How To Be A Professional Author And Not Die Screaming And Starving In A Lightless Abyss

Your reading today comes in the form of this Medium article by Heather Demetrios: “How To Lose A Third Of A Million Dollars Without Even Trying.” It’s a good article. I feel deeply for the writer, because this shit we do comes with no real map. No creative map, no story map, no industry map, no money map. “HERE IS A BUNCH OF MONEY,” a sinister shadowy figure says in an alley. “IN SIX MONTHS, WE WILL EXTRACT FROM YOU A BOOK, AND THEN THE DEAL IS COMPLETE.” And then the shadowy figure is gone, and all you’re left with is the crisp smell of burning paper and a mysterious whisper in the well of your ear that says, “deckle edge.”

But, the good news is, there exist answers to a lot of these conundrums, and so I’m going to do some painting-with-shotguns here and try to broad-stroke some thoughts and answers about the challenges this writer faced in her Authorial Journey.

Your Agent Is There To Help You

You need an agent, and a good agent who will explain to you this stuff — an agent who answers questions you don’t know to ask and who also (obviously) answers the questions you do ask. Now, an agent isn’t psychic, and I’m gonna guess a lot of them default to expecting you know some of this stuff, or they’re so brined and pickled in the industry they’re like fish swimming in water who don’t know what “water” even is anymore. Which leads me to highlight the next point:

Definitely Ask Questions

Deeeefiniiiiitely totally utterly absoflogginlutely ask questions. All kinds of questions. No questions are foolish, especially when it regards your career, your finances, your future. Ask your agent. Ask your editor. Ask anybody you know in the industry. Ask other writers! I have found other writers to be a wonderful well of fresh, clean water when it comes to that sort of thing. Certainly I must acknowledge that I feel the SFF genre is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to industry folks willing to share their experiences and offer answers. Oh! Speakawhich, may I recommend Dongwon Song’s PUBLISHING IS HARD newsletter?

Definitely Ask Questions From Multiple Sources

Crowdsource better answers by getting multiple answers. That’s it, that’s the deal. One answer may not be comprehensive. Also, authors are not always right about how things work. Hell, I’m probably wrong about stuff in this very post. Also, if your agent isn’t clear on this stuff, or won’t answer questions, fire that agent out of a cannon, and into the mouth of a great white shark.

Publishing Money Is Fucking Weird

Publishing, particularly big publishing (sorry, Big Publishing, aka Big Book, or The Bibliodeities of Mannahattan) pays advances ahead of your royalties. Smaller advances mean you’re likelier to earn out, but a small advance also does little for you up front. Larger advances mean you’ve got a considerably larger “cost of life” cushion, but are less likely to earn out.

Your contract likely stipulates you get paid a certain amount up front — a third of the contract, let’s say — upon signing, and then you get paid the rest of your advance usually in chunks when you meet certain milestones. Turned in first draft, or final draft, or upon publication. I have found these milestones to be different at different publishers (and I’ve worked with a lotta publishers).

You owe 15% of that to your agent/agency.

Earning out is a theoretically straightforward affair — calculate how much you make per book based on the percentage royalty driven by format. Let’s say 10% per hardcover sale, or 25% of an e-book. But there, we enter into squirmy, less certain territory already. If Amazon discounts your book, do you make the 10% on the cover price, or the sale price? (My understanding here is, it depends on who initiates that sale. Amazon initiates, you get it on full. Publisher initiates, you get on the publisher’s choice of price.) So, every sale of a book is earning you a specific amount of money —

So, if my book Wanderers is a hardcover at $28.99, I theoretically make ~$2.90 per sale of that. And an e-book at $13.99 earns me ~$3.50, so from there I should easily be able to calculate what it would take in this round to “earn out,” but I’ve done that math on other books, and I’ve never found it particularly accurate. Why? Because it actually isn’t that simple. Between audio sales and library sales and less traditional sales channels and then book returns (yes, bookstores return unsold stock sometimes and that can ding you), it starts to become a bit of occult calculus that only sorcerers can understand. You can kinda eyeball it? You can make some educated guesses as to how many books you’ll have to sell to earn out, but even then, how many in what format? Some books sell 75% in e-book. Some sell only 25% in e-book. Wanderers, to my shock, has had a rough split of 33/33/33% across print, e-book, audio. Could I have foretold that? Nope.

