Let’s talk about luck

Since I finally managed to sell a book, I’ve had a fair few letters asking me how I managed it and what advice can I give a struggling unpublished writer. I also read lots of other writers’s and agents’s blogs and they all get the same question, which boils down to this: No matter how hard I work and how often I submit I cannot get published.

All I can say to that is that I was unpublished for almost 20 years. It sucked. I kept writing but, I admit, sometimes I quit submitting for years at a time because I was sick of being rejected. Rejection is foul. I’ve never gotten used to it.1

It’s true that the surest path to publication is to keep on writing and writing and writing. Then you have to keep submitting. It also helps if you’re talented. Those are the facts.

But there are a small percentage of people who just can’t get a break. (Let me emphasise though that it is a small percentage. Most people not getting published aren’t any good. I’ve seen those slush piles.) Such as the writer who submits a publishable chicklit book at a time when that genre is dead in the water. Had they submitted five years earlier they woulda been published for sure. Then they turn to vampires where there’s a glut and get the same result. Or they’re bought by a house just before there is a major restructuring and their contract is cancelled. Or editors keep falling in love with their books but sales & marketing does not. I’ve seen all of these happen.

Luck has an even bigger part to play in published writers’s lives. Right now there seem to be skads of six-figure deals for YA books; ten years ago there were almost none. But even if your genre is hot, as YA seems to be at the moment, that doesn’t mean you’ll wind up with the big bucks. The vast majority of YA deals I read about on Publisher’s Lunch are “nice” deals. That is, the advances2 are between $0 and $50,000. I’d be willing to bet that most of those deals are no where near $50k. Most surveys I’ve seen peg the average advance in most genres at between $5,000 and $10,000. That’s why our Real World Deal Descriptions make more sense than those of Publishers Lunch.3

My guess is that less than 10% of writers, even in a hot genre, are getting big deals. What separates them from the other 90% of writers?


The majority of the teen books that I’ve read and loved over the last few years were paid advances of $20k or less. Sometimes, heaps less.

I know of New York Times and USA Today bestsellers who are still only getting “nice” deals. This is especially true in romance.

I’ve seen horribly written, completely unoriginal books get huge advances and heaps and heaps of promotion and sell like crazy. I’ve seen other bad books get the same treatment and sink like lead balloons. I’ve seen good books get the huge treatment and fail. I’ve seen good books get the full treatment and do really well.4

What makes the difference? Who knows? But luck has a lot to do with it.

Getting a big advance, being well promoted, and generally noised about does not mean you are a great writer; it means you are a really lucky writer.

  1. And the bad news is that even after you get published you still get rejected. []
  2. Go here to learn what an advance is. []
  3. I’m kind of bummed they never really took off. Though Publishers Lunch did change what a “nice” deal is and added the “very nice” category. []
  4. Of course, my notion of what’s a “good” or “bad” book will most likely vary from yours. []

Money advice for writers

John Scalzi has some excellent advice for writers who are trying to make money out of said occupation. Go forth, read, take notes.

While I strongly agree with most of his advice, I have issues with two of his points:

3. Marry (or otherwise shack up with) someone sensible with money, who has a real job.

This is something that worked really well for John. I’ve met his wife, Krissy, and a more formidable, fun, amazing person I have yet to meet. And she knows from money. Seriously smart about it. I wish I had married Krissy.

But, really, this is Scalzi confusing his own excellent good luck with general advice for everyone. Not everyone’s going to meet a Krissy. I suspect there’s only one and she ain’t leaving Scalzi anytime soon. Not everyone has any interest in getting married or shacking up. And, call me a romantic, but taking into account someone’s money management skills is not something I was thinking about when I fell in love.

Not to mention the salient advice my mother gave me which was to never depend on some man1 to look after you. Make your own way in the world. Earn your own money.

