Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: The Price of a Novel (It's Not What You Think!)

Quick bookkeeping note: Nice Dragons Finish Last is still on sale for $0.99, and the sequel, One Good Dragon Deserves Another is still available for pre-order. This is where the books live! Get you one!

So I normally like to keep these WW features focused on the craft of writing, but an event happened this last week that really got my writing goat, and thus this post was spawned. I hope you enjoy it!

Writing Wednesdays: The Price of a Novel (It's Not What You Think!)

The other day I was at a social event, talking to the parents of some of my son's friends (as you do), and it came up that I was a writer. This is still a pretty new thing for me. Even after five years as a full time author, I still find it hard to say "I am a writer" in mixed company without feeling like a poser, but I'm slowly getting better.

Anyway, after the usual "What do you write? Why haven't I heard of you? I've always wanted to be a writer!" back and forth, it comes out that I self-published my last novel, and this one lady asks me how much it costs to put out a professional quality self-pub book.

Now, as you've probably noticed, I don't mind talking money at all when it comes to my business! I feel that giving people real world numbers for the costs and benefits of writing is the most effective way to take power away from those who try to dupe new writers and take advantage of their dreams. I've actually broken down my costs for publishing Nice Dragons Finish Last on the blog before, so I was able to proudly tell this lady that it cost me about $3000.

She gets this shell-shocked look on her face. "Three thousand dollars?"

I explain how that includes hiring editors and copy editors and commissioning custom art for the cover. I also tell her how I was able to save money since, as a former graphic designer myself, I could do the design work for the cover and the ebook interior on my own. But while I'm standing there being proud about how low I kept my costs, she's still staring at me like I'm nuts, and then she says,

"I would never pay that much for my book."

And ladies and gentlemen, this is when I start looking at her like she's crazy. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that I write for a living and must therefore expect to make that $3000 back plus some (otherwise I would make no profit and thus be unable to survive), or the part where $3000 is a tiny investment when you're talking about a small business that supports a family. No, I was staring at her because those three thousand countable, bankable dollars I paid to have my book professionally packaged are the least of my costs when it comes to writing.

Allow me to demonstrate.

Let's say you've decided to write a book with an eye toward selling it to the public in the future. For the sake of argument, I'm going to leave hobby writers out of this. Also, at least to start, we're going to assume you're not writing full time yet.

Now, to be commercially viable, your book is probably going to fall somewhere in the range of 70,000 - 100,000 words. Since we're not talking about full time writers yet, this means those 70-100k words will have to be written on the edges of other things--work, family responsibilities, sleeping, all the necessities of life. But you're serious about your writing, and you've read 2k to 10k (SHAMELESS PLUG!), so we'll say you're kicking butt and writing 2000 words over 2 hours every weekday.

This is a very respectable rate! Even taking weekends off, 2000 words five days a week equals 10,000 words per week. Assuming you don't skip any days, you'll have your (let's say 80,000 word) novel done in a mere 8 weeks!

But, as anyone who's ever attempted to write anything of novel length knows, the math rarely works out that neatly. Even if you're religiously hitting your 2k every day, you're most likely going to have some sections of the book that need to be rewritten. Maybe you made a mistake, maybe you just changed your mind, whatever the reason, you're practically guaranteed to have some words that, for whatever reason, don't make the cut into the final work.

This is perfectly normal, but it does make the math for our example a little wonky. Still, we're assuming a best case scenario here, so let's say our hypothetical writer really lucked out on the rewriting and is able to finish the first draft of their 80,000 word novel in a mere 10 weeks while writing a mere 2 hours a day every weekday. A truly awesome, but still totally doable, feat!

But, of course, this is only a first draft. If our hypothetical writer wants to sell this novel, she's going to have to edit it herself at least once before it's even ready to go to a professional editor (which is a whole other kettle of fish). For now, though, we're just talking about the writer's time spent on the book, not people we hire, and we're still assuming this book is blessed, so we'll go with an insanely optimistic 4 weeks (still only writing 2 hours per weekday) spent getting the novel into ready-to-submit condition.

So where does the price part come in?