If you know how many books you sold, that would help, but —

It’s Hard To Know How Many Books You’ve Sold

Publishers are starting to catch up to the fact that authors want to know how well they’re selling (weird, who knew?) — Penguin Random House has a pretty robust, snap-to-it site that has daily updates to your book’s sales. It’s nice to have, if not necessarily useful at every step. And it’s not always wholly accurate, either, which honestly isn’t their fault — we imagine an age where every strand of every industry is plucked with every sale, neatly and nicely updating the total, but as with every industry, it’s less an elegant web and more a clumsy knot. Retailers are independent and not plugged into one another. Each store is not lightning fast in how they respond to things. Even Amazon on the back-end is, from my understanding, kind of a hot mess.

(It’s funny, I’ve met with Amazon multiple times under the auspices of, “Tell us how to help authors more.” Arguably because they want to help more than publishers do, making friends of authors directly, beyond publisher relationships — which, ennnh, okay. Still, I always tell them one thing: GIVE AUTHORS MORE DATA. Tell us our sales! Tell us our Kindle sales in particular! Tell us when people quit reading our books! And they say OOH YES GOOD POINT and then it never happens and hahaha good times.)

Treat Your Publishing Money Like A Demonic Bargain

You should always be fairly dubious of that money. Not that it’ll disappear — it’s just, it’s wildly inconsistent, as I hope I’ve made clear. It’s inconsistent in its timing, in its amount, in everything. It’s constantly shifting ground, and that unsteadiness of the financial earth should leave you particularly touchy. The ground can crack and fall out at any point, which is why you need to budget. Planning is key for a writer’s life, and that’s hard, because we’re a sack of cats, mentally. But you gotta know how to portion it out, and you have to see down the road to where the money is coming from. (As a sidenote, it’s why it’s vital not to give up too many rights — foreign, film/TV, other licensing opportunities — to the publisher. Those random drops of money, while totally not-count-on-able, can be helpful just the same.)

Oh also ha ha ha the taxes are killer.

You’re gonna pay taxes on that.

And they’re not fun.

Budget, budget, budget. At any meaningful levels of money coming in, GET THEE AN ACCOUNTANT, and possibly even hie thee hence to forming an LLC, which can, at high enough income levels, drop your tax burden a little bit. Others will sell LLCs as also being able to defer liability but most lawyers and accountants I’ve asked about this suggest it’s a bit of a myth.

It’s hard to get a mortgage as a writer, if you’re the only income.

Trust me when I tell you that. Doesn’t matter what you earn, you don’t fit into a box that they can neatly check on the application, so you’re a strange animal to the mortgage broker, like a Zebra who fucked a Dolphin and who is also from the future? We’ll talk more about DAY JORBS in a minute.

Cost Of Living Is A Real Thing

The cost of living is tied to where you live. And so, your Publishing Dollar goes a lot farther in places where the cost of living is lower. In other words, if you’re going to choose to live in The City (that city being NYC, SF, whatever), you are almost certainly fucking yourself in every uncomfortable position.

Now, the opposite of that is, sometimes you get advice that amounts to demanding you live in some unpleasant nowheresville — and that’s fine, if you’re fine with it. I’m not. My publishing money could go much farther if I lived, say, 100 miles to the west, but instead, I live where I live. It’s not a profoundly expensive place, especially compared to, say, NYC, but it’s also not as cheap as, say, Ohio. But (nothing personal) I do not want to live in Ohio, I want to live where I live, because of culture, because of education, because of access to places like NYC or Philly or the Lehigh Valley, and so here I dwell, even if my Publishing Dollar would go farther in Nebraska or even in the middle of my own state. As writers, I find we do thrive a little bit based a little on the place we live — and so, live where you want to live, just be aware that there are concessions to be made if you do, and costs for that choice. But also, probably don’t live in NYC or SF. Live near them, ok. In them, not so much.

Back To Those Pesky Advances

I have been fortunate enough to have a somewhat gentle arc to my career — a nice hill of slowly advancing advances. I started small, with four figures, and have added zeroes as time went on. It’s been a slow boil but I prefer that, because it demonstrates what I hope is an increasing audience and quality of books. The worry is when you jump through the gate and someone hands you a fat sack of six figures and it’s like — boy howdy, you’ve probably got nowhere to go but down. Debuts tend to get an almost weird amount of attention (same as how the first book in a series nearly always gets 1000% more publishing attention than the second or third), but even with that, it’s hard to see how a New Author is going to just Rocket to the Moon on a first, big book. It can happen! It has and will again. But just know that opening big is a trickier gambit. It’s like, you wrote some songs and have a guitar and OOPS now you’re headlining Coachella ha ha good luck I’m sure you’ll be fine.

