Monday, November 8, 2010

Alas, Poor Writer, I knew him well

I decided to become a writer in '92. It took me until '99 to get a book out. Along the way, I did just about every stupid thing a writer can do, except give in. I've now got 13 books out, the 14th in press and contracts for 3 more. I am, in a world of falling sales numbers, slowly selling more each time. Not a lot, but I started my career as a new kid out of the slush-pile (took me two years to the day) with a minimum advance and a boilerplate contract. I got the standard treatment for these low advance gambles - minimum of anything toss you out to sink or swim (which, for the record, is how I think all writers should be treated. Readers, not marketing should decide who is good). Somehow, I was the one in four who made it through the 3 book hurdle. I've sold about 25 other, shorter works too... And written another half a million words I've not sold (and I think about 14 proposals). This is what I do.

Except: Last Thursday I reached the grim decision that I was reaching the end of the road. That I was going to have to find a day job, at least a part time one. That even catching and growing our own food, and living really carefully, as a writer I just don't earn enough to cope.

Ok, in this case it has a lot to do with my business model being based on three things, of which at least two of which have to be true most of the time, and the fact that cash flow is always a problem to any small business. Firstly, because I don't have a huge cushion to absorb delays, payment has to be reasonably prompt. Anyone who has ever dealt with publishing knows this is the exception rather than the rule. Secondly, by living rurally in far-off countries, a strong dollar exchange rate just gives a little boost. That's not something one can control or should gamble on, but it has been a lifeline. It isn't right now. And thirdly, the process is a cycle. As long as the cycle continues smoothly, the fact that the publisher is 3 months late with your royalty check or advance or turn-in is fine, because they were 3 months late last time, and so there is no sudden vast gap in income. Only, with the GFC and then emigrating and my mum's death the cycle is broken. I normally sell 1-3 new books a year averaging at 2 on proposals. I sold the last 2 years back. There are a bunch which are sitting - some agreed to, some interest shown, some just hovering... but not signed for and paid for.

It's been preying on my mind. And then the last straw came. I finally got my turn-in money for the next Heirs book (you check your account 5 times a day, you try not to worry, you try not to nag, because it doesn't help. It does nothing for productivity either). Now, the delay there is at least in part down to it being co-authored, but it's been 4 months... Needed badly. Only, despite asking, reasoning and even begging the office staff at the publisher never to do this to me again (because I've been through all of this before) I was sent a check, not electronic payment which they've agreed to and normally do. Well, I am in a new country, which generally works much better than my old one, and took it in to the bank with palpable relief. The value of the payment, thanks to the currency fluctuations, had already taken 20% dip in its value. It was down from five months rent to four. But it was money coming in. The bank told me it'd be available by Wednesday.

And then on Thursday, Westpac let me know that they'd changed their mind, and it would take two months to clear a foreign check. Given the weakening of the US dollar who knows what it'll be worth by then - 3 months rent?

At this point I realised that my career as a full time writer is probably over. I'm not going to stop writing, but it's going to take longer and be as and when. The money is lousy anyway, and here, if I can find manual labouring jobs at minium wage, even part time, I can pay the bills and not stress about the dogs, cats and B having to live in the truck ( No, it's not that desperate yet, and it won't actually get near there, there is some work to be had here, and there is a social service safety net if all else fails). B's also been job hunting, found some casual bits - and it's scut work, but it's keeping us afloat. Neither of us are proud and we both work hard.

The writing is not quite dead yet. I'm a battler, which I suspect means too stupid to know when to stop. I - and Eric, are trying to finalise the proposals that have been growing green fur and not getting signed. I'm looking toward bringing out some of my backlist (which various publishers have been sitting on for a LONG time) as ebooks. If they sell well enough I can go on, and I'll cut a major stress and delay factor (the waiting) out of my equation. I'm trying to finish the steampunk book O'Mike thinks he has interested party for as a finished book as well as DOG AND DRAGON (so that can get in the turn in payment queue). I'm looking for other kites to fly. But...

