Why It’s Hard To Make A Living As A Writer, by C.E. Murphy

Hm. I need to make dinner and I should go for a walk, but there’s a reasonable possibility I’ll finish two chapters today if I don’t screw around too much before making dinner. Chapter eight was mostly edited down and switched around with old material, and a third of chapter nine’s old material and I’ve written another third or so. I could pretty reasonably finish it up, I think. I might just do that. (Rather some time later: there, I have.)

In other news, because Mom was wondering today when I got my next royalty statement, and because I’ve been meaning to do it for, oh, a long time now, I’m going to talk about the vagueries of payment in the publishing world, or

You know, people are forever saying to me, “You’re so disciplined,” when it comes to matters of writing regularly. Hah. Discipline is living on a writer’s income. I’ve been paid 4 times this year, in amounts ranging from about $3500 up to about $17K. I anticipate getting…somewhat less than that again in the remainder of the year, though, yes, what’s stated above is already a living wage. But let me break down, real quick, what those payments were for:

Payment #1–delivery of THE QUEEN’S BASTARD. Delivered in November 2006, paid in January 2007. That’s fast. It’s also approximately half the monies due on that book, which I was offered a contract for in December 2005. I will get a final advance check on that book when it’s published in June 2008 (which means, realistically, I’ll get paid in about August 2008).

Go back and look at those numbers again. Contract: December 2005. Final payment for that book of the contract: August 2008.

Actually, that pretty much sums up right there why it’s hard to make a living as a writer, doesn’t it? All of my contracts–most novel contracts in general, I think–are paid out in three parts: some percentage on signing, and then depending on the house you’re working for, the rest on proposal&delivery, or the rest on delivery&publication. For the kinds of books I’m writing in the kinds of time frames they’re being published, that’s pretty much a three year spread for completion of any given contract. A $30K advance check for three books sounds pretty good at first blush (and that’s a lucky roll for your first book contract), but it starts sounding a lot less thrilling when that money is very possibly the sum total of what you’re making over three years.

Payment #2–Final payment on HOUSE OF CARDS (contract: November 2005; publication date, March 2008). First chance of seeing royalty money on it: November 2009, and that’s if it sells Very Well and Very Fast. More likely time frame for seeing royalty money: May 2010.

Payment #3–On-contract payment for the next 3 Walker Papers. Contract offer: January 2007. First book–and therefore any chance of making more money on it–due out in June 2009. First *royalty period* where there’s any chance of seeing money on it: 2nd half of 2009, which means if I see money, it will be in May 2010 or so. More likely: November 2010.

Payment #4–Royalties on URBAN SHAMAN, “Banshee Cries”, and THUNDERBIRD FALLS (published June 2005, Nov 2005, and May 2006, respectively).

Let’s look at royalties.

I’m lucky. I’m *making* money–pretty decent money–on my books, above and beyond what my publishers gave me as an advance. If I was *not* making money on those books, you could just about cut the money I’ve made this year in half, which would leave me with the above scenario–and that would still be doing very, very well, because I have four series coming out (Walker Papers, Negotiator Trilogy, Inheritors’ Cycle, and The Strongbox Chronicles are still a viable interest from Harlequin’s POV, even if I’m not writing any more of them at this juncture).

Most people aren’t going to have two concurrent series at the beginning of their careers, much less four. So if you strip away the 3 series I sold after the Walker Papers, what I’m left with as income for this year are royalties for those books and the contract for the next 3 in that series. Now, those happen to be the larger checks, so I’d be doing pretty well, all things considered, but I’d also be unable to anticipate any more money at _all_ except this fall’s royalty check, and there’s absolutely no telling how much that will be. It’s a living wage, but only just–and you have to remember to take out 15% for the agent, and withhold 25% (33 if you’re nervous, which I typically am) for federal taxes and social security. As a writer, you get double-stung: you have to pay both employee and employer social security, so between those things, you’re looking pretty safely at cutting forty or forty-five percent of your income out before you can even start thinking about spending it. (And I haven’t even touched the topic of health insurance.)

By this time you’re thinking, “Yeah, but ALL THAT MONEY! ALL AT ONCE! I CAN GO NUTS!” and believe you me, that’s what a person starts to think when she gets a several-thousand-dollar-check deposited in the bank.

And then she thinks, “I have no freaking clue when I’m going to get paid again,” and all of a sudden that big lump of money doesn’t look tempting, it looks cruel. Because if you’re trying to live on a writer’s income, you flat-out can’t afford to go batshit crazy when you get a big check. I got my last check in May. If my publisher really has their act together, I might get another check this month, but it’s more likely to be next month and could very easily be October.

