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The Money Post

One of the students at the high school I visited yesterday asked me how much I make as a writer. I told him I was so happy someone had the guts to ask. Talking about money is still such a taboo, but that's what leads to mythconceptions that all authors are as rich as Rowling.

Of course, the most popular blog post I've seen on writing finances lately comes from John Scalzi. On Monday, John wrote an in-depth post about his writing income, including a lot of good financial advice for writers and non-writers alike.

I'm going to do the same thing, for three reasons. 1. The Internet has a proud tradition of people like me riffing off of more popular bloggers like John. 2. I'm all about the mythbusting. 3. John Scalzi made $164,000 from his writing last year.

Don't get me wrong. I'm happy for Scalzi. Okay, slightly envious, but still mostly happy. And he does say quite clearly that he's an outlier. But when the only public data point is an outlier, that's what people are going to remember.

I made just under $16,000 from my writing last year. $2500 of that went right back into expenses, leaving me a nice little sum of $13,500 ... before I pay those nasty taxes. Still, it's enough to cover a slightly used minivan, make a few mortgage payments, and treat me and the wife to dinner from time to time, but definitely not in the job-quitting league. Though it was enough that I could rationalize the fancy leather jacket without feeling too guilty about it...

Anyway, there are two huge differences between me and Scalzi. (Probably more than two, but only two are relevant to this particular discussion.) The first is that he's writing fiction and non-fiction both, whereas I'm only doing fiction. The second is that he's a more popular writer than I am, with more books in print and more readers buying said books.

Me, I've got two books in print, the second of which came out in 2007. So in a lot of ways, I'm still young as a novelist. The annual income has risen every year for a while now, and I'm hoping to see that continue.

To break down that $16,000 a bit further, here's where the money came from:

Novels (U.S. sales): $6600
Novels (Foreign sales): $7000
Short fiction sales: $1000
Editorial work: $900
Speaking fees: $300

The money doesn't quite add up, because I'm rounding off. Close enough, though. My biggest single expense last year was a $700 lifetime membership to SFWA. After that, convention expenses and other promotional costs (bookmarks, tattoos, etc.) are roughly tied for second place.

What's the point of all this? Mostly because I think it's better to know stuff than to guess. The more folks know about what different writers make, the more realistic the expectations will be, and the better you'll be able to plan your own future. In my case, it's going to be an awfully long time before I can quit the day job, if ever.

Two other things worth noting: foreign sales are wonderful things, and I love my agent for his overseas connections. Also, even at the relatively low rates I'm getting as a new novelist, the novels still pay a lot better than the short fiction.

Now go read ellameena's post on freelancing. I'll meet you over there, and we can all grumble about how much more those blasted non-fiction writers make than us hard-working fiction folks.



( 128 comments — Leave a comment )
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Feb. 13th, 2008 02:59 pm (UTC)
That's it, my Hooters book must be non-fiction!


AK!~ Fiction is WAY harder and makes less. Go figure.
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:02 pm (UTC)
I can't say which is harder, since I've never really been interested in doing non-fiction. But yeah, we definitely get screwed on the money side.

A Hooters memoir/expose should put my own advances to shame, especially if there's a sexy cover!
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Feb. 13th, 2008 03:06 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting about this, Jim. I've enjoyed Scalzi's money posts in past but had always wondered how it worked out for newer and/or midlist writers. V. interesting.
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:08 pm (UTC)
That's one of the main reasons I wanted to do it, since very few of us can be Scalzis ... which is probably a good thing for the world.
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:08 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this. That's actually probably a little more than my father-in-law ever made in one year from writing fiction, and he's been doing it for 50 years now. (Which is why my mother-in-law was always the family's main means of support.) And many times it was definitely his non-fiction that helped him save money for retirement (which he technically is now, being almost 72, but he's still writing). In fact, while he was chuffed that our son is majoring in Creative Writing at the local creative and performing arts high school, he was even happier to know that he was taking a non-fiction writing class, because he feels that that is where the real money is in writing (as much as there's ANY money in writing). So, I'll continue editing my novel, but once I'm shopping it around to agents I should probably get back to work on the non-fiction book that's 2/3 done...and maybe that project will eventually pay for me to write more fiction.
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:11 pm (UTC)
One of the things ellameena says in the comments is that the non-fiction work definitely cuts into how much fiction she can do. The pay is exponentially better, but there's always a trade-off, no matter how you attack the career...