Wait I Didn’t Even Talk About Bucket, Or Joint, Accounting

Back to the tricky calculus of “earning out” — it gets trickier when you realize that some deals don’t just demand you earn out one book, but rather, all the books in your contract. The advances-per-book are put in a bucket, and so you must out-earn the bucket amount, not the per-book amount, before you start seeing royalties beyond your advances. This can be tricky with a series, let’s say, where the first book does well, and where no subsequent book is likely to do better than that first book — it robs you a chance of earning out with one book even if you don’t on the next two, let’s say.

How Marketing Is Tied To Advance

In general (and nothing is ever universal in this industry), the higher the advance, the more money the publisher has in their budget to support the book, particularly in terms of marketing, advertising, and publicity. On the one hand, this makes sense, right? Your book is an investment, and so they don’t wanna invest a bunch of money and then just have it fail — so they contribute more money and infrastructure toward paying off that investment. But it also means that lower advances can mark you in the “uhhh let’s throw it at the wall and see what sticks!” category, which is tough. It puts a lot of burden on you. And that burden is often unfairly thought of as being high effective buuuuut

You Are Never As Effective As A Publishing Budget

Trust me when I say, you can do a lot as an author to encourage people to read your books. But also trust me when I say, a publisher’s efforts in this realm is multiplicative compared to what you can achieve. Stay in this industry long enough — and so much of this industry is exactly that, just staying in the goddamn game — and you will reliably detect when a publisher is spending money on a book. You can tell because it’ll have buzz, it’ll get media placement, you’ll have appearances, and so on. You can also tell when they haven’t done shit for your book. Even if you yourself have done a lot!

Do you need a website? Probably. Doesn’t need to be fancy, but shouldn’t look like a half-ass botch-job, either. Should work on mobile and all that.

Do you need swag? I’m of a mind that it moves zero needles, and I’ve never seen data that it moves needles, and it just seems to be a thing authors have internalized that they need?

Do you need a tour? I mean, I dunno. At a debut level, I’d say no. As with crowdfunding anything, you need an audience already in place to make that make sense. Better to do cons and conferences, I think, at earlier levels, though other authors may disagree.

This is part of the trick, by the way: advice for a debut author, and for a mid-list author, and for a mid-career author, and for a hugely successful author, are very, very different. It can in fact be as individual as writing process. It’s all broad strokes, so take everything even here with many many grains of salt.

A whole salt lick, even.

Your Day Job? Don’t Quit It

This will be the 1000th time I’ve said this and I’ll say it a million more: don’t quit your day job. When do you quit your day job? When the work is at such a level that you either have to quit writing, or quit the day job. That’s it. When you’re up against the wall and you see, “I can’t write these books and also still go to work every day,” that’s a signal. (And ideally it’s a decision made easily because you’re making enough money at writing that it makes both financial sense and is a financial necessity.)

But otherwise? Hang tight. You’ll have no health care. As I said, mortgages will be harder to get. Everything is a little harder when you’re a ROGUE AUTHOR FREELANCE MERC out there in the PUBLISHING WASTELAND. Bonus: have a spouse who has health care and a steady job.

Note, again, I’m fortunate enough to be the sole income for our household as a writer. And I’m doing okay, and am comfortable. But I also still have these difficulties, and the erratic payment schedules can be brutal. All of it adds up to:

Have Plans On Top Of Plans

It’s like, if you live in the PNW, you probably have an Earthquake Preparedness Kit? You need that as an author. (Er, metaphorically speaking. Authors are not subject to actual earthquakes in particular.) Squirrel away money. Have plans on top of plans. What if your genre collapses? What if your agent quits? What if your next advance is way too low to survive upon? What if the economy shits the bed? Have a plan for next year, for five years, for ten. Envision how you remain in this game. A writing career is, as I’ve noted before, a CLIFF MITIGATION EXERCISE. You are eternally speeding toward the cliff’s edge. You might careen off that edge and into a ravine and crash in a spectacular fashion at the end of every contract. And so you need to imagine how — before it happens! — you’re gonna build a ramp or a bridge or some rocket boosters or shit. You gotta Evel Knievel that cliff somehow — but how? New genre? New age range? Break into comics? Some self-publishing on the side? Have plans inside plans inside plans. Especially if shit goes sideways. My day to day is spent thinking 50% about what stories I want to write and 50% what I’m going to do to keep my career going. Which leaves me little time for like, BASIC LIFE-BRAIN FUNCTIONS, so uhhh oops?

