Note: Originally published on my blog for writers.
When I first moved to Western North Carolina last year, I had no idea how often I would be traveling the road between there and my son’s house in Northeast Georgia. Turns out, I make that trip at least three and sometimes five or six times a week. If traffic is good (or better, nonexistent), driving one way takes 40 minutes. If it’s not, the trip can take upwards of 45 minutes.
I was fuming about that yesterday as I drove down to have lunch with my son and was delayed by caravan after caravan in which the lead car was driving between ten and fifteen miles an hour under the posted speed limits, on clear, dry roads under a sunny sky. The trip back home was no better. All told, I lost fifteen minutes during the entire trip due to excessively slow drivers.
Set aside for a moment the sheer rudeness of holding up traffic like that. (Seriously, people. You’re not the only ones on the road. Pull over and let others go by.) Fifteen minutes can add up over time. During a normal week, I lose potentially 45 to 90 minutes because of traffic, or an average of an hour a week. Over an entire year, that really adds up, particularly when looked at in a different way: In one hour, I can write around 2,000 words. Multiply that by 52 weeks, and I’m losing the writing time for 104,000 words.
Eh, So What?
Now, this post is aimed at other authors, so when I say that I’m potentially losing entire stories every year, the average reader of this blog should understand exactly what it means to involuntarily forfeit that amount of writing time.
But a few people will land here who aren’t readers, and I’m pretty sure their reaction will be, so what?
Take time to smell the roses, they may say. What’s your rush?
Bear in mind that I make this trip so frequently, I could drive it in my sleep. I keep my speed to a reasonable level (the speed limit in heavy traffic or around dangerous curves, five miles an hour over at other times) and do everything I can to be a safe, courteous driver, including pulling over for cars going faster than I am.
When I’m on the road, however, I’m on the road for a purpose, and it isn’t to lollygag . I don’t even do that when I’m in tourist mode. The trips up and down the mountain are a necessary part of my life. I like to get them over with so I can get back to doing something more important, like spending time with my son or writing.
Non-writers may still not understand the big deal, so I’m going to put it in terms nearly everyone understands: Money.
Assigning Value to Words
While most of what I’m writing right now is Romance, those romances generally fall into the “woo-woo” genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Speculative Fiction, which I’m gradually leaning toward writing. One of the major professional organizations of the latter genres is the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, which considers professional pay for membership purposes to be US$.06 per word. That varies depending on the work, but let’s just call $.06/word the benchmark.
If one hour equals 2,000 words (a short story) and professional pay is $.06 per word, then I’m losing on average $120 per week thanks to slow drivers. That’s about $480 per month, or $6,240 a year.
That’s how much my writing is worth to me, at a minimum. Now tell me, would you be willing to sacrifice that kind of money every year because of someone else’s behavior? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
But Wait. There’s More!
Some of you are scratching your heads and thinking that there’s no way the average writer can make $6,240 off of one book, whether in a year or over the life of the book. Such people would be wrong.
Consider, for example, the many ways in which that same book can be packaged and sold or licensed. If it’s a short story, it can first be “sold” to a magazine at professional rates.* If it’s received well, then it can be reprinted in anthologies or other magazines. Either way, the author can publish it individually or in a collection, or can use it as a reader magnet (on one’s blog or for one’s newsletter, for example). It can become an ebook, a print book, or an audiobook, or part of a multimedia extravaganza. It can be optioned for TV or cinema, or various pieces of it can be licensed for games (individual characters, the entire story, or spin-offs).
And that’s just what I can think of off the top of my head. The possibilities are part of what Dean Wesley Smith calls the Magic Bakery, in which the income earned off of one piece of writing is limited only by the writer’s imagination and willingness to seek out opportunities.
