On Money and the Intermediate Stage of a Writing Career

I’m living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart. — e e cummings (1894 – 1962)

Ever since I was a little girl, I always wanted to be a storyteller. Since high school, I knew I wanted to be a full-time writer, that it was what the universe had created me to be on this planet. Over the last fifteen years, I’ve come to see it as a neglectful, cold, cruel, difficult business, but one that gives you the power of a god, to create worlds, to connect to people all over the world, to change people’s thinking, and to give oneself, as well as others, those necessary little mental trinkets that make life bearable and survivable. I wouldn’t choose any other path than that. I don’t need to be rich and famous, but I’d like a decent-sized fanbase of folks who like, maybe even love, my work, and I’d like enough money to live off of without stress or fear. I’m willing to put in the time and accumulate the body of work to make that happen. I’m also willing to acknowledge that it takes more than sitting back and writing stories nowadays, though, too.

I’ve been without full-time employment for about a year now, and so have had more time to focus on freelance writing and fiction writing. I’ve completed 1 1/4 novels in that time and also some sporadic nonfiction freelance work for pay. I’ve also, learned from writers I’m close to about being a working writer and making a living from it. Even with the understanding that comes from being a writer, it took really seeing what writing for a living was like to help me understand how to plan for my future. I was fortunate enough to have help and advice from Brian Keene, J.F. Gonzalez, Jack Ketchum, Tom Moneteleone, and others who make this work for them. But it’s a tough, unpredictable business that not many folks understand the demands or strains of, between making time for daily completion of work to making sure you are compensated for it. And for anyone who’s about where I am career-wise, maybe a month or a year or a few years away from taking the plunge to writing full-time, here’s what I’ve learned about the financial side of things, for what it’s worth.

As a brief history, about a decade ago, the pro rate (ahem) in horror for fiction was about $.03/word. After some finessing by speculative fiction organizations, it was raised to $.05/word by pro-paying magazines. This is not to say that no one pays more — several well-respected and time-tested markets do. But this is pretty much average. So dance the dance of math with me a moment. At $.05/word for short fiction, a 5k story will net you $250. That is why most professional writers give up short fiction after a time; you’d have to write 160 stories a year to make an annual income of $40,000. That’s a LOT of stories. If you’re a lucky novelist and lock into a happy partnership with a publisher paying an old-time standard of $10,000 a book, that’s still four novels a year, every year, for that same $40,000 income. And both my personal experience and my understanding from fellow writers is that not many publishers are paying your average midlister even close to that per book. Not in the small press, and not often in the NY houses, either. In some ways, and by traditional standards, it’s probably harder to make a living as a writer now than it was 30 years ago.

But it’s not impossible. I just think survival in this business means knowing your goals, producing work regularly, and, importantly, adapting to emerging technologies and evolving business models. Being a writer has always primarily involved putting one’s ass in the chair and writing. But being a professional writer means managing your brand — your business you — as well.

1) Planning your career on what publishing models work best for you financially: For many of us, this involves following the old traditional publishing model and submitting your work to paying markets. For some, particularly, IMO, those whose careers are established and for whom a middle man is no longer necessary, this may mean self-publishing, where more of the profit is yours. For me in particular, it means submitting new work to paying publishers and possibly handling my own e-books of reprints or of tougher sells, like short story collections. Obviously the benefits of traditional publishing are editorial oversight, an advance, distribution, and a lot of the production legwork done for you. The benefit of self-publishing (at least with e-books, so far as I see it), is the potential for cumulatively growing monthly income, more of which you retain than you might if a traditional publisher put out your e-books and gave you a percentage. I’ve “grown up” as a writer believing traditional publishing was the only way for a serious and professional writer to handle his/her career, but I’ve heard compelling arguments for some self-publishing from authors like Robert Swartwood, for whom it has allowed financial stability. As I mentioned, I think for many of us, careful consideration of long-term goals, established fanbase, technical skill and financial needs will lead to a career plan involving both traditional and non-traditional forms of publishing, each to the degree it will best serve us as writers. My point is, this before you send. Treat the work like the money-making commodity it is, and that should steer you in the direction right for you.