To Add In, And To Sum Up

– Publishing is fucking nuts, and trying to understand it is like trying to win a staring contest with the Eye of Sauron, but you gotta try, or you’ll die

– JESUS CHRIST ask some questions, seriously

– Publishing is not a lottery, and you need to treat it like a serious business venture where you’re given the squalling baby of a writing career and your job is to keep that thing alive and somehow get it to college, and if someone wants to put that writing career baby in college before it’s learned to walk, you should be very very wary of that

– Drink the fancy cocktails when you visit NYC, but don’t live there, for Christ’s sake

– Not every publisher is the same, some are fucking amateur hour karaoke, and some are well-trained machine assassins who never miss their shot

– You don’t control what a publisher does; get me drunk and I’ll tell you STORIES

– You should definitely know when your book is coming out and not via Google Alert, like, just ask, just ask your editor or ask your agent to ask your editor (your agent can be a very good “bad cop” if you need them to be, and they should be eager to fill that position, because a good agent is working for YOU, not for their relationship with the publisher), AHHH ASK QUESTIONS

– Art and Commerce are fiddly, uncomfortable fuck-buddies, they’re always fucking, but they’re always fighting too — but that doesn’t absolve you from cleaving only to the art and failing to learn about the commerce side of things

– You’re never dead in this industry until you stay dead, otherwise, get up, claw your way out of the grave, write the next book, change your name if you have to, change an agent, change genre, whatever; you do it because you love this thing and being undead is cooler than being regular dead


There is probably shit I’m missing.

Feel free to ask questions — I may not get to them quickly, as I am dealing with lots of LIFE STUFF right now. (I wrote this post in a bit of much-needed down-time.)

If you like this post, and find it helpful, don’t buy me a cup of coffee.

Buy WANDERERS. Or tell your friends. Or leave a review.

Lest I die starving and screaming in a lightless abyss.

44 responses to “How To Be A Professional Author And Not Die Screaming And Starving In A Lightless Abyss”

  1. Just one thought to share. Having worked in the video-game industry in the 1980s and 1990s, having worked as a freelance writer on and off since the 1970s, and having survived a number of bankruptcies, mergers, layoffs, and personnel shakeups, it’s been my observation that excessive loyalty to a corporation rarely ends well for the human on the other side.

  2. I truly just discovered you through Wanderers and honestly Lin Manuel Miranda. I love Wanderers and am now going back to read your earlier books. How does that play out on your end when someone like me starts buying your whole collection? Do your earnings decrease percentage wise as years go by? How has social media networking helped you? Thanks. Tammie

  3. I just scrolled through that article and yawned. I get it. I went through all of it. Wrote a book about it because to my surprise agents and editors don’t have times to shepherd authors through all this; of course, I have a chicken and egg theory about that. I once challenged agents to produce their “SOP” for new authors and none replied. A debut author gets thrown in the deep end. It would be smart to learn a little about swimming. Almost half of an author’s job is the business end.
    But there’s a thing called the internet now that wasn’t popular in 1991 when my first book came out. But on this thing called the internet there are tons of blogs (like this one), articles, posts etc. explaining all this. It does not seem that the author sought any of this out. It’s nice she’s “mentoring” writers now but her experience is her experience. What does she know of indie publishing? Amazon Publishing? Every author’s situation is unique and thus our choices must be unique and based on the best information we can gather. At conferences I advise people to go to workshops not based on the title but on the presenter. Do they have something you want?
    Here is one harsh lesson I have learned making a living writing for three decades: the minute an author thinks they have it made, their career is over.
    Here is one great lesson I have learned making a living writing for three decades: it’s a great job.

  4. Ya know, Chuck, I gotta say, you always make me smile. Not in a haha smirky kinda way, but in an OMG this guy GETS IT kinda way. We have never met. Yet you are my tribe.
    While I’m not entirely sure why, as a species, we succumb to such a torturous industry, I know we do. We are storytellers. It’s a gene buried deep in our core, and we can’t tear it out, no matter how hard we try. “You won’t get paid. You won’t eat. Your children will go shoeless. Your spirits will tank.” I KNOW, we scream, but I gotta tell you happens to this girl or I’m gonna die NOT KNOWING.
    I am heading to Amazon to buy Wanderers. The way I see it, at least one of us should eat.

