Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

It’s a Hard Knock Life for Us

…or What RWA Would Rather You Didn’t Know about Publishing.

I hate math. But sometimes, it is very useful to illustrate a point.

  1. Getting an agent (or at least, a good, reputable one) is hard.

    Most estimates say agents offer to represent about 1% of the authors whose projects come across their desks. Realistically speaking, although there are many more than 200 reputable literary agents in the US operating at any given time, you probably only have about 200 out there who represent projects in your genre/sub-genre. It is, of course, entirely possible that the 200th agent will be the one who offers to represent your project. Still, statistically speaking your chance of getting an offer of representation from an agent on any given project remains 1%…you just get that 1% chance 200 times (and a 99% chance of rejection the same 200 times).

    Of course, that’s just per project submitted. Few authors write only one manuscript and rest their entire career hopes on that one book. If you keep at it and you work to hone your craft, the chances you’ll eventually snag an agent are probably close to 100%. But it takes time, effort, and perseverance as well as a modicum of talent and a lot of skill. Some people who want to be writers are lacking in one or more of these areas and, honestly, they’re the ones who account for 95% of the 99% of projects agents reject.

    But even if you’re a hardworking, talented writer, it can be a long time before you fall into the category of the 5% who get requests, let alone the 1% who get an offer of representation.

  2. Getting an offer for publication from an NY house is even harder. 

    Even if you have achieved #1, the chance that any given project you submit to an NY house will sell is small. Editors in traditional print houses say they offer contracts for publication to approximately .5% of the manuscripts they read. The percentages are probably higher for agented manuscripts than unagented, but there are also some houses you can’t submit to without an agent and those houses still have similar acceptance rates, so although you probably have a better than .5% change of getting an offer from one of the ten or so houses you’ll submit to through your agent, the chance that any single project will sell can’t be much more than 25%. And I’d bet that’s a generous estimate.

    Of course, as with agents, a pass on one project doesn’t mean you won’t eventually sell a different project. But even with a good, reputable agent, there are some authors who don’t ever sell a manuscript. Often, that leads to a break-up with the agent and starting over from scratch again.

  3. Getting one offer for publication doesn’t mean you’ll get another.

    It’s an article of faith among unpublished writers that getting that first contract for publication is the Holy Grail. Once you have it, you have credibility. You have been validated as an author. You have arrived. And now it’ll be comparatively easy to sell the next project. And the next. And the next.

    Ahhhh, how I wish it were true. The stark truth, however, is that selling the first project may be easier than the second (or the third, or the fifth). Because now, editors aren’t just looking at your book and whether they like the concept and the voice enough to take a chance on it. No, now they are also looking at your past sales figures. How did your last book do? Did you sell-through? Earn out your advance? Have a high rate of returns? Publishers are wary of taking a chance on an author whose previous books haven’t done well. You might get around this by taking a new pen name or just because you find an editor who loves this book more than life itself and is willing to put his/her reputation on the line for it, but the first is a pain in the neck and the second is even more unlikely than selling your first project was.

    I’m not trying to be a downer, here, but the realities are pretty stark. An author I know recently said she’d heard only 2-3% of writers get a second contract offer. Now, I’m not exactly sure what that statistic means. It might mean only 2-3% get an offer from their first publisher for the book that fulfills the option clause, and it’s probably not a lifetime statistic. But I certainly know plenty of authors who have yet to land second contracts (myself included, lol) and a fair number of others who’ve been cut by their publishers and have yet to find another house because their sales data showed no improvement over time or because WalMart didn’t order copies or any number of other factors totally outside the author’s control. I won’t name any of them, of course, because who wants to be associated with that sort of statistic, but face it…this business can be brutal, even to multi-published authors with a long track record, to say nothing of those of us newbies who are trying to break in and make a name for ourselves.

  4. Even authors who are successful in areas #1, #2, and #3 rarely earn enough money from their writing to call it a “career.”

     I won’t belabor this one, but an Author’s Guild survey has shown that the average income for a published author is $10,000 per year. And that is gross, not net. Agent’s fees and costs associated with promotion are not taken into account in that figure. 

    I believe that survey also showed that roughly 15% of authors make a sufficient income from writing not to have a day job, and another 5% earn enough to be the sole breadwinner for themselves and/or their families. The remaining 80% write on the side, and consider any money they make to be, at best, supplemental income. The ones who do make a living at it are often fortunate enough to have a spouse/significant other who earns enough to support the family during the author’s “lean” times, or are capable of writing quickly enough to juggle multiple contracts and/or put out three or more books per year.

    Now, that’s across all genres, not just in romance, and it’s possible that on average, romance authors do slightly better than that. But even if romance authors do, on average, twice or three times as well as that, it’s hardly what I’d consider “career” income, especially when the costs of doing business are taken into account.

