Fiction Workbench

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Earn Money By Writing Fiction? Part 2

Posted by Meredith in Writing Advice (September 8, 2010 at 9:00 am)

Yesterday, I started an answer to a question about why writing teachers counsel fiction writers to not expect to quit their day jobs when they get published. I covered how an author gets paid by the publisher–both how advances work and how royalties work. You can read that post here.

Today, I’m explaining how many fiction writers handle these very discouraging facts in their attempts to make a living at writing fiction. It’s not a very positive scenario–I’ll be the first to admit it. But fiction writers need to know what reality is before they get into the middle of it.

Here is the conclusion of my 2-part post on earning money by writing fiction:

So how does this all affect your ability to earn a living writing fiction? If you are a debut or mid-list author, you can’t budget based on royalties. Many, many mid-list books never earn out the advance. So you have to expect that the advance (minus your agent’s share) is all the money you’ll see for that book.

You also have to account for the spacing of the advance payments. You could sign a contract late in 2010, turn in revisions in 2011, and the book might come out in 2012. There is no feasible way you can earn a living with spaced payments like that unless the advance was close to 6 figures or more.

There are a couple of ways authors deal with this. First, they often pitch multiple books for a single contract. This means they get a bigger advance–because it covers all the novels the publisher is buying. If—for example—you sign a 3-book contract, you might get a third of the ENTIRE amount on signing the contract, and then get one-third of one-third of the advance when you turn in the first book, another one-third of one-third when that book is released, and then so on for the remaining two books. This can help an author a lot, especially if the books are released fairly close together. But when it comes to royalties, you usually will not earn royalties on any of the books until the ENTIRE advance for all three is earned out–even if the first book earns out its share of the advance. Also, this locks you into a long-term relationship with your publisher, in an industry where things change overnight, so sometimes it becomes a risk for the author (which could be a whole post in itself, so I won’t go into more details right now).

Another way authors deal with this is by trying to write more novels and have them released more often. Some authors do this better than others. Did you ever have a favorite author whose first book is amazing, but whose subsequent works seem to be getting worse and less original? Chances are, the author is writing more quickly than they really should, and their quality of work suffers for it. The risk of burnout is very high when you load up on deadlines. But the only other option is to not earn enough money to pay the bills.

This is all very discouraging, I realize. But I think it’s better for fiction writers to pursue publication with their eyes wide open. This is why Randy and other writing teachers warn you not to count on quitting your day job for quite awhile. The mid-listers who eventually can support themselves by writing fiction do so after they have several books that stay in print, earn out advances, and when they develop a loyal following of readers. If they can accumulate royalties on many books, then they have a chance at making a living at it. But until then, it’s nearly impossible without getting a break-out book that sells well.

It’s possible that as digital books become more popular, some of this might change. It could change a LOT. But I think that there will always be a sizable period of time for most fiction writers in which they cannot support themselves with their published novels. Hopefully, we will find innovative ways to improve the scenario, but at this point, that’s the cold reality.

So, Alexandra, all this is why it would be wisest to plan for a back-up source of income as you are building your writing career.

Have a fiction writing question? Ask it here!

4 responses to “Earn Money By Writing Fiction? Part 2”

  1. There are those who are going to say, “Please tell me it isn’t so!”

    Randy sez: It’s so. The economic realities of writing fiction are tough. Don’t quit the day job and mortgage the house to write your novel. Expect that the rewards during the early part of your writing career will be slim.

    Then focus on the things that will make it possible for you to become one of the happy few who write fiction for a living: Great craft and great marketing.

  2. Meredith says:

    You’re right, Randy. There’s so much we have no control over when it comes to the success of a book. But we can control the quality of our work by writing the very best book we can, and we can work at becoming more effective marketers and advocates for our book.

  3. Lauren says:

    One way of resigning oneself to the inevitability of having to work a full time job while attempting to become that mythical “full time fiction writer” is to think of it as forced writing research. Would someone who graduates from college and goes right into writing novels have enough life experience/imagination to continually church out exciting and interesting ideas for her (or his) books. Maybe. But most of the super succesful novelists I’ve read about had full careers as something else before they started writing super duper bestsellers and most of the time their experience in the previous career is credited (by them) as having provided priceless ideas, skills, abilities, knowledge and world experiences that have enriched their writing. A few that spring to mind are stephen king, diana gabaldon, michael crichton, etc… If you absolutely cannot think of a career you would want as a springboard to writing novles then either try to get regular work doing piece writing (like articles, blogging, newspaper articles, etc…) to fill in the cracks, marry rich, or force yourself to go into some other career but think of it as research for your novel.

  4. Meredith says:

    I absolutely agree with you, Lauren. Excellent points!

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