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Royalties: What This Writer Made, Once Upon One Time

Photo Credit: Ted Van Pelt “Cash”

So, Covid19, right? I thought I’d talk about something less stressful—money! What? … Oh. Yeah.

For 1.222333222222111% of writers, things have been pretty golden. As for the rest of us 98.77766677777789% of writers, there are varying degrees of royalty money or not royalty money—honestly, I have vague ideas of what other writers’ royalties are but I always imagine many are doing just fine because they are wise and smart and savvy in their book-business—alternatively, I and a few others like me are confused and uninspired and stubborn.

I admit it. I just wanted to write books and hoped that was good enough to, while not make me a ton of money, at least make me a little steady money. Well, if that isn’t naïve, I don’t know what is, but that’s how early on I approached my “writing career,” and since it worked out (not) soooooooo well for me, I continued that way.

If it ain’t fixed, don’t broke it, right? Maybe my experience will help you, or be your cautionary tale.

A familiar conversation I’ve had with those who are thinking of entering the book business:

“How much money you think I’ll make?”

I say, “I dunno.”

“Like, could I quit my job within a year?”

“I dunno.” I fidget in my seat.

“Well, how much are you making?”

Noneya! I sniff haughtily. “I don’t like discussing my royalties.”

Looks irritated at me, as if I’m hiding something glorious that I won’t share. “Like, you think being a writer is a secret society or something? Not anymore! Why don’t you all just tell us what it’s really like?”

“We do! All the time! There’s a veritable glut of information, advice, and other stuff out there. Huh.”

“So, tell me how much you make from your book sales. I’ve been to your Amazon page—”

“—then you have an idea, right?”

“You are no help at all.”

Nope, I am not. Because it’s private. Because most people—writers and not-writers—don’t like to talk about personal finances. It makes our brains feel itchy. But is there an aura of secrecy and mystique with Writer Money and Writer Book Sales? Do we keep that magic curtain pulled tight so all the mechanisms are hidden, like the Wiz of Oz? Or are those the old days and we are much more open about the entire experience?

Creatives can let Creative Money define us in a critical way. We feel overwhelmed by what we think we should be doing as a business versus what we want to do as creators. We can grow stagnant and moldy, afraid to move forward, or languish into The Big Stop—

—I haven’t written a novel in about 7 years. Dang. Yeah. Feels judgy eyes upon her little tortured soul.

It’s not what you may think. It’s not just about money. But money plays a role.

So. Actual dollars and no sense. Your results can and may vary, or can and may have already varied.

Gulp … deep breath … scratch the itchy brain ….

The very first royalty check I received for my first published book around 2009, after everyone took their portion, was over $26,000, from a two-week promotion sale. I thought I’d faint—this, for me, was a windfall. During this promotion, my publishers spent the first part of it giving away my book for free—because I was a newbie novelist and they wanted to Get My Name Out There; as well, they were manipulating the Amazon free and paid lists that were side by side, unlike now how those lists are separated. I know that I had a lot of downloads of my book during that promo, but I was only paid for the non-free ones, of course.

Now maybe this amount isn’t much for some writers out there, but for me it was a haa-uuuuge dancin’-a-jig deal, and still is something I think about as a WOW big shiny moment for my very first novel!

Those days of freebies sent me to the number 1 spot on the Amazon free list, and when it switched over to the paid list, I stayed number 1 and then in the top 10 paid list spot for a time I do not recall, because I kind of ignored it. Yeah. Stooooooopid! But not on purpose stupid!

I remember thinking at the time of the Amazon promo: “But that’s just e-books. What about the real books? What about the real best seller lists?” I didn’t talk much about that number 1 spot on Amazon, as I wanted to be loyal to bookstores, particularly indies. As well, I thought it wasn’t a legit measure of success. Um, gee, did I think cats were downloading my books? Seriously. Even when an agency contacted my publishers to steal me away from them—how exciting!—I stayed loyal to my publishers and did not make a move.

But when I received that check, I thought, “Oops.” Because I’d missed an incredible opportunity to take advantage of that number 1 and top 10 spot. Duh.

A bit down the royalty road, a few more published books under my belt (writing two a year a time or two), I received a check for $7500. I took a step back from writing to consider what next, and what next was aimless head-in-the-cloudsness. Though, I did think, “Do I want this? There’s other things I could do.”

I’m a competitive person. I’m a person who wants to be The Best at what she does. I don’t like being half-assed; I am a complete ass.

