Archives for category: Writing

A dramatic gif visualization of the shift of focus in 2020 of the scientific community’s virus research may be found at (Thanks to Sid Huttner on the SHARP listserv for the link.) Around 80,000 coronavirus-related articles were added to PubMed Central in 2020, a 1,600% increase over 2019. According to Nature, one database puts the number of coronavirus papers at more than 200,000. Many papers were posted as preprints — i.e. before peer review — though there is as yet no evidence of any greater proportion of withdrawals than normally.

Many publishers also made covid-relevant books available free of charge.

If sales are booming in 2021, so too are signings. Publishers want to do more books and authors seem to be full of pent-up content.

According to Publishers Lunch of 8 July:

HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray told an investor conference in June that the publisher is, ‘Being aggressive in terms of buying books. We’ve seen the book pie grow, maybe 15 percent. And so our response, which is part opportunistic and part defensive, is to be aggressive in buying right now.’ Our exclusive analysis of deal transactions in the second quarter of 2021 confirms that behavior, across the industry.

In the first quarter, US deal volume was 19 percent higher than a year ago (and 21 percent higher than the recent four-year average). For the second quarter, deal volume again registered 18 percent higher than a year ago, and  23 percent higher than the recent four-year average.

This time, the biggest gains were in adult fiction. Deals in our traditional fiction categories were 27 percent higher than a year ago, while the smaller group of fiction sales to digital publishers rose 38 percent. (Combined, all fiction sales were up almost 30 percent). Children’s deals continued to grow, as they have steadily year over year, up 15 percent.

Clearly we expect book sales to continue strong. See the bar graph below the increase in signings over just the second quarter:

Not only has the number of deals increased, so too has their size. However, in that bar chart below, that right hand column would probably be larger in any case if more books were being signed up, so this effect may not be as dramatic as it looks here:

I wonder how much coronavirus-diary sort of material there may be in these numbers of new signings. Not too much I hope: if every major publisher signs up one of them we’ll quickly be overwhelmed — and most of the books will thus fail to wash their face, which won’t be good for hopes of continued expansion.

The Passive Voice picks up a piece by Mark Gottlieb, a literary agent turned publisher, about royalty rates. Mr Gottlieb opts to add to the confusion between advances and total earnings. These two things are only related in so far as a book which might expect larger sales, thus larger royalty income, will probably come with a larger advance than one which has less potential — an advance on a big number will, unsurprisingly be larger than a similar percentage advance on a smaller number. Authors’ year-by-year income is of course affected by the timing of payments they receive. If you get a big advance in year 1, covering sales which will be made in years 2 and 3, clearly your income in years 2 and 3 will be lower since you will already have received these royalties as part of the advance. To repeat the trick you’ll have to try getting another publisher to give you a big advance for another book. This is unfortunately tough to do too often without actually buckling down and writing some of the books thus contracted.

None of the forgoing is particularly novel or surprising. What is surprising is how commentators almost always focus on the advance — “So-and-so has sold her latest book to Publisher X for $100,000”. This is just nonsense. Unless the book is a failure the author’s going to be getting a lot more than $100,000 — she’ll be getting a royalty on every copy sold. I guess it’s neater to write “So-and-so has sold her latest book to Publisher X for $100,000” than “So-and-so has received an advance of $100,000 from Publisher X, which implies her book has strong sales potential”. Rather more interesting might be the fact that she negotiated a royalty of 10% on the retail price (not on receipts) and has an escalator clause raising the royalty rate to 15% after the sale of 200,000 copies: but all that detail is too much for the brevity-focussed commentator — plus of course probably nobody’s telling them that sort of detail!

