Stuff We Know Already: Most Writers Don't Make Money

In 2013, most authors made less than $1000 - peoplewhowrite

A Digital Book World survey finds that most authors make less than $1000 in income from their books (via Mediabistro)

Most authors will not be traditionally published. Most published authors will not be successful, as far as sales. We know this already, but thank you, Mediabistro / Digital Book World for the reminder.

We’ll keep at it, anyway as we read with unbridled hope the passages in Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton that speak of books bought at auction and enough money–generated solely from our writing!–to fund British security teams, safe houses, and a Benz tricked out with bulletproof doors and windows. And we monitor with rapt interest the story about Patricia Cornwall’s lawsuit against her managers because, yes, it sucks that her managers have been bilking her, but holy shizers, she nets $13 million dollars a year?! And we can’t even hate on E.L. James because, yeah, we want to introduce a companion wine to sip as you read our novel or watch the film that’s been adapted from our bestselling book. J.K. Rowling, Robert Galbraith, whatever your name is, we see you and we want to be you one day, extending our novels into theme parks, selling our homes for $3.6 million and raising $250,000 for charity for a first edition copy of our wildly successful book.

We’re not doing it for the money, obviously. (See: “We’ll keep at it, anyway…” above.) We write because there is no Plan B, nor do we want one. But money would be very nice, and we have no shame in saying so. So, colorful graph or not, we will go on writing and hoping, and pressing Amazon/Barnes and Noble/publishers to adapt to a changing business model to give us our due because it’s possible to succeed. As long as it’s possible, it’s worth it.

In 1981, 11 American Newspapers Were Available Online

1981 predictions about internet news providers via SF Examiner_peoplewhowriteAn editor friend posted this fascinating news report from 1981 on Facebook about the first newspapers who made their content available online. In the clip, the San Francisco Examiner‘s David Cole says, “This is an experiment. We’re trying to figure out what it means to us as editors and reporters and what it means to the home user.” (30+ years later, Denver Post food editor Kristen Browning-Blas has some thoughts on what it has meant.) Cole adds, “And we’re not in it to make money. We’re probably not going to lose a lot, but we aren’t going to make much either.”

Also amazing to contemplate: there were only 2 to 3,000 computer users in the Bay Area in 1981. A report issued by the US Census in May 2013 explains the American government only started tracking the percentage of households in America that had computers in 1984. That number stood at 8.2%; by 2011, 75.6% had computers. The report also shows 18% of households had internet. In 2011, 71% had internet access at home.

When the Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle advertised the electronic availability of their paper, only 500 in the Bay Area responded with interest. But Richard Halloran, a computer owner at the time, was all for it, predicting electronic news would empower users to more deeply interrogate stories they’re interested in.

Only problem was time and cost. The news reporter notes it took over two hours to receive the entire text of the newspaper by telephone–I’m assuming by telephone they’re referring to an old school version of dial-up–at a ate of $5/per hour to print on “telepaper.” Back then, the newspaper cost 20 cents.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Donna Tartt Among 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - peoplewhowrite

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

On Monday, the National Book Critics Circle announced 30 finalists for their 2014 awards ceremony on March 13, 2014 at 6p which is free to attend and open to the public. The list includes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Americanah, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being which also earned a spot on the Man Booker shortlist, and Donna Tartt‘s pretty much universally-lauded The Goldfinch. A few of the finalists below:

Sonali Deraniyagala, Wave (Knopf)
Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby (Viking)
Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped (Bloomsbury)
Amy Wilentz, Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A letter from Haiti (Simon & Schuster)

Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia: War, deceit, imperial folly and the making of the modern Middle East (Doubleday)
Leo Damrosch, Jonathan Swift: His life and his world(Yale University Press)
John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (Knopf)
Linda Leavell, Holding on Upside Down: The life and work of Marianne Moore (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Mark Thompson, Birth Certificate: The story of Danilo Kis (Cornell University Press

Hilton Als, White Girls (McSweeney’s)
Mary Beard, Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations (Liveright)
Jonathan Franzen, The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus, translated and annotated by Jonathan Franzen with Paul Reiter and Daniel Kehlmann (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Janet Malcolm, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (Verso)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (Knopf)
Alice McDermott, Someone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Javier Marias, The Infatuations (Knopf)
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (Viking)
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Little, Brown)

Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the manhunt that brought him to justice (Norton)
Sherri Fink, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a storm-ravaged hospital (Crown)
David Finkel, Thank You For Your Service (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
George Packer, The Unwinding: An inner history of the new America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the prison of belief (Knopf)

Frank Bidart, Metaphysical Dog (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Lucie Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion (Knopf)
Denise Duhamel, Blowout (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Bob Hicok, Elegy Owed (Copper Canyon)
Carmen Gimenez Smith, Milk and Filth (University of Arizona Press)

Get the full list of finalists here. If you’re in New York, plan to attend the free finalist’s reading on Wednesday March 12, 2014 at 6p, New School University, 66 West 12th Street.

Not Accounting for "Ifs," Scientists Link "Ands" & "Buts" to Bestseller Status

NY Times Bestsellers -January 19, 2014_peoplewhowriteA group of computer scientists at the State University of New York at Stony Brook have developed an algorithm the say can determine a book’s likelihood of becoming a bestseller. The Telegraph reports, “A technique called statistical stylometry, which mathematically examines the use of words and grammar, was found to be ‘surprisingly effective’ in determining how popular a book would be.”

Assistant Professor Yejin Choi was among the group which analyzed bestsellers from a sample they downloaded from the Project Gutenberg archive. They also sourced slow selling books by checking Amazon rank. The 800 books they studied covered a range of genres including sci-fi, classic lit and poetry.

The methodology of the study raises some red flags.  Project Gutenberg is mostly stocked with old school classics like Les Miserables and  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which, no disrespect to these must-reads, were released in a market that had far less media to compete with and have the benefit of having been added to multiple school reading lists for decades. Likewise, Amazon rank is a nebulous factor. Author and member of the “Fulfilled by Amazon” program Cynthia Stine explains Amazon rank this way on the website  

I can define Amazon sales rank in one sentence:

“The period of time since an item last sold.” 

That’s it.

What does that mean? It means that starting from one hour after an item sells, its rank will start to rise until it sells again. The longer the gap between sales, the higher its sales rank grows. When the product sells again, it will drop significantly and then begin to rise again an hour later.

That in mind, here’s what the SUNY Stony Brook scientists derived based on their analysis:

They found several trends that were often found in successful books, including heavy use of conjunctions such as “and” and “but” and large numbers of nouns and adjectives.

Less successful work tended to include more verbs and adverbs and relied on words that explicitly describe actions and emotions such as “wanted”, “took” or “promised”, while more successful books favoured verbs that describe thought processes such as “recognised” or “remembered”.

I think the true “science” behind a bestseller involves several factors including the amount of support the publisher has committed to giving a book/author. Publishers decide which authors to invite/which books to push at industry conferences and events where power players like the New York Times Book Review Editor or the head of the American Library Association will be in attendance, for example. Then there’s the Amazon factor.

Publishers are scrambling to compete with the e-tailer’s low prices, as well as their innovations and role as chief book recommendation engine.

Add distribution to the mix. When Barnes and Noble spanked Simon and Schuster by reducing the number of titles they would carry in store (because they felt the publisher was not supporting them enough in their efforts to hold off Amazon’s encroachment), S&S authors who fell into the debut or emerging categories lost a major distribution channel. The beef between B&N and S&S has been resolved, but it probably didn’t do too many favors for authors whose books were released in that period.

Oh, and the author’s talent. And how many followers they have on Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr / Instagram… And the big names they’re able to get to blurb their book (see Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s tips on ‘How to Ask for a Book Blurb‘). And…

So, yeah. Forget algorithms and just write.

Eat, Drink & Be Literary with NoViolet Buluwayo

NoViolet Buluwayo and Daniel Alarcon at BAM's Eat, Drink & Be Literary_peoplewhowriteIf you’ve ever dreamed of having dinner with your favorite author, mark your calendar for the 2014 season of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s esteemed “Eat, Drink & Be Literary” series. From NoViolet Buluwayo to Jeffrey Eugenides to Chang-rae Lee, the year is packed with literary stars to sup with. Tickets are still available to hold court with Buluwayo whose acclaimed debut We Need New Names was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize or connect with Daniel Alarcón, author of 2005 PEN-Hemingway Award finalist War by Candlelight. Last year’s series was similarly starry with writers Junot Diaz, Jamaica Kincaid and Nell Freudenberger among the special guests. 

