I've come to gain new insights on T.S. Eliot's "Wasteland." April is the cruelest month because he's a writer, and April is when you get your biannual royalty statements as well as pay taxes. Often the latter negates the former.
If you would rather not know the economic realities of being a writer, please don't read this post. Sometimes I get emails from people who are angry with me for being honest about the writing industry and discouraging them. I don't want to make you upset. I you'd really rather not know, again, please don't read.When I first published the goose girl, Dean and I made a "seven year plan." That is, in seven years, we said, we'd be able to live off what I make as an author. It's been seven years, and it ain't happening. Happily my husband likes his job and has no desire to leave it, but I know from the assumptions I hear from others that the reality of a writer's wages may be news to many of you. I could safely live on my income if I were single, and some years I could support a family on my income, but other times it would be way too risky not to have a second income to depend on. But I do think many of my blog readers would like to understand the back side of it, because I never did.
1. Generally, authors get paid twice a year, but only if they've earned out their advance. Some books earn out their advance in the first six months, but others never do. This is not a stable income. You never know how many books will sell. With checks coming in April and October for mystery amounts, it's hard to depend on royalties to pay the bills. You really need a steady source of income when you have a family.
2. As we're self-employed, writers don't get benefits like health insurance. In a few states, if you join the Writer's Guild you can be covered by a group plan, but not in Utah. And for insanely stupid reasons, Dean and I are not insurable privately. Either we have group insurance or nothing. We not only need Dean's steady income but his insurance benefits.
3. Taxes. Boy howdy. Because I'm self-employed, add an extra 15.3% to my tax rate. I get taxed hard. Really hard. I never imagined how hard.
4. An author gets a small percentage of a book's earnings. This may seem unfair, but when you look at everyone else in the chain--publisher, editor, publicist, distributor, bookseller, etc.--you see that no one is getting rich. This is just how it is. For a paperback children's book, the usual is 6-8% of the cover price, and hardcover is 12-15%. (Note that paperback refers to trade paperback. The royalties from a Scholastic book fair edition, for example, are much, much, much, much lower.)*
5. Agents take 15% off the top.
6. A chunk of your royalties are often held "in reserve" for up to 18 months against returns. So when a bookstore orders copies of my books from the distributor, some months later I'll get a royalty from those book sales. But if the bookstore doesn't sell them and returns them (and this happens all the time to everybody) then the next pay period the publisher will take those royalties back. Again, unstable business.
Say an author sells 100,000 trade paperbacks one year. Wow, that's a boatload! That is an impressive number and one any author would be thrilled to have. The total sales add up to about $800,000, while the author's royalties on that would be about $48,000--a respectable income. But take out agent and taxes, donate the max to a SEP IRA to offset more taxes, pay the babysitter (if you're a mom like me), and out of that $48K, you have maybe 10-15K to pay rent, utilities, car, food, etc. A great second income, but most likely not enough to support a family.
Well. We all knew it wasn't about the money, right? Many children's authors make a living not from book sales but from speaking fees. Authors can do school visits and be featured authors at conferences and book festivals, most of which pay an honorarium. Also, if you have a degree along with publications, you might get work teaching. These are great opportunities for added income, but ones I don't partake of because I was lucky enough to begin publishing early in my life when I have young children, and I can't leave them so much. And if I did, I'd be paying more babysitting costs, which would take about half of what I earned anyway.
So how do writers become rich, or even self-sufficient? Most do not. We hear a lot about the big name authors, but they are the exception. For the majority of authors, writing novels is not a stable career. The illustrators I know enjoy doing picture books but make their income from other sources, like doing book covers or ads for banks or whatever other small jobs their reps can score for them. So you do it because you love it, you do it because you have no other choice, and you get an education and plan on a second career.
Please know that I don't mean this as a complaint. I love my career. I'm so grateful to get to be a mom and have my dream job. But if I see one more Hollywood movie or TV show portraying filthy rich novelists, I'm going to knock some heads. It's just not reality. Here's reality: I'm sitting in bed in my pajamas, leaving shortly to go pick up my son from kindergarten. My house is crazily cluttered because my kids have a lot of freedom while I've been sick and I throw up if I lean over to pick up things. My 3-year-old is singing a song about candy in the kitchen. Why candy? Did she find a cache somewhere? I thought we'd cleansed the house of her favorite drug! I'm risking candy spazzes and huge messes to take 10 minutes to write this blog post. I will probably have 15 minutes of clean up to pay for her 10 minutes of unsupervised freedom. But last week I finished a first draft of a new book, and today I'm going back to revise another book, and I have this wonderful second life that rides alongside my mother life. It's very cool.
*I always need to add a note when revealing an author's percentage of the book. Even though we get very little per book, it still means a GREAT deal when people buy our books. If our books keep selling, then we get to keep writing and publishing. Even if we're not making a lot of money, we are making some and get to continue to do what we love. As well, it makes a difference when people check our books out from a library. Libraries keep track of circulation numbers. If our books circulate well, then when a new book comes out, that library system is more likely to buy copies. Authors love libraries!