Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 5) Money
I know most of you are going to stare at this title and think: Yep, writers fail because they don’t earn enough money.
Um…nope. That’s not the problem at all.
Money causes writers to fail because writers bring the wrong expectations to their view of their financial spreadsheet.
First, let’s talk about money in general.
Some people are very bad at handling money. For example, they’re single and have a good paying day job, and yet they can’t make it from paycheck to paycheck. They certainly can’t save for something important or for retirement or whatever they’re supposed to save for.
Other people simply don’t have enough money. Full stop. They’re divorced and a single parent, trying to live in a house (for example) that it takes two paychecks to maintain. Or their wage, when they got the job, barely covered expenses. Now, with the pandemic and inflation and a whole host of other financial changes, their bills went up and their paycheck remained the same.
Then there are the people who think money grows on trees. I married one of those the first time. He fully believed that if he spent money, he would end up with more money later. Imagine living with that.
He’s a type. Some members of that type manage to con people out of money so that the type can maintain their lifestyle. Others manage to convince people to take care of them…until the caretaker gets wise and bails. The last member of that type, well, they manage for a while, and then everything craters around them.
There’s another type on the opposite side of the spectrum, the type that is so terrified of dying broke that they won’t part with a dime. No amount of money is enough for them. Even if they have enough money to retire or to pay all their bills for years, they won’t because it’s just too stressful for them. They’ll sacrifice dignity before they give up on their day job. Hell, they might never give up on their day job.
Lastly, there’s the relatively balanced type. I say relatively balanced because no one is completely balanced when it comes to money. These people, though, have it in perspective. They know how to handle debt, they can manage their credit, they actually have money in savings, and they’re able to invest.
Or, if they’re on the lower end of the income ladder, they know to the penny how much each bill is, and they know how to find the money to pay that bill. They figure out how to make their paycheck stretch to the end of the month, even if it means taking some government assistance or a few hours on an extra job.
For these folks, money is a tool, a means to an end, something that enables their life, but doesn’t control it.
That’s where we all want to be. Many of us never achieve it.
Our attitudes toward money are rooted in our pasts. For the most part, here in the U.S., no one learns money management until college. By then, it’s often too late. College students hit the dorms with credit cards in hand, and spend like there’s no tomorrow, without realizing that someone needs to pay. Parents aren’t really helping their kids by paying that bill at the end of every month, even if the bill is outrageous. Especially if the bill is outrageous.
Here in the U.S., money is considered personal. Some people would rather answer in-depth questions about their sex lives instead of discussing how they handle money.
A lot of parents never talk to their kids about money. Even more parents don’t give their kids an allowance, just pay for whatever the kid wants. Most parents don’t know how to manage money themselves, so how can they teach their kid?
Why am I bringing all of this up first?
Because, if you’re going to fail as a writer due to money, it’s most often due to your attitudes toward money—the attitudes rooted so deeply in your past that it might take therapy to dig them out.
Because the U.S. culture is so hush-mouthed about money, most people learn to lie about money. The lying sometimes comes in actual spoken words: Sure I make $100,000 per year, says the guy who earns $50,000 some years.
But usually, the lies come in lifestyle. Those people who have the big house and the beautiful furniture, the lovely boat on the driveway and the two big cars in the three-car garage, who wear expensive everything—even casual clothing, and who look down on people who aren’t making any money at all—often those folks are living paycheck to paycheck or worse, on a revolving series of credit card bills, as they overspend.
That house of cards will eventually topple, but the toppling occurs in the form of a divorce (and then, of course, it’s the other spouse’s fault) or in the form of a move (oh, we decided it was time to downsize) or whatever other B.S. they come up with.
In the U.S., we use money to impress.
—He’s going to an Ivy League college (read: expensive as hell)
—She can afford a Lexus at 30 (wow, she must have a hell of a job!)
—Look at the diamond he bought me (I’m marrying up)
And so on and so forth.
Those two habits—lying about money and using money to impress—flood the writer ranks. Especially the indie writers.
When this new world of publishing started, a lot of writers made a lot of money very fast. There weren’t a lot of ebooks for people to buy to put on their Kindle (and back then, Kindle was the name of the game). Readers were willing to put up with bad interior designs and bad (or no) copyediting and terrible covers, just to be able to have something to read on their ereader.
Those gold rush days lasted maybe two years, maybe less. We cashed in, as did many other writers. But ultimately, the situation changed, just like it did in the real American Gold Rush. Sure, back then, there was gold to be found if you were willing to pan or dig for it, but the people who made the most money were the ones who provided the secondary services—groceries, housing, alcohol, and kits for gold-panning. As the Gold Rush continued, the only people who got rich were the ones who provided the supplies.
