What Writers Get Paid and How

I’m posting this reply to a young correspondent who was incited to write me by his Careers teacher, because I’ve found that a great many people actually have no idea at all of how fiction writers make a living. They read the glamor stories about million-dollar advances, but aren’t clear on what an advance is, or any of the lingo of book publishing. This tiny summary leaves out endless options and variations, but it gives the basic scheme as it has existed for about a hundred and fifty years. Recently, copyright has both been grossly over-extended by corporate greed, and threatened with destruction by Internet indifference to its principles. All these arrangements rest ultimately on copyright. E-publication may change them radically. But at present, if you get a book or story published on paper, this is more or less the plan.

Dear Daniel,

I answer a lot of letters and it takes a lot of time, so let me just pick one of your questions to answer. You asked, “What is an average, full-time fiction/fantasy writer’s salary?”

Fiction writers don’t get a salary. They are free-lancers, paid by the job — that is, by the story or the book.

The way I do it is called “selling on spec.” When I’ve written a story or a book, I (or my literary agent) submit it — send the manuscript (MS) to a magazine or book publishing house (on paper, or electronically.) An editor there reads the manuscript and decides if the publisher should publish it.

If the publisher agrees with the editor, they offer me a contract: they agree to pay me a certain amount of money in exchange for certain rights to publish that story or book for a certain length of time.

The publisher rents only limited rights in it from me. I keep the copyright, which means I can resell it if the publisher defaults, etc. Other rights to the work, such as film rights, must be decided in the contract between publisher and author; the more such rights authors can keep, the more money they may make from the work.

If it’s a novel, the publisher usually contracts to pay the author a sum before publication called an advance against royalties. The amount of the advance depends on how much money the publisher expects to make from the book.

The publisher also contracts to pay royalties, a share (usually 4 to 10 %) of the cover price of each book sold.

The advance is said to be “against royalties” because it’s considered to be taken out of the (future) royalties. The author only begins to get royalties when the book has “earned out” — when the royalties earned are greater than the amount of the advance. Advances are sure money up front; but if the book stays in print, royalties are long-term income.

Another way to sell a book is to send the editor an outline and a sample chapter or two, and if the editor likes it, the publisher will give you a contract to write the book. Thus you get the advance for it before it’s even written. A lot of writers do this, particularly genre writers and bestsellers. The drawback is that you have to write what you promised to write. I prefer the freedom of writing what I want to write when I want to, and then submitting it on spec, though it’s financially much riskier.

Publishing itself is a risky business, as the publisher can never be sure which book will be the bestseller and which will be the dud. Even experienced editors can guess all wrong.

The huge advances that you hear of are very rare. Most fiction writers can’t live by their writing alone. I spent nearly ten years sending out stories before I got one published. Being a writer almost always means having some kind of paying job too... and hanging in there!

I wish you the best with your writing.



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