Time to read: 11 minutes
There’s an article in the Guardian that is making the rounds on social media right now. Written by Lynn Steger Strong, she talks about writers and money. The title is an eye-catching:
A dirty secret: you can only be a writer if you can afford it.
If you read my blog, you know I love to talk about money. In particular, writers making money, or more precisely, not making money. This is a favorite topic of mine because I’m convinced there is money out there, somewhere, but only the lucky few find it, and even fewer are able to hang on to it for any length of time.
Lynn, (I’m sure she won’t mind if I call her that) publishes traditionally, has a Master’s in I’m going to assume, writing of some kind, and teaches college classes. That’s a pretty common way to be a “serious” “full-time” writer and author. Through her graduate program, she found an agent, and she teaches, again I’m going to assume some kind of English class, creative writing class, or even literature. She says her husband’s job helps, and she seems (according to the tone of the article) content, or at the very least semi-satisifed, to write and publish the academia way.
But not everyone can do that, or even wants to do that. A lot of writers I know whom I have met on Twitter, especially, don’t have an English degree, or American Lit, or Brit Lit, or have never taken a creative writing course. So, right away, opportunities (teaching jobs and agent referrals) aren’t accessible to many writers who want to go the traditional route. And surprisingly, many still do. It’s actually quite amazing to me how many writers want to query, want the book deal. They think theyr’e going to be the next JK Rowling, Cassandra Clare, Sarah Maas, Leigh Bardugo. They write epic YA fantasies, or they’re trying their hand at “serious” literary novels, wanting to be short-listed for the Booker, and they think “book deal” means money and fame, and really, does traditional publishing even deliver that anymore?
It’s no secret even if you get The Book Deal, you’re often on your own with marketing and publicity, (and editing. I hate throwing Jasmine Guillory under the bus, but go on Goodreads sometime and look at the reviews for her books. It’s a shame really, that her publishing house *cough* Penguin, couldn’t invest in a a couple editing sweeps and continued to let her flounder for many subsequent books) something new writers who query still don’t seem to understand. Even Lynn, in this article, mentions a published author spending her advance on a publicist. I suppose some want book deals because they think they’re going to luck out and land an agent who will hold their hand through their whole career. They’ll nurture them, and guide them, mold their novels into bestsellers. (Where did you go, Max Perkins?)
Publishing doesn’t do that anymore. In fact, Lynn’s way to publishing, I’m going to predict, will go the way of the dinosaurs in the next few years. Indie publishing is taking over, and the die-hards don’t want to admit it because there are still some successes. In Scratch, by Manjula Martin, you can read an account of how Cheryl Strayed lived hand to mouth with her husband while she wrote Wild. It paid off because she landed a huge book deal, and was able to pay off the credit cards they lived on while she wrote. She didn’t give numbers, but she also admitted that when Reese Witherspoon picked up her book for a movie deal, that also help her finances. I’m sure it did. She must have had a huge amount of faith to think her creative memoir was going to sell big. And she was lucky it did. Who else can put their rent on a credit card? I wouldn’t want to.
So, yeah, sure, you need money to write. Time is money, and if you have time because your significant other pays the bills, or your kids are old enough not to need daycare and you don’t have to make that up in wages, or you’re renting instead of buying and your rent is half the cost of a mortgage, you’re fortunate and have twenty hours a week to write.
But, you need money to sell your books. How many of you would really, let’s be honest now, throw your book deal advance into marketing? How many of you would would throw your 10,000 dollar advance at a publicist? Really? Whether you’re trad published or not, you still need to pay for marketing your own book.
This is where I think most people get hung up. They make time to write, and maybe it takes six months to a year to finish a novel. But then what? Never mind paying for ads. If you’re a debut novelist and you don’t have an MFA or even an under graduate degree in creative writing, you’re going to need a developmental editor ASAP, and those don’t come cheap. Because let’s face it, every day people publish absolute crap. They do. Some of them even know it, but they don’t know how to fix it. Everyone says, hire an editor, but people (often the people who can afford it) forget that a developmental editor costs as much as two months of my rent. I’m sure it’s that way for other people, too. Hmm, a roof over my head, or an editor? Sometimes you can’t choose. So they publish crap and moan when they don’t sell books.
Then there’s the cost of cover design and formatting and throwing a great launch, and paying for ads for the rest of your life.
You can be a writer–that’s free. It’s the rest that slows us down.
I understand where Lynn is coming from. Hell, I’ve even been tempted to try to apply to an MFA program. I picture us sitting around a university classroom, sipping on espresso and discussing why Hemingway was such an asshole, or if F. Scott Fitzgerald was a good writer because he was an alcoholic, or despite it. I picture myself pulling a Donna Tart and spending the next ten years writing the next great American, Pulitzer prize-winning novel while I teach English 101 classes to kids who can’t spell because our educational system is going down the toilet. But how am I living doing that? Hand to mouth because teachers don’t make anything, and programs at universities are shrinking because no one can afford school anymore.