    Award-winning author of A Keeper’s Truth

  5. I’m extra impressed with the detail in the wood grain of your pencil ends shot. Also, my family finished Wanderers (at various times, in various formats), and we loved it! Wrote reviews all over the place. Thanks for writing such a great book!

  6. As someone who worked in publishing in Canada and for a big box Canadian bookstore Chuck you are so very right. It gets even trickier in Canada we’re such a big country with a much smaller market then the US.

  7. “– Drink the fancy cocktails when you visit NYC, but don’t live there, for Christ’s sake”

    Well, I’ve already screwed up this one…might as well screw up a few more while I’m at it…

  8. This is all incredible advice, but it’s predicated on one thing…getting an agent. For those of us trying to make it to the Kung-Fu Panda Level Zero slush pile, let alone the treasured “Send me more” email, this invokes as many tears of frustration as it does sober avarice. You are a gem, Chuck. Thank you for all you do for us once-and-future authors. Few blog about the straight-up realities of author life. Love your books, your blogs, and especially your onomatopoeia!

  9. 100% agree with everything else you said, Chuck, but minor quibble: I actually have gotten a lot of gigs, living in NYC, that I did not get elsewhere — even in Boston, where I was pretty embedded in the writing community. This is a writers’ city, and it’s just lousy with speaking engagements, panels, teaching opportunities, book festivals, and so on. And because everybody eventually comes here, I ended up meeting people who later referred me to gigs elsewhere. So yeah, it costs more to be here, but you also earn more and have more opportunities.

    But. Living in NYC requires some special city-jutsu. Like, I spent 2 years living in a gang building (they were very nice, tho) while trying to get into a rent stabilized place, and when I found it, I basically wasn’t planning to move unless I got married and had two or more children. Anything less could fit in a one-bedroom. Most of my writer-friends have roommates, partners, and/or dayjobs. I go out for expensive cocktails *occasionally,* but mostly I go down the street to the little Mexican place and get cheap, powerful margaritas that taste better anyway. Also, looks like she won the PEN award in 2012. My God, NYC was still borderline affordable in 2012. If she’d bought a condo then in even a halfass neighborhood and sold it, she’d have a whole entire million now, because that’s what condos are selling for these days.

    So it’s do-able. Just not the way she did it.

    • Definitely a good point — being in NYC also means being publishing-adjacent. But as you note, too, buying some dots in the NYC-JUTSU SKILL is probably good for your character sheet!

  10. Having been an illustrator for children’s books I find thatvso much over the years it seems like the pictures are secondary for the publisher especially when it comes to just doing the illustrations and not the writing. That’s what I have experienced which makes it a rather frustrating business. I have a very detailed style and get approached by writers that want to go directly to self publishing and don’t realise how long it takes to illustrate a book. Most of the books I’ve done have never gone beyond the advancement which wasn’t a whole lot to begin with. I’ve been pretty much out of the business for the past 10 years except for doing one book. It’s a hard profession to be in when your single.

    • My daughter graduated from CIA as an animator/illustrator. She’d been promised a plush entry-level job in a rising industry, but when she graduated, the Overlords have moved to cheaper labor market. Even the few kids who got industry jobs found those jobs were the “Wanna move to Turkey with your job? No? Then goodbye,” variety.
      It took a while to build up a portfolio, and it took some hustle to establish a business, but she’s not only illustrating her own SFF series, she is also doing book covers (including mine), logo design, game character design and animation for gaming app developers, and she teaches at a local art center PT (very PT.) UpWork turned out to be a really good resource for her. She’s lucky to have a powerful computer and all the software she needs, plus the skills, but it’s doable. Check it out. There are traditional media illustrators on UpWork as well. They usually end up working with someone like her, who will turn their images into vector art for gaming purposes.

  11. Ah. Regarding Wanderers. It was Wanderers that led me here. Fantastic, it left me hungering for more. It was recommended to me by a friend and I in turn have been recommending it to anyone who will listen.

  12. I’m working on my first manuscript. These words might not be what I need right now but they will be vitally precious should things “work out.” Also, Wanderers is wonderful. I’m halfway finished and I’m completely in thrall.

