This is such a loaded question. Whenever somebody asks me this, I don’t really know how to respond because I’m not sure what they are really asking or what it is they really want to know. Are they just making idle chit chat and don’t care one way or the other what the answer is? Are they asking if I’m making a living–i.e. is this my job instead of a hobby? Are they asking if some authority figure (i.e. a big NY publisher) deemed me “worthy enough” to have my words see the light of day? i.e. are they asking about prestige? Are they trying to figure out if I’m a “big deal”?
[Publetariat Editor’s note: strong language after the jump]
I have no idea. Because a lot of non-publishing/non-author people have a lot of serious misconceptions about the publishing world. And even many of us IN the publishing world, have some pretty big misconceptions at times, so how can the general public be blamed, when the ignorance spreads so far and wide? (And by ignorance I mean a simple lack of knowing something, not an insult.)
It’s also impossible to know what assumptions somebody is starting out with. In the general public there seem to be two very opposite views about authors in reference to making money. Either they think it’s nearly “impossible” to make a living doing this and that only a lucky handful of authors ever can or do. Or they think just being published period means you’re raking in the big bucks. Neither situation is really true.
Those that assume “having a publisher” means you are “making the big bucks”, don’t grasp the economics of publishing. For many published authors only doing a book a year and living somewhere on the midlist, you’re talking maybe a $5,000 to $10,000 book advance. A lot of books don’t make the author more money than the advance. Some do. But a lot don’t. There are foreign and audio and other rights that might also make an author more money, so it’s not “just” the advance. But in general, few authors, unless they are bestsellers are making a living writing one book a year.
And yet… a vast majority of writers have been trained into this mode of thinking where 1 book a year is a lot of pressure and oh my God it’s just SO much work… and so anybody stuck at that level who doesn’t really “break out”, is unlikely to be making a living.
It’s hard to make a living as an indie at that publishing rate as well, but the money, for most authors isn’t “great” in traditional publishing. And that was one of the big motivators for me going indie. When I found out that most NY pubbed authors aren’t making a living from their fiction, I decided I wasn’t interested in going that route. The only reason for me to fight and claw for something like that is if it would end in a career making career-level money just doing that. If I wasn’t going to make a living, I wasn’t letting anybody else control any aspect of my work, period.
Which is what a lot of “regular people” (meaning people not in this business), don’t understand. If they didn’t understand publishing before, they don’t understand the new shift in publishing now, for the most part. (There are, of course, exceptions. Some people read author blogs for their favorite authors and know a bit more about it than the average man on the street.)
Given the very slow publishing schedules in mainstream publishing and the fact that there is a limit to how many books a publisher wants from any given midlist author in a year, the money odds for “most” of us who are not famous or breakout bestsellers… is in the indie side of things, because we can publish on a faster timetable, while still keeping the quality up. Remember, a lot of us aren’t buying into these myths that were sold for so many years inside the mainstream system of publishing.
Also, those of us labeled “prolific”, don’t necessarily have shorter creative cycles, we just have more of them going on at once. At any given time I have several books in various stages of production… one in planning, one in rough draft, one in editing/with betas, one with the copyeditor. I don’t always have irons in all those fires at once, but just about, which is why sometimes my publishing schedule is like boom. boom. boom.
We also can make a lot more per book sold, which means fewer copies needed to make decent money. So making a living becomes somewhat more probable, depending on work ethic and of course on how your audience responds to the work you give them and if it’s compelling enough for word of mouth to go to work. Every author, depending on popularity, needs a different number of titles to make and maintain a living doing this, whether they are trad pubbed or indie.
They say the best way to market your work is to write another book. The reason is that word of mouth is king in book publishing. Sometimes other forms of marketing and promo can get the ball rolling or help to get a book back in people’s minds again, but it’s got to grip people enough that they talk about it or all the advertising in the world won’t do any good. (A lot of people complain about how their publishers won’t market them, and they are expected to do all that themselves, but given that it’s nearly impossible to know what the public will “go for” in a big way, most advertising on any author who isn’t already a proven quantity is a big financial risk. It might not seem fair, but it’s just business.)
So that brings me back to “Are You Published?” and how to answer that question. I usually just say yes because frankly any other answer is going to lead into a long boring conversation (like this one) that they probably don’t care about anyway. Then I’ve gone from “mystique” to making their eyes glaze over. Why have a conversation that’s going to make me less cool by the end of it?
It’s akin to the other question that drives me batshit: “How’s your book coming?” WHICH ONE? Often this is a question some ask me every time they see me. If I don’t see them for 6 months I wonder if they think I’m still working on the same book. In 6 months a LOT has happened in my publishing world and the book they’re talking about is probably in my rear view by that point.
So when someone asks: Are you Published? I say yes. I have books out. I’m making a living. This is my job/career. If they care about prestige and authority figures over actual results, then I honestly don’t care if they think I’m a liar.
And when someone asks: “How’s your book coming?” I just say fine.
I assume both questions are just small talk and the questioner probably doesn’t really care anyway. I can tell there are times when the person IS really genuinely interested in my job, and when that happens I give them more than a flip monosyllabic answer, but most times Yes, and Fine, suffice and it saves me a lot of explaining and frustration.