Writers and Money (or, Why Most Writers Are Poor)

In addition to queries about agents, editors, and publishers, Writer Beware often receives questions about publishing in general. I got an email the other day from an aspiring novelist who wanted to know how to achieve literary success–specifically, how to make money:

My problem is that I need to survive off my writing. I’ve mutilated my brain too much already. I couldn’t function in any other capacity without severe withdrawal symptoms. Quality is the most important thing, but I still need to make a living. I’m not worried about publishing odds as much as—-I hate this word—-money.

I told this writer the truth: writing is not a big-money business. Sure, there are the Stephen Kings and the Charles Fraziers; there are the Nora Robertses who are so prolific that they’d make excellent money even if they didn’t command huge advances; there are the brand-new writers whose books have been targeted for blockbuster-dom and who get half a million bucks right off the bat. But these folks are in the minority. For most of us, it’s not like that, or even close.

A survey of American authors undertaken in 1979 found that the median annual income for writers was less than $5,000, with only 10% earning more than $45,000 (The Wages of Writing by Paul William Kingston and Jonathan R. Cole, Columbia University Press, 1986). In 1995, things hadn’t improved much–the median income for respondents in a survey of freelance writers conducted by the National Writers’ Union was $4,000 per year, with only 16% earning more than $30,000 per year. In 2004-2005, the UK-based Authors Licensing & Collecting Society funded a survey of 25,000 British and German writers, which revealed that professional UK authors had a median yearly wage of just over £12,000. The US-based Authors Guild estimates that its average member earns an annual writing income of less than $25,000.

The advance for my first novel, in 1982, was $2,500. Numbers have come up since then–today, the average first novel advance is somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 (there aren’t many hard statistics on this, but see Tobias Buckell’s interesting survey of first-novel advances in the science fiction/fantasy field; Brenda Hiatt’s Show Me the Money, which lists the average advances paid by major US romance publishers for first novels and others; Justine Larbalestier’s essay on first novel advances; and this interesting article from the Guardian on first novel advances in the UK, which also discusses how huge advances can damage writers’ careers if their books fail to perform). But there are still sizeable commercial publishers that pay what I was paid twenty-five years ago, or even less. How many careers can you think of where companies have not increased their starting salaries since 1982?

(Of course, after advances come royalty payments and subsidiary rights sales–maybe. Today more than ever, large numbers of novels don’t earn out their advances, and many never sell subrights. For many writers, the advance is the only money they’ll receive.)

Most of the professional novelists I know have a day job or a supportive spouse to fill the income gap, or have simply chosen to live a marginal lifestyle. Those who do make a decent living from their writing work like dogs to do it–either they’re extremely prolific (I’m talking two, three, or even four books a year), or they do other kinds of writing or writing-related work to make ends meet: journalism, freelancing, work-for-hire, teaching.

Here’s my opinion, for what it’s worth. Obviously, we all want to be paid for our writing. Obviously, we’d all like to make a living, or at least come close. But money is one of the least predictable aspects of a writing career. It may come or it may not–and whether it does or doesn’t won’t necessarily have anything to do with how talented you are or how hard you work. If you take money off the ambition table right from the start, you’ll be freer to concentrate on the things you can control: choosing the right agents and publishers to approach, polishing your query letter, networking–and of course, the constant, arduous, ongoing effort to master your craft.

Unfortunately, like many new writers who’ve read too many stories about giant first novel advances (like this one) and have unrealistic ideas about what writers can earn, this wasn’t what my correspondent wanted to hear. Here’s his response to my advice (which, by the way, he got for free):

You’re not holding the gate closed, so I’m not worried about your discouragement. I understand, the history of the human race is but a brief spot in time, and its first lesson is modesty, but some people are better than others. I wouldn’t discourage anybody from having high ambitions, because the good of their success outweighs the bad of their failure. The successful ones always tell everybody to be more ambitious, which is why I think you’re biased and your judgement [sic] cannot altogether be respected.

And just to make sure I didn’t miss the point:

And if you don’t get it, maybe that’s why you’re not very successful. Write until your words bleed. I don’t see that color in your prose.

Uh…you might want to check my last post about blacklisting, buddy.


  1. Hi – sorry – I just *had* to reiterate – judgement is the more common spelling in many parts of the world. And in those same parts of the world, using 'judgment' will raise eyebrows, or at least identify the user as American.

    (sorry, I guess I'm a spelling nerd)

  2. Yes, I know this is an old thread. But thank you for re-linking to it. It's very helpful for someone as clueless as I am. No, really. I like it. It's making me feel a whole lot better about my day job as a defense lawyer, even though I whine about not having time to write.

