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How I lost a third of a million dollars without really trying

This post was originally published on this site

The first thing I tell debut authors is this:

Assume nothing.

If just one person had sat me down when I signed my first book contract and explained how publishing works, how nothing is guaranteed, and how it often feels like playing Russian Roulette with words, I would have made much sounder financial and creative decisions. I would have set a foundation for a healthy life as an artist, laying the groundwork to thrive in uncertainty, to avoid desperation, panic, and bad decisions that would affect me for years to come.

How would my life be different if a fellow writer or someone in the industry had told me that the money I’d be receiving for my advances was absolutely no indication of what I could make on future book deals?

What pain could I have avoided if they had advised me to not spend that money as if there was more where that came from? I suspect I may have avoided a near nervous breakdown and not come so perilously close to financial ruin and creative burnout. But no one came forward.

One of the most respected publishing houses in the world gave me a hundred thousand dollars to write two books, one of which was already finished, and I was feeling fancy.

As a kid who’d once stood in line with her mother to get food stamps, I could not believe the figures in my bank account.

Now, I want to acknowledge the inherent privilege that I hold as a white, educated, middle-class American. The problems I write about here are “struggles” many people would love to have. They are good problems. Lucky, even. Growing up with a lack of financial literacy didn’t mean that there weren’t opportunities out there for me because of my positioning in the world. I had a leg up, even when I felt like I was in the trenches. Access = Privilege, and I understand that. I try hard to acknowledge my privilege and not be part of the problem, but I didn’t do so explicitly in the original version of this article. Revising is my favorite part of the writing process, and, as my piece shows, clearly a big part of my personal life.

I wish I could go back and revise the past six years.

At first, I played it smart. I didn’t quit my day job and I wrote a larger-than-usual check to my student loan company when the advance came through. I didn’t know if this was a one-time thing or not. But when I sold a trilogy to another publisher the following year for over a quarter of a million dollars (even now I cannot believe I wrote that sentence and, furthermore, that it’s true), I thought I had made it — forever. Not “made it” for a moment. Not for this one book deal. Forever. Otherwise, I reasoned, they would never have paid me such enormous sums. These publishers must be investing in me for the long run. I was one of their own.

It had happened twice in a row, these six-figures: surely I had somehow become one of the chosen few. After years of research and struggle to break out in such a ferociously competitive industry, I’d somehow come out ahead — and somehow missed several critical aspects of the business. That was on me, to some extent. Surely there were writers who had gotten the memo about how advances worked, and the ins and outs of publishing. But so much of an aspiring writer’s life — and so many of the resources available to them — is focused on getting that first book deal. What came after the deal was beside the point. It was putting the cart before the horse. All I’d cared about was the horse.

It’d also be fair to say that the same energy and drive that had landed me a book deal in the first place guided much of my decision-making process in ways that weren’t always helpful. I reasoned that if I’d achieved the impossible once, why not again? Someone has to be on the bestseller list, win the National Book Award, have the big movie deal. I felt like a lucky penny, and I was willing to put the work in if the luck ran out.

Did anyone working with me — agency, publishing team — tell me that a staggering advance was not something I should depend on or get used to and that, in fact, it’s extraordinarily common in the publishing industry for untested debuts to be paid large sums they will never see again? No. Did anyone in the publishing house take me under their wing and explain to me how the company made decisions about future book deals? No. Did the publisher tap a more seasoned author on their list to mentor me, as many major corporations encourage within their companies? No. Did the MFA in Writing program I was part of in any way arm me with the knowledge to protect and advocate for myself in the publishing world? No.

After that second advance came through, I stepped into my dream life: quit my day job to write full time, moved to New York City, bought fifteen-dollar cocktails, and learned with astonishing speed to not bother worrying about the prices when I ordered at a restaurant.

