I just finished doing my taxes this past weekend, so this week’s topic about the financial reality of being an author is especially appropriate.
Once you’ve stuck a proverbial toe into the publishing world, either as a new author or if you’ve just started querying, you quickly realize that the bestsellers and millionaires that get splashed across headlines and festivals are the exceptions that prove the rule. Nobody sane writes a book for the money, but sometimes the financial reality of publishing can be sobering.
I can’t remember when I first internalized that being a writer meant you would never earn much money, but it must have been pretty early because having a dayjob was always a part of my life plan. When “so what do you want to be when you grow up?” was flippantly tossed my way, I was ready with an answer – astronomer, professor, physicist. Anything but writer.
Part of that was protective, sure. You never know how long it’ll take to Make It as a writer, so you’d better have some way to get by in the meantime. I was 30 the first time I was paid for anything I’d written, and I’d been writing since I could hold a pen.
But also it’s reality. Most authors have dayjobs. And not just because they couldn’t otherwise afford their lavish lifestyle of coffee and sweatpants. Dayjobs often provide stability, security, and regular human contact, along with health insurance, a set schedule, and a possible shot at retirement.
And that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Yet it’s hard not to daydream about writing full time. And someday, hopefully, I will. Because honestly this whole working two jobs with a Toddler and a houseful of chaos leaves zero room for downtime, and that’s not remotely sustainable. But right now dropping my dayjob isn’t feasible, even if you ignore all those cushy dayjob perks.
Let’s take a look at why.
A typical advance for one book is $5-10k. Let’s go with $10k because we’re optimistic. If we’re writing a trilogy, that’s 10k times three, which gives you a total of $30k. That’s easily more than I’ve made per year in the past. Pretty sweet, huh?
Sure – but let’s take a closer look at that before you quit your dayjob. Remember, that’s $30k for all three books, so you’re not going to see it up front. Typically, you’ll receive half when you sign your contract, and then the other half will be portioned out over certain milestones for each book – delivery and publication were mine.
So that’s half your 30k up front, or 15k, and then the other 15k divvied up as you turn in the next few books over the next few years. If you write about a book a year, then that ends up being roughly $10k each year for three years. Again, $10k is nothing to sneeze at – you can do a lot with $10k! – but it’s also far less than annual minimum wage and so you’re gonna need some supplemental income there.
But hold up – we haven’t factored in taxes yet. Or your agent’s fee, who has been working real hard on your behalf. Since your taxes are calculated off your net total, let’s take out the 15% your agent deserves first. That gives us 25,500 total or 8,500 per year.
Now, taxes are a bit more fun. If you’ve been employed in the past, then your employer paid half of your taxes and you typically only had to pay 15%. The other 15% is often referred to as the self-employment tax, and it bumps your tax rate up to 30%. Take that off of 25,5000 and you get 17,850 or 5,950 a year.
Now we’re rolling!
…okay maybe not.
But this is why a lot of the advice for debuts is to treat the money from a contract like an unexpected boon. Invest it, play with it, use it to go to conferences and begin to meet other authors, use it for that vacation you’ve always wanted, pay down some debt, donate it to the library where you did most of your writing –
Just don’t depend on it.
Not yet, anyway.
And don’t quit your dayjob.
Not yet, anyway.