Money, writers don’t have none, Part the millionth

I keep coming across wannabe writers who believe that writing is an easy way to make heaps of money. Nope.1 Your odds of being paid good money to write novels year after year are vanishingly small. Most published writers aren’t.

I cannot emphasise this enough: If you don’t love writing don’t try to get published.

Let’s get specific:

While on tour I was asked how much money I make. Since I’d done my taxes not long before I was in a position to say exactly how much I made in the US financial year of 2007:2 $29K. And that’s gross.3

It’s also the most money I’ve ever made from writing. But there’s no guarantee I’ll have as big a year this year or next or the year after that.

Twenty-nine thousand dollars doesn’t put me in the top percentage of earners in the US or at home. But it does put me up the top for writers. Like I said, most published writers don’t earn enough money to make a living. They’re lucky to make $5k a year from their writing. That’s why most published writers have other jobs.

Writing is an insanely tenuous profession. Even when you’re published there’s no guarantee that every bookshop will stock your books. I’ve had chains skip various books of mine. But even if every bookshop in the universe has your books on the shelves there’s no guarantee anyone’s going to buy them.

Every single day the vast majority of people are busily not buying my books.

That’s a writer’s life right there.

Forget about the latest six or seven figure deal some debut novelist scored. They’re the exceptions, a teeny tiny fraction of all writers. Odds are that those highly paid debutantes won’t earn out. The reporting about their huge deal may well be both the first and last reporting about their publishing career. They won’t be alone in not earning out: lots of writers don’t.

Did I mention you have to really love writing to be in this game?

Just as well I do, eh?

  1. On both counts but I’ll focuss on the money today. []
  2. Note to Oz readers—their financial years are calendar years. []
  3. In both meanings of the word! []


  1. Phil on #

    My fiction writing teacher in college began her class by earnestly looking us each in the eye and telling us that if there was anything else we could do for a living that we found mildly enjoyable—anything at all—then we should quit writing and go do that. We all chuckled nervously. She stared at us until we stopped chuckling. Because, she continued, it’s probably never going to pay, you’ll probably never get the success you believe is yours by rights, and the only thing that is pretty much guaranteed is heart ache.

    Pretty grim stuff. But she was right. But then again, the only people I meet who write are those who can’t help themselves. People who try it for a lark never seem to finish their novel.

    So go us dedicated fools!

  2. Eric on #

    This is why it amuses me so much when people come up to me at cocktail parties (or at the dry-cleaners or in the line at Dunkin Donuts or simply email me) and suggest that they should tell me their idea for a book. Of course, what follows is the suggestion that I could whip out a book about it and we could split the profits 50/50.

    Things are looking up for me as a writer, but I know that if I ever reach a point where I am doing this full-time (and not standing in a welfare line) it won’t be for awhile. And only if a bunch of rare and outlandish things happen which would be well beyond my control.

    In other words, only if the universe says so!!! Please universe, please!!!

  3. Julia Rios on #

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Justine. I hope you have a bigger year in 2008, because HTDYF was a lot of fun. As for myself, I dream of maybe one day getting such a princely sum as $29k.

  4. john cash on #

    Dear Justine,

    It’s not that we readers-who-want-to-be-writers don’t know the odds; it’s that we read something like yours and say, “How can she _not_ be making lots, with books like that?!”

    – John

  5. Justine on #

    Phil: Hah! Though I disagree. The beauty of writing is that you don’t have to quit. You can always do it on the side. There are many great writers who were doctors/accountants/cops/whatever during the day and writers at night. Writing’s really versatile that way unlike, say, acting, which is very difficult to pursue while holding down a full-time job.

    Eric: Definitely! I do wish more people understood what a desperately poor-paying profession this is.

  6. sylvia_rachel on #

    And here’s another finance tip for writers: for your other job, don’t pick publishing. ‘Cos publishing jobs pay almost as badly as writing does πŸ˜›

  7. Owldaughter on #

    As for people busily not buying your books, I myself am getting my copy of HTDYF, which is available in Canada today! YAY!

  8. Justine on #

    John: Bless you!

    sylvia_rachel: For your other job, don’t pick publishing.

    Definitely. My editors don’t earn that much more than I do! Another profession you should enter only if you love it.

    Owldaughter: I hope you like it!

  9. sara z. on #

    I just deposited a royalty check last week (and know how lucky I am to even have THAT), and the young teller made a joke like, “I need to figure out how to get me one of these.” I laughed and said, “Well, that’s IT for at least 6 months. And I will owe about 35% to the government. So don’t get too excited.” Then I suggested he write a book about a bank heist and maybe he’d do better than me.

