An essay is making the rounds on publishing twitter right now that talks about how an author found herself completely up a creek, financially, after being paid $350,000 for her first few books.
“If just one person had sat me down when I signed my first book contract and explained how publishing works, how nothing is guaranteed, and how it often feels like playing Russian Roulette with words, I would have made much sounder financial and creative decisions. I would have set a foundation for a healthy life as an artist, laying the groundwork to thrive in uncertainty, to avoid desperation, panic, and bad decisions that would affect me for years to come.”
How to lose a third of a million dollars without really trying by Heather Demetrios
Chuck Wendig responded with advice:
“I feel deeply for the writer, because this shit we do comes with no real map. No creative map, no story map, no industry map, no money map.”
(This was the alternate title for the book I’m working on.)
I absolutely understand where this writer is coming from. I have literally worked full time in book publishing since 2005 and some of this stuff is still tricky for me. Being a professional writer is a bit like being a pro basketball player or an investor: current success is no guarantee of future returns.
This is why I’m writing Don’t Steal This Book: to help demystify how money works in our industry, and create a bit of a roadmap for authors. It’s also why I advocate for financial transparency, since it’s easy to see the number $350,000 and assume that Heather D. had it made for life.
A few pieces of advice from me:
A good agent can be your biggest fan and ally in this business. Make sure you find someone reputable who you can trust. (Google is your friend here - run their name through the internet to make sure there’s nothing glaring, and consult Writer Beware.) Don’t be afraid to ask the agent questions—before you sign, before they pitch your book, and even after the book has been published. It’s their job to help answer your questions and set you up for success. If you have a hard time remembering, you can write all the questions down so you are sure you cover them all. If it’s hard to ask them over the phone, send an email instead.
But it’s also important for you to do your own research. The agent is an advisor and collaborator but they aren’t your mom. They also have dozens of other authors they are helping. So don’t expect them to tell you everything you could ever possibly want to know about the book business. Their primary job is to sell your book and represent you well. And your financial decisions ultimately rest with you.
Find a tax professional you like and trust, who understands freelance and contract work. I use Brass Taxes, tax pros who specialize in working with artists and freelancers. They totally get where I’m coming from, and didn’t blink when I deducted a pair of roller derby knee pads one year.
But in addition to finding tax help, do some research on your own so you understand how taxes work when you aren’t (or aren’t only) a W2 employee. There are a lot of strategies that can save you money, and a lot you’ll need to know to avoid running afoul of the IRS. Ex: in some scenarios, you’ll need to make quarterly estimated payments rather than just paying everything at once in April. Or, you can file for an extension on your tax filing but that doesn’t mean you don’t owe the IRS money in April. (I’m not a tax pro, find someone who is and listen to them.)
I am writing my third book right now, and I have a day job. I don’t honestly ever expect to be able to write full time. The phrase “don’t quit your day job” is a cliche for a reason. It’s not just an insulting assessment of a creative person’s talents, it’s a real piece of advice that acknowledges how hard it is to make a full-time, permanent living from any artistic pursuit.
Mid-career authors often find themselves in a situation where they aren’t making enough money consistently enough to quit their full time job, but they can’t make more money writing if they are dedicating 40+ hours a week to a day job. If there are ways to cut back to part time as you scale up your writing work, that could help. Freelancing is another way that you can keep some steady(ish) money coming in while devoting more of your time to writing, though that comes with its own challenges. (Setting up a part-time freelance business can be a full time job!)
N.K. Jemisin posted the following when she launched her Patreon:
I have a full time day job, and a writing career. Unfortunately the writing career -- like any small business -- has become more than full time over the years. Between travel, constant meetings, affiliated side-gigs, and promotion (e.g. interviews, speaking engagements, signings), I'd say it takes up about 50-60 hours per week. The day job is 40 hours. There are 160 hours in a week. You do the math.
I love my day job... but I'm getting tired. Working 9-7 most days doesn't leave me with a lot of energy to write at the end of it, though I do anyway because that's how you finish a book a year. Doing this forces me to choose between competing needs, however: write, or get some stress-relieving exercise? Write, or research home health care agencies for my mother? Write, or do book promo work like blog posts or interviews? Lately I haven't been able to choose "write" as much as I should, so I'm behind schedule on book 3 of the Broken Earth trilogy. But really, the time crunch is taking a toll on every part of my life.
Sound familiar? Her story has a happy conclusion, as she reached the milestone she needed to be able to quit her day job and still pay for her rent and health insurance. So that is one way to approach it. But she also had a huge career under her belt already when she asked for support from her readers, so don’t assume Patreon is a silver bullet.
For writers from the USA, health insurance is a huge issue. Most of us who are lucky enough to have health insurance get it through our jobs, or spouses if we have them and they’re lucky enough to have health insurance. It’s possible to pay for it via the exchanges, but from what I’ve heard, that’s extremely expensive. (Even insurance through a job can be expensive!)
This is a big impediment to writers quitting day jobs and writing full time. If you live in the US and want to be a writer, advocate for single-payer health care or Medicare for All and this becomes less of a problem.
I’ll continue to talk about this in On the Books, and as I said, it’s a main area of focus for Don’t Steal This Book. If you are a writer and have any specific questions about money and publishing, feel free to reach out to me by leaving a comment or by email (margotatwell at gmail). Heck, anyone who has any questions about money and publishing can get in touch.
A bit more advice on money for writers from some other smart people:
Notes from a Small Press by Anne Trubek is the real-talking publishing outsider/insider in your pocket that every writer should subscribe to.
Publishing is Hard by Dongwon Song is a newsletter by a fantastic agent who really knows what he’s talking about.