My wife and I take walks around Seattle’s Green Lake. It’s one of the best parks in the city, and it’s beautiful at any time of the year. It’s a nice 3+ mile circuit, during which we’d talk about many things, quite often about my writing. My wife (my First Reader) is a great sounding-board for plot ideas, plot problems, character development ideas, etc.
When I sold my first book, our walks had a new topic: which of these lakefront houses would we buy when the money started rolling in?
It’s true. I so firmly believed in the future success of my books and my career as a writer that I was eyeing million-dollar properties. So, what the hell happened? Why didn’t Oprah’s Secret kick in?
Last week, Salon.com put up an article by Patrick Wensink, author of the “international bestseller” Broken Piano for President, which you may have heard of as the recipient of the “world’s nicest cease-and-desist letter” from Jack Daniel’s. Because of the letter, Wensink’s book was profiled on NPR, in the NYTimes, and mentioned in The New Yorker. As a result, it shot up into the top-ten on bestseller lists across the country and around the world. In his article, Wensink obligingly informs us of just how little he received from his “international bestseller”: $12,000.
He also cited David Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in which Eggers breaks down the disposition of his $100k advance: after living expenses, he was only able to bank half. Not bad, but $50k isn’te even a down on a million-dollar-home.
Like Wensink, I feel this is important information for wannabe writers. I don’t want to discourage anyone from writing, but I want new writers to be prepared, to know how it really works, so they don’t go quitting their jobs or mortgaging their homes so they can finish their Great American Novel and hit the big time. Let’s look at what I got for my four novels.
I had a top-flight New York agent and she sold two novels (one unwritten) to Roc Books (a Penguin/Putnam subsidiary). Two years later, she sold two more. Here’s what I got.
- My first contract for two novels (one unwritten): $13,500 advance
- My second contract for two unwritten novels: $22,500 advance
- Total for four novels: $36,000
- Average per book: $9,000
- Agent’s commission: 15%
- Net received per book: $7,650
That’s $7650 for a year’s work, part-time, which works out to about $7.50/hour. And that’s before taxes, remember.
No wonder I’m not driving an Aston-Martin.
Here’s the big take-away from this: These are good numbers for a new author.
Look at it another way. Let’s say you break through and start making serious change like $20k per book, or even $50k for each book you produce. Now let’s say you can churn out 2 books in a year. So you’d pull in $100k which, after your agent’s cut and some set aside for taxes, it’s easy to see how you’d keep only half of that. Yes, a decent living, but you’re not taking trips to Bali on that. Can you write two novels in a year? What if you can only write one a year? Can you live on $25k/year?
It’s important to get down to brass tacks. If you’re thinking about making a living writing fiction, be realistic about how much you might/are likely to make by writing. There’s a reason most writers have a working spouse or a day job to supplement their income. It can be done, through a combination of hard, hard work and some creative financial management; I know some folks who do it, and they always impress the hell out of me.
If you’re going to give it a try, be realistic and get the facts. Don’t lease that Jag…yet.