Writing Business Basics

DSCN1779.JPGNew writers often ask me about the business of writing, and they’re curious about what writers earn, which reminds me that the process can be rather opaque. This is partly because individual writers are reluctant to reveal publicly what they earn and partly because the range of earnings varies so much that it’s hard for a new writer to be able to predict what a project might be worth. Now with the potential for independent publishing (as opposed to traditional publishing with an established, royalty-paying publisher), writers have more publishing options than ever, but dauntingly, the indie model, where 200,000+ new titles appear each year, has even more uncertain variables.

Let’s consider the traditional route. Here are a few basics on finding a publisher and what happens financially.

  1. Agents. Writers rarely submit their work directly to publishers these days. It’s far more common to find a literary agent first and depend on that agent to submit your work to editors (who acquire novels) at publishing houses. In addition to negotiating contracts, an agent may suggest revisions and advise a writer on her career. Note that a legitimate agent never charges any fees up front, so avoid any agent who charges for services or expenses. Instead, after a deal is made, it’s standard for an agent to earn 15% of the writer’s income. A great starting point for seeking an agent is the searchable database
  1. Skipping an Agent. Certain publishers, like HarperCollins which has digital first publishing imprints, Macmillan’s Farrar Straus & Giroux, and Harlequin, do accept unagented submissions. They explain submission guidelines on their websites, and typically reply in 3-6 months. Romance publishers are known for their standard contracts that don’t allow for significant negotiation for new writers. On the upside, Harlequin has a huge distribution for its category romance lines, but on the downside, its royalty rate (6%) is one of the lowest in the industry, and getting the rights back can be nearly impossible.
  1. Timeline. It typically takes from a year to a year and a half from the time you sell a book to the time it hits a bookshelf. The time allows for revisions, a production schedule, marketing, and distribution.
  1. Payment. A writer with a contract from a traditional publisher typically receives a check for an “advance” at the time the contract is signed, which can be 4-9 months after the writer receives an initial verbal offer over the phone. Sometimes an advance is divided into two chunks, one paid on signing and one paid when the final revision of the book is accepted. Once the book comes out, if it sells enough copies to “earn out” the amount of the original advance, the author will received additional royalties. Those royalties are distributed twice a year. For example, if an author is paid a $20,000 advance and has a 10% royalty rate, and the book sells for $10 per copy, then after 20,000 copies are sold, the book earns out its advance and the author is due more money.
  1. RoyaltyImageHow much? If you take a look at figures compiled by writer Brenda Hiatt, examples of advances for first YA novels are in the $13,000-30,000 range, but they can be much larger or smaller. Many books never earn out their advances, in which case no additional royalties ever are paid. On the other hand, a writer never has to pay back an advance, no matter how few copies of a book are sold, so an advance is a writer’s to keep.
  1. Taxes and business expenses. Writers are self-employed people who typically keep track of their business expenses, send in estimated quarterly tax payments, and set aside their own retirement funds.

Is it possible to make a living as a writer? According to the Author’s Guild’s latest survey, full-time writers make, on average, $17,500 a year, and that’s down 30% from 2009. However, because writing is a creative field and each project is valued uniquely, the average is not much of a guideline for any individual writer’s career.

Discovering how this business works and how it’s evolving is part of the job. We each make our own choices about how to go forward, creatively and business-wise, and those decisions are in our control. 

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