Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Can’t Make Money in Fiction

This myth “You can’t make a living writing fiction” is so clearly hogwash, I shouldn’t have to include it as a chapter in this book. All anyone has to do is look at a certain fantasy writer in England being richer than the Queen. And the number of fiction writers on the Forbes List every year. But, alas, new writers hear this all the time, constantly, from every direction, and sometimes from longer term professional writers.

So, it’s worth a long post I guess. It shouldn’t be a myth at all, but it is.

First up, where does this myth come from?

We have all seen the stupid studies that an “average” fiction writer makes something like $2,345 per year. And, of course, people look at that and think “Oh, my, no one can make any money writing fiction.” Of course, those who say that don’t know how studies are taken, or what a number like that really means.

Most of the big studies ask every person who has a dream of someday writing a novel. The writers asked maybe have finished a few short stories, maybe even mailed a couple. They go to a writer’s group regularly, and call themselves writers, because they are in the early days of learning their craft. They make no money. There are hundreds of thousands of this type of writer, all in the early days of learning. Then, of course there are the writers who will never sell, a person with the best intentions, but no real drive to actually sell anything. Or if they do sell, it’s to a small press that pays in copies or worse yet these days, they give their story away free to an online press and don’t even get a copy.

The studies ask all those writers how much they make, and the answer is almost always zero. Millions of “nothing” answers.

Then these studies include writers in organizations like SFWA, who lets a writer with three sales in the door. And Romance Writers, which has a huge chunk of membership that has never made a sale. All these thousands and thousands of unpublished or slightly published writers are included.

It’s stunning to me that the average is so high, actually. But the truth is, a lot of people have to be making a lot of money with their fiction writing to pull up all the beginning writers to above two thousand average.

Writing, to my knowledge, is the only profession that takes studies this way. It would be exactly like trying to figure out what an average lawyer makes by also including every undergraduate who is thinking of going to law school and every law student in the study about what they made working the law. Lawyers, in that type of study, would make less than two thousand average I’m betting.

So, where else does this myth come from? Duh? The answer is simple. It comes from all the people who are, for one reason or another, simply too afraid to try mailing out their fiction regularly to places who buy it. Or poor writers trapped in the agent myth, rewriting book after book for an employee. For those writers, it would be impossible to make a living at writing fiction. And thus, when you talk to them, they are telling you the truth. From their viewpoint.

How about a writer who has sold three novels and for the first time understands how the money flows? Those early novelists are saying the same thing, of course. Selling one genre book a year is not enough to make a living writing. Unless, you are fantastically lucky. But most of us aren’t that lucky, so a writer with one book a year, who has bought in to the writing slow myth can’t make a living, and they are telling other writers the truth as well. From their viewpoint.

So what about when you hear this myth spouted by a big name bestseller? I heard a New York Times bestseller in a keynote speech once tell 500 people there were only two hundred people in the nation making a living at fiction. Kris and I almost fell out of our chairs laughing, but we were just about the only people in the room laughing. Everyone else thought he was right. As it happens, I’m sitting next to him on a panel the very next hour, so as we were talking, I turned to him and said, “You know that 200 number is totally wrong.”

He look sort of stunned and said, “That’s what I had always heard.” (The myth hits again and is repeated by big name writer.)

I said, “If that’s the case, then don’t you find it pretty amazing that there are seven of the two hundred on this one panel?”

He looked down the panel at the seven of us, all full-time fiction writers, sitting on the panel, and then I asked the 100 people in the room how many were writers making at least $80,000 per year with their fiction writing. Five more people, two of whom I recognized, raised their hands. Twelve of us in the same room at a writer’s convention. That stunned the keynote speaker, let me tell you, and we ended up spending the entire panel talking about this myth. And where that 200 number came from in the myth.

Turns out, there are about 200 NEW NAMES on the major bestseller lists every year. (There are 780 yearly slots on the New York Times list alone, not counting the same number on Publishers Weekly lists, same number on the Wall Street Journal lists, and the 2,600 spots on the USA Today Bestseller list in a year.) So there are about 200 NEW NAMES in fiction hit the bestseller lists every year that have never been there before. That’s just the top spots. I’m not talking extended lists.

And notice, I’m not even counting all the major bestsellers who hit those lists all the time. They are writers as well, people as well, and they count as well. But you get an idea where the silly idea of only 200 came from.

