Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Price Of Putting Monetary Value On Your Creative Work

This is one of those things I probably shouldn't talk about, which means OF COURSE I can't stay away from the topic. This is kind of how I write, too. Is it unmarketable? Weird? Genre-bending? Sure! That's what I'll write!

Since having sold TRANSPARENT, there have been a few things about being a future published writer that have thrown me for a loop. One of those things was the mental/emotional impact of having a price tag put on my creative work.

Now, I know that every writer dreams of being paid for their words. I certainly dreamed of it! To have someone care enough about your work to publish and pay you for it? Very cool. Surreal. All that stuff. I'm not saying it's this awful thing, just that it has had more of an impact on me than I ever thought it would.

I'm going to get a little honest here, only because I feel like it would help people understand more how it feels. I really don't like talking about this because it probably comes off ungrateful, but I do want to give you the reality of things.

So, the truth: I have a lot of friends who have sold novels or who are published. And of those I know well enough to know numbers, I got one of the smallest advances. BUT, on the other hand, I got an advance. I'm very well aware that most small publishers or those who are self-published don't get such a luxury, even when that luxury is on the modest side. I also have friends who put money into their work and are still waiting to break even. In the end, I feel like I'm kind of in the middle of the spectrum, and right now I am happy with it all.

Except I wasn't always happy, if I'm being honest.

Because something weird happens when you first get your deal—all of the sudden you are hyper-aware of everyone else's deals. And you know what? In my case a lot of those deals where more "noteworthy" than mine. In some other cases, I imagine writers notice that their deal is getting more attention than they ever imagined. Sometimes, I bet a deal is just glanced over as another on the list.

The comparing begins in a new and horrible way.

You start to read into everything. This writer got three books, that one only one, that one sold in a significant deal, that one sold world rights, that one retained rights, that one got their deal announced in the bigger outlets, etc. and so forth.

The money makes things...weird. In our culture, we're so used to seeing price as equivalent to value. An expensive car costs more because it is nicer—it has more features and luxury than a less expensive car. A nicer piece of clothing costs more because the fabric is finer, the stitching is better, it is more tailored, etc. A more expensive restaurant has better food, rarer ingredients, more seasoned chefs, better service, and on and on. So logic would follow that a novel bought for a million-dollar advance is better than a novel bought for a fifteen thousand-dollar advance, right?

Okay, so we know that's not necessarily true (because art is art and value is not often equivalent to price), but this can be what it feels like at first. You can't help but ask:


Why is my book only worth this much, when that one is worth ten times more?

Why is that author getting so much marketing, when I'm getting half that?

Why does that book get co-op, and not this one?

Why why why? (Hint: There aren't any real answers. At least not satisfying ones.)

All those whys can lead to some pretty disconcerting realities AND illusions. It's easy to feel like maybe your work isn't as good as someone else's, or maybe that your publisher doesn't value you as much as they do another person. It can start to feel like the work you care so much about and put so much time into has been predetermined to fail before you even get started. And you start to associate that number with the value of your book, with its projected success, and maybe even your worth as a person.

Then there's the flip side, which can be equally as scary, though I think people tend to down play it. Say you DO get a big advance—that means you have an incredible amount of pressure on you. And in some cases a huge amount of what I will call "survivor's guilt." I have seen this pressure on friends. They ask themselves why they got so lucky when another's work they adore isn't seeing success. They worry people will say, "They paid HOW MUCH for this?" Because seriously, how can you live up to such high expectations at times? Add to that the pressure of wondering if they will ever earn out their advance. Yeah, those advances might look pretty, but the truth is some authors don't earn out, and that will be viewed as a bad investment. And those who do earn out? It takes years. Years of hoping and worrying and pressure that affects the way they write and live. Not to mention not seeing a single bit of royalty in all that time.

And to the small or self-publishers, there is still this pressure and worry about value. More than that, I've seen my self-published friends stress over how much to sell for, if they could be making more money if they only tried harder. It's all in their control—why can't they make it happen? What are they doing wrong? Nothing, of course. But the doubts are there. Doubts seems to follow every writer I know.

But the truth is, if you got an advance, your publisher took a risk on you. Heck, even if you didn't get an advance. And that intrinsically implies that they believe in your book and are realistically invested. They want to make a profit—no matter the book. And publishers don't buy books they don't believe in. Trust me. They go through so many steps to acquire a novel, it's crazy to think they don't care about it just because of the monetary aspect.

The money? Let's be real about it. It reflects a lot of things, but artistic value is not one of them. You can't really put a monetary value on a piece of art. Yes, if you get an advance, it does represent a publisher's estimation of how much they hope your book will sell. It can be a measure of how marketable your book may be. But it's all guess work. And on top of that, in most cases it's a very modest number because they WANT to make back their money and then some. Unless they have to pull out the big numbers to get a book (as in a pre-empt or auction), the offers will be average and safe and sure bets. There is nothing wrong with that. It's a good thing for you to be able to make back your advance.

So I will fully admit to getting a little caught up in the comparison battle earlier this year, and it was just awful. I felt like a horrible human being for being so petty, and I felt like a horrible writer for no reason. For awhile, I did let the money get to me, and I'm glad that I've pulled out of that because it's not a fun place to be. Because you want to be grateful and you know you're lucky and yet there's this ugly place deep inside that doesn't feel that way at all.

Well, what got me out of that was finding the value in my own work again—regardless of the money. When I was a noob, I used to say all the time that I wouldn't care about the money. That I'd be happy with anything as long as I got to share my work. It was...humbling to find myself a liar when things came down to it. I've had to do a lot of soul searching to understand my reactions and to discover how to change them.

