“We Can’t Afford To Pay…”

Let’s talk money.

I don’t know if it’s beginning to happen more often or if I’m just noticing it more acutely recently, but the phrase, “We don’t pay our writers…” (and the usual variations on it) is showing up in submission guidelines all over the place. The closely related, “We can only offer token payment…” is alarmingly common. Folks, even if you’re just starting out and hungry for exposure, you should regard non-payment, token-payment, and royalty-only offers for publication as a huge red flag.

I’m not going to tell you that publishers who don’t pay are evil and should be shamed. Quite the opposite. I believe the overwhelming majority of them to be well intentioned and run by people who genuinely love writers and the written word. But the business model is economically naive.

There’s a financial reality that you need to be aware of: Publishing and promoting a book, selling a magazine, even promoting a near-free-to-operate website, it all costs money. Serious money. “If you build it they will come” is a myth. There are hundreds of thousands of books published each year in the United States alone. The latest statistic I can find for magazines (from 2005) estimates there are 10,000 English-language periodicals in North America. According to Netcraft, there are currently 644 million active websites online. Do you have time to read all that? No one does.

So, if someone wants to sell a book, an anthology, a magazine, or the ad space on that free website, they need to spend some serious money on marketing.

When you walk into a big, chain store and you see an author’s new title in a flashy center display? Odds are good that the publisher paid the bookstore a fee for that advertising space. Reviews aren’t free, either. The publisher needs to send copies to reviewers, along with marketing material, and convince them that there’s enough marketing money behind the book to make it worth reviewing. And believe it or not, when the writer is off doing interviews and such to promote the book, that is costing the publisher money, too, because there is a professional publicist whose job it is to know which journalists would be interested in author interviews who spend their days setting up all that “free” publicity. So even though word-of-mouth is the best advertising, even it isn’t free. A book has to hit critical mass before there’s any “buzz” at all. That first wave of readers has to be convinced to give it a read, either by receiving free copies or through carefully targeted ads.

Ergo, any publisher that doesn’t have enough money to give you a nickel a word up front most likely doesn’t have enough money to get word out that your book or story even exists.

I often see a line to the effect of, “We don’t pay an advance because we’d rather spend that money promoting your book.” Seriously? $2000 is a drop in the bucket of a proper marketing budget (and SFWA considers $2000 to be a professional advance for a novel). If the publisher can’t afford $2000 for you, how many ARCs are they going to run? If they can’t afford $2000 for you, how are they going to buy a single print ad? These publishers either don’t want to pay the author or don’t have the finances to do anything that you couldn’t do yourself as a self-publisher.

And, incidentally, any publisher that does have a serious marketing budget and still doesn’t want to give you a nickel a word is seriously disrespecting your contribution in creating the product that they’re planning to make money off of. These publishers should be publicly shamed.

Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t circumstances in which you may wish to work with a non-paying, token-paying, or royalty-only publisher. I’ve done it myself, and have no regrets. But you need to walk in knowing what you’re getting yourself into.

First of all, if you’re an academic writer in need of publications to get tenure, non-paying publications that are respected in academia are probably worth it. The theory here is that your school is paying you to write and publish, and therefore the journal or the publisher don’t need to. Everyone else? You should have a plan in place to get paid.

A royalty-only publisher can be a good way to get your book out to a niche market that you otherwise couldn’t reach. If you write, say, steampunk and a steampunk-oriented press already has a mailing list of steampunk-loving readers, you may find that self-publishing won’t sell as many copies as they could. But it’s important to note here that if they could move a significant number of books, they’d be offering an advance. You’re expecting low sales volume with a publisher like this. And since those sales show up in BookScan, I wouldn’t recommend doing so under a pen name that you plan to use for more commercial fiction.

A no-upfront-payment or a token-upfront-payment short story sale may be worthwhile for an anthology where there is significant profit sharing (substantially higher than standard royalties would be), provided you sincerely believe in the project and the editor. Again, expect low sales. This isn’t helping you build your brand. But a great themed anthology with good stories in it might break through, and if it does, you should be compensated appropriately. It’s your work they’re selling.

If they’re paying nothing at all? Seriously, self-publish. You only need to sell one copy to make more. If you don’t care about making money, post it to your own blog. You’ll get as many readers.

And I say that as someone who can count the number of people who’ve read his blog-published stories on all his fingers and toes.

In the end, it’s all about the money. Publishers who spend more on you move more copies of your work. They have to in order to break even. And moving more copies is the only “exposure” that matters.


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