The odd (and sad) thing is it actually felt quite good to finally admit that I was going to have quit as a full time writer after 18 years of pushing through the morass. I love writing, but I am so sick of the endless waiting. I detest the proposal process, but it is the only way to get some financial security (and I have a family to look after too). It means getting deeply involved in a book... and then copping out and casting it at various publishers. I've yet to write a book everyone hated, and every one of those proposals IS a good book with a real market - but I seem bad at convincing publishers of this (and a couple have gone on to prove my point, after being turned down by one publisher). Several years may elapse and suddenly I must jump back into it. That's hard. I've also had to write books that had no appeal to me as concepts... that editors wanted. I always managed to twist them to the point that I DID love them. But I have such a long, long, long list of books I WANT to write, that I love the idea of, that the idea of being the chooser is heady.

Anyway. The game is not over yet, quite. And I'm dipped in over-ripe sewage before I just quit. I'm looking for options, pushing what I can.
And ideas on just how to deal with currency, the waiting or cash flow, or getting DRAGONS RING to rush up the best-seller lists happily received.
Or just how to get my ebooks to sell well enough to just be able to write, and write, bypassing the joys of the industry.
Nil carborundum illigitimi.


Kurt said...

There must be some way to give yourself good income from writing.

Ebooks are open to all sorts of experimentation. Serialise your future novels as "episodes" of 6000 words, selling them each for $1 each on Amazon (John August sells his short story "The Variant" for $1.14).

You could be getting income from "Episode 1" while you're writing "Episode 2". This is how a lot of computer games do business to reduce the risk ( Then you can release the "complete" book later if you wish.

The downside of episodes is that you're locked to what happened in the previous episodes without being able to rewrite. It's a limitation but might actually force some creativity.

You can always cancel the series if it's not getting sales, so instead of spending a year on a book that nobody buys, you only spend a month on an episode. Those who bought the cancelled series only spent a dollar or so. No big deal.

You also need to advertise the crap out of them.

Add one of those javascript popups ( with a large image of your book cover and a few large bullet points about it. It should link to a "landing page" on your site, or directly to the Amazon page. It should only display the first time someone visits the site, or once per session. A mailing list signup inside this box would also be a good idea. They can be annoying, but they do work.

Maybe advertise the stories as 50% off from $2, even if that's not quite true (you think stores a truly reduce things by 50%?).

Anyway, those were just some thoughts on how I see things going in the future.

MataPam said...


I hope, at some point, ebook sales will provide that constant foundation income so you can get back to writing full time.

In the mean time, don't discount your other skills in the job market. You've spoken of vacation homes keeping the local market for houses high. Is there a season full of vacationers?

Would they pay for rock climbing lessons and climbs with a pair of real experts to teach and belay?

Do the restaurants get busy? Do they need chefs during the season or on weekends?

You've mentioned a school. How's their science program? Do they need someone to come in part time just for that?

Francis Turner said...

This particular cheque seems to be committed to the ridiculous 2 month wait.

It seems to me that in the future a paper cheque should be handled by your agent (who is, IIRC, in the US). If the cheque is mailed to him that's going to be quicker than sending it to Flinders and he will have a US$ bank account. He can pay it into said account and then wire you the amount once it has been paid in. Should take 1 week instead of 2 months.

I'm sure that money can be made from ebooks - we've all done the maths - and indeed from crowd-sourcing/distributed patronage but its going to need effective marketing to make any kind of splash and that's not a simple thing.

I don't think it makes sense to go it alone. You need a group of talent to provide the required volume and the split the cost of marketing etc. If I weren't up to my neck in my current job I'd be willing to push this but this won't happen right now

Anonymous said...

It sucks that it has come to this, Dave. My heart goes out to anyone who pursues their love of craft and has such a hard time financially.

The upside is that minimum wage work isn't hard to leave, either practically or emotionally, should things take a turn for the better in a while with the writing. The "job" thing may only be temporary. If it can relieve some of the financial and emotional stress until then, it's not wasted time however short or long it turns out to be. Good luck to you.


Dave Freer said...

Kurt, thanks for those ideas. My webmaster - my son Paddy - finishes his final undergraduate exam (the 24 hour marathon computer science programming practical) in 2 days day time, so I'll get him onto installing the pointers. The episodic thing might work with some kind of piquaresque novel. There are serveral ideas there - CRAWLSPACE the detective story set in the RATS BATS AND VATS universe (A novella appeared in JBU) was intended to be the first part of just that, as was 'THE WITCHES MURDER' (which is spun out of the Heirs of Alexandria universe).

