Wednesday 31 March 2010

Money now or money later?

I could start by saying 'only write for money', but here I am writing for nothing so I won't bother with that line.

This is what most people believe is the relationship between writers and money: an author writes a book, a publisher pays an advance for said book, and then the publisher pays royalties for the book when it sells lots of copies. Frabjous day! Everyone is happy. To members of the general public, this model often seems to involve a six-figure advances that is spent like a lottery win. To real-world writers, it means the publisher might give you a couple of thousand and you'll slave for weeks eating only toast. (More money and more weeks for an adult book.) If you still think authors earn a lot, read Danuta Kean's excellent breakdown of author's pay and publishers' costs. It's a bit old (2006) but things have only got worse since then.

The royalty/advance combo is not the only model, though. Many books are written for a flat fee, and some for a strange combination of flat fee and royalty. Which you are offered (or can negotiate for) often depends on the type of book you are writing. Typically, a novel or a trade adult non-fiction title attracts a royalty. Children's non-fiction, some types of children's fiction, licensed character books (that's books about pre-existing characters such as Ben Ten or Angelina Ballerina) and some types of adult non-fiction are written for a flat fee. Academic books are often written for nothing (but then, academics generally have an income, and may have been paid by their institution/the state to do the research - if writing the book is part of your paid employment, getting a good deal on the book is not really the point unless you are especially greedy).

Which is best, flat fee or royalty? It depends on what you want. If writing is your main or sole source of income, flat fees are usefully predictable. You know how much you will get, you know when you will get it, and you don't have to wait ages to be paid (well, not big ages anyway). But if your book becomes a bestseller you won't get any extra money - unless you have managed to negotiate a clause in the contract to that effect. On the other hand, if the book bombs you still get the same fee. It's not your problem.

If you have other sources of income, or you are not the sole earner in your household, royalties might work better for you. Negotiating a big advance gives the same kind of security as a flat fee, but with the benefit that if your book sells well and earns out the advance you will get extra money, long after you have finished writing the book. I still see royalty payments on old books as a nice bonus when they come in - which is stupid, because they are not a bonus at all, they are normal income for work done! But if your book doesn't earn out the advance and sales are disappointing, not only will you not earn any extra but your publisher will have a much harder time persuading acquisitions to take your next book. Why take a book they expect to make another loss on? It becomes a hard sell. At best, you will get a much smaller advance. At worst, they'll just say 'no thank you'. The 'no thank you' is likely to follow you around the publishing world as Neilsen BookScan tells everyone else just how poor your sales were.

If you get a royalty, sales figures matter to you. You will be more willing/likely to do some publicity. You may trail around bookshops, schools, literary festivals (if you're lucky/famous), and do guest appearances on writing courses. If you get a flat fee, why bother? You aren't going to get any more money, and the publisher probably won't pay you to make appearances and might not even pay expenses. You might feel it will boost your public profile and so is worth doing for that reason. Or you might feel you'd rather get on with the next book and earn money for your time instead.

If you get a flat fee, it is usually considered 'work for hire' and you sell all rights in the book. It is no longer your copyright, you can't do anything else with it. It's like an old car you've sold, or a partner who's dumped you/you've dumped - you can't do anything with it, but it's also not your problem if it breaks. You don't have to change its tyres or wash its socks - you don't have to update your book or check its Amazon rating.
If you get a royalty, you're likely to find your royalty cut if you don't do essential updates (in non-fiction - novels don't generally need updating).

Personally, I mix flat-fee and royalty projects. It's swings and roudabouts. I have lost out on flat fee books - one book I wrote for £3000 has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in many languages, but I get no more money. And I have lost out on royalty-based deals - one non-fiction book I did for a small advance on the assurance that it was going to sell well and earn lots in royalties did not sell well because the curriculum changed the following year. The publishers could not foresee that, but I should have thought about it. So: enough flat-fee work to cover the bills and some higher risk royalty-based work to provide jam and holidays. Just as well I'm not that bothered about jam.

STOP PRESS: Go and visit Book Maven at her blog birthday party!

