Another post about money? My bad…
Money is always on my mind. Maybe it’s genetic. I am Swiss after all, and we have perfected both money and banks (and we love to take it from you…) However, on a serious note, money is a constant headache for artists. It’s a topic for everybody these days, as our societies drift apart with a select few having more and more while the vast majority gets by on less and less. For artists, to earn a living with their art is increasingly difficult. I see many reasons for that.
The democratization of the arts
There used to be a time when humanity was busy putting food in their mouths, clothes on their bodies and finding shelter. Most never got beyond that basic level on Maslov’s pyramid. The few who always had it all were also the ones who were patrons of the arts, and there are many famous examples, from the popes in Rome to e.g. the Medici family in Florence or the royalty around the world who would employ bards, painters, sculptors or storytellers. Even authors were often supported by nobility in their art and often had to flee, head over heel, as their ideas weren’t always appreciated by their patrons. One of my personal favorites, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is one such example.
In a way, the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries are the oddities for writers. Suddenly, there were writers who were able to make a living, thanks to publishers, newspapers, and magazines. With the advent of Amazon and self-publishing in the late twentieth century, publishing a book is suddenly a tool for everybody. Publishers, literary agents were no longer the gatekeepers they once were. Within just a couple of decades, things have drastically changed and with over fifty million books available to readers, and the latter decreasing thanks to the Internet and the increase in podcasts, a change in the pace of life, it’s getting increasingly difficult to sell books. Add the decrease in the price of books and you have a lethal cocktail. Mind you, the same is true for music. They are about ten years ahead of us, as their price decline started a lot sooner. The biggest acts these days don’t earn their money with records but tours/concerts. Many have claimed for years that the same is true for writers. And in a way it is, because the only writers who really make a dent these days in terms of “bestsellers” are celebrities. Today, you must be famous to get a publishing deal. You don’t achieve fame because you write great books.
The role of Patreon
Having to fall back on a patronage service (crowdsourcing) feels like defeat. When I first decided against Patreon more than two years ago, it was for a fear of being pushed in a certain direction by my potential patrons and a fear that I might not be able to keep them happy, that the content creation for Patreon might take too much time. Let me add that as a European, completely unaccustomed to crowdsourcing, a healthy dose of shame also played a major role. Begging just seems so strange.
Let’s face it. If you write in English and the U.S. is your major market, you need to abide by the rules that apply to that market. I’ve tried to behave “European” for the past six years and it’s not done me any favors. My personal integrity may be intact, but my family economy isn’t. There are boundaries I’m not willing to cross. I won’t steal art, I pay for the content I use, be it music, imagery and film snippets for trailers. imagery for my covers, I pay my cover creators and I pay for the guys who narrate my audiobooks and the illustrator of my children’s books.
Patreon fills a gap here. They help us recoup some of the cost of our content creation. Crowdsourcing is a thing in the U.S., be it for healthcare (in absence of public solutions) or even a funeral. Here in Sweden, there are plenty of grants for authors to apply for, but writing in English, those don’t apply to me. Like I said, if you play on a different market, different rules apply. Unfortunately, it seems that the most successful people on Patreon are the ones who need it the least, i.e. the famous ones. That is part of the rule of the game these days.
The cost of being an author
They say that publishing a book is free, and that is true, of course. But what book will that be? Relying on free images to create a cover, relying on friends or one’s own talent. I’ve seen far too many such covers, and in nine of ten such examples, they fall short. Self-publishers who do not pay for professional editing or proofreaders, and who typeset their own books. I’ve seen those books, and far too many fall into the DNF category. As interesting as a story may be if it is hidden by typos, plot holes, and atrocious typesetting, readers will return them to Amazon for a refund.
I spend 50% of my earnings to have my book edited, proofed and typeset by my publisher. I’m lucky. Most traditionally published authors earn royalties below 30%. I pay for my own covers (roughly $200 per book) because I am picky about that and because I’ve done my own covers even before I joined Beaten Track. They do have a say in covers though since their earnings also depend on a successful cover.
