Tuesday 11th April 2017
One of the big life aims of most writers is to one day earn enough from your writing that you could do it full-time. For most writers it’s the impossible dream. Even if you are able to get a book deal that pays you an advance, to earn one that actually pays you enough to live off is beyond tough.
There’s something quite romantic about being able to sit around and do what you love all day. It seems like such a charmed life. And I can understand why a lot of people think that. It’s so difficult to achieve that few really sit down and do the economics of it all.
There was a discussion on the Fantasy Faction Facebook group today about an author who earnt only $21k last year. That’s certainly not bad, but it’s not enough to live off. His editor had then tweeted back to him saying that perhaps if he didn’t miss his deadlines he’d have more money. It was meant firmly tongue in cheek but it got a lot of discussion.
You see, the thing that few people consider (because the idea of writing full-time is just a dream) is that writing is a business. You can go on about being an artist all you like, but the moment you try and get someone – whether it be a publisher or a consumer – to pay you money for your work, you’ve stepped over into it being a business.
A lot of people don’t like that. They think deadlines shouldn’t matter, that it shouldn’t compromise the art. But the art isn’t going to pay the publishing company’s employee salaries. It’s not going to pay your mortgage. If you want to be a pure artist, then take as long as you like and give all your work away for free.
Personally, I think publishing companies are pretty good about deadlines, allowing them to move back if it’s genuinely needed to improve the work. But you look at the number of readers who’ve given up on A Song of Fire & Ice or The Kingkiller Chronicles because of how long they take.
There’s a balance: would you rather wait for ages and get a good book, or get it sooner and risk it being substandard. I think if you asked 100 writers where on that scale they were, you’d get 120 answers.
But unless your back catalogue is selling ridiculously well, if want to earn enough to live off, then you’re going to need to meet your deadlines.
There’s quite a complicated process for getting paid as a professional writer, and whilst I believe I understand all the intricacies, forgive me if I make any errors. Also this is a typical example and I know plenty of writers whose individual circumstances mean they are not exactly like this. But as I understand it currently, this is how it typically works.
Most writers will get signed up for a 3 book deal, comprised of the book they have written plus two others for which they have synopsises (most usually sequels). If the publisher likes your book they might offer you a deal. Now, I believe there’s a secret code to what all those deal press releases mean. So when you read a press release that says it’s a nice deal, it usually means they got an advance of between $1 and $49k. A very nice deal is $50k – $99k, a good deal is $100k to $249k, a significant deal is $250k to $499k, and a major deal is $500k and higher.
Now let’s be clear, if you get an advance at all these days you are doing well. If you go with a small press there’s a chance you won’t get one at all (I never got one for Four Realms). And anything over $100k is considered by all my writer friends I know as a massive achievement as a first-timer. Higher than that rarely happen; not unless you are already established or a celebrity.
The important thing to note here is that it’s an advance against royalties. This will prove important later. What that means is that until you’ve earnt the equivalent in royalties, you’re not going to be paid any future payments. It’s called earning out your advance, and for a career in writing it becomes pretty important.
You see, if you don’t earn out, you effectively cost the publishing company money. You don’t have to pay your advance back, but it means that publishers will think twice before they buy your next trilogy.
So let’s look at this magical $100k advance, and let me destroy your dreams.
So Drunken Publishing pick up your fantasy trilogy for a mind-blowing advance of $100k. You dance around the room, quit your job and then do the economics.
First off, there’s the agent fee. For the sake of simple maths, let’s say your agent takes 10% (for some it’s 15%). You’re now down to $90k. But that’s OK, because it’s a ton of money, right?
As I understand it (and there may be variations to this), you’ll get a third of it up front on signing the deal – So in 2017, you’ve earned $30k off the bat. That’s great, but Drunken Publishing want you to make some changes before they accept the manuscript. So you go away and tweak and in September 2017, you hand it in and they are happy with it. As a result, you get paid another $10k for acceptance of the manuscript. That’s $40k for the year.
Meanwhile, you’ve been busy on book 2, as you need to turn that in April 2018 around the time that book 1 comes out in print. So you’d get $10k for turning in Book 2, plus another $10k for Book 1 hitting the shelves. So in 2018, you make $20k.
2019 plays out a little similar. In April 2019 you turn in book 3 and see Book 2 come out in print. So another 2 lots of $10k for a total of $20k. But now you’re also a little worried, because you’ve started work on a new book and you want to sell that. This is when earning out becomes critical. Have you earnt out, or are you likely anytime soon. If you make a $1 royalty on a book and you’ve only sold a total of 20k books… you’re still $80k from earning out.
