Recently, a writer named Heather Demetrios wrote a blog called How To Lose A Third Of A Million Dollars Without Really Trying, about, well, the title says it all. Basically, she recounts the story of her getting two six-figure deals for her books, only to lose all the money because she didn’t know anything about finance. She says no one—not her publisher or her agent or her advisers or her fellow writers or anyone she ever met—warned her about the vagaries of publishing (or life, apparently). How you can get two six-figure deals and write all those books and still not have a clue about how the publishing business works escapes me…. But for all of you who don’t have a clue about how the publishing business works, here are some rules for you.
1) RUN THE NUMBERS.
Say you got a $100,000 advance for two books. Typically, you’d receive half—$50,000—upon signing the contract, with the rest to be paid out over the next two/three years as you turn in the second book, it gets published, etc. Fifteen percent off the top goes directly to your agent, because odds are you didn’t get a six-figure deal without an agent—and your agent earned it big-time if you got a six-figure deal. I’m just saying.
So that’s $50,000 minus 15 percent which is $7500, so for a year’s work (or more depending on how long you spent writing and shopping that manuscript before your agent sold it) that’s $42,500. Not really not that much money. Now you have to write the next book and see it published to receive the remaining $42,500 (because 15 percent of that second $50,000 went to your agent, too), which won’t happen for at least another year.
What you’re really getting is $100,000 minus 15 percent over two years—or, in reality, much less when you factor in the PR and marketing, the travel, the books, and all the expenses you have now that you’re an author.
And we didn’t even mention taxes.
2) DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB.
I tell writers not to quit their day jobs. To make enough money to comfortably give up your day job, you have to be earning out your advances (if you don’t, you may, as the saying goes, have to change your name and write romance) and selling a lot of books. Even better if you are making film deals and getting those films produced. Some people cut back or work part-time, but even that can be dangerous if you do it too soon. This is a feast (the year you sign a contract) or famine (the years between contracts) business, and until you know you can survive the famine when it comes, you should play it safe.
3) GET YOURSELF A GOOD ACCOUNTANT.
As a writer, you are in effect running your own small business. You’re not an employee of the publishing house, you’re not an employee of the literary agency, you are a contract worker with no steady paycheck, no insurance, etc. You have to do all the things that a small business owner would do. A good accountant can help you plan your budget, set aside money for taxes, and explain the ins and outs of the feast or famine financial life that you are now living.
4) CREATE A BOOK PR AND MARKETING PLAN.
Some of that advance will go to running your small business—the usual travel expenses, postage, website fees, membership in writers’ organizations, conference costs, and the like. You’re also going to have to spend time, energy, and money into mastering social media and learning the best ways to market and promote your book, whether it’s paying for a BookBub promotion yourself, or hiring a social media manager, or investing in a PR and marketing campaign.
One writer I know always cautions against “creep”; these expenses can creep up on you if you’re not careful. Create a budget, figure out what you’re willing to spend—and stick to it.
5) EDUCATE YOURSELF ABOUT THE BUSINESS OF PUBLISHING.
You need to know how the business works. You should subscribe to Publishers Marketplace, Publishers Weekly, Jane Friedman’s newsletter, your genre newsletters, Career Authors, etc. Pay attention to the cautionary tales, those writers whose first book does great and then the second book tanks, or they struggle along and don’t have a bestselling book until five books in. Study the careers of the writers around you; ask them how they’ve managed to survive the ups and downs of their publishing careers. Ask your agent how to read your royalty statement. Know if you’re earning out your advance—or not.
They say nobody wants to talk about money, but in my experience, everyone in publishing talks about money all the time. Talk to your agent and your editor and your publisher and your fellow authors about the financial realities of being a writer.
6) DON’T LIVE LIKE YOU WON THE LOTTERY.
You got a book deal, my friend, you didn’t win the lottery. And let’s remember that 70 percent of lottery winners go broke within a few years, according to the National Endowment for Financial Education. These folks are winning millions of dollars and still they manage to blow it all because they aren’t sensible. They don’t get a good accountant, they buy houses and boats and race horses, they let every relative hit them up for money. These are all the same mistakes that you should avoid making. Even if you get $1 million for your first book, you could lose it as quickly as a lottery winner if you’re not paying attention. It’s your life, and your work, and your money, so you should be paying attention.
7) CREATE INCOME STREAMS.
When you do quit that day job, make sure you have multiple income streams. (You should do this even if you haven’t quit your day job.) There are a lot of other ways to earn income: teaching, freelance editing, doing social media, creating podcasts. There are all kinds of ways you can create other income streams to help support you during the feast or famine parts of the business. All writers experience droughts and if you’re in it for the long haul, you have to plan for those droughts. This is true of everyone in every business. Publishing is no different, and you need to be prepared.
You don’t have to write just romances, or just mysteries, or just SFF, or just book-length fiction, or even just fiction. Write essays, articles, scripts, blogs, white papers, and nonfiction, as well as fiction. I know several writers who write full-time and one of the reasons they succeed because they have nonfiction gigs as well as fiction gigs, or they write two or three series in different genres and/or sub-genres.
Diversification keeps you from putting all your writing eggs in one basket, so that when your sub-genre dies or your editor leaves or your publisher goes under, you survive anyway, because you have diversified your writing portfolio.
9) MILK YOUR RESEARCH.
Say you’re writing a novel set in the world of dog shows. You do all that research to write that one story set in that arcane world, but you can use that research for far more. You can write articles and blogs for dog-related publications, do podcasts about dogs and dog shows. (Note: This will also help you sell your novel.) You can write a picture book about a dog show champion, or a nonfiction book about the controversy over dog shows and breeders. Make your research do double duty for more than one writing project.
10) ADAPT OR DIE.
The moral of the story is this. You have to be adaptable to survive and succeed in today’s world, whether you’re a writer or a hairdresser or an IT professional. (Not to mention that making a living as an artist has never been easy.) Whether you are lucky enough to nail a six-figure advance or not, be smart about your writing career. Run your small business—I Am Writer, Inc.—as efficiently and cost-effectively and strategically as you can.
Then when the winds change, and they always do, you’ll have the wind at your back.
Join us on Facebook to talk about this….