8. Unless you have a truly compelling reason to be there, get the hell out of New York/LA/San Francisco.

Rubbish! Big city living can be cheaper than being out in the burbs or the bush. Food is usually much cheaper, clothes too. Pretty much everything, really, except accommodation. That’s a very big except, I admit, but the notion that everything is cheaper outside big cities is rubbish. Sure NYC and Sydney have some of the most expensive restaurants and produce in the world but they also have some of the cheapest.

Living in New York or Sydney or Melbourne or any European city also means you don’t have to have a car. Cars are hugely expensive and they’re only going to get more expensive (price of oil ain’t ever going down, people). You live on your big property in Ohio or wherever and you have to have a car. I am a strong advocate of car-less living.

Cities are where a lot of the writing work is. We are still monkeys and face-to-face interaction is often more effective than emails or letters especially when you are starting out. Obviously, contacts aren’t everything: you have to be talented and hard working. There are many writers who have built careers without ever living anywhere near NYC or Sydney or London or wherever. But contacts can lead to work and there are more of them in cities.

There are more people in cities which means you’re more likely to find people like you. Living someplace where you are the only person of colour/writer/science fiction fan/nudist/australian/sculptor can really really suck. Sure you can find those communities online, but a real life community is pretty wonderful too.

And, lastly, cities are fun. They’re bursting with entertainment and great people and awesome food and all sorts of unexpected joys and pleasures. All of which I find incredibly inspiring for my writing. I’m not even sure I’d be a writer without all that wonderful city stimulation.

Ironically, I write this from a rocking chair in the country watching red-bellied woodpeckers feeding. I don’t hate the country; I just don’t want to live here.

  1. or woman depending on your inclinations []

Not that anyone asked . . .

. . . but I am hundred per cent in favour of the WGA strike. Doris Egan, who’s a writer on House,1 eloquently explains why. And, yes, a lot of it is about dosh. Why the hell shouldn’t writers be adequately compensated for their work? Here’s my favourite bit:

By the way, I’m not at all sure this understanding [about money] goes up to the CEO’s office; how can it, when that CEO can be handed sixty million dollars just for quitting? Someday I must tell you the story of the famous exec who said, “Why not make this character middle-class? Let’s say he makes $300,000 a year—” and the writers all stared at him.

That’s right the folks who are keeping the writers from having a fair cut of the work they create think $300 grand a year for one person is a middle class wage. Words completely fail me. It’s like those people who crap on about the outrageous amount male basketball players earn but don’t say a word about the insane earnings of the people who own and run the teams and leagues. An athlete’s career is short and physically dangerous.2 Execs get to keep on raking it in when they’re old and grey.

You really have to wonder at a world where it’s the executives around the creative folks who make the obscene amounts of money while most of the creatives are grateful to be paid at all.

Now, to be clear I am not referring to the producers or any of the other staff who are currently out of work because of this strike. That’s right, this strike means lots of people, not just writers, are going to be without pay for the duration. And most of those people—unlike the writers—don’t have a strike fund to keep them going. Not that the big bosses up top give a damn about any of them.

I believe I’ve ranted enough.

  1. and also wrote some of my fave fantasy novels of the early 1990s []
  2. The majority of those who become pros rarely have more than ten solid earning years. []

A drop in the ocean

Several people have been bewildered by my enjoyment of this article about the Frankfurt Book Fair. Don’t you get depressed by how it’s not about the authors? they ask. How it’s about books as product? How there are so many, many, many books?


Books are products.

That’s not all they are, but it’s a pretty bloody important aspect, especially for those of us who are trying to make a living writing (or editing or selling) them.

Publishing is an industry. Part of what it’s about—and has always been about—is making money. For most of its history most of that money has been made by people other than writers.1 That’s still the case. Sure, some writers do just fine. As it happens—at this moment in time—I’m one of them. I don’t make a tonne of money, but I’m finally making more than I did as a research fellow.2

But the fact that my career’s toddling along okay (right now) is not why I read articles about “books as product” without blanching. That’s not why it doesn’t bother me to walk into a hall big enough for a city of dinosaurs that’s entirely full of books. I love books! I’m thrilled there are so many of them. And that there are so many people busily bringing them into existence.