I didn’t feel I was being The Best because I wasn’t attending or speaking at conferences like I used to and stopped all book signings. Maybe I was burnt out. Maybe the life-altering events happening at that time in my life had exhausted me. Maybe I was: Disillusioned. Disjointed. Disappointed. Discombobulated.

Anyone out there relate?

Later on arrived a check for $2100. Did I write another book? Nope. I did not. Aimless and my natural chaos do not bode well, y’all. I really wondered if I wanted to be a novelist any longer.

One fine day, I opened an envelope from my publishers, and tucked inside was a check for $500; I sat at my kitchen table and thought, “Well sheeeee-iiiit.”

I’m getting used to going to my mailbox, opening the envelope, and thinking, “I’m going to do something nice for myself,” so that the small amount feels more like an unexpected gift, which in a way it really is, after all this time of no new novel(s).

I take responsibility for a good portion of this decline. I did not want to market or brand myself. In those early days, I didn’t understand the process of e-books, and that the bookstores (and publisher?) I wanted to stay loyal to only care about you when you are making them money—they are a business, that’s how it should be—but whether my loyalty cost me a lot or only some I’ll never know. Those life-altering events that stalled my writing life did make an impact on my novelist-life (but seven years, Kathryn?, a voice whispers whisperingly).

It seemed so much easier not to be a novelist. So much pressure was lifted from my shoulders, and my heart. Oh, the freedom just to walk around as My-Self and not as Novelist. I tasted and explored and did stupid as hell crap and did smart as not-hell crap; I lived the life I normally gave to my characters. I busted out all over and created chaos and memories and that will enrich my writing if I’d sit down and actually do any.

I want to stress that I am not complaining about money I made or money I haven’t made or money I do or will make—I am saying that I never want to let the money, or lack of it, burrow into my brain and settle there as the complete measure of my success. There are other realms of success and I experienced that. For example, I’ve always been proud of my Amazon “star rating” on most of my works.

Look. We need money. I am a one-income home, so my mortgage and bills are all on me. Money is important in that way.

But this goes beyond money, doesn’t it?

It is also all the hard work we give to our writing. All the sacrifices we make. I asked myself around seven years ago or so: is it worth it? I thought it was not. I was wrong. It was worth every damned minute of sacrifice.

However, it is okay to stop. It really is okay. The sky may fall and the royalties may falter, but it really is truly okay to stop if that’s what it takes to find your writing heart again and set it to beating beating beating. Or, if you need seven years, or longer, take it.

I can begin new, from new perspectives. I have nothing to lose now, so why not write whatever the hell I want however the hell I want. Publish it, don’t publish it, set it on fire and dance around it. Why not?

If I were religious, I’d say I am having a Come to Jesus Moment: Make it all about money or whatever success marker you create. Or make it about the writing, again, and let the coins and lists fall where they may. Like it used to be. Way back when—

—when not knowing any outcome (or income), I still wrote my goddamned heart out.

$26,000,000 (hahahaha!), $26,000 or $260 or $160, or one day $60 or $6 or $0. No matter what comes in the mailbox, or eventually does not come in the mailbox, we are either a writer of books or we are not writing books. And we have to decide if we are happier writing books no matter what it gives back or does not give back.

We must come to a point where we ask ourselves: what do we really want/need? What is important to us? What will we accept? What are we willing to do to get what we want? And if we don’t achieve that, can we move on to something else, or change how we think about the process?

Because, really, for most of us, no matter what direction we go in, while there may be temporary success-of-a-fashion, or not, there will be no Big Huge Success. There will be no big royalty checks coming every six months. There will be no movie deals. No big book deals. No Harry Potter. No Hunger Games.

There will be the writing, or there will be the not writing. We’ll just have to figure out which one we can live with and still feel not only true to ourselves, but to feel our heart beating again.

And you? Care to share any of your experience(s)?

About Kathryn Magendie [1]

TENDER GRACES, Magendie's first novel, was an Amazon Kindle Number 1 best-seller. As well as her novelist life, she’s a freelance editor, personal trainer, and former Publishing Editor of The Rose & Thorn. Her short stories, essays, poetry, and photography have been published in print and online publications. Her novels are available in print and ebook. Along with her freelance editing, she's website editor for Edge of Arlington Saw & Tool. She lives in the Smoky Mountains in a little log house in the Cove at Killian Knob in Maggie Valley, Western North Carolina with her wonky-toothed little dog named lil Bear. Sometimes there is vodka in the freezer. Critters love her. Some or all of this is likely true.