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?


  1. jennifer, aka literaticat on #

    what an asshat.

    anyhow, speak for yourself! my thesis: “high wycombe writ large: the incendiary prose of conignsby dawson”

    … for some reason the university still hasn’t sent my diploma.

    (ps: “warwick deeping” sounds like the lead in a blue movie.)

  2. Tim Pratt on #

    Well said. I look at writing money as akin to strange weather — double rainbows, hailstorms in July, showers of frogs. I’ve been fortunate — my first novel paid for my wedding and my honeymoon. The next four books are in the process of paying off my credit card debt and buying me a new (well, used, but new to me) car, and paying for the lost income from my wife’s upcoming maternity leave. It’s also buying the occasional sushi dinner. But I have no expectations that I’ll ever make another penny from fiction writing. I *hope* I will, but the world doesn’t certainly owe me a living just because I like to make stuff up and write it down.

  3. Justine on #

    Jennifer: Hah! I totally feel like I made Coningsby Dawson and Warwick Deeping up. I am so stealing those names.

    Tim: I’m not sure I’d go that far. But then I am foolishly trying to make a living writing fiction. I have backup plans though for when the books stop selling and the advances dwindle to nothing. Wanna buy some lovely knitted booties?

  4. Cat Sparks on #

    excellent post, Justine. Bravo!

  5. Tim Pratt on #

    Well, we do have a baby on the way, so booties could be nice…

    I’d like to have a sustainable career as a fiction writer, too, of course, and I’m doing my best to make that happen — it’s just my policy to always expect the worst. My wife Heather is the optimist. We balance out!

  6. Penni on #

    what a little oik.

  7. Justine on #

    Cat: Ta. You are too kind.

    Tim: Excellent. Now all I have to do is learn how to knit. Congrats on the littlie youse are awaiting.

  8. Dawn on #

    The only author that I’ve known about to make bank (my way of saying “a lot of money”…ha) as a first timer is Stephenie Meyer. I’m pretty sure that Little, Brown and Co. gave her a $750,000 three-book deal. Those are some amazing figures, but I know that success is not often measured in dollars, and that’s not how it should be measured. I’ve lived all of my life in a household where money is tighter than tight, but I wouldn’t consider my life a failure because we don’t have money to toss around. I’m thankful for that perspective and I don’t plan on embracing the world as a place to “get rich”. I’m becoming a teacher for crying out loud and I’ve been told by many that I won’t make much. It would be nice to make a good amount of money, but I will never base my view of success on that. To me, success would be being able to get my book(s)? out there for people to read and enjoy. Teaching students and helping them learn more about reading and writing…helping them to enjoy those things…that would be success for me.

    I love your books, Justine! And I think that makes you super successful. 🙂

  9. Rebecca on #

    people like that guy annoy me. but they seem to be popping up all over the place.

    if only all lawyers did make good money. 😛

    i’d always wondered what those “nice” and “good” things meant. i was like, “what are they going to do, say that it was a bad deal?” heh.

    money money money money. bleh.

  10. Diana on #

    The one time I dared to talk about the reality of publishing and money and making a living on my blog, I was called “pretentious” six ways from Sunday and told that they preferred “the more demure Diana.” Now, I ask you, when have I ever been demure?

    People prefer the fantasy and if you dare disabuse them of it, you will be punished.

  11. Coreyjf on #

    He probably asked the question knowing full well what her answer would be. Maybe he was one of the poser agents with an axe to grind. Maybe he is just a jacka$$. But he either asked the question with a response at hand or is completely deluded and desperately looking for validation. Either way, I hope she didn’t waste too much energy on him. I would seriously wonder about the motivations of anyone who advised a writer with no track record to quit his day job.

  12. Lauren on #

    That guy is definitely a wanker. In defense of delusion, however, I have to say that I probably never would have abandoned my first career to pursue fiction writing if I’d known just how hard it is to earn a living at it. I consider myself very lucky to be self-supporting rather than a cautionary tale.

  13. Corey on #

    “Write until your words bleed…” That ‘metaphor’ invokes, to me, images of desperation, not determination. I believe success in writing is binary: If you can go in to any retail bookstore and see your name on a shelf, you’re there; I see many of your guys’ names every such journey! The monetary contributions received is more of a welcome side-effect than a goal to me. I suppose that’s because I approach writing as an idealist and not a profession =) I could crochet some words for Victoria to respond with, but I’m sure she’ll concoct some from a higher path than I!

  14. Justine on #

    Corey: Yup. If writing is making him bleed then he’s clearly doing it wrong.

  15. Chris Howard on #

    I just signed my first book contract. I met the editor in New York in May right after the offer, and her first piece of advice: Don’t quit your day job. The advance isn’t high, and I wasn’t expecting a lot. I just want to write.

  16. Patrick on #

    Diana – I’m sure they meant the more ‘lemur Diana’ by which I suspect they meant wide-eyed and nocturnal.

  17. ben on #

    Ms. Larbalestier..I just found your blog and had to share my wry smile…I’m here in my banking office, pretending to be capitalistic, while gazing fondly at the corner of my desk where my copy of “Magic or Madness”, along with various good company (Susan Cooper, Philip Pullman, etc.) stands ready to offer escape from corporate drudgery. Without my surreptious dips into these pages throughout the day, I’d definitely go bonkers (not that a few more bonkers bankers in the world wouldn’t be interesting.) So, the money may be more readily available in finance than in writing, but you’re the much-admired, story-spinning saviour of bored corporate prisoners, as well as fresh-faced youngsters around the world! As long as aspiring writers can afford to eat and sleep in peace, I hope the chance at that admittedly quiet kind of honor and glory, along with the joy of seeing one’s imagination take tangible form, is far more enticing than what I can assure you is the empty allure of material rewards. Thanks for your books! cheers, Ben

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