Thank heavens! It’s my day to post on Magical Words! That means I have an excuse to not go back to working on my short story just yet. 🙂 Hm, maybe next week I’ll talk about writing short stories. This week I’m going to talk about royalties, or Why It’s Hard To Make A Living As A Writer.

People are forever saying to me, “You’re so disciplined,” when it comes to matters of writing regularly. Hah. Discipline is living on a writer’s income. I’ve been paid 4 times in the last 12 months, in amounts ranging from about $3600 up to about $17K, for a total of about $32K. I happen to live in Ireland, which means between my agent’ commission and the dollar being weak against the euro, you can basically cut that amount in half and you’re looking at what I’m making to live on. (If I was living in America, you could cut it in half anyway, because ZOMG are taxes a beetch if you’re self-employed. I’ll talk about that more further down.) Let me break down what those payments were for:

Payment #1–October 2007: on-proposal payment for HANDS OF FLAME, a book which I signed the contract for in December 2005.

Payment #2–November 2007: royalties earned on URBAN SHAMAN, “Banshee Cries” and THUNDERBIRD FALLS. COYOTE DREAMS, which was released in May 2007, had not yet earned out.

Payment #3–April 2007: final payment on HANDS OF FLAME.

Go back and look at those numbers again for HANDS OF FLAME. Contract: December 2005. Final payment for that book & contract: April 2008.

Actually, that pretty much sums up right there why it’s hard to make a living as a writer, doesn’t it? All of my contracts–most novel contracts in general, I think–are paid out in three parts: some percentage on signing, and then depending on the house you’re working for, the rest on proposal&delivery, or the rest on delivery&publication. For the kinds of books I’m writing in the kinds of time frames they’re being published, that’s pretty much a three year spread for completion of any given contract. A $30K advance check for three books sounds pretty good at first blush (and that’s a lucky roll for your first book contract), but it starts sounding a lot less thrilling when that money is very possibly the sum total of what you’re making over three years.

Payment #4–May 2008: Royalties earned on URBAN SHAMAN, “Banshee Cries”, THUNDERBIRD FALLS and COYOTE DREAMS. HEART OF STONE, which was released in November 2007, had not yet earned out. Also with this payment: final payment on THE QUEEN’S BASTARD, which contract was signed in March 2006. (Again, please note: final payment comes more than 2 years after the contract is signed. This is not a quick-moving business.)

Let’s look at royalties.

I’m lucky. I’m *making* money–pretty decent money–on my books, above and beyond what my publishers gave me as an advance (that money is still considered royalty money. Basically, the publisher gives you, say, $10K for a book up front, and then you don’t see any more money on that book until they’ve gotten back their $10K that they’ve paid you. Only after that do you start getting paid what we generically refer to as “royalties” as opposed to “advance money”.).

If I wasn’t earning royalties above and beyond my initial advance checks, you could take away…*pauses to count* Um. Two-thirds. Of what I’ve made in the last 12 months. That leaves me with around $13K, which would rather violently remove me from the “living wage” scenario I’m currently managing to stay within.

Realistically, what’s keeping me in that “living wage” arena is that I have, in my nacent career, sold *four* series (The Walker Papers, Negotiator Trilogy, Inheritors’ Cycle, and The Strongbox Chronicles). Between advance checks and royalty checks, I’m making a living as a writer. But I’ve published ten (soon to be eleven) books in the last three years to do it.

Most people aren’t going to have two concurrent series at the beginning of their careers, much less four. (I say most people. I suspect a number of you know some of the same people I do–Charles Stross or Elizabeth Bear leap to mind, and they, like me, rather blow the lid off the idea that nobody does this. But _most people_ don’t.) So if you strip away the 3 series I sold after the Walker Papers, what I’m left with as income for the last 12 months is the $19 or so K from royalties.

It’s a living wage, but only just–and you’ve also got to take out 15% for the agent, and if you’re in the States, withhold 25% (33% if you’re nervous, which I typically am) for federal taxes and social security. As a writer, you get double-stung: you have to pay both employee and employer social security, so between those things, you’re looking pretty safely at cutting forty or forty-five percent of your income out before you can even start thinking about spending it. (And I haven’t even touched the topic of health insurance.)

By this time you’re thinking, “Yeah, but ALL THAT MONEY! ALL AT ONCE! I CAN GO NUTS!” and believe you me, that’s what a person starts to think when she gets a several-thousand-dollar-check deposited in the bank.

And then she thinks, “I have no freaking clue when I’m going to get paid again,” and all of a sudden that big lump of money doesn’t look tempting, it looks cruel. Because if you’re trying to live on a writer’s income, you flat-out can’t afford to go batshit crazy when you get a big check.

This is just not an easy business to make a living in. I’ve been insanely fortunate, and have been making one, but it’s not just a matter of selling as many books as I have. It’s being able to control the money once you get it, and keeping in mind that yeah, in fact, $big_chunk_o’_change is great, but it’s very possibly the only payment you’ll see for six months. It takes nerves of steel to live with it. Hell, it takes nerves of steel to be married or partnered to somebody who gets paid this way, even if the partner has a steady job. I _regularly_ think about finding some kind of day job, simply because it would be so very much less stressful all around if I were pulling in any kind of regular paycheck. Even if it’s *tiny*, the regularity would be a huge relief. So yeah, when people ask writers, “When are you going to quit your day job?”, most times the answer is going to be, realistically, “Never.”

Any questions? 🙂


5 comments to royalties

  • Making a living from royalties and advances is incredibly tough. Foreign sales help. For those who don’t know, when a book is translated into a foreign language that usually means that the author (or the publisher) has sold what are called foreign language subsidiary rights to a publisher in a particular country. The translations are done in-house by the publisher, so for the author this is found money. We don’t have to do any extra work for it. The amounts can range from tiny ($800 in some smaller countries) to several thousand dollars per volume for a series.

    Foreign sales make up a good chunk of my yearly income, so that at this point I earn enough to feel that I’m contributing to the family finances. But if Nancy didn’t have a good job with benefits (retirement, health care) I couldn’t afford to write full-time.

  • Yeah, I learned about foreign rights the hard way, which is to say, by watching friends rake in royalties while I’d signed mine off to my current publishers. Oops. Oh well. Next contract, I know better. 🙂

  • “Payment #2–November 2007…. COYOTE DREAMS, which was released in May 2007, had not yet earned out.”

    This makes me feel better about my March release not having earned out yet. Thanks!

  • Amy

    I’m interested in how publishing with an American publisher when you live abroad works for you. I’m an aspiring author in the UK who is thinking seriously about just submitting to America straight away and skipping the UK market. Do you have to do anything special to get things sorted out, forms and such?

  • Amy,
    Under my aka, Gwen Hunter, I had two books published in the UK and not in the US until much later. My agent did the deal. You will not have much luck submitting to major publishers in either country without an agent. You will need to go through the query process here in the US.
    It might be eaiser to go with a good UK agent, who also has a really good foreign-agent-relationship with a good US agent. A question you will want to ask any prospective UK agent.
    I wish you luck.