I said yes to travel (often book research I wasn’t reimbursed for), said yes to concert tickets, to new shoes, to finally being able to buy people the kind of presents I felt they deserved. I gave large sums of money as donations to organizations I cared about, delighted to feel like I was making a real difference. Did I pay off my student loans? No, just a few large payments. Did I set money aside for retirement? No. My reasoning was that the next book I sold, I’d take care of all that. Right now, I had to suck the marrow out of life — and invest heavily in trying to build my author brand. An expensive website no one told me I didn’t need, swag to give out at events that didn’t make a difference at all in either social media following or book sales. In fact, it wasn’t really my dream life because when I wasn’t writing like mad to meet deadlines and come up with new books to sell so I could stay relevant in the industry, I was hustling like nobody’s business, trying to build my author brand in the hopes it would get me on the list. Forever.

My publisher didn’t tell me I had to get that website. And no one said I should be buying fancy cocktails. That was all my choice, a combination of an almost manic pursuit of joie de vivre — Fitzgerald would understand — and an attempt to keep up with successful authors who seemed to know what they were doing. I figured they had cracked the code — swag, website — and I just had to follow suit.

Despite some poor choices, I tried very hard to do right by this unexpected reversal of fortunes. My husband’s school where he taught had a financial planner that offered services to teachers, so we met with him and his partner, but it was obvious they only wanted to sell us life insurance. Our tax guy told us what to write off, but we had no idea what we were doing. No writer I knew had a person they trusted to advise on finance: it’s a notoriously predatory industry and our unconventional earnings make getting clear advice difficult indeed.

The sum of $375,000 (the combined total of my two big advances) less my agent’s commission of 15% and taxes is about what a teacher in the New York City public school system makes over the course of, say, four years. Since I lived in Brooklyn, one of the most expensive cities in the world, I knew I’d have to be careful — this money would have to last me until I sold another book. While I was buoyed by the very small, very occasional foreign book deal, this was it until there were more books in the pipeline, which was why I opted not to pay off loans or invest the money.

Let’s take a pause. What could I have done differently?

  • I could have opted to move to a city that was less expensive, certainly. But I’m an artist, so throw me a bone: I’d wanted to live in New York City my whole life and that was always the plan, even before I got my book deal.
  • I could have chosen not to quit my day job, but it would have been tough. I had five books under contract at once, plus the enormous task of building and maintaining an author brand. I began a two-year MFA program two weeks after I got my first book deal — a program I entered in the hopes of ensuring I’d always have work as a writer, even if book deals were low or slow and coming. I had no idea, and was not told upon entering the program, how it’s almost impossible to find work as faculty in any college or university, regardless of how qualified you are. To say my writing plate was full would be an understatement.
  • What I wish I had done, more than anything, was pay off my student loans and put myself on a strict budget — a budget that assumed I was never going to make money I could live off of as a writer again.
  • I wish I had saved a down payment for a house.
  • And I really wish I had at least put money aside each year for retirement.

I didn’t do those things.

As the royalty statements came in and a foreign book contract was dropped due to low sales, my worry grew. I began to notice that my publishers, by and large, weren’t promoting my books.

One sent me on tour, which is about as luxe as it can get for an author, but few people showed up at the events and that was that. Panic began to set in when my first book wasn’t put into paperback — never a good sign. When the third book in my trilogy came out, I received a call from the publisher two days after it came out to say how sorry they were the trilogy hadn’t worked out as we’d hoped.

I couldn’t catch a foothold in the social media world and my following had plateaued no matter how much I re-worked my approaches. None of my publishers coached me on social media or gave me or any authors I know tools to navigate being the main person responsible for all my book promotion in the company.

Fast-forward to my third book deal. I’d submitted a contemporary novel after having won a PEN award for my debut novel (the Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award), garnered several starred reviews, had multiple books on important lists, and worked hard on author branding and social media. You might think I had every reason to believe that my advance would be commensurate with the last one the publisher I’d submitted this new book to gave me: $50,000 per book, that big debut two-book deal.

What other job would lower your salary after getting such great performance reviews? But by this time, I’d heard some water cooler talk among authors that if your numbers aren’t great, it can affect your advance.

Problem is, no one tells you your numbers, so I really had no idea where I stood. Whenever I asked, I either received no answer or just a vague, Oh I’m sure the book’s doing great, just keep writing.

