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On the Business of Writing: Breaking In

One of the more interesting parts of my professor’s lectures on the business of writing this week was what she called “career building.” She started with a hypothetical first book, and worked it through a new writer’s burgeoning career.

That’s the sort of long-term financial projection Konrath likes to work through from time to time to demonstrate the financial appeal of self-publishing. Professor Chester wasn’t taking that approach at all, though. She was just trying to give us a realistic idea what to expect.


Before we can really lay out a scenario, we’ve got to consider some of the caveats that go along with the numbers. You may have heard that the average advance on a first novel is $5,000, but how do you actually get that money?

We’re talking legacy publishing here, so I’ll assume throughout that you’ve already got an agent. That’s how my professor approached it, too.

So if you sign for a $5,000 advance, you’re giving $750 of that to your agent in commission. And you don’t get the remaining $4,250 all at once.

You’ll usually get a third of it ($1,417) at signing, a third on submission, and the rest on publication. The way the industry works, that’s going to take about 12-18 months, all told.

Each time the company cuts you a check they actually send it to your agent. He’ll take out his cut, then (within a couple weeks), send you yours.

But don’t go spend it! First, you need to withhold your taxes, or you’ve going to have a really bad day early next year. You canfill out forms and do the math, or you can get pretty close by just keeping back about a third of the check.

So your $5,000 first book advance? ¬†You’ll actually get it in three low, low payments of $472 dollars of spending money.

An Aside

Now, lest you think I’m being too snarky, I should concede that Gods Tomorrow has been for sale for six months now and it’s only earned me a touch over $300.

If I’d signed it with a publisher last October instead of putting in on Amazon, I’d have something closer to $700 on it by now. Then again, I didn’t have an offer at the time. If, instead, I’d started shopping it last October, I might have an agent by now, who might be sending it to interested publishers, who might be offering me a deal sometime in the next year. And that would be worth precisely $0 so far.

A Hypothetical Career

But we’re not talking about real current earnings today, we’re talking about career building. I didn’t take detailed notes on the precise imaginary figures she used, but I can convey the overall idea.

The way it happens, she said, is that you start with a hardcover deal with a medium-sized hardback publisher. You’re a total unknown, so they offer a $2,500 advance. Several months after that your agent finds a paperback publisher willing to pay a $5,000 advance (that deal is actually the $5,000-average-first-book-advance you’ve been hearing about), and maybe he even finds a publisher in the UK who throws $2,500 at you, too.

There are even more complications in how you get paid for that, and those three deals are going to be staggered over more than a year, but eventually (with a few earned royalties) you’re going to bring in about $12,000 on that book. Your agent takes his 15% and Uncle Sam gets 33%, so after a couple years you’ll get to spend about $7,000 of that.

If your book performs well, even if you never earn out your $5,000 paperback advance, you’re going to get better deals on your second book. Not a lot better, but maybe $3,000, $6,000, and $3,000 from the same three publishing companies. That nets you an extra $1,200 (spread out over two years) and, more importantly, some name recognition.

The Escalation

The thing is, if you want to build a career in legacy publishing you need more than those $5,000-$10,000 advances. To get that, you need to get your book in major bookstore chains. Or, better yet, in grocery stores and airports. The only way that happens is if your publisher puts your book there, and they only do that if they believe in you.

“Believe in you” means 5- or 6-figure advances. It means 50,000 to 100,000 paperback sales on your record, and you can’t get that until your publisher is at least pushing you hard at the bookstore chains.

So you start with a $7,000 income over two years and keep your day job. You sell another book your second year and pay down some debt with the $8,200 you get to spend. Maybe you land some big promotion on book three, get some serious sales, and jump up to a higher tier of publisher (and a higher tier of advances) for book four.

ANd by then you’ve got a name. By then your agent is selling foreign rights all across Europe. By then you’re selling movie options to Hollywood. Your US paperback advance might still just be $10,000-$15,000, but across everything your fourth book might clear $75,000 smooth. Even after your agent’s $10,000 and your government’s $20,000, you’ll get $45,000 in spending money.

Spread out over two or three years, of course.

That’s…well, it’s still not enough to let you quit your day job. Of course, if you can maintain those sales year after year, the “spread out over two or three years” doesn’t matter too much once it really gets rolling. It can accumulate into a decent, regular income.

In other words, what you’ve got to do is get a lot of books out there and wait 4-5 years (after signing your first contract). If you do that–and if you have a good book that ends up with a good cover image and good product description–you just might end up with a career in writing that pays your bills.

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