Weekly Musing: Where’s My Money?

Before becoming a writer, I had no idea there are different ways authors earn money. I’d heard about royalties mainly in connection with musicians. I’d also heard authors get advances but wasn’t completely sure what that meant. But I had no clue how complicated the system is until I started learning more about the business and based upon my own very limited experience.

There are three ways to pay an author. What most people are familiar with are royalties and advances. The third way is more common in short story and poetry markets and that is being paid up front. I’ll briefly explain each one as well as give pros and cons as I see it.

Advances: Advances are money paid to an author by the publisher ahead of a book’s publication. Most commonly it’s “advance against royalties” meaning the amount of the advance is paid based on what the publisher thinks the royalties will be.

Advances can be small for new authors to several millions for a best-selling author. Factors used to determine the amount are: size of the publisher (smaller publisher means a smaller advance), historic performance of similar books, author’s track record (newer author vs. established author), and the book’s topic (some genres and topics traditionally perform better than others). Usually the advance is paid in installments based upon manuscript milestones such as a signing bonus, when the manuscript is completed, when it’s accepted, and so on.

One advantage of an advance is the author earns money before even selling a single copy. Another pro is it encourages the writer. I imagine it’s a thrill to know a publisher has enough confidence in your work that they want to pay you even set one word has been written. Another positive is as long as the author meets all the agreed upon expectations, their advance is guaranteed even if the book doesn’t sell enough to cover the advance.

One of the biggest cons is advances are it’s becoming less common. Paying money to an author banking on a book is successful enough the publisher recovers at least the advance is risky. There are thousands, millions of books competing for readers and very few become best sellers. Few authors are consistent best sellers so have earned their advances. Another con is if an author does get an advance, it’s going to be smaller then what the average advance used to be. Again, the publisher is taking a financial risk and a newer author without a track record is a bigger gamble then an established author. One more downside is if you have an agent, which most traditionally published authors have, you don’t keep the entire advance. An agreed upon percentage is taken out by the agent. Another con is if your book doesn’t make back the advance, you may not get another advance from your publisher for subsequent books.

Royalties: A royalty is a payment made to an author based upon the number of books sold. If an author has received an advance, royalties are paid after the publisher has sold enough copies to cover the advance. Easy enough concept to understand, however, in practice it’s the most complicated method of payment and the one which can lead disputes between author and publisher. The reason why it’s complicated is because royalties often operate on a sliding scale. This means an author’s royalty percentage depends on how many hardbacks vs. paperback vs. eBooks are sold. The list price of each version is also factored in.

The biggest advantage of royalties is this is where a bulk of authors earn their money. Royalties are paid out on an agreed upon schedule so the author will earn money as long as the book continues to sell.

While royalties have a big advantage, they have a number of complications. Where the book is sold affects the royalty rate. Ever see a book at a chain bookstore then see it at your local grocery store a couple of years? By the time the book reaches the grocery store, the list price is much lower thus impacting an author’s royalty. Another complication is the percentage the publisher calculates for potential books returned. This causes the author’s royalty to go down. And what if the book tanks? Thankfully you’ve got the advance but if you don’t sell many copies, no more money.

Upfront Payment: With upfront payment, a publisher or literary magazine states on their Submission page how much they pay for an accepted piece. Payment varies from a few dollars to several hundred dollars. Instead of paying a set flat rate, others will pay per word up to certain dollar limit.

What’s great about upfront payment is an author gets paid upon either acceptance or publication. No need to wait around for royalties paid each month, quarter, half a year, whatever the terms of the contract are. Another plus is this makes the most sense for submitting short stories or poetry.

A negative is you take a chance the story could be worth more. Many places are only able to pay anywhere from $5 to $25 dollars, which is still better being paid nothing. It’s possible you could earn more if the story or poem were submitted to an outfit offering royalties especially if accepted by a big publisher who knows they can sell a lot of copies. Of course, with multiple authors in an anthology or chapbook everyone shares in the royalties. Naturally if a collection of your stories or poems is published then you don’t have to worry about splitting royalties.

