When I was growing up, in addition to avoiding the traditionally forbidden topics of sex, politics, and religion, my family added money to that list. I suspect my family was not alone in this.
The thing is, it’s nearly impossible to make solid, informed decisions about our careers when so much of the financial realities are clouded in uncertainty or hyperbole. There has been a lot written recently discussing the earning potential of self published authors, but what do the earnings of a slow build, mid-list, traditionally published author look like?
Before we get into the nitty gritty of that, it’s important to keep in mind that ebooks are still only a relatively small percentage of overall books sold—somewhere between 15-25%, depending on who you talk to and which numbers you go by, and Amazon sales as a percentage of total books sold is 27-30%. So while self publishing and e-only publishing numbers are by all accounts going up and up, there are still some places where traditional book sales are stronger. These percentages will depend a lot on your genre, as well as your publisher and their sales strengths. Interestingly, this is reflected in Bookscan numbers, with some titles’ Bookscan numbers only being 25-35% of their total sales, and other titles’ Bookscan numbers being fairly accurate for total books sold.
Real, solid numbers and info on advances and traditionally published earnings information can be hard to come by, in part because few people like to discuss their finances in so open a manner, but also because of the nature of publishing. Many contracts preclude the author discussing their advance, and even if it’s not forbidden, many are hesitant to do so, afraid they will dispel the romance and mystique of their actual place in the publishing pecking order.
Since my own experience is with middle grade and YA, that is what I am most familiar with. If there can be said to be any averages in publishing, then the average kid lit advances look something like this:
Middle grade (ages 8-12) advance $4,000-$10,000
YA advance $7,500-$25,000
Which brings us again to the question of what those numbers might translate into over time. Well, Dear Reader, they probably look something like this . . . (prepare to be underwhelmed)
I sold my first book in 2002, and my writing income over the years has been as follows:
2002 $ 5,187
2003 $ 8,353
2004 $27,500 (Yay! Sold a trilogy)
2005 $ 4,142
2006 $ 12,841
2008 $28,470 (I had to augment that writing income with 2nd job because we had two kids in college that year. Ouch.)
2009 $58,516 (This was a BIG school visit year and I sold a second series. I also quit that second job.)
2010 $ 47,590
2011 $ 64,579
Not exactly a nice, steady stream, is it? Lots and lots of dry years, definitely. (2005 was particularly grim.) One of the saving graces was that in our family budgeting, I was only responsible for bringing in a part time salary. Additionally, while I had lots of skills, none of them really screamed HIGH PAYING JOB in the workplace. So it wasn’t like I was giving up a six figure income someplace else in order to work for those early peanuts.
For a second look at a similar career path, another author who has been very generous in disclosing her annual earnings information is Laura Salas, who discusses her 2012 earnings here.
Let’s say you were to sell a trilogy in a three book deal at $15,000 per book for a total of $45,000! First of all, we’d all congratulation you and lift a glass in your honor! Next, it would be time to call your accountant and find out your tax obligations. No, seriously. That’s the first thing you need to do.
The good news is, with a fairly modest traditional deal, we’ll put you in the 20% tax bracket. But even before we do that, we’ll need to give your agent her cut of 15%. Your share of each book is now $12,750, or $38,250 for the trilogy.
NOW we’ll take out your 20% taxes, leaving you with a grand total of $30,600 or $10,000 per book. These advances will be broken into thirds, and paid out as follows: 1/3 of each book on the signing of the contract, 1/3 of each book when you deliver the manuscript and the publisher accepts it (D&A in publishing parlance) then the final 1/3 when the book publishes.
Broken down by year, it would look something like this:
2014 $10,000 on contract signing + $3,400 for D&A of Bk 1 = $13,400
2015 $3,400 for pub of Bk 1 + $3,400 for D&A of Bk 2 = $6,800
2016 $3,400 for pub of Bk 2 + $3,400 for D&A of Bk 3 = $6,800
2017 $3,400 for publication of book three = $3,400
Then of course, there are the mega deals nearly all aspiring authors dream of. But keep mind that those are paid out over time with a very structured payment schedule. Additionally, these bigger deals aren’t paid in three installments as laid out above, but instead are broken down even further into four installments, with the final fourth paid out on the publication of the paperback. So your mega deal might look something like this:
Three book trilogy for $550,000.
Minus Agent commission of 15% = $467,000
Minus 30% taxes = $360,000 (it would actually be $327,000 but I’m going to use a round number to make the rest of the math easier.)
