Friday, March 17, 2006

Money Money Money

Every profession has salary differences.

I have a friend in a management position in a non-writing job, and he knew the man who held the position prior to him, and how much he made.

They offered him 10k less.

He was angry. After all, he was doing the same job, and was even more qualified. But he took the job regardless, because it was a promotion, and he didn't want to let an opportunity pass him by.

Ten grand is a lot of money, but that number is nothing compared to the differences that writers get paid.

The average advance for a novel is five thousand bucks, and has been for as long as I've heard statistics being bandied around. This average includes all of the micro presses who don't offer advances, along with the megabestsellers who make seven figures per book.

I've also heard other stats.

  • Only a few hundred people in the world make their sole income writing fiction.
  • Once you're in a "salary bracket" you can be stuck there for book after book unless your sales explode---or your sales plummit
  • Only 1 out of 5 books earn out their advance and pay royalties.
  • Bigger advances (generally) mean more support in-house.
  • Advances can vary wildly (as much as 1000%) within the same imprint.

No writer gets into this business for the money, because the money isn't good. There's a business rule called The 20% of the 20% (or something similar). It states:

The top twenty percent in any profession makes as much money as the other eighty percent. And of that twenty percent, the top twenty percent makes as much as the other eighty percent. And so on.

That's why Stephen King makes six million per book, and you make five thousand. Welcome to the Arts.

So what does this mean to you, the writer?

At first, it means nothing. You write for the joy of writing, and publication is its own reward.

I used to think, "All I want is to see my name in print, then I'll be happy."

And it did make me happy. It still does. But now, all I want is to be able to stop living off credit cards, stop spending so much money self-promoting, stop devoting 90% of my time to the business end of this career rather than the writing end of this career. And a Porsche. Or even a used Mustang.

Once you're published, you're going to want (in no particular order) more money, a bigger print run, movie deals, more publicity, more advertising, a tour, cover input, etc.

The more money you're paid, the more money the publisher has to spend to make sure they don't lose out on their investment. You want the big advance, because it shows that your publisher is behind you.

But beware the other end of the spectrum; big advance, big promotional campaign, and poor sales. That will likely be the last big advance you ever get.

So what does the writer need to do?

  1. Your main goal is to make the same amout or more as your last deal.
  2. To make the same amount or more, be prepared to spend a lot of your advance on self-promotion.
  3. Make sure you earn out your advance. You can, with hustle.
  4. Don't expect jumps in salary that aren't justified by sales.
  5. Don't expect to write full time unless you have a spouse who works or you know how to budget your money.
  6. Don't think that money isn't important; it's VERY important. Publishing is a business, and it's all about the red and the black.
  7. Writers don't normally discuss money with each other. If you do find out that one of your peers is making ten times what you are making (or ten times less) avoid the envy or the gloating. Your competition isn't with your fellow writers; it is with yourself.
  8. Get a good accountant.
  9. Don't expect instant returns on your self-promotion investment. It's not like day trading, where you can spend $300 on a conference and expect to sell 100 books to make your money back. This is more like buying mutual funds that will grow years from now. If you want to reap, you have to sow.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

My Mom has a used mustang - a convertible to be specific. I'm sure you could afford it with that big-ass book deal you got for JD :)

This also explains why I am a happy double writer. I write the websites (actual words, not programming code) for countless companies ranging from Perdue chicken to Kelloggs to Pharmaceuticals and even the US Government.

I get to exercise creativity by day and make a very nice corporate salary, call it a day, head home to my writing corner, and toil the night away on my novel.

It isn't about the money, JA, you're right. Plus, I hear that authors get it up the rear when it comes to taxes.

My dream is to get a publishing deal, and continue my speedy ascent of the corporate ladder (I've already scaled from lowly trainee to head writer for the firm in 1.5 years, right out of college). I'll make my money here, and I'll make my art there.


Anonymous said...

While I was more than prepared for the realistic size of my advance (knowing that when you read about those six figure advances, the reason you're reading about them is because they're so rare), I wasn't prepared for the fact that I would end up spending every single penny on self-promotion. But I do it understanding that it's an investment, and hopefully sometime down the line I'll either 1) Get more support inhouse or 2) Have sold enough books due to this investment that I'll get bigger advances that perhaps I won't have to completely exhaust in self promotion. That perhaps, someday, I won't be going into debt in order to have this career.

