Writing Tips: Authors Getting Paid for Events

Dollars for AuthorsThere’s been a big kerfluffle going on about authors getting paid to speak at events, whether solo or as a panelist. I’ve been seeing a series of different perspectives on this issue The Passive Voice, a very useful site that highlights articles around the web on publishing in general, and indie publishing in particular.

The debate was already in progress in the media and online, when author Philip Pullman took a stand in January 2016 and resigned as a Patron of the Oxford Literary Festival because they don’t pay their authors. This rather enflamed the debate because Philip Pullman, the author of the bestselling novel, The Golden Compass, is something of a marquee writer.

I have experience on both sides of the fence. I’m an author, albeit a fledgling one. I’ve also organized and run dozens of technical conferences. I’m a member of the Washington Science Fiction Association, which runs Capclave, an annual science fiction literary convention held in the Washington DC area. I have also spoken at numerous technical conferences and literary conventions.

So, I’m a big fan of the following principles.

         Yog’s Law: Money flows towards the writer.

         David Gerrold: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing for money.


I have to qualify this a bit. My general rule of thumb is: If you make money, then I make money.

I’m talking about significant money. A typical convention, especially one hosted in a hotel, can easily cost 20 – 40K or more to put on, much of which has to be paid up-front (hence the reason most events have early bird pricing bargains to encourage attendees to sign up early). Committing money up-front requires assuming risk; those who take the risks should rightfully make more than those who don’t.

The average convention doesn’t really make a profit, or at least not a significant one. At best, they make seed money to make it easier to sustain the event in the future. In fact, most SF conventions are run as non-profit organizations. So I don’t expect to be paid in cash. It’s eminently reasonable for authors appearing on panels and conducting workshops to attend the event for free, and conventions generally do this. There’s usually a minimum; I believe Capclave awards free attendance for appearing on three or more panels or running one workshop. A good workshop is considered to require much more effort than being a panelist (this is true, by the way, trust me on this).

Generally, program participants get free attendance and the attendant validation of being promoted as an author by the convention. Guests of Honor generally receive more money because they’re draws. Usually this devolves to paid expenses, such as hotel, airfare and meals. For SF conventions, with their low ticket prices, this is generally the max. In fairness, Guests of Honor also get much more in the way of promotion but are also generally booked for many more timeslots than other authors at the event.

As an aside, most regional SF literary conventions have a weekend price of $60 or so, which can be ameliorated by earlybird pricing. Even Worldcon, which ranges from 4000 to 10,000 attendees, is priced at around $250 for a much larger event (likewise ameliorated by earlybird pricing).

Now, in the world of technical events, ticket prices are much higher. For those events, it’s quite common for keynote speakers and people who are legitimate draws to be paid a speaking fee, and sometimes a significant one.

Even there, you have to make some judgements. If George R. R. Martin is speaking at local SF conventions like Capclave or Ravencon, his expenses will be taken care of, but even he won’t be paid a significant speaking fee. The budget just isn’t there, but the promotion opportunity is still very real, even for Martin. On the other hand, if Martin is the keynote speaker at a high-priced Hollywood screenwriter conference, then he might very well expect a speaking fee.

I can’t judge whether Phillip Pullman was right in pulling out of the Oxford Literary Festival. I don’t know what the event’s budget was or what, if any, profit was made. Philip Pullman is sufficiently prominent that he might very well command a reasonable speaking fee. Many other authors, myself included, would not.

I think authors need to look critically at their potential as a draw, the size of an event, the budget of an event, their own potentially uncompensated attendance costs (hotel, airfare, meals, etc.) and the level of promotion provided by the event. After that, it’s a business decision, tempered by realistic expectations based on a sober assessment of an event. I don’t think authors should automatically assume that the world owes them speaking fees for being a program participant. If that’s what you think then, well, I’m happy to take your slot.

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So Clueless It Hurts

I was recently at a…well, let’s call it a networking event…for writers and science fiction fans. I ended up seeing a man there that I knew from other events, a writer in perhaps his late fifties. Now, I probably hadn’t seen this fellow, who I’ll refer to as Bob for the sake of anonymity, in probably six months. When we’d last talked, he’d mentioned that he had a novel that was in the process of being published by a small press.

“Hi Bob,” I said, walking up to him. “Nice to see you again. It’s been ages.”

