Friday, February 15, 2013

How Does a Writer Make a Living Today?


I just today received the Winter 2012/13 issue of Focus:  The British Science Fiction Association's Magazine for Writers, guest-edited by Keith Brooke.  In it is Keith's article "This Writing Business," an examination of the current business environment as it pertains to writers.  How does one make a living today?

In brief synopsis:  It's complicated.

Keith Brooke created the article by sending questionnaires to Kim Lakin-Smith, Steven Savile, Linda Nagata, Lisa Tuttle, Jeff Noon and, well, myself, and then assembling all our answers into a sensible and comprehensive state-of-the-situation overview.

This is nothing that I'd feel myself qualified to write.  But as one voice among many, and trusting Keith to make sense of the whole, I was happy to to do my little bit.

Here's my share of the raw material, from which Keith crafted the whole:

Is it easier or harder for writers to make a living from their work these days?

Much harder.  When I made my first sale, a third of a century ago, everybody knew the rules.  You made a name for yourself writing short fiction for the magazines, learned how to write novels at a regular rate, built up a backlist which would bring in enough money to support you between sales, and so on.  Today the backlist is gone, publishers’ advances for successful writers are much smaller than a few years ago, and the amount of promotion they’re willing to do is down radically.  The rules have changed and it’s not clear if anybody knows what the new ones are.

Many new writers think that self-publishing ebooks is the road to wealth and fame – or at least to being self-supporting.  But in most cases, that’s wishful thinking.  I’ve talked with people who have self-published themselves into a comfortable income so, yes, it can be done.  But they all emphasized that they went into self-publishing with a detailed business plan and spent just as much time cannily and knowledgeably promoting their work as they did writing.  Nobody should go that route without a lot of prior research and planning.

Every now and then, I meet a writer who’s just published a first novel as an ebook and wants me to tell them how they can get readers to find it.  That’s just heartbreaking.

Not so long ago, SF authors had their work published in magazines, books from trade publishers, or books from smaller presses. Now we have all those, plus all kinds of self-publishing options, we have print on demand, web publishing, ebooks, audio books, and a far greater diversity of smaller independent presses (and larger ones!). So, where is your work getting published these days?

The easiest and most sensible approach is to go with whoever offers the most money.  This sounds crass, but in my experience the more money you’re paid, the better you’re treated.  Omni and Penthouse always treated me swell.  It was the small, virtuous, shoestring operations I had to keep an eye on.

For short fiction, I like the big three magazines – Asimov’s, F&SF, and Analog – because they’re still at the heart of the field and they get noticed, and if I lived in Britain, Interzone would probably go at the top of that list.  But more and more of late I’ve been sending work to  They pay well and their website is both consistently entertaining and convincingly professional.  Plus they commission terrific artwork.  When your story is illustrated by the likes of John Jude Palencar or Gregory Manchess, you’re happy for the rest of the week.

My last two novels were published by Night Shade Books (Dancing With Bears) and Tor (The Dragons of Babel).  They both created lovely books.

With this diversity of publishing approaches, is the business a better place for SF authors nowadays, or a worse one?

It’s easier to get published, and that’s always good for a new writer.  When your work first appears in a genuine magazine or book or a webzine you respect, you see it in a way you didn’t before.  Its virtues are more obvious than they were in typescript, and this gives you confidence, which a writer can always use.  Being in proximity with writers you admire promotes ambition, which is also essential.  Your story’s weaknesses are, alas, more obvious – to you, though not necessarily to the reader – but this only encourages you to become better.

On the negative side, there are many more intangibles that an unpublished writer can be convinced to spend a fortune on– editing, copyediting, promotion, all of which are properly the job of a publisher.  I sat in on a discussion of book trailers recently.  All the writers who had made them agreed that they didn’t appreciably increase sales – and then swapped tips on how to get them made.  It was just something one does nowadays, apparently.

If you’re a professional writer, money flows to you.  If money flows from you, you’re just another market.

If your work is appearing electronically, how is this done? (Self-publishing where you write, self-edit, design, do the covers, do the marketing, and do all the other publishing jobs; do you bring in collaborators to work on some of these specialist roles; or do you leave all that to the indie or large publishers you work with?)

All of that is done by my publishers.  I do have plans to create an ebook of Hope-in-the-Mist, my critical biography of Hope Mirrlees, when I can find the time, just so it will be easily available to scholars.  Because there’s no serious money in the project, I’ll have to do all the production work myself to keep costs down.  But my critical writing is a labor of love, almost but not quite a hobby, so my fiction writing takes precedence.

Do you write differently for different media? For example, if you believe that people read ebooks differently, have you adapted your writing style accordingly?

Writing is writing is writing.  I write as well as I possibly can and then I sell the results to the best available market.  That’s it.

The only real change I’ve made in recent years is consciously dividing my writing into serious work and what Graham Green called “entertainments.”   The Mongolian Wizard stories appearing on are a good example of the latter.   They’re very much in the tradition of Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos and Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy tales.  There’s an underlying seriousness, but their purpose is primarily to entertain. 

In today’s interconnected, social media-rich world, do you find that contact with readers is easier and more prevalent than in the past? How do you feel about this contact? Does it influence or feed your writing in any way?

I’ll admit to being surprised that my readers are pretty much the way the way I imagined them – smart, open-minded, willing to be challenged, happy to be entertained.  What were the odds?

Do you actively promote your work, and if so, how? How much of your time does it take up? Do you enjoy it, or is it a necessary evil?

The consensus of my editors is that I should promote myself, and so I do.  I have no idea whether it actually any good, so I try to make the promotions worth doing for their own sakes.  To promote Dancing With Bears, for example, I wrote a series of podcasts for Starship Sofa, in which the protagonists explain the ins and outs of running a confidence game.  Gregory Frost was magnificent as the British master con artist Darger and I got to play the bluff American dog-man Surplus.  That was enormous fun.

I put in about twenty minutes a weekday on my blog, which has turned out to serve well as the diary I never had the discipline to maintain.  Facebook is more of an indulgence than a promotional device; its chief result has been to build a rabid following for my wife’s breakfasts.

Any other comments on the state of publishing and how it affects writers?

The history of publishing has been one continual series of disasters spelling doom for writers:  Samuel Johnson destroyed the patronage system, and writers couldn’t make a living anymore.  Newspapers stopped serializing novels, and writers couldn’t make a living anymore.  Rental libraries went under, and writers couldn’t . . . The pulp magazines folded and writers . . .  Ebooks and internet piracy came along and . . .

And yet here we are.  Writers are as tough as rats.  We’ve always found a way to survive and we always will. 


And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  This weekend, I'll be in Boston for Boskone.  If you're going to be there, be sure to say hi.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

I would like to say, Mr. Swanwick, that I do enjoy your blogging. More over, for what its worth, I would never have heard of your darger and surplus novels had I not stumbled across your blog. As I enjoy them a great deal, it would have been a shame to miss them.
So, for whatever it's worth, your efforts for promotion are not in vain.