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February 20, 2007

Get Rich Writing

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Planning on getting rich writing sci-fi or fantasy novels? Think again. Tobias Buckell writes that the average advance for a first sci-fi or fantasy novel is $5000. Five years and five novels later, the average author is pulling in around $13,000 per novel. Sci-fi pro Charlie Stross describes the dreary lot that is a professional writer's life. Nice quote:

It's startling how many people think that the writer's life is one of glamour and artistic credibility rather than a mundane job, with everything that goes with that. If you want to do the art, you've not only got to put in your time learning the tools of the trade -- you've got to remember that it is a trade, and there are trade-like activities that go with it and that you can't afford to shirk if you want to keep doing the important stuff.

Links via Peter L. Winkler, who thinks that print-on-demand won't be the salvation of the book publishing industry.



posted by Michael at February 20, 2007


I read several years ago that only about 5,000 people in the United States made a living from writing books. To put things in perspective, a large hospital or one of the Las Vegas casinos employ more.

Posted by: Peter on February 20, 2007 8:09 PM

Peter -- The figure is even worse than that -- it's more like a couple of hundred people who can make a living from writing books. At least that's what the head of one of the largest writers' organizations once told me. What a funny business: thousands and thousands of people in the industry (bookstores, warehouses,publishers, etc), all of them with salaries and benefits, and all of them dependent on the work of writers, most of whom can't make a living at supplying the product. Is there another business where 90% of the people who supply the product can't make a living at it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 20, 2007 9:59 PM

It's all comparative. $13,000 is my entire year's income. Some of us just got our first royalty checks from Mine is quite modest and yet it will keep me from having to borrow to pay for this month's heat.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 20, 2007 11:27 PM

Winkler's critique of Maxine is not valid because POD is only part of the revolution. What REALLY makes it work is Google and the online booksellers who can sort by topic and mail in only a couple of days. Also, he doesn't allow for the "long tail." Some people think that a blog only works if readers go along day-by-day, reading posts as they come. But many blogs work best if they are a response to Google when one is looking for something specific. The most interesting responses to my blogs often come months or even a year after the post was written.

The advance system is a fossil already. Don't you have to give it back if the book fails to sell? Agents will simply find something else to do -- weren't they mostly dismissed editors anyway? And editors are now "packagers" but that has nothing to do with writing -- it's about celebrity and scandal. The Regan approach.

We still haven't evolved a way to certify a book as quality that doesn't involve a publisher, but how many publishers are trustworthy guides to quality anyway? Maybe something more like the Oscars -- maybe something like the review system for libraries.

Remainder sellers will die. Used book sellers will thrive.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 20, 2007 11:48 PM

Is there another business where 90% of the people who supply the product can't make a living at it?


Or perhaps the fish are "consumers"?

Posted by: J. Goard on February 21, 2007 4:04 AM

Dear Mary:

No, authors don't have to refund advances when their books don't sell.

"but how many publishers are trustworthy guides to quality anyway? Maybe something more like the Oscars -- maybe something like the review system for libraries."

Publishers are unreliable judges of quality, but the Oscars, a system totally corrupted by the high-pressure ad campaigns studios use to obtain nominations and the awards is more trustworthy?

Gimme a frickin break!

Publishers are unreliable filters but reviewers for Kirkus and Publishers Weekly (two of the trade periodicals relied upon by librarians) are? Why?

The long tail is another internet/marketing concept du jour that people pour over everything like ketchup until it is replaced by the next faddish concept.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on February 21, 2007 6:51 AM

"Is there another business where 90% of the people who supply the product can't make a living at it?"

Music, acting.

Posted by: jult52 on February 21, 2007 8:33 AM

Is there another business where 90% of the people who supply the product can't make a living at it?

College football and basketball. Hugely popular sports, with tens of millions of fans and vast revenues, yet only a small minority of players will make it in the NFL or NBA.

Posted by: Peter on February 21, 2007 8:52 AM

Writing for advertising or magazines may not have the cachet of writing novels, but the word rate is fabulous. Because of space limitations, you get more approval from the publisher and designer as you write less. In my former trade of advertising copywriter, I once wrote a single sentence — a headline — for a day's pay.

Posted by: Rick Darby on February 21, 2007 12:39 PM

I love these writing/money posts. I like being supported in my view of the industry's general unfairness. But if anything, I think Michael understates the disparities. My last advance was $300--For a book in print by an actual publisher*. My annual royalties are about twice that for same book. Clearly, I am among the majority not making a living by writing.

Nonetheless, money is beside the point. It has to be. If writers really needed money, who would blog? Who would write their first book? Or their fifth in a row without a single sale? Yet people are constantly writing, and that is how it should be.

I write a personal blog with a circulation of about 7 people, 8 if I include myself. And I do, because writing is necessary for me and rewarding all by itself. I think that's altogether the common experience.

Of course I hope to be rich and famous someday (someday soon if possible). But it's unlikely and frankly, won't make any difference in the quality or quantity of my work. I'm a father of young children. I hunt a lot. I like to read. I want to stay married "to my first wife." These are all important jobs for which I expect no money or national recognition. You could say I am pre-adapted to being a writer.

*a small one, yes, but not me.

Posted by: Matt Mullenix on February 21, 2007 1:14 PM

Goodness gracious, Peter Winkler! Does anyone else know about the terrible corruption of the Oscars? Right here in a democracy where all is fairness and trust? Is it different in California?