Going by our example above, Hypothetical Novelist was able to write a first draft 80,000 word manuscript after 10 weeks of writing and 4 for editing. Assuming we're still writing only 2 hours per weekday and 4 weeks per month, that's a total of (10 x 14) 140 hours spent getting this book from concept to completion.

140 hours is a lot of time. If you'd gone out and gotten a minimum wage Walmart greeter job, you'd have earned $1050 for the same amount of time. For a professional job (like the graphic designer position I quit to become a full time writer), you probably would have earned somewhere in the range of $1400 - $2800 (assuming $10-20 an hour) if you'd spent that time working instead of writing.

So right there we have a numeric baseline for the "price" (also known as the opportunity cost) of writing a novel. This is the money you could have made if you'd chose to spend those hours at a paying position instead of at your keyboard.

But even this measure is not really accurate. Keep in mind, all our estimates above were made assuming a best case scenario every step of the way. Reality is rarely so kind. For example, it took me over a year to write my first book. Since I didn't keep records back then, I have no idea how many hours I sunk into that book, but it was easily in the 300-400 range. That's sixteen solid days spent working on a manuscript that I never did sell. Also, like our hypothetical novelist above, I was not yet writing full time, which means those 300-400 hours came out of my free time, the time outside of my real, 40 hour a week job.

This is a very important point. From an economic standpoint (and I think a personal one), our free time is far more valuable than the time we spend working our jobs. We have to go to work or school, but our free time is ours, those precious hours we get to spend with our families and hobbies and other things that make us happy, productive members of society. By choosing to spend those free hours writing a book, we're giving up the chance to spend them doing other things, like going out with our friends or playing video games or learning a new craft or going to the gym or any of the millions of other activities we could do in our spare time.

Now, for me (and I very much hope for all of you as well), writing is a fundamentally enjoyable activity. It's something I'd do (and for a very long time, did) even if I never made a dime. But just because something is enjoyable doesn't mean it is without cost. Everything we do in life comes at a cost of not doing something else, because time is the one thing we can not make more of. There are only so many hours in a life. By choosing to spend some of those hours writing, especially ones taken from the slim fraction of the day we get to keep for ourselves, we are paying a cost. Most of us pay it gladly, because writing is amazing, but that doesn't mean the price isn't there.

When we talk about the "price" of producing a novel, we focus on the monetary outlay, the actual money we lay down for services like editors and design and so forth. The opportunity cost of writing itself is almost never mentioned. This is because the sacrifice of being a writer is implicitly understood. If someone has written a book, you know (and they definitely know) that it took them a long time. This is why so many writers feel they are entitled to profit from their work, even if it's their very first book and it shows. We put in time, the thinking goes, we should get something out of it.

But again, as anyone who's ever written a novel and tried to sell it can tell you, that's not how writing works. You can pour your blood, sweat, tears, and free time into a novel for decades and never sell a single copy. You can try your absolute hardest, pour everything you are into a book, and still see it fail.

This, too, is the price of a novel. The bitter, personal cost of doing your best and still falling short. It's having strangers tell you that your greatest isn't good enough. It's taking a risk and putting your work out there only to be ignored, or even openly ridiculed. It's failure and lots of it, over and over again.

Is it worth it? Well, if you're asking me, I say, yes. A thousand times yes! Being a writer is the best job in the world. Not only do I get to basically play make-believe for a living, the business and practice of writing itself is something I find fundamentally enjoyable. I do this stuff for fun! Hell, I do it on my vacation.

For me, a decade of hard work and a stack of rejections is nothing compared to the joy of getting to write full time, all the time. I can't say if that will be the case for you because we're different people. But if you dream of being a writer, if stories clobber you and demand to be told, then I'm going to go out on a limb and say becoming a writer is totally worth all the pain it takes to get here. That's why so many of us put with so much to do it!!

Motivational speeches aside. though, now do you see why I thought that lady was crazy for balking at my $3000? Out of all the sacrifices writing requires of us, the money up front it costs to hire a good editor, copy editor, and artist is the part she has a problem with?!

