Real Talk: What the EHT Black Hole and My Fiction Career Have in Common

I’m about to write about something that most authors avoid talking about like the plague: the real financial situation of a multi-published independent author in the early stages of her career.

Buckle in, folks. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride. (And a long one, sorry. But spilling my guts isn’t a quick process.)

Last year, I read Anna Kendrick’s memoir, Scrappy Little Nobody. I found it amusing, illuminating, and painfully familiar when she told the story about going to the movie premiere for Up In the Air at the Toronto Film Festival. Paramount Pictures hired a stylist for her who put her into a Marchesa dress and insisted she buy a pair of expensive shoes to match. How expensive? $1,069 USD.

Up In the Air was Anna’s first major role. At the time, the movie hadn’t even come out. Understandably, her reaction to her stylist’s expectation was shock and outrage—the shoes cost more than her rent at the time. She had a small recurring role in the Twilight movies that was barely making sure that that rent got paid. But in her industry, you get judged about your potential future career by how you dress before you really even have one, so she bought the shoes. (And hasn’t worn them since.)

But any of the people who saw her on the red carpet in that Marchesa dress and that thousand-dollar pair of shoes would have thought, “Look at her! She’s doing great! She can afford designer clothes and she’s on the big screen! Already well on the path to success!”

Well, in her case, she would become a success, but it was by no means a guarantee, even though she did spend a grand on shoes. Looks can be deceiving.

Since I published The Friday Night Date Dress in 2015, and even more so since I published Finding Heaven in 2017 and started doing public events, I’ve been asked repeatedly how sales are going, how successful the books have been, or variants thereof. Sometimes, people think that the very fact that you’ve published a book at all means you must be doing well.

And, not wanting to either discourage the dreams of other aspiring writers or maybe not wanting to expose the cold hard facts, I’ve developed this little dance of justification—success is about more than sales, I’m at the beginning of an exponential curve, so yes, the relationship between time and money invested and outcome is all inverse, yada yada yada.

Those things are true. Absolutely true.

But another truth is that if I walked away from writing fiction today and went and put the hours I currently invest into fiction into a minimum-wage job? Our family would be way, WAY further ahead financially.

SPEED BUMP!

Yes, everything’s fine. Why do you ask?

Yes, everything’s fine. Why do you ask?

Last week, I did some rather depressing math, and that’s the conclusion I reached. Since then, I’ve been struggling with what to do about it.

Here’s the thing:

I’m not going to stop writing—I’ve been a writer in some form or other since I learned how to form letters. And now that I’ve got a taste of how rewarding and fulfilling it is to put words out into the world that bless others, I’m not going to stop. This is my calling, and turning away from it would be a betrayal of not only my joy, but my conscience.

It is because of this that I’ve made it a goal to become a prolific writer, because in today’s publishing climate, that is about the only way that one can make a decent living while doing this.

In some ways, I’m already prolific—between blogs, newsletters, and the paid work I do every quarter writing for Move Up (yay! paid writing work!) I produce, at minimum, 120,000 words a year—in other words, the equivalent of a book the length of a Hunger Games installment. But if I also want to produce two or more works of fiction that length every year, I have to change some things.

When I wrote The Waterboy February, I think I finally found the breakthrough I need to help me achieve that goal. I’m totally stoked to try my new technique out on my next book in the series, which I intend to start fast-drafting on Monday.

But today, as I, trembling, hit the “submit order” button on my first order of book stock for The Undine’s Tear—to the tune of over a thousand dollars, and I hope that sells out quick or I may not be able to afford to do some other things in my life this summer—I realized that being prolific will bring up a whole new problem: not having enough capital to afford to produce books that fast.

The Indie Publishing Process

Here’s how it works when you want to produce and sell a book as an independent author:

  1. You spend hours and hours (and hours) writing something that you love, then hate, then love, and hope that other people will want to read it.

  2. You revise that to something humans can (hopefully) understand and send it to beta readers, who will either tell you that you’re on to something or stab a basilisk fang through something that, like Tom Riddle’s diary, contains a piece of your soul, and sometimes they’ll do both at the same time.

