Although writing is an art and a passion for me, I also really have to be paid, because writing is my full-time job. I’ve done some short bits for friends with little to no pay, but the writing I do for larger companies really must come with a paycheck at the end. However, having said that, the way we get paid in this business can vary. Let’s look a bit at that.
Magazine Writing that Pays
Magazines basically pay one of two ways: on acceptance and on publication. Highlights for Children, for example, pays on acceptance. You receive a check and they hold the piece of writing until they are ready to publish it, and that can be years. I sold them a piece on Matthew Henson in 2009. It still hasn’t run, but I was paid right away. When you sell to a “pay on acceptance” magazine that holds a piece for a long time, it can be frustrating if you were hoping to use the piece as an example of your work.
If the magazine pays on publication, they will often accept very quickly and then hold the piece a while. Some pay-on-publication magazines have policies in place for how long they’ll hold a piece in limbo since they’re tying up our ability to make money on it. Some magazines do not have such policies and may hold something for years. Once the magazine publishes your piece, you get paid. Sometimes the check and your author copy arrive together. Sometimes the check comes later, according to the magazine’s payment schedule. It’s a good idea to ask about payment details when you’re dealing with the contract, so you’ll know what to expect. If you work regularly for one magazine, they may ask you if you want to receive your money through direct deposit. This simplifies the process for the magazine and results in quicker payment. Some small online magazines may even use Paypal so you can get payments deposited directly into your account as well.
In fact, the online world has changed the face of magazines considerably. Many magazines have an online component (and some even pay separately for online pieces), while other magazines are published only online. Not all online magazines pay, but some do, so careful reading of guidelines and a good market guide can help you choose which magazines offer the best return on your investment of time spent writing. But do know that even unpaid publication helps build your reputation and gives you experience in the editorial process. (Note: subscribe to the ICL podcast, Writing for Children, to learn about both paid and unpaid publishing opportunities.) Plus, some educational testing companies pick up passages from online publications and may approach you with an offer of payment for a story you “sold” for free. (This happened to me and I was paid over a thousand dollars for a short story.)
Trade Book Publishing
Book Publishing pays the writer in a variety of ways. If you sign with a trade publisher, you’re probably making a deal where the publisher will give you a percentage of the sale of every book. With smaller publishers (or even some kinds of deals with mid-sized publishers) this royalty is the only money you will see. Royalties accrue over time and a check is sent to you according to a contracted schedule: it may be quarterly or twice a year or even annually. In this kind of situation, you cannot know how much money you’ll make from the sale of the book until you make it. Most of the time, the smaller the publisher, the less money you’ll see over the life of the book. (This isn’t always true, but it is mostly true).
Mid-sized or larger publishers also normally pay an advance. The idea behind an advance is that the publisher advances you the amount of money they expect to pay out in royalties and give it to you right away. Advances may be paid all at once or they may be tied to specific events in the publishing process (like half of the advance paid right away and half upon you making any required revisions). As long as you hold up your end of the contract, an advance never has to be given back to a publisher (even if the book doesn’t sell well).
Now a publisher plans an advance based on how well they expect this book to sell. In theory, they are trying to send you all of your royalties up front so that they won’t have to deal with future royalty checks and so that you will have money to sustain you as you write your next book. Thus, a publisher will pay a larger advance for a book they expect to sell really well.
Publishers are not the world’s best fortune tellers. Sometimes they pay an advance and the book sells better than they expected. If this happens, you’ll begin receiving royalty checks as soon as the amount of royalties exceeds the amount of the advance. This is called “earning out” and it often takes about a year. But even if your book never “earns out,” this does not mean the book failed. Remember, the advance was the publisher’s guess at how much they expected the book to earn. If you exceed that advance against sales that’s a happy moment for publisher and writer.
Some tiny publishers have begun giving token advances to try to look more like a mid-sized trade publisher. These advances of fifty to two hundred dollars may actually be all the money you ever see, but they aren’t really calculated based on the publisher’s expectation. With tiny publishers, how much you make tends to depend directly on how many books you personally can push sales for. If you’re a huge go-getter, you still are unlikely to get the kind of royalties that a large publisher can create (simply because there are different sales mechanisms in place) but you can see enough money to make the deal worthwhile. If you are a quieter, less market-focused writer, a small publisher might not be for you.
Show Me The Money–Now
Not all books are written by authors and then sold to publishers. Sometimes publishers have an idea and want a writer to create the books based on that idea. Sometimes publishers want books connected to a licensed character (like specific superheroes, or television characters). Sometimes publishers are looking for books to fill specific needs for schools. In these kinds of situations, the publisher is looking for a writer to do a job. Because of this, the relationship between publisher and writer tends to be much like any business relationship where a business hires someone to do a job. The person does the job. The business gives him or her a check. The person goes away and no longer has any claim over the job. In publishing, this kind of deal is called “Work for Hire.” And you are usually either paid in full at the end of the job (or shortly thereafter) or paid in two installments (once when you turn in the book, and once when the editing/revision step is over). In very rare instances, a work-for-hire contract might include royalties, but that is not the norm.
The benefit of work for hire is that the money is a sure thing and the writer is almost never asked to do any promotional activity. A work-for-hire writer is usually just a writer, not a publicist. So when you finish one job, you move on to the next. In adult publishing, work for hire is common in situations where you are ghost writing (both fiction and nonfiction), and not uncommon in nonfiction where the idea for the book or book series came from the publisher. In children’s writing, work for hire commonly includes both fiction and nonfiction. Work for hire jobs include board books, picture books, leveled reading programs, and novels. Some work for hire doesn’t involve the author getting any credit for the work, so the actual author’s name might not be on the book. For licensed character work, there may be someone else’s name on the book. So all of those things can color your choice of whether or not to sign on for work-for-hire. Pay can vary from hundreds of dollars to thousands. I’ve even seen pay offered as low as fifty dollars for a picture book. It’s important for writers to make wise choices about which projects to take on and to only sign contracts where the pay is worth your time.
So these are the ways in which you might be offered pay for your writing. The specific details will be outlined in your contract so read contracts carefully. It’s hard to say that one specific way is the best, so a wise author considers his or her options carefully and asks lots of questions. But in the end, there are few things that cheer me up like a check.
Here’s wishing you lots of them in your writing future.
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.