Making a Living

on February 1, 2007

I originally was going to blog about POV today, and have a nice partial post written about how and why I changed the POV of the first chapter of my paranormal novella. But that can wait until next week.

In the last twelve hours, two of my online communities have suddenly started talking about making a living writing–print runs, advances, etc. The overall tone turned negative and fatalistic–how can anyone make a living doing this? I’ve heard statistics thrown around (with no back-up) that only 200 writers “make a living” as writers, or 5% of published authors, or whatever.

I want the methodology. Are we talking ALL currently publishing authors? Fiction and nonfiction? Are we including debut authors, or authors who have been publishing for five years? Give me some statistics, don’t just throw out dismal numbers and say “no one can do this.”

Making a Living

“Making a living” means different things to different people depending on their individual circumstances. “Making a living” for a single person is much different than “making a living” to a mom of five little kids. “Making a living” means something completely different in Bozeman, Montana than New York City.

I know writers who still have their day job, even though they are making “a living wage” writing, because they are uncomfortable with the uncertainty of the business. I know other writers who quit their day job at the first available opportunity and are using their time to build their writing career, knowing that they’ll be having a few lean years but willing to make the sacrifice.

Most debut authors can’t quit their day job, but does that mean anything? Really, when we all started our first career, we weren’t making the big bucks. I couldn’t have supported my family on what I was earning back in 1992 working for the legislature, but by the time I quit I was making nearly three times the money. Why? Because I worked hard, proved myself, earned raises and promotions. I also got screwed over through no fault of my own a couple of times, I had pitfalls in that road.

What’s the difference with being a published author? You work hard, prove yourself, earn “raises” in subsequent contracts, and sometimes you get screwed through no fault of your own. A book bombs for unknown reasons. Your editor leaves and your new editor hates your voice. I’ve heard many stories of authors who have reinvented themselves after just those things happen.

The creative arts is notoriously “poor”–most writers may “make a living” but not be able to take vacations or spend lavishly or buy that new car. And what’s the difference in the “real world” where many people who work 9-to-5 can’t comfortably survive without a second income, a working spouse, or financial sacrifices?

I suggest that writers look at everything before making a decision to quit after a sale. It may be the “three year plan” or the “five book plan” or “when I get a contract for 150% of my current salary” or whatever YOU feel comfortable with. And stick to it. It can be done. Many writers do it. They aren’t in it to get rich. They’re in it to have a job they love and be able to pay the bills. If they can’t pay the bills writing, then they’ll keep the day job . . . but they still write. Writing is in your blood. It is part of what makes you unique.

I quit my day job, but I had a lot of other factors that went into that decision. The size of my initial advance didn’t warrant it because I didn’t know if I would get another contract. BUT I had already made huge sacrifices to get published in the first place. I stopped bringing work home with me so that I could write at night rather that do extra in order to be promoted or get a raise. I effectively cut off all hope of advancement in my position because I went from a career employee to a nine-to-fiver when I made the decision to focus on my writing–two years before I sold.

My husband has full medical benefits. If I were single, this wouldn’t matter as much to me, but with five kids I couldn’t sacrifice their health care for my dreams. I always made more money than my husband, so his salary wasn’t as large a factor, BUT I also knew that if my books bombed, we could pay the mortgage, utilities and buy food with his income. The bare necessities until I got another job. So it WAS a sacrifice to quit, but I also planned for contigencies. I paid myself a “salary” so that the advance lasted longer. We didn’t buy anything extravagent. I needed a new car, but I didn’t buy it until my second contract because I didn’t want to take on another debt, or spend all my advance on one high-ticket item.

But if I hadn’t quit my job, I wouldn’t have been able to accept my second contract to write three books in 11 months. So I was also investing in my career, in myself, when I made the informed decision to quit.


Because RWA is fairly free with sharing information, we have a lot of information about advances. Some is more accurate than others. All I can say about this is that I know people who made $2K on their debut novel, and others who made $100K. The decisions on advances are based on what house, the genre, the writing, the commercial hook, the editor, how well that genre has done for the house in the past, anticipated print run based on the genre/past sales (that have nothing to do with you), the marketing department, the agent, and a variety of other things that we can’t really quantify or know. Such as, how many new authors has this house signed? Do they know if one of their big authors are leaving? Did they get stuck/find success in this genre?

You can’t stress about this. It’s really out of your control. The only thing YOU can do is write the best damn book you have in you, find a business savvy agent (having an agent WILL get you more money) and be happy with what you get. Work hard for the house, meet your deadlines, become a partner with your agent and editor, and WRITE ANOTHER BOOK.

Several authors have said that you need five books before you’re established at the rate of at least one book a year. Sue Grafton was quoted in a writers book (can’t remember the title now) that an author really hasn’t found her voice or depth of talent until her fifth book. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know, but I sold my fifth completed book, and I think my fifth published book is the best I’d written to date. I HAVE gotten better with each book. (Some might dispute this, but that’s okay. It’s subjective.)

What you really want is your advances to go up with each contract. That is forward progress. Yes, some authors breakout with their first book. Many more authors breakout with their fifth or sixth or tenth book. Tami Hoag, Janet Evanovich, Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, Nora Roberts, Tess Gerritsen and many others all wrote category romances, established a fan base, learned the craft and discovered their voice . . . then broke out big time. There is nothing wrong with building a career book by book. In fact, that’s probably the single BEST way to “make a living” in this business.

What It Takes

Okay, you can probably tell I’m a little perturbed. What irritates me whenever these discussions comes up are the naysayers. Those who say you “can’t” do something or there is “no hope.”

Sherrilyn Kenyon spoke to my RWA chapter last weekend. She was beyond fabulous. I went out on Tuesday and bought her entire Dark Hunter backlist because she deserves every cent in royalties. She said (and I’m paraphrasing, I’m sure she said it better) that the only way you fail is if you quit. As long as you’re writing, you’re trying, not failing. No matter how many rejections, how many career setbacks–and she had a couple doozies!–as long as you are writing you are NOT a failure.

I love children’s books. I have more children’s books than adult books (and that’s saying something!) Of course, I have five kids so that has something to do with it :). Children’s books are filled with hope, love, laughter and joy. They teach children to dream. Everything is possible. When I was complaining in the car that I didn’t know how in the world I was going to write a short story of less than 5,000 words, I caught myself. I told my kids, “Well, if I can write a 100,000 word book in six weeks, certainly I can write a 5,000 word story in six weeks. I just have to get in the mindset. I can do anything I set my mind to.”

My oldest daughter said, “You can’t fly.”

“I can get my pilot’s license if I wanted to.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I can learn how to hang glide.” (snort. right. after I learn to bungie jump.)

“That’s cheating.”

“No, that’s finding a way to live your dream. Birds aren’t the only ones who fly anymore.”

Remember the little engine: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Put THAT on your computer screen and start typing.