  3. Then, once you’ve pulled the tattered pieces of your dignity around you, you revise again. Depending how far along you were with your writing before this point, you may have to repeat these steps several times.

  4. Then, when you think the book is ready for a professional eye, you hire an editor. Editors worth their salt will point out any plot problems, character issues, and style issues that you or your beta readers missed.

  5. After that, you revise again.

  6. Then you have an editor (might be the same one, or not) go through and copy-edit the manuscript (what most laypeople think of as “proofreading”—checking for grammatical, punctuation, and spelling errors).

  7. Then, after what is hopefully a very short revision that is basically accepting the editor’s changes, you send the manuscript to a typesetter. As part of the typesetting process, the manuscript will need to be proofread, a service you may also need to have done professionally.

  8. Usually, by the time you send this to an editor, you are ready to hire a graphic designer to create the perfect cover for your story. He or she will only be able to make you the front cover, since you don’t know how long (and therefore how thick) the final print book will be yet. Depending on your personal graphic design abilities, you may also hire the designer to create some promotional materials for you to use. If you plan to make your own, you license the designer’s work for this purpose.

  9. Note: You should ONLY design your own cover if YOU are a professional graphic designer. Your cover is one of your most effective selling tools—if you get it wrong, all the other work and money you poured into your book won’t matter, because the book just won’t sell enough to catch on.

  10. After you get your completed print file back from your typesetter and know how many pages will be in the book, you can have your graphic designer complete your print wraps. This costs some money over and above the ebook cover. Obviously.

Okay, so now you’ve got your finished, polished, edited manuscript. You’ve got a cover that makes angels weep. You’ve got an interior design that is completely invisible to readers because it complements the entire book effortlessly, which is the point.

Now, if you are planning to put those books into stores on consignment, or even if you want to order some print copies to sell (or give away) to friends and family, you need to buy some books.

Did you notice that word “consignment?” Yes, that’s right. Because here’s how bookstores work (for all authors, not just indies):

Bookstores don’t buy books.

Bookstores borrow books.

How Bookstores Work: Almost a hundred years ago, a publishing industry that was drowning in the toilet during a recession came up with the brilliant idea that, to get their books onto store shelves where people could buy them, they would remove all the risk from the stores. Essentially, they told bookstores, “Whatever you don’t sell, you can send back and we’ll refund you. Doesn’t matter what condition they’re in. We’ll cover it.”

And that’s how it still works. (Great business plan, right?)

As an indie author, I could ask stores to bring in copies of my book through the worldwide distribution system they order through and through which my books are available. But until I have more capital and more people out there who actually want to buy my books, the thought of that kind of terrifies me, because stores across North America could (hypothetically) buy copies of my books—yay! Big royalty check for me!—then return them in six months, and I’d have to give all that money back, plus shipping.

So, understandably, I’ve only put my books into bookstores I can physically access, on consignment (which means the store only takes 45% of the selling price instead of the 55% I’d have to surrender if they ordered the books on their own). I do this so that if the store decides it’s not worth their shelf space to carry my books and want to return their copies, I can actually pick the books up instead of losing money on the return.

And even though my books are only sitting on about a dozen store shelves, I still have hundreds of dollars of books out there (and in my storage room but which you can order through this website, ahem)—for the most part, not selling, because people don’t know who I am and don’t go into the stores looking for me. (Except in the Peace Region. And can I say, you guys who’ve bought my books? You rock. Your support is what keeps me doing this.)

For each of these steps of the process, the investment will be different for each writer and for each book. I’ve paid a range of prices for each of these services for the four books I’ve published. As I’ve developed in my career, I’ve invested more, because my goal as an indie author is that my product will be as good as or better than what the big houses produce.

So what does this mean in terms of cold, hard numbers?