Mr Gottlieb gets really specific though:”Advances range broadly, from a few thousand dollars (or less) to millions, but royalties, at least among the top houses, are basically the same. Authors are paid, for hardcovers, 10% of the cover price on the first 5,000 copies sold, 12.5% on the next 5,000, and 15% thereafter. For paperbacks authors receive 7.5% of the cover price (occasionally with an escalator) and for eBooks 25% of the publisher’s net receipts. Many independent publishers pay lower royalties than these, but rarely do they pay higher. Competition between publishers takes the form of advance competition, with royalties generally being very similar, especially at the big houses.” Now this isn’t really wrong; it’s just stated far too strongly. Royalty rates will group around this sector of the target, but to say “Authors are paid . . .” is much too specific. “Many authors are indeed being offered royalty rates which look sort of like this” is about as far as I’d want to go.

We do not doubt that average authors’ earnings are declining, but this has nothing to do with Amazon, or with reduced royalty rates. It has to do with reduced sales. I’ve no idea what the right numbers might be, but imagine a book market which was worth $100,000,000 a year. If there are 100,000 books published, each book will be earning $1,000. If there are only 10,000 available each will make $10,000. The hard fact is that there are more books being published today that there are (large numbers of) readers out there to buy them. By and large if you’ve read fifty novels in the year you are not immediately in the market for fifty more. For readers this is great: a book dealing with your specialized interest is almost certain to be available. For writers the news is mixed: good in that you’ll almost certainly be able to get your book published; bad in that you become less and less likely to be able to make a fortune from it. We are not happy that authors incomes are not rising, but “employment” as an author is not quite the same as employment as a miner. You didn’t sign up for a wage.

Keep your fingers crossed though, I’m betting we are about to see increases in the cover price of books. As publishers have been doing pretty well over the past couple of years, there may be room for an upward adjustment in royalty rates, to allow authors to share a bit more in the enhanced profitability of the business: but caution — history suggests that a profit boost today will be followed by a drop, back to the long-term norm.

Mental Floss, via Shelf Awareness for Readers, informs us that the ten richest authors of all time are:

  1. Elisabeth Badinter // $1.3 Billion
  2. J.K. Rowling // $1 Billion
  3. James Patterson // $560 Million
  4. Stephen King // $400 Million
  5. Nora Roberts // $390 Million
  6. Danielle Steel // $310 Million
  7. Barbara Taylor Bradford // $300 Million
  8. Nigel Blackwell // $292.5 Million
  9. John Grisham // $220 Million
  10. Jeffrey Archer // $195 Million

Lit Hub has lists of the top ten for the years between 2008 and 2018, plus a list of the top 25 for that decade. How do you disentangle earnings from writing and general wealth: Mackenzie Bezos (now Mackenzie Scott) is reported as having a net worth of $36 billion, but we have no idea how little of this may have come from her writings. Slice has a list of such rich writing folk. I wonder how these figures compare with historical authors. Victor Hugo and George Eliot have previously featured in this blog as recipients of big deals. Dickens presumably did OK. Of course updating exchange rates and the effects of inflation makes it hard to work out who might be the top-earning author of all times.

According to Indeed, the average annual earnings of a novelist are $49,046. It is a job site, but the opinion “This figure can vary from $15,080 to $127,816 per year, depending on experience” nevertheless seems a bit wild — what does experience have to do with it? Where do these numbers come from? There are surely tons of living novelists who are making zero dollars from their out-of-print books, and as we can see from the list above, $127,816 isn’t going to impress anyone!

Jane Friedman writes about How much do authors earn?. She includes links to three pieces giving details. Nate Hoffelder, the source of the link, provides one more, to a Lincoln Michel piece at Counter Craft. Ms Friedman cautions “We all know people don’t go into the writing profession for the big bucks unless they’re delusional.” She is realistic about the question. “Can I earn a living from publishers’ advances and royalty checks, while I focus solely on writing more books? And the answer to that is: for the majority of traditionally published authors, most of the time, no. You should not expect this today. Yes, it happens. But without some other support or income (a spouse, a day job), it’s tough.” If you write more it becomes, with luck, less tough. Surprise to none: if you work harder you earn more (assuming a basic level of ability).

She does emphasize that we are in a time when there are new means of making money opening up for all artists. The Creator Economy is the name for this world — you just have to get out there and hustle. (Or of course settle for making less than Ms Badinter — a perfectly rational attitude be it said.

