It was a stormy summer day, dead in the middle of August, with lightning sheeting the sky and a deep underwater gloom pervading the parking deck. My three-year-old had fallen asleep in his car seat on our way to the children’s museum, and I could hardly believe my luck: a whole hour to spend on my dumb internet routines.
My publisher’s sales portal updates in massive tranches every few (or two) weeks, so naturally I check it every day. And here was an update—in fact, a huge leap, with total unit sales topping 10,000 for the very first time. I fumbled around in my Gmail, found my book contract, punched the numbers into my phone calculator, did the math. Then, to be 100 percent sure, I had a Wall-Street-whiz friend check my homework.
I’d done it. I’d earned out. In less than two years, if barely.
And all it had cost me was incalculable time and energy, weekends with my family, the opportunity to finesse and sell another book. Truly, I’d busted my ass. Hustled. Worked every connection. Taken what I learned during 12 years’ hard labor in corporate marketing and applied it. Hired a PR person, too. When my nonfiction debut came out in September of 2021, I did dozens of podcast interviews on shows large and small, popular and obscure, and placed excerpts or companion pieces everywhere from Literary Hub to the Wall Street Journal to this website right here. I also gave talks anywhere they’d have me: major museums, universities, writers’ conferences, fan cons, Zoom-based book clubs, libraries—even the reception hall of a pretty country church where, nibbling cookies after the event, a sweet older woman squeezed my hand and told me God had worked through me to write this book, making me wonder ever since if she’s read it and still thinks so. Likewise, I experimented with Amazon ads, and worked with my publisher to arrange e-book promotions. One Kindle Daily Deal that my editor spearheaded led to over 300 sales. Deeply discounted, they nonetheless counted, and even better, the promo spiked hardcover sales.
This was how I beat the odds to sell circa 11,000 books in 23 months, “earning out” my modest $20,000 advance. Depending on the stats you’re looking at, 98 percent of traditionally published books don’t sell more than 5,000 copies their first year in print. Much less their second year in print. Much less their third—you get the idea. By the same token, depending on your stats, only 25 or 30 percent of traditionally published books ever earn out, moving into the black for the publisher and ensuring you, the author, will begin receiving royalties.
It’s possible to earn out lots of different ways, with a mix of foreign-rights sales, e-book sales, audiobook sales, yada yada, but hardcovers tend to get you there quickest. At least this was true with my situation and my sales breakdown. Via all that hustling I scooped up a grim $1.80 of income per book, rising to $2.25 per book after the first 5,000. A breadcrumb trail, if that—Alexa, what’s smaller than a breadcrumb?—I’d been going down for nearly two years.
The pall of the parking deck was nothing compared to these realizations, to the mood that came over me in my milk-spattered, stroller-choked SUV, hands sweating as I cupped my phone and stared until the numbers blurred together, a black soup of digital digits. Could it really be true that absolutely nothing happens when you earn out? That you in fact have to figure it out for yourself that you have earned out? I mean, isn’t earning out like a way bigger deal than that?
Yes, yes, and no.
Here’s what happens when you earn out: Nothing. No one throws beads, confetti, nada. No one even notices. They’re busy. They’ve moved on. They’re not neurotically checking the sales portal or pathologically over-working to try to make those figures tick up, up, up. Which only makes sense, of course. My little book was everything to me, and a blip, a rounding error to everyone else. Which is why I cried that humid, gloomy afternoon in my car, realizing that, hard as I tried, I’d gotten it all wrong.
It may be rare to earn out, but that doesn’t mean earning out should be the goal. I sought to move copies obsessively, nigh compulsively, because I don’t like feeling as if I owe anyone money. That I haven’t earned my keep. What I missed was, given the modest nature of my advance, the sales number required to earn out was modest, too.
Had I really worked so hard for such an irrelevant result? Had I really sacrificed all that time—time I could’ve dedicated to my family, to writing, or to, I don’t know, some new and theoretically more rewarding pursuit—to appease a misguided sense of guilt? Or worse, my ego?
The still more devastating reality—the one that’s even harder to face, which is saying something—is how everything’s just as difficult as it always was during those naïve early days when I was a young, hungry, ambitious, unpublished author lusting after the dream. Writing is not easier. Publishing is not easier. No one’s chasing me down for book #2. Readers, friends, and frenemies ask, but it’s not as if the Big 5 have circled me, barking. I’d thought, hoped, that if I showed I could make a fairly niche title successful, then I’d look better when shopping the next idea, something grander and splashier. But earning out hasn’t made finishing new proposals any easier, which I assume is why I haven’t actually finished a new one, not really finished, not to a salable level. Earning out hasn’t refined the drafts of a novel (labeled, variously and nonsensically, “V1,” “Not_final,” and “Sept23”) that litter my desktop, either. And the commercial realities of the marketplace remain just as difficult. Ditto my pitiful perch within it.
I didn’t shatter my advance with record-breaking sales. I didn’t go on late-night television shows. I didn’t become a household name. I just became one of the 25 to 30 percent of authors who do earn out their advances, and who still remain nobodies, midlist maybes, yesterday’s “some personal news” tweets. Of all the hardships that characterize the writing life, I’m not ashamed to say this one has hit me the hardest. I’d always thought writers were full of shit when they said publishing a book doesn’t change your life. Now I know what they mean. It feels so great to publish a book—it was the crack-high I’d heard about—and that joy doesn’t go away, but it does fade, receding in the rearview. Whereas the shitty part of being an artist thing does not. Like Geoff Dyer said, being an artist means struggling to be an artist. Forever. I’m learning this lesson the hard way because, hahaha, it turns out the hard way is all there is! And man, I hate that, too.
That we always look to the next thing is a given. Ink drying on our first book deal, we start scanning for the second. Receiving one prize, we plunk right down by the mental phone to await the next, necessarily a bigger one. This is natural and uncontroversial and a sign of our perennially flowering hopes for our work. Earning out or not won’t change it. Hell, even becoming a household name probably wouldn’t change it.
In the end, we’re all still struggling artists, whether pros or amateurs, overwriters or underwriters, stoics or self-dramatizers: beating on, pursuing the impossible dream, starting from scratch every time, goddamn it.