  13. Possibly useful info: Last I heard, the average income for a full-time writer (here in Australia) is $12,000. That’s about half minimum wage, for full time work. Three years ago I earned $20,000 and confidently (lol) predicted it would go up from there, as I’d just signed two $10,000 contracts. The next year I earned -$10,000 (that – is not a typo). This year I earned $5000. For a full year of working full-time. (I should also maybe mention I wrote a book a year for 15 years before the first time I was accepted for publication—and even then it was/is a small press who doesn’t pay an advance.) The only reason I write full-time now is that I’m literally disabled as of 5 years ago, and no longer able to work a normal job.

  14. It’s so refreshing to get real answers to real author questions. Nobody else seems to talk about this shit. This is clearly a guy who doesn’t just get wrapped up in the arty farty world of literature (even though he’s a very good writer), he genuinely understands that he’s in business – a business like any other. It seems he is desperate to dispel all the myths and complexities of the publishing world without pretending he knows everything. The publishing game is a mixed up, fuddled up, suck it and see type business that nobody can ever really dream of pinning a handle on. It’s so nice to read what it’s really like to be a part of that fucked-up world, especially from someone who appears to be smashing it right now, without taking it for granted. Chuck is a sensible and talented man, but even better than that – he’s prepared to share his rollercoaster ride. It’s great we can get a real bird’s eye view of the business. There’s so much shit advice out there that either forces us to believe we can be the next Dan Brown, or we wasting our time and we’ll be penniless and divorced within a year (not necessarily in that order). (And by the way – I will never write like Dan Brown). Thanks Chuck – you’re one in a million.

  15. I very much enjoy your writing. I have to say, though, that Wanderers is in a class by itself.
    As an avid reader, it’s rare that any novel stays with me beyond the day that I finish it. Yours has stayed with me most of a week, and I would love to discuss it with another human. Again: a rare occurrence.
    Kudos and a request for deep, layered, fascinating fiction again soon.

  16. Thank you for heaping our plates with good advice. It’s funny that you left the troll post up there, just trolling away, and nobody gives a damn. High fives, word-nerds. Meanwhile, I’ve been peddling Wanderers like a 70s drug dealer, and everyone I know is using. One librarian bought the audiobook for herself, the e-book for her son, and the hardback for her husband. For me, only book books hit my bloodstream just right.

  17. As a slinger of books (and hopefully future published author!) for a living I can tell you a lot of books get returned to the publisher. A lot. Every day. In bulk. Sometimes that’s due to too large print runs, more often it’s because the books aren’t selling.

    Don’t make swag for your books, it doesn’t help them sell.

    Don’t ignore online reviews from genre-specific blogs. Don’t depend on Amazon or Good Reads alone, either.

    Write to the best of your ability.

    Covers are important!!! I know there’s little control in covers but for real, if the cover is super off make sure your agent knows. Chances are it won’t make a damn bit of difference to your publisher, but it sure will when it comes to what books get displayed face out.

    Don’t be scared to drop into any bookstore you come across to see if your book is on the shelf! If it isn’t, and it seems like a good fit for what the store already carries, ask them to get it in. Bookstore employees will pimp your book to the buying public if they like it.

    Self-publishers, for the love of avocados, DO NOT send your book to stores – it’s a waste of your money. We get so many arcs, sooooooo many and they mostly go straight into a pile of arcs and in the case of where I work, straight into the $1 rack (proceeds go to charity).

  18. I do feel a bit sorry for Heather Demetrios, being chucked in the deep end of the pool and expected to start swimming… but on the other hand, one can only have so much sympathy for someone who has been paid more money than most writers will see in their lives, but wails about how fast it disappears when it isn’t handled prudently.

    Yes, someone should have told her that money now does not mean money forever, but then, aren’t writers supposed to be always learning more? After all, how many professions can one expect to thrive in without knowing how the business works? That the business is opaque is problematic, but heck, I’m a self-published writer who’s never even tried for a traditional publishing contract, and I apparently know more about how it works than she did.

    How do you get far enough into the writing world to have multi-book deals, agent, MFA etc etc without ever having discovered that a writing career isn’t like an escalator where once you’re on, you just keep going up?

  19. Thanks for sharing this. WOw, this is enlightening and perhaps a warning for people to not quit their day jobs. I’ve consider writing, but I also need to consider food on the table. I think we also never know or at least no reasonably know if it’s book that will sell either.