The more I search, the more I learn that getting back to the basics always helps me. Writing what I love, regardless of market or money or genre. Improving what I write the best I can. Loving what I write and where I'm at. Treating it all like a journey with friends instead of a competition. Writing for the sake of writing. Sharing with joy instead of dread. All that good, pure stuff.

The money doesn't have to mess with you. It might be hard to get past at first, but it's possible and so much better when you do. Your work is valuable and worthwhile, no matter what the price tag ends up being.


  1. Very interesting post, Natalie, thank you for your honesty.

  2. You write the most amazing posts, Natalie!

    I've always said that I would never want a BIG DEAL because the pressure would be too much and I would collapse beneath it. But who knows how I would react if I did sell and it was only a small advance? Something tells me I might not take it that well. We're human and we have human reactions.

    As always, thanks for the honesty!

  3. I hear you. Being a teacher really helped me in not setting a monetary value on the work that I do:)


  4. I have this theory. Not all amazing art, is ever appreciated. One of my all time favorite shows, Chuck, never got the money. The majority of the population, for some reason doesn't like it. But, it's still the BEST. So, even though yours might no get the money, it can still be the BEST.

    Thanks for your usual honesty. ;0)

  5. Thanks for the honesty. We're all human and have good and bad feelings so don't feel bad for yours. I do think about the pressure if you get a big advance. Because to be honest, I'd feel terrible if someone lost money on my book. I'd rather have a smaller advance.

  6. This was an honest and heartfelt post. Thank you for sharing your experiences, it was really helpful.

    Something I see writers gloss over is the power of the back list in today's e-book and Amazon stocked world. I've talked to several established authors who now earn significant monthly income on their back list from discovery on their current titles.

    Thee years ago, their back lists did not make hardly any money compared to today.

    As a reader I follow this trend. I read one of Amanda Hawking's books and immediately went out and bought every ebook she had ever written. There are sometimes where I will do the same for printed books through Amazon (which will order the book if it is out of stock), but that is happening less and less because my Kindle is so much the awesome.

    I think the ebook trend is going to remove a lot of emphasis from advances to royalties.

    Sorry, will stop babbling now. This is a fascinating topic.

    I can't wait to read TRANSPARENT!

  7. Natalie, you are so good at bringing these topics that people shy away from into the light. You're right, nearly every writer I know suffers some kind of guilt. And I know when I sell my novel I will have whatever version coincides with the amount of the advance (or lack thereof). I'm so grateful you're mentioning something here that we all feel odd discussing. And, for what it's worth, it's pertinent to remember that some great books---John Green's "Looking for Alaska" among them---got very small advances and went on to greatness.

  8. I love your posts, Natalie. They're so honest it's impossible not to get something out of them.

    It's definitely weird once there's money involved. One thing I wasn't prepared for was how many people on the outside of everything have these ideas about how much "all" books sell for.

    They think book deal = insta-millions + fame and all the rest, and if you tell them otherwise, you're lying or a snob or a lying snob.

  9. Thanks, as always, for throwing it out there. It's always nice to know there are little corners of honesty out there on the interwebz.

  10. Great post. I also reread this today:

    It's a good one, too.

  11. THIS. A million times THIS.

    Natalie, somehow you always manage to say what everyone is thinking, or needs to hear. Thank you for putting it into such eloquent words.

  12. I signed with a small publisher and got a very small advance. I grumbled a bit to myself about it at first, but then I realized that it doesn't really mean anything because it's an ADVANCE ON ROYALTIES. In other words, as you pointed out, the bigger the advance, the longer until you got any royalty checks. A smaller advance is not less money. It's just a distribution of the money. That's it.

    It's hard not to compare things, though, but (again, as you pointed out), there isn't any meaning to be found.

    Good post!

  13. Really wonderful post. I am certain you are not the only writer to experience these feelings. I really admire your candor and as usual you inspire me. I hope you earn out your advance a thousand fold and more!

  14. I really love your honesty and your willingness to expose how human you are to the rest of us. I'm a long way from writing for publication but I can really relate to how you felt.

    Oh, and I don't think I ever said, "Congratulations! It couldn't have happened to a nicer person!" so I'll say that now.

  15. I also really appreciate your honesty here - I think it's a great post. I've tried extremely hard not to think about that gremlin sitting just out of sight on my shoulder back there, but I know he's there waiting.

    4,700 words in to my first draft, I'll let him skulk about a bit longer before I worry about him too much, but it's been a useful reminder to be forewarned about him!

  16. There's a saying that I like, "Comparison is the thief of joy." It's completely true, especially in the world of writers and varying deals. Once again, I appreciate your candor.

  17. I think John Green received an advance of about $8,000 for Looking for Alaska, if I remember correctly. He did a whole post on big advances and royalties and all that fun publishing stuff some time ago. It's okay to start out small, and slowly build your way up to the big bucks. I'd rather have it that way than the other, er, way around. I'm not sure I'll ever get paid to write at all. Eh, I pay myself in chocolate anyway.

  18. First time here and I like the simplicity of your page/blog design.

    Thanks for sharing your story and congratulations on receiving your advance, big or small.

  19. Great post, Natalie. You know how true it is, the grass always looks least until you get up close and see it still needs to be cut, and fertilized, and it will still make you sneeze (at least if you're me). ;-)

  20. Thank you for this wonderful post. As always, your honest and forthrightness is SO amazing and SO appreciated. As Kristan said, you say what everyone else is thinking (or afraid to say) with such eloquence. THANK YOU! And thanks too for the glimpse of what it's *really* like :)

  21. It surprised me too all the things that I wasn't expecting that smacked me upside the head. And you're not done yet. Wait till the book comes out. Sheesh.