One thing, though. My agent and I were talking and she doesn't think that more money upfront results in more support inhouse anymore. At least not as much as it used to. Authors getting six figures for aj advance don't get that much more publicity than authors getting five. You really, really have to be up in the stratosphere for there to be that much difference.

Beth Ciotta said...

My background is in entertainment so I am well aware of how difficult it is to make a living in the arts. You would've thought when choosing a new midlife career I would've gone for a more stable profession. I chose writing. I'm thrilled to be doing what I love, but it's not paying the bills. Yet. One can dream. Ditto to your wish list, JA, and thank you for the excellent post!

JA Konrath said...

I've heard that Salman Rushdie's last book tanked, even though he got a huge advance.

Mel made a huge point that I forgot to mention: spending money on your career is buying stock in yourself.

I'm going to add that to the entry.

Chesya said...

"Only 4 out of 5 books earn out their advance and pay royalties."

Is this true? I would have thought it more like 1 out of 4 or 5. At least it's better than I thought.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

4 out of 5 is pretty good odds.

But $5,000 a book? Yikes.

Now compare that to the average Saturday morning cartoon writer whose salary is $6,000 to $10,000 per script. We're talking half hour, 40 or so pages of an animation script.

If you're on staff, you get paid for every script you write (usually one a week), PLUS a weekly salary of about $1,500.

The only problem with that is you're writing Saturday morning cartoons. And breaking into the biz is even tougher than selling a book.

JA Konrath said...

Oops. 4 out of 5 DON'T earn out their advance.

Gotta fix that...

WannabeMe said...

Good points, J.A. I admire all writers who are able to churn out a living on their work. It's very difficult, and unless you're a writer, too, or in this industry, you won't understand it. That's why I kept all my writing struggles to my writer's group, I never chat about it at family reunions or to my neighbors. They ask, but I politely ignore.

Jude Hardin said...

Here's a question I asked over on PJ Parrish's blog: If you had the chance to edit a certain #1 New York Times bestselling author, would you work to make her writing better (deleting superfluous dialogue tags etc) or would you leave it alone, knowing it's going to sell big as is?

Would you gamble with the money side to improve the artistic side?

I'm anticipating the "art is subjective" argument, so let me say this: any editor worth his/her salt would recognize this particular author's writing as pretty bad. Knowing that, would you work with her to improve it, or just keep cashing the checks while you can?

Christine said...

Do you think that your investment (promotion) gets big returns later, like a real investiment? So your first book, you work your ass off and get some fans and make some noise... that pays off exponentially with the next book, because all those fans buy it right off the bat, plus you get new ones that come with new books, and the word of mouth from the old fans?

I just want to know if this get eaier the more titles you have on the shelf. Not that I'm complaining - I have a booksigning this Saturday, and I've followed your advice so far. I'll let you know how it works out. :)

JA Konrath said...

Jude-- Editors are supposed to edit. But if the writer is a NYT bestseller and refuses to be edited, there's little an editor can do about it.

Christine-- The investment is longer term than just the second book. I'm hoping by book #5 I'll have a strong enough following to debut on the NYT list.

Actually, things are getting harder, rather than easier. But I'm hoping that will change.

Erica Orloff said...

Really great post. I have three pen names and write YA for Penguin and then darker books for MIRA, and then my bread and butter for Red Dress Ink. I support myself solely writing novels, but man, it is a hustle. I figure there's some kind of critical mass at work. At some point, you hopefully leap out of the box you're in. In the meantime, I think it helps to remind yourself you still have the friggin' coolest job on the block, writing in your pjs, and not having to leave your laptop if you don't want, getting to MAKE STUFF UP for a living while slogging down coffee and listening to Django on the stereo (my music of choice). I still, 20 books later, love that, and like your post, I try not to look left or right at what anyone else is doing and stay on my own path.

Mary Stella said...

