Finance 101 for the Aspiring Writer

There’s an article making the rounds on Twitter in which a writer says she got USD 350k to write 5 books, and how she blew the advances because she thought there was more money coming and no one ‘mentored’ her. But guess what, her books did not earn out, and now she is not only not rich, but still in debt. And her advances have ‘fallen’ to USD 20k. Which is still more than what most writers get for a book. But anyway.

A lot of the stuff in the article appalled me, apart from the figures touted. So much that I assume is common knowledge, or at least common sense. But apparently not. So here is some free financial advice for the aspiring writer, and if all of this sounds like it should be evident to a ten-year-old, then please forgive me. Just skip it.

Some caveats:
I am talking specifically of traditional publishing.
I am talking specifically of fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy.
You could be an outlier and none of this need apply to you.

Rule 1: Money flows to the writer and not the other way around

This is one of the first and most obvious things we learn as aspiring writers. It means you should not pay a publisher to publish a book for you. Someone who asks you for money to print your book is running a vanity press or a scam of some kind. RUN.

I’m going to take this rule a step further and say: You do not need an MFA to write and publish a book. You do not need to pay for a workshop, a class, or an editor to edit your book. You don’t need to pay for a fancy website. I mean, these things are nice if you can afford them, but they are not necessary. You can use free software to make a simple author website for yourself. (I use wordpress). You can attend local writing events to find other aspiring writers in your genre and at your craft level who might one day be your crit buddies. You can also find critique groups online to improve your craft. It’s good to invest in yourself if you can afford it, but if money is tight, then please be careful. Nothing in publishing is a given, and there are no guarantees that you will make back anything you spend on editing your book or doing a writing course.

Rule 2: Assume the advance is all the money you’ll ever see

Average debut advances in the SFF genre vary from USD 5k-20k per book depending on the publisher. YA advances tend to be higher. If you are lucky enough to land, say, a three book deal of USD 60k, is that enough to leave your day job? After all, you have books to write and you need the time.

Tough cookie. It’s not enough to leave your day job unless you have family/partner support and don’t have to worry about rent and food. Here’s why.

The USD 60k is not going to drop out of the sky at once. You get half, minus the standard 15% fee due to your agent, and the rest when each book is completed and accepted by the publisher. This means USD 51000 (less tax!) over the course of, say, 2-3 years. This is not a living wage in North America.

Oh, but surely there will be royalties, you say. This is just the advance!

Excuse me. Please read Rule 2 aloud to yourself. You don’t get any royalties unless your book earns out. The advance is exactly what it says – an advance on the money you are supposed to earn from your book. Suppose your contract says you get 5% of the sale price on every copy sold. When enough copies have sold such that 5% of their total sale price exceeds your advance, then and only then will you see any royalties. This could take years.

Oh, but suppose I got USD 60k to write just one book, you say.

Congratulations. That is an excellent advance. However, the higher the advance, the more difficult it is for a book to earn out, and for you to be offered such an advance again. Of course, the higher the advance you get, the more motivated the publisher is to market and promote your book, because they have more at stake. You will likely sell more copies than you would have without all that promotion. But will it be enough to meet the expectations of the publisher? No way to tell ahead of time. Assume the advance is all the money you’ll see, even if it is a big advance and everyone thinks you’re the next big thing. Focus on writing your next book.

Rule 3: Write like Tigger, Spend like Rabbit

For this rule to make any sense, you must be familiar with Winnie the Pooh characters. Tigger is the happy-go-lucky, adventurous, bouncy, confident, risk-taking one. This is how we need to be when we write – we need to take risks in our writing, and be energetic, vulnerable, optimistic, open to possibilities, and true to our souls.

Rabbit is the cautious, responsible, practical, organized, unexciting character who knows math – at least more than the other characters do. We need to be like Rabbit with our writing money. Got a biggish advance? Please use whatever you can spare to paying down consumer debt or student loans. Save some of it, if you can. Got a small advance? Don’t worry, it is easier to earn out, and this is just the beginning of your writing career. Again, focus on writing your next book, or novella, or trilogy, or whatever.

Rule 4: Don’t quit the day job until you can really afford to

Yes, I know it’s hard to write books while working a day job. It’s even harder to make a living as a writer. My guess is that once you have around 5-6 well-received novels out there, earning a small but steady income stream for you, then you can probably make the decision to write full time. I think you still need some decent savings to make this decision though (and be debt-free). Life stuff happens, productivity falls, maybe your publisher doesn’t want your next book and you go through a dry patch. Savings come in dead useful then. I also recommend working on different projects of different lengths, at any time, to diversify the markets you can tap into.

Hopefully I haven’t burst anyone’s bubbles. Maybe I have. I’m being Realistic Rabbit right now. I’ll channel Tigger as soon as I post this, and get back to my #wip, hah.

About Rati Mehrotra

Science fiction and fantasy writer. I blog at: Thanks for dropping by!
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