In addition to queries about agents, editors, and publishers, Writer Beware often receives questions about publishing in general. I got an email the other day from an aspiring novelist who wanted to know how to achieve literary success--specifically, how to make money:
My problem is that I need to survive off my writing. I've mutilated my brain too much already. I couldn't function in any other capacity without severe withdrawal symptoms. Quality is the most important thing, but I still need to make a living. I'm not worried about publishing odds as much as----I hate this word----money.
I told this writer the truth: writing is not a big-money business. Sure, there are the Stephen Kings and the Charles Fraziers; there are the Nora Robertses who are so prolific that they'd make excellent money even if they didn't command huge advances; there are the brand-new writers whose books have been targeted for blockbuster-dom and who get half a million bucks right off the bat. But these folks are in the minority. For most of us, it's not like that, or even close.
A survey of American authors undertaken in 1979 found that the median annual income for writers was less than $5,000, with only 10% earning more than $45,000 (The Wages of Writing by Paul William Kingston and Jonathan R. Cole, Columbia University Press, 1986). In 1995, things hadn't improved much--the median income for respondents in a survey of freelance writers conducted by the National Writers' Union was $4,000 per year, with only 16% earning more than $30,000 per year. In 2004-2005, the UK-based Authors Licensing & Collecting Society funded a survey of 25,000 British and German writers, which revealed that professional UK authors had a median yearly wage of just over £12,000. The US-based Authors Guild estimates that its average member earns an annual writing income of less than $25,000.
The advance for my first novel, in 1982, was $2,500. Numbers have come up since then--today, the average first novel advance is somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 (there aren't many hard statistics on this, but see Tobias Buckell's interesting survey of first-novel advances in the science fiction/fantasy field; Brenda Hiatt's Show Me the Money, which lists the average advances paid by major US romance publishers for first novels and others; Justine Larbalestier's essay on first novel advances; and this interesting article from the Guardian on first novel advances in the UK, which also discusses how huge advances can damage writers' careers if their books fail to perform). But there are still sizeable commercial publishers that pay what I was paid twenty-five years ago, or even less. How many careers can you think of where companies have not increased their starting salaries since 1982?
(Of course, after advances come royalty payments and subsidiary rights sales--maybe. Today more than ever, large numbers of novels don't earn out their advances, and many never sell subrights. For many writers, the advance is the only money they'll receive.)
Most of the professional novelists I know have a day job or a supportive spouse to fill the income gap, or have simply chosen to live a marginal lifestyle. Those who do make a decent living from their writing work like dogs to do it--either they're extremely prolific (I'm talking two, three, or even four books a year), or they do other kinds of writing or writing-related work to make ends meet: journalism, freelancing, work-for-hire, teaching.
Here's my opinion, for what it's worth. Obviously, we all want to be paid for our writing. Obviously, we'd all like to make a living, or at least come close. But money is one of the least predictable aspects of a writing career. It may come or it may not--and whether it does or doesn't won't necessarily have anything to do with how talented you are or how hard you work. If you take money off the ambition table right from the start, you'll be freer to concentrate on the things you can control: choosing the right agents and publishers to approach, polishing your query letter, networking--and of course, the constant, arduous, ongoing effort to master your craft.
Unfortunately, like many new writers who've read too many stories about giant first novel advances (like this one) and have unrealistic ideas about what writers can earn, this wasn't what my correspondent wanted to hear. Here's his response to my advice (which, by the way, he got for free):
You're not holding the gate closed, so I'm 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 [sic] cannot altogether be respected.
And just to make sure I didn't miss the point:
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.
Uh...you might want to check my last post about blacklisting, buddy.