For those of us who make our livings in fields such as business, engineering, information systems, medical care, or education, we should remind ourselves now and then that we’re fortunate to work in industries where market forces allow for most of us with even average skills to make a good living. Book publishing ls is not one of these fields – at least not for authors. I have written previously about how difficult it is for even highly talented musicians to make a living at their craft, but the situation may be even worse for fiction writers.
While there is some controversy as to how many novelists can make a living by writing alone, the best estimates suggest that there are only between 1000 and 1500 fiction authors who make enough to support themselves. The results of a survey by the Authors Guild, a major trade organization for writers, provides especially sobering numbers. A survey of a large sample of writers reported a median income of $6,080, which represents a decline in real dollars of 42% from 2009. While results also verify that the few authors who make it to the very top are able to score millions, the average writer generally struggles to make ends meet. This means that most writers who want to stay active must either work another job, be supported by a spouse or family money, or else live in poverty.
The Author’s Guild speculates that the declining situation for writers is caused by reasons including Amazon’s dominance in book sales given its lower sales margins, lower advances being paid for mid-level books due to fewer books making money for publishers, and declining royalties that have been driven by lower royalty rates for ebooks and more discounting of traditional books.
I spoke with prominent mystery writer Steve Hamilton, who in the past few years has been very visible in his efforts to shake up the publishing industry, about the daunting situation facing most novelists. Hamilton is the two-time Edgar Award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of two highly acclaimed mystery series – the first is the Alex McKnight series (11 novels) which features an ex-police officer from Detroit living in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan. The second is the Nick Mason series (3 novels), which tells the story of a criminal who makes a deal with a drug kingpin in order to win his release from prison and reunite with his estranged family.
After growing up in White Lake, Michigan, Hamilton attended the University of Michigan, where he won the prestigious Hopwood Award for his attempt at a novel. He majored in computer science to make himself more marketable and upon graduation took a job as a technical writer at IBM in upstate New York. He met his wife Julia there and they now have two children.
To pursue his lifelong dream of writing fiction, Hamilton worked on his mysteries at night after having put in a full day at IBM. His first novel, A Cold Day in Paradise, won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and was a USA Today bestseller. He continued writing at night, and the books continued to perform reasonably well, both critically, and in terms of sales. He was a success by most measures, and yet his income from advances and royalties were simply not nearly enough for him to be comfortable giving up his day job.
In describing his own journey, Hamilton emphasizes that in spite of the obstacles and limited remuneration, he was always grateful to be able to publish his novels. He states, “I actually wrote my first 12 books while still working for IBM. I was living a double life, and my “vacations” were usually spent on the road when a new book came out. I would typically drive about 4,000 miles on rental cars, hitting bookstores all around the Midwest the first week, and in the second week, I’d fly to a few strategic stores in other parts of the country. It was pretty grueling, but hey, I was doing the one thing that I loved more than anything else – or at least I was doing it in half of my life. That’s more than most people ever get the chance to do.”
While happy to be writing, Hamilton was frustrated by the lack of marketing and advertising support his publisher was putting behind each newly released book, knowing that an increased marketing budget would translate into increased sales. “After publishing 12 books as an after-hours writer, I had to ask myself a question: Do I accept the status quo – this is how the publishing business works and you should be grateful to even have a place in it – or do I try to find something better?”
The opportunity to make a massive change in his life came when he was asked to join The Story Factory, a unique new literary and media agency founded by Hollywood screenwriter and producer Shane Salerno. When it became obvious that the publisher was not to going to provide adequate marketing and advertising support for Hamilton’s next novel, The Second Life of Nick Mason, Salerno ended up using a quarter of a million dollars of his own money to buy out the contract with St. Martin’s Press, with whom Hamilton had been working for 17 years. The move made front-page news across the industry.
Within 24 hours of the buyout, Salerno had negotiated a new multi-book contract with Penguin Putnam. Hamilton remained there for three more books until Blackstone – the leading audio publisher who was now making a major move into the print market – made Salerno and Hamilton a unique offer. Hamilton and two other prominent mystery authors represented by The Story Factory – Meg Gardiner and Reed Farrel Coleman – signed historic new contracts that would not only give them larger advances but would also guarantee dedicated marketing budgets to be used at the authors’ discretion.
As Hamilton puts it, “Sometimes, a business has to be transformed from the inside out by the people they call disrupters. I was fortunate enough to find the ultimate disrupter agent in Shane Salerno, someone who wasn’t afraid to knock things over and try something totally new, and now I’m fortunate again to have found a whole company of disrupters in Blackstone Publishing. Life is short, so why the hell not?”
It has been twenty years and fifteen books since Hamilton broke through with A Cold Day in Paradise, and at the age of 58, he is finally a full-time novelist. While it still is not an easy business in which to generate revenue, between his advances, royalties from U.S. sales, royalties from international sales, and income from sales of movie rights, he is able to make it. The film rights to the Nick Mason series were acquired by Lionsgate, and the rights to his signature Alex McKnight series were acquired by The Story Factory for negotiation with studios, but with a unique provision: No contract will ever be signed unless the studio commits to helping rejuvenate the Michigan film industry by shooting completely within the home state of both Steve Hamilton and Alex McKnight.
Hamilton acknowledges that he needs to stay active in the promotion of the books, which still includes going out on the road to do book signings when a new book is released. He also knows, as most all of today’s authors do, that staying active on social media and building awareness with potential readers is critical, even if it’s an effort that is very time-consuming. But Hamilton is not complaining. He says he still loves interacting with readers, either in person or online.
Hamilton is critically aware that the structural obstacles to making a living in the creative arts (writing, acting, art, music) have always been difficult. He points out that the situation is not new – even individuals like Shakespeare and Michelangelo needed patrons to support their artistic endeavors. There are striking parallels in how today’s authors face issues related to an aging population, bookstores dying out or having to sell coffee and chocolate to stay in business, and people spending less on books as electronic entertainment thrives. Hamilton believes that, throughout history, every artist has been at the mercy of someone else who holds the ultimate power – a situation that is almost never stacked in favor of the artist.
While he sees this phenomenon as being driven by natural forces, Hamilton does not think it should simply be accepted by those seeking careers, saying:
“It’s an age-old question, and I think it’s a simple matter of economics. If you make something, its ‘value’ to other people will literally be determined by what they’re willing to pay for it. That sounds crass and mercenary when applied to anything creative, but that uneasy feeling you might have when talking about it is actually part of the problem. There’s this built-in expectation that an artist creates something because he or she loves doing it – because he or she is compelled to do it – and of course, that’s true, but only partly true. An artist also has to eat, has to have someplace to live, and might even want to send a kid or two to college. This romantic ideal of being like Van Gogh and not selling more than one painting in your lifetime is engrained into the creative culture, but it’s no way to live!”
In terms of advice for young authors, Hamilton makes it clear that the obstacles are substantial but encourages those who love writing to pursue it. “I know that a lot of what I’ve said sounds pretty daunting – it’s always been a tough business to break into, ” he observes, “but if you have the talent and you’re willing to work hard every day, you’re going to find a way. I still believe that, and I still see it every year. Just keep your eyes open, keep writing, keep believing, and never settle for second best when it comes to your own work.”
Sound advice from a writer who clearly practices what he preaches.