Writers are kept in the dark to such a degree that we often don’t even know the date our book is coming out until a Google alert tells us our book — which we may not have even been paid for yet (true story) shows up on Amazon.

After the acquisitions meeting for this most recent novel, my agent told me the news wasn’t great, as my first two titles hadn’t “earned out.” This was a term no one had familiarized me with and simply means you sold enough books to cover your advance and can now begin earning royalties. The publisher still wanted to work with me — something I was thankful for — but they were only willing to offer me what my most recent book had made: just over $17,000. Never mind that the book was critically praised, had star reviews, and had made some of those nice lists. It wasn’t making money. It is a business, after all, and it’s important we remember it. However warm the fuzzies might get because we love reading, there’s still a bottom line. Which is fair: to a point. I had done my job — written a stellar book, but one that had received very little marketing assistance from the publisher, as it wasn’t what’s called a “lead title.” This means that most bookstores I walked into didn’t stock it and few readers had heard of it.

So, in effect, the only person receiving a pay cut for the novel’s poor sales was me, even though I’d done my job well.

My editor, a real gem who believes in my work and is currently editing my most ambitious fiction project to date, advocated hard for me, and the acquisitions team agreed to increase the amount of my advance: to $35,000. This, of course, is less my agent’s commission of 15% and then you gotta pay Uncle Sam his cut. When it was all said and done, the advance wasn’t enough to live on, certainly in Brooklyn, where I was at the time. In fact, they were paying me less than half the salary of a public school teacher, which my husband, in addition to being an author, is and was at the time.

Keep in mind that authors are paid for their books, but not for the full time job being an author is these days.

I do more marketing than most marketing professionals, including loads of promotional work in the form of interviews, guest posts, podcast appearances, and the like. My publishers have never made so much as a bookmark for me, though twice they agreed to design them if paid for the printing myself. If I wanted to go to a book festival or important industry conference out of town, I had to pay unless the festival organizer was covering the costs, which they rarely do. On one occasion my publisher sent me out and there were two other times either the plane ticket or the conference fee was covered. Other than that, I’d have to manage on my own. I couldn’t afford that, which meant I was not able to connect with important librarians, booksellers, and industry professionals to amplify my books and, thus, my sales. I have a book coming out next year that is getting more marketing attention already, but I know better than to get my hopes up too much.

Each new book is like a weekend in Vegas: maybe I’ll get lucky, maybe I won’t.

Desperation sank in when I got that $35K advance. I’d been offered a two-book deal, but decided to only sign for one, in the hopes that I could somehow garner better sales and try for a higher advance the next time. None of the people in the room, so to speak, warned that, given my numbers and the lack of backing from the marketing wing, the next time around the advance could be lower. Perhaps my team at the agency and publishing house had as much faith as I did in the book and truly believed that this one would be the ticket. They often spoke of wanting me to break out — but there was never the necessary boost from the powers-that-be that could make that possible. Maybe the people who were making this deal knew deep down, as I did, that we were throwing coins into a wishing well. At the end of the day, I decided that this book deal was better than no book deal.

We signed the papers, made a wish at the well.

That book didn’t earn out either and so the advance for my next book with this publisher was $25,000 — half of what they gave me for my first deal and $10,000 less than the deal the year before. See? I should have done that two book deal for $35,000. My poor choice had cost me dearly. The smaller the advances got, the more strain I began to experience. Suddenly, the credit card couldn’t be paid off. Suddenly, I was emailing my agent’s assistant to inquire about the advances I’d yet to receive for tiny foreign deals — I dearly needed that $2,000 those Eastern Europeans owed me.

While no amount of mentorship could have determined the outcome of my book sales, it would have helped me make informed decisions about the books I did sell and how I spent the money I earned.

Instead, I’d dug myself into a hole with juggling multiple projects I’d sold out of desperation, hoping that this one would be the pivot that would change the course of my sales. I found myself with more deadlines than ever, but even less time to write, since I’d had to become ever more dependent on my side hustles.

Added to the financial despair was shame and depression and fear. All I could think was that I had wasted the one opportunity the universe had given me to write my way out.

