Last Updated on December 7, 2020 by ThoughtsStained
Hello, dear readers!
This week, I wanted to write about money, but in a very different sense than what I usually do, i.e., ranting about my lack of it and the difficulty of surviving as an adult in this consistently-increasing-living-expenses-without-an-increase-in-pay society (and that’s without getting into the bullshit that’s going on in the White House right now). No, after reading a couple of articles, something has been sitting with me enough that I need to write about it.
The reality of making money as an author.
For context, it’ll be really great if you could read this article from the NY Times, as it is what really spurred me to write this post. But then, I couldn’t help thinking of this blog post from author Mark Lawrence, because it really cements some of my thoughts here, too.
*goes to sip her flavored water while you read some numbers*
Here’s the thing. It’s no secret that I want to be an author; that I’ve been actively working towards this goal for a really, really long time. I’ve learned a lot and I’m stubborn. It’s going to take a lot of work and a helluva lot of luck and perfect timing, but I do have that belief, in my core, that I’ll make it, one day. I’m very privileged in a lot of ways, not least of which is having the support and belief from my family, friends, coworkers and boyfriend. Having that support means the world to me and I know it has helped fuel me when my demons try and shake that core belief and break it.
But, as much as I appreciate that support and I love having people who believe in me (it’s surreal, honestly), it can be very frustrating to hear comments from my coworkers like, “Remember us little people once you publish and make millions.” Or, “Are you excited to quit your job after you publish?” Or, “Will you still have time for us after you make six figures, after your novel sells?”
I know I can’t really blame anyone for not knowing how publishing works when their not in the business. Hell, I’ve been researching the industry for years and half the time, I still don’t know how publishing works.** But it is so frustrating for everyone around me to automatically believe that, if a single book sells, suddenly I’ll be rolling six figures for the rest of my life. Oh, how I wish that were the case and not actually what prolly less than 1% of the authors who are out there get to experience (which, of course, have all the wider media attention that reaches even those who aren’t ingrained in the business, so it makes sense this is what those around me see and base their expectations on; I don’t blame them for it at all).
I just want to…debunk that, a little bit.
If you read that NY Times article, you’ll see it’s very much the opposite. It is so very rare for an author to be able to write full time and support themselves (let alone a family) on a sole writing income. Looking at the medium pay reported, I couldn’t live off of that in my current situation. Currently, I need to make, at bare minimum, $24,000 a year to cover all of my expenses (thanks, student loans), if my half of the rent is $700 a month and I don’t spend any additional money outside of groceries and putting gas in my car. That’s no Christmas presents, no book splurges, no traveling for cons and books tours as a published author might want to do. No medical emergencies. Nothing else.
…the median pay for full-time writers was $20,300 in 2017, and that number decreased to $6,080 when part-time writers were considered.
Which, if I’m lucky enough to be in the median group, instead of under it, would still not be enough, requiring me to have a day job and then fit in writing my novels around the day job, eating, showering, sleeping, working out and other daily commitments; i.e., doing a full-time writing job on top of already having a full-time job and attempting to have a life.
Then, when you bring in Lawrence’s discussion on advances, it helped me open my eyes even more to how publishing works and how “little” an author actually makes, in the grand scheme of things, when, on the surface, their publishing deal announces they just signed a “six figure deal.” Because before reading that post, I just assumed they were rich (because Lord knows I’ve never made six figures and consider that a gold mine amount of money; nowhere close!).
Yet reading Lawrence’s breakdown, you learn a lot. You realize that six figure number is often for the promised trilogy or the series, not each book within it. Plus, looking at how it is paid in chunks over time, not a lump sum all at once, while that does make it a more realistic income ($33,000 per year, as he mentioned), it’s still not necessarily one you can live off of comfortable. Then, still further, adding in that you make no additional money until you pay out your advance in sales and then you take home only a small percentage of that, splitting between the deserving parties of agents, editors and publishers; thus, making the juxtaposition that, while a hefty advance could be really nice, a higher advance means you need to sell more copies in order to earn out.
