Under Siege #9: Sorry, writing a novel is not a quick path to fame and fortune

Last weekend my wife and I went to the Crystal City mall to return some clothes.  (I love the name “Crystal City.”  It’s evocative of The Wizard of Oz or maybe Superman’s fortress of solitude.  In fact, it’s an ugly, concrete, soulless suburb, filled with hotels for business travelers.  The mall is nice, though.)  We arrived a few minutes before the stores we wanted to visit were open, and so we headed into the Apple store to browse.  While playing with one of the i-phones on display, I had a brilliant idea.  I opened my webpage and then put the phone back, so that the first thing the next person who picked up the phone would see would be Jack Hight… Siege.  I did the same with the three other i-phones, and then with the i-pods.  The marketing campaign for Siege had officially begun.

Next up, I’m hitting the public computers at the local library.  Then, who knows?  Maybe I’ll head over to the Georgetown campus and pull up Siege on all the computers there.  There’s a whole world of possibilities.  Lately, I find myself slowing down when I pass computer or cell phone stores.  Now that I’m looking, opportunities for my underground advertising campaign are all around me.

This is not exactly the sort of thing I imagined doing when I used to dream about becoming a novelist.  Mostly, I thought about writing.  I figured that once I finished my book, I would sell it and that would be that.  I occasionally allowed myself to dream of a huge advance.  Lauren Weisberger, the author of The Devil Wears Prada, got a $250,000 advance for her book (the title alone was worth that much).  Stephenie Meyer got $750,000 for Twilight.  I spotted a trend here.  $250,000, $750,000… was I in line for $1.25 million?  Um, no.

Huge advances are not normal, particularly for first time novelists.  What’s more, advances are not what I once thought they were: a lump sump payment for the book.  Writers are paid through royalties, and an advance is money given in advance of royalties earned.  Writers receive no royalty payments until they have earned back their advance.  So in the case of The Devil Wears Prada, the first $250,000 that Weisberger made from royalties went towards the advance.  The good news is that the publisher will not take back your advance if you don’t sell enough books to cover it.  However, it is a very bad thing not to fulfill your advance, because it means that the publisher is not making money on your book.  This is unlikely to win you a second book deal.  So, the first goal of any book is to earn back the advance.  After that, every time a book sells, the author gets paid.

In my case, I received an advance for both Siege and Eagle, the first novel of the Saladin Trilogy.  So great: I’ve been paid!  I’m a working writer!  Only I didn’t get the advance all at once, because that’s not how it works.  Wisely, the publisher keeps the carrot dangling before me.  The advance is divided up into chunks, which are doled out as I complete certain goals: so much for signing with the publisher; so much when Siege comes out in hardback; so much for turning in a draft of Eagle; and so on and so forth.  In the end, the bits and pieces of the advance are not enough to live on.  (Thank God for my day job—academia—where they let me eat my carrot before I’ve written anything.)

But the size of the advance is not really important because in the end, (prepare for a shocking revelation…) what makes an author money is selling books.  If the book is a bestseller, then the author will earn the same amount of money, regardless of how much he or she got up front.  It works more or less as follows.  The author receives royalties of around 10% on the first ten-thousand or so hardback copies sold (the numbers are subject to negotiation); 12.5% on the next ten-thousand; and 15% on every book thereafter.  Royalties are lower (5 to 7%) for paperbacks.  If the author is lucky, then these royalties are based on the sale price.  However, sometimes royalties are based on the publisher’s net earnings.  Since publishers have a lot of people to pay—copy editors, managing editors, publicists, marketers, etc.—the net earnings are often only a fraction of the cover prices, maybe $4 for a $10 book.  At that rate, the author would make only $4000 if they sold 10,000 copies of their book.  Even if they were getting paid based on the sales price, they would still make only $10,000.  That’s not bad, but it’s also not exactly a guaranteed road to riches.

The point is that in order to make lots of money, an author has to sell lots of books.  And this is where my underground marketing campaign comes into play.  As the release date for Siege (May 27) approaches, look forward to seeing my website popping up on an i-phone or computer in a store near you.  You can do your part, too.  Tell your family to buy Siege.  Tell your friends, your co-workers, your enemies.  And don’t be afraid to stop in your nearest Apple store and bring my website up on every i-phone you can get your hands on.

Tune in for next week’s blog: ‘Write what you know’ does not mean write all about yourself.



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