The 'advertise' thing is the part that kills me. I write stories. I am not a good salesman or marketing expert. Those are hard, time consuming tasks of their own.

Dave Freer said...

MataPam there are some wonderful things about being in Australia, which will keep us alive. There are some down points - I can't teach without doing teacher's qualification, instruct climbing without locally accepted qualifications or vast liability insurance. The restrauant situation is really there is only one (besides the pubs) and it is small (the island has a population of around 700 permanants. In holiday season that may double or even treble, but it's still small). Something will come up though. Or the exchange rate may shift again. Like, it's not DIRE. Just a case of 9/10 of what we need comes in, usually late, and the rest eats into our reserves -- which means bleeding to death slowly, and thus adding a little in slows or reverses it.

Dave Freer said...

Francis - the cheque or payment is made to the contractually nominated person. This is a pre-agent book. The next one is agented.

And you have already done far too much for me and my beasts. I remain deeply grateful and in your debt.

Some sort of plan will be made. It may even work ;-)

Dave Freer said...

Linda, that's just it. Even admitting that it is just not working and that we have to cast about for other solutions has been a huge emotional and stress relief.

In a way the problem has been that it's never been an utter disaster. It's always been... just ahead/behind.

It's bizarre though that the industry continues to feed on its own vitals like this.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Dave. I feel your pain. Not that I ever reached the point of being able to write full time, but after working at this parallel career for over two decades squeezing it into cracks of my life, six manucripts, around 16 published short works and novellas, three Aurealis Award short-listings, three competition wins, almost a thousand rejections on novel manuscripts - and still no major contact - I feel about as low as I ever have about this game. I'm pretty much on my knees.

Dave Freer said...

Chris, you know that I still think Murtagh's Fury one of the finest shorts I've ever read. If anything, my friend, you re-assure me. It's not really a comment on quality.

Chris McMahon said...

Thanks, Dave. Though at this point I think I have given up on conventional publication.

Anonymous said...

I've been going 12 years without novel publication. Writing itself is fun, but doesn't mesh well with real life. If you quit or limit your writing, going against a whole lot of mushy "follow your dreams" society stuff, you may well be doing the best thing.

Louise Curtis

Ori Pomerantz said...

I can't say I'm sorry to read this. I love your work, and I'm unhappy that I'll be getting less of it.

But so what? You're not there to provide me with cheap, high quality entertainment. You have your own life. And fiction writing, as a career field, sucks. You need to worry about yourself and your family.

BTW, how hard is it to get the formal qualifications to teach rock climbing or science in school? Given the population density of Australia, is there a correspondence class you can take?

Dave Freer said...

Louise - well I'm trying for a little more balance in the follow the dream stuff (this is the guy who has gone to live on a remote island, because that was something of a dream) and the reality.Maybe less sleepless nights. May you still sell. My first took 7 years and it was an easier climate back then.

Dave Freer said...

Ori, that's a good point. I must look at correspondence. The climbing thing I suspect is a formality/ legality thing. But the insurance on liability is large.

I'm still trying to bridge the gap. if things work out you may get more cheap, high quality entertainment rather than less. Just intermediates may get less reward.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Dave, I feel your pain.

The thing that burns me up is knowing a book is good, it would have readers, and the publishers rejecting it. (Then it sells and wins awards or is short listed).

I knew a writer who had a day job delivering mail. He loved it. Minimal thought, regular pay. He could day dream about his stories all day long.

Do they have a postie on your island?

Dave Freer said...

Rowena, no postie, but yes, that would be ideal. And yes, I have had books rejected that went on to get bought and do well - which means that the rejection comes from someone who wasted our time and talents doesn't it? Anyway, the exchange rate may change, the books could break through. It's a game in which we gamblers play knowing the odds, but hoping it'll be different for us ;-/.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Dave Freer: I'm still trying to bridge the gap. if things work out you may get more cheap, high quality entertainment rather than less. Just intermediates may get less reward.

Ori: Good. You spending less time is a minus. But you spending less time worrying might offset that.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

We're close to the same place, except that I truly don't have any skills left to get a decent job with. Yeah, my sales numbers are growing too. Slowly. But sweet Lord... never mind. I won't go on.

