One of the biggest concerns when it comes to being a writer has to be finding a source of income. Writers seem to either be rolling in dough or in crippling debt with no in-between. And when you’re a writer on the side with an empty bank account, often times, it’s because you aren’t quite sure how money is made in this industry. I know until I began writing this article, I realized that I wasn’t quite sure myself. Making money in the writing industry is sometimes very “hush-hush,” something you don’t discuss in polite circles. Money talk in general is frowned upon. But I say to hell with that. Writers need answers and transparency.
So how is money made in the writing industry? How many novels do you have to sell before you can start living comfortably? How much do you even make selling a novel? What exactly is a freelance writer and how do you make money that way? This Lab Report will focus mainly on how money is made, and more importantly, how to start bringing in the bills.
The three main ways through which writers get paid are the following: advances, royalties, or flat fees/pay-per-word. Advances, which is better explained in this article written for Writer’s Digest, is an amount set by the publisher when they pick up your novel. This number can be any amount, but often times it’s between $5,000 to $15,000 when you’re just starting out. And you may be thinking, “Wow! That’s a lot of money!” But there’s a catch: if your book doesn’t sell, you won’t make any more money off of it. An advance is paid by the publisher with the expectation that your book will sell. In order to actually make money off of your novel, it has to start making more money than what your advance was worth. Once that happens, you start earning royalties, which shows up in both traditional and self-publishing.
A book royalty is a percentage of the sale that goes to the author. In traditional publishing, this number is often on the lower end, about 10-15%. Which means that if your book costs $10 with 10% royalty, then you make a dollar for every book sold. And in order to earn out a $5,000 advance, you have to sell 5,000 copies of your book. This is where decisions are made. Many writers turn to self-publishing because of the higher royalties. While you don’t get the fancy advance checks in the mail, you make money as your book is sold. Royalties within the self-publishing industry can be anywhere between 35-60%, depending on the company of course. However, this does not cover production and distribution costs which has no set rate. If you are interested in learning more about what self-published authors have paid to get their book out there, you can check out this article posted to The Write Life.
Flat fees or flat rates are often associated with freelance writers. You might recognize this term as it’s often used in a range of industries, such as the post office. A flat fee is a set amount that a company pays you regardless of how viral your article or blog post is or how many words it contains. There’s a lot of debate on whether or not a writer should set their own rates, something I’ll get into more detail later. Meanwhile, pay-per-word is exactly what the name suggests. Freelance writers often charge $0.01 per word or anywhere as high as $3-5 per word if they’re incredibly popular and/or talented. You can view how much some of the most popular online and print publications pay here which was compiled by Ryan Mcready, a managing editor for Venngage.com, who conducted a study on much freelance writers are paid.
Getting paid as a writer is obviously much more than what I’ve mentioned above and each form of payment can be its own Lab Report. But I hope for the sake of this Lab Report, you have a basic understanding of how cash flows within this industry.
Data and Observation
There’s a quote that I want to share with you all from Roxane Gay, a NYT Best Selling author, professor, commentator, and feminist icon. Gay appeared on Bad With Money with Gaby Dunn earlier this year, a podcast dedicated to shining light on common financial fears, where she talked with Dunn, who is not a financial expert and, self-proclaimed, “bad with money”, about what she has done to start making a living wage within this industry. The quote follows a question posed by Dunn, asking, “Why do you think a lot of people write for free or why do you think writers are more reticent to ask for compensation?”
Culturally, we don’t value writing and we don’t value intellectualism. And we have this really bizarre idea that anyone can do it. Well yeah, anyone can put words together, but can they do so well? Can they do it with ingenuity? No. They can’t. And so they don’t value it. And so much of what we’re told as writers is ‘you can never expect to get paid’. And literary magazines, for example, very rarely pay. And so it’s this really strange culture that just keeps reinforcing the notion that you should value art over money. But art doesn’t pay the bills. You write for free until you don’t have to.
The entire episode can be listened to for free here and I cannot recommend it enough.
If you haven’t gathered by now, publishing a single book doesn’t mean instant retirement. And definitely don’t quit your day job the second that first acceptance letter comes in. The Bustle actually compiled a list of day jobs held by famous writers while they were just starting out. Who would have thought that Stephen King was a janitor while writing Carrie or that Nicholas Sparks was a telemarketer? The sad truth is that until you’ve published more books than you have fingers for, you need that day job. But there is nothing wrong with that.
But if a day job isn’t an option for you, you can’t sit and wait for a publisher to pick up your novel or story. Keep writing and work those freelance jobs. And when you get them, make sure you’re getting paid, even if it’s a small amount at first. Charging $25 for a 500 word article is still $25 that didn’t exist in your wallet the day before. Work yourself up from there. Increase the amount with every extra word you have to write. And then increase your rate itself, especially if the company you are writing for is well known because they can definitely afford to pay you. Anyone that says you should be happy with whatever the company is paying you is probably only saying that because 1) they don’t think very highly of your profession and don’t think you should be paid; or 2) in the case of this person being an employer, they don’t want to pay you.
I’ll be completely honest here, I’m not getting paid for this article whatsoever. If anything, I’m paying for the opportunity to write it (internships for college credit are strange). Does that make me upset? Very. But does that mean that I’m going to continue doing this for free forever? No. Does that mean you should? Hell no! When it comes to you and your writing, I believe that you have to put yourself first. As Gaby Dunn puts it in her Bad With Money podcast repeatedly, “You are your own small business.” Don’t for a second believe that getting your work on a popular website is worth more than getting food on the table. Roxane Gay is right: “Art doesn’t pay the bills.” And neither does exposure. Put yourself first. Demand that pay. Get that money.
Celeste Paed is a junior fiction writing major at Columbia College Chicago with a minor in Business. She has only two states of being: crying and procrastinating. When not working on her writing, you can often find her in bed binge-watching TV, working at a candy store, or wondering what color she should dye her hair next.