About a week ago, author Heather Demetrios published an essay called How To Lose A Third of A Million Dollars Without Really Trying. The response from the writing community was swift and varied. It was also emotional because a lot of the writers who reacted to things that Demetrios was saying as well as their own perceptions and experiences which they projected onto her. Things got emotional and muddled and I think it’s worth taking a few moments to think through because, while I don’t always agree with everything she says, Demetrios makes some interesting points and has some good ideas to help writers in the future.
In the piece, Demetrios discusses her publishing career. Early on, Demetrios got two six figure book contracts. For a kid who spent her childhood on food stamps that was exciting to say the last. When she signed the first she tried to keep her head: she kept her day job. But when the second check came through she figured that this change in fortune wasn’t temporary.
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.
So Demetrios quit her day job and fulfilled a lifelong dream of moving to NYC to write full time. She traveled, treated herself to concert tickets, shoes, $15 cocktails etc. Her books were published to critical acclaim, but they didn’t earn out that six figure advance. So the next contract was lower: only $17,000 for her next book, because that was what her last book had made. With a very supportive editor on her side, eventually that was negotiated up to $35,000. When that book didn’t earn out either the next offer was $25,000. Demetrios found herself panicking and in trouble. She couldn’t afford to sustain her lifestyle.
Now a lot of other writers felt that she came of as “entitled” in this piece and that she didn’t do the necessary research to learn about sustainable financial management in publishing. That’s true. She made a lot of mistakes (something she admits). But she also feels that there should have been greater transparency within the industry:
Did anyone working with me — agency, publishing team — tell me that a sumptuous advance was not something I should depend on or get used to? Or that, in fact, it’s extraordinarily common in the publishing industry for untested debut writers to be paid large sums that they may 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 that I was part of, in any way, arm me with the knowledge to protect and advocate for myself in the publishing world? No.
Yes, all of that is information that she could (and yes, should) have sought out with research. But she also has a point in saying that traditional publishing could be a more sustainable industry if there were more attempts to educate new writers about the realities of the business. Writers would be able to make better choices if they had support. With the financial aspects more transparent, they would have more freedom to focus on the creative sides of their work. They could focus their promotional efforts on things that they knew had proven success. All those are good points that could benefit the industry as a whole.
The indie authors who responded with comments like “I wish I could get a $17,000 advance. Be grateful!”: I get it! I’d love a $17,000 advance. Hey, I’d love a $17 advance! But I (like you) made the decision to publish my work this way. While we don’t get the advances we get to keep most (usually about 70%) of our royalties. Traditionally published writers don’t. We also (usually) don’t have to pay 15% to an agent. Most of us made this decision after researching the traditional publishing world as well as indie publishing.
Should Demetrios done that same kind of research about the traditional publishing industry? Yes. But unlike indie publishing, traditional publishing has the resources to put together established structural support. Doing so has few down sides.
Since I wrote about the way our society pays artists in What’s Your Day Job I wanted to respond to this because it looks at some of these issues from another angle.
What do you think? Did Demetrios come across as entitled and privileged? Did she make valid points? Or both?