I love writing more than Devi loves her armor, but if I could pay $3000 up front to get a finished version of my book with zero work, I'd do it in a heartbeat. So would everyone, which the entire logic behind why publishers pay advances, because the true price of a novel is hard work and time. How much work and how much time varies from writer to writer, but there is no dodging the effort. At some point, someone has to actually write that book. Someone has to put in the effort--not just to write that particular story, but for the hundreds of unpaid practice hours (almost always taken out of the writer's personal free time) that it took to hone their writing skills to the level where they can demand a price for their effort. And it is that--that time, that practice, the hard work a writer puts in to develop their thought, creativity, and skill--that adds together to create the worth of a novel. That is what a good book costs. That is the price of art.

So when someone (including yourself) tries to devalue your efforts as a writer, keep this truth in mind. I'm not saying you should spend $3000 to publish your book--you should spend whatever you deem wise according to your own budget--but you should also never forget the price you've already paid. Simply by finishing a book, you have invested a large portion of your life, hours that you will never get back, into your story and your craft. If you then go on to submit that book for publication, either on your own or with a publishing house, you're opening yourself and your imagination up to extremely harsh criticism, which also takes its toll. Even if your novel never sees the light of day, you still have to pay for it. You pay with your time, with your energy, with the lost opportunities those hours could have gone to. And it is up to you, the writer, to make that investment worth something.

That is your ultimate worth as a writer: your skill and the time it took you to get it. These things have intrinsic value, and the more you invest into them by practicing and trying to get better, the greater that value becomes. No one owes you a book contract or a readership--it's up to you to earn those things by being awesome--but at the same time, you should never undervalue or undermine your own time and effort. If something makes you feel cheap or desperate, don't do it. If someone tries to tell you your time spent learning to be a better writer was wasted, don't listen. They're wrong. Even when it feels like you're doing nothing but finding new ways to fail, failure teaches more than success. So learn from your failures and focus on creating works that you can take pride and joy in, because every day you spend writing, you're paying a price whether you know it or not. Don't ever let that go to waste.

Wow, that got heavy. Can you tell I care about this stuff? (But then again, caring about stuff is kind of the hallmark of being a writer. No one could get through a book if they didn't care). As always, thank you so much for reading, and happy Writing Wednesday!!

Yours always,


Wilco said...

Hi, you made me curious about your books, but i can't seem to find a source other then amazon.
As we in Europe mostly use ereaders that use Epub files, can you point me to a seller that has any?

Deane Saunders-Stowe said...

Very good post - I empathise with all of the points. I don't worry about the free time that I spend writing, because I'd probably be doing something completely pointless and unproductive (like playing games or trawling the internet) so never really factor that in as a cost, even though it is.
My book's costs have run to about $2700 in total (I'm in the UK and it was about 2000 pounds) but that covers the purchase cost of copies for the launch event etc. The biggest cost was the hiring of an editor, but she did a wonderful job of polishing, and I saved costs further by designing my own cover and typesetting myself (not difficult, but you do have to learn LaTeX!)

Travis Bach said...

Hi Wilco. Head over to as we have a complete list of all buy links for all her books there.

Unfortunately, Nice Dragons Finish Last isn't out beyond Amazon right now. Hopefully we'll be releasing it to other platforms sometime in August. If you'd like to be notified when its available, please consider signing up for Rachel's new release mailing list.


Booksnhorses said...

Enjoyable post as always Rachel. I'm looking forward to the next Dragon novel. Perhaps the lady's reaction was down to not knowing your books/sales? $3k sounds a large amount to layout on an unknown but as part of an ongoing series / by a known author it sounds more reasonable.

Rachel Aaron said...

So glad you guys liked it!! Thank you for the comment!

@booksnhorses first, I *love* your user name! Books 'n Horses sounds like my kind of happy :) Second, I'd already told her I was a full time writer, so she knew this was living-making money for me. I think she's just one of those people who assumes that writing is free since we can just sit down at a computer and bang stuff out. Unlike film where we have to have a crew and cameras, there's no physical representation of a writer's investment in a project, and so lots of people think that means it's "free," or at least cheap. Obviously, I don't agree with these people at all, but it's a surprisingly pervasive viewpoint, especially among people who want to write, but haven't actually tried it yet.

Nicole Montgomery said...

As a person who has to juggle writing and family and day job, with limited funds, having an idea ahead of time on monetary and time costs is super helpful!

Thank you for this and all your great posts!

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