Slate Ponders Why Broken Clock Is Only Right Twice a Day

A reader made me aware of Laura Miller's uneasy realization that traditional literary publishers lack the power to confer validation and, increasingly, a subsistence income, on writers.
Few connections are more mysterious than the one between writing books and making money.
The Christian obligation to instruct the ignorant compels me to interject here. Checking Laura's Amazon author page reveals that she is a New York-based journalist, critic, and co-founder of Salon. It's a pretty safe bet that her conception of economics might be on the socialist side. And even if she's a hardcore laissez-faire capitalist, a couple of peculiarities in her bibliography and bio may hint at why she finds free markets puzzling.

Laura Miller

"Amazon doesn't allow authors to delete titles wrongly attributed to them"? 30 seconds of research pegged Miller's complaint as just the sort of thorough, factual, and unbiased statement we've come to expect from New York journalists.

I'll give Laura the benefit of the doubt and assume that she's still wrongly credited as the author of Walt Disney World for Dummies because the unpaid intern who manages her Author Central account mischievously withheld the fact that Amazon can remove the offending book for her. Ignorance of how Amazon works totally explains why she finds the connection between writing and making money so mysterious.

Miller goes on to explain how tradpub advances work, citing another author as an example.
The payments come parceled out in (typically) three or four checks paid on signing the contract, on delivery of the manuscript, and on publication. The writer’s literary agent then takes a percentage of that. When Strayed sold her first novel a few years earlier for the seemingly handsome sum of $100,000, the advance amounted to, as she puts it, “about $21,000 a year over the course of four years, and I paid a third of that to the IRS … it was like getting a grant every year for four years. But it wasn’t enough to live off.”
What you've just seen is an accurate snapshot of a system so convoluted and archaic that it caused a best selling author's rent check to bounce.

Advances are dumb. They were originally devised to free the author from the need for a day job so he could focus all his time on writing the book. As Laura demonstrates, even a six figure advance can't support an author while she's on book tour.

The problem isn't the amount. It's the ass-backwards way that the advance is paid out. Each of three or four total payments goes to the agent first, who takes a cut and sends a check to the author. Since the last two payments are only made on final acceptance and publication of the book, the author is at the mercy of the publisher's schedule. Which, as you might imagine, can be painfully slow. It can take years to receive the final payment.

By way of contrast, you don't get an advance when you self-publish through Kindle Direct, but you do get regular monthly royalty payments. New York publishers could do this, and it would actually benefit them as well as their authors, but that would make sense.

Miller quotes an anthology editor who points out the need for "...greater transparency in the discussion about work and money within the community of writers.”

A more transparent discussion of author earnings is a laudable pursuit that I wholeheartedly endorse. Tellingly, New York publishing doesn't want authors to have that discussion because they know that if we did, even more of us would abandon them for indie.
Writers know so little about how other writers make ends meet that it’s difficult for them to have much perspective on their own ability to do so.
One reason that writers keep this info close to the vest is that it's generally considered unprofessional for anyone to talk about his income. How many programmers or engineers do you know who brag about their salaries to their colleagues? If you do know any, I bet you consider those guys to be dicks.

But again, if we're talking about helping writers make financial decisions, I'm willing to lay my cards on the table. Last year--my first full year as a pro author--I made about eight grand form writing alone. That averages out to $4k for each of the two books I had out in 2016, which is comfortably within the standard advance for most first-time authors.

It's not nearly as impressive as Strayed's $150k advance, but since I didn't have to wait on a publisher, I got paid every month. I also got to earn royalties right away. For the past three months, royalties have paid all of my bills.

To be fair, I don't have any credit card debt to pay off or a family to support. I live like a modern day ascetic because I'm realistic about the fact that living off my writing requires some major sacrifices. But because I was willing to make those sacrifices, my indie publishing business is growing by orders of magnitude.