What’s worse, this myth is so bad, that at the master class every year, first night, we ask the professional writers attending, how many writers in the United States they think make a living with their fiction. Many of them say five or ten or twenty. We never have anyone go much past a few hundred. This myth is very, very deep it seems.

So, how many writers in the United States do make a living writing only fiction? Well, that depends on how you define “living.” That’s another shocker for me from information every year from master class students. For the longest time, I figured over six figures gross per year was a living. At that level, there are thousands and thousands of fiction writers making that much and a lot more.

But lately, I’ve been forced by discussions with students to look at reality a little bit more when it comes to “making a living.” A $2,000 mortgage, $1,000 for various insurance, $1,000 for various utilities, and $2,000 more for food and other details, like clothing, trips and such. $6,000 per month after taxes needed to survive. $72,000 per year, but if you are married and your spouse works, cut that number in half. Your half, to say you are making a living writing fiction only needs to be $38,000 per year. Slightly over $3,000 per month.

And many, many people I know make nice livings on less than that. A bunch less. So my number was way high when it came to “making a living” so I have no idea how many thousands and thousands and thousands of writers make a living. It’s a lot more than I even thought it was, to be honest.

First off, how do fiction writers make money?

Numbers First: The common knowledge out there is that we make an advance against sales for our books. Now, if that’s where the income stopped, many of us would have a hard time making a living, to be honest. For those who have never had an advance, let me break this down quickly.

Say you get a $20,000 genre book advance, two book deal. Total $40,000. Not bad money at all. Advances can be much, much lower than that these days in genre, down to less than $5,000 per book without an issue. But for the math, let’s play with a decent book deal.

Each book is divided out into signing payment, acceptance payment, and publication payment. So $17,000 (after agent fee) divided by three equals three payments per book of $5,666.

Say you sell this book on January 1st, 2010. You get the contract in March, (if lucky after negotiations) sign it, get it back, and get the first payments on signing in June, 2010. First payment would be signing on book #1 and #2, for a total of $11,333. Not a bad check. I always like checks with more than one number to the left of the comma.

Your book was done when it was bought, but you and your editor in May have a conference for the rewrite, you get a letter, and you get the book back to your editor in June. They accept the book in September, (if lucky) and in November, you get your second check of $5,666. Your total income for the year about $20,000. Not bad, but unless you have some very tiny expenses and a great spouse, you’re not making a living yet.

Publication comes in the fall the following year and you’ll be lucky to get the check a month later. How about book #2? You were writing it during the spring, turned it in during the summer, and the editor got back rewrites in the fall, and you got an acceptance check in early 2011. Publication for the fall of 2012. So your income from the two books in 2011 is $11,333, and only $5,666 in 2012.

Royalties (again, if you are lucky) wouldn’t even think of coming in until 2013 at the earliest, if the book is doing fantastic and earning out quickly, and you weren’t basket accounted and other details in the contract.

Do the math on this if your advance is $5,000 instead of $20,000. See why the myth gets spread so quickly and easily, even by early published novelists?

For that one contract to ever make you enough to live on for a few years, you are going to have to get very, very lucky and have the book take off big.

So, I seemed to have just made the case for the myth. Right? So how do so many writers make a living? Best way to describe this is a metaphor.

The Magic Bakery Metaphor

Think of us (every writer) as a huge bakery and all we make is pies. Magic pies, that seem to just reform after we sell off pieces of the pie to customers. And each pie can be divided into thousands of pieces if we want.

The Magic Pie secret ingredient is called “Copyright.”

Every story we write, every novel we write, is a magic pie full of copyright.

We can sell parts of it to one publisher, other parts to another publisher, some parts to overseas markets, other parts to audio, or eBooks, or game companies, or Hollywood, or web publishers, and on and on and on. One professional writer I knew sold over 100 different gaming rights to different places on one novel. He had a very sharp knife cutting that magic pie.

So each professional writer has this Magic Bakery, making magic pies that can be cut into as many pieces as we want and many of the pieces can return as if never taken, even after being sold off. (You must learn copyright to really understand this.)

Each piece of the pie is a cash stream.

And extending this metaphor just a little bit farther, you don’t even have to have the same flavor of pie. Kris has Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Kris Nelscott, Kristine Grayson, Kris Rusch, and others, not counting combining with me every-so-often for Kathryn Wesley or Sandy Schofield.