Audiobooks are becoming increasingly important as people read less and less. Our attention span is decreasing, we spend more time consuming shorter and shorter bits and pieces of information and fewer people set aside the time to read. They will still listen to an audiobook on their commute though, or while cleaning the house, etc. There are different models for paying for that, which again includes a cover, but the most expensive part is the narrator, and the three books I’ve done so far have cost me between $600 and $2,500. I get about $9 per book purchased. You do the math…
My children’s books require illustrations, and the artist who so brilliantly does them for me also wants to be paid. Each illustration clocks at $75 or more, depending on the artist. I just recently commissioned a new cover illustration for one of my books and prices ranged from $175 to almost $1,000.
Have I mentioned conventions and signings? Flights, hotels, paying for tables there? The cost of buying books and having them shipped. Yes, I usually sell well, but not always. I recently attended a book fair and ended up selling one book, but I still had to make sure to have them all there. It’s a hit or miss situation, you never know how well you’ll do. But nobody is sending me books for free and no postal service ships without charging… And no amount of book sales will ever cover the cost of transatlantic flights and hotels.
But that’s not all, there’s my website, the cost for my newsletter ($30/month), the cost for marketing campaigns, BookBubs, etc. It never ends, and with an ever-decreasing budget, the likelihood of breaking through the noise is diminishing rapidly and no nude selfies would ever be able to change that…
Artists deserve to be paid
I think that goes without saying. I cannot pay my groceries with “exposure” (sorry, HuffPost), and I’ve stopped writing for websites who don’t pay me. I think the same applies to the artists I work with. I know they have invoices to pay, I know they do great work and deserve every penny they get.
If you look at the above, you quickly realize that I would have to sell thousands and thousands of copies of books to even break even. Alas, I am not. Not even close. Note that this is in no way a complaint. It’s just a fact. I don’t have the money to advertise for my books, and to become visible among the fifty million books on Amazon is simply a question of investing a ton of money, or luck. So far the latter has also eluded me. I could compromise. I could use standard cheap covers, but what would that do to my visibility on Amazon and elsewhere?
I could use a narrator based simply on a profit-share scheme, but what is the likelihood they’d help me again if they realize that they won’t make any money? And do I want twenty narrators for my different books, twenty disgruntled people badmouthing me for not selling? And would readers/listeners appreciate a new voice for every book?
Why I created a Patreon page
I have a business that has been in charge of my publishing of audiobooks and a couple of my titles (Common Sense and Dads.) Over the years, that business has accumulated losses, losses that my husband and I have covered with our own money. I can’t even say how much money we’ve invested to keep that company afloat. It’s irrelevant because whether I run my writing through a company or privately as a hobby, the invoices would still need paying.
But I’ve noticed that around us, things are getting more and more expensive, while my sales peaked in 2015. Yes, 2018 was better, a lot better than the disaster year of 2017, but still. I’m miles away from even paying the cost of my books. And unless lady luck intervenes, I’ll never be able to make a living as a writer. Unfortunately, getting a day job isn’t easy either when you’re fifty-two years old in Sweden. I’m either over-qualified or too old, the former a euphemism for the latter. I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I have nothing to lose.
Which is why I’ve finally decided to create a Patreon page. Nothing’s changed on the surface since I published that first post in 2017, but I’ve tried to find ways to mitigate the amount of work I will have to put in creating content for Patreon, and I’ve talked to a lot of people on Patreon about their experiences.
Have a look, please provide feedback
My Patreon page went live yesterday, and I’m thrilled to already have a patron. *smiles* I have created a few tiers from $5 to $100 (overly optimistic perhaps) a month with content I hope will appeal to potential patrons. That content can always change. So please have a look and let me know what you think. I’d be happy to listen and learn. I’m new at this, and yet I’m not because I’ve always had a patron, my father. Without him, I would have had to give up on writing years ago and really on unemployment benefits (since I can’t get a job at my age. Just in case you wonder…) At least this way, I feel that I am making a positive change to society with my art and keeping myself busy, too. Only time will tell, if Patreon is going to make a difference in my life or not.
You can find my page here: https://www.patreon.com/hansmhirschi
Thank you for having a look. Feel free to provide feedback here.
Hans M Hirschi