  3. I do make a living off my writing, and a decent one at that. But not because I have “bleeding prose.” I write for the market. This guy sounds like someone with a novel he’s been polishing (and probably severely overwriting) for years, and in the process has convinced himself that anyone who cannot see the glory of his work is a philistine and can be insulted at will (even if he asked for their opinion.) Ooookay. For the record, my editor has said numerous times that she’d vastly prefer to see a book that has a decent plot, decent writing and is marketable than something with gorgeous prose. Publishers can make money off good genre stuff. They can’t off of the latest wannabee’s purple prose.

  4. Since I’m just starting out and learning the newbie lessons…I have not made near what you guys have. I’m looking to start with an e-book and go from there. The process of writing just fascinates me.

    Thank you for this post and blog also.

  5. I wonder how old your letter writer is. He could have just graduated from high school from the tone of his letter. My guess is that his parents have given him everything he wanted from guitar lessons to the latest toys. He’s never had to prove himself. Maybe submitting his writings to publishers will change him over time.

  6. Quick! I’m putting together the new blacklist for ’08 and need this twerp’s name!

    I really should stop being continually amazed at the number of unpublished wannabes who know way more about publishing than those of us who actually have titles at the bookstore, but there it is.

    :goggles at his stupidity:

    Wow, that parting shot sure put YOU in your place Ms. Strauss. How will you ever–hey, stop laughing so hard!–recover?

  7. I’m sorry – “write until your words bleed”? I can imagine the purpleness of his prose. Very glad he didn’t “see that color” in yours, Victoria!

  8. Writing does seem to attract know-it-all newbie schlubs, though, doesn’t it? Think of another work endeavor where the new hire trainee tells the experienced trainer how the system is “supposed” to work…

    (Besides my boss, I mean. Come on.)

    No–in writing, apparently all you need is a dream and a keyboard. That qualifies you to put down others’ efforts, and color your slamming in hues of “artistic purity.”

    Thanks for this blog. I think it gets some of this newbie-ire out of the collective consciousness, and keeps the rest of us safe to go on writing.

  9. I just came across your site and I’m glad I did. I’ve despaired of finding something on the net where real, working writers gather.
    I’ve worked for a living as a writer for 30 something years, and I have met many people like this bloke. I’ve mentored and taught as well, and if I had a buck for every know-all newbie idiot I’ve come across in that time, I’d be a wealthy man today.
    I’m not knocking new writers. We all start somewhere. Most are okay and take advice.

    Keep writing,
    Big Al

  10. Victoria, you are so kind to provide this service–and you do it for nothing! You help would-be writers avoid scam artists, give real, solid information on a hard-to-access industry.

    And on top of it all, you have to put up with stuff like this. I think you should get a medal. You’re like a one-woman A-Team!

  11. Janny, I agree.
    However, in fairness, my Merriam-Webster includes “judgement” as a correct spelling, though not the selected American one. My concise Oxford finds “judgement” preferrable.

  12. Anyone who can’t spell “judgment” will be culled from the slush pile pretty fast…or at least it is to be fervently hoped so.

    What’s saddest of all here is that this exchange isn’t about writing well and being “successful.” It’s actually about a wannabe who doesn’t write very well and won’t believe he doesn’t. Isn’t it amazing how people who write in murky, unclear, vague and purple prose consider it somehow poetic and literary–and then look down their noses at those of us who don’t?

    If we communicate plainly and in fact sell, we’re obviously hacks. If we sell, but not to the point where we can retire on our royalties, we’re not only hacks but failures in this guy’s eyes. Perhaps a better counter question to this person would be, “Then, in your eyes, who IS a successful writer?”

    One conference I attended for several years was a regular stomping ground for a guy who never missed a chance to brag about how he wasn’t going to “sell out” like an “ordinary” writer…you know, one who actually got published. (!)Nope, he had integrity, and he was going to maintain the “purity” of his writing. No publisher was going to make him jump through any of those hoops and be a “hack.”

    The only catch to that is, to my knowledge, this man has never in fact sent anything off to a publisher in the first place. The last I heard, this man is also still living in his parents’ basement–into his forties–and insists on limiting his writing to murky, obscure poetry. So his actual experience of being asked to “jump through hoops” or “sell out” is nonexistent, which makes his resolve not to “sell out” a bit ludicrous.(Not to mention oxymoronic.)

    Sounds like he’s related to your correspondent. Makes me wonder if he, in fact, IS your correspondent…


  13. Those numbers make me appreciate two things: 1)the size of my advance (higher than the average offered a first-tme author; and 2) the fact I didn’t get one of those outrageously huge 7-figure advances that would doom my career forever if my book didn’t sell.