I don't suppose your mother-in-law would care to adopt another fiction writer? ;-)
(no subject) - blpurdom - Feb. 13th, 2008 03:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Feb. 13th, 2008 03:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:09 pm (UTC)
This was a great post, and to be honest, your version of the 'writing and money' game is a lot closer to my experience than Mr. Scalzi's. *g*

I guess this shows that we need to write non-fiction on the side, eh?

Great post and it took guts to post it. I'll link back to this a bit later today. :)

- Jill Myles
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:13 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jill. You know, I really do plan on doing fiction for a long time, but I can't imagine ever bringing in enough to match Scalzi's income. Not that I would complain if it happened, mind you!

And while I would love to write some non-fiction, that would involve sacrificing something else -- day job, family time, fiction time... Right now, I'm content with less money, since it means I can focus more on fiction and the other things that really matter to me, ya know?
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:10 pm (UTC)
Is it wrong that I read this and think "Nowhere to go but up!"?

You is a brave soul...
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:14 pm (UTC)
Is it wrong that I read this and think "Nowhere to go but up!"?

If it's wrong, then I don't want to be right. We shall get high together, mon ami! Or something like that...
(no subject) - kelly_swails - Feb. 14th, 2008 02:17 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:26 pm (UTC)
I read Scalzi's post and, although it was excellent, my first thought was, "Yeah, but who else earns that much from writing?" So, thank you! Thanks for sharing and giving that all-important reality check...
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:28 pm (UTC)
You're welcome!

Heh ... antonstrout just dubbed me The Un-Scalzi. I am much amused.
(no subject) - ex_kaz_maho - Feb. 13th, 2008 03:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Feb. 13th, 2008 03:30 pm (UTC)
Sanity is important too :-)

And yeah, isn't it fun watching that not-so-big-to-start-with advance check get sliced into two parts, then whittled away a bit more on the agent commission? All pre-tax, of course!

On the other hand, they paid $6000 for your book. Ergo, you rock! ;-)
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(no subject) - jimhines - Feb. 13th, 2008 03:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:35 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing this, Jim. I've always wondered how much of a living people can make off of their writing, and I've thought of you for the last few years as someone whose writing career is really taking off, yet I noticed you showed no signs of quitting the day job. This really sheds some light on why not!

I hope you remembered to count the leather jacket as a business expense. That's part of your impression management/PR budget... ;)

Feb. 13th, 2008 03:38 pm (UTC)
You know, I didn't even think about that. Taxes scare me a bit, so I tend toward the conservative, but the only time I wear it is for writing-related events. Hm....
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Feb. 13th, 2008 03:37 pm (UTC)
You and I are at almost exactly the same income level, though our breakdowns are a bit different. People are amazed how little I make. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked in the past 5-7 years about when I would quit my day job.

Trade a solid white collar salary with benefits for an unstable <$20K a year? Hello? McFly?
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:40 pm (UTC)
Hm ... given your productivity, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that you probably make more in the U.S. sales, but I catch up on the foreign?

But yeah, the day job question does get a bit repetitive after a while. Every time I sell a book, my coworkers get nervous I'm going to jump ship. I think I'll start pointing them to this post for reassurance :-)
(no subject) - jaylake - Feb. 13th, 2008 03:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:38 pm (UTC)
I'm surprised the foregin sales make so much money. I've always thought foreign rights were a nice little extra income, but they seem to make a rather big slice of the cake.

It's good to hear, since it gives me another argument in favour of writing in English instead of my native German. Because English books get translated a lot, while German books seldom make it into the vast English market.
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:42 pm (UTC)
Foreign sales can be iffy, but I'm very lucky in that my agency is one of the stronger ones out there when it comes to foreign sales.

And ironically, the bulk of the foreign income up there was for a few German deals for the goblin books. Don't ask me why, but my German publisher really seems to love me.
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old age and treachery - kenllama - Feb. 13th, 2008 07:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Feb. 13th, 2008 03:39 pm (UTC)
This was the most wonderful, brave blog post I've seen in ages. Myth busting is important, but men do not usually like to talk about how much they (don't) make. I admire you a lot.

Margaret Yang
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:43 pm (UTC)
Thanks -- that's very nice to hear.

Fortunately, I'm fairly secure, on account of the fact that I'm very, very manly. Really I am. Can't you just see the testosterone?
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:43 pm (UTC)
Awesome post, Jim! :)

I find the business side of this so fascinating, and quite possibly for exactly the reason's Scalzi mentions - that so many people seem to think writers are just rolling in the dough.

