Making a Living in a Post Mid-List World without Borders

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Making a Living in a Post Mid-List World without Borders

So, we ended last week’s column about the deaths of the mid-list and the Borders bookstore chain with the following question: “If self-publishing, independent presses, and independent bookstores are more preferable to former mid-list authors then why are you still selling books to mainstream publishers and signing in big chain bookstores, as well, Keene?” Is the answer:

A) Money.
B) People are stupid.
C) To have a stable, secure writing career in this post-mid-list world without Borders, full-time writers of genre fiction need to diversify.
D) All of the above.

The correct answer is D—all of the above. Let’s examine why, and let’s talk about how a former mid-lister makes a living as a writer in 2016. To clarify, I define making a living as a writer as: writing is my only vocation, I do it full time, and am able to support myself off my writing income. Other people may define it differently, and that’s fine. But for the interests of this article, that’s how I personally define it.

(Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have had to type a caveat like that and derail the fucking point of the article, but this is 2016, and a lot of people on the Internet are part of answer B, above. Some of them may even be your friend on Facebook).

But I digress.    

Thirty years ago, a mid-list genre writer could make a decent living writing for one or two publishers, provided their books sold well. If you could bang out more than one title per year, and were selling enough copies to earn back your advance and make the publisher a profit. The publisher would treat you decently. No, they probably weren’t going to treat you to lobster and high-class erotic dancers the way legend says Kirby McCauley did for his authors, but your editor at Zebra or Dell Abyss would probably spring for a steak and stripper.

Twenty years ago, when I started getting published, this adage still held true. Yes, mid-list authors—especially horror authors—were being paid less than they were a decade before (I remember a former titan of late-Eighties and early-Nineties horror fiction who had been away for a while and who, upon his return to publication, was shocked by the decrease in pay and told me with sincere regret what I would have been making per book had I just been born twenty years earlier). But despite that, if your books sold well, you could still make a decent living by staying with one or two main publishers. Maybe you wrote horror novels for one and westerns for another. Or maybe you wrote thrillers under one name and romance novels under a pseudonym. And even if your books weren’t selling well enough for you to write full-time, you could at least make a decent secondary income writing for one or two publishers.

In hindsight, this was a stupid thing to do. And I include myself in that stupidity. I was a reader back when Zebra and Dell Abyss went under. As a reader, rather than a writer, it never occurred to me that those closures put some of my favorite authors in the unemployment line. All I knew was that I couldn’t find any new Ronald Kelly or Brian Hodge books at Borders anymore.

Which is why I say that I was stupid twenty years ago, when the vast majority of my published works were brought out by two publishers. Dorchester/Leisure Books published me in mass-market paperback—books that were available at Borders, in airports, grocery stores, and pretty much anywhere else books were sold. Small press Delirium Books published signed, limited edition collectible hardcovers of those works, as well as other books that were considered unsaleable to the mass-market (short story collections, non-fiction collections, novellas, and novels that were considered too bizarre or unclassifiable for a mainstream audience). Occasionally, I would sell a one-off novel or novella to another publisher—mostly Cemetery Dance, Bloodletting Press, Necessary Evil, and other small presses. That was done because I was younger then, and able to write faster, and at an incredibly prolific point in my life, and I didn’t want to bury Dorchester or Delirium in a deluge of stuff with my name on it. But for the most part, I was content to publish the majority of my work through those two outlets—one mainstream and the other small press.

Which is why I was fucked when, ten years later, due to changing marketplace conditions and a downturn in the global economy, one of those publishers changed their business model and the other went out of business, and I was suddenly broke. In the space of a few short months, both of my most reliable income streams had vanished, and I was fucked—all because I’d forgotten the lesson of what happened with Zebra and Dell-Abyss twenty years before. The same thing happened to all the other mid-listers trying to make a living at that time. I guess we’d all forgotten that lesson. Thus, what you were left with was hundreds of mid-list authors, all scrambling to get a piece of an ever-shrinking, rapidly-changing pie.