 

A brief look into how authors get paid. Personally, I prefer upfront payment vs. royalties for short stories. One of the anthologies I have a story in is set up for royalty payment. In hindsight I realize that’s not a good idea since the royalty will be split amongst all the authors thus resulting in a potentially smaller payment. I can see where a royalty payment for a short story anthology can be lucrative but only if there are big name authors or if it’s the type of anthology the publisher knows will sell well. However, anthologies don’t sell as well as novels though with Kindles, iPads, Nooks, and other electronic reading devices becoming common place, anthologies have seen resurgence in popularity. As I aspire to become a novelist, the idea of advances and royalties are attractive. After all, it’s a relatively steady source of income and one which has the potential to grow over time.

Weekly Musing: Flashback vs. Backstory, What’s the Difference?

A common compliant I see whenever a story or chapter is critiqued in my writers group is the writer has put in too much backstory. But when I think about it, some incidents of what I and others think are backstory may indeed be flashbacks. While similar, they are different. So what’s the difference? Is one better than the other? How much is too much?

First, let’s look at flashbacks. A flashback is a scene inserted to quickly recount an event that happened before the current point in the story or before the story begins. Something causes a flashback be it a certain scent, a sound, a phrase, or something visual that sparks the character to remember a pivotal event in the past. This can be done via a variety of ways: through a character’s thoughts or actions or through dialogue as they tell someone else the event.

With flashbacks, I think it’s easier for most people to see it such as in visual mediums rather than when we read it. I think this is where some confusion comes in. What might actually be a flashback gets mistaken for backstory. And while flashbacks are one way to include backstory, they are indeed different.

What makes them different is backstory encompasses a vast array of techniques to tell the history of a character. It’s all the events which the author and the character know lurks in the background before the story the reader is given. In other words, what has happened to shape a character into the person the reader sees today.

Backstory can be told through flashbacks, dialogue, a prologue, exposition, internal thoughts, etc. Since backstory is the history of a character, it is an important literary device. It gives the reader a character’s motivation, what haunts him or her, the why of what they are doing or not doing. This is addition to the character telling and showing who they are to other characters.

A big reason why so writers struggle with backstory is because we know, or should know, the history of our character. We spend hours either thinking or writing that history down. There are countless worksheets floating about which can help with this. It’s because we’ve spent so long working on backstory that we want to use it. We also want to give the reader all the reasons why they should be sympathetic and understand this character.

The thing, though, with backstory and every other literary device, is to know how and when to use it. It should be used sparingly and only when it is needed for the story and in a variety of ways. Flashbacks help with this and are best when used to provide the reader an important event which shaped the character. They should be quick as our own memories of events tend to be fleeting. Same thing for all the other ways to incorporate backstory because too much, usually in the guise of info dumps, slows down the story’s pacing. There are times, though, we want to slow the pace down. Perhaps before or after a dramatic event in an effort to calm things down.

So while flashbacks and backstory are similar, they are different. Both should be sprinkled in. Not every story needs a flashback. Not every story needs a lot of backstory. The trick is to resist the urge to put in a lot of either. The analogy frequently used for backstory is to think of it as an iceberg. What we can see above the surface is a small percentage of the actual iceberg. Most of it lies below the surface.

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers was first published in 1940. The story takes place in an unnamed Depression-era Southern town and revolves around the lives of John Singer, Mick Kelly, Biff Brannon, Jake Blount, and Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, a diverse group of all trying to survive life. We follow each character’s hopes and dreams, ups and downs, in heartbreakingly written narrative. The center of the group is the deaf-mute John Singer. Each of the other main characters gravitates toward him, frequently visiting him to unload their burdens and dreams.

John Singer, a man who starts the novel off living with his equally mute, though not deaf, roommate and best friend Spiros Antonapoulos. But circumstances cause the pair to be separated when Spiros is sent away to an insane asylum. It’s after this event that each of the other characters gravitate toward Singer, using him as an outpost to express thoughts and desires they can’t tell anyone else.

Overall, I loved this book. The characters were extremely fascinating and well-developed with the exception of one. The secondary characters are often just as well-developed as the main characters. The prose is lovely and McCullers does a fantastic job utilizing the setting to mirror each character’s journey. The book’s themes carry over to today showing a modern reader just how far we have or haven’t come as a society.

