January 28, 2013

Some writers are in it to get rich


If you look closely you can see little dollar signs in his pupils.

John Scalzi’s blog has always been a remarkable resource for honest thought on the life of a professional writer. One of the joys of reading it over the years has been to see how it has changed — or not — as Scalzi’s fortunes as a writer have waxed. And while I don’t mean fortune in the mercenary sense there, Scalzi’s honesty doesn’t shy away from pecuniary topics, particularly now that he’s earned some greater acclaim and the checks that, one hopes, go with it.

These past weeks have been interesting even by Scalzi’s standards. On January 16th, to celebrate the paperback release of his latest novel, Scalzi broke down, in public, sales figures for the hardcover, e-book, and audio editions until that point. The result is a smart look at the current state of genre publishing. One of the surprising conclusions Scalzi reaches is that his books did remarkably well, in part, because they had the backing of a large publisher — in his case the good folks at Tor. That’s not a surprising conclusion. Rather, the surprise is that though the debate is ever-more-prevalent on our corners of the internet, it’s a question whose answer is, for now, still rather obvious:

“Working with established publishers gets my work into as many sales channels as possible. Aside from everything else they do — including editing, design, artwork, marketing and advertising (hey, did you see me on tour? Or see those Redshirt ads in Times Square?) — the market access these established publishers provide is reason enough to keep working with them.”

That post was followed by one on the 23rd, in response to a comment on the earlier post. In this follow up, Scalzi answers the question about why he couldn’t potentially have made much more if he had self-published his books. The discussion centers on questions of the royalty rates offered when one self-publishes on Amazon, and the benefits of all those fun things people like, well …  like me, can do to help a book reach a broader audience and thus sell better. Again, Scalzi’s conclusion is that, at least now, at least for him, self-publishing would not have been worth it. Could he have made more? He writes:

Well, it’s possible I could have. But it seems to me very unlikely. And regardless if I had made that money, it would have required much more time and effort from me than I would have wanted to exchange.

Which brings us to our last, and maybe best, Scalzi post I’d like to point you to. I know this post of mine has been a bit hagiographic, but I’m forced to make Scalzi’s same points in a thousand variations at every bar and cocktail party I go to these days, and it’d be nice if folks would read his takes and save me some effort. This last post is simple, and instructive even for me. Scalzi takes issue with the idea that writers are meant to gnaw crusts in some garret somewhere for their art. Again, Scalzi:

I became a writer to get rich. I’ve always been in the writing business not just to write, and not just to make money, but also to make a lot of money — basically, to get rich at it. Why? Because speaking from experience, being poor sucks, and in the world we live in, things are a whole lot easier if you have a lot of money.

This man, an honest funny professional writer, is in it — among other reasons — to make a lot of money. Thus he works with a publisher. Let’s consider the discussion closed for a month at least, please.



Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.