Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What Every Writer Wants

Lately, I’ve had a lot of conversations with authors who want one thing in life: to quit their day jobs so they can write full-time. Let’s look at the odds of that happening.

I don’t want to discourage anyone, but the truth is that there are at least 75,000 to 80,000 books published every year in America . . . maybe more. And this week I read that only about 200 or so writers make enough money to stay home and write full-time. I’d give you the source, but I can’t remember where I read that stat; I only remember that it slapped me upside the head with reality.

So should you stop writing? Of course not. But you do need to establish the reason why you write. Is it to get rich? To live comfortably and pay your bills? To serve God? Because you can’t NOT write? All or none of the above?

I started this blog to inspire authors to write the truth. Before you can do that, you need to wipe the scales from your eyes and look at publishing, especially CBA publishing, in the bright light of day. Take off your sunglasses and follow me.

You struggle for years to write your first novel, or your first seven, before you make a sale. Now you’re a debut author. If you’re fortunate, you may have a series planned that a publisher loves. But since you’re a new author they may not want to take a chance on whether you can deliver a manuscript every six months for at least three books (anything less is not a series). The editor acquires your first book.

Depending on the publisher, that first book may net you an advance of anywhere from $3,500 to $10,000. But remember, that money is called an advance because you have to earn it back for the publisher, and they want you to earn it back within the first year.

How do you do that? Your agent will negotiate a royalty rate, and most publishers will give you an escalating advance as an incentive to sell enough copies to pay back your advance. For instance, you may be offered 12% for the first 10,000 copies you sell; 14% for the next 10,000 copies, and 16% for every copy you sell after 20,000. That’s just an estimate. Some publishers set the escalating percentages much higher. The average CBA title sells about 4,500 to 5,000 copies. Publishers who pay you a $10,000 advance want you to sell twice the average or more.

Let’s say your book sells for $12.99, and you make 12% of the net amount (about half of the retail price) or about 78 cents per copy. Actually, it may be less depending on what your percentages are for selling into markets that demand a higher discount from the publisher. That’s why an agent is worth the 15% you pay her or him. After paying your agent you may make about 65 cents per copy . . . or less.

But you don’t get the entire amount of your advance up front. Normally, it’s paid out in thirds, although some are now dividing the advance into fourths. Abingdon still pays the advance in two checks.

Let’s say you are paid 1/3 of a $9,000 advance at contract signing: that’s $3,000. The next third will not be paid until the editor accepts your manuscript. You’ll be living on about $1,000 a month until you finish your second book. The last $3,000 will be paid on publication, which may be 9 to 12 months down the road.

You won’t see a royalty check for about 18 months—that is if you see one at all. Remember, you need to sell enough copies to earn out your advance before you are paid any royalties. You also may have high returns, and those will be subtracted from your total sales.

Can you quit your day job and live on $1,000 a month? Add it up. It takes most writers at least 6 to 8 months to write a book. Unless you want to live in a tent in the woods and eat off the fat of the land, you better keep working.

Of course, if you have several successful books that pay you regular royalties, you might consider a full-time occupation as a writer, but be prepared to supplement your income by teaching workshops, selling books at conferences, and helping other writers for a fee.

I can hear your wheels turning. “But you quit!” Yes, I did, but I jumped off a 1,000-foot cliff without a parachute. If it weren’t for the Lord’s peace that passes all understanding, I’d crawl under my desk, suck my thumb, and sob while I rocked to and fro.

For the moment, I’m still receiving a small stipend from Abingdon until I wind up the contract stage of the 2013 acquisitions. At the beginning of October, I made a $1,000 for editing a manuscript. Yesterday, I took on a work-for-hire assignment to write a children’s story for $500, and an author called me today to read her initial chapters for my opinion. That will pay me another $100 for four hours of work.

My husband’s Social Security pays our house payment, and I’m responsible for paying the rest of the bills: utilities, credit cards, medical, taxes. In January, I’ll collect my Social Security, which is $500 less than what I would have made if I had waited until I was 65 to draw it out. That’s slightly more than $1,000. But the government will deduct $1 for every $2 I earn. By then my work at Abingdon will have expired.