Instead, I’d written myself back into the prison of nearly all the people I knew: living paycheck to paycheck, without reliable health insurance, little retirement, no property, and one big emergency away from total ruin. This, as an author only published by Big Five publishers, with multiple books out and still more under contract, with a PEN award and critical acclaim.

I pivoted, creating new projects that challenged me to no end and were way outside my comfort zone. While I was genuinely excited by them, I was also fighting with everything in me to stay in the game, to not let my dream of being a life-long professional writer slip through my grasp after a brief flirtation with the big time.

Of course, I also needed to keep money coming in while trying very hard to write things I cared about and executed well. And while I was building a dedicated readership and continuing to see those books be well received by reviewers, the proof was not in the pudding whenever I got a royalty statement. Almost worse, no one who could have helped me, who could have told me not to sell certain titles or mentored me into a more healthy space, did so. Perhaps I put on too good a face: so prolific! So productive! Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s…Maybelline?

The range of my advances had gone from $75,000 per book (my highest advance) to $20,000 per book (lowest) over the course of five years. The level of work was the same regardless of the advance, if not of a higher quality. The expectation placed on me — and that I placed on myself — to write these books well soared; I had the sinking suspicion I was on the verge of being an acquisitions pariah, a financial liability.

Fast forward to right now: I’ve moved away from New York City to Durham, North Carolina, a much more affordable city. I’ve embraced the Friday Night Lights mantra as my own: Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. While I still have four books under contract and am hopeful they will do well, my sense of vocation has expanded.

Now, much of my passion is invested in helping other writers avoid the mistakes I made. To writing pieces like this, that shed light on the issues, toxicity, and dangers of the publishing industry. We need more writers who are willing to mentor debuts like the one I once was, as well as aspiring writers.

There is such a focus on how to break into the industry, and very little guidance once a writer finds herself walking past those gate keepers.

  • If you’re a writer, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t worry about seeming too green, too naive. You do yourself no favors when you apologize for yourself. You have a seat at the table: dig in. Ask for seconds.
  • Always be an advocate for yourself. Wanting answers and seeking accountability is not demanding: it’s good business. Know what you want, value what you have to offer, and ask for what you need — from your publishers, your agency, and anyone else on your team.
  • Seek quality mentorship from writers who are further ahead of you on the path, and who have the kind of career and author presence you aspire to. Don’t engage in water cooler complaining sessions. Be an active character in your story. And some day, when you are the experienced author, pay it forward to a debut.

In some ways, I’m just as passionate about artist advocacy and education as I am about writing itself. I tell my students and clients to assume nothing. I teach them about the industry. I tell them they deserve a seat at the table, and try to impart the craft and story tools they’ll need to get there — and I make sure they internalize that keeping their seat at the table isn’t in their hands at all, no matter how good they are, or how much they hustle for their worth.

In an unexpected plot twist, I’ve found that mentoring writers is like writing itself: words as lamps in the darkness, helping the reader find the path that will take them where they want to go.

Heather Demetrios is a critically acclaimed author, writing coach, and certified meditation teacher. She has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real, which is not at all impressive to her cat or imaginary friends. Her novels include Little Universes, I’ll Meet You There, Bad Romance, as well as the Dark Caravan fantasy series: Exquisite Captive, Blood Passage, and Freedom’s Slave. Her non-fiction includes Codename Badass: A Feminist Pop Biography. She is the editor of Dear Heartbreak: YA Authors and Teens on the Dark Side of Love. Her honors include books that have been named Bank Street Best Children’s Books, YALSA Best Fiction For Young Adults selections, a Goodreads Choice Nominee, a Kirkus Best Book, and a Barnes and Noble Best Book. Her work has appeared in LA Review of Books, Bustle, School Library Journal, and other fine outlets.

Find out more about Heather and her books at heatherdemetrios.com and visit her on Twitter: @HDemetrios and @page_count. Her newsletter, The Lotus & Pen, provides resources for the writing life.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated by the author to add an explicit acknowledgement of her privilege.

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