That’s not quite a one-to-one comparison. But there are a lot of people who are making a ridiculous amount of money offering needless services to writers who don’t know better. Developmental editing? From someone who has never finished a book? Please. All they have are their uninformed opinions. What about from a former New York editor? Um…they didn’t do editing when they were in their chairs. They acquired books. They didn’t develop them. And yeah, they’re former. Why pay them thousands?
And so on and so forth. Cover designers who charge $5000 a pop to use the same services the writer could use. Web designers who’ll “improve” your website for $10,000. Gurus who will give you (and everyone else who ponies up $2000) the secrets to their success at selling books.
(The secret? Write a book that sells somewhat well, and then make money off your system, not off the book itself. There are waaaay too many of those scammers.)
This stuff isn’t new. These hangers-on and scam artists and so-called experts existed before indie publishing came along. They just ran a slightly different version of the same scam. Can’t sell your book to traditional publishing? Then have this developmental editor—a former NY editor—help you fix the flaws before you send the book to an agent.
My ex trained me well, but not in the way he thought. I married young and learned the lesson hard. Flim-flam artists always seem like they know what they’re doing. They can lie about everything, including money. My ex used to tell me that the secret to sales wasn’t in the product, but in the pitch. And an important part of the pitch? The guy making the pitch needs to look like he’s making money.
Oh, the other key to the pitch? Tell as much of the truth as possible, but shade it to benefit you—especially on the unverifiable stuff.
Here’s what’s unverifiable in the indie world: How much money some other writer makes.
Back when Amazon was the only game in town, writers looked at the various bestseller lists that Amazon compiled and tried to do the math based on a book’s ranking. Which worked, if the author had one or two books, and those books were exclusive to Amazon.
But it didn’t work if the author was smart and had gone wide. It really didn’t work if the author was licensing other products that went with the book like games or movie options.
(I never tell you when I get a movie or TV option, because it’s vaporware. I get money, but so far, none of the many projects I’ve worked on of mine (not other people’s) have gone past the In-Development phase. Other writers blather about “their” movie all the time, even if they’ve only sold an option. Eventually, they stop talking because the option doesn’t move any needles…on anything.)
Trying to figure out what other writers earn really fails when the writer has a backlist as extensive as mine and that backlist is in print. Some books sell as little as one unit per quarter, but over hundreds of titles, that’s hundreds of books. Others sell hundreds, and some sell more than that.
The thing about book sales is this: They rise and they fall. Not even long-time bestselling titles like The DaVinci Code, traditionally published back in the day, sold the same number of copies from month to month. It sold enough to stay on all the bestseller lists for two years in hardcover, but sometimes that was 20,000 copies per month and sometimes it was 200,000 copies per month.
Who knew? Well, really, no one. Because traditional publishing has terrible accounting systems.
If the book was actually in modern systems, like Amazon’s or Kobo’s or D2D, then the author would know how many copies the book sold, and how much money that made him.
But the author is under no obligation to tell anyone.
Still, there are times when it’s tough to remain silent. Some writers are lucky enough to earn mid-five figures per month for a while, anyway. Some have a project that gets really hot and they might earn six figures for months and months.
Eventually, those sales drop off.
But a lot of writers still talk as if they’re earning that high figure, month after month after month.
That sets impossible expectations. I know a lot of writers who start indie publishing their titles and do everything right: great covers, great interiors, great blurbs and great stories. Yet those writers don’t make a fortune in the first month, no matter what they spend on advertising. They don’t make a fortune in the eighth month either, or the fifteenth month.
Eventually, they give up, because they think they’re failing.
Even though—if they were to look at their numbers realistically—they would see a steady growth across their titles, and a very real spike every time they released a new book.
They were so busy chasing the elusive “wealth” that they didn’t see they were actually developing a following …and they quit.
It takes perseverance to make a career as a writer.
Writers who end up having a career ride the ups and downs. I admire the heck out of the writers who stick with it, even when it’s hard.
For example, for eight years, writer Ron Vitale has posted his year-end numbers. He started indie publishing in 2012. He did his first year-end update in 2013, and he continues to do them.
If you actually look at the graph he published for his entire indie career, ending in 2021, you’ll see that from 2018, his book sales have grown dramatically each year.
What did he do differently? I don’t know, because I’m not going back through his numbers. He’s experimenting a lot and learning a lot, so his expenses are greater than his income.
I do know one vast difference, though. In 2013, he had only published two books. By 2021, he had published fourteen. (He has a demanding day job and he spends a lot of time with his family.) As he started to get into double digits on books published, his readership grew steadily. (Readers want more books. Once they finish one, they want another. When you only have two, readers move onto other writers. With fourteen, you’re going to keep them occupied for a while.)
It’s both courageous and useful that Ron publishes his numbers every year. Most writers don’t.
Some do give out interesting information without attaching a dollar figure. Michael Lucas does that. He’s up front about where his income comes from. It comes from writing books.