On the good side, you must have made fewer mistakes than I. It took me from 85 to 2000 to break in...

Synova said...

You know...

Our mail was stolen in the Philippines and someone managed to simply endorse my phone bill to AT&T and cash it. Went through a bank in Manila, a bank in Vietnam, and a bank in New York and no one batted an eye.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave. I'm pretty sure I'll sell eventually - I do see progress, it's just not over the line yet. I'm one of those people who can't not write (I honestly wish I could, but I usually think the pleasure of writing makes it worth it), but I am able to do a little part-time paid work too. It works for me.

Louise Curtis

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, the annoying part is that we're handed a load of self-doubt and wasted and worry... which is genuinely without substance itself. Far worse books and worse authors do quite / very well. But, Nil carborundum illigitimi as my favorite dog-latin quote. We will go on.

Anonymous said...

Dave, I'm very sorry to hear this. I know how talented you are, and I know how many skills you have -- but you're an outstanding writer, and you deserve better than what you're getting.

I have to say that it's disheartening to hear this; you've done everything the way it should be done in your career, and yet you're still being shafted. Very bad to hear this.

You know my situation; I keep trying, and have found a minor publisher who likes my and Michael's work. (More Michael's than mine, but I can deal.) I think this is probably the best I can do, for now, to get my and Michael's names out there; the economic climate is so bad, and the mega-mergers of the publishers made things worse -- then the agents being the "gateway," where agents are by nature much more cautious to greenlight anything new -- well, it's bad. You know it, I know it, and the fencepost knows it.

A few writers -- not many -- have figured out how to use the Internet rather than let the 'net use them. (I'm talking those who aren't writers with a ten book-plus track record like you, or Sarah A. Hoyt.) If I can figure out what they're doing, I'll be glad to tell you what it is, 'cause I'll be trying it myself.


Dave Freer said...

Synova - the processing the check part is just pure bank BS. They know it, we know it. Their security is full of holes and this will do nothing for that. On the other hand it's actually very profitable - my rather disreputable ex Bank in South Africa used to pull the same one. Oddly the payers (I knew a couple well enough to ask) reported the money as ex their account within 2-3 days. The money arrived in my acount in 6 weeks. Oddly always at a rate of exchange which was the worst for me in that entire time. As - according to them - they had several hundred foreign checks every day, out by secure courier bag, this amounted to a lot of money. And they charged me 30 dollars handling for each cheque. So: no, it's not about security.

Dave Freer said...

Louise, hang in there. As you see by this I took 7 years and Sarah 15. She's an exceptionally good writer. I regard myself as medium ok and still working on it, so by rights she should have got much faster. It's a lot about having the talent and being lucky... and keeping trying.

Dave Freer said...

elfyverse, it's more a case of the exchange rate and the bank pushing the edge too far, than anything new the industry has done. And we're working on the net thing. Good luck with your stuff

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Honesty compells me to admit that the reason it took me so long to sell was that I was stuck in this HIGHLY unsaleable world. Like most beginner writers, I didn't know I could write in more than one universe. So I wrote SEVEN novels in this world before I let it be. My first finished novel, outside it, was in 1994 which was about a year after I started trying to actually WORK on short stories.

Now, mind you, I did my apprenticeship in the unsaleable world, so I had a good grip on craft when I moved over, and I started selling short stories almost immediately but all the same...

MataPam said...

Nil carborundum illigitimi.

Scratches head.

(1) Carborundum is not a bastard? That's going to mess with the succession.

(2)Don't sandpaper the bastard? Why not?

Sorry, this late digression into "Where do you get your ideas" was brought to you by my dentist who has managed to make every tooth in my jaw ache. The asprin will take hold any minute now and I'll be back to mellow. I hope.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Carbonara pasta with ground bastages....

No, Pam, it means "Don't let the bastages grind you down." I like it.

MataPam said...

I'd say it was a pity I never took Latin, but I wouldn't have appreciated it when I was younger.

Anonymous said...

Macquarie Island may be a problem for getting a good job.

There is a lot of aqua fisheries in Tasmania that you might be able to work for, but the commute may be a bitch.

Tasmania is the worst place to get a job, Melbourne has a better economy. You might get lucky though....