How to Make Money as a Writer: A Primer
Most people who get involved in writing have some level of hope that it will produce money. As an instructor with the Institute, I had many students who told me they hoped to reach a writing level where their work would bring in some money to help the family. So money is something we all tend to think about, at least a little. The honest truth is that writing is not the best occupational choice if you want to make a lot of money since very few writers do. It’s nearly impossible to predict which author’s book will burst into popular passion like the Twilight novels or the Harry Potter books. For every book that makes a lot of money, there are plenty of books that are just as clever and well written that make much more modest sales. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider money. It’s important to think about so we can make wise decisions.
Writing for Experience or Promotion
The first level of pay possible upon publication is nothing. Many small online markets don’t pay. Some anthologies don’t pay. And many of us have done small writing projects for one reason or another without any money changing hands. It’s important to think carefully before accepting a nonpaying publication opportunity. The important things to consider are (1) does this publication offer any positive benefits outside of money and (2) is there a good reason why I should consider giving them my work for free.
Positive benefits of publication include simple ego gratification. Sometimes after collecting a lot of rejections on a story you’re fond of, it becomes important simply to see it shared with readers. In fact, I have a file of stories for just that purpose. Over time, I usually see why a piece isn’t selling, and sometimes the piece isn’t “fixable” but I still like it. In that case, it might go into my file of things I like but can’t sell. This is the place I draw upon if I need something to cut quotes from as a sample for an essay (like this one) or if I’m asked to donate a story to a worthy cause (some anthologies, for instance, give part or all of their profits away.) Seeing a piece I like, but couldn’t sell, have a chance to reach an audience makes me feel good, and feeling good does have value. Also, having a piece accepted (even without pay) means someone liked your work enough to share it. And that has worth as well. Sometimes, we just need someone to tell us that something we’ve written is good. And the experience of going through the publication process has value as well. It can help us be ready to respond professionally when we take the next step and write for money.
Another positive benefit of publication can be promotion. I’ve written essays to promote workshops I give, for example. I might write a short mystery story to promote a mystery book (usually when this happens, the title of the novel will be named in the author bio.) If I were self-publishing a novel, I might publish a vignette from the novel on my website or offer it to an anthology to help promote the book. So promotion can be another good reason to write for free.
Another way we can be paid for our work is one sum. We write the piece. Someone agrees to publish it for x-amount, and we accept the offer. Then we get paid at some point. Payment may be directly after the offer is accepted. (This is called payment on acceptance. Highlights magazine pays this way, for example.) Payment may happen in installments (this is not unusual in work-for-hire book situations. Often a writer is paid half when the book is turned in and half when the book completes the editorial process, but other partial payment systems are possible). Payment may happen all at once after the editorial process. Or payment may not happen until some point after publication (Cricket magazine pays this way, for example). In all these cases, payment is not based on how many people buy or read your work, but upon some specific price agreed upon between publisher and writer.
Another way to be paid for our work is for payment to be based upon number of works sold. This is most common with books, but some subscription-based online story collections now also pay based on number of times the story is downloaded. Usually payment accrues for a number of months and then a check is generated quarterly or twice a year or even annually. Some publishers don’t pay at all until a pre-determined amount is reached (thus allowing the publisher to simply eat the author’s share if book sales are below a certain point).
In situations where an author is agreeing to a “royalty only” payment system, the author needs to consider a few things: how well known is this publisher? Have I ever seen any other their books? If you’ve never seen any of the publisher’s books, they may have limited distribution and thus limited sales. In a situation where you are signing with a publisher who expects the author to make the bulk of the sales, the “norm” is for the author to receive very little in royalties (and in a situation where royalties have to reach a certain amount to be paid out, you may receive nothing if the publisher has poor distribution and promotion).
Another thing to consider is how much the publisher promotes. Now, you may have heard that no publisher promotes anymore. This is not strictly true. The reality is that well-established publishers (whose books you may be personally familiar with) do promote. Many times the promotion is “hidden” from the author because it happens automatically with no input from the author. The publisher may have a sales team that contacts book sellers and libraries with information about the publisher’s whole line of books (including yours). The publisher may have a publicity department that simply sends review copies automatically to a long list of reviewers (especially reviewers considered influential in school and library sales). And they may have a special sales department for bulk sales to book clubs, like Scholastic and others. Often authors don’t see this “behind the scenes” promotion but it translates into a surprising number of sales.
Advances and Royalties
Well established publishers who expect to sell many copies of every book they publish will often pay both royalties and an advance. An advance is estimated royalty money sent directly to the author in advance of sales. The advance has value to the author as it puts money in the author’s hands right away. The author may choose to spend part of this money on author-side promotion or simply use the money to pay bills while starting on the next book. The advance also has value to the publisher. How can that be? Most of the time, publishers calculate the advance based on the number of books they expect to sell and the amount of royalties they expect to pay out. So if the publisher expects the book to sell enough to pay the author two thousand dollars in royalties, the publisher will offer a two thousand dollar advance. In this way, the publisher now doesn’t have to worry about cutting checks to that author unless the book sells beyond expectation. If it does, royalties kick in and checks will have to be sent to the author periodically.
That means if an author “earns out” an advance and begins collecting royalties, the book has exceeded expectations. One thing to keep in mind is that the advance is not based on how many books need to sell for the book to turn a profit. The books turns a profit long before the advance “earns out.” So an author whose advance did not “earn out” isn’t a failure. It simply means the book performed either exactly as expected or somewhat less. It is likely the book was still profitable (unless something like a scandal or boycott or other unusual disaster kills sales).
Sometimes other money can pop up after a sale. For instance, if a magazine is offered money by a testing service to use an article, the magazine may give the author part of the money (if the magazine has gotten “all rights” from the author) or the magazine or testing service may contact the author direction about the sale (if the publishing rights still belong to the author). If a movie or television show is made based on a book or short story (which is rare but not unheard of), this would generate money through the sale of “subsidiary rights” or rights beyond the publication.
The best way to be sure that the money you receive is what you’d hoped is to ask questions at every step whenever you don’t understand something. Being accepted is an emotional thing, but it’s also a time for some tough decision making, so read your contract carefully (as it will spell out how and when money is paid to you, as well as what rights are involved). The more money is involved, the more you must take care to make wise choices. There are books about publishing contract law (your local library might even carry some), and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators produce materials about wise publishing decisions as well. There are also “watchdog” websites designed to protect writers (one good example is Writer Beware http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/ ). Research carefully before signing the contract and you’ll have the best chance to end up happy with your publishing choices.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.