A pension from your old books? - Katherine Roberts

As a fifty-something female, I'm feeling anxious about the UK's rapidly rising pension age and have been turning my attention to other forms of income to get me through what looks to be a rather alarming financial hole (in my case seven years between 60 and 67 - though I'm not holding my breath).

I've considered several options that might fill this hole. Go back to riding racehorses (I doubt I could still jump back on a fidgety youngster if I fell off in the middle of a field). Retrain for a completely different career with a proper pension scheme, like a clever friend who is doing a law degree in her fifties (might be useful for chasing publishers who default on contracts). Dust off my melodeon and try busking on the street corner (quite a decent hourly rate, actually, but my fingers get cold and I can only remember about three tunes). Sign up for the new Universal Credit (many writers do not qualify because they do not earn the 'minimum income floor' each month). Sell my house and live off the equity (except I'll also need to live somewhere). Keep writing in the hope of securing more book deals (not a certain income at the best of times, and these do not feel like the best of times to me).

The solution? Take control of my backlist books. Don't laugh. This is not as crazy as it sounds.

Books, you see, do not follow the 'real work' model of bringing in a monthly income in return for hours worked. A book is an entirely different animal, more like a mythical unicorn. It might remain elusive, a silver glimmer at the edges of its author's imagination, for years or a lifetime. It might rampage through the world in the weeks following publication, impaling readers' hearts and collecting gold dust on the way. Or it might trot out quietly and enchant young readers by telling them a story in a tent in a muddy field at a festival.

Warning: contains fictional unicorns!

Believe me, I've got a whole herd of elusive unicorns in my house. It's a good thing they are magical and don't take up much space, because otherwise there would not be room for me. Those are the books I've been messing around with over the years but are not finished yet, and they birth a couple of uni-foals every month or so. You'll probably never read most of them (I'm 50-something, remember, and good books take time). I've had the pleasure of creating a rampaging unicorn called Spellfall, which had a successful couple of years upon its first publication with Scholastic in the US, when it brought in decent royalties. That book, incidentally, also contains some fictional unicorns. However, most of my books have trotted quietly through their enchanted glades on publication, gathering a few fans along the way but not too many riches. Afterwards, they just as quietly trotted off the scene when their publishers decided the time had come to put out them out to grass. But the one thing they never did was lie down and die. Unicorns, you see, are immortal creatures... and that is good news for writers.

In these days of digital publishing, there is no need for any title to go out of print, unless you want it to. My award-winning debut Song Quest, for example, had several editions with publishers (Element, Chicken House, Scholastic US, Catnip), before rights reverted to me and I produced the ebook and print on demand paperback you see here.

has been in print since 1999

My other backlist titles (i.e. those out of print at their publishers) are also now available in digital format. Sales are small, but it's extra income from work I did years ago, when these books were written. Yes, I had to put some hours into the conversions and cover design, and learn my way around the digital publishing platforms such as Amazon's KDP and Createspace, but this got easier as I did more books. Having republished them all, I have turned my attention to writing new material, while Amazon, Createspace and epub aggregator Draft2Digital deposit cash monthly straight into my bank account. Normally, this amounts to between £50 and £100, nothing to trouble the big publishers. But around Christmas especially there can be spikes. For example, the print-on-demand paperback version of I am the Great Horse sold enough copies in America in October to earn me around $250... not a bad little 'pension' with today's exchange rate, and certainly enough to feed me this month. Maybe enough left over to buy a couple of xmas pressies and a bottle of fizz to celebrate, too.

fed me this month

Yes, I'm aware it could all disappear next month - but so could my future state pension, if the rules keep changing. I am living proof that even a small number of shy unicorns, transformed into digital format by their author, can make the difference between a writer eating and a writer not eating. And often it is the book that did not work very well in the short term world of high-discount publishing that works best in the longer term, so don't assume only your previous bestsellers are worth saving in this way... word of mouth is a funny thing. Some books will sell well on first publication too, but there is a big difference between a fast seller and a steady seller.

Publishers must play the short game with our books, because that's how big business works - they have many other books and authors on their list. As authors, we need to take control of our backlist and play the long game, because that's how unicorns survive.

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young (and older) readers, and is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Plymouth University.

More details of all her books at www.katherineroberts.co.uk


Sandra Horn said…
Great post, Katherine! I have done the same, but, it must be said, with much less impressive results on most books, except Tattybogle and The Mud Maid, which keep trotting along and tossing me the odd welcome bundle of hay. The others have mostly slunk off into the shadows.
Jan Needle said…
Great post, Katherine.
Umberto Tosi said…
I salute your resourcefulness, Katherine, and appreciate the work it takes to republish your works, having just published a collection of my novellas and stories, half of which had previously been offered as Kindle one-offs, or been published by third parties. It's not recycling, because one always updates, and besides, the new readers you reach are rarely the same people who viewed and/or bought your original editions. It's an all new experience for all. Best of luck with your titles.
Thank you, everyone. I wonder sometimes if the people buying the print-on-demand editions are new readers, or readers who have previously borrowed one of my books from a library, and are now purchasing a print edition, either for themselves or as a gift for somebody... I'm guessing gifts around this time of year!

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