Long before I sold so much as a haiku I was fascinated by the industry. By how it operates from the booksellers to the sales reps to the publicists to the editors and agents and writers right through to the execs at the top of the multi-media conglomerates that own most of the big publishing companies in the world. I’m fascinated by the economics of small presses and medium-sized presses too. I want to know everything there is to know. One of the coolest parts of going with Scott on his book tour was meeting so many sales reps and booksellers and media escorts and gossiping about the industry and learning new stuff I hadn’t known.3

I subscribe to Publishers Weekly and Publishers Lunch. I read a tonne of different publishing and bookish blogs by agents and editors and booksellers and librarians. Most of the conversations I have with fellow writers and with agents and editors and sales reps and other publishing types quickly turns into gossip about the industry. Who’s making the big deals? Which house is going after what kinds of books and why? Are the Twilight books the new Harry Potter?

I’m not saying I think publishing today is all roses. It’s not. But it never was. I spent more than a year of my life reading through the letters of Judith Merril and other science fiction writers of the 40s and 50s. Their struggles to make a living are very familiar.

Like Carole Cadwalladr I’m depressed by how few foreign-language titles are translated into English. By the books I think are hideously bad that do incredibly well4. But I remind myself that it was ever thus. The Pilgrim’s Progress is possibly the most boring book ever written. Twas a bestseller in its day. Crappy books have done well in the past; they’ll do well in the future. But there are always wonderful books flying off the shelves too.

There are more books being published than ever before. There are more readers than ever before. I think that’s fabulous.

I’d be depressed if we could no longer fill the halls of the Frankfurt Book Fair. If people weren’t excited about the latest books or by Doris Lessing winning the Nobel or by the latest crazy book deal.

I guess I’m a publishing geek.

  1. Most editors and publicists and sales reps and booksellers don’t make much either. Seriously if you go into any aspect of the publishing industry trying to make your fortune you’re delusional. []
  2. Barely. And only as of this year. It could change. []
  3. For instance I had no idea media escorts even existed. []
  4. that dreadful YA I mentioned recently better flop! []

Book fair horror

Carole Cadwalladr writes very entertainingly about the Frankfurt book fair. Especially about all the gossip. One of my favourite bits is her glancing mention of inflated print runs.1 Apparently this goes back much further than I’d realised:

For as long as people have written books, people have sold them too, and this involves a certain amount of talking things up. Erasmus, in the 15th century, is said to have drummed up business here (the fair’s been going for 800-odd years) by claiming the first print run of his Colloquies was 24,000. And this in an age when the average number of copies produced was around 50.

That wily Erasmus, eh? Though I don’t know what he expected to achieve when it was going to become clear that he was a bit of a fibber almost as soon as the words left his mouth.

Publishing is a strange business. Read the whole article. It’s my favourite on publishing in ages.

  1. For those who don’t know publishers almost never release the true print run. They always exaggarrate the number. Sometimes by margins almost as crazy as Erasmus. []

To freelance or not to freelance . . .

A friend of mine is thinking of quitting their day job. They’ve had a novel published, which is doing very well indeed thank you very much. Their publisher is solidly behind them and eager for more books. The friend has turned to me for advice. On account of how I’m already a freelancer.

However, their situation is very different from mine when I went freelance. I had come to the end of a fellowship so instead of seeking employment or another fellowship I opted to try my hand at writing full time. My friend would be leaving a job which has a clear path of promotion in a secure industry with great health insurance and all sorts of other perks. Also the friend likes the job, but they love writing. And the job is so full on that it’s very difficult to make the time to write novels.

My first impulse is to say, “Keep the job!” But the friend is a brilliant writer. Keeping the job means a book every three or four years. Tops. At the moment the money is about the same between the two options.

