A reader wrote to me with a series of questions on the writing life, the publishing universe, and everything. I asked her permission to answer some of them here.
How did you support yourself while you wrote? How did you manage fears about money? What other streams of revenue come from your book?
Writing is a life, not a living. With a small handful of exceptions, no novelist has ever gotten rich off their work. Of course there are self-help book writers who sometimes make a mint – and authors of such cult stuff as “The Secret” – but that’s non-fiction, and it’s a different situation, especially if you’re an expert with a platform.
Most published writers have a day job which pays their day-to-day bills while they scramble to find time to write their next novel. A lot of those who don’t have a day job are kept alive by willing and supportive spouses who themselves hold down a job (possibly with benefits) while the writer writes.
But let’s look at some of the financial aspects of a writer’s life.
1. You’re self-employed. This means that your taxes are more complicated than those of most working stiffs. Your income is irregular and fluctuating, and one year you might make $50,000 and the next year you might eke out less than $10,000 from your writing. The IRS requires you to pay quarterly taxes in anticipation of how much you EXPECT to earn in a given year. Forget this at your peril.
2. Your huge contract advance (hah!)… isn’t. Let’s say you get $20,000 advance for a novel. Your agent takes 15% of your earnings off the top, leaving $17,000. But wait, it isn’t $17,000… because you get this, if you are lucky, in three installments. One on signing (which can be fluid – I once got the on-signing portion of an overseas advance a full year after the contract had, in fact, been signed…), one when you deliver a MS which is formally accepted by your publisher, and one on publication.
Now, the time between signing a contract and a published book is typically anything between 10 and 18 months. Let’s call it a year, again, for ease of calculation. So you are getting $17,000 spread out over a year in three separate installaments – which means you get $5667 (rounding off) at a time. Out of this money you have to pay those taxes we were talking about (quarterly, remember? And they don’t care when your check arrives…) and you also have to pay your monthly bills – your power, your internet, your water and your garbage removal, not to mention your rent/mortgage, and your groceries. And then there are the big-ticket items — like insurance premiums, or unplanned emergencies when your car needs repairs or your roof starts leaking. Those installments don’t go very far, and they go very fast.
3. Since you’re self-employed, you are responsible for everything. Health insurance? You don’t get employer perks and bennies for that. Business expenses? Well… save your receipts. You can claim back for a lot of stuff come tax time. But you’d better educate yourself on what, and on how much.
4. Jumping from book advances to book royalties. These are, in theory, what you get when your book “earns out” your advance – i.e. sells enough copies that your publisher makes back what they paid you as the advance money. IF your book sells that many copies. Often the numbers are mind-boggling – for what looked like a terrific advance for a paperback, for instance, you would have to sell 40,000 copies for the book to earn out. Which it might, eventually, achieve – but if it doesn’t do that within the first three months, or isn’t showing damned good signs that it might do it within a VERY short foreseeable future, the chance is gone and the book is returned to the publisher by the booksellers.
Royalties are rare. GOOD royalties are rarer. Many mid-listers who jump for joy at a five-figure advance NEVER earn it out, and that’s all they ever get out of the book before it is returned and remaindered.
5. Books go out of print. That means that people CAN’T get them any more even if they want to. Too bad if your book starts to gather momentum by belated word of mouth after it’s been yanked; sometimes the publishers will take notice, often years after the fact, but more often than not you’re plumb out of luck. And even if there’s a brisk trade in second-hand copies of your book, or if “Rare” copies sell for thousands of dollars, you don’t see any of that money.
6. Movies. Ah, the holy grail of publishing. If you sell a movie option, you’re rich, right? Well… maybe. Many’s an option that’s been purchased and left to rot. Sure it’s money for nothing, so to speak, seeing as you are re-selling a property you’ve already sold once – but how many movies get made, compared to the number of books published every year? It’s a long-shot.
So here’s the thing. You don’t write to get rich. You do this because you want to write and any money that comes in is kind of lagniappe, really – the cream on the top. And you don’t have to be a starving artist in the proverbial garret to look at finances which are teetering on a brink in one of your precarious lean years and twinge. A lot of people who quit jobs to go full-time as an author wind up getting back into the workforce because of that certain edge of security that comes with a regular paycheck. Others eat potato peel soup… and keep going.
Don’t get into this game for the money. There are easier ways to earn a living.