If you see Mike and I living in a tent on a beach in Florida, drop by and say hello. But I trust the Lord has a plan. I have contacts, and those contacts know the quality of my work. God has plenty for me to do. And that’s the truth.

* * *

This is day #10 in the 30-day prayer challenge for the Christian book industry. Please share your prayers and thoughts with us in the comment section below.


  1. I was always counting on having a husband to support me while I wrote. That hasn't happened yet! In the meantime, yes, it looks like I will continue my 40 hour work week, along with writing every spare minute, until I can collect a pension. That is the way of the world. But, as they say, I can't NOT write.

  2. Your figures are only a little off. There are approximately 500,000 books published is year in America with a little under half of those being traditionally published.

  3. "If it weren’t for the Lord’s peace that passes all understanding, I’d crawl under my desk, suck my thumb, and sob while I rocked to and fro."

    What a jewel! This truth applies to so many situations. I'm sure to repeat it often. :)

    The longer I live the more convinced I am of the delusion of independence. We all throw ourselves off a 1000-foot cliff into the Everlasting Arms daily. Some of us do it with our eyes open.

  4. Am I understanding correctly that you may still do freelance editing?

  5. Barbara, Thanks for sharing so openly, not only the figures for average advances but about your own personal situation. Be blessed, friend. God is sovereign. He knows, even when we don't.

  6. Appreciate your dose-of-reality check, Barbara!

    Right after my first book was published, I was having lunch with two dear friends. They innocently asked me whether I was collecting checks from my publisher every month. I laughed so hard I practically fell off my chair.

  7. Thank you for your blog, and thank you for your tender heart for writers.

    I'm praying for blessings and provisions as you step into this new role.

  8. I have been writing full time for a few years now. It has it's drawbacks - too much time on the computer, dirty dishes stay in the sink, less tendency to exercise, too much tweeting and blogging, starting too many writing projects and then there is the change in the shape of my backside. :) But really, I am blessed to be able to do it. I do not know how people write novels and work full time. It's by God's grace on both sides of the coin. When He makes room for our gift, we rejoice and take advantage of it. I appreciate your blog and will be watching to see where He takes you.

  9. I saw a lot of numbers in this post and though that scared me, I powered through. ;)

    We've found God to provide in ways we've least expected. He often keeps us barely comfortable or just making it, but my husband and I have found we lean on Him more then.

    Can't wait to see what happens with you. I know while I keep writing I'll be job hunting here soon. Already got tapped for a contract marketing role. In prayer.
    ~ Wendy

  10. Oh wow, so you're really done?
    Well, it sounds like you've worked things out. You have a wonderful reputation and I think you'll be getting a ton of freelance/critique projects. ;-) Congrats on your new adventure! Oh, and I'm in Florida, so if you pop up a tent I'll come and visit. ;-)

  11. I appreciate this post. My partner & I had a long talk on this topic. Together we decided
    1. I needed to focus on the craft of writing.
    2. I would always keep my day job because the stress of of worrying about bills would ruin the creative energy.
    3. Publishing is a business that requires time and patience.
    4. Whatever money I made in publishing would not be expected to pay the mortgage.
    I was grateful that he committed to helping me make time to write. He was happy that I took earning my income seriously, too.

    Thank you for your blog. I'm happy to include you in my prayers.

  12. It is a great reality check to see the numbers:) I truly believe that saying, "If God leads you to it, He'll lead you through it". Sounds like God led you to where you are and there is great comfort in that!

  13. Thanks for this perspective. Although we have no control of some things in the world of publishing, we can take charge of how we redeem our time.

  14. I know several people who make a living with writing as their day jobs, but it's not the creative kind. They're tech writers, ad writers, or newspaper reporters. None of them get rich and most of them don't do any creative writing in their free time because they're burned out.

  15. At a particularly low time in my life, after my house burned and my husband was diagnosed with an illness that robbed him both mentally and physically (and after eight years took his life) I was faced with a quandry: I had to rebuild the house, rewrite contracted projects lost in the fire, and support my family, including my two children bound for college. Yet my husband could not be left alone. I already had a number of published books, so I moved into the life of a full-time freelance writer. I ghosted books on a work-for-hire basis for a major publisher. I taught writing classes through the local extended ed and through Cal State University. And I opened an editing service. When anyone said, "Could you...?" I said, "Yes!!! How much does it pay?" It was so, so hard.

