Writing is a Job, For Which You Should Get Paid

Sitting in my drafts folder over at the olde blogge, I have a post entitled “I Just Want You Lot to Get Paid.” I never finished writing it, and the incident that sparked it is several years out of date, but the sentiment still stands. Last week, events in the writing world that had me thinking about it all over again – the short version is, YA writer Stacey Jay put up a Kickstarter for the sequel to Princess of Thorns. She mentioned that part of the goal amount would pay her bills for the four months she’d be writing the book, and if the project didn’t fund, she wouldn’t be going forward with it. The internet fell on her head in a terrible, frightening way and she pulled the Kickstarter. Her posts about it are here and here.

It’s raised questions about how – or whether – a writer should get paid for work that hasn’t been written. There’s also quite a bit of ur doin it wrong in regards to Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general, which I disagree with.

First of all, on writers getting paid and setting the price they’ll accept for their work:

Writers are freelancers. We have to determine what constitutes a fair wage for us, what is worth our time and focus.

That manifests in many different ways.

If you’re going the trade publishing route, it means looking at all facets of an offer: the advance, royalty rates, which rights they’re buying, what kind of marketing support your publisher is offering. For example, would you prefer to take a higher advance from Publisher A with the understanding you’ll need to do most of the promotion yourself, or a lower one from Publisher B where the company will promote the heck out of you? That might depend on how good you are at self-promotion, or how much time you have available to dedicate to it. What’s right for one author might not be right for another, and that’s okay!

If you’re self-pubbing, it means setting a price that pays you for the work you’ve done at a rate you’re comfortable with. I have not yet dipped my toes into this area, but I know if I do, I’ll be poring over pricing and promotion and a million other things I probably don’t even know to consider, because if I’m going to put my work out there on my own, I want to get paid for it. Some writers do great at $.99, others at $2.99 or $4.99 or more! Balancing what is a good price for the author vs. what the reader is willing to pay for it is a form of alchemy all on its own.

If you’re submitting short stories, it might mean choosing only to submit to pro-rate markets, or going with a semi-pro sale to a place that has built up an excellent reputation. I would, in general, discourage writers from “for-the-love” markets – places where hosting your story (“exposure”) is supposed to be a reward all on its own. If anyone knows the original person whose response to that was, “Yeah, you can die of exposure,” please let me know, because I’ve been repeating it for years.

If you’re creating a Kickstarter or a Patreon, it means setting a minimum price at which you’ll produce the work. I always assume that the price of actually writing things is baked into those projects. And well it should be! You’re paying editors and cover designers and, I dunno, sticker makers for whatever they produce to make your book look good. You should also be paying yourself for it.

I’m not quite sure where the logic is in the idea that writers and other creative people are allowed to just break even, and that’s it. As though we’re allowed to recoup only the cost of materials, but not the hours spent using those materials. It’s a mindset that says your printer ink is more valuable than the words. Or your paint is more valuable than the art created with it. That’s… that just not true. Your work has value. Your time has value. I want you to be compensated for it.

This is where I blather a bit about crowdfunding in general and Kickstarter in particular.

Some people suggested Ms. Jay should have used one of the other crowdfunding platforms for this project – Go Fund Me or IndieGoGo or the like. That seems to be primarily because she said she’d use the funds to pay her bills, and the sentiment was, she shouldn’t treat Kickstarter as an advance – that Kickstarter is ONLY for work that’s already been finished and just needs some flashy stuff added, or to cover cost of production.

To which I say, fie.

Go look at the Kickstarter for Diaspora, which got funded way the hell over its goal because it would, when finished, be an alternative to Facebook. They stated RIGHT UP FRONT that they’d use the money to spend the summer writing the code that would become the social media platform. Here:

We are four talented young programmers from NYU’s Courant Institute trying to raise money so we can spend the summer building Diaspora; an open source personal web server that will put individuals in control of their data.

And

We have a plan, a bunch of ideas and the programming chops to build Diaspora. What we need is the time it takes to iron out a powerful, secure, and elegant piece of software. Daniel, Ilya, Raphael, and Maxwell are all ready to trade our internships and summer jobs for three months totally focused on building Diaspora. We want to write code all the time, everyday.

I do not recall people getting angry that these guys were spending their ten thousand dollars on rent and utilities and food. That they were leaving their internships and jobs to make the thing the Kickstarter was funding, and that therefore did not yet exist.  That wouldn’t exist for several months. That might – because this is a risk you take backing any Kickstarter – might never come to fruition.

There’s a whole other post’s worth of what it implies when a woman asking for money gets shouted down, but men creating things don’t. It’s not just the Diaspora dudes. Plenty of writerly men have successfully crowdfunded not-yet-written books and did so without a tenth of the static Stacey Jay got. I’m not going to take myself off-topic here (and oh, could I spend a few thousand words on this), but I do want you to think about that. It’s significant, and I’ll be coming back to it in the future.

When you back any Kickstarter, there’s the danger that you might never receive whatever it is you paid for. I have backed projects that were delivered much later than the “Estimated Delivery Date” for the tier I chose. Sometimes life happened. Sometimes people needed to go back to the drawing board to make an even better product. One of the projects, which had a very prominent SF author’s name attached to it, raised half a million dollars and after quite a long period with no updates, said “Hey, sorry, it’s not going to happen.”

So do you sometimes lose out? Sure. But again, that’s part of the risk of any crowdfunding venture. In Ms. Jay’s case, she’s an established author. She’s met deadlines before. She has a fanbase who wanted to read more of the story, and considering she’s done this professionally, would likely have delivered on time. This wasn’t a high-risk Kickstarter.

Lastly, can we talk about advances a little? Let’s do that. Some of the pushback on that Kickstarter was that, advances – as done by trade publishers – come after you’ve submitted the work to an editor. As in, the advance is for something that’s already in first draft form, paying you for work you’ve already done.

Well. Sometimes? But not always.

Yes, if you have a single book deal, the money you get paid is most likely for work you wrote on spec. On spec means you bled the whole book out, polished it up as many times as needed, then sent it out into the world to be considered by editors.

But what about multi-book deals? Night Owls was written when Ace bought it, but Grave Matters sure as hell wasn’t. Part of my advance was for that second book. Once upon a time, advances were there to help keep the author in food and whiskey while they wrote their next work. Multi-book deals are a lot like that. When you read that so-and-so got heaps-o’million dollars for a five book deal, it’s a safe bet that only the first book is finished, and they’ll live off of that advance while they write the rest. There is nothing wrong with this. It is now on the author to produce those next works on time, but the publisher is taking the same gamble as the Kickstarter backers in this scenario that the words will get written and turned in in a timely manner.

Now consider that some writers can sell books on proposal. That’s when you or your agent go to editors and say “here’s the idea I have. Give me money and I’ll write it.” You see it with non-fiction books for sure, because part of the money is intended for the author to get out in the field and research their subject, then sit down and write it. It happens with fiction, too, though, especially if the author has a proven track record. In both cases, money is going toward the author so they can pay their bills while they’re in the process of creating their work.

So, if we’re going to consider Kickstarter funds as advances, the argument that “that’s not how trade publishing does it!” falls pretty flat.

Writing is a business. The blessing and the curse of it is, what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else. The industry itself is in a state of flux, and has been for what, at least a decade now? People are figuring out new and different avenues to get their work out there – both into bookstores and directly into the mailboxes or inboxes of readers making grabby hands for new content.

If you find a way to do that and keep the lights on, too, I support you.

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