This is a hard road, but it's so worth it to me.
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:48 pm (UTC)
I aspire to one day be an outlier, but yeah, very few books on the shelves were written by people who could support themselves on that income.

Is that sentence as messed up as I think it is?
(no subject) - wandereringray - Feb. 13th, 2008 03:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this. It is good to see the real nitty gritty. One really has to love it to succeed.
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:49 pm (UTC)
I think you also need to realistically define "success". If you're aiming for a Rowling-level of success, or even Scalzi, I suspect you're a lot more likely to crash and burn hard.
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Feb. 13th, 2008 03:47 pm (UTC)
Good stuff to know. Thanks for posting it!

A revenue line item that no doubt is huge for John Scalzi and not very big for you yet is backlist sales. My own behaviour as a reader often follows the pattern pick up interesting-looking new book / new book recommended by friend --> read book --> like book --> go looking for other books by same author, and I know I'm not alone in that. Every new book represents an opportunity to (a) sell more books to people who have already read your previous books and (b) ensnareattract new readers who will then perhaps, now that they have read and liked the new book, buy (or ask their libraries to buy) the older ones, hooray!
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:50 pm (UTC)
Yup! I believe Goblin Quest is close to earning out its advance, if it hasn't already done so. And DAW is known for keeping authors in print for a while, so I'm really hoping to see this pattern begin to play out a bit more. Begin to pay out, rather ;-)
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:52 pm (UTC)
3. John Scalzi made $164,000 from his writing last year.

Yeah, but as Chance points out in her blog today, he's conflating his dayjob writing with his fiction writing. The number is misleading.
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:53 pm (UTC)
Yup! I think Chance's post went up right after mine, actually.

On a different note, I'm impressed with how many blogosphere conversations Scalzi inspired with that post...
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Feb. 13th, 2008 04:20 pm (UTC)
Thanks a lot for this information Jim. It's great to get a snapshot of what more typical earnings are like after reading the large figures from Scalzi. Realistic Expectations Rule!

Feb. 13th, 2008 04:33 pm (UTC)
I can't say for certain how typical this is, of course. But I suspect I'm a bit closer to the middle of the bell curve.
Feb. 13th, 2008 04:25 pm (UTC)
So JK Rowling was a fluke?
Feb. 13th, 2008 04:32 pm (UTC)
Little bit, yeah.
Feb. 13th, 2008 04:37 pm (UTC)
So what I hear you saying is you're not in it for the coin... ;)

How would it affect your writing if you knew, 100% certain, that you'd never get paid anything for it?
Feb. 13th, 2008 04:39 pm (UTC)
Ooh ... tough question. I suspect I wouldn't be putting quite as much time/energy into it, unfortunately. I would still write, but at the moment, I can rationalize those evenings at the computer instead of playing with my kids, because I'm also helping to pay a bit of the next mortgage payment.

Beyond that, it gets tricky, because in a lot of ways, how much you get paid correlates to how widely you're read. If I never get paid but keep this same level of readership, I'd certainly continue to do it. If I lose money and readers both, I honestly don't know.
Feb. 13th, 2008 04:38 pm (UTC)
I swear I'm going to print this out and shove it under some noses. Because they've always been of the "You'll never make any money at it!" and my defence has always been. "I don't want to be King/Rowling. I just want to publish my books, and make a little money."

Thank you, very much, for this post. Now, back to editing.
Feb. 13th, 2008 04:40 pm (UTC)
If you roll it into a tight little tube, it'll make a great thwak sound when you hit people with it!
(no subject) - cat_mcdougall - Feb. 13th, 2008 04:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 13th, 2008 05:02 pm (UTC)
I think I made a grand total of $30 on my writing last year, and a large chunk of that was for a short story I co-wrote for Magic and Mechanica.

But that's mostly poetry sales. Really don't make a lot on those.
Feb. 13th, 2008 05:04 pm (UTC)
I suspect the poetry:fiction ratio is about as bad as the fiction:non-fiction. Though I did hear about one SF/F author selling a poem for four figures a while back...
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Feb. 13th, 2008 05:17 pm (UTC)
My top-3 school presentation questions are: a)How much money do you make? b) How old are you? c) and What kind of car do you drive? Heh. Heh. ;)

Loved this post BTW. :D
Feb. 13th, 2008 05:20 pm (UTC)
Not quite 34, and a '99 Chevy Cavalier.

