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How to Speak Publisher – D is for Day Job

27 September 2011

From Stroppy Author, a children’s writer in Cambridge (the original one in England, not the Johnny-come-lately in Massachusetts).

Passive Guy is sure most of you know what Stroppy means, but just in case: Easily offended or annoyed; ill-tempered or belligerent.

Many publishers assume writers have a so-called ‘day job’. It helps them excuse (to themselves) the pitiful  fees or advances they offer most writers; it’s all OK, writers are doing something else for money. ‘Don’t give up the day job!’ they say nervously, or with a laugh, when telling you the scandalously low offer. Now look here, publishers. Writing IS my day job. Just as editing is yours. That’s why you want to commission me – because I’m a professional. So cut this crap about a day job.

. . . .

There is something of a distinction to be made here between fiction and non-fiction writing, especially for children. It’s easy for the publisher to think to themselves, ‘Ah, she likes writing these stories, so she will want to do them anyway. Getting some money is a bonus.’ (Crap, by the way – you want it, you pay for it.) They are less likely to think someone might spend their leisure time writing trade books about earthquakes, or fast cars, or textbooks about bacteria. But publishers still don’t necessarily pay properly for these, especially the text book. After all, some text books are written by teachers, aren’t they? And teachers have a day job so they don’t need much money. Crap again – you want their time, you pay for it.

Some children’s non-fiction is written for a flat fee. The fee should obviously reflect the amount of time the writer is expected to put in. So if you are offered a fee of £1500 for 48 pages (which used to be typical, but it’s fallen over the last five years and you might be offered only £1200), you need to know how long you can afford to work for that money. We could get into lots of complicated stuff about finance here, but all I will say is that you must remember the £1500 is not your income but your turnover. It has to cover expenses such as computer costs and heating your house during the day while you work in it. It has to cover non-earning time such as the time you spend answering emails, chasing late payments and putting together proposals for books that are never sold to a publisher. So they’re not going to get three weeks, are they? This is when they might mention the ‘day job’. Hey, publishers: I will not work for virtually nothing so that your publishing company can make money on what they will otherwise claim is not a viable book. Is the editor working for less than the going rate? Or less than they were paid ten years ago? No. Are you paying less than the going rate for your electricity? No. What will happen if I go to Waitrose and ask if I can have my food for less this week because my overheads have risen? What do you think?

. . . .

Isn’t it rather odd that publishers consider the people who produce the main component of their product to be doing something else most of the time? Isn’t it rather dodgy to build a multi-million dollar industry on a bunch of people whose attention is usually somewhere else? And is there any other industry that is so dismissive of its suppliers?

Link to the rest at Stroppy Author’s guide to publishing via Elizabeth Spann Craig whose eyes are everywhere.

During the course of publishing The Passive Voice, PG has learned that stroppiness is a professional requirement for most romance writers. Now he learns that children’s writers must also be stroppy. Perhaps an author’s motto must be: Semper Stroppinius.

Reading this has definitely made PG stroppier, so he’s in perfect mood to review a book contract.

Books in General, Non-US

14 Comments to “How to Speak Publisher – D is for Day Job”

  1. Funny. I’d think stroppiness would be a requirement of being an independent contractor who has to set their own worth for payment.

    Okay, I’ll stop making lame jokes now.

    • Anybody who gets kicked around needs a deep reserve of stroppiness.

      • You are not kidding, PG. Anyone writing romance has been kicked around by as many well-meaning acquaintances as they have been by publishers. It’s so odd that our society spends so much money purchasing books about love and sex, but denigrates both. If romance wasn’t valuable, we wouldn’t be voting it up with our wallets.

        And to Carradee’s comment, you are quite correct about contractors. My other day job is as a contracted resource in IT. You would think I would know better than to choose two full time vocations which require intense stroppiness, wouldn’t you? No, that would just make life too easy. Life is filled to the brim with stroppiness as the contracting pendulum swings between client’s who scream at you while throwing you under the bus or clients who are kind and amenable but can only afford minimum wage because of the recession and the “going rate” is far less than what it used to be. I chose door #3 (a nice client, a fair wage, with enough time to do the other day job without losing all sleep). It’s a balancing act, but self-publishing and stroppiness have both helped. 🙂

  2. You’re right, stroppiness is a requirement for romance writers. We’re actually very nice women, for the most part (well, I’m not, but I’m an exception), but so many publishers still are living in the dark ages and believing romance writers are slightly daffy, easily taken advange of housewives who would be thrilled to supplement the household income with their little hobby. Which makes me wonder why I’d consider turning my work over to an entity that is still operating in a 1950s time warp.

    • Kat – I hadn’t thought about romance writers living in the world of Mad Men, but it makes perfect sense.

  3. Strop on! Great article, PG, thanks for the link and commentary. 🙂

    Kris Rusch rants in her post from last week ( http://kriswrites.com/2011/09/21/the-business-rusch-professional-writers/ ) about BESTSELLING authors who are being asked by their publisher to write digital short pieces (or even novels) that will be ‘loss-leaders’ for the publishers. Therefore the author is the one taking the loss – in the form of no advance and a bad royalty rate. I’m sure the editors are not being asked to work for less on the project, or the cover designers, or, well, the list goes on. It’s the same exact issue. Argh!

  4. PG, I thought you were referring to me with the stroppy romance writers comment. And Kat’s right, we get dumped on & not just by the publishers. We get to hear all about how inferior our writing is, how formulaic it is, and “ick, who wants to read all about that nasty emotion stuff?” Not to mention being accused of ruining marriages and making women sin. So some of us–and by some of us, I mean me–get kind of defensive. Sorry if I singed your eyebrows. Or maybe this has nothing to do with my comment & it’s just my giant ego fooling me. 😉

  5. Long life and good health to stroppy romance writers!

    So you know you’re not not the only genre with difficulties, a couple of years ago, I heard a quite popular late-thirties fantasy author admit that his mother thought his writing was pretty silly and not quite the thing a grown-up should do.

  6. I’m all for publishers paying a fair price for books, although the “I deserve to be paid a living wage cuz plumbers and teachers and everybody else does” argument from artists is a pet peeve of mine. Nobody’s entitled to making a living wage from their art (or for any non artistic endeavors they do, for that matter). That’s up to the free market — supply vs. demand. The main reason publishers can get away with low wages for authors is because there’s so many writers on the sidelines willing to step in for low wages if current writers walk away. And it’s not limited to traditional publishing. You see it in the indie market too, with the race to the bottom in pricing.

    Which is not to say I don’t think authors should get paid. Yes, be smart and savvy about your business, don’t charge less than what you’re worth. Optimize your income. But don’t go around thinking that your salary is determined by how much you money you need, rather than how much people are willing to pay for your skills.

    *end rant* (Hehe, this is obviously something I’ve been keeping bottled up)

    • Supply and demand always manifest themselves in both obvious and surprising ways, Livia.

      The biggest change now is that self-publishing will accept all the supply available. KDP never sends out rejection slips (except for certain genres – don’t jump all over me, certain genre writers), so whatever any author wants to put out will become a book for sale.

      • Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how prices settle for that. I wonder if the average indie ebook price will continue dropping, or if the more successful indies will start raising their prices.

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