Wondering what Money Can (and Can’t) Do
It’s a subject that’s been weighing on my mind lately. And I’m not going to pretend like I’ve arrived at any kind of solution or have any kind of authority here.
Still, I believe it’s worth mentioning out loud, because the one thing I do know is that this actually affects real authors everywhere. And though I might regret it, I have to ask:
What role should money play in starting a career as an author?
Because there is this image of the rags-to-riches writer. Someone who was living absence-of-paycheck to absence-of-paycheck, only to suddenly write a bestselling book. And BAM!
Suddenly, they’re packing up the family in their double-clutch 1921 Oldsmobile 43-A touring car, with Grandma’s rocking chair strapped on top, right next to the bloodhound. They’re moving to a better life, with swimming pools and movie stars.
And it’s such a lovely image, and so noteworthy when it actually happens, that it’s kind of easy to ignore the glaring problem with this fantasy.
Namely, that it isn’t how things have actually worked, historically.
Publication as a Playground for the Wealthy
When examining the long pedigree of publication, it’s easy to observe that, for every famous writer who started from nothing, there are at least ten famous writers who already were wealthy. These are often the scions of some distinguished family, living off their inheritance and, in a startling number of cases, given to bouts of wild hedonism.
And it makes sense. For most of history, the only people who had the necessary idle time to sit down and write a book were the extraordinarily endowed (I mean in the literal sense, not in the way you were thinking of). The literary landscape of history is ruled over by the educated, the landed, the trust fund babies who grew up to become great thinkers and philosophers, simply because they weren’t constantly worrying about how to stay out of debtors’ prison.
And I’m not convinced that the trend has been bucked, now or ever. In the publishing world, as in the rest of the world, money still talks. And the question I’ve been wrestling with is “should it”?
Because the ones that start with nothing should certainly not be barred from entering the space. The last thing we need is a kind of aristocracy enforcing a dress code on the world of publication.
Yet I’m not convinced that the educated and landed have nothing to offer. Some of our greatest literary works have come from pampered socialites and tenured professors. Who are we to bar the next Fitzgerald, the next Shelley, or the next Tolkien from shaking the foundations of the art form?
The Question Hits Home
And these ruminations are particularly poignant to me, since I am myself a man of means. I am college educated with a money-making degree, have steady employment, and resources enough to perhaps tip the scale in my favor.
For example, I’m not interested in self-publication, but if I was, then I could give myself a budget that most self-published authors would covet—even one that they might despair of ever achieving.
I may not be a millionaire, but I am comfortable. And I constantly wonder what more I could do to get my book out there, since I know it deserves to see the light of day. If I knew a way to leverage my resources to achieve publication, would it be right to seize that opportunity?
That’s what I’ve been asking myself. And it’s still something I can’t answer.
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11 thoughts on “Wondering what Money Can (and Can’t) Do”
The one thing all the more fortunately favored have aside from means is Connections… Ever wonder how those bad CGI blockbusters and ass-backward digital systems you have to tear your hair over at work got approved? People with means who know other people with means (or not so much means as the ability to revel in the selective power that comes from Knowing The Right People) It works the other way of course, but God save us from a literary scene where everybody’s broke and starving but very, very sincere. I’m also comfortable enough where I can tell an agency with a user-hostile query process or an inquisitional editorial bent to go soak themselves in the Red Sea, and I wouldn’t be caught dead self-pubbing. Just to be on the safe side, though, I stopped using my actual name on my submitted material a couple of years ago in case somebody whose pretensions I played badminton with on Publishers Weekly might end up reading my stuff. Things like Connections often work roll backwards, too. All part of the video game, y’know?
Why the Red Sea?
I know that the overall content of your comment is more important than that one detail, but you’ve got me madly curious now.
I think he’s referencing the old testament, where the armies of Pharaoh were drown in the Red Sea… although, the metaphor didn’t really ring true for me either. Better luck next time, Kevin.
As an aside, I love a good soak in the Red Sea. I was there back in 2008 with some buddies on a scuba diving trip. Awesome coral reefs. The banner of my twitter account is a picture I took on that trip.
And, by the way, user-hostile querying processes are sometimes placed as filters to screen would-be clients who are too lazy to put up with the BS. One querying strategy would be to target agencies with difficult submission portals, as the competition for their attention would be less than other places. Just saying.