Some, like Bryan Smith, Robert Swartwood, and Scott Nicholson, decided to do it themselves, taking full advantage of the vast changes in publishing, bookselling, and technology, and going into business for themselves, self-publishing their titles and marketing them directly to readers. Others, like Sarah Pinborough, James Moore, and Tim Lebbon, started writing more decidedly non-mid-list work that, while still dark in nature, tone, and theme, didn’t necessarily have HORROR stamped on the spine, or feature a cover with a bunch of zombie hands reaching for the reader, and thus, had a better chance of selling to a mainstream audience. There is nothing wrong with either of these methods. Nobody can argue with Bryan, Robert, and Scott’s success. Nobody can argue with Sarah, Jim, or Tim’s success either. There are many paths to success as a writer, and the only thing those paths have in common is sitting your ass down in a chair and actually writing, rather than Tweeting about writing or Facebooking about writing or all the other things we do to distract us from actually writing.

Me? I follow a third path. I self-publish some of my work. I publish some of my work with small presses and independent publishers. And I publish some of my work via the mainstream publishing houses. This is the path I have chosen for myself simply because if there is one thing I’ve learned from working in this business for the last twenty years it’s that everything—every fucking thing—can change in an instant. A mainstream publisher who appears outwardly solvent and rolling in cash can file bankruptcy the next quarter, or get bought out by a corporate conglomerate who decide they’re only going to publish celebrity memoirs. Today’s small press success story can be tomorrow’s “Whatever happened to?”. Our current self-publishing benefactor could change the terms of service next week, impeding how the authors using that platform earn a living. In my opinion, diversification of publishers and publishing methods is the most secure way to earn a living in a post-mid-list world without Borders. Your mileage may vary.

Speaking of earning a living, let’s take a closer look at answer A—which was money. My main independent publisher, Deadite Press, pays me monthly royalties. What that means is that I get a check from them every single month. Let’s say hypothetically, on average, that check is about $2,000 a month. That’s $24,000 a year. If we add in other independent publishers I work with, Apex Book Company or Thunderstorm Books or Cemetery Dance, for example, we can hypothetically reach $34,000 a year. Add in what I make from self-publishing, and we round out with a hypothetical annual income of around $40,000.  

Forty grand a year. Not bad, especially considering that I live in rural Pennsylvania. Chuck Wendig once described Pennsylvania as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Kentucky in the middle” and for the most part, that’s accurate. But one of the benefits of living in this region is that one can exist on $40,000 a year. You might not be comfortable, but you can live.

But what if I don’t want to just get by? I’ve got a twenty-five-year-old and an eight-year-old and a girlfriend and two ex-wives and a host of bills to pay. I’m in a job with no health insurance and no 401K and no retirement plan. So while I can live off forty grand a year, and keep a roof over our heads and keep everybody fed, it would be nice to start saving a little money for a rainy day. That’s where the mainstream comes in. Let me be blunt—I’d be happy to continue working with Deadite, Thunderstorm, Cemetery Dance, Apex, and other independent presses until I die. But at the end of the day, those sales aren’t going to boost me over the forty thousand hump. Enter mainstream publishing.

“Hi Brian,” says a mainstream publisher. “We are interested in publishing more horror. We’ll call it a thriller on the spine, but it will be horror. We already asked Joe Hill and Jonathan Maberry, and they said no, so now we’re asking you.”

Which is always nice to hear. It’s always nice to hear that they asked your friends to the dance first, and your friends said no, so now they’re asking you. No, I’m kidding. But not really. Make no mistake, I’ve had mainstream publishers approach me with that very query in the past, but for the record, my current mainstream publisher—Macmillan/Thomas Dunne—said no such thing. They are wonderful people.

But I digress again.

Let’s say our hypothetical mainstream publisher offers you a $10,000 or $20,000 advance on a novel—something that small press publishers and independent publishers can’t financially justify doing without filing for bankruptcy. When you get that offer, it pushes you over that magical forty-thousand-dollar annual income. Now you’re at fifty or sixty thousand. Now you actually can start saving money, and paying for things like that X-Box One your child has been asking for, or the new cornea the eye surgeon says you need, which you haven’t been able to afford because you don’t have health insurance.