What to do?

Here’s my list of pros and cons of freelancing.

Cons Pros
very irregular pay
have to provide your own health insurance
your own super (savings for retirement—dunno what they call that in the US of A)
can be very isolating working long hours on your own
stationery no longer free
life ruled by deadlines
concentrate on writing
your time is your own
work uniform is pyjamas
no boss
can work wherever you want
can work whenever you want
travel is easy
its fun
no office politics
if you need to get out and go for a walk/swim/ice cream you can

I’m a bit stupid today so I’m sure I’ve forgotten heaps and some of them are a bit repetitive. Please chime in with your own pros and cons to the freelance life. What would you do in this situation? What’s your advice for my friend?

Money writing advice

Someone wrote to Victoria Strauss over at Writers Beware asking for advice on pursuing writing as a career. Namely will it make me money?

Strauss was honest about what a hit-and-miss career writing is and how the vast majority of pro writers do not make a lot of money. Her respondee did not take kindly to the truth and wrote to Strauss to tell her that he was

not worried about your discouragement. I understand, the history of the human race is but a brief spot in time, and its first lesson is modesty, but some people are better than others. I wouldn’t discourage anybody from having high ambitions, because the good of their success outweighs the bad of their failure. The successful ones always tell everybody to be more ambitious, which is why I think you’re biased and your judgement cannot altogether be respected.

Aside from this being a breathtakingly rude response to someone who’s gone out of their way to give an honest answer the layers of delusions are breathtaking. How is telling someone the truth discouraging someone from being ambitious? If you want to be a writer the odds are that you will not make much money. Best to know that straight away because if that’s your main motivation then you’d be better off playing the stock market or getting a law degree or becoming a plumber or finding a rich spouse.

I’ve been asked the money question by aspiring writers many times during my brief career (I’ve been a full-time writer only four years) and like Victoria Strauss’s correspondent they really don’t want to hear the truth. They want success stories. They want to be told that they will sell their first novel for six figures.

They might. I know one first timer who did. But the vast majority of first-novel advances I’ve heard of have been under twenty grand. Way under. Mine was. Scott’s was. Garth Nix’s was. So was J. K. Rowling’s.

If you don’t believe me subscribe to Publisher’s Lunch. Start counting how many of those debut novel deals are anything other than “nice” deals ($1-$49,000). Make sure to check how many books are in the deal. A “good” deal ($100,000 – $250,000) sounds fabulous but often those deals are for at least three books. I’ve seen a six-book “nice” deal which means the author got at most $8,000 a book.

Strauss’s questioner ends by telling her:

And if you don’t get it, maybe that’s why you’re not very successful. Write until your words bleed. I don’t see that color in your prose.

His notion of success is all tied up with money and he has the hide to hell Strauss that she’s not a success? He hasn’t sold a book; she’s published many. The only thing Strauss is not a success at is telling him what he wants to hear: you, sir, are the chosen one who will earn gazillions.

Hard work has a lot to do with success (though bleeding really isn’t necessary) but I know plenty of hardworking writers who don’t earn enough to support themselves, not to mention all the hard workers who’ve never made it into print. Talent and hard work are very necessary, but to make the big bucks luck is essential.

You can be a very successful writer—well reviewed, award winning, decent sales—and earn only 30 thou or less a year. The majority of pro writers would be over the moon to be earning that much year in and year out. Money for writers is low and erratic. It’s August and I’ve been paid about $4,000 for my writing this year. I’m owed more but who knows when it will come? That’s the writer’s life right there. Just like any other freelancer.

Besides what is a successful writer? There are many genius writers who made bugger-all writing during their lifetimes. You can’t tell me that Joseph Conrad and Emily Dickinson and Philip K. Dick weren’t successes. They’re still in print and they’re still read unlike gazillions of best sellers over the years. Who’s reading Coningsby Dawson and Warwick Deeping now?