Writer Math

I’m going to give you the numbers for my most recent book, The Undine’s Tear. I did not track my exact time writing it (something which I will be changing going forward), but I know what my average hourly output was and that I canned about 30,000 words early in the process. So, based on my final word count of 164,000 words, I estimate that it took me around 280 hours of writing time to create the first draft. In other words, only the time up until I actually started the really hard work.

In terms of a full-time job, that would be 7 weeks of work. At the current Alberta minimum wage of $15/hour, I would have earned $4,200 for that amount of work.

I spend 7-10 hours every week in activities that could generally be classified as “marketing.” These activities include networking with other writers, editors, and especially readers online, creating content for my blog, newsletters and social media, making phone calls or reaching out to bookstores and reviewers, and maintaining my website.

Since I actually wrote The Undine’s Tear over the course of a year (first draft), this comes out to around another 364-520 hours of marketing during that year, most of which was for my fiction writing (as opposed to my knitwear design business).

For easy figuring, let’s say I double my time investment writing a book with the marketing time for that book and use 280 hours. That means that at my fictional minimum-wage job, I would have earned another $4,200. A total of $8,400.

Instead, here’s what that time cost me:

  • Graphic design: $700 CAD for the cover and extended license to make my own promotional materials.

  • Editing, 1 round only: $2,750

  • Typesetting: $450

  • Website hosting fees, domain name costs, etc: hundreds of dollars, which fortunately, my knitwear design business covers

Right now, we’re looking at $3,900—which does not include the investment I made today ordering in stock. Which I then have to store until it sells.

So, not only am I not $8k richer, but out of the money I do earn (some at more than minimum wage, some at less), $4,000 went into producing a single title. A title for which I earn between $2-$5 per sale, out of which I have to pay for those expenses. To break even, I’d have to sell 780 books. (Hint: I haven’t come close to selling 780 books total, let alone of a single title.)

And I want to do this multiple times a year. Why? Because eventually, producing more work means that the relationship between time and money invested vs. gained reverses, and the business becomes self-sustaining. I know authors that have done it. And if they can do it, so can I.

But right now, I’m at a tricky stage of the process of getting to that point—I can write more books, faster, than ever before. But I have less capital to invest than ever before, because I’m already maxed out on the books I’ve created.

Up until now, I’ve been picturing my writing career as an exponential curve of growth, and I’m so near the beginning of the curve that I’m barely off the baseline. But what it feels like is this:

Not a picture of an actual black hole. To see that, go  here , right now, because it’s awesome—then come back. I couldn’t figure out how to legally use that image. This one is courtesy of  123rf.com .

Not a picture of an actual black hole. To see that, go here, right now, because it’s awesome—then come back. I couldn’t figure out how to legally use that image. This one is courtesy of 123rf.com.

Now, the longer you’re in this game, the farther you get along the curve. Which means eventually, I will actually be making more on each book than I’m putting into it.

But that’s not true for me yet. And despite working 50 hours a week on my fiction career, I don’t know exactly when that will be true.

Soon, I hope.

But as I sat there this afternoon, sweating over how many books I could afford to buy in order to have books that I could sell, I wondered how I was going to afford to put out multiple books a year with this kind of overhead.

Which is why I’m writing this.

(Note: In reality, I spend approximately 57 hours a week, every week, working, most of which is unpaid. Eight hours a week of that is teaching piano, a few hours go into knitwear design—which doesn’t earn a lot, but gains me more than it loses, and sometimes I edit and write for money. The rest of the time, I get paid in smiles, hopes, and dreams.)

Consumers as Patrons

Last weekend, I was talking to a friend of mine who has read (and loved!) the ARC of The Undine’s Tear, and she surprised me by offering to invest in future books to help me succeed, completely out of the blue. This floored me, because it is not common to have that kind of support for the arts anymore. Or so I used to think.

Over the last year or two, I’ve been watching other artists—singers, cartoonists, writers, and more—use services like Patreon and GoFundMe! to launch projects or just to help pay their bills. People who value what these artists do support them, either one-time or monthly, as a thank you in exchange for content, or just to make sure the artist can keep producing more of whatever the consumer loves—thus becoming the artist’s patron.