We exchanged some pleasantries, and then I asked, “Hey, how’s that book coming along? Has it been published yet?”

“No,” Bob said. “It’s still in process. It’s a small press, you know, and the owner, well, they guy had some health issues.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that. I hope he’s doing OK.”

“Yeah, he’s on the mend, but he’s way behind,” Bob said. He took a sip of his drink. “He’s hired some staff to help him get caught up.”

“Do they have a publication date for you yet?”

“No, but they’re working on it. The guy offered me my rights back if I wanted them, but I told him no.” Bob shrugged. “I can wait. I mean, he produces really nice looking books.”

I was a bit incredulous. His publisher is at least six months late on publication, and he’s acting like this is no big deal. Casually, I probed further. “So, he can’t tell you when it’s coming out?”

“No, but I’m not worried. I’m not losing any money. Besides, I only get paid when copies get sold.”

So now he’d basically told me that he didn’t get an advance for the novel. I’m not too worried about that because, frankly, advances are more of a “big trad publisher” thing than a “small press” thing.

But he’s apparently never heard of “opportunity cost.” If you have a story that’s done, and it’s not out there where folks can potentially spend money on it, then the time that passes erases any money that you could have been earning if only it had been available. In business, time really is money.

Let’s say that his novel had the potential to earn a $1000 a year (assuming some reasonable marketing). Bob was clueless that he’d just lost perhaps $500 of potential earnings.

Even worse, if the small press owner was unable to get the book out on time because of illness, what were the odds that he’d be able to market it effectively? That’s a business consideration, as well, and one that almost certainly would warrant terminating the contract.

This is basic business stuff and Bob was totally clueless about it all. He was so focused on getting his book published, that he didn’t think about opportunity cost, marketing or even income. In my humble opinion, this cluelessness towards the business aspects of a writing career is why writers like Bob have been taken advantage of so badly by publishers, agents and other folks over the years. And it’s why so many otherwise talented writers are unable to make a living at writing.

It’s great to be creative. It’s great to be a writer. But if you really want to have a career, take the time to learn the business side of the writing life. Please, pretty please.

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Head Shot, or “Hey, He Looks Like an Author”…

David Keener, Author at Large I thought I’d share the head shot that’s going to accompany my bio in the upcoming anthology, “Reliquary.” The portrait photo is by Asher Roth, a friend and fellow author, and was taken at one of our weekly writing group sessions.

And, yes, it’s going to be a little smaller when it’s included in the anthology.

Anyway, the anthology should be coming out around the end of May.

Editorial Note: (July 2, 2016) The anthology is still in progress. All of the stories have been submitted, including my story: “Road Trip,” which is an urban fantasy mash-up with military and police procedural overtones. Personally, I’m betting on the end of August as an actual release date.

Editorial Note: (August 20, 2016) Well, nope, not gonna be the end of August. On the other hand, all of the stories have been copyedited and turned over to the production crew, so the target publication date is now September 30, 2016. Marty Wilsey will be doing print book production, while I’ll be doing the Kindle ebook production.

Editorial Note: (October 25, 2016) Sigh. It will now be published in November. I chalk most of the delays up to: 1) the cat herding necessary to get all of the stories in, 2) the complexity of the work (100K words with full wraparound cover, fancy typography, illustrations, etc.), 3) the learning curve the production team had to climb for both the print and ebook editions, 4) two, yes, two rounds of copyedits, and 5) learning the hard way why contracts are necessary (resulting in a story being pulled and all bio photos having to be redone, including the one to my left). On the other hand, the proofs look stunning.

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Sometimes the Best Reviews…

I just finished the first draft of my novelette, “Road Trip,” and I’m now working on my second draft edits. The is the story that’s going to be published in May in the anthology, Reliquary, so I’m well on track to have it fully polished and ready by the April 30th deadline.

Since I’m working on my second draft edits, I’m looking at the comments I’ve received on each part of the story from the members of my writing group. The best thing about going over all the comments with a fine-toothed comb is that I found this little nugget from Lou Lamoureux, the author of Recalled to Duty:

Good story. Reminds me of Neil Gaiman w/ more flavor.

Not sure it’s true, but still… Gotta love it.

The official blurb for “Road Trip” is:

Rocco Fitch, a wounded veteran of the war in Afghanistan, doesn’t have much left to live for. He’s disabled, unemployed and his wife has left him, taking their daughter with her. Then a beggar, a war veteran like himself, offers to sell him a road.