Someone just asked me what the worst thing about being a writer is. Took me less than a second to answer:


I’m always waiting for my editors, or agents, or publicists, or someone to get back to me. Yes, all of mine are miraculously fast. Yes, I’ve never had to wait more than a week for notes on any of my books. But when you’re waiting for notes a week is an eternity! Sadly, my middle name is not patience.

But the wait for money to show up is genuinely interminable, and the wait for my books to finally come out already? Ditto. I finish the bugger in, say June, and it doesn’t come out until March of the following year—if I’m lucky! In publishing land, that’s fast. Waiting, waiting, waiting.

One of the longest waits is between finishing a book and getting reader responses, finding out if people other than Scott and my editors think it’s unchunderiffic. That’s partly why I send out my early drafts to so many first readers. Otherwise I don’t find out till the end of time what people think of it. But most of them don’t get back to me, or they do much later than they said they would. And because I do exactly the same thing to them I can’t get cranky. Not fair! (Well, okay totally fair, but bloody annoying!)

The following true stories have random pronouns attributed to them in order not to reveal who the waiting writers are:

Right now I have one friend waiting on an editorial letter. He was supposed to have it weeks and weeks ago. He’s going insane, unable to concentrate on other tasks because he knows the minute the ed letter comes in he’ll be thrown into convulsions because he’ll only have ten minutes to do the rewrite and it will probably involve having to throw out the whole thing and start from scratch. Editors can be cruel that way.

Another friend has a proposal out for a series of book completely unlike anything she’s written before. She loves this project more than anything else she’s ever worked on. She’s in paroxysms waiting to see if it sells. What if it doesn’t? Will she be stuck writing books like the ones she’s been writing and is now bored of? Will it torpedo her entire career if this new series doesn’t sell? Aaaarghhhh!! She is in a total state and the proposal’s only been out a few days . . .

And then there’s the waiting when you get given fabulous news and you’re not allowed to say a thing about it. That’s kind of a delicious yet frustrating waiting.

I am waiting on one of those right now. It’s doing my head in. I know the trick is to put the waiting out of my mind and keep writing, but that is so so so much easier said than done.

I am a much more patient person than I was ten years ago. And massively more patient than twenty years ago. But I’m still not patient. Gah!

Fourth Anniversary

Today is the fourth anniversary of my becoming a full-time freelance writer. That’s right, on 1 April 2003 I stopped getting a regular salary and set about trying to earn dosh with the words I write. What more appropriate day than April Fool’s day?

It was Scott who convinced me to do it.

For the previous eighteen months my regular salary as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Sydney had been the bulk of our income, but Scott’s earnings as a freelancer were on the rise. It would be more than enough, he asserted, to support both of us while I found my legs as a writer. There were several academic jobs I could have applied for, but Scott convinced me not to. It wasn’t hard, while I preferred being an academic to any other job I’d had, I liked writing way more. “It’s the only thing you’ve ever wanted to do,” he told me over and over again. “Now’s the time to do it.”

I thought he was mad.

I was right.

The next three years and a half years were filled with financial anxiety: loans were taken out, credit cards were juggled, and tonnes of panic was panicked. Two freelancers living together is not for the faint of heart. It’s not even a good idea for nerves of steel, lion-hearted types.

I received my first freelance money—the advance on signing for the Magic or Madness trilogy—in December of 2003, which was eight months after I’d gone freelance. It was my first professional sale. The offer came in September so by publishing standards I was paid very quickly. But it was an awfully long time to be bringing in no money. In the meantime Scott signed up for two separate three-book deals (the Uglies trilogy and the three Razorbill books—So Yesterday, Peeps, and The Last Days) to keep us from going under. Problem was those books were on top of the Midnighters trilogy he’d already sold.

Suddenly he was writing three books a year and experiencing the joys of shingles. All because I’d gone freelance prematurely.

Do I regret it? (The real question is: Does Scott regret it?)

No. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. In my first four years of freelancing I’ve written four books, edited another one, and published four: the Magic or Madness trilogy and Daughters of Earth. I sold my first novel only five months after going freelance. Not bad, eh?

Of course, I’d been trying to sell a novel since 1999, so it was four (almost five) years from first finished novel to first sold novel. And I’d been trying to sell short stories for much, much, much, much longer than that (way back into the eighties). I still haven’t had a pro sale for any of my short stories.1 And since I’ve pretty much stopped writing them, or sending them out, that’s unlikely to change any time soon.

Although the trilogy hasn’t earned out (bloody joint accounting!) it’s close and with the foreign sales of the trilogy (thank you, Whitney Lee) I’m now earning enough to support myself.2

But if someone who’d never sold a novel asked me whether they should go freelance I would tell them no.

No matter how talented or promising you are, going freelance without a single professional sale is madness. Perhaps you have a partner or a parent or a patron who’s willing to support you—it’s still dangerous and scary to try to make a living at something you’ve not proved yourself at. And there’s no guarantee that your partner or parent or patron will continue to support you. They might one day get jack of the whole thing. You might never make a single sale. Lots of extraordinarily talented people have failed to make a living as writers.

I have no idea what the future will bring. I’ve seen too many writers with stalled careers after even the most brilliant of starts to be sanguine about my own. The young adult market is thriving right now and advances seem to be going up all the time, but who knows how long that will last?

Yet despite the financial insecurity, the never knowing if my next book will sell or not, and the destruction of Scott’s health, these have been the best four years of my life. All the books I’ve published are the very best that I could make them at the time. There’s no book out there with my name on it that I’m ashamed of.

Turns out that I love being a writer. It’s what I’ve always wanted, and now I have it, it’s better than I imagined. Fingers crossed that it lasts.

Happy anniversary to me! And thank you, Scott, for everything.

NOTE: I apologise for the complete absence of April First Foolery. Fortunately others in the blogosphere are more than making up for my seriousness.

  1. When I sold to Strange Horizons in 2001 it wasn’t classified as a pro market. []
  2. Or to support the alternative me what doesn’t have expensive tastes and lives in Dubbo. []

Getting paid, or, don’t quit your day job

I promised some friends that I wouldn’t blog about the business of writing for a while and I haven’t in ages so, um, you two? Avert your eyes.

Recently some dear friends of mine sold books for the very first time. A small round of applause for their hard work and good fortune! Yay, them!

And as you do (and as I did) they’ve started planning how to spend their advance money (such that it is). They were suffering from the missaprehension that they would be seeing the money sometime soon. I disabused them.

Now I would like to disabuse you.

Before I begin two things:

    1. I’m only talking about publishing payment practices in the US of A and I’m only talking about mine and my friends’ experiences of them. I have never worked in publishing. I’d be grateful and interested to hear about varying experiences both here and in the rest of the world. And I’d love to hear from those who pay as well as those who receive.

    2. I suspect some of you are hazy on what exactly an advance is. (I was.) An advance is a sum of money that is paid (or advanced) to a writer by a publisher against the future earnings of a book. So when a writer is made an offer of money for their book that offer is an advance.

    I sold my first book (not a novel) to Wesleyan University Press for US$1,000. I got to keep that money no matter what happened, but I didn’t get any more dosh from Wesleyan until the royalties (a percentage of each book sold, can vary from 5% to 12% depending on format) on the book exceeded the $1,000 needed to pay Wesleyan back.

Here’s what happens when you sell a book:

A choir of angels sing and fairy dust descends from the air

Once you have accepted an offer on your book the nitty gritty of the contract must be negotiated. This is tricky to do and involves things like “escalation clauses” and “sub-rights” and is why it’s a stupendously excellent idea to have an agent do it for you. Believe me they earn their 15%.