So, why did I go off on this depressing little statistical rant? Well, because I’m tired of the mythology that surrounds traditional print publishing. Of course, this is related to RWA President Diane Pershing’s latest open-mouth-insert-foot into the question of advances and publisher recognition, but it’s more than that. It’s an honest attempt to get everyone to face facts.

Ms. Pershing is completely correct that most authors won’t earn $1,000 on a single work published by an epress. I think that’s absolutely 100% accurate. I know I have yet to do so, and I’m not embarrassed or ashamed to admit that. Some authors certainly do earn that much and more, but it depends a great deal on many factors: the publisher, the genre/sub-genre, and the author’s name recognition/brand.

But at the same time, the notion that an author has somehow reached the Promised Land once she’s gotten a contract from a publisher that pays a $1,000 per book advance is equally flawed. I’ve just outlined all the reasons that’s not the case. Yet RWA’s policies on this matter obscure this fact and make it seem as though that advance means something objectively that it simply doesn’t. And it needs to stop, not just because it’s delegitimizing a huge chunk of RWA’s membership and a growing segment of the market its authors have for selling their work, but because it’s giving far too many unpublished members a much too rosy view of the real world of publishing.


  • Elise Logan June 20, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    As I mentioned on twitter, I’m put in mind of George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set on You” lyrics.

    It’s gonna take time
    A whole lot of precious time
    It’s gonna take patience and time, ummm
    To do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it,
    To do it right child

    And a good, heavy dose of luck. Assuming, naturally, you have talent.

  • Emily Ryan-Davis June 20, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    I have made $1,000 on a single title e-published in a very short format, a not-hot genre and without (I don’t think) much name recognition at all.

    I have NOT made $1,000 in a single year across three titles e-published by a different publisher. The e-money is all relative.

    However, I haven’t left my work tied up sometimes literally for years waiting for a response from someone that I go ahead to the next round. I haven’t spent a small fortune on submissions fees (thankfully those are declining as more publishers become e-sub friendly). I haven’t once been told by either of my publishers that they won’t take the current story because the previous story didn’t sell (though I have been told they won’t take it because it’s not up to standards).

    E-publishing is friendly on the author’s checkbook, allows for timely receipt of monies earned, and rarely fosters a possibility of “career” death because one book didn’t catch on as well as another did.

    I fail to see how that’s bad, and I fail to see why Diane Pershing believes it’s appropriate for an author to “slave” for 10+ years (and pay out of pocket for mailing costs, printing costs, lost manuscripts & resubmissions and so forth), only to wait up to two more years, just to be “guaranteed” anything. How is that author-friendly?

    RWA would better serve its members by educating them as to how to choose publishers, investigate publisher histories, and manage money on the not necessarily smaller, but necessarily sooner scale.

    I’m coming to understand that I disagree with RWA policies on an irresolvable difference: according to D Pershing, every author should be guaranteed something for every book. I believe guarantees are a non-issue, profit is not an entitlement, and every book is an entity of its own.

  • Evangeline June 20, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    These myths about traditional publishing, myths perpetuated by the general RWA populace, is why the power has been taken from the hands of authors. Which is why I support e-publishing as a viable career choice–that model essentially places the power in your hands. Your success is dependent upon your talent and your tenacity. I wouldn’t turn down a crack at NY since I admire a number of editors, but ignoring the e-publishing market is foolish and short-sighted.

    At the end of the day, I want to be educated, and I want to be allowed a choice. Shutting down communication robs me of an education and the ability to make a decision that I feel is best for me.

  • Jude June 20, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    Truly a depressing article for someone who just received her first contract. LOL…I can only hope that I fall into the very small % that has success. 😉

  • Ames June 20, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    The ones who do make a living at it are often fortunate enough to have a spouse/significant other who earns enough to support the family during the author’s “lean” times,

    And may I add, a spouse whose job provides health insurance. God forbid you or a family member gets sick and you have no coverage. How many times have we seen that happen? Yes Author’s Guild provides health insurance but guess what? It’s no good in Texas.

    FYI here’s the breakdown of my last two-book deal for Kensington.
    8/2007 Offer.
    12/2007: First payout for signing of contract
    1(or 2)/2008: Second payout for acceptance of manuscript.
    9 (or 10)/2008: Third payout for acceptance of second manuscript.

    Overall, I’d say i got my money fairly quickly. I don’t know if K does it to bigger authors but they don’t make me wait for publication to finish paying me.

    I have a day job (and thank the Lord, job security). I have my insurance paid by my employer and my ex provides insurance on my kids.