Case Study: “Story of Your Life”
As an example, let’s look at “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, which won the 1999 Theodore Sturgeon Award and the 2000 Nebula Award for Best Novella. By my estimates, “Story of Your Life” is 13,500 words long, give or take.** It first sold in November 1998 to Tor for publication in Starlight 2. It was subsequently reprinted in more than a dozen other publications, including magazines and anthologies (one of which was a collection of Chiang’s stories), in two different languages, over a period of seventeen years.
I have no way of knowing how much Chiang was originally paid by Tor, nor how much he received every time it was reprinted, but I can estimate. Tor is a commercial publisher. Chances are good they paid Chiang at least the minimum professional rate for the story in 1998, likely at least $.03 per word or around $405. (They could have paid him a flat rate, but for the sake of this argument, let’s stick to a per word payment.)
Each time “Story of Your Life” was reprinted, Chiang likely received at least $.01 per word (the current per-word going rate for reprints), or $135. Multiply that by the times it’s been reprinted (that I know of), and that comes out to about $1620. Add that to the original publication price, and for those activities alone, Chiang earned around $2,025, or possibly more, depending on how he was paid, whether on a per word basis, at a flat rate, through royalties, or some combination thereof, all of which are entirely possible.
Stories of Your Life and Others, the anthology of Chiang’s works in which “Story of Your Life” appears, is currently priced at $9.99 for the Kindle edition, $16.00 for the paperback (although you can get it for less through Amazon), and $25.95 for the audiobook. Probably, Chiang received an advance when this anthology was initially published, and is now receiving a percentage of each sale as royalties. Best guess? Chiang has earned at least mid-four figures off the sales of various formats of this anthology.
But we haven’t even gotten to the real money yet.
You may know “Story of Your Life” better by its movie version, Arrival, which grossed $203 million at last count and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, all of which should have earned (and should still be earning) Chiang a pretty penny. Again, I have no idea of the exact figures involved, but it likely makes the amount earned on initial publication and reprints look rather paltry.
All told, Chiang has earned at least a low five figures (and more likely close to a million dollars, if not more) off of a novella he wrote in 1998 that potentially still has earning power in the form of future reprints, continuing sales of Stories of Your Life and Others (which are strong right now), and residuals from the movie.
Not bad for a few hours of work, eh?
But You’re Not Ted Chiang!
The average writer is probably not a Ted Chiang, or a Stephen King, or a J.K. Rowling. Most of us simply want to earn what our work is worth, which for most of us means earning a full-time living off our writing. If we have to put a hard dollar amount on that work, then $.06 per word is a great starting point. It gives us a tangible goal to reach for and encourages us to seek out and explore various opportunities.
Have I earned $6,240 off of a single title? Yes, I have. The Choosing (part of The Pruxnae Series written under the name Lucy Varna) earned much more than that in the first two weeks after its release, and continues to be one of my best sellers. At this point, I’ve more than earned out any investments in time, editing, covers, and promotions, an ideal every author should strive for.
Have all of my titles earned that amount? Not yet, but I’m a long-term thinker where my writing business is concerned. Some books will earn themselves out in a few years. Individual titles in The Vampyr Series, for example. Others may take a decade or more to earn back the writing time and financial investments I’ve made in them.
I’m perfectly ok with that. The old days of publishing are gone, no matter how hard commercial (traditional) publishers continue to cling to them. Books have the potential to earn money long after their initial release, and should. Such books will often outsell so-called best sellers, a fact indie authors are capitalizing on to their great benefit.
One Pie, Multiple (Reusable) Slices
I speed the earning process along by deliberately choosing a diversification strategy. At a minimum, I strive to publish every novella or novel length title in digital and print formats, and in audio if I can afford to. While a few of my titles are exclusive to Amazon (the digital versions, anyway), most are widely available and easy for readers to find. This allows for multiple streams of income which add up over time and generate a steady income, especially when I’m publishing frequently.
Additionally, I hope to license TV and/or movie rights for some books (The Vampyr Series, the Sunshine Walkingstick Series), and am planning on licensing game rights to parts of the Daughters of the People world to my son, beginning with an as-yet-unwritten origin story for Rebecca the Blade.
