Why?: The Writing and Publishing edition

Confused DoctorI had my once-every-five-years annual physical today. My new doctor is an intimidating Swiss woman who asks “Why?” a lot. And she’s chatty – way abnormal for a physician in today’s world. They’re usually in and out of the room before you get a good enough look to be able to recognize them later, in case you end up at the table next to them in the local sushi restaurant. I guess the fake mustaches, itchy wigs and Jackie-O sunglasses must get old after a while. Better to use the Superman method: move so fast your facial features blur so you don’t really need a disguise at all.

But back to my new doctor.

At one point during the hour-long visit, she asked me what I do for a living, I assumed to determine how sedentary I normally am (this woman is thorough). I started talking about my computer programming business, but that tends to bore both me and the listener quickly, so I mentioned that I also do some fiction writing.

This piqued her interest.

What followed was a strange series of questions that I tried to answer to the best of my ability, asked (I discovered later) because her son has an interest in writing. And it occurred to me afterward – everyone knows someone who wants to write a book. In fact, during a conversation with a literary agent I had once, I was told that writing a book is on 91% of Americans’ bucket lists. I can’t verify this statistic, but from experience, it sounds about right.

So tonight I bring you her questions, which I think might actually be everyone’s questions. Or at least, a lot of people. Questions that, as a writer, I found both puzzling and amusing. Included are my answers, along with some links to probably much better answers than mine from much smarter people than me.


Why write? Is there money in it? How much?

So she jumped right to the financials. I guess that’s what all those things I had to sign confirming the bill was “my responsibility” were about. Gotcha.

The easy answer for traditional publishing is the publisher pays you an advance (not the million dollars you’re thinking – maybe more like $10,000). For each book that’s sold, you make a small amount as a royalty (for easy math, let’s say $2 per book). But here’s the kicker: you have to “earn back” that advance they already paid you before you can make anything more. So maybe you’ve pocketed ten grand up front, but you don’t start making any more money until 5,000 books have sold (at $2 a book to reach $10,000). At that point you start making the same $2 for each new book above 5,000 copies.

Oh, and that book you bought for $20? Yes, that’s a realistic figure, maybe even a little high, that the author would make only $2 out of that amount. Now don’t you feel bad when you complain books should be cheaper?

A more complicated answer related to traditional publishing is available here.

For self-publishing the answer’s a little different. There isn’t typically an advance involved. Instead you make a higher percentage of a lower sale price, and have to do all your own marketing and publicity.

If you want to hurt your brain, see a more complicated answer related to self-publishing here.

How do you keep track of all that? How do you know they’re not robbing you?

That’s one of the reasons you have an agent. The agent takes 15% of what you make, but they handle making sure the royalty statements you receive are accurate, among many, many other things like negotiating contracts, finding a publisher for your work, and so on.

Yeah, but what if the agent is robbing you?

There wasn’t a metal detector on the way in, but by now I’ve begun to suspect I’ll be subjected to a TSA-like pat down on my way out. My doctor seems abnormally concerned about being robbed by someone…anyone. No wonder I’ve been placed in this gown with no pockets. It’s so I won’t steal the wooden tongue depressors.

As in all businesses, there are good and bad agents. But just like everything else, the proper amount of research can ensure that you only walk into a partnership with a decent agent who looks out for your interests….and doesn’t rob you. After all, they want you to make as much money as possible, because they get 15% of what you make.

There’s a lot more to say about agents and how they work but again this isn’t a post on literary agents. Nevertheless, here’s some basics of what they do.

Why do books have to be so long?

At this point I became worried that I had a doctor who doesn’t read, which doesn’t sound like a winning combination. But previously in the appointment, she quoted from so many studies off the top of her head, I knew this couldn’t be the case.

Instead, I came to understand what she values is brevity. Of course, she’s a busy person. She started describing a book she recently read that was about 100 pages, but “said everything it needed to and was easy to read. Why can’t all books be like that?”

“Well, 100 pages isn’t really considered a novel by most literary agents.”

She then asked me how long my books typically are. I gave the writer answer: “About 90,000 words.” This, of course, was met with a confused expression, forcing me to clarify. “That’s about 300 to 350 pages, depending on the writing style.”

Writers (and the publishing industry as a whole) think of length in terms of words, not pages. This is because the number of pages can vary widely depending on whether you write in a dense manner (long paragraphs, not a log of dialog) or not. A densely written piece can pack maybe 400 words onto a single, double-spaced manuscript page, whereas other writing might only have 200 words per page. If both pieces are 100,000 words long, you’re looking at 250 pages for the densely written piece and 500 pages for the piece with a lot of dialog. (Trust me, I used a calculator.)

Wikipedia says a novel is anything over 40,000 words. Follow the link for word lengths on the other formats: short stories (shortest) and novellas (longer than short stories but shorter than novels). There’s also something called a novelette in there, but I’ve decided to view that like the Yeti. It doesn’t really exist until I see one with my own eyes.

Whatever Wikipedia says, I can tell you that, in practice, literary agents are looking for a novel to be at least 75,000 words. Anything between 75,000 and 100,000 words is acceptable for a new writer. To be sure, there are many, many books published over 100,000 words. Stephen King’s are typically north of 200,000. But if you’re an unpublished writer, it’s best not to break that 100,000 word mark if you can help it. There are a lot of factors in this, but consider printing costs alone. Unless a publisher can see with absolute certainty your book is guaranteed to be a runaway hit (and if they could predict this, they might be doing something other than publishing), they’re unlikely to want to print thousands of copies of your 800-page masterpiece on a hunch.

Likewise, I’m going to contradict Wikipedia and say, in my opinion, a short story can be up to 20,000, maybe even 25,000 words. And that anything in between (20,000 – 75,000 words) is a novella. Or, if you believe in Yeti, a novelette. This is based more on real-life experience than any published standards on the web.

In summary…

Well, my doctor had a few more questions, but this post is already too long. Perhaps I’ll do a Part 2 later.

I can already hear her Swiss accent asking another Why question: “Why did you stop? We were just getting started.”

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