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Questions People Ask Authors
What’s the difference between an author and a writer?
A book. Writers become authors when their first book is published.
How does a book get written?
Every weekday, weekend day, holiday, and all the days on which the writer isn’t reduced to complete inactivity by illness or injury.
It means all day, each and every day. That’s not a “must”-statement, something that authors force themselves to obey: authors simply can’t help thinking about what they’re writing, no matter where they are, and no matter when they are wherever they are: driving to meet a friend, buying bread, or walking along a riverbank trying to idle down the ideas that are racing unbidden through all their other thoughts.
How can anyone do the same thing all day every day?
The only “doing” that’s the same every day is that most writers go to the same desk and chair that we sat in and worked at yesterday, and that the “working” is with the same computer, and the same pen, or the same kind of pen, each with a different color of ink. Today we revise some of the same pieces of paper we yesterday considered to be finished.
So the physical things with which we write and the physical locations where, with which, and at which, we write are usually the same not only day after day but year after year. We chose them deliberately so that we don’t have to think about them at all, but simply use them, as we work.
Writers, however, are not the same day after day, although we keep in mind the thread that connects each day’s work more closely with the work that preceded. Knowing that we’ll probably rewrite chunks of the pages or even entire pages that we wrote yesterday and the day before, no matter what, no matter when, we sometimes begin a day of work by picking up a fresh piece of paper and writing paragraphs we hadn’t thought about before (and they end up fitting in the very place where they were needed).
Writing is the work that fits us, pleases us, lets us wholly immerse ourselves in doing the thing that we understand and are deeply familiar with, for as long as we have the strength to do it. That’s playing, in the most serious sense of the word. The finished piece of work, this new thing, didn’t exist until we, in joy, found ourselves making it.
Who pays you a salary to do that?
There is no salary. Salaries are paid to people who have jobs. Being an author is
certainly doing a definite kind of work, but it also certainly is not having a job.
Then, who pays authors?
People who buy books pay authors. Readers may not know the complicated procedure through which they pay authors, but that writers get paid for their work is assured through the U.S. Constitution’s copyright clause, so important to the founders of this nation that they wrote it into Article I, as Section 8.
The procedure by which buyers pay authors works like this.
You buy a book from a seller; let’s say, from a bookstore. The bookstore has bought that book from the publisher at a discount, usually at 40 percent off the cover price (the price that the publisher stamps on (actually: just inside) the cover). You’d think that the seller then pockets the difference between the cover price and the discounted price. It’s not so simple.
The publisher itself had to mail or ship that book to that store, or, more probably, to arrange for a commercial shipping company to deliver it. Booksellers and publishers work that out between themselves in various ways, but the cost of shipping is paid for from only one source: the cover price. The publisher also incurs the costs of buying and using the physical plant through which the book is produced: the price of printing the book, of buying the paper, of having the book bound, of having it readably designed, of indeed having the whole of it designed so that you can’t resist picking it up when you first see it, and the editing of the book that the publisher’s own editors do, some of whom see the book safely through the entire process. All these costs are calculated as aspects of the cover price. Publishers see to it that their costs are repaid in full straight from the beginning.
All these people in the lengthy chain that publishing a book consists in are paid their money almost as soon as the goods they deliver or the services they render are received.
Now we come to how the author gets paid.
The author’s income from the book (her “royalty”) is also a standard percentage of the cover price. For the author, however, the operative words are “cover price of each copy sold.” New authors receive 10 percent for each of the first few thousand copies sold; 12.5 percent for the next several thousand copies sold; and 15 percent for all the rest of the (hardcover) copies sold. Other percentages of the cover price of other editions (publishers call them “subsidiary rights”) also bring income to publishers and authors: trade paperback rights, movie rights, audio rights, and several others. Bestselling authors receive much larger percentages for hardcover and subsidiary rights, and most of them also have very good agents who, collecting for themselves at least 15 percent of the author’s royalties, know how to bargain with publishers (who know that the agents know how to bargain).
