In a culture that lets it all hang out from facebooks to soul-baring talk shows to tell-all biographies, unless you hold a job where public salary reports are mandated by law, the one thing most people still keep private is how much money they actually bring home.
In this respect, writers are no different from secretaries or teachers or your next-door neighbor. Publishers Weekly, the industry’s source for news and current trends, may headline “Blockbuster Thriller Author Signs 7-Figure Deal,” but what are the 7 figures? One million or nine million? How many books are involved? Three or ten? What rights has the author given up in that deal? All media rights? Worldwide rights? The rights to the author’s first-born child?
No one tells.
A few years ago, the Mystery Writers of America took a poll of its professionally published members. Guaranteeing complete anonymity, they were asked how much their works had earned in the previous year. When the figures were tallied, the average writer made about $5,000. And this in a year that one member had signed a $14M contract!
Writers may have a huge need to write, but they also have a huge need to eat, to pay for housing, and to clothe themselves and their children, which is why so many of us keep our day jobs or have spouses who punch a time clock to provide medical insurance and mortgage payments. This is also why many fine writers eventually unplug their computers and decide to get a “real” job, leaving their readers anguished because there will be no more books about a favorite character.
What many fans don’t understand is that the only thing that counts toward a writer’s income is the sale of new books. Neither the publisher nor the writer gets a single penny from the sale of used books. This is why we have trouble smiling when an enthusiastic reader describes an awesome website he’s discovered where he can swap used books with other enthusiasts “and all it costs is postage!”
No writer wants to abolish the sale of used books—I myself often direct my readers to a used book site when they can’t find an out-of-print title to complete their collection— and we know that not everyone can afford to buy new hardbacks. On the other hand, as a fellow writer said last year, “I’ve had fans who’ll come to my readings wearing designer shoes and carrying a Saks bag and they think I'll be delighted to sign their collection of used books . . . as if there's no connection between the sale of new books and whether I can afford to buy shoes myself.”
So, if you want your favorite authors to keep writing the books you like to read, pass up that next double latte, extra foam, and spring for a new paperback or the occasional hardback.