Writers and Money

This year, my writing income will exceed my expenses. Last year, it was the other way around.

That’s how it is with writing when you’re trying to build a career. I should explain what I mean by a career, because I have a job that gives me a regular income, in addition to which I have writing income (sometimes). It’s not a “day job,” which usually refers to a job unconnected with writing that you intend to do only until the writing works out . . . until writing itself can become a career. For one thing, I don’t just do it during the day. I teach, which means that I’m often up late at night, grading papers or preparing for classes. But I chose it specifically because it was about writing; it immersed me in writing and thinking about writing. My job is to teach writing: both academic writing at the undergraduate level, and creative writing at the graduate level to MFA students. I’m very, very lucky: I get to work on and think about what I love, every day. Oh, sometimes it’s tedious grading student papers. But grading papers, even at the most elementary level of marking the missing commas, makes me think about writing. It makes me consider what good writing is, why certain voices are lively and engaging. And of course it provides me with an income.

Because the thing I’ve learned about writing, over the years, is that it’s very, very difficult to make a living at it. Oh, people certainly do, but it’s a very small percentage of the people who actually write. Most of the people I know who make a living at writing have certain characteristics in common: (1) It took them a long time to get where they are, making a living at writing. Usually, you need several successful books in print before you can make anywhere near enough money from them to live on. (2) In the meantime, they had to rely on regular jobs, or on spouses who could support them. If they did not have those things, they went through a period of terrible struggle, and by terrible I mean not knowing where rent or food was coming from. (3) They write a lot, and they write fiction that is popular, that sells. As writers, they are both popular and prolific. (4) They are generally out there, at conferences or on social media, marketing their books. It’s certainly possible to be a wildly successful reclusive writer, but it’s rare. (5) They continue to supplement their income, with part-time teaching or freelancing or writing tie-ins.

If you want to be a writer, it’s best to confront the realities of writing income. First, you’ll have to write novels. The average short story sale will make you several hundred dollars, which is very useful when you’re trying to buy groceries or pay rent, but won’t sustain you over the long term. And poetry only pays for coffee. So you’ll have to write novels, and you’ll have to write them fairly consistently. The second reality is that writing income is itself inconsistent. I recently received half of the advance for my first and second novels. It was more money than I have ever put into my bank account at one time — I’m pretty sure my bank now thinks I’m money-laundering. But it was also the most money I’ll receive for these novels at once, unless they do every well indeed. I’ll receive more money when each of the final manuscripts are delivered, but it will be a smaller amount. And then of course when the film deal is made . . . Ah, but we’re just dreaming at this point. That happens, but not often, so what I have to count on right now is my advance. For which I am very grateful, but whether I’ll get this much money again from these books is up to the publishing gods. The only thing I can do about it is make these books the absolute best they can be, and then go on to write the next book.

The third reality is that publishing advances sound a lot more impressive than they actually are. For example, think of a writer who gets a quarter million dollar advance for a five-book series. A quarter million dollars! That’s an enormous sum of money. Until you break it down: that’s $50,000 per book. If each of those books takes about six months of work total, to write and revise, then revise again when the edit letter comes, then revise in response to the copyedits, the writer is making about $100,000 per year. That’s still a lot of money! But out of that, the writer is paying all the things that are invisible to regular employees. For example, I cost my employer, the university, about twice what I actually make. Among other things, the university pays for part of my medical insurance and matches any retirement fund contributions. The self-employed writer must pay for medical insurance and fund her own retirement, plus there’s a small thing called self-employment tax. I have to pay it on the writing portion of my income. So that advance isn’t the same as making $100,000 per year at a job. It’s like making $100,000 a year from a business, and then having it reduced by business expenses. If you’re a writer, you’re a business. So sayeth the IRS.  And think about all the marketing for those books.  It takes time to publicize a book, and even if the publisher pays travel expenses for readings and signings, that’s time the writer could be making more money by writing.  It’s unpaid time, or time paid for by the advance.  Finally, it can take considerably longer than six months to write a book.  If it takes a year total, that income goes down to $50,000 per year, minus business expenses.  And that’s on the high end of a novel advance . . . (The average novel advance is well under $20,000 per book.)

