Making Money Mondays – When it’s okay to work for free v. Dying of “Exposure”

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It’s an adorable life cycle, kinda like that of a butterfly. A new writer is born, writhing around in their own personal primordial ooze, crawling through the muck of leaning to write, creating their own crap, wallowing the great quagmire of unpublished work, until one day, one shining, fateful day, they begin to break out of their chrysalis of obscurity and merge as a glorious monarch butterfly of a midlister, and everything is all rainbows and unicorns forever and ever, amen.

Yeah, right. You know better. If you didn’t know better, you would after about fifteen minutes poking around here. You know that the life of a professional, or semi-pro writer is hard, and the road is brought with peril. At every turn, there are “opportunities” that can do you more harm than good, and “friends” that are more exploitive than helpful.

I’ve talked before about anthologies, and how they are a useful tool in building your brand and raising your overall visibility in the marketplace. I was thrilled to appear last year in an anthology with Jonathan Maberry, because getting a story in a book with a NY Times bestseller is good for me. But exposure is a funny thing – it’s important to keep raising your visibility, but it’s also really important to remember two things – exposing yourself too much in public will get you arrested, and people who get lost in the mountains often die of exposure.

So how do you balance the real need to get your name out there with the other real needs of getting paid what you’re worth and putting food on the table?

It’s really hard, honestly. The answer is different for everyone, and the markers for success are very different for everyone. At one point n my career, I was willing to submit to almost any anthology that would let me, because no one had ever heard of me, and I had a good day job. Then there was a while when I wasn’t interested in joining anthologies at all, because they don’t usually pay great, and I was chasing every dollar I could.

Now it’s more about time than anything else. I write a lot, and I’m writing just about at capacity, so I don’t have a ton of spare words to send about. I will still give a story to most any anthology that pays anything of $50 and has at least one person way more famous than me in the book, but I don’t submit to anthos unless I’m asked at this point. It’s not really much a matter of hubris (although I’ll own a little bit) but mainly time. With my release schedule I don’t have time to write a lot of things without knowing they have a home already.

I will also participate in pretty much any charity anthology that asks me. A lot of the time charity anthos don’t pay at all, because the entirety of the proceeds go to charity. So if it’s a cause that I believe in, and everyone is working for free, I’m happy to provide a story if someone wants one. Especially if they take reprints.

That’s how a lot of folks felt about We Are Not This – Carolina Writers for Equality, the anthology that I just released through Falstaff Books. We got some amazing writers in this book, and I got some of them because I took reprints. We have everyone in this book from New York Times Bestsellers like A. J. Hartley, to editors with years of experience like Edmund Schubert, to brand new writers with their very first publication credits. And several of the professional writers in the book are only able to participate because we took reprints. That meant that their participation took very little on their part, and they were able to lend their support to a cause they believed in.

I’ve done that with a couple of things over the years, and it helps everyone. And I love doing reprints in charity anthos, because nobody’s getting paid but everybody’s still so happy to be involved.

On the flip side, there are a lot of anthologies that people put out just “for exposure,” and they pay the authors nothing, or they give them a very small royalty “after costs are covered.” That ends up being like a back-end Hollywood deal, where the publisher can manipulate the numbers so that no one ever gets anything.

Let me break down a norma small press anthology agreement for you, so you see what I’m talking about. We’re going to use a book that has 25 authors in it as our example, like Big Bad II did. The revenue split between the press and the editor(s) was 50/50, which means that if $2 came in the door after the distributor took their cut, $1 went to the editor(s) and $1 stayed with the publisher. The editor(s) were responsible for setting the royalty split between themselves and the authors, but usually it’s half to the editors and half to the authors.

So out of that $1, $.50 goes to the editors, and $.50 gets divided up amongst the authors. $.50 divided by 25 authors means that for every $2.99 ebook, each author made roughly $.02. An anthology would have to sell 1,000 digital copies for each author to receive a $20 royalty.

NOW let’s say you have a publisher whose contract says that authors and editors only get paid royalties once costs have been covered. Let’s look at a fairly reasonable budget for an anthology – $300 for a cover, $100 for layout, $1,000 for editorial, $300 for ebook conversion and uploading. Before any royalties are paid out to make a split, the book has to sell 850 copies in ebook form at $2.99. So for each author to get a $20 royalty check, the anthology has to move 1,850 copies of a $2.99 ebook.

Those are huge numbers for a small press. HUGE, I tell you. Those are also doctored production costs. Here are the actual costs for producing Cinched:Imagination Unbound, earlier this year.

Cover Artwork – $12 (one photo credit on istockphoto.com)

Cover Design & Typography – $0 – I did it.

Layout – $0 – I did it.

Editorial – $0 – I did it.

Proofreading – $0 (10% royalty assigned to the copy editor – turned out to be an okay rate for her, but it’s taken most of a year to get there. But she also had a publisher who “owed her one,” which is sometimes worth it.)

Ebook Conversion – $0 – I did it.

Ebook Uploading – $0 – i did it, and any moron can do it, so you should never pay anyone for that service.

Author Payments – $550 – 12 stories, $50 each flat fee. I didn’t pay myself.

Total cost – $562 with a 10% royalty commitment to the proofreader for the life of the book.That book hasn’t sold terribly well, not enough to pay the authors a $20 royalty after the first year, so the $50 flat fee I paid them was certainly more than they would have received in a traditional small press royalty deal.

All that is said to warn you of accepting royalty-only anthologies without a good reason. If the publisher has a good track record, then go for it. If the anthology is funded through Kickstarter, then it’s a whole different story. But if someone is offering you a royalty-only anthology, look at their history and talk to other writers about whether or not they’ve actually gotten royalty payments (of over $1) from that press. If not, hold out for a flat fee up front, or a decent word count rate.

And if it’s “for exposure,” make sure there’s at least enough exposure to get arrested over, but not so much that it’ll kill you. Let’s be honest, being in an anthology with me won’t guarantee much in the way of increased visibility to your work, so I’d better be paying you, or have a bigger fish on the line that you want to latch onto like a lamprey. Don’t just do a “for exposure” anthology where you haven’t heard of any of the authors.The likelihood that it will do anything beneficial for your career is pretty negligible.

Unless you just really want to write a story. In that case, you be you, boo-boo. 🙂

And if you want to see what an awesome charity anthology with a lot of amazing Carolina writers, including Tamsin Silver (who will always be an honorary Carolina girl), Melissa Gilbert, A. J. Hartley, Ed Schubert, Stuart Jaffe, Natania Barron, and Jay requard, check out We Are Not This – Carolina Writers for Equality. All proceeds go to support LGBTQ charities in the Carolinas.

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