“Even after becoming a No. 1 bestseller and having all these translation deals,” Xiran Jay Zhao said in their video above
, “I have not seen any money from IRON WIDOW beyond the first three of five payments
my initial small advance was split into. If I didn’t have my YouTube earnings, I would have been struggling with my finances all pandemic—despite knowing my book was going to be a hit towards the end.”
Zhao then talked about the six-figure deal they signed for their next book: The payments have been spread out across three years, with the first installment not deposited until six months after the deal was signed.
Interestingly, between Zhao posting their video and my writing this post, a furious discourse erupted over the nature of six-figure book deals. Some author somewhere offhandedly said that because of standard subtractions like taxes and agent fees, plus the industry splitting advances into smaller chunks and spreading them farther out, and many major deals coming with an obligation to turn around another book pretty quickly…a One Hundred Thousand Dollar Book Deal isn’t “life-changing” in the way most people think of that phrase.
Suddenly, my timeline was awash about how entitled and insensitive professional writers are. How can middle-aged, middle-class authors be so out of touch with the plight of poorer, younger authors?!? Don’t they know how miraculous a $100,000 check would be to a 24-year-old who’s waiting tables and/or drowning in student debt, possibly marginalized on multiple axes, overcoming generational trauma, burning the midnight oil to chase the dream?
Well, here’s a young, multiply-marginalized author who just explained that despite signing two traditional book deals and debuting at No. 1 on the NYT list, they’re not getting a $100,000 check. They’ve been living at home, with a brand-new college degree they’re not going to use, and have been living off YouTube earnings while waiting however long it’s going to take for their publisher to pay out the money they’re owed.
During the Internet Archive kerfuffle, nobody went harder in the Twitter paint than me defending authors’ rights to make money off their labor. Time and again, the “information wants to be free” neckbeards kept falling back on the idea that instead of writers being Idea Landlords, they should try living in a post-scarcity collectivist utopia where all their needs are met, and they make art for fun instead of money.
Which, sure! Let me know when the U.S.S. Enterprise is in low Earth orbit, and I’ll beam the hell up. In the meantime, I’ve got mortgage payments to make.
But…the current system is not really working for anyone?
Writers have to zealously defend their intellectual property because if they don’t, everyone will assume it’s free to take. Literary agents are accepting worse and worse publishing terms in exchange for writers’ labor, because that’s all the publishing companies sitting on billions in cash reserves are offering. And those companies are doing that to compete with Amazon, which has been relentlessly and aggressively dismantling the industry from the outside in
AND the inside out
for the last 20 years.
If Web 2.0 ruined everything for professional writers, why are we charging out to defend the structures built by the Amazons and Facebooks that ruined us?
And when a bunch of really smart people who have no clue how publishing works now, but are eager to provide writers with a collectivized way prosper from labor–without competing for tastemakers’ favor, or signing terrible contracts?
Well, maybe our first response shouldn’t be to flame them off the internet.