  20. A good post and particularly if you’ve read the post you reference. I did several days ago and had many of the same reactions to it that you have here—except less pithy (no lithp intended) and much shorter because, hey, been there, and, hey, in my head. I would also note that I have already lived what she did only without the large advances, which is something of a different-but-same perspective, and I freely use the phrase “3-book death spiral” which she doesn’t appear to have heard of.

  21. Great article, except for the dig at Ohio. I live in Columbus (the 14th largest city in the nation, btw) and it’s pretty great. I make an average salary but still have a beautiful house, a nice car, and quick and easy access to all the same amenities you’d get in a “big city,” just at reasonable prices. People who don’t live here (and, often, have never even visited) seem to think Ohio’s all just corn and rust, but that’s both incorrect and sadly shortsighted. I would highly recommend Columbus to any writer who wants to live comfortably.

    Okay, end of soapboxing.

    • It’s not really a dig, I just don’t wanna live there. In part, because of its politics, and I just prefer the state in which I live now. I once was actually going to move to the Dayton area, and there are some neat artist enclaves there. Just not my thing overall, though.

      • OK, but . . . Cleveland. We are super progressive in these parts. I live in the artsy, liberal, half-black, half-white, gay-friendly, immigrant-welcoming, fervently-anti-Trump, and AFFORDABLE city of Cleveland Heights. We’re worth a shot. Or at least a shout-out!

  22. Thanks for backing me up when my business-owner hubs asks, mystified, “But how on earth can you not know how many books you’re selling? Doesn’t your publisher include a detailed print out with every royalty check?” and I laugh and laugh.

  23. Having published technical books, if anyone says they plan to be a writer, I’ll tell them to stop thinking about it and do it. Don’t wait. Need to write a lot each day. Like slowly building a castle a grain of sand at a time. And unfortunately in the past I’ve been given some good opportunities to write some good technical books that I had to give up because my day job pays too well.

  24. A few minor clarification on royalties.

    Royalties on print books are based on LIST price so your 10% of $28.99 is correct (although you probably have an escalator that will take that to 12% after 5,000 copies and 15% after 10,000 copies).

    But for ebooks, it depends on if your book is sold through the agency model (most books) or wholesale model (few books). Your are agency — you can tell this because the amazon listing for your ebook is “price set by seller” That being the case, you are paid 25% of “net” — the problem is you don’t know what “net” is because it depends on the publisher’s contract with Amazon. But in the past it has been 35% (and likely still is) so your income per book is actually $13.99 x 65% x 25% = $2.27 not $3.50. And of course you have to pay your 15% to the agent so it’s actually $1.93.

    • $2.99 ebook= cost of goods sold $1.21 includes tax=net $1.78 cash money in my bank account every month regular as rain. (sorry for the cliche). I’m a world wide indie author. I know exactly how many ebooks I’ve sold, How many trade paperbacks, and how many large print because it’s my business. Trade paperback cost of goods sold $4.13 + 87 cents ship+tax=sale $9.99 = net $4.99 each cash. Large print cost of goods sold $7.40 (includes ship+tax) =sale $15.99= net $8.59 cash. Audio (work in progress) cost $2.78 includes tax=sale $5.99= net $3.21 each, plus net $1.78 cash if check out is thru Libby or Overdrive library.
      Am I a #1 best seller nope. I’m hanging in there. But I’m making a steady reasonable income. I’ve got a BSBA which has served me better than an MFA. It’s a business folks.
      You need to know this basic formula.: selling price – cost of goods sold less ship and tax=net profit. NOT ROYALTY!!! Royalty doesn’t tell you anything.

  25. A quick note from the trenches of small press (i.e. indie) publishing. If you have works that are unencumbered, even short stories, you can easily publish them. An account on Draft2Digital will format your files all pretty for free, whether you sell through them or not (Do… might as well.) More importantly… select your best story, make or buy a cover for it, and upload it into a email-address gathering service for free. This is your business card and your resume. You’ll enter it into genre-specific free give-aways and gain a few hundred subscribers per give-away. Then you’ll tell those subscribers, “I’m happy to have you, this is where the world can find my books. But you’re my special readers so you get a special deal,” and you link them to your PayHip store. Which is easy to set up. They collect your taxes and give you 95% of what’s left. Your readers win, you win.

    It takes a bit of learning, but the web is full or resources and how-to’s. FB has writer groups for every little sub-genre, dedicated to publishing and marketing news and tips. Every e-book platform now has free instruction on how to go about publish your book.
    Just trust yourself a little 🙂 Happy writing!

