Twitter Discourse on the Financial Realities of Midlist Writing

money_36d31So, I recently went on in a, well, let’s call it a somewhat wordy series of tweets about writing and money and my experience with those subjects.  I know talking about filthy luchre is sometimes considered gauche or boastful (I don’t make enough for it to be the latter!), or what-have-you.  But a fair number of folks seemed interested in the information, particularly new and aspiring writers, so I compiled the substance of those tweets here for easy reference (I edited lightly to correct typos and make them easier to read).

Note:  I realize this is anecdote.  My situation is different from every other writer’s situation.  Many writers who are relatively new and have far fewer books out make far more per year than I do, and many make less.  But I suspect a lot of my colleagues are (or one day will be) in a situation not unlike mine — good sales (though not blockbuster type sales) and a growing back list.  This may be particularly useful information for them.  But even if you’re not in a similar situation, I hope you find some of this to be useful information, as a data point if nothing else.

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Midlist writer money tweets incoming: Based on this year’s first two royalty statements, I’ll close the year between $74-80K, depending on 1/-

the timing of last payment (I know some folks consider money talk gauche; I do not, so run away now if you do). That will be among my best years, but 2/-

changes exactly nothing re dayjob, career, etc. Why? Because next year may and probably will be half that amount. And that’s the 3/-

nature of the beast for a midlist writer. Little certainty year over year. There’s a floor at this point in my career, I suppose. But 4/-

it’s not a high floor (let’s say $20-25K), and the rest is just hazy. So it goes. 5/5

And, given that I have a large family, living off writing income is unlikely to ever occur. I’m good with that, though. :-)

I think all of you already know this, but for the aspiring writers: Making a GOOD living solely as a full time writer of genre fiction is rare. So 1/-

keep that as an aspiration if you like, but focus mostly on writing what you love. If you become a blockbuster, more power to you. But 2/-

a career in the midlist is pretty damned good, too. You make some dollars and that’s nice. But you’ll touch a lot of readers, and that’s great. 3/3

Continuing on and speaking of an “income floor”: Ebooks have made writing very much a long game. Since they essentially stay in print forever, 1/-

the potential for your novels to earn out and throw off royalties is greater. And when you get a decent number of novels behind you, the back list of 2/-

ebooks starts to throw off an amount you actually feel (rather than mere pocket change), even if individual books don’t sell all that much. 3/-

Too, since your royalty rate is a percentage and book prices rise with inflation, your royalties keep pace with Cost of Living. And each book you write 4/-

that earns out, potentially raises that income floor a bit. Example: Excluding anthos, I have maybe 10 novels that earned out long ago 5/-

such that ebooks sales of those books throw off royalties every quarter. Individually, they don’t sell like crazy (most sell less than 1K 6/-

units per quarter), but in the aggregate, that’s a lot of ebooks for a midlist writer. So, there’s your floor. Now, I think the two 7/-

Egil and Nix books will earn out their contract either next statement or the one after that (which is a credit to Angry Robot Books, btw). 8/-

At that point, the royalties those two books throw off every six months will accrete to the income floor, raising it a bit. Hopefully :-). 9/9

So…it’s long game. Hang in there.

And since I’m running off at the mouth: I know historically many books (maybe most) didn’t earn out. But I think ebooks are changing that. 1/2

And more and more authors will see their books earn out over time. 2/2

As an anecdote (maybe useful/informative?): THE HAMMER AND THE BLADE and A TheHammer&theBlade(corrected)DISCOURSE IN STEEL are on the same contract and they’re 1/-

cross-accounted. Advance for those was industry standard for someone with my experience working with a smaller but important (I think) 2/-

press (Angry Robot Books). It was in pounds, but call it $20K for the two. Books were released only in mmpb, ebook and audio. HAMMER came out 3/-

in 2012 and DISCOURSE in 2013. That contract hasn’t earned out yet, but it will. Just takes a while and that’s not surprising given the 4/-

release format. Earning out an advance with mmpbs and comparably priced ebooks is a long slog unless you strike a big chord. I left 5/-

foreign rights with the pub, too (not always wise, but right for me in this case) and that has helped as well. Long and short: They’ll 6/-

earn out this year or next. Then they’ll start throwing off royalties and will continue to do so for a very long time thereafter. Income floor raised. That’s good! 7/7

And now the gauche, money talk is done. But that’s how it’s been for me and how I tend to think/plan the financial end of the career.

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks Paul! This was interesting and informative. As an aspiring author myself I’m always looking to get new perspectives from people who are publishing traditionally vs ebooks, to see what my best possible path is. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  2. Very interesting. What does “earn out” mean?

    • A book “earns out” when the royalties it earns have exceeded the advance paid against royalties. So, if a book had a 10K advance, an author would receive no actual royalties until the royalties from sales exceeded that 10K. Once they did, the author would start to receive the excess. I fear that’s not as clear as it could be, but I hope it’s understandable.

  3. Pingback: On Writing Tie-in Fiction – It varies! - Paul S. Kemp, Fictioneer

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