To borrow from Smith’s Magic Bakery analogy again, every story (pie) offers multiple opportunities (slices) for income, many of them repeating or recurring. Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” for example, was reprinted numerous times; there’s no limit on how many more times that one story can be reprinted, repackaged, or resold, aside from contractual obligations and Chiang’s creativity in considering opportunities. Larry Correia has optioned the movie rights for a couple of his stories. Every time the options expire, he has the opportunity to option them again for another chunk of money.
If you need another example, simply look at what’s happened with Rowling’s Harry Potter Series. It started out as a single book written by an unemployed single mom, and is now a multi-billion dollar industry encompassing the original seven books, a number of spin off books, a couple of plays (and their accompanying text and audio versions), eight movies, a spin off movie, merchandising, and a theme park.
One pie, many slices.
My Own Magic Bakery
I’ve already mentioned a few of the ways in which I’m slowly creating my own Magic Bakery. While I’m not much for marketing (ok, I really suck at it), I’m pretty good at envisioning various ways in which each of my stories can be monetized.
Even titles which seem as if they’re earning no money lead to earnings in the form of series buy-through or reader retention. The Prophecy, the first novel in the Daughters of the People Series, is currently permafree, a truncated way of saying it’s free on an on-going, near-permanent basis. I give it away, but I do so with a consciously reasoned purpose: To introduce new readers to the story world. Readers are reluctant to gamble hard-earned money on a writer with whom they are unfamiliar, so having that one title free lowers the barriers to their resistance. About 10% of downloads lead to sales of the subsequent books in the series, and from there the read-through (or buy-through) rate is about 80% from book to book.
Or to put it another way, every download of The Prophecy has the potential to earn about $22 (eight additional books, when the series is finished, multiplied by the current retail price of $3.99 each, of which I earn 70% less delivery fees). That’s just for the digital version. Every book in that series is also available in print; while I don’t sell many paperbacks, I sell enough to make it worth the time and money it takes to create that format.
Many authors are resistant to the idea of assigning a monetary value to their creativity, and they should absolutely be wary…when they’re writing.
After a title is finished, though, it’s time to think about the business end of writing. Professional writers, those who earn their living through the creation of the written word, are in it for the money, whether we like to think about it or not. If we want to be successful, however we define success, it behooves us to treat our writing as the business it is, and to do that, we have to consider what our writing is really worth.
My writing is worth varying amounts of money depending on the goals I have for each title, and I do absolutely have different goals for each story. The same goes for my series and collections; different titles, different goals.
The one constant is that every word I write, every essay, every blog post, every story, they all have to earn money in some way. That’s one of the reasons I stopped writing this blog (and why Rachel Aaron quit doing weekly writing-oriented posts). Given the amount of time each post takes (I already have 3-4 hours in this post alone), I needed to find a way to monetize the blog so that I could justify the time needed to write it, time I could be using to write fiction, where I know how much money I should be making and have a strategy for doing so.
I’ve solved part of the monetization problem by using affiliate links (which add nothing to the cost of the products, I promise). I’m not going to place advertisements on any of my blogs, nor do I feel comfortable asking for donations. Instead, I’ve found another solution which I hope will justify every blog’s existence outside of my own desire to create.
Dean Wesley Smith turned his Magic Bakery into a book, which I recommend as a more in-depth discussion. It’s called, fittingly enough, The Magic Bakery: Copyright in the Modern World of Fiction Publishing.
The point of this discussion is this: Even for creatives, time is money. We should therefore guard our time carefully and spend it in ways that really matter.
(And maybe, we shouldn’t let slow drivers bother us to the point that we write 2500 word blog posts about how they’re wasting everyone’s time.)
Figure out what your words are worth, then strive to make the most of every piece you create. That’s the only way to sustain a full-time living as a writer and achieve the success you deserve.
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Good luck and happy writing.