My friend hadn’t even heard of these sites. She just offered. Which made me think that maybe, just maybe, there are others out there who would value my work enough to do the same. It’s just that, as a businesswoman, I believe strongly in creating my own capital. It’s how I’ve done it so far. And it’s also the reason why all of my businesses have grown so slowly—because they’ve been limited by the amount of investment capital I can create at the same time that I’m doing the work to grow the business that’s sucking that capital in.

I have limited quantities of time and money. And I haven’t been able to figure out a way to break through those barriers. Until now.

If you’ve gotten this far, I’m assuming you’re sufficiently invested in my success (or in learning how to create your own) to be interested in hearing about the solution. So, here it is: How you can help!

How You Can Support My Career:

My ultimate goal is to make a decent living from writing. It doesn’t all have to be fiction, and I’ve already started to do that. After all, there is that magazine job that I love, and people do buy my books and love them—just not enough people yet to create actual profit. So how do we fix that?

Buy my books or ask your local library to buy them.

This is obvious, but I felt it should be included. Chances are, you are already one of my fiction readers. But did you know I get paid for having my books in Canadian libraries? So if you haven’t already done this, please go ask your local library to order them in (and then go check them out at least once to show them it was justified). If you’re such an avid reader that library memberships are the only way to afford your habit, this is a very tangible way to help authors.

Review my books.

I constantly get comments, texts, direct messages, and sometimes hugs from people who have read my books, especially Finding Heaven, and were profoundly moved or impacted by them. This is great. I love knowing that my work matters, and feedback like this is how I know I’m in the right career.

But if you want to enable me to keep putting out great fiction, leave a review.

Did you know that I’ve sold hundreds of copies of Finding Heaven, but it only has 19 reviews on Goodreads (and less on Amazon)? Most of them were left by my ARC reader team, and the last one was left over a year ago. Nineteen reviews isn’t even enough to qualify the book for certain online promotions I could enter it into if it had more reviews. So please, leave a review. It only takes a few minutes of your time, but it has a profound impact on the success of any book and, by extension, the author’s career. (Don’t know how? My 2-minute guide removes the intimidation factor.)

Buy me a coffee.

This isn’t what you think.

I’ve had people offer to buy me a coffee in person after reading my book, which I deeply appreciate, but thanks to my 57-hour work week, I just don’t have time. I have to be very intentional about the time I spend socializing, and my highest priority is my family and existing relationships, which are difficult enough to maintain. I like getting to know my readers, but social media and email are the best (and probably only) ways that that it’s going to happen outside of public events like book signings and conferences. (So find me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and sign up for my newsletter! Ahem.)

But!

Remember the modern patron-type sites I was mentioning above? I’ve signed up for one (which, frustratingly, misspells “coffee” as “ko-fi”, which is an actual name that should be pronounced KOH-fee, and I know, because my husband had a co-worker with this name and one my characters in The Undine’s Tear also bears it).

However, the point is that, for the cost of a cup of coffee, you can show solidarity and support for me, what I do, and the content that I spend so much time producing and putting out for free (like my newsletters, blog posts, and social media posts).

It took me a while to get used to the idea, but once I pictured myself as a busker, creating entertainment and just throwing out a hat for people to leave a little something in appreciation, I got more comfortable with it.

If this is an idea you love, and you want to invest in my future success, you can “buy me a coffee” here:

 
 

Eventually, I won’t need to throw out my hat. Eventually, I’ll be filling up other artists’ hats to give them the boost they need to get out of that black hole.

And please don’t think I expect a coffee from you. I’m going to keep writing. I’m going to keep growing my business. But if you want to partner with me and water my baby business seeds with some “coffee,” I’ll be forever grateful.

I mean, Anna got to the point where she could easily afford a pair of $1,000 shoes for the red carpet, and write a best-selling memoir about how she got to that point.

I’d be happy with enough money to put out my next book and put money toward groceries.

What do you say?