The Red Sea is where (apocryphal lore here) King Solomon threw a bunch of djinns (if you’re hearing the Muslim side) or demons (Judeo-Christian) he’d either gotten to build the Temple for him or got in the way of those that did. Seems like a better place to throw a flaky gatekeeper than the much over-used lake. And I see user-hostile query processes as an admission that an agent doesn’t know how to tell a good query from bad, as well as a sign a lot of writers don’t know how to write one. And who got overloaded at Starbucks and came up with the idea of trying to offer an agent cash incentives?! That’s what their commission is for, and if that isn’t enough to lure them, it’s because they’re making bank on their list and have to use a snow blower to get all the loose cash out of the way in order to hit the donut tray. In which case, Go elsewhere, young man… (If you’re an attractive female reading heartfelt poetry online this advice probably doesn’t apply to you, so on to the cover of People or wherever…
I once saw a query form for a lit agency that required details about the marketing strategy. At the time I didn’t have a strategy, so I was screwed. That’s about as “user-hostile” as I’ve come across. But I don’t take things like that as a sign of incompetence on the part of the agents.
If you’re an agent, why not ask about the marketing strategy? Is it unrealistic to expect authors to premeditate their own book sales?
Now all my works in progress have premeditated marketing strategies. Before I even begin a book I ask: how would I go about selling this?
And to be clear, I’m not an advocate for bribing agents, officially. But if you’re an agent who can sell and you’re reading this… call me.
I actually didn’t know that part of the story. Thanks.
How to use money to break into the publishing industry:
1. Offer an agent extra financial incentives to sell your book, rather than trying to woo them the old fashion way. Tell them that in addition to all of their expected agent’s dues, you will pay x amount of $$$ if they can broker a publishing contract. For the sake of argument, lets say you could buy a decent agent for $30,000. Agents too are often hard up for cash. Who isn’t? I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that this is actually doable.
2. After you get published, go to the book sellers and say that you will pay them an additional x% of the sale price of your book for every copy they sell, up to x number of copies. I’m told that 3,000 copies in the first year is extremely good for a first time author. So… that would only set you back an extra $6,000-8,000.
Ergo, for under $40,000 you could probably buy your way into the publishing biz, without having to self publish… if you’re already a good writer.
I’m afraid that agents cannot take more than the standard industry rates. Agents who ask for a reading fee, or any form of payment, are always scam artists, and no legitimate agent wants to be branded a scam artist. Even if an author were to offer extra payment under the table, the risk would be so great that no legitimate agent would accept the offer, and they may even warn other agents against working with that author.
Believe me, if it were feasible to get my book published with a $40,000 bribe, I would already be in every bookstore in the world. But publishers and agents don’t want to play that way, and, honestly, neither do I.
That isn’t to say that a high-net-worth individual can’t find alternative ways through the system. Merely that paying people off doesn’t work.
You seem convinced, but I’m not so sure that this sort of thing doesn’t happen. If it does, nobody talks about it.
And to be clear, I’m not advocating this approach, but before you’d even be in a position to bribe an agent, or an editor, you’d probably need to know them first. There is a big difference between taking a bribe from a total stranger, and accepting a gift from an acquaintance.
Now that I think about it, if you have money perhaps the best way to leverage it would be to move to Manhattan, where you could surround yourself with people in the publishing industry, and network through agencies and publishing houses. A little change in geography could work wonders for your writing career.
Join a Manhattan writers group, and volunteer your time in order to climb the hierarchy of that group. Attend Manhattan pitch parties to get to know people face to face. Solicit the attention of agents by offering to buy them meals, and drinks, and a chance to pick their brains. Figure out which ones are open to a little massaging, and which ones aren’t.
Because, let’s face it, solely being a good writer isn’t enough to make it in today’s market. You have to bring a little extra something with you to the table.
Looking at a regional map of published authors (and particularly the most successful authors), you quickly find holes in the idea that living in Manhattan increases your odds of publication.
In fact, Utah is actually a pretty good place to be for successful SFF authors.
You have a regional map of where published SFF authors live? Really? Who produced this map? How old is it? And how does Utah rank among other states for successful SFF authors per capita?
Alan, I love Utah as much as you do. But let’s be realistic about what Utah has to offer, and what it doesn’t.
Unless you have an actual map that shows how abundantly productive Utah is in the literary world, it is probable that you are just biased towards your home state. By all means, be proud of where you come from, but don’t let a bias like that blind you to the fact that there might be greener pastures elsewhere.
I don’t doubt that Utah is a good place to be for “successful” authors, as you say. How good is Utah for aspiring authors? Just because other people from Utah have been able to break into the publishing scene, doesn’t mean that you will be able to… no matter how good of a writer you are. There are lots of different factors that go into making a successful author.
Thanks to the internet, geography isn’t as important as it used to be, but it still is important. I know that you could become a successful author from your comfortable surroundings in Utah, eventually. But is that setting the best, quickest, or easiest, place to realize your ambitions? If you can say, yes, it is, then I won’t disagree with you. But I can’t help but wonder if you’ve thought it through.
This was a blog post about money. One positive thing money can do for you is make you mobile. If you have the means to be in the right place at the right time, don’t squander it.