How long that process takes depends on whether your agent already has a specific pre-negotiated contract with the publishing house or not. When I negotiated my contract with Penguin USA for the Magic or Madness books it didn’t take very long because I had no idea what I was doing and said yes to pretty much everything. Ah, the perils of negotiating a contract agent-less.

Once that’s done the contract has to be drawn up. How long that takes depends on the publishing house. Once it’s done your agent checks it. Believe it or not, sometimes there are things in the contract that shouldn’t be there, items that have specifically been negotiated out. This is another reason it’s such a great idea to have an agent.

One of the items specified in the contract is not just how much you will be paid, but how you will be paid. Typically (but definitely not always) your advance is split into thirds. The first third you get upon signing the contract, the second upon delivery and acceptance of your manuscript, and the third upon publication.

If you have a three-book deal of say $15,000 a book1 your total advance is $45,000. Thus you get $15,000 up front as the third on signing because you are signing for all three books. Then you get another $5,000 when the first book is delivered and accepted because that is a third of the $15,000 advance for that book. Then another $5,000 on the publication of the first book. And so on for the second and third book. Your $45,000 winds up being spread over at least three years, but sometimes more than four or five. This depends on how long before your first book is published.

Back to the contract:

Once your agent approves it, you sign it, and the contract is returned to the publishing house where the department that handles payments issues a cheque. I have seen the gap between signing the contract and receiving the cheque be anywhere between two weeks and a year. Any of you had a quicker turnaround? Slower?

The gap between accepting the offer and the contract being offered can also be many weeks. So it’s not only possible but usual for it to take at least six weeks between the intial offer and your cheque showing up. And, frankly, six weeks is fast.

And remember that’s just the first third. The other two thirds will come to you in third of a third parcels over the next few years. It means that your writing earnings could well look like this (minus your agent’s 15% which I haven’t taken out on account of my mathematical ability is not up to it):

2007: $20,000 (payment on signing, delivery & acceptance of 1st book)
2008: $10,000 (publication of 1st, delivery & acceptance of 2nd)
2009: $10,000 (publication of 2nd, delivery & acceptance of 3rd)
2010: $5,000 (publication of 3nd)

It will especially look like this if, like me, you didn’t know enough to make sure that your three-book deal wasn’t joint accounted. I sold my trilogy in 2003 and although the first two books have already earned out their advances I have not seen any royalties. Nor will I until the third book earns out as well. That’s what joint accounted means: The accounting for all three books is tied together.

It’s also increasingly unusual for a book to come out that quickly. I have several friends who sold books last year that aren’t scheduled for publication until 2009 (or in one case 2010). In which case their spread could look like this:

2006: $20,000 (payment on signing, delivery & acceptance of 1st book)
2007: $5,000 (delivery & acceptance of 2nd)
2008: $5,000 (delivery & acceptance of 3rd)
2009: $5,000 (publication of 1st)
2010: $5,000 (publication of 2nd)
2011: $5,000 (publication of 3rd)

Obviously living on $5,000 a year is tricky. Most full-time writers I know are getting bigger advances than that, or writing more than one book a year, or doing other kinds of writing, or all of the above. Scalzi did a recent breakdown of his fiction writing earnings over the past few years.

The more salient point: Most writers I know have a day job.

Each one of those payments comes less quickly than you think it will. I naively thought that my payment on delivery & acceptance of my first book would come automatically as soon as my editor had accepted the manuscript. It did not come until I asked for it. Or rather several weeks after asking.

This is not unique to publishing. It is, in fact, the lot of the freelancer: No matter who you work for, no matter what the industry, the gap between doing the work and getting paid is a LOT longer than we freelancers would like.

Hope this has been helpful.

Do please fill the comments thread with criticisms, questions and accounts of how it works in other places. I’m all ears. (Or, you know, eyes. Whatever!)

  1. That’s an above average advance for most genres I know about. I chose it because it’s easier to do the maths with an advance of $15,000. []

My hero

Scott just hit his tenth anniversary as a freelance writer. Congratulations, Mr Hardest-Working-Writer-I-Know.

