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A Post About Business Realities

Today's post, "Business Realities for the Beginning Writer," can be found at http://magicalwords.net.  Check out the post and the site, and enjoy.

Comments

( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
coppervale
Dec. 1st, 2008 04:47 pm (UTC)
That's got to be the most cogent explanation/breakdown of the process and realities I've ever read.

It's harder to explain to beginning writers who see one's current level of success as the immediate career plateau they'll hit with the first sale. And it's even harder to try to bring them to reality with stories about how long it took to reach that point.
davidbcoe
Dec. 1st, 2008 07:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks, James. I've done similar talks at cons and workshops, and every time the people listening are blown away by the reality.
coppervale
Dec. 1st, 2008 08:11 pm (UTC)
Here's an interesting offshoot: did you read that recent profile on Malcolm Gladwell? In his new book he suggests that some people succeed in part because they got to an 'expert' level sooner. His example was Bill Gates having had access to computers early on, and thus getting in the 10,000 hours he needed to start his career from a point that was higher than others.

The parallel I thought of, which I speak about in my own lectures, is the fact I started working in comics as a teenager. When I first sent HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS to S&S, their reaction was that it was a pretty polished work for a newcomer - but in truth, it was polished because I'd been working towards it for two decades.

There were lots of years in those decades where I'd have made more money babysitting. But the creative effect was a cumulative one - I got better at what I do. And I see it as being paid now for the experience I gained then - but I had to mark the time, and keep up the effort to do it.

Edited at 2008-12-01 08:26 pm (UTC)
davidbcoe
Dec. 1st, 2008 08:26 pm (UTC)
I think that's a great point. Very few writers strike gold with the first thing they sell. Unfortunately, those who do become quite famous (JK Rowling comes to mind) and give people the impression that it's a common and replicable phenomenon.
coppervale
Dec. 1st, 2008 08:33 pm (UTC)
At a lot of signings, I usually draw dragons in the books (if the lines permit). At one of my first (a B&N near NYC), I drew the dragon and the guy in line said, "Look, kids! It only took him five minutes to draw that!"

I replied, "Actually, it took me thirty years."
davidbcoe
Dec. 1st, 2008 08:54 pm (UTC)
I like that.
jamietr
Dec. 1st, 2008 06:54 pm (UTC)
Given your numbers, it seems reasonable, at least for a while, that a short fiction writer could out-earn a new novelist. Selling to pro markets that pay 6-8 cents/word (say 7 cents/word) would mean you'd need to sell roughly 43,300 words worth of fiction to earn $3,031.66. This is about half the length of a standard s.f. novel, and what, a third or fourth of a fantasy novel? Actually, it's 4 novelettes, or two short novellas. Four novelettes seems reasonable within a year's time. And new writers of short fiction don't require an agent to sell to most of the major markets so you don't have to deduct 15%. Furthermore, you can usually pass a story around to all 4 or 5 major markets within the space of a year. Even with an accepted novel, interactions, as you point out, can be glacial. If you are a prolific story writer, you could probably do even better than this. Finally, a short story sale doesn't have a "paperback" edition, but it can be anthologized multiple times. There are options and so forth, so there is the potential of a lot more money on any one of those four sales.

This is coming from someone who loves short stories and whose heart feels the cold grip of death when confronted with the possibility of ever writing something longer than, say, 25,000 words. It also comes from someone who has a decent vocation to support his avocation, so that money is not the goal. But if money were the goal, it certainly seems that for new writers, it is easier and more cost-effective to go the route of short fiction than novels.

That said, a novel can become a blockbuster bestseller. In that case, all the short fiction in the world wouldn't catch up with its earnings.
davidbcoe
Dec. 1st, 2008 07:16 pm (UTC)
There's some truth to what you're saying, Jamie. The thing is -- the thing I left out of my doomsday scenario -- is that if the process goes well, and books does okay, and the editor likes working with the writer in question, the writer can sell a second novel. And then a third. I don't make a whole lot of money off of any one book, but I have nine in print with a tench coming out in January and another in the pipeline. In the time a writer is waiting for the payments I describe, he/she can and should be writing a second and maybe third book. And while writing short fiction can make money for some people, selling five short stories or four novelettes in a single year -- all of them to markets paying at such a good rate -- is not easy at all. I guess what I'm saying is that your math is correct, but the scenario you offer is very optimistic.
jamietr
Dec. 1st, 2008 07:40 pm (UTC)
Yes, I can see (from experience) that my scenario is optimistic. I will point out, however, that the same argument you make about an editor that likes working with the writer in question applies to short fiction as well. Look at the covers of ANALOG, ASIMOV, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy and IGMS and you'll see names repeating. I think in either case, novel or short fiction, the key is that first professional sale.

And I agree with you that your backlog is where you really start to see a higher earning potential. Isaac Asimov made this point. Before 1982, he never had a bestseller, but he was making enormous sums of money off a backlog that was mostly still in print. His is probably a far edge case, but the principle is there. Sell a book, write another one, sell that, write another one. When you get your advance for the third, you are earning royalties on the first two, etc. You certainly don't have that advantage in short fiction (unless you put your stories together into a collection, or you're Harlan Ellison and turn your short stories into award-winning teleplays).

What would be fascinating is to compare side by side, the "typical" cases of each spread over an average time-line. My guess is that given two new writers starting out at the same time, with equal talent, one who writes short fiction and one who writes novels, the short fiction writer will earn money on a payment per word basis faster for a while, but that at some point, the novel writer will catch up, and surpass the short story writer and after that, there's no looking back. (Far from being the typical case, I suspect I'd be the remedial case. I know people who sold their first novel after a few years of trying. It took me 14 years to sell my first short story.)
davidbcoe
Dec. 1st, 2008 07:58 pm (UTC)
What you say about short story editors buying from certain (highly qualified) authors again and again, is absolutely true. And I think that the side-by-side comparison you suggest might well offer those results, particularly if you're talking payment per word. I shudder to think what I've earned on a per/word basis over the course of my career, but it's not much at all. I think I'm approaching my 2 millionth published word and . . . well, I don't think I want to say more than that. But you should know that I had three novels in print and a fourth in production before I finally sold my first short fiction. That's a very tough market, too. Selling any short story, at any point, is an accomplishment.
jamietr
Dec. 1st, 2008 08:24 pm (UTC)
So the lesson is, if you really want to make money, don't become a writer, become a baseball player instead. ;-)
davidbcoe
Dec. 1st, 2008 08:52 pm (UTC)
Yes, or a golfer who wins 25-30% of all your tournament starts....
sizztheseed
Dec. 1st, 2008 07:30 pm (UTC)
Thanks, David. To the point and eloquent as usual. Really good information, and I'm glad you've put it into the proper perspective: Don't get into this business unless you love stories and you have a story you are compelled to tell, 'coz otherwise, you're wasting your time (and I suspect the time of the publisher as well).

Oh, and keep that dayjob if you can....
davidbcoe
Dec. 1st, 2008 07:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Sizz. Glad you liked it. And yeah, those are the salient points....
jamietr
Dec. 2nd, 2008 06:56 pm (UTC)
Post Script
David, you might check out Barry Malzberg's column in the latest issue of Baen's Universe. Ostensibly about H. Beam Piper, it talks about science fiction writers and the pipe dream of a living wage.
davidbcoe
Dec. 2nd, 2008 07:33 pm (UTC)
Re: Post Script
Thanks for the tip, Jamie.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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