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Ada Lovelace day

This post is not about being a writer, unless you count auto-pirating as a relevant issue. Today we have a bit of a digression to support Ada Lovelace Day.

Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer - and a woman. Women get lost in the realms of geekdom, and Ada Lovelace Day (24th March) is a chance to celebrate the work of women in technology. Celebrants are invited to write a blog post about a techno-heroine. The organiser, Suw Charman-Anderson, has kindly allowed me to step slightly outside the usual remit and post this link to a story about Ada I published some years ago.

It's entirely fictional - you won't learn anything useful about Ada Lovelace. She did NOT have a furby, I made that up. Nor did a time-slipped furby really prompt her to think of artificial intelligence. The story was originally published in Technology Tricks, Chrysalis Books, 2003. It is out of print. It is not my copyright. So I am pirating my own work :-)

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Going to Bologna - or not

Most of my writerly friends are off in Bologna for the Children's Book Fair, but I'm grumbling around in the UK. At least it's sunny here - it always rains when I go to the Bologna Book Fair.

Is it worth going to BBF as a writer? That depends on what you want. If you want to sell your latest manuscript, no, it's not worth it. Publishers are not there to buy new books but to deal in foreign rights and do publishery things. And drink a lot. If you want to see what the publishing world is up to, hang out with writer- and publisher-friends and enjoy the beautiful city, Italian food and buzz - and drink a lot - yes, it's worth it.

If you have publishers you get on well with, it's worth making an appointment to meet up with them in Bologna if you're going. It shows you take the business seriously. If you have friends going, it's good fun to meet up and drink too much gin in Via Independenza of an evening. You can walk around and look at all the huge, gigantic number of children's books in print and coming into print and be either inspired or depressed. I'm always depressed - either because there is so much good stuff already, what's the point in writing another book? or because there is nothing imaginative and publishing is going to the dogs, so what's the point in writing another book?

Of course, if you are a big-name writer, your publisher will be pleased to see you and will show you off to foreign buyers and such like. But then, you won't be looking here for advice on whether to go to Bologna. For the rest of us, if you have a small publisher, they might be pleased to see you. If you write for Pearson or HarperCollins or Hachette and are not a 'name', you will be lost in the crowd. The London Book Fair is a cheaper and easier option - but of course, it's not in delightful Bologna, which is a big drawback.

So, go to Bologna for a spot of Italian springtime, fun with friends, gin, gawping at books.... all tax-deductible. If the planes are flying, of course. Or by train - Eurostar to Paris, sleeper to Italy. Lovely. Or become famous and then go to Bologna to be feted. I'm sure that would be nice, too.

Saturday 20 March 2010

I'm not dead yet....

... but when I am, who's going to sort all this stuff out?

You're a writer. Most of the famous writers are dead. You may never be famous, but you will eventually be dead. When you are dead, there will be lots of detritus. Some of it will be money, furniture, house, grieving relatives - the sort of thing everyone has. The grieving relatives are not really your responsibility (if you think they are, you can leave them stuff, or make them beneficiaries of an insurance policy). The objects you can dispose of in your will, like everyone else.

But then there's the writerly stuff. Writers need to appoint someone who will sort out their writing and IPR. You want someone in charge - possibly your agent, possibly someone else - who knows what they are doing. If you want your unpublished works destroyed, the royalties from your existing work to go to the home for disadvantaged armadillos and that revenge biography serialised in The Times, someone has to sort it out. Book Maven suggests setting up a literary trust is better than having a literary executor. [Note: this para has changed following Book Maven's advice in the comments!]

Fine - all sorted and you can die now? No. Unless you have been hiding under an analogue stone for the last ten years (and you haven't, or you wouldn't be reading this) you need to sort out the non-stuff stuff - your virtual presence. You need a digital executor as well. Your digital executor will memorialise your Facebook page, close your twitter account (with a final tweet saying you are dead, if that's what you want), formally end your blogs and cease access to all your accounts. They will renew or give up your domain name when it comes up for renewal, reply suitably to your incoming email and update your Wikipedia account with your death date.