  10. Mahek on #

    I really want to be an author one day but here in the UK, it’s almost too difficult. The average house here costs something like half a million dollars. The average salary is about $60,000 where writing will get you $5000. Not much. I guess I’ll have to be a doctor on the sidelines then.

    Thank you for the enlightening post Justine. I hope your paycheck next year is bigger!

  11. Brenda on #

    And that is why I only had the courage to pursue the writing dream once I became a stay-at-home mom. I figured I was already making no money, so the situation couldn’t get any worse. So, if you want to be a writer, one option is to marry someone who makes a nice salary! Another option is to do a ton of school visits. They pay well and are usually quite fun. Bottom line though… you should only be a writer if you have to be a writer… if it is in your soul and you get cranky and obnoxious when you are not writing.
    I wouldn’t trade this life for the world.

  12. Melinda on #

    Ah, the irony of being considered fairly successful by my writer friends (3 books, stories in anthologies, other short stories published and republished elsewhere) and still earning less than 5k a year. It would be useful to get a paying job but this is the thing I’m best at.

    Great post.

    Melinda (from NZ)

  13. Dawn on #

    You know, I’m not even sure I’ll ever even get published, and if I don’t, then that’s okay with me. It doesn’t take a bound copy of my words and certainly not payment to keep me writing. It’s a drug. I can’t help myself.

  14. Mat on #

    As I read this I had a flashback to an episode of The West Wing where the President says something like “The Great American Dream means that everyone worries about the day they’ll be rich.”

    I’ve been working as a writer and editor since 2003 and my highest earnings were just over $10,000 in one year and most of that was from one very generous client on a flat-fee project (writing fiction).

    The various times I’ve attempted to get full-time jobs, potential employers question me with near-disbelief “But you work as a writer! Surely that is a fantastic way to live? Get up, write a little, go for a swim, walk around, ah, I’d love it.”

    I swear I haven’t gotten certain jobs because working as a writer is the secret dream of the interviewer and here I am in front of them saying stuff like “I’m tired of banks laughing at me” and “I’d really like to be paid without having to beg over and over” and “Being at home by yourself all day is a good way to go crazy”.

    Having said *that*, the risk-reward model in publishing which justifies paying 10-12% to writers should be revised. Some publishers used to pay 12% on RRP and then one day just switched to 12% on wholesale – cutting potential income by 60% or so.

  15. khy on #

    Justine, did have you mentioned your Cybils nomination yet ? Because if you did I missed it and must say CONGRATS. (well, yours is on the big long list of nominations, but hey.)

  16. Brent on #

    Robert Heinlein had one of his characters (who was a writer) describe writing as a disease with particularly anti-social symptoms. The bit was hilarious and mostly accurate.

    I write because I have something to say. I try to get it published for two reasons. First, I’m arrogant/foolish enough to think that other people want to hear what I have to say. Second, since I’m already writing, I might as well try to get paid for it.

    I would love for writing to be a lucrative career for me. If I could make what you’re making, I’d be quite happy (not to mention astonished). I have to consider however, that I’m also a reader. I love your books. I love most books I buy and borrow. If there were a high percentage of writers that were in the field for money though, I’d think the quality of books would go down.

    So it seems that perhaps most writers write for the love of the craft. Almost Bohemian, but without the silly clothes. πŸ™‚

    Actually… I think this applies to fiction writers mostly. Non-fiction writers, columnists, and the like seem to be different.

  17. Tim Keating on #

    re: bookstores not carrying your stuff — I have not been able to find ANY of your books in any chain bookstore (and I’ve tried several, in multiple U.S. cities). That said, I’m pleased to report my local B&N had copies of H2DYF on publication day.

    All those places had copies of SCOTT’s books, though. You should smack him.

  18. Marko on #

    The secret to being a well-fed writer is to marry a spouse with a steady job that offers health benefits.

    (It does oblige you to actually write some stuff and try to sell it, instead of playing Team Halo Deathmatch Fortress VII all day long.)

  19. Russ on #

    I’ve been picking up some of the books my daughter’s been reading. She enjoyed Magic and Madness, and then checked H2DYF out of the library. It was great πŸ™‚ Thanks for writing it.

  20. Evelyn on #

    Many readers/aspiring writers are under the delusion that if JK Rowling could be the richest woman in Britain, then they could, too.
    I had a talk with my dad a few days back about what I wanted to be when I “grew up” (honestly, these adults!), and when I replied that I wanted to be a writer, he told me that it didn’t pay well as much as a few other jobs (his own included). I asked, “What about Neil Gaiman?”
    The response was, “He’s a rockstar.”

  21. sylvia_rachel on #

    Brenda said, So, if you want to be a writer, one option is to marry someone who makes a nice salary!

    This is also wise if you want to pursue a career in publishing. πŸ˜‰

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