He shares some cool statistics. Here’s two:

  • in that time he’s published well over one million words (gulp!),
  • and it took him eight years—that’s right—eight years (!) before he was earning enough from writing under his own name to support himself.

Eight years is a loooong time and yet most writers don’t ever earn enough to (comfortably) quit their day job. Scott has done very good indeed. I’m so proud.

On Hackery (inspired by Delany’s About Writing)

Samuel R. Delany’s book About Writing will not get out of my brain. I keep thinking about his concept of the usefulness, no, the essentialness of doubt (good! I got plenty of that), about how slavishly following the rules and working hard leads to aesthetic banality (the rules of good writing, not the rules of how-to-get-an-agent/editor—you have to follow those). And about being a hack.

Delany’s book made me feel like one (in a good way). His description of his own writing process, of how to write the absolute best you can, is a recipe for books that go through many, many drafts and take a long, long time to write, books that delve down into every doubt or dream you ever had. These descriptions are sensual and exhilarating and inspiring (if I hadn’t read his book I’d still be working on the draft of M! M! M! O! O! O!). As Delany goes through explaining every word choice, you marvel at not just his brilliance and talent, but at his unerring ability to explain this really, really difficult stuff (how’s that for a word choice!).

The book inspires and it also makes you think seriously and long about your own writing.

I’ve been a freelance writer since 1 April 2003 (excellent day to begin, no?). In that time I’ve sold four books, written four and a half, edited one. Deciding to make a living writing, meant deciding to tell different stories than I would if I had a stayed as an academic. Given that so far it’s earned me about US$1,200, and it took four years to research and write, books like The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction went out the window. I had to tell stories that enough other people wanted to read that publishers who could pay decent advances would want to buy them, and I had to learn to write faster. Much faster. I’m now on a two-books-a-year schedule.1

Every page of Delany’s book made me think about the central tension in my life between writing the best books I can and writing them quickly. How do I not become a hack?

I don’t have an answer.

I’m lucky that I write Young Adult books which are considerably shorter than say, Charlie Stross’ work. Magic or Madness and Magic Lessons are both about 65 thou words. In book form that’s 275 pages with a comfortable sized font and balanced amount of leading. But it’s still 130 thousand words of publishable prose a year.

I’m starting to think that—except for the lucky few—to make a living at writing is to be a hack. The best I can do is to write as well as I possibly can within the time restraints, and hope that one day I’ll be generating enough money that I can slow down. But I temper that hope with the knowledge that most people never do. I’ve already seen any number of writers around me write too fast and burn out. Scott was on a near three-book-a-year schedule and wound up with all sorts of health problems (and also nine very fine YA books). But still: too fast words eat up your body and your brain.

And while on a major deadline crunch—unless you have servants or a traditional wife—the rest of your life is falling apart. Housework doesn’t get done, or your taxes, or any of the other admin, you don’t see your friends, and lots of takeaway and delivery food and ramen noodles are consumed.2 When you finish you really should be turning to the next book before your editor’s notes come back at you. Because that’s one of the worst things about writing more than one book a year: the constant interruptions from the previous book. You do not—as a dear friend of mine imagined—write one book, send it off, and then leisurely write the next. While writing the next you’re also be working on the last. There are rewrites, checking copyedits, proofs, and galleys. I have no idea how those writing four or more books a year cope.

I’m hoping, some day, to have the time and opportunity to write both as slowly and as well as I want. To only go on to the next book when the last one is well and truly finished and as good as I can make it. In the meantime I strive to be the very best hack I can be!

How do all you other hacks manage?

  1. I have many writer friends who are writing many more books than two a year, who consider such a schedule luxury. []
  2. I am well aware that there are much harder jobs than being a novelist. This is the best, most fulfilling job I’ve ever had. Every single day I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to have a go at it. []