Terrific post about the realities of this business. That's why I laugh when I realize that people who aren't in this business think I hit the jackpot because I sold a book.

I like the idea that the money I spend in self-promotion, going to conferences, etc. is a long-term investment in my career. Between that thought and the fact that I plain have fun going, I always think the experiences are worthwhile.

Earning out the advance is a matter of pride as well as a business goal for me.

Anonymous said...

This discussion offers proof of J.A.'s thesis. While he's hoping to be on the NYT List by book five, I'm just hoping there is a book five and that I can get to my book signing without a walker.

E.E. Knight said...

Great post, Joe.

Yes, it's a grim, Darwinian business ruled by P&L statements, but it's possible to carve yourself a comfortable niche even if you aren't in the 20/20 elite of the elite -- or even the ordinary elite.

I can't really speak to mystery/thriller writing, as I'm in SF&Fantasy, but it's true that you do start out at 5,000 a book or close to it, barring extraordinary circumstances. If you sell the money goes up pretty quickly, and after 6 novels I'm within slingshot distance of where Joe started when he signed his contract on day one, but as Joe says, the only real race is with myself. Not that I haven't had a lot of help. I've been quite fortunate in my "packaging" (cover art and so on) which matters more to my genre's readership.

With writing the effort is all front-loaded, the real rewards wait a couple years down the road for most. The only thing I can compare it to is drilling for oil. You pick a likely literary spot and drill for all you're worth. While everyone from executive editor on down prays for a gusher out of your novel, you've also got to be prepared for a book that produces nothing, or a trickle, but hope for a profitably steady flow. Once the book is out there, if you see some success, odd little checks keep drifting in as different foreign rights go, royalty periods get paid out, and so on, rather like that oil pump that's chugging away while you're trying another well. A few years go by and hopefully all those little wells are still productive.

There's nothing like new money for old rope, as all you're doing is signing contracts, mailing them back to your agent, and whistling cheerfully to the bank. I don't have a day job any more (I got busy enough to quit), my wife does, mostly because of the health benefits, as we're both pretty frugal. I'm hoping that will change eventually (my wife working, not the frugality) once I climb out of the mass-market original ghetto, but I'm also prepared to go back to work if the contracts dry up.

I also agree on the importance of having a good accountant. But please, please take advantage of a wonderful little thing called an SEP IRA. Lowers your taxes and allows you to save for the future at a percentage that puts other IRAs to shame. As that wonderful little book, The Richest Man in Babylon says, pay yourself first. Even before promotional expenses.

Anyway, it's a great but sometimes sickening ride, and unlike Six Flags, your ups and downs will never match anyone else's. Good luck to all of you, and keep listening to Joe, for a white man him speak with heap straight tongue.

Jeri said...

Re: spending money on self-promotion: It's like any other entrepreneurial enterprise--you put all your money back into the company and find another way to pay the mortgage and the bills. Don't worry about paying yourself a "salary" for a long time.

I'm a hypocrite, though--I just spent half an advance check to fix a plumbing disaster in our home. Hmmm, do I register for another conference or do we have running water? Let's see...

Oh, and don't forget: Uncle Sam gets paid first.

PJ Parrish said...

Man, this is a tricky subject. I guess the only thing I have learned for sure so far is:

1. You don't want to be in a position where you are losing money for your pub. So wherever you are on the food chain, you can crunch the numbers and figure that out. It doesn't matter if your advance is 10K or 100K. If you don't earn out (or make enough money thru subsidiary sales), your pub isn't going to be too happy come next contract.

2. This is a marathon, not a sprint. The trick is to last long enough to build an audience big enough to support a career. Readers are the only real bottom line.

Hang in there, Joe. And give that great wife of yours a big hug!

Mindy Tarquini said...

Actually, things are getting harder, rather than easier. But I'm hoping that will change.

Can you speak to that a little more, Joe?

JA Konrath said...

MG--Each novel has to sell better than the previous one.

I did more touring, more events, more self-promotion for Bloody Mary than Whiskey Sour. And this summer, I'm visiting 500 bookstores for Rusty Nail.

The more you do, the more you realize you're not doing enough.