  • Maggie Robinson June 20, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    Wow. Fascinating numbers, although they make my head and my heart hurt! I remember Miss Snark’s slush pile stats, and they were equally dispiriting. I guess i won’t quit my day job just yet. 🙂

  • Leigh June 20, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    sigh. you make a lot of great points. good for you for facing the truth. i’d rather live in my dreams 😉 though i will most likely be fabulously disappointed and disillusioned.

  • Lori Brighton June 20, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    I was just having this talk with a friend the other day. An author we know who sold out of her print run because her debut book was so popular, wasn’t signed for another contract. They said she sold too little. Makes no sense and obviously something else is going on.

    On the other hand, if you look at how ridiculously low our chances are, anything you get should be celebrated, even if its just the request for a partial.

  • Robin June 20, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    Your piece is especially important, I think, in demonstrating how many talented and hard-working authors aren’t statistically poised to get NY contracts anytime soon — one more reason additional legitimate publishing venues are so important (and so important to be recognized as such).

    I think it’s a good thing for a writer’s organization to help protect its members from bad publishers, from scams, and the like (through information, for example). But to issue a blanket dismissal of publishers that don’t offer a certain amount of $$ in advance seems punitive to me, not helpful — and punitive to the very people you claim to be protecting.

    There have got to be viable, reliable criteria for judging publishers that don’t function on the NY advance model, and it’s quite amazing, really, that RWA has not shown the least interest in doing that — if, as Pershing says, they really do want to represent the needs of their membership and the integrity of the genre.

  • Evangeline Collins June 20, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    Hey Jackie!

    Very interesting and enlightening post. Makes me realize just how lucky I’ve been, even though I’ve never been foolish enough to believe luck didn’t play a role in finding an agent and making that 1st sale. Depressing though, how luck and timing have such an impact, yet are so out of an author’s control.

    And that 2nd sale to NY is tough – I was fortunate to make it, but it wasn’t easy by any means. Of course, since I made #2 before #1 was released, now I’m worried about #3 because if book #1 doesn’t sell well….yikes, there might not be a #3 in store for me.

    As for Ms.Pershing’s insistence that all authors should get a guarantee of money from their books…why? In what other industry is money a given? Just because I make a widget doesn’t mean I am entitled to a minimun $ amount for that widget. Authors are self-employed. We run our own businesses. If we were traditional employees of a publisher, then yes, I’d expect to get paid regardless if my product sells. But that’s not the case here. Personally, the absolute fairest model is for authors to get paid once their product sells. Maybe I am just too entrenched in the regular business world out there. I don’t know – the NY print model baffles me. I can’t think of any other industry where massive returns are a given.

    But then again, I’ll argue with myself here – distribution is key with the NY print model, and the publishers have far more control over distribution that authors. I can send out promo to bookstores and reader groups galore, but I can’t visit the buyer at Walmart and try to convince him/her to pick up my book, or push the Borders buyer to add my book to a list of recommended summer reads. The major mass merchants, bookstore chains and distributors are where the bulk of an author’s sales come from. If your book is on a shelf, you have a much greater chance of selling it, especially for new authors. So given how little control an author actually has on her print sales…maybe there is some merit to requiring a minimum advance from a NY print pub. As for e-pubs….heck no. It’s a different business model, and authors have far more control. If you sign with an e-pub that has a decent amount of web traffic, that alone will garner you sales. You choose to write in a subgenre that’s selling well…again, sales. But you can sign with a well respected NY pub and if their sales force doesn’t choose to push your book…you may find yourself not earning out your advance, though no fault of your own.

    Ah well. Clearly I’m on the fence with the minimum for print publishers. However, I do firmly believe in the e-publishing model. I write for Berkley, Samhain and Loose Id, and I fully intend to continue to do so (as long as the publishers keep contracting my books). If nothing else, diversification is good for a career. Plus, I really like writing for all my publishers.

  • Kris Eton June 20, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    Jackie, you also failed to point out that epublishers will take much shorter works than traditional publishers. So the RWA is comparing apples to oranges in that case.

    It is so much easier to write a 20K novella and zip it off to an epublisher than to write an entire novel and get it published with a big NY house. In fact, you could crank out ten times as many short stories/novellas in the time it would take you to write a complete novel.

    So, even if you never made $1000 off of ONE epublished thing (most likely shorter than 40K, right?), you probably have made quite a bit on ALL of your titles over a one year period.

    It would be interesting to break down income at a ‘per word’ level to see how traditional compares to epublished.

  • Kris Eton June 20, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    Hmm, okay, I did some quick math based on some numbers *I* have in my knowledge….

    80,000 word book with an advance of $2500 (standard kensington contract?) equals 3 cents per word approximately.