  14. Marsupialis, if you sign for a hard/soft deal, the royalty rates for all formats (including percentage increases at higher sales thresholds and bonuses if the book earns out in a set period of time) are negotiated in advance and written into the contract. The publisher may choose not to publish the softcover version if the hardcover does poorly, but if it does publish the softcover, it’s contractually bound to give you the negotiated royalty rate.

    If it’s a hardcover deal only and the book does poorly, it’s unlikely you’ll sell softcover rights at all.

    according to a figure I read recently, out of the 167,000 books that were published last year in the U.S., only 189 sold more than 100,000. Average sales of each book was some unbelieveably low number like not even 1,000.

    189 seems awfully low. Leaving that aside, though, this is a misleading statistic, because that 167,000 includes ALL books published, including books from iUniverse, PublishAmerica, and amateur publishers whose books typically sell 100 copies or fewer. If you excluded even just the POD self-publishing services, that average sales figure would come up quite a bit.

  15. There’s another way to approach this which is that according to a figure I read recently, out of the 167,000 books that were published last year in the U.S., only 189 sold more than 100,000. Average sales of each book was some unbelieveably low number like not even 1,000.

    Sales of a thousand books of a hardcover title gets you a royalty of about $2,400. Sales of the same on a softcover title gets you a royalty of about $790.

    (Victoria can correct me on this, but usually there are targets where the first number of books gets one royalty, then if you hit the next sales target you get a higher royalty and if you hit a third target sales, you get a higher royalty still. Sales of a thousand is going to get you the lowest royalty. I calculated at 10% hardcover and 5% softcover. But remember, if the hardcover doesn’t move and you actually get a softcover deal, the publisher may try to jam you for an even lower royalty. They don’t have to publish the softcover, but they’ll tell you they will if you agree to lower your royalty rate.)

    So with predicted sales figures like these, why would a publisher give out a big advance? There’s no reason for them to.

  16. I was just thinking the same thing, Anon… It’s people like this guy who keep scammers in business. I’m sure he’ll find that perfect “agent” who’ll promise him the moon and tell him that he’s the star they’ve been waiting to represent for their entire career.

  17. I’m sure there’s a scammer or seven who would be happy to tell this guy what he wants to hear while they’re taking his money for “reading fees.”

  18. I’m constantly amazed at people who ask questions they never want to hear the answers for. Piffle. Around here we joke about when I hit the bestseller list, and all the things I’m going to buy when I do, but I’m not holding my breath for the big bucks. (I’d turn blue and pass out.)

  19. Well, I’m sure someone will eventually give him/her the answer he/she is looking for.

    But as for as writing for a living (aka money) goes? I’m no expert or example, but I would imagine that if your reason for writing is purely to earn money and not to satisfy an innate passion to create, then I don’t think you can make much money doing it.

    Focus on creating something beautiful, though, and the money will follow.

    Simple words, I know, and don’t bleed eloquence, but hey, they keep me going.

  20. I just want to say how grateful I am that professionals like you are willing to offer advice to unpublished writers like me. There are all sorts of reasons to not bother helping anyone else, even before you have to deal with people who have poor social skills, like the guy above. Thanks to all of you who still answer questions from the rest of us.

  21. It’s almost never worth it to have this conversation. A certain stripe of people are going to believe what they want to belive, and when they ask for advice, anything contrary to what they want to hear is going to be ignored.

    I’m willing to believe that a lot of amazing things were done by people who were simply too ignorant to know that what they were doing was almost impossible. There is indeed something to be said for never being afraid or inhibited or tentative, and instead going full bore obsessive towards a goal and not bothering to let rules or systems get in your way. It happens.

    It’s just that if you’re working the odds, the other way is more reliable. It also makes for more pleasant interactions with other people. I suspect that the sort of people who succeed in spite of totally ignoring the system are extremely unpleasant to be around. These are the sort of people who become cult leaders. Who wants a bunch of weak-minded fools tagging after them all day?

  22. uwVictoria’s correspondent will soon learn he’ll have to face an enormous amount of rejection on his path to becoming a professional writer, if he ever does become one. Whether or not he’ll learn decent manners is another story. Let’s hope he does.

  23. Victoria, hearing your dribble-drabble advances makes me that much more thankful for the deal my agent negotiated for me based on a proposal—–50% of advance on contract signing, 50% upon delivery of final manuscript (which will be by Jan 1, likely earlier.) I’d hate to have it in four installments!