And you can pay for those things for one year.

Because that’s the problem with an advance. An advance is simply that. The publisher gives you X amount of money—an advance on future sales of your book. If the advance was $20,000, you don’t get paid again until after you’ve sold enough books to earn $20,000 in royalties. So, sell $21,000-worth, and you’ll start getting paid again.

ComplexWhich brings me back to why I’m out here on the road for the next nine months, crisscrossing the country and signing in both independent bookstores and the remaining big chain stores.

Money.

Yes, I know what I said in our first installment. I know I said that my time is almost up, and I want to say goodbye to everyone before I leave this place and join my friends in that big horror convention hotel barroom in the sky. All of that is true. But it’s also about the money. If I can get independent bookstores to order more copies of my new novel The Complex from Deadite Press, then those monthly royalty checks go up in size. And if I can get mainstream bookstores to order more copies of my other new novel Pressure from Macmillan/Thomas Dunne, then I earn out that advance and get another check. And if I get Cemetery Dance Online to pay me for a weekly column with the option to collect it in book form when these nine months are up, then I can use that money to finance the whole tour.

And then next year, I’m still above that forty-thousand mark.

It’s a hell of a way to make a living, but it’s the only way I know how in a post-mid-list world without Borders.

* * *

That would have been a great sentence to end this week’s column on, but I just remembered that I forgot to talk about answer B—people are stupid.

The most frustrating thing for me as a writer and a public figure is that there still exists a portion of the public who are unfamiliar with Google and seemingly unaware that the Internet exists beyond Facebook. I can’t tell you how many times I want to Tweet back to somebody, in my best Samuel L. Jackson voice, “Google, motherfucker! Do you use it?”, or taking them by their figurative little cyber hand and go up to their browser’s address bar, and typing B-R-I-A-N-K-E-E-N-E-D-O-T-C-O-M for them. Of course, I never do because, despite what you may have heard about me, I’m not a complete asshole.

And they’re not stupid. I said that for comedic effect and out of frustration. But they’re not stupid. They’re like me, younger Brian who, thirty years ago, didn’t know about the collapse of Zebra or Dell Abyss and just wondered why he couldn’t find a new Ronald Kelly or Brian Hodge or Skipp and Spector novel at his local bookstore.   

Despite all of the changes in how books are published and how books are marketed and sold, and how people purchase them—despite all of this—there are still a portion of the reading public who only buy their books in retail chain stores. They don’t own a Kindle or other ebook reader. They don’t shop on Amazon or other online retailers. And they don’t spend time going to authors’ websites and reading inside-baseball accounts of what’s happening in publishing. Their needs are simple. They want to buy a book and then like their sister’s cat picture on Facebook and play a little Candy Crush Saga. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But we need to reach them. I need to reach them. And this tour will do that, somewhat. No, it won’t reach all of them, simply because not all of them are online enough or aware enough to even know that there is a book signing tour taking place. But for the ones who are, for the ones who see it scroll by in their Facebook feed, nestled between funny cat videos or various political screeds, or even for the ones who just happen to be in the bookstore that day—it’s an opportunity to explain to them where the books have gone, and where they can go to buy them. It’s a chance to educate them about the small press and the independent press, and independent bookstores.

So there’s that, too.

That’s not as good of an ending as the one before, so I’m gonna re-type that previous portion.

It’s a hell of a way to make a living, but it’s the only way I know how in a post-mid-list world without Borders.

Next week, we travel to our first stop on the tour—the annual World Horror Convention, where we’ll examine its history and how it has changed over the last twenty years, and whether or not it is still vital and needed within our industry.

Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently released Pressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.

3 thoughts on “Making a Living in a Post Mid-List World without Borders”

  1. Brian, I don’t mean to come across as one of the types mentioned in B, but everything I’ve heard and read about book tours these days is that they sell very few books, and are often just a waste of time better spent writing. Are there not better modes to get books to the right audience that doesn’t require a ton of time? BookBub, for example? Or some kind of book bundle?

    Thanks!

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