Poverty and the Writer

Thomas Chatterton

L’Ecriteur Maudit: Thomas Chatterton reflecting on where his next meal’s coming from.

News, via the Guardian today, that authors in the UK are now earning beneath the poverty line:

According to a survey of almost 2,500 working writers – the first comprehensive study of author earnings in the UK since 2005 – the median income of the professional author in 2013 was just £11,000, a drop of 29% since 2005 when the figure was £12,330 (£15,450 if adjusted for inflation), and well below the £16,850 figure the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says is needed to achieve a minimum standard of living. The typical median income of all writers was even less: £4,000 in 2013, compared to £5,012 in real terms in 2005, and £8,810 in 2000.

Shock horror! I hear you cry. Why is this news? Isn’t our image of the author that of the perennial hungry hack, scribbling away in a garrett, forced to turn his hand to penny dreadfuls, pulp fiction, and other sources of income to feed himself as he dreams of composing the Great [Insert Country Here] Novel? It’s as true of Thomas Chatterton (admittedly a poet), as it’s true today. And it’s not just the case in the UK. I happened to read a book called Literary Brooklyn the other day, in which the likes of W. H. Auden, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Hart CraneThomas Wolfe, et al. slum it in the borough (dreaming of the bright lights Manhattan), and complain about their rent and the paucity of their royalties. Their main concern was putting food on the table; literary greatness wasn’t (yet) feeding the electricity meter.
It’s a fact that all of us in this industry have to face: authors have very rarely made a decent living from their work. Professional writers (who may or may not be “authors”)—can earn money from magazine articles, ghostwriting, copywriting, freelance editing, and teaching to supplement their meager royalties. Some authors, like Wallace Stevens, worked in other careers; most now work at universities. All of which means that those scribblers who are foregoing food, not paying their bills, and avoiding life and its pleasures awaiting their huge advances and hefty checks are deluding themselves if they (a) believe that this is a viable way to conduct a career or (b) that it was somehow easier in the past.

The moral of the story? Don’t give up your day job until you’re assured of a sound income.


Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , ,

Marketing Your Book

It’s a common complaint among authors that their publisher doesn’t do enough publicity for their book: the book tour is too short, if it exists at all; the advertising is too spare, if there is any; the reviews are too few, if any are published. Now, I’ve been in this business long enough to see both ends of the spectrum: books with million-dollar-plus advertising lavished on them that have sold miserably; those with nary a penny laid out for promotion flourishing in the marketplace. Conclusion: marketing, publicity, and advertising don’t necessarily mean sales. So how does one go about marketing one’s book?

First of all, the author needs to understand that if she doesn’t know who the right audience for her book is, and how to reach them, then her publisher won’t either. She needs to ask her contacts to support her work, and not rely on a third party (unknown to the contact) to do the heavy lifting, since it’s much easier for the contact to screen out a third-party pitcher than the contact’s friend or associate who happens to be the author. It’s might make your skin crawl, but you can’t be shy.

Secondly, the author must realize that he needs to take charge of the process. This is true whether he’s published by a big house or a small concern. He needs to make the follow-up calls, book the venues, call in the favors. He does this because he cares and because he can, and not because the publishers are lazy. The author is the best voice for the work: own it.

Thirdly, think of the book as much more than a collection of words. It’s a calling card, a ticket to tenure or speaking engagements, a repository of articles for magazines and blogs that need to be mined and refined for the right audience. Instead of waiting for the sparse royalty checks to come in, use your book in a dynamic and multivalent way. You then have many roads available to you rather than one narrow and potentially potholed pathway to success.

Finally, use social media. This can be difficult. My author Kim Stallwood has written a wonderful, evocative, and telling memoir (called Growl) that talks about the life and strategic lessons he’s learned in forty years of animal advocacy. Yet precisely because of those four decades of work, he doesn’t have much money. He lives in the U.K. and is trying to raise cash on Indiegogo to come to the States to speak: you buy the book and/or a perk or two, and he gets the dough.

