Cash money non-millionaires

I don’t often like to talk about money. I’m from an upstate New York yankee-type culture where discussing how much money one makes is like tossing a pair of underwear up in a tree and starting a discussion with your neighbors of who it might belong to. (Everyone thinks you’re a weirdo.)

Writer culture, too, treats money as a hands-off topic, and in a way, I think it should remain that way. Comparing advances is an easy way to make yourself feel like dirt, especially if you’re a genre author sitting at a table of folks who write thrillers.

That said, a lot of my general feelings on the subject of author pay are wrapped up in a post from earlier this year, Pay The Writer (and thanks to Kathleen for mentioning it, too.) So, I suppose this is the point where I am I supposed to throw the underwear in the tree.

Politely.

Here’s the most important thing about making money as as a freelancer: the money is not reliable. I’ve been a freelancer in various media—videography, photography, writing—for a good chunk of my career, now, and

Never decide “yes” or “no” on a book offer based on the money alone.

The money you get in the offer is the “advance on your royalties.” This is roughly the amount of money your publisher thinks you will make from book sales. Your book might do very well, and you could be in for royalty checks four times a year for the rest of your life. Or, you could have a global pandemic sweep in, destabilize the entire bookselling system, and shove you into a corner crying into your cereal about the fact that Amazon can’t even get bestsellers out on time and most of your readers are unemployed now and can barely afford ramen, let alone a book… but I digress.

The most important number is this: can you earn out? Can your book sell so many copies that it starts making the publisher a profit? That’s why a huge advance isn’t necessarily the first thing you should think about. Sometimes, a smaller advance that earns out quicker is the better move. Sometimes, it’s the bigger advance that’s more important (because, you know, you may never pass this way again). This is an extremely personal decision, and it’s always a gamble.

The second number to consider is: how much of this is going into my own pocket? Does my publisher have a robust publicity department, or do you run your own publicity? (Again, we have a YMMV situation here). How many bookmarks are you going to have to print on your own? Most debuts don’t get book tours (doubly so now that there are no book tours, ha ha ha) so how much of that is going to come out of your own pocket? Have you ever thought how much it costs to have a super-popular bookstagrammer take a look at your ARC? Maybe now’s the time to do that…

On top of that, 15% of every check you receive goes to your agent for the slam-bang, killer job they did getting you that money in the first place—and everything that comes afterward. (Did you know that you, as a writer, should never have a conversation with your editor that involves numbers or your contract.)

And from there, you have to learn how to budget like a freelancer.

The money comes when you sign, when the publisher accepts the manuscript for publication, and when the book is published. After that, if all goes well, you’ll get royalties a couple times a year, and if you’re doubly lucky, it’ll be a big, fat number. As a freelancer, if you want to make a living at this, you have to ignore that number. Immediately take out your handy-dandy budget and divide up that number into categories like mortgage, groceries, childcare, utilities and entertainment, then assign that money to those bills and call it done. If you don’t, you might end up finding yourself frittering away money you needed to spend on fixing your roof.

Finally, when it comes to publishing money, I’m going to go back to my old hat caveat, which you’ve heard at the Debutante Ball before: “eyes on your own paper.” Your book is actually a special snowflake, bought by a particular editor for a particular season, positioned a certain way. It is not like any other book and it is absolutely impossible to compare your situation with another’s. So jettison the jealousy, hands off the envy, and get back to work on the next book!

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Karen Osborne

KAREN OSBORNE is a writer, visual storyteller and violinist. Her short fiction appears in Escape Pod, Robot Dinosaurs, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny and Fireside. She is a member of the DC/MD-based Homespun Ceilidh Band, emcees the Charm City Spec reading series, and once won a major event filmmaking award for taping a Klingon wedding. Her debut novel, Architects of Memory, is forthcoming in 2020 from Tor Books.

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