News Flash: Writers Don’t Make Much Money

This post on GalleyCat paints a sobering reality: most genre novelists don’t earn enough money to live on. Horror writer David Keene writes that most advances for first-time novels are between $2,500 and $10,000. And you won’t see any royalties until a year after your book is published. Mark Lawrence and Jim C. Hines, the other two writers featured in the post, paint a similar picture of sporadic royalty checks that don’t add up to enough to live on. Pretty bleak.

Which brings me to the other end of the spectrum: those lucky and/or hardworking writers who hit it big. In Forbes’ piece on the top ten highest-paid authors of 2012, most were authors of multiple books, some of which had been made into movies (James Patterson, Stephen King, John Grisham, J.K. Rowling, etc.). So it makes sense that they would have tons of royalties rolling in and garner astronomical advances. But there are the “Horatio Alger” stories, too: those first-timers who somehow hit that perfect note, and become instant successes (E.L. James comes to mind).

For a lot of writers, this depressing reality – that very, very few of us can earn a living writing – makes self-publishing a lot more attractive. You don’t have to split your royalties with anyone, so you make around 70 percent of each book’s sale price. That can be pretty tempting.

However, when you publish yourself, you don’t have any support. You have to market yourself wisely and relentlessly. You don’t get an advance on your next novel. Most book reviewers will ignore you.

So, for me, the question is, why does it have to be this way? Why do the big publishing houses feel justified in lavishing millions on a few well-known authors, yet won’t give a promising start-up enough money to live on for a year? Sure, I get that the blockbuster name is going to make the publisher a lot of money. But is it really worth it to spend so obscenely on those few? Would it be so difficult to spend a little more on these new (and established, but maybe not blockbuster) authors? A promising writer, with enough money to quit his or her day job, would be freed to write more, write better, and spend more time doing the marketing thing (book tours, interviews, etc.).

As long as their answer is “no,” the big publishing houses are going to continue to see their hold on the market slip – perhaps into history.

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