I think it would be fair to say that the campaign is not going as well as might be hoped—because (I suspect) people somehow assume that (a) publishers have a lot of money, (b) they should be the ones paying for the tour, and (c) because they’re donating to a charity rather than getting something in return. Fundamentally, everyone—readers, authors, and publishers—needs to get out of the mindset that books have a value only when all the sunk costs (the time and money it takes to write, produce, publicize, and sell the title) have somehow been magically absorbed by a mysterious force, leaving only the retail price behind.

In other words, we need to start paying in advance, which means coughing up cash for your favorite author to produce your content and take it to the world. So, buy Kim’s book! It’s going to take some time to change that mindset, but it is happening. It’s my hope that that reimagining of the author–reader relationship may just save the industry, and make publicity woes such as the above a thing of the past.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing | Tagged ,

How Do I Get My Book Published?

Once a week (at least) I receive an email from a friend who has a friend who’s written a book, and has no idea how to get it published. Can I help them? my friend asks. They don’t know what to do. Now, I like to help people; I like to assist them in reaching their goals. And I know quite a bit about publishing. But I’m baffled how anyone, in this day and age, is clueless about what to do. This is why—to save me and any would-be correspondents some time—I’m writing out some suggestions for any putative author.

1. Use bibliographies
If you wrote a non-fiction manuscript, it’s likely that you did research and read some books. Who published those books? Given that you used their titles to write your own, it’s at least somewhat likely that they might be interested in taking a look at yours. Perhaps you were inspired to write your book having agreed or disagreed with an author or theorist or set of ideas. There must be books associated with that author, theorist, or set of ideas. Look them up on Amazon, in a bookstore, or in a library, and see who published those. Look at the bibliographies and resources at the back of their books. See any publishers who constantly pop up? Try them. What you’re attempting to do is find companies who publish in your field. If you’re so clueless about your own field’s range of literature, then I have a more fundamental question for you: If you haven’t any idea of who’s written in your area, then why is anyone going to bother to read or publish you?

2. Use the Internet
I had a work colleague throughout the first decade of this century who never asked any questions of us. I’d ask her if anything was wrong, and she’d tell me that everything was fine. She always seemed to know what to do. When I finally expressed wonderment at how she never seemed to have questions or problems, she looked at me in bafflement and told me that she simply went to the Internet. There was always a chat-room, or FAQ page, or wiki that contained an answer to any technical or informational problem or question she encountered. The key was using Google’s search engine efficiently and following links. So, when looking for answers to publishing, use the web diligently. I simply typed in “How to get your book published” on Google, and came up with the following. I’ve chosen the first three I came across:

1. Jane Friedman
2. Writer’s Digest (1) 
3. Writer’s Digest (2)

These three sites (out of hundreds) contain a huge amount of useful information that will get you well on the way to understanding what you’ll need to do to propel your book project forward. They have names and links that will take you to other places as well. You are not the first to be clueless about publishing. Fortunately for you, others have gone before you and have an enormous amount of wisdom to share with you. And it’s only a few clicks away.

3. Understand the industry
The publishing industry is undergoing seismic shifts because of new technology, the breakdown of the old systems of producing and delivering books to consumers, and people’s changing reading habits. Authors have options that were unavailable a decade ago, and the challenges facing publishers are now greater: more product, more forms of entertainment, more “noise” running interference on your book and author trying to get attention. Again, Google here is your friend. The more you learn, the more choices and opportunities you give yourself, and the more likely it is you’ll find the right path for you.

4. Do the work
Finally, you need to do the work. There’s a chance—vanishingly slim, I know—that you’ve asked your friend this question because you consider yourself too important to be bothered with the whole messy business of writing and publishing. You’re a creative genius, after all. It’s up to the drones of this world to bring your essential, revelatory, and unique book to the world. Well, guess what? The writing’s the easy part. If you genuinely want to be an author, you have to labor: you have to build up a network of folks to buy your book; you have to become a shameless self-publicist; and you have to keep your day job, because very few people ever made enough money to earn a living from their writing. By doing the work, you’ll save yourself, your friends, and any publisher you may come across in the future a lot of grief.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing

A Berryful of Berry

I’m quite proud that everyone I’ve published at Lantern Books is still talking to me (when they haven’t died, that is), isn’t badmouthing the company (at least, not so I know—thank you, authors, for your discretion!), and receives royalties and/or statements twice a year as contractually promised. Our company has always provided health insurance to our employees and severance pay for those we’ve had to let go, and created an office environment and work space (decent hours, natural light, plants) that fosters the soul rather than sucks it dry.

