…or What RWA Would Rather You Didn’t Know about Publishing.
I hate math. But sometimes, it is very useful to illustrate a point.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.