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Thoughts on Dixie Fey: The Accidental Urban Fantasy Series

Dixie FeyThere was one really interesting thing that happened when I ran my workshop, “Creating an Adaptive Setting,” at Capclave last October. I created the “Dixie Fey” urban fantasy setting, based in the southern U.S., as a world-building exercise to illustrate the strategies I was teaching in my workshop.

To my surprise, in addition to the workshop itself going extremely well, it turned out that the “Dixie Fey” setting turned out to be considerably more of a hit with the attendees than I expected. I fielded questions from the class in which they asked me if the setting was real, i.e. – if I was setting stories there. And whether I’d consider a “Dixie Fey” anthology.

I intend to run this workshop again. I can’t help but wonder if this question will come up again. It seems to me that there’s an opportunity here. Somewhere.

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Editing a New Anthology

One of my writing groups, the Loudoun Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers, is producing its second annual anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories. The editor will be S. C. Megale, another member of our writing group.

Additionally, as with the first anthology, I will be producing the Kindle ebook for the anthology, as I am currently doing for the first anthology. Martin Wilsey will be producing the print edition, taking over from John Dwight (who did a superb job on the first anthology). Donna Royston is available for copyediting; she does this professionally in her day job for a technical journal.

The group decided on a theme of “relics” for the anthology, so every story, whether science fiction or fantasy, will feature some sort of relic. Naturally, we expect the writers to liberally interpret the meaning of “relic” for their stories. This, of course, prompted me to suggest the title of “Reliquary” for the anthology, which was enthusiastically accepted by the group.

I’m a big believer in constant improvement. I’d like to build on the success of the first anthology and do even better with the second volume. To that end, here are my goals:

  • Do at least as good a job with the design of the print edition as the first anthology.

  • Improve on the copyediting of the first anthology; we are still finding grammatical issues and typos.

  • All entries should be stories, with a beginning, middle and end. No vignettes or chapters from longer works (unless said pieces work as complete stories).

  • The print edition and ebook edition should come out simultaneously.

  • The second anthology should have a professional-looking cover.

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Never Mess With a Writer

A true story. Thursday night, I was in Wendy’s waiting for my order to be filled, standing next to an older gentleman who had already been waiting when I arrived.

The next person in line, a tall teenager, whose age I estimated at perhaps 18, finished giving his order. He turned towards me and said, “Did you know that the word ‘facetious’ has all of the vowels in order?”

“Interesting,” I said. “Did you know that ‘bookkeeper’ is the only word in the English language that has three double letters in a row?”

The teenager looked at me dumbfounded, while the older man next to me started laughing.

Never mess with a writer.

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Post-Beta Changes for “Bitter Days”

I’ve started working seriously on my post-Beta changes to my story, “Bitter Days.” The blurb for the story is:

Pageeda is a young, homeless orphan girl living on the dangerous streets of the gritty port of Mozanya. When she loses the older sister who raised her to some ruthless kidnappers, she’ll do anything to get her sister back — even become a hero.

There were a number of changes that were suggested by my Beta reviewers, including a slightly revised ending, that I’m implementing in this (hopefully) final draft. The story is officially a novelette according to Hugo Award length guidelines. Novelettes range from 7,501 to 18,500 words, and the story is currently 16,373 words (or about 65 pages in a paperback book).

Can anybody guess how I’ve been planning to spend my 11-day-long Christmas vacation?

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Preliminary Anthology Math

Some friends and I have been discussing the possibility of producing a fantasy anthology. Creating a quality anthology requires a business-like approach, since there are real costs that have to be accommodated. I did some preliminary figures on doing the anthology in both print and ebook (Kindle). I’m assuming some sort of IndieGoGo campaign to fund the anthology.

Consider an anthology in trade paperback (like the ones I’ve seen people selling at Capclave). Figure 250 pages at 250 words per page for 62,500 words. At 2 cents a word, the writers would get $1250. At the standard pro rate of 6 cents per word, writers would get $3750. Now figure on getting a real cover for $250. And some professional graphic design work (interior and cover) for a $100. And professional editing for $800.

The minimum figure to create the anthology is $2400, paying all involved parties at least something, and paying the authors an initial 2 cents a word. But that’s not quite the end of the expenses. (The fully price to pay the standard pro rate of 6 cents a word would take us to $4900.)