2014 $90,000 on signing
2015 $30,000 on D&A for bk 1 + $30,000 for hdbk pub = $60,000
2016 $30,000 on D&A for bk 2 + $30,000 for hdbk pub of bk 2 + $30,000 pbk pub bk 1 = $90,000
2017 $30,000 on D&A of bk 3 + $30,000 for hdbk pub of bk 3 +$30,000 pbk pub bk 2 = $90,000
2018 $30,000 on pbk publication of bk 3 = $30,000
So as you can see, it is fairly well spread out. (Also, clearly I need to learn how to make tables in WordPress!)
But there can be an enormous downside to those big deals, not the least of which is the intense pressure for your books to perform. A vast majority of novels do not earn out their advance. This can be especially shocking if you are one of the lucky few to have gotten a major deal. For a frank, candid look at such a reality, read Jessica Spotswood’s wonderfully honest post here. (Be sure to read the comments for other authors weighing in on their experiences as well.)
Now clearly the earnings I shared with you were nothing spectacular, and yet I was able to build a hugely satisfying, creative life around them. The thing is, my life could be seen as a financially barren life, or it could be viewed as a creatively rich one. (Also? I realize I was incredibly lucky in having a spouse who shouldered the majority of the financial burden for so many years. He’s a walking National Foundation of the Arts, he is.) While I may have been strapped for cash, I was rich in writing time and being able to wallow in what I most love to do. Because here is an important thing we all tend to lose sight of:
Money’s only value lies in what it allows us to acquire—whether that is food and shelter, material goods, prestige, a sense of worth, or time.
And some of those things don’t even require money to obtain.
Prestige may or may not follow. Whether you write romance or YA or westerns, there is always someone out there ready, willing, and able to disparage your genre. Self published authors face an additional hurdle of often being dismissed, although that is thankfully beginning to change. And if you possess two X chromosomes, well, prestige may well be harder to come by than that original publishing contract ever was.
Which is a long, convoluted way of saying to be wary of what hidden emotional pay off you are expecting from your writing, for it may not follow.
As luck would have it, I’m not particularly high maintenance, so it has been easy to adopt a fairly frugal lifestyle. Aside from my extravagance for books and expensive mascara, I have simple tastes and aspirations. I wear jeans and yoga pants and t-shirts. We have two twelve year old cars and rarely go on vacation.
Plus? It has been oh-so-easy to view every expense in terms of the writing time it bought me: I could have a new car or twelve more months of creative freedom. I chose creative freedom every. single. time.
I have come to define wealth as having unstructured, minimally committed time to do my writing unencumbered by deadlines or contracts. This is a relatively new development, actually. Once, contracts were the Holy Grail I was constantly seeking, but over time, our goals and definitions of happiness often shift and evolve, and mine definitely did.
But also, in this day of self publishing, there are more options available. It used to be there was a danger of writing an entire novel on spec, only to be unable to find a home for it. Now, with self publishing, there is another option available to help augment that financial risk.
Something that is often lost in a lot of these conversations about money is that economics isn’t just about money, but about time. It is that same economic equation that prevents me from going the self publishing route at this point in my career. There are already so very many demands on a traditionally published author’s time, I can’t even imagine adding the role of managing editor, art director, and publisher to that mix. It would impinge far too heavily on my writing energies. But that’s me and my choice, yours may be entirely different.
This is where it is essential to do some long hard thinking about how you want writing and publishing to fit into your life and what you would like it to bring you. You need to understand what your priorities are so you can spend what time, money, and energy you have on them rather than pursuing something by default.
Some people have enough self knowledge to understand that they will never quit their day job—they need it for balance, structure, and financial security. The weight of financial pressures would utterly strangle their writing, so being a full time writer isn’t even on their radar. Other people know they can only juggle both their day job, writing, and family demands for a finite time before they become exhausted, so having writing become their day job is essential.
As writers, we need to ask ourselves some probing questions. What do we want out of our writing career? What about writing is most important to us? The act of it? Or is it a means to some other end? And what are we willing to sacrifice—if anything—in order to make that dream a reality?
What are ways you can create some creative freedom in your life? Sometimes it’s a matter of taking a lower paying, less demanding job that allows you to conserve brain power for early morning or late night writing sessions. Sometimes it’s paying a babysitter to buy yourself the time you need, realizing you’re investing in a career as well as your sanity and self actualization. Sometimes it’s going without things we’ve come to see as necessities—a daily latte, a new car every four years, designer whatever.
Living somewhere cheap is also a great strategy. As is being the person who stays home with the kids. See if you can structure your work life to maximize earnings efficiency while also maximizing writing time. Working four ten hour days, for example. Opt for humbler living accommodations when possible. Get up earlier. Give up TV, the internet.
Remember, being frugal—whether with time or money—in one area of your life is what can allow you to experience abundance in another area—one that is more at important to your dreams, and aspirations.