    • Gosh. Thank you for all that fabulous advice! I sit in writer’s group with two self-published authors and listen to how they had to put their book through KDP, page by laborious page, TWELVE TIMES because each time through, KDP left some stupid little error they couldn’t fix. Things like the font turning out inexplicably tiny, page numbers or margins in the wrong place, blahblahblah. Every time they fixed one error, another one popped up. Then their cover artists had to redo the covers three times because the page count kept changing.

      I have already watched the “professional” end of the business up close and personal for over ten years. My late husband was a hardboiled PI author whose first two books were finalists for national-level awards, but, sadly, didn’t sell anything. Read this article three times, everything in it is true, even if you get the coveted New York agent and New York publisher.

      You go through all this shit, and then, guess what? Your book doesn’t sell, and then agents and publishers avoid you like the plague.

      I started out a starry-eyed little kid, thinking Big Book Success happens the way it does in the movies, and my high school teachers thought I could write, so yey!

      Now I know all this, and I’m about to just throw it all in and go paint houses for Habitat for Humanity instead. I mean, nobody cares about your book. (There’s a successful author who’s made a whole YouTube video about “Nobody cares about your book!” And for good reason.)

      Seriously. Who wants to go through all this for absolutely nothing? You have to be CRAZY to want to write books. A couple of little people are both talented and blessed, but for the rest of us, this is how it is.

      Here’s my advice: If you absolutely CANNOT stop writing that manuscript, put it up on Wattpad first. If you can’t even give it away free, don’t bother to try selling it. Save yourself a lot of time and heartache.

      Oh, and one last thing: STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM AUTHORHOUSE. My friend went with them and got seriously, seriously BURNED.

  26. “You’ll have no health care.”

    Certainly true for me up until the advent of Obamacare. I quit the day job and did three years with no health insurance and then Obama saved my bacon.

    Now we can buy health insurance in most states, and some writers will qualify for Medicaid in some states. (Like the mortgage, our weird financial lives make the application complicated, and you’ll probably end up having to apply in person to someone who will sit still for your explanation of how authors get paid.)

    The dicey bit here is that a writer’s income never stays the same from year to year. I have qualified for Medicaid some years, but I don’t take it because I know I probably won’t qualify the following year and it makes more sense (for me anyway) to just keep the insurance I’ve got.

    (If you’re self-employed, your health insurance is tax deductible.)

    For some, it may be worth moving to a state with better health insurance programs.

    I have some books with Penguin Random House under another name, and their up-frontness about how many copies have sold is really useful for calculating future income, something I try to do as early as possible so that I can keep an eye on my taxes and health insurance. Using that feature, I’ll start calculating my 2020 income at the end of this month.

    TL;DR: Health insurance is entirely possible but it takes some planning and legwork.

  27. With limited savings, I quit my job almost 3 years ago and self-published my first book. It took me four more books and two years of unbelievably hard work to make a living wage. I still work around the clock and I never lose sight of the fact that I am running a business. It seems like a lot of authors don’t understand or embrace the business side of this industry to their own peril. Now I am consistently taking home 6 figures a month – but I don’t take anything for granted. Who knows how long this will last? I save every penny, prepare for the future and invest wisely back into my business. I know I’m probably the exception to the rule – but I am strategic as hell when it comes to my business and my books. When I read about people who traditionally publish – I kind of shake my head and wonder why….

    • This is very true. An honest realistic explanation of indie publishing. No I don’t get 6 figure advances. Some of my books sell for more some less. It averages out. My average book sale including ebook, trade paperback, and large print is $10.11. One sale at a time, one reader at a time, one library at a time. It all adds up in the long run. Plus I am not a faceless conglomerate.

  28. I would love to know if this author HAD an agent, and if not, why this agent wasn’t more involved in her career with at least offers of help and check-ins. The agent certainly pulled in some coin on these deals. So what the hell, agent just took the money and got indisposed or something? I also, do not feel so very sorry for this author. The story was like telling a naked man about all the beautiful clothes you bought but got tired of or gave away. I should be so lucky to get a 10,000 advance today for ANYTHING. jEEZE….LOUIEEEEES…..PALAEEEEEESE.

  29. Excellent ‘how-to’ guide about the publishing side of the writing business by the always straight-telling Chuck.
    Sometimes we need these reality checks.
    I do agree, there is no such thing as asking too many questions.
    And choosing the right agent is a must.

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