When I finished my PhD and started working full-time, I had to confront all this myself. I had to ask myself, are you going to treat writing as a hobby, or are you going to make it your career? Of course the answer was, a career. That’s what I’ve always wanted, to be a professional writer. That doesn’t mean I want to write full-time: I love teaching. It does mean I want to write every day, and produce on a regular schedule. I want to have novels and short stories and poems coming out regularly. I want to be known as a writer. So how, I had to ask myself, was I going to think about money? I had already spent a lot of money on my writing career: I had gone to Odyssey and then Clarion, I had been to any number of conventions. And those were all worth it, because they gave me the training and the contacts I needed. But now, I really wanted to think about my expenses as investments. Was a particular convention worthwhile? Would I learn from it, would I meet people I wanted to meet — writers I admired, editors I would love to work with? It’s wasn’t enough that I would have fun, because let’s face it, conventions are expensive. Did I want to spend $1000 on an industry convention where I wouldn’t necessarily meet readers, or should I put that money toward a research trip to Europe for the second novel? (That was an actual decision I had to make recently.) I haven’t been to as many conventions recently, because of such calculations. I’ll be going to more next year, because I’ll have a novel coming out in 2017 . . . So the investment will make sense.

I also had to do one more thing: I had to confront my own issues with money. My issues come partly out of the fact that I grew up in a household where money was always uncertain. We always had just enough money to get by, although sometimes the bills were paid late. But there was no concept of savings. My mother had grown up in communist Hungary, where if you had anything extra, it was taken away from you. My grandparents could not buy the apartment they had lived in since World War II until after the fall of communism. I was used to money coming and going, but never staying . . . that was my normal. I hated it — it made me feel uncertain, as though I were always standing on ground that could be shaken by an earthquake. But it was still how I, unconsciously, thought about and dealt with money. (It did not help that for years I had been a graduate student living on fellowships.) I had to consciously reevaluate my unconscious attitude toward finances, to make having savings a goal. To tell myself that money in the bank was normal, not an aberration. That it was not all right for me, who was lucky enough to have a stable job (when so many don’t), to get to the end of the month and worry about whether I was going to make it. I had to consciously build better habits. I’m still working on that.

If you want to be a writer, what I would advise is something like the following: (1) Be realistic about what it will mean financially. You may write a best-seller and never have to worry about money again for the rest of your life. That’s very, very unlikely. Even people who write best-sellers have to keep working, keep producing. I know, I’ve met them. They’re sitting with their butts in chairs, just like the writers who are starting out. (2) Deal with your money issues, because in a field as uncertain as writing, they will undo you. If you’re not used to saving and budgeting, start practicing now. (3) Make a plan, revise your plan. How are you going to support yourself? What will your sources of income be, while you write? How will you create a good life for yourself, a life you want to live, that also supports your writing? You don’t have to have a writing career . . . no one does. Writing can be a wonderful, fulfilling hobby. But if you want it to be a career, you need to treat is like a business (you know the IRS will!), even if you’re only making coffee money for right now.

(I should say here that I don’t budget, not formally, although I did while I was in graduate school. What I do now is know, at the beginning of each month, that I will have a number of recurring expenses, such as my electricity bill. On top of that, I will have necessary expenses, like groceries. I don’t worry about those. A certain number of small treats go in with those necessary expenses, like buying cupcakes for myself and my daughter — it’s a weekly ritual.  I know what those recurring and necessary expenses will be, and I know that I can afford them — for those, I don’t need to budget.  Beyond that, I have to think about how much I’m spending and why I’m spending it. I have to justify the expense.  But perhaps that’s a subject for another blog post?  And my taxes have gotten complicated enough that I would not tackle them without an accountant, which is another expense of doing business . . .)

Coming to terms with money, getting to the point where I could handle money with only a moderate amount of trepidation and anxiety, has been an important part of my adult life. But I’ve had to, because if you want to be a writer, and at the same time you want to eat and have a roof over your head, you have to address the money issue. Hopefully this post will help, a little . . .

Writer Dora

This was me recently, in my novel-writing uniform. Sweat pants and fuzzy slippers. The fuzzy slippers are particularly important . . .

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6 Responses to Writers and Money

  1. Phyllis Holliday says:

    Thank you for sharing this common sense about making writing a career. We all have different resources from family, jobs and aspirations. I was married for fifteen years and could have built a house out of rejection slips. Toward becoming a single mother, I tried to get as much money from
    art, ie Poets in the Schools, readings (at that time they were great!) and other odd things. Finally I knew what you know; day job. Or for me, night jobs. I chose something that I wouldn’t need to worry about when I went home. Offices and then, a boutique hotel where half the staff were artists, writers and theater folk. Retired, now I am a fully dedicated writer, without any expectations, but luck with time and synchronicity.

    • Yes, I think it’s always like that: we do what we can, when we can do it. And it doesn’t usually look like a straight or easy path. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your story, Phyllis!

      • Phyllis Holliday says:

        Thank you. Though not a straight or easy path, it is worth it. Some good things come out of the blue!

  2. Ula says:

    This post could not be more timely. I was just having a discussion about this with my husband. Your advice and questions point me in the right direction of finding my solutions. Thank you.

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