This is just not an easy business to make a living in. I’ve been insanely fortunate, and have been making one, but it’s not just a matter of selling as many books as I have. It’s being able to control the money once you get it, and keeping in mind that yeah, in fact, $big_chunk_o’_change is great, but it’s very possibly the only payment you’ll see for six months. It takes nerves of steel to live with it. Hell, it takes nerves of steel to be married or partnered to somebody who gets paid this way, even if the partner has a steady job. I _regularly_ think about finding some kind of day job, simply because it would be so very much less stressful all around if I were pulling in any kind of regular paycheck. Even if it’s *tiny*, the regularity would be a huge relief. So yeah, when people ask writers, “When are you going to quit your day job?”, most times the answer is going to be, realistically, “Never.”

Any questions? :)

miles to Minas Tirith: 246
ytd wordcount: 138,900

20 thoughts on “Why It’s Hard To Make A Living As A Writer, by C.E. Murphy

  1. Not really a question towards you, but a question nonetheless.

    Is it a bad thing when all that sounds infinitely more appealing than said day job? (Wow, I just made it sound like my life is in the crapper… which it isn’t, just my job).

  2. *laughs* No. All that said, this is still by far the best job I’ve ever had. It’s just not for the faint-hearted. :)

  3. As my mother always says when I talk about wanting to be a writer for a living, “You have the stubbornness to pull it off, if anyone does.”

  4. I am just now figuring out exactly what you mean. My deal was accepted in…hmm. May?

    No sign of contracts. *g* I’m told that they’re on their way, just slow. And no payment until after contracts are signed.

    But really…I’m not really doing this for the payment. I wanna see my cover! *wiggles*

  5. This reminds me of many of the comments I’ve heard from games designers and writers over the years. It’s bloody hard to make a decent wage writing anything for a living. I glad you’ve got nerves of steel though, as we all benefit.

  6. Very interesting, thanks for explaining all that!

    Any questions?

    So you gonna blow that check flying you and Ted to Yokohama for Worldcon next week? There’s a lunar eclipse the evening of the 28th! i’ll buy you sushi

  7. I admit that this is why for quite a while I’ve been saying I’m more interested in keeping my day job (well, some day job) and writing around it. I mean, that’s why I didn’t go freelance consultant back in 2002. (Well, that and I hate hate hate marketing myself, which in itself calls into question my future in publishing, I suspect.) I’m just into steady, predictable pay.

  8. I have to confess I have this secret dream of becoming a writer some time in the future. But since I have been reading your journal, it has given me a better perspective on the whole venture. I think that your output is quite admirable, even a bit mind-boggling for me.

    So I guess, once I get leave university, I’d better find myself a day-job first, especially because I don’t have a partner who could support me in this dream.

  9. This is part of why my main goal as a writer is, “Make enough that I can move to part-time teaching.” Teaching in Ontario pays quite well – if I were doing it half-time, I’d still be getting 30K, and if I wated another four years to go part-time, that would be nearly 40K. If I can get myself to the point where my part-time income pays the bills, along with my husband’s day-job, and my writing income is mostly an extra, then I’ll be in good shape.

    All of which requires writing a book that’s potentially marketable outside of the furry fandom. I’d better get on that.

  10. Oh dear. Then what’re you going to ask me at the GoH interview at P-CON in March? :)

  11. Ah yes, It got moved from it’s original tentative date, didn’t it? Well I’ll just prepare two sets of questions, just in case!

  12. Now, I’m not a complete and total financial idiot, but I
    certainly wouldn’t know what to do with money coming in lumps like
    that. I assume you’d want to tie some of it up in long-term bonds,
    and keep the rest in a high-yield savings account (like something
    from ingdirect.com) that you then transfer bits out of on a regular

    However, I have no idea how you’d go about setting up the proper mix of how your money is distributed. If I had to deal with income like that, it might be enough to actually get me up off my butt and go see that financial advisor I keep telling myself we need to go see.

  13. Well, while that’s a lovely idea, what I need to do is /live/ on that money, so regardless of what might be wise, like most people, I can’t put more than a fraction into savings. It doesn’t matter how it comes in, if you’re counting on it to get you through several months at a time. :)

  14. Livejournal and other blogging sites take a lot of the mystery (and possibly a lot of the romance) out of being a writer, don’t they? ’cause you get the chance to watch people actually grinding through it every day. I think that’s kinda cool. :)

    My output is rather prodigious, I’m afraid. Sometimes it boggles my mind, too. :)

  15. I think that it’s good for young aspiring writers to get a glimpse of the real life. Mind you, it has not put me off my dream at the moment, but I think I finally know it is not going to be easy.

  16. I was going to say game designers don’t get paid nearly as bad a rate as all that.. (Although that assumes that the publisher gets around to paying you.) My worst case was probably being paid 6 months after I was supposed to be paid (with that original payment supposed to be in 2 months after I submitted the final work.)

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