And that’s if you can do that consistently, year after year, with a six figure advance. But there is no guarantee that you’ll get offered the same advance, thus having that stable income (you don’t, actually, have a stable income writing, usually; it always fluctuate thanks to a lot of things outside your control, like market trends, fighting pirated copies, book sales, reader tastes, following, marketing success, etc.). Not to mention how rare it is, as a debut author, to be offered a six figure advance in the first place. Or the fact that, with getting this advance in larger chunks, in stages that usually happen once or twice a year, now you have to budget at least half a year of your expenses to make sure you can hit all your bills up front, instead of biweekly paychecks.
Don’t even get me started on taxes (which, I can’t even pretend to understand how difficult they are, only that every author I follow on Twitter talks about how difficult they are, so I don’t even want to know, honestly).
Okay, so I just through out a lot of numbers and statistics at you all, and you might be wondering, What is the point of this entire post? You’re not even published yet, Nicole. How does this really tie into people claiming you’re going to be a millionaire?
It all comes down to pressure and expectations.
You see, being an author has been my biggest dream since I was a kid. At the same time I was dreaming about being a knight or a dragon rider, I was also dreaming about writing about those characters and seeing my books on the same shelves where I maxed out my library card limit week after week; seeing my name on the spine. That’s no secret. Having a support system who believes in me is great and I will never discount that many others don’t have that blessing.
But it also is a Catch-22, because in my mind, those supports expect me to achieve this dream. They tell me as much every time they say, “I believe in you. You’ll get published one day.” Unconsciously, there is this pressure to achieve this dream, so I can justify their belief in me; to be able to thank them for that belief and assure them they weren’t wrong in supporting me, because, Look, I did it. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a people pleaser, so I’ve always wanted to make others happy. How can it be different when it comes to my own dreams and trying to live up to their expectations?
So then, when you add in the element–no, the expectation–put forth of, “After selling one book, after making it as an author, you’ll be a millionaire for life,” the pressure amplifies. Even though I know that’s not how publishing works, I also know myself. And even though I’ll be living my dream and happier than I’ve ever been, I’ll also feel like a failure, because I won’t be able to quit my day job. I won’t be taking everyone out to dinner and picking up the tab. I won’t be able to support my boyfriend and the house and life we want on my books alone, like he sometimes jokes about. I won’t suddenly be famous and attending tours and conferences and cons.
I mean, sure, the chance is there, as it is for every author. But that’s not the norm, those are the outliers (and this is not to say they don’t deserve it, because I’ve read some of those big names and they do; just like it’s not to say that there are books out there that didn’t get the same reception but are just as good; trust me, I’ve read those, too). So when everyone around you acts like it’s the norm and expects you to reach it, how will you not feel like a disappointment, even though you’re finally living your dream?
That’s why I wrote this post. To offer an…explanation, of sorts, a little glimpse into the reality of writers and authors sometimes experience. There are always special cases, but writing is a job. Publishing is a business. You don’t do it for the money, not like media has often portrayed. You do it for the stories, because you love them and you must tell them.
And you just want someone to read them, and love them, too.
** That said, if anything I say in here is wrong–and it very well could be–it’s because this is how I understand publishing to work to the best of my knowledge, as I haven’t gone through this yet, so I have no firsthand experience, just information from the articles quoted above and research done throughout the years. If something I’ve claimed to be “how it works” is wrong, please let me know and I will update and edit my errors, of course. It goes without saying this is for traditionally published authors, of course. Self-publishing is an entire different world I am still quite ignorant about.
PS: I know I alluded quite a bit about the difficulties of making it as an author and all the financial complications, and the tone might not be very uplifting. HOWEVER, I want it to be very clear that I still want this more than anything. I’m ready for the difficult balance of life, love, day job and writing novels. I’m ready to learn more about how publishing works, advances, sales, marketing, the works. I’m eager to work with a team, learn how to write under deadlines and bring my stories to life for the world to read, if they want to. Please, never think otherwise. I’m just saying it’s not easy to do. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing and I don’t want it more than anything.
Because I do.