To me the two strongest, most interesting characters are Singer and Dr. Copeland. Singer starts the novel happily going through life doing his job in a jewelry store while his roommate, Spiros, who is also mute but not deaf, works in a candy store. They do everything together and it’s Spiros which gives Singer strength and is the one person he can communicate with. He believes Spiros understands him though the reader at times wonders if Spiros truly has full mental capacity.

When Spiros is committed, this sinks Singer into a depression and causes him to move into the boarding house owned by Mick Kelly’s family. It is here that we start to see the other characters gravitate toward him believing him to be a great listener (he is as he learned to read lips). Others speak to him, treat him as some kind of wise person, but he rarely speaks back. His only form of communication, besides the sign language he used with Spiros, is pencil and paper. Without Spiros, Singer’s emotions become pent up until he can let them out when he visits Spiros. Others trust him with their deepest thoughts and desires yet he trusts no one but Spiros.

My other favorite character is Dr. Copeland, the town’s black doctor whose patients are the black community. Through his work he sees the injustices, prejudices, and lack of opportunity which exists in his community. He tried to fight this by raising his own children to be as educated and socially conscience as him. Yet none of them show the same need for education and desire to fight. Instead they, like everyone else, work just to survive each and every day. They are simply too tired to fight and Dr. Copeland is too old and sick to fight.

Dr. Copeland is a hard man to love. His relationship with his children is strained. Yet despite his gruff manner, many of his patients have named their children after him. But he doesn’t see this as having a positive impact on the community. Dr. Copeland would rather see his patients and their children stand up and fight and work to improve their lives.

Through the doctor the reader is given a front row seat to so many social issues America still struggles with today. We see how difficult it is for the black community in the town to trust any white person as so many of the whites in the town look down upon them. But in Singer Dr. Copeland finds himself trusting a white person for one of the few times in his life believing he is understands the struggle. So he starts visiting Singer to vent his frustrations.

Jake Blount is one of the characters I find myself rather ambivalent about. He wanders into the town, a true vagabond, and spends the first few weeks of his time in town hanging out all day at the New York Café. At first he’s a drunk but eventually stops and begins work at the local amusement park. He fancies himself an intellectual, a communist, and indeed he is well read. His nomadic lifestyle gives the reader a broad glimpse into the Depression.

Like Dr. Copeland he wants to fight an oppressive system. Unlike the doctor, he has the energy to try. He tries a few times to rally his co-workers to protest and to educate them, but those efforts fail. Like the other characters, Singer is his outpost believing very much like Dr. Copeland that this is a man who understands. He has no idea Singer often can’t clearly read Blount’s lips enough to understand what he’s saying.

My two least favorite characters are Brannon and Mick Kelly. Brannon because I felt he was underdeveloped and really didn’t fit into the rest of the narrative. Most of his time in the novel is spent working at the New York Café which is in the same building as his home. He rarely leaves and this is the problem for me. Though his café attracts Singer, Blount, and Mick Kelly, overall he is disconnected from the world at large. Brannon comes across as almost void of emotion even after his wife dies. His point of view didn’t add anything to the story nor gave any insight into the other characters. He also has, by our standards, an odd affection toward Mick. It may very well be a fatherly instinct as he has no children of his own, but even Mick gets a creepy vibe from him.

My other least favorite character is Mick Kelly. She’s the only female main character and is the youngest. The middle child in a large, poor family she starts off the story as a tomboy. Mick is tough yet very motherly in that she is the primary caretaker for her two younger brothers though her mother is alive and well. As the novel progresses she transitions into what would be considered more ladylike mainly inspired by when Singer moves in. She develops this odd crush on him, stalks him, and waits for him to come home each day. It’s not made clear what the attraction because she’s often tongue-tied around him.

Unlike Brannon, she has some fascinating characteristics such as loving classical music even stealing away in the night to listen to music as it flitters into the open from people’s radios. She starts composing her own music and practices after school on a piano located in her school’s gym. But then a horrible accident forces the family into deep poverty and eventually she makes a fateful choice.

On a scale of one to five pencils I’d give The Heart is a Lonely Hunter four pencils. It’s heartbreaking and completely honest in its portrayal of a group of flawed people.