I certainly never entertained fantasies of moving to Brooklyn to "find myself" :)
For authors, money, however obscurely, is always entangled with legitimacy because writers have for centuries equated publication with professional and artistic anointment. Anyone can call themselves “a writer,” but to be published (by somebody other than yourself) is to be a real writer.
Stuff your "real writer" canard in the same burning dumpster as your awkward gender-neutral pronouns. The New York publishing establishment that "wooly-headed Brooklynites" have been conditioned to equate with artistic validation only dates back to World War II. Shakespeare was published by a father and son team, Poe self-published. Put down the Kool-Aid.
It’s indeed a significant testimonial when someone else wants to invest their own money in a writer’s work, so it’s easy to forget that a publisher is actually the writer’s business partner, not a conferrer of literary worth. In their candid moments, most publishers will admit going into business with writers whose work they regard as subliterary because they believe that they can profit from their books. This is still considered shocking in some unsophisticated quarters, but publishing isn’t literature: Literature is literature. Publishing is a separate, if related enterprise.
Now Laura's starting to talk sense. All of the Big Five New York publishers are tiny--unprofitable--subsidiaries of multibillion dollar, multinational corporations. Their job is to make money for their masters. And they suck at it. What do you think that says about their ability to make money for authors?
“Being a writer is running a small business,” Orlean observes matter-of-factly, in flat contradiction to the starry-eyed visions of “the writer’s life” that other contributors recall harboring.
Exactly. Self-published authors are small businessmen who partner with a distributor, usually Amazon. Traditionally published authors are small businessmen who contract with publishers to distribute their books, significantly delay their earnings, and in most cases earn substantially less than their independent colleagues.
In a survey of the early history of writing as a commodity, Colin Dickey cautions that once a text’s “value is determined by the marketplace rather than the writer or the reader, our relationship to literature becomes estranged.” But it isn’t a book’s value that the marketplace sets, only its price. It is time spent in the market that teaches you how to tell the difference.
Note to Dickey: readers are the marketplace, genius. Publishers might help get a book to market, but the only two indispensable factors in the equation are writers and readers.

To paraphrase Larry Correia, if Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be writing the latest Avengers screenplay, and it would be awesome!
That books still make money at all is something of a miracle. (And to be fair, the vast majority of books don’t make money; publishing, like baseball, is a game predicated on failure.)
By "books", I take it that Miller means "books published by the Big Five", which are actually losing money, thanks in part to the outrageous rents on their Manhattan offices. Readers have pointed out that my self-published books are of equal or superior quality to tradpub books in terms of production values. But since I keep costs down, each of my books only needs to sell around 200 copies to break even. As it is, my first book has already turned a 1000% profit.

The real upshot of Miller's article is that the cracks in New York publishing are now so noticeable that even bubble-bound socialists are starting to wake up. That sound you hear just over the horizon is the bell tolling yet another death knell for the Big Five.

P.S. since marketing books is also a mystery beyond the ken of Laura and her friends from Brooklyn, here's an example:

Buy this book.



  1. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus.html
    "To remedy these wrongs (the unjust distribution of wealth and the poverty of the workers), the Socialists encourage the poor man's envy of the rich and strive to do away with private property, contending that individual possessions should become the common property of all...; but their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that, were they carried into effect, the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are moreover emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community"
    Hence, operating on the seven deadly sins, it is no wonder why socialists tend to be blind to reality.

  2. Crediting books to the wrong authors must be a fairly common problem. For the last ten-odd years, Amazon has listed a book called *Baby Farm Animals* by Jeff Duntemann. WTF? It's a Little Golden Book, actually written by Garth Williams, a famous kid-book author. Here's the link:


    Read the comments, all of them from my readers, all of them hilarious.

    Now, when I tried to straighten it out, Amazon said it was an ISBN error and told me to call Bowker. Bowker said it was a listing error and told me to call Amazon. It's a good thing Garth Williams is dead, or he might put out a contract on me.

    As best I can tell, it *is* an ISBN database error, but as long as Bowker refuses to acknowledge its errors, nothing is going to be fixed.

    1. This one is my favorite: https://www.amazon.com/review/RNA1HKK2ETGKL/ref=cm_cr_dp_title?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0744535220&channel=detail-glance&nodeID=283155&store=books

    2. https://www.amazon.com/Hard-Choices-Hillary-Rodham-Clinton/dp/1476751471/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1484270860&sr=1-1&keywords=hillary+clinton
      I mistakenly thought this one was written by Hillary Clinton...instead, it seems to have been written by Bernie Sanders.