2) Asking for your money: Not everyone is going to pay you on time, if, in fact, they pay you at all. If you don’t have an agent/lawyer/representative with a baseball bat who can be the heavy and lean on these people for you, you need to do it yourself. Once you have double-checked your contract for time frames related to payment and have ascertained that yes, your check is definitely significantly late, you have the right to ask for your benjamins. However, never forget to be polite and professional. The recession has hit everyone, and there may be good and legitimate excuses why a publisher hasn’t come through with a check. Professional and polite doesn’t mean pushover, though. Usually my first note is to let them know that if a check has been sent, it has not yet arrived, and I wanted to let them know so their bookkeeping doesn’t get screwed up. The second note usually looks to confirm the address they have on record for me. I can’t tell you when a good time is to send these notes. For me, it’s usually a couple months after the latest possible date the check was due to arrive. I suspect other writers, maybe folks who’ve been in the business longer than me, have more efficient methods or time frames for follow-up. When you rely solely on that check for income, it’s probably not practical to wait months for your money.

3) Plan ahead: When you start out working on spec (and even once you’ve networked and cultivated relationships to where publishers and editors contact you for work), money comes irregularly. Advances often come in pieces. Even regular monthly or quarterly royalty checks can be late, or of varying amounts. I think it’s important to plan ahead. Figure out your monthly budget. Anything you’re paid above and beyond that for your writing should, at least in part, be set aside to cover those months where you come up short. Easier said than done, I know. Believe me. Personally, I always estimated budgetary items — and often underestimated surprise costs and fees, if my finances are any indication. But I think if I could get an exact accounting of monthly expenses, I would a) know how much my time was worth, and thus charge for writing/freelancing projects accordingly, and b) know how far those checks from publishers could stretch, and where I needed to put that money most. It’s an art, I’m sure, subject to some trial and error at first, balancing experience with necessity to come up with a rate that is not outlandishly too large or too small, but acknowledges that you are serious and professional. And if you’re fortunate enough to get a large sum at once — a movie option or a large advance — set aside whatever amount your budget will allow for the following tax season. Like they say about condoms, better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

4) Understand what’s changed in the brave new world of publishing: Where booksellers used to be a writer’s best friend in terms of handselling, bloggers are stepping up to the job. Word of mouth still gets a book noticed; brick-n-mortar recommendations are great, and those relationships are still good to develop. But bloggers hitting Goodreads, Amazon forums, message boards, and their own little slices of the blogosphere are reviewing and recommending work literally for the world to see. Also, publishers may still want to keep paperbacks viable, but e-books are cheap to make and cheap to buy, and a person with an e-book reader can hold a whole library in his/her hand. I think over time, e-books may end up supplanting paperbacks as the cheap buy for the beach or airport. In fact, this is quickly becoming a multimedia world that we will someday hand over to those who have grown up under sensory overload, multitasking on multiple electronic devices at once. I think it’s probably necessary to consider that books are going to eventually become a multimedia entertainment form, possibly full of live links, animated artwork, and more. I say embrace it. Embrace it not just by holding onto those rights, but doing whatever you can to make them work for you. I mean, who can argue with the logic of being paid several times for a book you wrote once?

5) Diversify: I don’t think this is news to anyone in the writing business, but in case it is, there is nothing to lose in being open and available to different kinds of writing jobs to supplement your fiction writing. I have a number of friends who make a good living writing media tie-in novels in addition to their own original work. I know folks who write technical manuals and documentation. Some write term papers. Some write for television or movies. Some write in other genres under pen names. Some write comic books. Some ghost-write for other novelists. The point is, writing work is writing work. If you’re getting paid for it, it can only put you in a better financial position to write what you want. All of the full-time writers I know diversify with their writing. And let’s face it — I can tell you from personal experience that it feels good to have a writing job, whatever it is, to say confidently and proudly that you’re a writer and have varied work and experience to back it up. Confidence is good for writers. It is the single best cure for writer’s block there is.

We were always taught money flows to the writer, and further, you’d have to be kind of a dolt to be the salmon swimming against that flow. But it does you no good to be the rock at the bottom of the riverbed, letting it flow right past you, either. This ought to be an exciting new time in publishing, the direction to be, in part, determined by us, the writers. It’s not the same business it was 30 years ago, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be for us to be successful full-time writers.

If you are out there writing full time and you have other suggestions I should post, please feel free to share them.

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About Mary SanGiovanni

Author of the Hollower trilogy, Thrall, Chaos, For Emmy, Possessing Amy, The Fading Place, and more.
This entry was posted in Life, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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