What can you do then?
- Recognize that it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of time to start making good money. I’ve been writing and publishing for three years, and I made sixty dollars in the month of February–and you need to subtract the 20 dollars I spent on ads. A 40 dollar return on investment is nothing, and at this stage of the game, I’d be better off appreciating the fact that people are paying to read my books, even if that number is few. But, forty dollars won’t even pay my cell phone bill every month.
- Do what Lynn suggests in the article and find a job that won’t zap all your creative energy so you have the mental and emotional capacity to still write at the end of the day while you’re trying to make it big.
- Find the sweet spot between what’s selling and what you love to write. You don’t have to write a literary work of art. Half the battle is writing what people enjoy reading.
- Focus on craft. We all can do better with plotting, character arcs, and finding our voices.
- Learn an ad platform and make it work for you. You can start small–five dollars a week.
- Network with bigger players in your genre and see if you can get a little help with the marketing end of it with newsletters swaps and sniff out promotions that won’t break the bank. One can hope that you’ll always make more money than you spend.
There is money out there. There are readers out there. They want to read good books. Write one and then pay to find them.
No teaching required.
If you need proof there’s money in indie publishing, Publisher Rocket has the goods. I use that software to find keywords for my Amazon ads, and it scrapes data from Amazon. How much is the hottest contemporary romance novel projected to make this month?
Lauren Landish put out a book a few days ago: The Dare. At the time of this writing, it’s number 10 in the entire KINDLE STORE, and number 1 in her genre categories. Do you know how much that book is projected to make this month? Almost a quarter of a million dollars. Yes you read that right. It seems almost . . . I don’t know, illegal, to have that kind of information out there. So much for privacy in the digital age. But no one, especially traditionally published authors, wants to admit that that kind of money is out there. That it’s ACHIEVABLE. (I would also be amiss not to point out that her book is exclusive to Amazon, and I bet most of that money comes from KU reads since her book is available in Kindle Unlimited.)
And admittedly, that book is number one in contemporary romance meaning she must have worked her ass off to get that far, and she’s written a lot of books. So there’s no way I’m going to resent her that income. But let’s try the book that’s listed in the 100 slot in the top 100 of contemporary romance today:
The book is by Rich Amooi, and I have to admit, I’ve never heard of him before. He’s projected to make $12,000 dollars this month. That’s a steep drop from Lauren’s paycheck, but probably you wouldn’t turn your nose up at that kind of royalty check from KDP.
Lynn, the author of the Guardian article, has a book coming out, Want: A Novel, and I wonder how much her advance was from Macmillan, how much of it went to her agent, and what her own plans for marketing her book will be when her book is finally published (it’s on preorder). I wonder if she looked at genre trends, researched the market before she wrote her book. I wonder how long her agent shopped it around before she found the book a home. I wonder if she’ll earn out her advance. She’s not going to make a quarter of a million dollars. I’d bet my next year’s royalties on it.
So where am I going with all this? 1900 words later, I guess I want to say that the money is there, but it depends on the path you choose to determine how long it’s going to take you to find it. I’m working my butt off–I write every day, I try to publish consistently and put out good books. My books haven’t caught on yet, and that’s okay. I’m exploring new things, (switching to first person present for one) and I’m flexible (I don’t mind learning what’s going on the indie publishing world). I’m lucky that my fiancé supports my writing–he pays my rent and makes a credit card payment every once in a while so I can buy groceries. My ex-husband pays me alimony and child support, and I do work. I piecemeal an existence together like a lot of writers. It’s probably why I sound so hardcore whenever I blog about writing. I don’t want to waste the time granted to me by other people’s generosity. I want to make that time count. My life would look very different if I didn’t have money coming in from different avenues, and I probably wouldn’t write as much. It’s Lauren’s numbers that keep me going.
I’m going to make it some day.
And you can, too.
I find this interesting because so often I hear about people making five- or six-figures from their books, but rarely (dare I say never?) do they mention how much they are spending on ads, book production, virtual assistants, self-employment taxes, etc. I’m always curious to know, when the bookkeeping is said and done, what are the actual “take home pay” numbers?
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still probably a lot more than me. 😛 But I agree, if you have to spend 2 dollars on ads to make 2.50, is it worth the time and energy? you’re right, people are quick to say how much they make, but not how much they’re spending. it’s good to be reminded of that sometimes. Also, I don’t think traditionally published people want to admit just how *little* they make. the industry is interesting, that’s for sure. :). Thanks for reading!
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I’ve heard a handful of trad people say how much they get in royalties…it actually made me feel pretty good about my indie earnings 😜
Oh, for sure. Like Jami Albright says in an interview, I think it was on Mark Dawson’s podcast, traditionally publishing can’t afford me. 😛
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