What does he earn? Hell if I know. He hasn’t told me, and he doesn’t put the figures out there.
What he does is show the breakdown of where readers buy his books. Some of this income is front-facing—his Kickstarter, for example. But not all of it. And for the most part, he’s pretty quiet about what he earns and how he manages his money.
I worry about the folks who aren’t quiet about it. The ones who teach that You Too Can Earn $50,000 in a Month! Not month after month, mind you. But in one month.
I hate the message those folks send. They seem to believe that all writers are equal. If you too do the same things that person has done, well, then, you’ll be rich! Famous! Have $50,000 in your bank account.
And pigs will fly out of your butt, then play kazoos in celebration.
One of my closest friends has had a lot more bestsellers than I ever will. He has made a boatload of money over the years (and I know about much of it).
We do not write the same things, but if I did the things he does to promote my books…well, I still wouldn’t make the kind of money he is.
Another friend won the TV show lottery. He’s making a fortune of ancillary rights, but at the expense of his own writing. Come to think of it, I have several friends like that.
I’d rather write, thank you, even if I could win that TV show lottery.
And then there’s a casual friend of mine who had mega bestseller—one of the books of the year in fact—which was made into a movie and was buzzed about for nearly two years.
Since that book was published, fifteen or so years ago now, she’s published two other books, neither of which are hitting those stratospheric heights…because books outside of a series almost never do. (And yes, she’s traditionally published). She never quit her day job. She still thinks of herself as a part-time writer…which she is.
And as for the indie writers I’ve known? The ones who were making ten to twenty to fifty thousand per month five years ago? Most of them have quit writing. They drowned in debt. They froze because they felt like they “had to” write the same thing over and over “to please their fans.”
Then there are those writers who just continue. They made a lot of money early on, and they’re continuing to write and make more. But they’ve stopped talking about their earnings. They’re too busy running their businesses to impress other writers with their “system.”
So…how do writers fail with money?
- They fail to realize what their financial weaknesses are. If you know what your weaknesses are, you can learn how to correct them.
- They fail to see that they’re actually building a business that is theirs. Not a business like someone else’s. Theirs. With its unique strategies and problems.
- They expect to earn as much money as the braggers out in the world. Not everyone who talks about their own sales in glowing terms is a con artist or even a scam artist. Many really do want to help other writers, but those talkers fail to realize that their strategy is theirs, and only works with their books or their product (and not always then).
- They give up because they haven’t hit some magical dollar figure. They tell themselves, If I don’t make $10,000 this month or this year, then I’ll quit. That’s not how businesses get built, folks. Businesses take time, and perseverance. They take a lot of trial and error. They take a willingness to try new things, yes, but also a willingness to fail, and fail often.
- They fail to analyze their numbers. Are they growing? Are they producing enough material? Are they actually writing? Are they publishing their work? There’s so many factors that go into sales, which also have an impact on the amount of money someone makes.
- They put unrealistic financial pressure on themselves. Some people quit their day job much too soon, without any savings. Others never quit, because they’re terrified of what will happen if they do. Both extremes hurt the writing.
- They equate writing with winning the lottery. Only they’re as unrealistic as people who play the numbers every day. If they just hit it big, then they can get out of the crummy life they’re in. Whatever big is. Sometimes big isn’t big enough—$100,000 well managed won’t last more than a few years at best. But even big (millions) won’t be enough if…
- They allow success to put them in a financial bind.
People who make a lot of money, particularly early on, don’t manage it well. I’m not talking about hiring a money manager. (Please don’t. Don’t hire a middle-class middle-income person to handle your millions. Seriously.)
What I mean by the fact that they don’t manage it well is this: They raise their expenses to match their super-high income. If the income is short-lived—a month, a year—suddenly the writer, who might have earned millions, is broke, and maybe even facing bankruptcy.
It happens all the time.
Failing to handle money well is probably the biggest thing that will destroy a middlingly successful writer’s career. Learning to handle money well requires a lot of work. Sometimes it even requires therapy.
But the writer—you—need to learn how to do it. Because trusting money “managers” and financial advisors is a quick way to get scammed. Don’t believe me? My ex (see above) had two weeks training to be a money manager and dined out on that for years. He couldn’t manage his own checkbook. But he talked a good game.
So did all of his friends and the managers who trained him. I saw how they lived. I still meet money managers who know how to dress the part, but don’t know how to manage their own money let alone someone else’s.
And let’s not even talk about having an agent (you traditionally published writers) who “handles” your money. Have you even bothered to run a credit check on them? Of course not. Tried to see if the agency they work for was ever sued? Of course not.
Money will trip up writers of all strips. Failing to learn how to handle it will hurt the writer, no matter how good they are. No matter what else they do right.
You have to figure this one out—and it’s different for every single one of us.
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“Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 5) Money,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / scanrail.