There’s a cost associated with producing the books, and it’s a little hard to calculate because it’s different for print vs. ebooks. Let’s assume that the IndieGoGo campaign sells books/ebooks at a 1/3 ratio. Ebooks cost nothing to produce. Let’s assume that they can be sold for $4.99. Amazon will take it’s 30%, or basically $1.50, leaving $3.49 profit per ebook.

Printed books, on the other hand, require some fixed costs to produce. For a $14.99 book, you’re looking at about $6 to produce the book. Amazon will take 30% of the sale price, or about $5 (rounding up). So that leaves $3.99. However, the books need to be shipped, which is an additional cost. So, the IndieGoGo campaign would need to add about $3 per printed book for shipping.

Getting back to our projected ratio of one print book for every three ebooks, the numbers look like this for the minimum funding level:

      161 print books
      483 ebooks

This can be ameliorated a bit by adding an option so that anybody that buys a print edition can get the ebook for just a dollar more. If we assume that half of the buyers of the print edition buy also opt to buy the ebook, then the numbers look like:

      78 print book only
      78 print book + ebook
      468 ebooks

This can be adjusted even more by emailing the ebooks rather than sending them via Amazon. The buyers would also have to get instructions on how to get the ebook to their Kindle readers (a solvable problem). That increases the margin on ebooks from $3.49 to $4.99, and on the dollar-extra-special from 70 cents to the whole dollar. Our numbers then become:

      61 print book only
      61 print book + ebook
      363 ebooks

So, these numbers assume that we’ve priced everything as shown below:

      $4.99 Ebook
      $14.99 Trade Paperback (signed)
      $15.99 Trade Paperback (signed) + Ebook

I’ll have to think about other levels we might offer prospective supporters. This will require more research to see what other IndieGoGo or KickStarter campaigns have done in the past.

Bear in mind that some of these figures need a good bit more work, but they’re in the ballpark. There are still things that can potentially be done, such as:

  1. Higher prices for “more stuff”…e.g. – the extra levels that any good campaign should have. Getting mentioned in the book as a supporter, a major supporter, etc. Any extra levels that get bought can reduce the effort necessary to crack the nut (as long as the costs for extra levels are controlled).

  2. Reduce production costs. If the cover, graphic services or editing can be done for less, then that helps. Except that a certain level of quality is mandated in order to attract buyers.

  3. Pay less for stories. The downside is that this reduces the level of story submissions (and our minimum level is 2 cents a word, which is also going to hurt).

  4. Offer zero pay for key authors in return for an unlimited upside, i.e. – the selected authors become “partners” in the anthology and reap any long-term gains from the anthology. Basically, trading short-term reduction in cost for potential long-term gain. Problematic, since most writers want to get paid.

Anyway, these are some of my thoughts, based on preliminary numbers.

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Second Draft of “The Good Book”

The Good Book

Illustration by Mike Haufe, used under a Creative Commons license.

Today, I’m working on the second draft of my story, “The Good Book.” It’s 12K words, so it’s classified as a novelette. I ended up breaking it into six parts when submitting to my Saturday writing group, the Loudoun County Writing Group. Of all the stories I’ve passed through my writing groups, this one has proven by far the most controversial.

Consequently, I’ve let the story wait for almost six months now, to allow me to gain some distance from it so I can approach the second draft critically. Once I’m done with the second draft, I’m going to submit it to two of my fellow writers for an alpha review, so I can get an educated opinion regarding the story’s somewhat unusual structure.

Here’s my official blurb for the story:

Malcolm Jameson is planning to throw himself off a bridge when a passing bicyclist stops and hands him a magic book. Unsurprisingly, the book has a considerably different plan for Malcolm. And a bad attitude.

Note: (2015/12/27) Finished the second draft on Saturday (12/26) and delivered it to my first alpha reviewer the next day (12/27). This edition is 11,757 words.
Note 2: (2016/03/20) Got some good comments from my alpha review. Thanks to Donna Royston, I ended up ripping out about 3000 words, or about roughly one quarter of the story (it needed a rather painful architectural change). Then I added more content to smooth over the edits and create a seamless whole. It’s been well liked by my beta reviewers, too. This final edition is 10,354 words. It’s going to be the first novelette that I’ll be publishing on Amazon.com.
Note 3: (2016/10/20) I was ready to indie-publish this story next month, but I just got an offer to include it in an anthology.
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