If I ever hope to someday be at a point where my sales are self-perpetuating, I need to build my fanbase now. That means spreading myself thin.

Publishing can be like a giant pyramid scheme, but it needs a big push before it can grow without assistance.

With book #1, you meet some people, get some press.

With book #2, you meet more people, get more press, and continue to sell book #1.

With book #3 you have some fans, and three books out to hook new fans. Fans of #1 buy #2 and #3. Fans of #2 buy #1 and #3.

But if #1 and #2 didn't sell well, they won't be in print when #3 comes out, and you lose those potential sales. That isn't just royalties you're losing, it's also potential fans who will continue to buy your future books and recommend you to others.

I'm convinced that the secret to success is print runs. The more you have in print, the better chance you have of people finding you. Not only in bookstores, but in libraries, online, flea markets, garage sales, paperback exchanges, etc.

The goal is to become a recognizable brand. If I can keep all of my books in print until #6, and get the stores to stock them, maybe they'll be able to sustain themselves after that.

Until then, I have to fan the sparks until the fire starts.

JA Konrath said...

Forgot to add this: Everyone thinks about reaching their goals and living their dreams, but no one realizes how hard it is to maintain once you get there.

Erica Orloff said...


Most people only get published by not giving up and through years of honing their craft, and so by nature, we're constantly goal-oriented. Achieve this, then this, then this. Like any career. First I want the promotion, then the corner office, then to own the company. I suppose the advantage is in pursuing your passion, so that the journey is still a thrill.

Bernita said...

Wise stuff and all that.
But: I can feel for you but I can't find you.

Anonymous said...

The goal is to become a recognizable brand.

I'm glad you mentioned that.

That's the end goal right? As a marketing guy, I beat this into my clients' skulls all week. What is the brand? Develop the brand. Brand. Brand. Brand.

The books stocked at B&N, as well as WalMart, are the branded authors. They're household names, icons, part of pop culture.

I guess the key is to establish a loyal beachhead and then hammer it. Either with your publisher, or more likely on your own.

Stacey Cochran said...

Great post, Joe.


Mindy Tarquini said...

Thanks, Joe. Wise words. I'll take them to heart.

Anonymous said...

I'm convinced that the secret to success is print runs. The more you have in print, the better chance you have of people finding you.

Interesting. Then digitization (e.g. google scanning books & selling them for download) ought to help writers by essentially ensuring your backlist never goes out of print.

Christine said...

Joe, I just have to thank you! I followed much of your advice for my booksigning today. I sent 100 flyers to the store ahead of time (and surrounding schools) and I brought cookies to the staff. I had a nice pitch ("It's like Dorothy goes to Middle Earth! If you liked The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you'll really enjoy this!") and I smiled the whole time.

I was only there two hours, but I sold five books - 1/4 of the stock. Plus I left another five signed copies (and got some extra "autographed copy" stickers) so that'll be half. Not bad for a day's work.

It's the connection to the reader I really liked. Thanks again :)

Anonymous said...

So what kind of self-promotion do you spend money on? I have an idea of how I plan on marketing my novel (assuming anyone publishes it) that involves giving away books, setting up booksignings, and trying to get at least local media attention. What else can I do?

JA Konrath said...

Travel costs a lot, going to and from conferences and signings, gas, airfare, con fees, hotels, food. Check out see how much I did last year. I've done events in about fifteen states in the last two years.

Give-aways--and sending them out. I mailed out 25 packages this week, but usually average 5 a week. That ads up.

Mailings--7000 letters to libraries this year, including envelopes, printing, postage.

Advertising in magazines.

Flyers (over 15,000) coasters (10,000) business cards (a few thousand) chapbooks (several hundred.)

Internet stuff--website, programs, emailing lists (you need a bulk mailer for over 1000 names.)

Plus all the intangible stuff--gifts for my agent, clothes for public appearances, contests I hold, ink and toner, paper, compuer upgrades, long distance phone, etc.

You'd be surprised how the money quickly disappears.

LA Burton said...

Hey Joe,
I love your blog, it always has great information and it helps a lot. As usual I take notes to these wonderful entries. Thanks!!!!!!!