I reflect on this following receipt of a letter that the late Rynn Berry—author of Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes, among other classic works—sent to Panjandrum Books on May 27, 1992. I came into possession of this magnificent epistle through Mark Mathew Braunstein, author of Radical Vegetarianism, who was (like Rynn) an author at Panjandrum, before (like Rynn) branching out on his own, until he arrived (unlike Rynn) at Lantern. Mark, a man of sharp wit himself, thought I might appreciate Rynn’s verbal pyrotechnics—especially since I’d never received such a letter from Rynn, or Mark, or (thankfully) anyone in fifteen years of owning my own company. I only hope it stays that way.

The unfortunate publisher in question, Dennis Koran (surely a name that should have boded well for a person of the book) operated out of North Hollywood, admittedly an unpromising venue for a world of words. Clearly, Dennis was unhappy with Rynn’s previous correspondence, as our hero makes clear in his opening salvo.

My attorney . . . has forwarded your letter dated April 10, 1992. I think it says a good deal about the low esteem in which you hold your authors—the one or two who still remain under contract with Panjandrum—that I have never received more than a few hastily scrawled notes from you in the ten years that I have been a Panjandrum author; whereas, you freely delivered yourself of a three-page, closely worded diatribe denouncing me to my attorney.

Beyond that, the whole tone of the letter is condescending and evinces a thinly concealed contempt for me; what’s more, most of it is blatantly untrue.

Now that, my friends, is how to begin a letter! Stephen King is on record as despising the adverb. And yet, where would Rynn’s prose—reaching a high pitch of dudgeon faster than an Ariel Atom gets to 60 m.p.h.—be without the precision of “hastily”, “freely”, “closely,” “thinly”? I love the parenthetical backhanded insult in the first paragraph, which serves deliciously to emphasize Rynn’s beleagueredness at the same time as it highlights Koran’s failure to build his company. And “evinces” emerges from the lips with a contemptuous vehemence that is almost onomatopoeic. But Rynn is merely warming to his theme:

Before I begin answering your charges point-by-point, I should like to ask you why you composed your letter on Panjandrum stationery that still bears the address of the offices from which you were evicted for non-payment of rent in 1987? Don’t you think it’s about time that you invested in some new stationery? It presents a very negative appearance—especially as you have used a magic marker to cross out the old address with an ugly black streak on each of the three pages. It is symptomatic of the slipshod manner in which you run your publishing business that your stationery looks so unsightly (as well as being five years out-of-date!). No wonder you are having trouble finding distributors for your books!!

One of the joys of rhetoric is what we might call inversion, diversion, and subversion. The diversion here is Rynn’s immediately going “meta”—critiquing the stationery of all things—and then using it to slip from beneath the cloak of apparent concern the verbal dagger that is Panjandrum’s eviction for non-payment of rent, before rubbing salt in the wound by reinforcing Panjandrum’s incompetence as a company set up to communicate.  And so it goes on:

In your opening paragraph, you point out that you are the publisher of another vegetarian book whose author does not concern himself with the publication, distribution and promotion of his book so much as I do. I happen to be a good friend of the author to whom you are referring—Mark Braunstein; so I know the true story “from the inside”, as it were. . . . Mark has regaled me with countless horror stories about his experiences with you. For instance, to test the efficiency of your fulfillment operation, he has had friends on numerous occasions order books (his book) directly from you; his friends waited and waited and waited; their orders languished in your office; their cheques were never cashed, their orders doubtless lying in slush piles of unopened letters and parcels on your office floor. On one of his visits to California, Mark peered into your offices just prior to your being evicted, and saw cartons of his books gathering dust on your floor, while orders for them were going unfulfilled. [. . . .]