  24. A pair of comments:

    first, the internet makes it possible to make early writerly errors in public. Make an error often enough, or loud enough, and it becomes irrecoverable… or perhaps worse, it defines you in the community for the next three dozen years.

    Second, no, there are no “unique opportunities” afforded by the web, other than your own voice. Things are different but the playing field is level… depending as always on the combination of ability and time-in-grade.

    The danger for many young (by this I mean new to the reading public and not chronologically) writers and artists is the assumption that all it takes is exposure.

    If you will, the purpose of the tag “first novel” is to give a writer room to grow; it should really be “first published novel”, of course. If instead, a writer insists on putting the first 100,000 word lump they assume complete into print and call it their first novel … well. We may all be sorry.

    Having your earliest work get extreme exposure can kill your career and destroy you artistically .. see above: you can become defined and hence relegated to someone else’s assumptive database as “that kid who tried tried to pull off the Adam & Eve trick by putting on Ytube with a back-beat and no plot”…

    In other words, making waves too soon can leave you all washed up.

  25. Another thing about advances–they come in dribs and drabs. The advance for my two most recent books, sold on proposal, was paid as follows. For Book 1: one-third on contract signing, one-third on manuscript acceptance (not the same as delivery), one third on publication. For Book 2: one quarter on contract signing, one quarter on submission of a detailed outline and sample chapters, one quarter on acceptance, one quarter on hardcover publication (if it’s a hard/soft deal, some publishers break it down even further, and pay on softcover publication as well).

    My advance was in the mid-five figures–quite nice, if I’d gotten it all at once, but not so impressive spread out over several years. I’m a slow writer, so for me the spread was longer than for some others–but even for fast writers, this chunking of advances (not to mention some publishers’ extreme slowness to cut a check) can make things very difficult.

  26. Do you think that the web has opened unique opportunities for budding novelists, short story authors, and poets? Or is the process of getting a work published basically the same as it was before blogging and instant messaging were household words?

    I think the web has completely altered the process–and the potential–of self-promotion for authors (back when I sold my first novel, authorial self-promotion–as distinct from the promotional efforts of the publisher–was considered rather sleazy). I think it has also opened up new and unique opportunities for nonfiction writing, with online journals, blogs, etc.

    For fiction writers…IMO, it’s a bit more ambiguous. Epublishing has unquestionably opened up new avenues, notably for romance and erotica writers–but only in a few genres. There are reputable online magazines, but they seem to work very much like their print counterparts, and since the number of print mags focused on or incorporating fiction is steadily shrinking, I don’t think this is really a new opportunity–just a shift of venue.

    Digital vanity publishing, or self-publishing, or whatever you want to call it, is easier and cheaper than ever via the many POD companies, and some writers have had notable success this way–I don’t know if you’d call it a unique opportunity, though, since except for the cost and the technology, it’s pretty much the same as what Vantage does. Ditto for digitally-based independent publishers–the technology is different, but if they’re serious, the issues of selection, editing, and marketing remain pretty much the same.

    As for the hundreds of amateur publishers and ezines that crowd the web and market/distribute only on the Internet–this is certainly a new, technology-spurred phenomenon. But I don’t see these publishers as “opportunities.” They are more like an alternate universe, invisible to anyone who doesn’t already know it exists.

    I think the Internet has had a HUGE effect on the process of seeking publication. Submitting electronically is very different from paper submitting. Research is easier than ever, if you’re smart about it. The Internet has also narrowed the distance between writers and agents/editors–at least in the sense that you can email the editor who is taking longer than promised to read your manuscript to ask what’s up, or read all about how your dream agent chooses clients on her blog. To a large degree this apparent accessibility is an illusion, though, because when you get down to the actual process of selection, it’s still an entirely individual choice.

  27. What a maroon.

    I am SO printing this entry with his (we’ve herad THAT before) reply and reading it at my “Business of Writing 101” workshop next month.

    I was once a shiny-eyed neo absolutely convinced I would snag a huge wad of cash on my first book sale and be able to retire for years to come on it–or at least buy a car.

    Yeah, 1,833.00 (half now, half on delivery) sure made that happen.

    Neo, this is the bucket of ice water labeled “reality check” that gets dumped on your head as many times as it takes for the message to sink in.

    The big money earners in publishing are thin on the ground, and it did not happen overnight for most of us. I’ve more than 20 novels under my belt and still have a day job to make a living in a one-person horsehold. My mid-list checks just don’t cut it.

    Find a day job you don’t hate too much, (how about at a nice bookstore? Perks & freebies! Meet real writers at signings!), live in your parent’s basement like that pot-smoker down the street (only pay a token rent & do chores so you can keep a little self-respect), and write because you have a passion for it–like the rest of us!