Now technically, only book 1 has been on sale to this point, so you could triple that figure to get an estimate of earning. $60k isn’t so bad, except books in a series often tend to sell less as the series goes on.
In 2020 as you’re still trying to sell the new trilogy. Your sales of book 2 should give you a better projection of whether you will earn out your advance or not, but either way, you’ll get your $10k for book 3 being published.
Now, I’m not sure that’s 100% accurate (feel free to correct me in the comments), but it’s the way I currently understand it. Different contracts may have different pay schemes and the splits could be very different, but the point is that it takes 4 years for that $100k to come in.
Making $20k in 2018 and 2019 probably isn’t going to be enough to live on, especially when there’s tax to consider. Now imagine you miss a deadline and push everything back a year because book 2 takes you two years to write rather than a single year.
This is why deadlines are important to authors. You don’t turn it in, not only do the publishers not make money, neither do you.
It also destroys a lot of the romanticism of writing full-time. Yes, international deals can sometimes help bring in a bit of extra income but if you have a mortgage and a family to support, even getting a $100k deal won’t have you quitting your job and buying an island.
And this is one of the struggles I currently face. I have a superb agent… she gets amazing deals for her clients. One of the reasons I went with her is for the fact that she not only gets decent deals for her authors, but they earn out. It’s all fine and good getting a $100k deal, but it’s no use if you earn so little your chance of a career pretty much dies with your first couple of books.
I have no idea what Black as Knight will sell for. I have a gut feeling what I think it might given my agent’s reputation, but there’s a chance it might not sell at all. I’m mentally bracing myself for that possibility.
At the same time, for the last 8 – 10 years I’ve put my career on hold. I’ve sacrificed promotions so I could have a relatively stress-free day job and as a result have the mental energy to put into my writing in the evening. I know when the day job stresses me it impacts my productivity massively. So I try to minimise that happening. In fact, I protect it like a mother protects her cubs. But it means that I’ve pretty much stayed at the same level. My boss was telling me this evening about a great opportunity that I’d be ideal for… and on one level I’d love it, but I made the decision long ago to pass up these things up in the belief that I had enough talent to one day make it as a full-time author.
Yep, that’s right. For the last 8 – 10 years I’ve been working on blind non-religious faith that I had it in me to one day become good enough to write full-time. Who knows how much longer I have to go before I get there? And believe me, there are times when that faith really, really tests you.
So now, as this journey reaches one of its many apexes, I’m soon going to find out how much Black as Knight is worth. I used to dream of good deal, thinking it would allow me to pay off my mortgage (which financially would be the thing that would make me write full-time at the drop of a hat). But I sat down with a spreadsheet and mapped out the income like I did for you above and worked out for that to happen whilst ensuring I did not starve over the next 3 years, I’d have to be well into a major deal. That is not going to happen. Having only a small press release, I’m effectively going to be classed as a first-time author, and first-time authors do not make those sorts of deals. I might have my head in the clouds, but my feet are firmly on the ground.
And so that dream of one day becoming a full-time writer long ago stopped being about romanticism a long time ago. It became an exercise with spreadsheets, listing costs and income models. It became unsexy.
I know that soon I’m going to have to ask myself some very, very serious questions. If I wrote full-time could I turn out books fast enough to not starve? What would I do if something happened and I missed a deadline? Could I turn out a Shade Knight book every 6 months and not sacrifice quality?
It’s why I worry so much about process and trying to turn out books as efficiently as I can.
Some writers who are able to build their following book after book get there by about book 4 or 5. That’s a very real possibility. But how would I balance the day job and the stresses that slow me down, with the stresses of deadlines.
I’m not looking for sympathy. Let’s be honest, I’m already in a much better situation that most writers but it means that I’ve honestly spent some time thinking about what advance I’d need to get, on what type of schedule, to be able to write full-time.
I won’t know until Black as Knight goes on submission, and once the offers (hopefully) come in I’m going to have to make some very hard decisions. Not just short term decisions but some longer term, strategic ones. And yes, finance is going to play a huge part in that.
Life as a writer isn’t glamorous, it’s hard work and I suspect that I probably still don’t know just how hard it is. But I lost my romantic notions about being a writer and taking my time with writing books a very long time ago.
If you want to follow more of my journey, then be sure to check me on my social channels. Likewise, if you’d like me to expand on any point mentioned above, please say so in the comments.
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