Book Discovery Engine Seeks to Marshal Indie Bookseller Support

Zola acquires Bookish - peoplewhowrite

Book discovery engine Zola aims to compete with Amazon by mobilizing independent booksellers & those who support them

The LA Times reports book discovery engine Zola has acquired Bookish, a recommendation vehicle jointly created by Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette Book Group. Separately, both had been unable to compete with Amazon, which acquired Goodreads in 2013, as the number one source of online book recommendations. But with the acquisition announced, LA Times writer Carolyn Kellogg notes a strategy that will further pit independent booksellers and traditional publishers against the e-tailing giant.

“What is clear about Zola is that it is casting its lot — at least so far — with independent booksellers,” Kellogg points out, referring specifically to Zola’s “IndiePledge” which informs Users that proceeds from their purchases will benefit the member indie bookstore of their choice.

Independent booksellers around the world have been marshaling their forces against Amazon for the last few years. One UK bookstore collected over 160,000 signatures to protest Amazon’s alleged ducking of corporate taxes “by reporting its European sales through a Luxembourg-based unit”. In the US, several booksellers complained Amazon reps were trying to get them to sell Kindles in their stores – an affront, considering the online retailer’s position as a competitor. French culture minister Aurélie Filippetti accused Amazon of being a “destroyer of bookshops”.

Meanwhile, publishers have been trying to regain control of their own industry from Amazon by introducing online recommendation engines like Bookish and Bookscout and throwing their weight behind the Nook, Barnes and Noble‘s answer to Amazon’s Kindle.

Of the Zola acquisition, Kellogg quoted Hachette Book Group Chief Executive Michael Peitsch as saying: “We are very pleased to have found a new owner for the site whose goals and interests are so closely aligned with the Bookish mission.”

If It's Not on the Page, It Won't Be on the Stage

LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones will join the writing room at SNL - peoplewhowrite

LaKendra Tookes (l) and Leslie Jones will join SNL’s writing staff

You might have heard Saturday Night Live came under fire last October when cast member Kenan Thompson suggested there aren’t enough talented black female comediennes to go around. In response to the blogosphere uproar, SNL invited African-American women comics to audition for a featured spot (gee, thanks, SNL). Brooklyn-based funny woman Sasheer Zamata landed the coveted part, but perhaps even more exciting, the Hollywood Reporter writes two comediennes who also auditioned were brought on as writers. Starting January 18th, SNL’s 39th Season, LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones will join the writing staff as welcome additions. If the episode Kerry Washington hosted is any indication, SNL’s writing team has been in dire need of diversity too. As of a March 2013 Writers Guild of America report on network and cable shows during the 2011-2012 season, minority TV writers are underrepresented by a factor of more than two to one.

Cover Love: Chang-rae Lee Experiments with 3-D for "On Such a Full Sea"

3-D slipcover for Chang-rae Lee's new book

It took 15 hours to print each 3-D slipcover for Chang-rae Lee’s new book. Some of the prototypes took 30 hours.

For his just released book On Such a Full Sea, Chang-rae Lee‘s publisher Riverhead Books created a 3-D slipcover. In an interview with, Riverhead Books’ art director Helen Yentus (whose design credits include Elizabeth Gilbert‘s Eat, Pray, Love)   explained she had to learn the technology to fully understand what was capable.

“You get used to the six-by-nine rectangle where everything is flat,” she told TIME. “Even now with digital we’re still designing in that same six-by-nine rectangle, it’s just much smaller. It’s really exciting to be able to think of coming off the page.” The slipcover shows the title of the book raised and distorted, hinting at the “imagined future” America Lee has created in this new work.

Only 200 slipcover copies were printed, “a number partially decided by how many could physically be printed in time for the shelf date,” TIME says. Just a matter of time before more books make use of technology to make the reading experience even more immersive.