Back In My Day…

I read a fair number of blogs about writing, reading and the publishing industry.

No surprise there.

If you read a lot of these blogs, you’ll notice that there are certain themes people like to return to. One of the favorite ones is how unlikely you are to make money as a writer. I wanted to add the phrase “especially lately.” It’s true that the economic downturn has people focused on money and lack thereof, but I’ve been hearing this lecture since I started writing back in the late 90s.

Exhibit A: I generally like this guy’s blog, but what he’s saying about keeping the day job is pretty standard. You might make some money, but not enough to live on, is the message. At the same time, the big news last week was that Janet Evanovitch, author of the wildly successful Stephanie Plum series, now up to 16 books, asked for $50 million for her next four books. Well, her agent, who is also her son, asked for it. Same thing? I was shocked by this number until an editor on Twitter told me Evanovitch got $40 million for the previous four.

Still, she says, that’s a raise of $2.5 million per book, which is asking a lot in this economy.

So, I’m going to leave alone the concept that someone who’s already received $40 million could then want another $50 million. This is a world I don’t live in. I understand this gets to be like movie stars, where prestige rests on the price tag. I just keep thinking that once I buy the beach house in the Caribbean, what would I do with the rest of the money?

But that’s neither here nor there.

I’m wondering where the middle is?

There must be something besides “you won’t make enough to live on” and “I need $12.5 million per book.” The zone gets fuzzy because everyone thinks they need a different amount of money to live on, but still…

For most writers, the goal is to make enough money to ditch the day job and write full time. This seems like a reasonable ambition. After all, nobody practices law on the side while working as a checker at the grocery store. Nobody tells you when you go into environmental consulting that you should really plan on just enjoying it as a hobby that supplements your real income.

I’m beginning to suspect this is a bit of a “stay away” gambit. Well-meaning, perhaps, but I think a lot of these writers are seeing their pool glutted. Especially the ones who aren’t making enough money to live on. I’ve never heard Nora Roberts or Janet Evanovitch give this cautionary tale. In fact, I once heard Anne Rice announce that she was getting something like $1 million for her next book (I know – Janet was giggling) and that if she could do it, anyone could.

The upshot is: I’m tired of this particular saw and I don’t intend to listen anymore.

Our finances are good. I pay attention to where my money comes from and where it goes. We have no appreciable debt beyond our mortgage, which is solid because we bought at the bottom of the market. I know what I need to live on and what’s gravy. I think that’s just being financially savvy. We should all know where we stand and what we need. From there it’s perfectly reasonable to set income goals from our writing.

It’s not magic; it’s just being smart.

8 Replies to “Back In My Day…”

  1. GREAT post. This is so true. I read that number and darn near fell of my seat in shock. I think it is a scareaway tactic. It's true that most writers aren't going to make that kind of money, but you never know unless you try. And you don't really need to make millions per book to live a happy, decent life. I have high hopes, but I don't expect to be handed a million dollar contract out the gate. Like you, the only debt I have is my mortgage. If I make enough to cover my expenses plus have a little left over, I'd be happy. To me that's "making enough to live from."

  2. I'm still kind of in shock. I suppose I was thinking these big authors were making "decent" money. You know, maybe their spouse works and everything else is just like you say "gravy". 40…million…dollars. Yeah, definitely in shock. I know the chances of me making it to a full-time writing career are slim. I'd just be glad to have extra money because that would justify what I spend to hone my craft. If I made back what I've put out, then it's all good.

  3. Nah, the "magic" comes in selling said book. There are always opportunity costs.

    You're smart, you know how to be financially responsible and have the personal discipline to do so. Those put you in a group smaller than "wildly successful" authors.

  4. Thanks, JA – I think most of us are in that more rational group. We don't need the million-dollar contract. We would just like to make a living.

    I'm with you, Danica. My idea of good money for the big authors was something short of that mark!

    KAK – you're so right about that kind of magic!

  5. Interesting post! I think people forget that being a writer is like being any sort of business owner in that at first you make no money, but if you stick with it you will. My husband is a photographer, and believe me my family thought I was crazy to marry him. And yeah, he didn't make much money at first, but fast-forward 10 years and he's very successful- and supportive of me as I start fiction writing. But the secret ingredient is hard work- and lot's of it. If you put in X hours on a book and then expect to sit around waiting for someone to pay you for it, you may be waiting a long time. Write, write, write- I figure that's the key to success- financial and otherwise.

  6. Thanks Daisy! You articulated something that I didn't. It's an excellent point that writers are essentially small businesses and succeed or fail for the same reasons as any small business. Hard work, fiscal responsibility and treating your vocation like a business – all very important!

  7. I agree – writing is just like any business. And if you have a good business plan, you can figure out how to make a living eventually. It also depends a lot on what you write, who you want to write for, who you publish with, etc…there are all these options we have as writers to choose from, and what we choose will play a big part in how much we make (and when).

    Unfortunately, a lot of writers don't have a good head for the business side of things, which puts them at a disadvantage.

    But yeah. The whole "you can't make a living writing" is getting pretty old. Where there's a will, patience and persistence, there's a way.

  8. I'm glad it's not just me, Jamie! I'm tired of hearing it. Yes, get a business plan together. Keep track of your finances and your goals. If you don't have a good head for business, then get someone to help you. I think you're right, there is *always* a way!

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