Time Is Money, Friend
The other day a friend asked me what I was currently working on. I told them I was under deadline for the second contracted novel in my young adult series.
"How many books does this make for you now?" they asked.
"This will be my third novel," I replied.
"You've got others though, right? You've been writing a long time. I know you have more than three!"
"You mean my anthologies? I have four short stories published, so I guess if you're counting physical books, the one I'm writing right now will be number seven."
"Wow! You must be making a lot!"
I couldn't help it. I laughed.
What? I couldn't help it!
Look, I understand that people have this huge misconception about how much authors make writing. They see movies like Harry Potter and that Sparkly Daywalking Stalker Douchebag I Hate, The DaVinci Code, any Nicholas Sparks-based film, and shows like True Blood and Game of Thrones. All these were originally books. Therefore, people who write make loads of money!
Sorry. Sorry. I can't help it. I'm laughing again.
"What?" my friend asked. "Seven is a lot."
"Yeah. What year is this?"
"Um…2012, last time I checked."
"And what year is my car?"
"I don't know. You've had it forever."
"It's a 2001. How long have I lived in my house?"
"Since you moved here. What, like twelve years or something. You just got new carpet."
"Right. New carpet after twelve years that I had to get a loan in order to get installed."
"What's your point?"
"Do you see me buying summer homes and new cars? No. You see me getting carpet in the house I've lived in for twelve years and paying vet bills for my chronically ill cat. I'm not buying diamonds or hiring a maid, am I?"
The light starts to creep into their eyes.
"Yeah," I say. "Let's figure out how much I make a month based on my last writing paycheck, shall we?" *pulls out cell phone and does some quick calculations, then shows them the number* "That's how much I make a month."
They don't say anything for a long moment. "But you're a writer," they finally say.
"I'm not JK Rowling or Danielle Steele or Stephen King. Hell, I'm not anyone. Just because I've got books out there doesn't mean I instantly make money."
Their brow furrows and I can see the wheels turning.
"But you're good," they say.
"Thanks for that. I'm glad you like my writing, and I appreciate that you think it's good. But just because you enjoy it doesn't mean it makes money. Now you see why I get so upset about e-piracy and illegal copies of my work out there. A lot of people don't think downloading equals a lost sale, but for people like me, it does. People who download my work aren't likely to buy my next book. They'll just download it like they did the first one. Why pay for something when you can get it for free? But that's not the point here. The point is, I don't write for the money. Even for people a lot bigger than I am, a lot better at writing than I am, writing isn't the majority of their income. Do you know how much the average author gets from a hardback book sale? That $25.00 you pay for a new release in hardcover? How much do you think the author sees of that?"
"I don't know. Half?"
I manage not to laugh out loud this time. Instead I say, "That would be awesome, but no. 50% isn't even close."
I shake my head. "Most contracts specify anywhere from 10-15% on hardcover sales. At 10%, only $2.50 of that $25.00 goes to the author. And we have to pay taxes on that $2.50, because it's our income, so that's just the gross, not what we actually get to keep. So that hardcover has to sell at least ten copies just to make the author $25."
"So the publisher keeps the other 90%? That's not fair!"
I shake my head again. "No, other people need to be paid, too. The editor, the typesetter, the cover artist, and so on. A lot of work goes into making a book. And that's just hardcover prices. Paperbacks, as you know, don't sell for $25. You pay what? $7 for one new?"
My friend nods.
"How much of that do you think goes to the author?"
"After what you just told me about hardcovers, I'm going to say 5%."
I smile. "Now you're getting it. It depends on individual contracts, but that's about right. There's a lot more to it, but generally, authors don't make money hand over fist. Anyone writing 'for the money' is deluding themselves."
"What about these big book deals and things people get? Doesn't that mean a lot of money?"
"On paper, yeah. In reality, not so much. Say an author gets a $50,000 advance for three books. That sounds like a lot, but break it down. That's around $16,000 or so per book – two of which still need to be written. Now, that's called an advance because it's just that – an advance against the royalties you'll (in theory) make from the sales of the books. And you don't get all that at once. Depending on your contract, the author gets paid either half up front and half on delivery of the completed manuscript, or a third on contract, a third on delivery, and a third on publication. So that book deal? Yeah, if you're on the three-part-payment thing, you don't get paid for all three books right away. Two of those still need writing, so you'll get partly paid for those when you deliver them, and again when they're published. Now, a person with a 9-5 job gets paid once or twice a month. Writers get paid twice a year or so. Think you can make $5000 last 6 months? That's about $950 a month to live on, give or take. And that's before taxes, remember."
"That won't even pay my rent! Let alone my car, food…."
"Now you see what I'm saying. Also, that advance? Your agent who got you the book deal gets 15% of that $50,000. Now, they're worth every penny of that and more, because without them, you wouldn't have a book deal at all, but still. That's $7500 out of that $50,000. And, like the writer, they have to wait for that. They don't get paid until the writer does. See what I'm saying?"
"But you spend all this time writing. If I figure out your hourly rate…"
"Don't. It's pennies. Makes minimum wage look like a million dollars."
"So why do you do it then? If there's no money in it, why try and sell your book at all?"
I smile. "Because I don't write for the money."
And neither should you. Writing isn't about making money. Money is nice, but if you're writing because you think you're going to be a millionaire, well…good luck to you. Big money from writing is the exception, not the rule. Most writers I know have day jobs and write in between doing the dinner dishes and putting the kids to bed.
For an awesome breakdown on how authors get paid (the real nitty gritty, if you're interested in that sort of thing), check out this amazing article by author Rebecca Brandewyne. It covers advances and royalties and percentages and so on, and links to some amazing articles at the end.