always available—or permitted to be available—to everyone. That this has and continues to be so is everything from tragic to indefensible. Does this make the ability to form letters using tools a privilege? To be able to tell—and put to the written word—entertaining, appealing stories; stories that take their audience/reader out of themselves and into a fictional world; to be able to form together descriptions that amuse, settings that chill, characters that come alive through words on the page…is that a privilege?

Certainly it is a skill. It is a craft to which there is a definite art. Does that make it a privilege?

It could also be suggested, then, that the privilege is in the reading of it.

Aren’t we all so very, very fortunate?

(Not being facetious there, either.)

I love telling stories, so yes I feel very privileged to be able to put hours upon hours doing so. It is also very demanding and is very much something which could be called work, because I don’t just want to explore the stories for my own amusement (compulsion), I want to tell them. I want to share them with others and to do it in a way that makes the stories and the characters real for them. To make the stories easy to digest and exciting. I want to entertain. If it was just for myself, I’d write my outlines and dialog snippets and move on. I wouldn’t go over every sentence for the best rhythm. I wouldn’t care how many times I used the words “just” or “in any case,” or how many times a character took out a phone or put it in a pocket.

And I am incredibly fortunate—and grateful—to be able to do all this as a kind of vanity project. I have nothing to complain about, and many reasons to feel humble and determined to do my very best. This is not me complaining.

This is me laying numbers on the internet-table and making some comments, that’s all, because many others have made comments of their own.

Here’s another comment—from me—because so much of this latest flare-up came to involve upset and debate over whether an author could consider living expenses as a part of the book-project’s expenses—whether she could have money to live on during the writing phase in order to complete the project within a very short amount of time. Comments were made as to her greed, her sense of entitlement, her selfishness. “How dare she” became an underlying theme…as if money paid by a publisher didn’t go toward food, rent, etc—as income tends to do.As a freelance animator, my typical hourly rate is $45. That is not, or at least it wasn’t when I started out in 2004, high. I don’t think it takes any more or less brain-power or technical expertise than, say, writing a novel. It does take a bit more than self-publishing one—overall—although there are specific times it is just as challenging and technical.

All those costs I’ve outlined? None of them had to do with time. If I approached writing as an animation project, figuring on an eight-hour day…good grief. If I approached writing with the rates suggested here: http://www.the-efa.org/res/rates.php…good grief. That’s a long, long way to go before I can hire myself to write books.

So, while I am happy with my numbers—since I don’t expect to be paid for my time—I do get …upset…when I happen upon statements that give the impression that my time does not matter. It is my gift to the story, my gift to the reader—but it is not without value. It is not without sacrifice. It is not nothing. It is hours upon hours upon days upon months upon years. It is time spent on writing, on researching, on learning and critiquing. It is time spent working.

“I see more and more authors using guilt or subtle manipulation to shift responsibility for their business onto readers. ‘You must leave me a review because I need this many reviews to get the ad spot I want, and my success depends on that.’ ‘You must buy my book in the release week because I need to hit the bestseller lists, and my career depends on that.’ ‘You must start to promote my books to everyone you know because I write for a living and can’t eat unless I sell more books.’ ‘You must help me out in this way because every other author gets to write full time, and I deserve to write full time too.’”



(You can see, maybe, why I felt compelled to write this post?)

I haven’t come across many authors putting things in such a way, and the very few I’ve stumbled upon are struggling, confused, obviously in-over-their-heads who probably self-published too soon, before they knew any better. But, yes, I have seen bestselling, talented authors point out—in a much more reasonable, guilt-free way—to their existing fans that the first week of a book’s release (like the first week of a movie’s release, or a music album’s, or a game’s) has become critical in the minds of traditional publishers. Why shouldn’t the fans know this? Chances are I would be planning to buy the book as soon as it came out anyway, and as a fan I would hate to see the author not have her/his contract renewed or next book picked up because sales didn’t meet the numbers of her previous book’s first week. And, yes, I believe that can happen. Otherwise, I don’t think those particular authors would ask. And what else should s/he do? What is wrong with informing people who already enjoy her/his work and asking them to make their already-anticipated purchase at a particular time?

And, yes, I have seen newly-published authors and self-published authors ask readers to post a rating or a review—I have done it myself in the back of my second book. I have done it here on my blog. Because it is important. With so many books out there to be read—and so very little money available to pay for published reviews (assuming self-published or independently-published fiction is even accepted) why not ask? What is wrong with asking? There is no guilt attached to “Look, I could really use some assistance. If you can and are willing, could you please write a quick review on the web? Could you tell your friends you enjoyed the book?” If you are not able and/or not willing, that’s that. There’s no guilt coming from my end of the question—and I’ve not read any guilt coming from any other author’s end of similar questions, either.

Has someone really said, “I deserve to write full time too”? Or was it more like, “I would really love to write full time too.” Because, heck yeah. Just like musicians would love to focus on their music full time, and architects would love to focus on architecture, and horseback riders would love to spend their days riding. There’s nothing wrong there. There’s no shame in it, there is no terrible selfishness.

There is, however, a great selfishness—and a great nastiness—in putting others down. In wanting people to have a less enjoyable and a more frustrated life. A life spent doing things that bring in a paycheck—not even a big one, maybe, just a barely-getting-by one in many cases—all while their hearts and souls and minds cry out to do something else.

Now that really is a shame.

It is very late. My eyes are crossing more than they already do, and I’ve written “I’ll see in just a second” how many mouse-scrolls’ worth of text. I probably stopped making sense “most of those” ago.

I do hope I haven’t upset anyone who has read this unusual, rather emotional post. I should probably hope that you are a bot, but then again, there might be some useful information if you’re a human thinking about self-publishing.

Should a non-bot have questions or comments, I welcome them. Questions and discussion are great. (Argument for argument’s sake, not so much.)