    That day job has stuff like health insurance, too. Writers, being self-employed, have to buy their own, and it ain’t cheap. Be prepared to fill out a Schedule C form and pay self-employment tax on April 15th.

    :bloosh!: <== the first bucketful hits!

  28. [Rhetorical question] What the heck is wrong with so many of these wanabee writers? They’re as screwy as the tone deaf American Idol auditioners that Simon rates as bad drunken karaoke or worse!

    Lucky for me, I am writing more for fun and as a creative outlet. I hope to publish some day, but I’m, not basing my future on it.

  29. Whoops… where did that misplaced “j” come from in my post above? “JIt” should be “It”. Ha! It’s definitely time for more coffee!

  30. jIt astounds me that someone would take the time to ask a very pointed question, then aggressively berate you for giving a candid answer!

    As for money… I’m a freelancer, and I’ve been able to enjoy a fairly high salary for the past two years. Yes, I have a co-supporting spouse, but the playing field is really starting to “level” in terms of my earning power. The Internet has made this possible, I believe.

    Because I have only a miniscule portion of my little toe in the wild waters of the publishing industry, I was wondering if I could ask everyone here a question? (I promise that I won’t get into a rage over the answer…)

    Do you think that the web has opened unique opportunities for budding novelists, short story authors, and poets? Or is the process of getting a work published basically the same as it was before blogging and instant messaging were household words?

    Just curious!


  31. Sheesh. This guy reminds me of some people I’ve run across at playwriting seminars who ask me, a “successful” playwright (i.e., someone who gets productions and publications, not necessarily $$) for my opinion on their plays. I give them an honest opinion and constructive criticism (oftentimes, these writers are AWFUL), and then they get mad at me for telling them the truth. This guy seems cut of the same cloth. (He’s really got to turn down the Purple Prose Meter, too. Ick).

    My writing income this year (based on deals made so far) will be approximately $25,000. Possibly more, if one more novel deal comes through. I know that is quite high for someone who is inking her first book deals, though it’s hardly enough to replace my day job’s salary.

  32. This is a very good installment–the sour remarks by the budding writer can be ignored, and the entry is still very useful–but I will tell you, working as a freelance editor–which on a level is a streetwalker life compared to a writer of books–pays not much better. And with editing, there is little or no security, and office politics and office bad manners can be a problem. I only went into editing (for nationally distributed publications, starting in 1990) because I had skills in writing developed from writing book manuscripts for years, and before that, short stories. Editing work has far and away provided surer income to me than writing, but if I didn’t have writing as my most sincerely embraced type of verbal work, I would *not* do editing. Since about 1996, my editing has been largely freelance (and since 2001 I have had a fair amount of medical editing, the highest-paying type in New Jersey). With freelance editing, you have to develop entrepreneurial-type business skills to string together a year’s worth of work every year. And while, through my editing “career” since 1990, I have developed a fair amount of work skills, and knowledge of business practices (including seedy), as well as an offices-politics-related knowledge of people, it is not a career a lot of laypeople can easily understand, and it can be ever frustrating for you even as a battle-tested practitioner. But most importantly, it has allowed me to keep sharp with some verbal skills to continue with writing of book manuscripts. If it wasn’t for that sort of “ulterior motive,” I would basically not recommend editing work to most people, freelance or otherwise.

  33. By the way …

    We also don’t always hear what happens to the first time writers who get the huge advances. Some of the books fail–the worst part of that advance is is that a lot of copies need to be sold to earn it out. The writer of Cold Mountain got a record-breaking advance for his next book. It actually would have done pretty well if his advance had been much lower; instead the book is regarded as a very expensive failure because of the huge advance.

  34. One of the things about writing pay that shocked me was seeing family stories about my uncle. His name was Ernie Rydberg, and he was writer of YA fiction. He published eleven YA novels and more than 400 short stories, and despite this huge number, he could never make enough to live off of.

    Only so many people can become best sellers.

  35. So far this year I’ve earned $2,271.00 from writing. $21 of that came from unsolicited manuscript sales. The rest is all freelance stuff, so there you go.

    And yeah, that last bit of e-mail was funnier than one of m co-workers, during the dinner rush, asking how we could possibly be out of marinara when we had a full bucket an hour ago. Which makes it the new winner in the does not compute category.

  36. Unbelievable. What a schlub. I’m amazed that you resisted giving him/her some advice about his/her own prose.

    Proof that no good deed goes unpunished, Victoria.

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JULY 27, 2007

Should Writers Worry About Blacklisting?

AUGUST 10, 2007

American Author Contest