Friday, October 29, 2010

buy books?

by Barbara D'Amato

Several years ago, after a meeting of the midwest chapter of MWA, I was standing at the coatrack and heard two women next to me, talking. Our speaker had been a man in the insurance business who had just had his first crime novel published. One of the women said, "If he has a book out, why is he still working at his job?"

I pause to let the published writers out there chuckle grimly.

A great many people, including readers, seem to think that if Stephen King is paid a couple of million dollars per book, midlist writers must receive about a hundred thousand. In fact, a fairly typical advance for a hardcover from a first-time author is about five to seven thousand and many are paid less. A paperback original maybe three thousand. Certainly many writers earn more, and we all hope to work our way up. But most writers have to keep their day job.

Which brings me to a recent event. On Yahoo, there are mini-articles, taken from a variety of sources. You know the kind of thing. Ten best cities to live in. Ten worst-dressed at the Emmys. This one was "Ten ways to save money." And number four was "Buy used books. Don't pay new-book prices."

Well, I was horrified and dismayed.

If nobody bought new books, few people would bother to write them. Of course, if nobody bought a new Lexus, just used ones--sorry, pre-owned--they would no longer be manufactured. But that's not likely to happen. Not buying books is in a different category.

I love libraries and support reading library books. Libraries increase literacy in a lot of ways, including making books available to children, who mostly don't have the money to buy books for themselves. And used bookstores or new/used bookstores are valuable assets in a community.

But people who love to read, who can afford to buy new books at least sometimes, still may not know how writers are paid. I wonder whether we as authors are doing enough to let the readers know that it is buying the book that keeps the writer they like to read going on writing. Most of us give talks or readings for a variety of groups, and in my experience there are usually questions about the book business. I'm not suggesting that mournful remarks on how little we are paid is a good idea. But it's easy to make the assumption that readers just know that most writers are paid on the basis of how many books they sell .In fact a lot of readers have no clear idea of this. And they're interested, once you start to talk about it. What is a mid-list author? What exactly is an advance? If you forego an advance can you bargain for higher royalties? What do authors earn, really? Does your company send you on all-expense-paid--don't laugh-- tours? People are genuinely interested in this and sometimes are too shy to ask.

Enough preaching for today?

21 comments:

Bryan Gruley said...

Barbara, this piece resonates with a newspaperman like me in many ways. Heck, in my business, the problem isn't people thinking you can get newspapers at a discount--it's people assuming newspapers are FREE. Like all those reporters, editors, photographers, graphics folks--not to mention the armored vehicles we at the WSJ bought to protect our reporters in Iraq--don't cost a dime.

But what to do? This is capitalism at work. And people who complain about losing jobs to China on one hand will buy a Chinese-made cuisinart over an American-made one with the other.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Yes, Bryan, I think people view newspapers as a service rather than a product. It's this not-thinking about how written work gets to people that bugs me. But we can help a little bit by explaining when we give talks. Usually someone will ask a a question that leads in to such a discussion.

I have a wonderful friend who is so conscious of how authors are paid that when one of her favorite midlist writers comes out with a new book she immediately goes to a bookstore and buys it, even if it's hardcover. And she's not rich.

There are too few like her.

Sara Paretsky said...

great post, Barb, sorry I'm so late getting to it

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thanks, Sara.

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