More seriously, Oscars are a bad model for me to have used because I never pay any attention to that kind of movies anyway. My Netflix list is all old BBC series. As far as books go, I read academic stuff and I'm VERY grateful that the long tail of the U of Nebraska Press is kept in print by POD -- particularly Bison Books -- since I don't much care about their more recent acquisitions now that they consider themselves a world force.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 21, 2007 2:19 PM

I agree that print on demand may not be the salvation that some people are hoping for. The key problem is how do you generate demand, that is, interest in an author’s work? How do you entice someone to pay for a book (even if that person later doesn’t read it). I get the impression that some think (or hope) that by eliminating the middlemen (publishers and reviewers) writers and readers will be able to come together more easily. But when you get down to it, bloggers and online reviewers are just a new type of middleman, often just as unreliable as the old school. Savvy readers of reviews have learned to discount both overly positive and overly negative reviews since these are often indicators of people with axes to grind. But promotion is essential to getting the public’s attention, and I don’t see how POD adequately deals with this at all.

Re: Is there another business where 90% of the people who supply the product can't make a living at it?

As others have noted, this is much the case with actors, composers, singers, athletes (who also have the issue of an extremely short performing career in which they can earn money), and even lawyers.

As an aside, I note that the big players, from publishers to Disney, are working hard to extend their control over copyrights and intellectual property, realizing that even though it’s tough to make a living on creative arts, if you land in the big gravy, life can be very good. See, for example, stories about Disney’s 16 year battle with the estate of Stephen Slesinger over Winne the Pooh royalties. And writers and other creators often make bad deals that hurt themselves and their families down the road. The father of a friend of mine was a songwriter, and although he didn’t make a lot of money when he was alive, he somehow managed to negotiate some good deals, and later on a number of noteworthy singers recorded his songs. As a result both his children were able to pay for some very expensive colleges with the help of his song royalties, with a nice bit left over for his widow.

There was an interesting google answers discussion on the topic of “how much for a romance novel,” which also gets into the issue of advances and how difficult it is to earn a living solely from writing. The discussion gets into other genres as well and can be found here,

By the way, I picked romance novels for a google search because, even though I don’t think the genre has been written about much here by the blowhards, it is a far more popular genre than science fiction, so the difficulties that writers have here making a living really underscores the obstacles that writers face.

The New York Times recently had a fun article on a Nascar-romance novel tie-in, which notes the following:

Booksellers and other publishers are following the Nascar-Harlequin hookup with interest, because romances are a hugely important genre, accounting for some 55 percent of all popular, mass-market fiction sold every year.

The full story can be found here (“In Harlequin-Nascar Romance, Hearts Race”)

There is also an interesting review of a new book by Patrick Anderson on the rise of the “thriller” genre which deals with similar debates here on high literary culture and popular literary culture (“Rising Crime”)

Also, in the google answers thread, a writer of technical books – after noting all the difficulties and the possible rewards -- also notes the following:

Oh, and one last thing, I keep writing, because I like to write.

Posted by: Alec on February 21, 2007 2:22 PM

I hate writing but uberagents keep calling me.

Posted by: gcochran on February 21, 2007 5:51 PM

Only five thousand people making a living off of writing books? Hardly. A single engineering specialty probably supports a thousand people by itself.

Posted by: secret asian man on February 21, 2007 7:54 PM

Rick Darby and others - how does one score these advertising, magazine hack jobs? I have no interest (or talent) in writing Important Novels. I've done high-volume hackwork in the legal field for years. There's no writing that could possibly be more boring than legal writing. I wouldn't mind transitioning from the legal field, which I've concluded is for asshats. Also, the money is worse than laypersons often think.

Any good websites, books, etc., about this topic?

Posted by: Brian on February 21, 2007 9:28 PM


I'll try to answer your question, although there isn't any simple, guaranteed method for getting aboard.

First, if you are serious, I would get over the attitude that these are "hack jobs." That isn't the way people in these professions look at their work, and if they sense any condescension from you, they'll see you off fast.

Advertising is very much a world of its own, unlike anything else. Being a copywriter has changed since I was a card-carrying member of the guild — much more of it is for video, which means you need to be up on computer graphics, animation, and all that — but a good print copywriter is still welcome at many shops.

A copywriter needs an odd combination of talents: the ability to use language very precisely plus a flair for showmanship. They rarely inhabit the same body; if that sounds like you, chances are you will eventually make it. I know of no way to get a copywriting job other than to have a portfolio of work you've already done. If you don't have a book of produced ads and commercials you've written, make some up using real or even imaginary products.

Magazines cover a much wider spectrum. Entree to that business usually involves, besides a basic ability to write clearly, some specialized knowledge. Whatever fields you're interested in or enthusiastic about are a good start. If you don't know already, see what periodicals are published about those subjects. Don't overlook trade and association magazines.

Getting started in advertising or magazine publishing is the hardest part. Once you're inside, just do the best work you can and it will flow from there. Then you'll have to face the problem of your employer wanting to take you away from writing and making you a manager.

Posted by: Rick Darby on February 22, 2007 11:13 AM

"First, if you are serious, I would get over the attitude that these are "hack jobs." That isn't the way people in these professions look at their work,"

I agree, and would say it also applies to your customers. I've been writing ad copy for local businesses for about three years, mostly for home services and petroleum industry supply companies. These are not generally "writers" I'm working for; but they are can-do people, accustomed to providing for themselves and who know the value of a dollar. When you charge them quite a bit for a paragraph or two of copy, they expect your best work.

You can think of it as hack work, but it's bad for business to speak of it that way to the guy paying your invoice. Unfortunately, I learned that the hard way.

Posted by: Matt Mullenix on February 23, 2007 7:56 AM

Author John Scalzi just did a post about his scifi writing income each year since 1999 here.

Pretty interesting and informative.

Posted by: claire on February 24, 2007 2:41 PM

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