David Farland’s Writing Tips: Math for Writers

David Farland's Writing Tips: Math for Writers

In high school, I was fairly good in math—good enough to win a National Math Award and complete several years of college math in one year.

As a writer, you would think that we don’t need to use math very much, but we do it every day.

For example, yesterday I wrote 2200 words on a story. I then revised another 7500 words. At my current rate, I’ll finish my project today. 

Two thousand words per day isn’t bad. If you did that for 365 days a year, you would write 700,000 words per year—seven full novels.

If you sent them out to publishers and managed to sell them for $10,000 each, you could make a frugal living just off of the US advances.

However, a friend of mine actually tried this nearly thirty years ago. He wrote six novels in one year and sent them out to publishers, hoping to make $10,000 in advance on each. (Foreign rights of course would sell later, adding significantly to his pipedreams.) To his surprise, the publishers purchased the books for $30,000 each. It turned out that publishers were able to pay three times as much for a completed novel than for one that he had not yet written. You see, the book is worth much more when the publisher could see the quality and didn’t have to worry about whether the author would get it turned in on time.

When I sold my first novel, I had eight publishers who asked to see it. I took it to an agent, and she thought we should narrow our list down a bit. So, she submitted the book to three publishers, and got three offers. This was back in the old days when mass market paperbacks were big, and all three offers were in the same price range. 

One offer suggested a lower advance but gave 25% more royalties. I liked that idea. I figured that I was in this for the long haul. My agent liked it for a different reason. “This company had twice as many sales reps as the others, and therefore sold 50% more copies overall.” Now when I look at a potential publisher, I look at how many sales reps they have.

In fact, when studying a publisher, I look at a lot of things. How many books in the bookstore does that publisher have facing out? That tells me which publishers are spending big on point-of-sale advertising. 

I also look at how many six-figure and seven-figure advances the publisher is paying to authors in my genre. That tells me how “committed” the publisher is to that genre.  

I might also look at how many books that publisher has on the bestseller list in my genre, so that I can see how “well” they are publishing. To the best of my ability, I can even get estimates on how many copies of bestsellers they’re moving.

You see, you really only want publishers who have demonstrated the ability to move books.

Before querying any editor, I might look at the authors and books they’re publishing. How many protagonists are male vs female in the books? What are the ages of the protagonists? There are a dozen writing statistics that I look at, too. How many metaphors do the editor’s authors use per page, how many hooks?

With magazines, I learned early to find out which markets paid the highest rate per word. Was it 2 cents a word, or 20? Most markets in SF were paying 6 cents per word back in the day, but I found that if you wrote a great story, you could usually sell reprint rights two or three times and bump that up to double or triple.

Usually the magazines that paid the best also had the largest circulation. Some of the “high-profile” magazines that won a lot of awards didn’t have a huge readership. Turns out that the editors were campaigning hard for awards—which is what a smart editor should do. So the question became, do you submit your story to a magazine that has a circulation of 20,000 or 200,000? 

Maybe if you wanted awards, the smaller magazine would be a great choice. Winning a Hugo or Nebula has a cash value that goes far beyond the couple of cents more that you might get paid in a larger market. But if the story you were selling was the opening chapter to a novel, maybe the extra visibility would be worth giving up a shot at an award. By publishing in a large magazine, you might get a few thousand extra book sales.

Yet even the biggest magazines in the US have very small readerships. I’m writing a story for a videogame company right now. It has 400 million players a month, most of them in Asia. That’s an audience far larger than all of the magazines in which I’ve ever published, combined.

Nowadays, when looking at advertising, we have to consider things like: How many viewers are on Instagram vs Facebook? Should I put my video up first on YouTube or Twitch? And how many of those viewers are readers, anyway?

When publishing a book, I write for a global market. I’m not just writing for the 25 million people in Australia, or the 38 million in Canada, or the 68 million in Great Britain. If you’re writing just for people who live in your own country, you’re thinking too small. 

There are 1.2 billion English-speaking people in the world. I’m writing for them.

There are another 1.1 billion Mandarin-speakers in the world. I’m writing for them, too, and for all of the others in any country who read..

In fact, I’m not just writing for the 8 billion people who are alive today. There are billions yet to be born.

 When it comes to numbers, writers need to be thinking of bigger numbers.

This month we’ll be hearing from Traci Hainsworth; screenwriter Spanky Ward; Mark Leslie Lefebvre; Elizabeth Chatsworth and more!

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