Obviously you will need to give your executor all your passwords. The best way to do this is to encrypt a file with everything in and keep it somewhere secret (and a backup, obviously). The executor has the password to unencrypt the file; someone else - maybe your solicitor, your agent - knows where the file is. That avoids the possibility of your disenchanted digital executor 'killing' you when you are still alive because you have stopped loving them, written a scathing review of their book or slept with their partner.

So get a literary executor and a digital executor. I can't say you'll be glad you did, because you won't -you'll be mouldering away while they try to sort it all out. But you can be reasssured that no-one will be updating your twitter account after your death and reporting on your state of decay/incineration - unless you told them to.

PS You can't memorialise your own Facebook account if you are considering suicide. You need a death certificate.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

No dogs allowed?

I am going to tie up the black dog by the door and get back to this blog. I'm very sorry, kind followers, for being absent for so long in the Pit of Despair. But while the dog is tied up, I will say a little bit about it.

Depression stalks writers with enthusiasm (that is, it stalks enthusiastically - not it stalks enthusiastic writers only). As someone who dislikes dogs and is allergic to them, I generally avoid dogs, black or other colours. But I was out walking in the dark and it was that contributory negligence which led to the dog following me home.

In the end, many writers make breathtaking art out of their depression (Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance - but there are many others), but that is as emotion recollected in tranquility. At the time when the black dog is gnawing your leg off, you aren't going to get much useful writing done. (But see
Postcards from the Slough of Despond for someone who got a small amount of writing done.)

Now, this is not going to be a miseryfest here. You probably don't want to know why I have been depressed or whether I have written anything. More useful is the question of what a writer who depends on their writing income should do when too depressed to write.

1. Always, always, have a back-up fund that is insurance against disaster. Easier said than done, I know, but
all people who work freelance should have this. You never know when there will be a recession, or when a string of domestic traumas or tragedies will leave you unable to put finger to keyboard. Or both, in quick succession.

2. Don't instantly email all your editors telling them what a terrible time you are having. Leave it a while. They won't notice (unless tragedy hits on the day of your deadline and you haven't written the book yet. But then it was going to be late anyway.)

3. If you need to buy time, do it without whingeing and without giving too much information. You can say you have domestic difficulties or illness and will update them in a few days (if you think you will be up to it in a few days), or in a short time (which is pretty elastic). This gives you time to spend several days drafting your explanation.

4. Don't tell different people different things. You might tell some people more and some people less, but don't allow any inconsistencies into your report as you will probably be found out and then no-one will believe anything.

5. Try to do something, however little, as soon as possible. That will give you a sense of whether you are going to be able to work soon and how well you will be able to do it.

6. When you are ready, which should not be long after your first email, tell your editors what is going on. They need as much notice as possible if they have to rearrange a publishing schedule and they will be far more sympathetic and helpful if you tell them in good time that you have a problem - especially if you feel you have to pull out of the book completely.

7. Be professional (that's also 6., really): tell them you are having intolerable problems, but you don't need to be specific unless you want to. Don't complain. Apologise once and say what you can do - which might be deliver your book three months late, or pass all the research to someone else (if it's a non-fiction book), or even just pay back the advance and wear sackcloth for a year.

Should you tell your editor you're suffering from depression or just tell them you have a trauma/illness? This is an entirely personal decision and must reflect your relationship with your editor and what you know of them as a person. I'm not going to tell you what to do - I'm not even sure if I'm doing it right myself. Many writers - many people of all types - are very secretive about depression and any other form of mental ill-health because non-sufferers are generally not sympathetic and don't understand. But they will never understand if we all hide it. Then again, you might not want to be the guinea pig/pioneer. Fine - dont' let anyone (especially me) bully you.

Lucy Coats has written with admirable honesty about her experiences of depression and she is a writing star so I'll follow her lead. I think if your editor can see that you are handling the situation with professionalism, decorum and maturity (even though all those seem lightyears from your grasp - fake them) they're more likely to respect you than to panic and cross you off their white-list. I hope. But we'll see. I'll report back if all my publishers ditch me. Or I won't, as I won't be able to afford the broadband any more.