Authors, however, don’t receive their earnings until a long time later. That’s an accurate statement, but only if you understand what counts as earnings.
Publishers know that authors need as much free time as possible (translation: “that authors not have to spend their productive time at a job”) so that they can write every day, and publishers also know that unpredictable and sometimes unavoidable things happen to authors while they’re writing a book, just as they happen to all other human beings. Because publishers want the best possible book the author can write and they want it as soon as possible, publishers give authors an “advance.” This sum of money, which the author receives in advance of future earnings, is actually a loan, only superficially interest-free. The publisher computes it by estimating the number of copies of the author’s book that the public will buy, multiplied by the author’s percentage of the cover price per copy.
As soon as the book is published and the public buys copies in quantities sufficient for the author to repay the advance, the author is said to “earn out” the advance. The author never sees these royalties except as figures in the semiannual statement of her account. Just as your bank holds your funds and supplies you with a monthly statement, so a publisher holds an author’s account and supplies her with a semiannual (sometimes only annual) statement.
So, the author is paid to write the book. Except that he or she automatically pays it back out of what the book earns; she has then “earned out” the advance.
The day on which the author earns out the last of the advance, and the day on which the author receives money that she can keep, are not the same day. The interval of time between (1) the day the author hands the completed manuscript to her or his publisher, and (2) the day that the author’s royalties earn out the last of the advance, can be as long as two years, usually much longer. So although the author pays no interest on the loan (in one sense), the publisher makes up for that seeming loss of interest by earning interest on the money from selling the book while the book is earning out the advance.
If the book sells heavily, the author knows that her income is guaranteed during that (at least) two-year interval until sales have matched advance. But if sales are light, the author must seek other sources of income so that she can write again.
Depending on the terms of the author’s contract, publishers pay authors semiannually, sometimes even only annually. So before the author sees money again that’s really hers—earnings from sales after the advance is repaid—at least another six months, more often nine, can be tacked onto the day that the author becomes even with the publisher. During all those months, the money for the book continues to come into the publishing house, letting the publisher pay its costs, or earn its profits, while the author waits for that first check that is truly hers in its entirety. Royalty checks are supposed to accompany the semiannual or annual royalty statement that publishers send to authors, but more often publishers mail it separately, as many weeks or months later as the tallying-up process takes.
That is how authors get paid.
So the patronage that Alice Koller is inviting from readers of her earlier books and anyone else will serve the same purpose that a publisher’s advance serves by freeing up her time to finish her book?
Right. But patronage also places into her hands at the very beginning the funds that she fully receives, thereby closing the gap that the two-year interval of paying back the advance otherwise opens up. Stability assured, she can immediately begin writing again, pursuing only the demands that the book itself makes as she finishes it.
Is this plan for patronage of her book a new idea in publishing?
Alice Koller’s patronage plan isn’t a new idea for publishing a book.
Much nineteenth-century publishing in the United States, especially after the Civil War, was financed in just the same way (it was then called “subscription publishing”). Potential buyers willing to pay in advance—“subscribe their names”—were solicited by the publisher’s sales force in return for a copy of a book not yet written. They more willingly did so when the author was famous for other reasons.
Ulysses S. Grant, for example, wrote his memoirs under a subscription arrangement because the American people, for whom he had served as General of all the Union armies and who had twice elected him President (1869–1877), knew that he could and would write what eventually became two volumes, even though throat cancer was scourging him.
Grant also had on his side Mark Twain, who had only recently become his own publisher. Clemens was outraged that the federal government hadn’t provided adequately for the president–general’s retirement, and he sent his book agents around the country, ferocious in his demands for subscribers. He accumulated funds sufficient not only to guarantee that the printing of the book would be paid for in advance but that Grant’s life would be comfortably sustained to the very end. Americans poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Clemens’s agents’ hands, and most of it (except the sum needed for the printing) went to the General. His family and his medical care thus secured, Grant completed the memoirs during his final two years.
No Mark Twain on Alice Koller’s side.
But neither is she ill. She is indeed almost as lithe as a performing dancer.
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