The writing career and all the moneys

One time I got a feedback email from someone who said that he had been laid off and wanted to start writing “to make some money.” And I wanted to cry.

My first writing paycheck was $300 and it was paid about a year after I got the initial assignment. (It was for RPG writing, and it paid on publication.)

And I know someone out there is going to say, “Heck, MY first paycheck was an “attaboy!” and a dirty sock that smelled like despair and cheese” – I know $300 was more than a lot of people get, but I think we can all agree that if you need money now and you start writing and you get paid 9-12 months in the future, you’ll be dead of starvation or dysentery long before that fat three hundred rolls in.

I’ve not been one to offer transparency with my income- I’m not comfortable doing so, and I seem to remember Carrie Vaughn writing an interesting comment about how it’s different for a woman revealing income, which I quite liked, but now can’t find it to quote it properly, so I apologize if it wasn’t, in fact, Carrie who said it.

But I do appreciate it when others do. And I’ll get to that in a moment.

I will offer a little breakdown of a book deal, and why when you hear someone got a $100,000 book deal, it’s not as awesome as you think.

Publishers Weekly: Jane Q. Author received a $100,000 book deal!

John Q. Wannabe: Dang, I only make $40,000 a year at my crappy job! I wish I could get that kind of fat money for writing!

Fact- This is a three book deal. So it is, in a way, three $33,333 deals. (In a way it is a $100,000 book deal, which I will also get to later.) Jane will get 1/3 of each book on signing, 1/3 on delivery of each final draft, and 1/3 on each publication.

  • Jan 1, 2013: Signing of the contract! Check to agent: $33,333 (breakdown- this is the signing payment, 1/3 of the advance for three books at $11,111 per book.)
  • Check to author: $28,333 (minus 15% for agent)
  • March 1, 2013: Book one is done, so after a few edits, final draft is turned in. Check to agent: $11,111 (Book 1 final draft – 1/3 of $33,333)
  • Check to author: $9,444 (minus 15%)
  • Book 1 won’t come out till spring 2014. Jane works on Book 2 and cross over into 2014.
  • INCOME FOR YEAR ONE AS AUTHOR: $37,777 — and that’s before taxes. 
  • March 1, 2014: Book 2 final draft. Check to agent, $11,111 (book 2 final draft)
  • Check to author, $9,444 (minus 15%)
  • May 1, 2014: Book 1 comes out. Yay! Jane is a Real Writer (TM) Check to agent: $11,111 (Book 1 now paid in full)
  • Check to author: $9,444
  • Writing commences on book 3. We get to a new year again.
  • INCOME FOR YEAR TWO AS AUTHOR: $18,888 – before taxes
  • May 1, 2015: Book 3 hits final draft $11,111 to agent
  • $9,444 to author
  • June 1, 2015: Book 2 comes out: $11,111 to agent (Book 2 paid in full. Didn’t feel like $33k did it?)
  • $9,444 to author
  • INCOME FOR YEAR THREE AS AUTHOR: $18,999 – before taxes
  • March 1, 2016: Book 3 comes out. $11,111 to agent (Book 3 paid in full)
  • $9,444 to author
  • INCOME FOR YEAR FOUR AS AUTHOR: $9,444

In four years, even without a cost of living raise, John Q. Wannabe made $120,000 before taxes.

Jane Q. Author made $85,000 before taxes.

Wanna know the worst part? If Jane earns $40,000 on book 1, and $35,000 on book 2, and only $20,000 on book 3 (total of $95,000, which is less than $100k) – she will not earn royalties on books 1 and 2, even though she made over $33,333 on each, because the full advance of $100,000 hasn’t been reached.

Suppose her books do well, something we all hope for. Once those advances earn out (for a total of > $100k)  she will start earning royalty checks and those will be paid every quarter or every year. That is, as I understand it, how authors make regular money. That and frequent book deals of course.

(My nonfiction book with Que that I wrote in 2006 pays monthly, a fact I would be much more excited about if I had earned out the advance. Now I just get an email every month saying, “Yep. No sales this month.” Only they do it in publishing speak with attempts to show me mathematically how the book has sold no copies.)

Now, as I said, I am not comfortable giving out my numbers (I am not a thinly veiled Jane Q Author- I did not receive a 3 book deal, nor did I receive $33,333 per book.) But some authors are comfortable, and the information is helpful and illuminating. John Scalzi recently broke down his income percentages for Redshirts to commemorate the launch of the paperback version. And Jim C. Hines recently gave a pie chart of his yearly income as a writer. (Please note that Jim also has a day job.) I urge you to look at both of these blog posts to discover why writing is not a quick path to streets paved with gold.

Anyway, the numbers are sobering, even the magical “six figure advance.” This is why being a writer depends on persistence, because even if you work you butt off to get that first deal, you still have to keep busting ass to make it to a place where you’re making a living wage.

I’m still in. Go eagle go!