A Life of Luxury. I haz it! Rlly!
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Feb. 13th, 2008 05:22 pm (UTC)
My boss and I had a conversation about me making the big time and leaving my work here at the college this morning.

I said, "Not likely."

She said, "You never know."

I said, "I have four words for you that pretty much assure I'll be here. Health care and retirement."

She laughed.

Not only is the meager income of writers a concern, but also is the high cost of growing old.

As a really beginning writer, I'm looking forward still to my leather jacket days. It's only a matter of time.

Feb. 13th, 2008 05:39 pm (UTC)
I really want to believe that the writing will be a bit more significant in my old age, and that ongoing royalties will contribute to our retirement. Whether or not that will actually happen, who knows, but it's a nice delusion to cling to in the meantime :-)

Health care though ... yeah. Big time.
Feb. 13th, 2008 05:59 pm (UTC)
BTW - having seen it at ConFusion, it's a very NICE leather jacket.

Dr. Phil
Feb. 13th, 2008 06:06 pm (UTC)
::Grin:: Thanks! It's my preferred form of geekwear.
Feb. 13th, 2008 06:34 pm (UTC)
Now I'm inspired to out my own income . . . gee, thanks, Jim (and your Sith overlord, Scalzi) ;)

Scott Oden
Feb. 13th, 2008 06:41 pm (UTC)
Ain't peer pressure great? :-)

Seriously, I do believe it's a good thing for writers to have a realistic idea what other folks in the field are making. And if it stops a few people from asking when I'm going to quit my day job, so much the better!
Feb. 13th, 2008 06:35 pm (UTC)
Great post, Jim. I know what you mean about talking about money being a skittish proposition.

In interviews I don't quote my yearly income, but I try to make it clear to hopefuls that it isn't a "get rich overnight"—or very likely never— business. And I, too, have dealt with, and continute to deal with well meaning friends, relatives, and strangers who think that if I don't make as much as King or Rowling then I must be a failure. Living around the corner from King at the time that my first few books came out didn't help. I swear, every writer in Maine gets measured against him. And of course, why aren't your books being made into movies? Arghhh.

There are so many standards of success that outsiders just don't understand. Do your books stay in print? Are you getting royalties? Awards? Do you have an established fan base panting for your next book? Outsiders don't understand the the average shelf life for most books, and especially first novels, is measured in weeks or months.

There are several good articles out there, which I wish I could summon off the top of my head, stating how much the average writer makes. It's very low. By that standard, as my agent keeps trying to impress upon me, I'm doing quite well. Not Rowling well; realistically well.

One of the big problems for me has always been cash flow. It's a boom and bust business. I get royalties twice a year from Bantam. They fluctuate wildly, and I don't know in advance how much that's going to be. Foreign sales have been a very good thing, (money for nothing!!!!) but again, they are unpredictable and capricious. Some countries pay $400 or $500 per book and you never see royalties. Sometimes a little check shows up out of the blue when you least expect it. On the other end of the spectrum, Japan gave me $10,000 per Nightrunner book, which is twice the royalty I got for my first book sale here. Other countries fill up the spectrum in between. Some generate royalties, others never do. The point is, it's nothing a writer can really control and that can be really frustrating. It's hard to "treat it like a business" when so much is beyond your control. Careers can be scuttled by an editor leaving your publishing house, or even bad cover art. I know of a few writers who were black balled for getting "uppity".

It's not a business for the faint hearted. You have to love it for its own sake. And I have to admit, I've been damn lucky. I started publishing when I was still home with young kids, so my little income was mostly windfall. Twelve years later I'm making a modest living, but still glad to be married to a supportive guy with a "real" job. Of course, he's an academic, so we've pretty much doomed ourselves financially. ;-) But we're both following our bliss and are fortunate to be able to eat, too. Now if we can just get those pesky kids through college and into self supporting careers!

Feb. 13th, 2008 08:38 pm (UTC)
Re: $$$$
Oh yeah ... if I had a dollar for everyone who asked when the goblin books would be made into movies, I might be able to compete with King.

I definitely agree that it has to be for the love first. It's an insane way to try to make a living, between the money you actually make and the irregularity of when different pieces of those paychecks will finally arrive...

::Note to self -- bug agent about selling to Japan::

One of the good things about the day job is that I've got a steady, liveable income. I'm still able to see the random writing checks as a bonus to be applied toward catching up on debt (mortgage and student loans) or occasionally even tucking a bit away for a rainy day...
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