Auckland novelist Kirsten McKenzie on making pretty bloody good money as a self-published author
New Zealand authors very rarely talk about writing their income as anything near a liveable wage. Advances are small, the standard 10 percent royalty rate doesn’t add up to much for a run of 3000 book sales, and the lump sum paid out every year through the Public Lending Right (PLR) scheme is antiquated and needs a complete overhaul to properly recompense authors for loans of ebooks and audio books, and to adjust for inflation. But there are other avenues available to reward authors for their work – and they include quite lucrative avenues.
The Twitter hashtag #PublishingPaidMe gained a lot of attention when it was created by black fantasy author LL McKinney earlier this year to expose the inequalities between publishing advances paid to white authors and those paid to POC authors. The resulting tweets provided a bleak picture of how some authors are treated as second-class citizens, not because of the quality of their work, but because of the colour of their skin or the cadence of their names.
But following on from #PublishingPaidMe, I want to point out that a traditional publishing deal isn’t the only game in town. The fact is that self-independent publishing provides a good number of New Zealand authors a very decent income. You just never hear about those authors because their genre fiction books — dystopian, young adult, science fiction, thrillers, horrors, etc – don’t tend to appear on the shelves of New Zealand’s major chain of bookstores.
And here comes the ‘tall poppy’ moment. An admission. I make a full-time equivalent income from my books. An income which does not include any publishing advances, Creative NZ grants, or Public Lending Right payments. My income is derived from ebook sales on a number of digital platforms, including Amazon, and includes sales of paperbacks into libraries and bookshops around the world. It’s here that I delicately refer to one online New Zealand bookstore, who refused to stock my books because I don’t “have an established fan base”, and I haven’t been “recognised by the literary world”. Her words, not mine. It was tempting to reply with my international sales figures …
It is easy to say, “Oh, anyone can self-publish a book.” Anyone can write a book and load it onto a digital platform for sale, yes. But to do that, you need access to three things — a computer, the internet, and a bank account. You also need a degree of computer literacy. A lack of access to those three things creates a hurdle for many aspiring authors, more than any reluctant agent or publisher. Identifying those challenges reinforces the need for better access to computers and the internet in public spaces throughout New Zealand. Imagine the literary landscape we’d have if everyone had the same access to computers and the internet and an opportunity to publish using their true voice. We wouldn’t need #PublishingPaidMe, that’s for sure.
No author needs to rely on a traditional publishing deal with one of the ‘Big Five’ publishers. There’s no need to send out dozens of query letters, waiting for rejection. No need to use a pen name or your initials in order to conceal your gender or your ethnicity to get a foot in the door. You can, at a cost of absolutely zero, publish your book online in less than five minutes, with no consideration to the gatekeepers of the publishing world. Without an editor or agent turning you away because they have already signed “a book by a Black woman” this year, or because they already have one “Asian fantasy novel”, all comments attached to the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag.
It’s true that I don’t receive advances for my books. But it’s also true that I don’t have to earn out those advances. Instead I receive monthly royalty payments ranging between 30 percent to 70 percent of the sale price depending on the digital platform, and there are dozens of digital platforms around the world. Amazon isn’t the only gig in town. I’m not making as much as the incredible New Zealand author Steff Green, who banked over $200,000 last year, but I am making the equivalent salary to what I once earned as a Chief Customs Officer.
But lockdown forced the closure of the world’s bookshops. When that happened, independently self-published authors of ebooks came into their own, pivoting quickly, and their incomes rocketed – including mine.
Talking about earning money as an author seems taboo in New Zealand. There’s an expectation that authors are meant to be happy receiving next to nothing for indulging in their hobby as writers.
Not every author will receive a six-figure advance, sell the movie rights or win the Booker Prize. But I’d wager that every author could, with help and perseverance, earn enough to pay their utility bills every month with money left over for a number of decent coffees. So why perpetuate the myth that the only way to publish is with a traditional publisher? I’ve been traditionally published, and I’ve sobbed into my instant coffee over the meagre royalties sent to me by my UK publisher. Those days are long gone now, thankfully. I look at the experience as a financial learning curve. A steep financial learning curve, which involved lawyers at the bitter end.
Is the reluctance to talk about advances and royalty payments in New Zealand, and the emerging financial success of independently published authors, more to do with the tall poppy syndrome, or is it the fear of change? Or some weird hybrid of the two?
A rising tide lifts all boats, and in the time of Covid, we need to recognise that. Publishing isn’t a competition, there are enough readers in the world for all of us. In the independent publishing world, #PublishingPaidMe holds no sway. Just as it should be.