Chart via Axios

Much of the relevance of these sorts of funding sources applies to self-published authors, but authors with traditional publishing contracts can get busy too. It’s not for me obviously — doesn’t this all seem a bit like business, not so much like writing?

As LitHub tells us in a piece entitled The Punctuation Marks Loved (and Hated) by Famous Writers, “Parul Seghal once argued that style ‘is 90 percent punctuation’.” 

This image, from Punctuation in novels by Adam J. Calhoun, is certainly interesting, but I’m wondering in what its interest resides. Does it tells us anything very meaningful? Clearly there’s a stark difference. But is the difference between Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner 90% explicable by this picture? Add a bit more punctuational variety and you too can win a Nobel Prize?

I cannot get past the idea that this sort of literary analysis is a bit of a cop out. Literary critic: Are you finding reading the book and thinking about it too laborious? OK, just focus on the details and give us a study of how often the author uses the definite article as compared with the indefinite; or analyse why it is that the sixth most frequently used word in this novel is this and not that; or measure the ratio of semicolons to colons; or study how the typeface works on this shade of paper as against the creamier sheet used in the first printing.

Or maybe Ms Seghal is right, in which case I’m missing a lot. While reading a book do you really make a subtle distinction between the pause you mentally leave when encountering a comma, a semicolon, a dash, a period — full stop as we call in in Britain which does imply there should be a whopping pause at the end of each sentence? I’m not even sure I pause when we switch from one paragraph to another. Maybe we are subconsciously taking this stuff on board, but unless the punctuation becomes odd and thus intrusive, I suspect it’s got little to do with style.

The “personality” of punctuation marks must be an entirely subjective thing. F. Scott Fitzgerald tells us “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke”. In an online world, at least, I rather regard it as indicating that you think you’ve made a joke, and hope that others won’t misread you as being serious. Much material on punctuation marks and their usage may be found at Shady Characters.

I discover I have referred to Mr Calhoun’s article before. Sorry for the duplication.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch tells a cautionary tale of family greed and contractual casualness, all resulting from a novel that almost never saw the light of day. This she labels Part 1 — it’s Part 1 of a 3-part examination of licensing books for television or film. Because, novelist that she is, Ms Rusch adds some suspense by disguising the identity of the book she’s discussing until later in her piece, I will allow you the same discovery process by delaying my response for a few minutes. So don’t read my next paragraph yet: click on the link to her Part I above, and return after reading it. And don’t click on the internal links in her story — that’ll risk giving the game away prematurely.

. . .

. . .

Ms Rusch scolds us: “I know that Clancy’s New York publishers made a boatload more money than Clancy ever did. That’s due to traditional publishing contracts. The traditional publisher makes 80-90% on the book; the writer makes 10-20%. The movie studios made a boatload more than the publishers did. And other studios are poised to make even more money.” No doubt Ms Rusch’s assertion about maritime cargo is absolutely true, movie-makers’ boatloads are bigger than publishers’ boatloads which are bigger than authors’ boatloads.* But what it ignores in its best case analysis, is that Putnam’s larger percentage carries all the costs and all the risk of the book’s publishing, while the author’s percentage is guaranteed (if the book sells). Same goes for the movie makers too. Furthermore Putnam publishes more than one book, and they will have lost “boatloads more money” on a bunch of projects we never hear about. If they didn’t make out on one or two books, they’d go out of business.

Now I’m not crying out for sympathy for publishers who make bad bets, but I do think that the implication that this breakdown is somehow “wrong” is the problem with this sort of writing. I’m not sure where Ms Rusch is getting her information about publishing finances, beyond the jejune assumption that all the revenues apart from royalty represent income. The assertion that the traditional publisher makes 80-90% on their books is impossible to bring into alignment with any kind of reality. For starters the publisher gives the bookseller something around 50%, and has to pay something to get the book printed. You might as well complain that the printer only makes 5% while the publisher makes 95%. Once the book has become a bestseller the origination costs become pretty irrelevant having been amortized by the previous sales, and the publisher starts to make money. That’s the conventional reward for risk-taking. And of course when the publisher starts making money so too does the author.