    I have been a full-time writer ever since, and now that the smoke has cleared, I love it. But I sure didn't back then.

    Barbara, your editing is worth much more than $25 and hour! You are a goldmine of wisdom and experience. Please, don't under price yourself.

    ~Kay Strom

  16. Barbara, I LOVE this blog! Your focus on aspiring authors to write the truth is so spot on! And you are so transparent and authentic. I admire you so much! Thanks for continuing to teach us about the writing/publishing industry. I have a feeling you won't even need a tent for Riley!


  17. See that. That's us with our fingers in our ears saying, "nanny, nanny, nanny, I can't hear you."

    If we weren't in such a dreamworld, then we wouldn't be any good at fiction.

    Barbara. When you share the truth, it's never with a clanging symbol. We really appreciate your Blog.

    And I'm with Kay...raise your rates!

  18. I dreamt of working instead of staying home and got to work again- for a while. It was a blessing because I learned enough to help others. I am thankful for God's purposes, CBA, and you.

  19. I post on this blog to encourage you, and yet every time I do you give back to me a hundredfold. I learn so much from you. I can't tell you how much your comments mean to me.

    I hesitated to write this particular posting because reality can be a downer (plus I'm not great at math LOL), but knowledge is power. If we know what we're facing, then we know how to seek God's help.

    Isn't it interesting the way the Lord works differently in each of our lives? I've always said that He is more interested in building our characters than filling our bank accounts. Even when the journey is filled with potholes and speedbumps, I'd rather be on this road with Him than walking through life alone.

    Thanks again for taking this journey with me.

    And yes, Sharon, I'll do freelance editing. But I may have to raise my rates! :)

  20. Thanks, Barbara, for sharing so openly. Words so many aspiring full-timers need to hear.

    I used to think I wanted to write full-time, that I'd work hard but in a more leisurely way than I do now. I've grown up. What I still wish for, though, is more of a balance between my work life and my writing life. Seems sad that we often spend such a great portion of our lives doing jobs to pay the bills and so little of our time in things about which we are passionate and in which we find fulfillment. How cool would the world be if we all worked 4 days a week, then 1 day for worship, 1 day for recreation/obligations and 1 day for pursuit of our passions?

  21. Patricia, I think your plan is the best I've heard yet! :)

  22. Thank you for your honesty, Barbara. Most people who don't understand this business assume that once we sell our first book, we're set for life. Ha ha. Even with multiple books most years, I still have to find other writing related income streams to make ends meet. But I love my life as a writer/editor/teacher.

  23. I think another hardship of writing for a living is that things can go bad, and you're on your own. If a publishing agreement doesn't work out, and plenty of folk have had contracts terminated, you're responsible to pay that money back. Which not only cuts into your income, but it puts you on a negative track because you've lost royalty stream and time.

    I think the hardest thing about this business for writers is that you can't just be creative. You HAVE to be analytical. You have to plan your next move, you have to have backup if something doesn't work out. And that's hard. I keep saying I'm going to get a real job, but so far, God has worked it out. But I'm ready if He says, okay, that's enough.

  24. Barbara, Thank you for the in-depth look at the publishing industry and for this reality check. Until now I was completely ignorant of some things you've shared. I need to know the facts. Only then can I make the right choices. I'll still seek the Lord for His leadings. Praying for you and the Christian book industry. I realize that many community Christian bookstores are struggling,too. Many retailers see this as their ministry and work hard to remain open.

  25. Barbara, are you a member of The Christian PEN?

    If you're a freelance editor, it will help you network.

  26. Oh dear! Barbara, I'm a beginning author with two books under my belt. Since I need income, I took on edits. I did in-depth edits (suggestions, revisions, etc.) on a 60,000-word ms for the fee of $300.

    It took 6 weeks from start to finish. I figured the hours and my earnings came to $4 per DAY.

    Maybe I should charge more? I could have worked a minimum wage job and cleared that in a little over a week.