    10,000 word short with no advance but received $300 in royalties for 2 months of esales equals 3 cents per word approximately.

    And there are PLENTY of authors who make WAY more than $100 per month on a short story with an epub. I can crank out 10K in 2 weeks.

    I would like to see more of these comparisons made.

  • Ames June 20, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    Kris you should pop over to Marianne LaCroix’s blog. She’s asking the types of questions you’re asking and on the Industry Change committee


  • Why I chose to Self-Publish « Zoe Winters, Paranormal Romance Writer June 20, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    […] June 20, 2009 Why I chose to Self-Publish Posted by zoewinters under General Writing Leave a Comment  One of the reasons I chose to self publish can pretty much be summed up in Jackie Barbosa’s post about the realities of NY publishing […]

  • Zoe Winters June 20, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    Hey Jackie, those lottery odds is one of the reasons I chose to self-pub. I saw pretty much that same thing and I thought “screw this, I’m publishing myself.” The odds, even if you don’t suck, are pretty horrible.

    On another note, back in the day, before I understood all the math involved, I didn’t understand why so many authors were happy with epubs like Samhain and EC. In hindsight I see the wisdom these authors had and probably my temperament is very similar.

    I can’t deal with the kind of pressure I’d have on me from a NY pub constantly to keep my head above the water. I’ve got to work in my own way at my own pace and control the process.

    Yep, I’m a control freak. But at least I know that about myself. Otherwise I could be like the Shannon Doherty of publishing, and nobody wants that.

    But… if I wasn’t such a control freak I would definitely be the type of author to prefer publishing somewhere like Samhain instead of chasing NY. Not that there is anything wrong with chasing NY, there isn’t, it’s just… I don’t think it would make me happy.

  • Digital Publishing and the Alternative Economic Model | Dear Author: Romance Novel Reviews, Industry News, and Commentary June 21, 2009 at 4:01 am

    […] Barbosa wrote a great piece yesterday about the facts regarding print publishing that RWA doesn’t want you to know. If you’ve got a manuscript laying around gathering […]

  • Sami Lee June 21, 2009 at 6:54 am

    Very interesting post. Makes me feel justified in having gone the e-pubbing route :). I mean, who wouldn’t like to see their name in print, but the odds are stacked way against a poor, starving author such as myself. Nope, the day job’s not going anywhere…

  • Diana Castilleja June 21, 2009 at 8:28 am

    An absolutely wonderfully informative post! I’ve been following the train wreck even though I’m not in RWA. It has been…enlightening to say the least, from both sides and their stances.

    You know something? I’m almost glad someone else finally ponied up and admitted they haven’t made the prerequest golden egg’s worth of royalties. I know I haven’t, but when so many as saying they have and more than once, on more than one title it makes me wonder what I’m doing wrong, if what I’m writing is tripe… *sigh*

    I’m not disappointed with my publishers, or my books, but saying that money is the only meter to grade by isn’t realistic. My publishers are sound, professional and legit. I’ve been with two who weren’t. Even when you ask around and research, you can ask the wrong people.

    I agree education is the key. As far as RWA is concerned, they are lacking there. I was a member and treated like scum locally. The instant I said “3 books epublished” the entire shift in the room was obvious.

    The realities are this is a bleak industry to make a career out of. I knew that when I started writing 5 years ago. I know I will most likely never make it to NY. Do I quit? No. But in the meantime, I will write, and make what I do while I can.

    It’s articles like yours that have helped educate those that aren’t in the industry at all (i.e. my mother) about the difficulty and why I’m not at Borders yet. 😉 Thank you for expressing it so well, and eloquently.

  • Grace Draven June 21, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    “And it needs to stop, not just because it’s delegitimizing a huge chunk of RWA’s membership and a growing segment of the market its authors have for selling their work, but because it’s giving far too many unpublished members a much too rosy view of the real world of publishing.”

    Thank you. Of the many things I found offensive about Pershing’s article, I was most aghast at the very misleading idea that authors securing that first advance were well on their way to wealth and riches in this industry. A brand new writer just learning the ropes of this industry would be in for a world of disappointment if they swallowed that bull–and why wouldn’t they? This is coming from the president of RWA. It’s a reasonable assumption to make that she knows what she’s talking about in this case. How unfortunate it isn’t so.

    Thank you so much for stripping this down past the us vs. them and the political speak to the hard realities of publishing and unforgiving accounting.

  • RWA and Digital Publishing: It’s Time for New Think | Quartet Press June 21, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    […] It’s a Hard Knock Life for Us: Author Jackie Barbosa reveals the less-than-pretty side of traditional publishing […]

  • XRumerTest February 22, 2012 at 8:48 am

    Hello. And Bye.


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