Ms Rusch refers to Tom Clancy as a “Big Name author” in her Part 2, but of course he was a little name, even a no name author, at the time he signed that contract with Naval Institute Press. He may have had a bit of a Name in the insurance sales world, but an unknown author is, surprise, surprise, and unknown author. (By the way, Naval Institute Press doesn’t/didn’t habitually send copies of their books to the White House. Blind luck caused that copy to be sent along and then picked up by the president. If only publishers knew how to make blind luck work for them on a regular basis!)

It took the Naval Institute Press quite a few years to get over the effects of this utterly exceptional success. The book had actually already sold about 20,000 copies (a huge number for a university-press-type publisher) before Reagan implied that he was actually reading a book by picking it up and waving it at reporters as he left the White House for a vacation. This presidential endorsement caused sales to take off. Huge sums of money flowed in to a publishing organization unaccustomed to such a phenomenon. The temptation for managers to think that such success actually has something do with their actions, and the feeling that greater participation in the financial rewards might be nice, are almost impossible to resist. I’ve pointed out before that publishers should deal with printers of like size — so too should they deal with books of like size: a smaller publisher needs non-bestsellers. The trouble here was that though they started off with a like-sized author, the book exploded into a wild success; a success of the sort that even a medium-sized trade house might have struggled to control.

Of course authors really should read, study and think about their contracts before signing them, but if you don’t care too much about money, flying blind may not be very problematic, particularly if, like most books, your’s doesn’t make much impact. The problem here is that someone who didn’t care about money at the outset quickly turned into someone who did care quite a lot, and the head of a family who also cared a lot once they became used to the gravy-train that the book and its sequels turned into. Now everyone is suing everyone else. The way everyone wants to be the only one to enjoy all of it has resulted in the Bleak-House-like consequence that nobody’s able to enjoy any of the money.

Moral: I guess — however hard it may be on your innate modesty, you, author, should always review the contract you sign with your publisher working on the assumption that the book will turn into the wildest of wild successes. The hard part may be avoiding internalizing that assumption, and thus courting devastation when the dumb-born book doesn’t make any bestseller lists.

Not that it has much to do with this cautionary tale, but for the sake of completeness, here’s a link to Ms Rusch’s Part 3. This represents an interesting discussion of the pitfalls of writing the screenplay adaptation for your own (or perhaps any) book. I suppose it’s possible that she’ll eventually do another Part or two, but for those you’re on your own!


*Movie makers’ accounting departments are, unsurprisingly, larger than publishers’ and are more skilled at being able to account for all their projects as making a loss. Thus the last money the publisher (and therefore the author) is likely to receive from the studio is the advance they get up front. A clause claiming you’ll get more when the film starts making profits refers to a moment which such accountants are expert at postponing indefinitely.

Protecting the Right to Organize if you needed to ask (as did I). The National Law Review has a piece about it and its recent passage in the House of Representatives for the second year running. The Senate now takes over, doubtless just to bury it under a mound of filibustering.

This rather underwhelming rallying cry from the Authors Guild carries the inspiring news that it won’t affect your freelance status — I think I’d regard my poor rate of pay as part explanation of my status, and would be more inclined to action if I thought there was any chance of change in monetary status! But one sees what they mean — it’s all about tax forms 1099 or W2. Might we not have been justified in the hope that an organization so named might have been able to express their thoughts a little better. Just inserting the word “tax” would have helped.

There are obviously very widespread implications in the encouragement of collective bargaining, which in principal I support. But if full passage of the PRO Act did come to pass, one consequence would apparently be to allow freelance workers and authors (gig workers) to bargain collectively with the companies handing out the work. I don’t think that this means that all book contracts will have to be negotiated collectively in a huge group — when it comes to writing, the change will be more relevant to newspaper, magazine and other freelance writers, where there’s a “rate for the job”. The Authors Guild is all excited about this, and will be doing a webinar on 9 April. Publishers Weekly reports on the AG agitation.