Mark, who sent me the letter, has indicated that Rynn was hyperbolic and inaccurate here, but that scarcely matters. What is far more important is that the reader is presented with an image of Dickensian fustiness: a Bleak House of Publishing. That house is built, at least partially, on the finely balanced mortises and tenons of semi-colons that balance each story of invective piled on invective. He continues:

In your next paragraph, you fault me for taking an excessive interest in the publication, promotion, and distribution of my book. Any sane publisher would be tickled pink to have an author take such a personal interest in these matters; it can only redound to the publisher’s credit, to say nothing of his bank balance—to have an author beating the drum for him. Fact is, I have arranged 99 per cent of all the book reviews of FV myself. Furthermore, on my own initiative, I have called the store managers of more than 50 key bookstores throughout the country, and persuaded them to stock the book. What thanks have I received from you?

Ah, the rhetorical question! The zeugma lurking within the verb “redound”!

You claim that you are well-versed in the methods of book promotion and distribution; this makes it all the more inexcusable that you have been so derelict in distributing, promoting, and marketing my book.

Rynn then goes on to detail a lament common to all authors and that remains all-too-true (perhaps even truer) today: how little his publisher does to support the book. Rynn catalogues how much outreach he himself is forced to make to bookstores, asking distributors to stock his books (in the days when you could actually get through to an actual person, and more than a handful of distributors existed because there were more than a handful of bookstores to shelve their products), and being told that his publisher has made no effort to resupply either. Rynn then switches back to the publisher himself, offering more rhetorical subversion:

On more than one occasion you have confessed to me that you were given to suffering periods of catatonic depression that left you paralyzed, unable to open an envelope, or rise from your chair and cross the room. Orders for books, and other urgent correspondence, pile up on your desk while you fritter away your time chasing the blues. Dennis, I [am] truly compassionate [for] your condition, and I firmly believe that you should seek help; but don’t you think it’s a little unfair to subject your authors to your psychological vicissitudes?

By the way, you allege that I have vilified you to other Panjandrum authors, former and current. On the contrary, I have called a number of your former authors (nearly all Panjandrum authors are “former Panjandrum authors”) because I was concerned that perhaps I was being singled out for mistreatment. Was anyone else going through same hellish ordeal that I was? Sure enough, every single Panjandrum author that I talked to denounced you with a stream of invective without my having to say a word against you. Lionel Rolfe [author of Last Train North], who authored two books for Panjandrum, called you so many unprintable names that I dare not repeat them for fear of sounding excessively vituperative.

Rynn returns to the failures of the publisher to pay his printers’ bills or remunerate his typesetter. The publisher, we read, even lets the book “languish” for two years mid-typeset. Rynn finally reaches the climax of his rhetorical tour-de-force:

Did you then take the typeset page proofs to the printer to be printed and bound? No! Not a bit of it! You had to be wheedled and cajoled and finally sued before you would bestir yourself to find a printer. Legal papers were served on you in October of 1989, and a lawsuit was commenced in Santa Monica Court. In early January of 1990, when a judgment was about to be entered against you, you shook off your lethargy and called Russell Clampitt, and begged to be given one more chance. (“I’m committed to the publication of this book! I’ve invested $16,000 and seven years of my life to it!”)

I should have known better! For now, as a result of your shoddy business practices, my book is no longer available in the premiere [sic] market for books in the United States—the bookstores of New York City.

Unfortunately, like British comedian Tony Hancock with Lady Don’t Fall Backwards, I am left without the last page of Rynn’s opus. Nonetheless, we have enough evidence to deduce that Rynn was as baffled by his publisher’s unwillingness to make back his investment ($16,000!) as many authors are.

So, why don’t we put more of an effort into marketing and promotion, when we’ve spent so much on an advance, and the editorial, design, and printing? The simple truth is that Panjandrum, like virtually every publisher then and most now, had a model that is  technically known as Throw Everything Against the Wall and See What Sticks method of publishing. We publishers really have no idea what will sell, and so we produce as much as possible and then, if a title begins to move, throw money at it to turn it from a good seller into a bestseller and then into a megaseller. The remaining books may take off, or they may not. But it’s rarely got anything to do with money. It’s basically luck, word of mouth, the author’s willingness to promote him- or herself, and some kind of zeitgeist kismet that makes a title a success. Honestly, most publicity and promotion is a waste of dough.