My cynical take on the filibuster’s ability to protect us all from any kind of socially desirable change suggests that book publishers probably don’t have to worry too much about any kind of organized, legally-sanctioned pressure to see royalty rates raised.

What’s the shortest paper ever published in a scholarly journal? Several contenders for the title are shown at Paperpile. (Link via The Digital Reader.) There is a surprisingly large collection of impressive contenders.

I quite liked this one:

The Passive Voice reprints a substantial extract from a The Paris Review article entitled What writers and editors do by Karl Ove Knausgaard. There’s a link there to the whole piece.

Whether writers are depressives or alcoholics is not, despite the Passive Guy’s commentary, the main point of this article.

Mr Knausgaard, reporting on his dismay at the critical reaction to some of his books tells us “It feels almost as if there are different books, one belonging to the editor, another to the critic, and for the author this can be difficult.” But isn’t it a bit of a current commonplace that there are as many versions of a book as there are readers. Isn’t what the author is aiming at actually a sort of silent conversation between themselves and each one of their readers, with each conversation being unique?

Mr K obviously has a good relationship with his editor — no surprise there: with an important author you’re unlikely to remain editor for long if the author doesn’t like you! They discuss a lot on the phone. The editorial pencil is not in evidence — pencils probably feature less and less in our digital world. He says he has a special, almost unexplainable relationship with three people: his mother, his wife and his editor. The basis for this special relationship seems to boil down to trust.

Trust may well be the basis for excellence in editorship. Mr Knausgaard mentions two “great” editors: Gordon Lish, apparently almost a co-author for Raymond Carver, and Maxwell Perkins who might be said to have taken a tea-chest-full of paper and quarried it into Of Time and the River. One of the problems with the idea of a great editor is that, as with design, the essence of great editing is that it should be undetectable. If an author suspects you are out to “put your mark” on a book, trust is obviously not likely to be forthcoming. New York Review of Books’ authors used to be gobsmacked to receive phone calls from Robert Silvers in the middle of the night proposing a grammatical or a structural change in their latest piece. He was always right, and they all trusted him implicitly. In my youth I worked for Michael Black in Cambridge. His judgement about new subject areas to move into was daring and prescient; his work on manuscripts discrete and authoritative. Anyone who knew him trusted his editorial judgement absolutely.

Have things changed? Mr Knausgaard suggests they have. “For anyone harboring ambitions of becoming an author in the late eighties and early nineties the way to do it was this: you wrote a book and submitted it to a publishing house, after which you waited a month or two before receiving a reply in the post, very likely a rejection”. Nowadays Mr Knausgaard claims editors are more likely to contact a young author on the basis of a short story or an essay seen in a magazine. If this is really true, and who am I to doubt it, then it might be put down to an acceleration of life, and an increase in informality brought about by our move online. Maybe: though I suspect this insight of change may be more of an artifact of Mr Knausgaard’s experience than a real trend. Maybe many books are now floated on the basis of an outline and sample chapter, but this isn’t really a new development. And Michael Farris Smith tells us he wrote Nick in its entirety before submitting it in 2015 for instance.

According to The New York Times someone is stealing unpublished book manuscripts. There appears to be no motive for this — or at least, no consequences have yet been observed although the scam has been going on for at least three years. Could this just be criminal joie de vivre? “Look I can do this, so I’ll show you that I can do it”? Disruption of authorial equanimity (if such a quality exists) is about all that it appears to have achieved.

Once upon a time this would have been a more serious problem — and probably impossible to pull off. When you had to write your book by hand the loss of the manuscript would have been rather terminal. Even after the invention of the typewriter an author would have been reluctant to let one of their two (maybe) copies out of their sight. There used to be a man in Cambridge who was always seen with a sheaf of paper under his arm. He was rumored to have lost the manuscript of his life’s work on the Liverpool Street train, and to have spent the rest of his days trying to put it together again. The loss of just another digital copy is the loss of next to nothing. “Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing.”

Could this just be an aggressive acquisition push by The Brautigan Library, the library of unpublished manuscripts? I suppose there is a tax deduction for manuscript donations.