These days, risks can be shared, non-bookstore outlets have proliferated, and publishing is now a much less arcane business than in Panjandrum’s day (although our industry still has its fair share of characters and shady dealers). Rynn’s letter is, in some ways, an echo of the good-old-bad-old days, and both he and it are missed. What I also miss, however, is that nobody writes this way anymore: typed out on paper and delivered by snail-mail; rhetoric burnished like a sword glinting in the sun; grievance and gratuitous insult masked by the velvet tone of wounded pride, faux solicitousness, and a disingenuous astonishment. No letters please.

Posted in Publishing | Tagged , , , , , ,

The Rights and Wrongs of Translation

Authors contact us at Lantern Books frequently because a devotee in another country has either offered to translate their book or has already done so and is looking for a publisher. What should we do? the authors ask. Consider this post our response to that question—and if it should happen to you.

Among our tasks as publishers is to protect the copyright of our authors. That means no unauthorized reproduction or use of an author’s work without our permission or paying fees to us and the author—who after all put time, effort, and money into the book in the first place. That, of course, applies to translation. The best way to secure copyright protection is for one publisher to contract with another to translate, publish, and distribute the book in that country, and for that publisher to have exclusive rights to do those things. Without that surety, an author cannot guarantee that he or she will receive royalties, that the translation will be accurate, and that the book itself will be produced and distributed professionally.

So, if you’re an author, and a kindly Croatian claims kinship or a friendly Finn fans you on Facebook and wants your book to be available in their language, do the following:

  1. Thank your fan very much, and ask them to find a publisher in their country who’s willing to publish the book.
  2. Ask them to tell the publisher to contact your publisher.
  3. Indicate to the kindly Croatian or friendly Finn that the publisher may not choose them to be the translator.
  4. Discourage the devotee from photocopying their translation and disseminating it. That’s theft, and you’ve no idea of whether they’ve a minimum grasp of your language.

Of course, the devotee may find it hard to find that publisher, which is why Lantern has its own rights manager trying to do it for the authors and us. But, as slow and frustrating as the process is, it offers some chance that one’s work won’t be pirated.

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Show Me the Money!

Occasionally, a prospective author will ask us at Lantern whether we give advances. Our answer is “no.” Here’s why.

An advance is in effect an interest-free loan to an author. It’s meant to provide them with financial resources to enable them to finish the book (if they haven’t done so) or as some kind of “thank you, we believe in you” (if they have). The advance is a loan because the money that’s given is “against” royalties. In other words, if the publisher gives you a $5,000 advance, it means that you won’t get any money from your sales until you’ve sold $5,000 worth of books, on the money the publishers get from the stores and other places.

A very large percentage of books never earn out their advances, leaving publishers, quite literally, at a loss. Unfortunately, too many authors and agents think that the best possible outcome for their book is to get the largest advance possible—with actual sales of the book, apparently, being almost an afterthought. These days, those authors who do get the big advances—just like the singers who get major recording deals or filmmakers who get national distribution—are in the small minority. But they’re the standards against whom everybody measures their success.

The simple fact is, with no advance, if the book does well, then both publisher and author reap the benefits. If the book doesn’t do so well, then publishers are somewhat protected against the investment they make in producing the book in the first place. Of course, authors who wish to make more money can self-publish: taking on the risk of production for a much larger portion of the sales.

At Lantern, we’re proud to have been in this business for fifteen years and we’ve been able to pay royalties to all our authors in every one of those years. Some of our authors have by now collected over $20,000: not enough to earn a living perhaps, but certainly a very respectable “advance.” Long may it continue!

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Reasons to Write a Book #3: The Medium Demands It

I’ve already touched on the compulsion one has to write and third-party credibility as a reason to write a book. Another, perhaps subtler, reason I like to give for writing a book is that it demands certain disciplines and constraints that may not be present in other media, which in turn will shape your argument, style, tone, and delivery.

For instance, a book can take its time and afford to be expansive in a way that a poem or a short story cannot. Film can offer a great deal of information in a glance or a scene, but words can offer an expansive role for the imagination and a more detailed description of internal thought processes than the visual arts. A book requires—or should—more time, more thought, more rigor, and more commitment than shorter prose forms, and it lends itself to arguments, visions, and explorations that, in turn, require more thought, rigor, time, and commitment from the reader.

So, if the book is what the work demands and you demand from your reader, then a book is how your thoughts should bring themselves before the public. Whether they choose to read it, however, is a whole other story.

Posted in Writing