Each story, each novel is a pie. If you spread them out over a number of names (flavors) you have a pretty consistent cash flow stream because you have so many cash flow streams working. (Assuming you are mailing them to people who will buy them.)

Advances on novels is only one cash flow stream for a few pieces of a pie. (Right now, in the news, publishers and big name writers are fighting over Kindle rights and who owns the rights to books published under contract before the mid 1990′s. They are fighting over the cash stream from a tiny slice of the pie and it is a very big and important fight.)

Repeat: Each piece of the pie is a cash stream.

Let me try to explain this using just one piece of the pie. Say you sold the tiny piece of the pie called French Translation Rights, and your contract with the French publisher limited your book to trade paper only. (You could have also sold the piece of the pie that had French hardback rights, or French audio rights, or French mass market rights, or French film rights. You still have those in the pie and can sell them at any point as well. Get the idea?) Your French publisher will have advances like your American publisher, and there will be royalties and so on. In other words, your French piece of the pie will flow money into your accounts just as your English novel sale does.

And your German sale. Your Russian. Your Italian. And so on and so on. Thousands and thousands of pieces of the magic pie can be sold.

One more time: Each piece of the pie is a cash stream.

Say you sold English Language audio rights to a story. Does selling this one piece of the pie stop you from selling any other piece of the pie? No. And when the audio contract goes out of force, the audio rights piece of the pie suddenly appears back in your pie and you can resell it again.

You create the inventory, the pie, just once, but can sell it for your entire life, having pieces you sold keep coming back to the pie over and over, and your estate can keep selling that pie for seventy years past your death. Nifty, huh?

So, one more extension: A Magic Bakery owner who opens a shop and has only one new pie per year, only one flavor, has little chance of making enough money to make a living and keep his business open. Just imagine as a customer walking into that place. A huge empty bakery with only one pie on the shelf. Customer turns and leaves.

But someone like me, who has shelves and shelves and shelves full of pies, twenty flavors, willing to do new flavors at any moment to customer demand, willing to sell off small slices of any pie at any time, has a lot more chance of having a lot of customers and making a living. Sort of basic business. I have inventory. I have a crowded store and am making more inventory all the time.

Each piece of the pie is a cash stream. (If I have four hundred pies in my shop, each with a thousand possible pieces, I have a huge inventory to make money from.)

Go back and look at my myth posts about writing fast, about rewriting, about agents. I put links to them in the post right below this one. See how it’s all starting to fall together? At least I hope you see?

Let me give you an example of how a magic pie works in real life.

I wrote a short story one afternoon while at a writer’s retreat called “In the Shade of the Slowboat Man.” Took me about five hours to create that pie. It was rejected at the market I wrote it for, so I sold it to F&SF Magazine. Decent money. Then sold another slice to the Nebula Awards Anthology, another small slice (nonexclusive anthology right) sold and then returned to the pie. Then I sold it to another reprint anthology (same right again), another small slice sold and returned to the pie magically for another person to buy, then I sold the rights to an audio play made from the story, making more off of that slice than the other three before, and then I was hired with Kris to write the script from my story, so more money yet again. Now I have that story on Kindle and Scribd selling, and have sold it one more time to yet another anthology. Well over $10,000 income from one short story, and I still have the pie on my shelf in my Magic Bakery, still there for sale.

I’m thinking of making a novel pie out of the story. Short story pie will remain, novel pie will be created and both have thousands of slices to be sold.

I had Hollywood once give me $1,000 every six months for three years simply to give them the chance to buy a slice of one pie(story) on my shelf. That’s right, I never SOLD anything from the pie. I simply said “Give me a thousand bucks every six months and I won’t let anyone else buy that one small slice of that pie.” They never touched the pie and I made six thousand bucks off of that option.

I love this business.

Now, let me do one more bit of math.

No hardback ever hits a major bestseller list by selling under 50,000 copies. Might get an extended list, but never actually hits a list (unless a real fluke of velocity and timing happens). (Don’t believe me, read Publisher’s Weekly in the late winter, their article about the top sellers and the hundreds and hundreds of books that sold above 100,000 copies in hardback. Many of them never hit a list.)

Do the math.

Example #1: 10% Royalty rate. $25.00 price. Which means the author’s share is $2.50 per book. 50,000 copies sold is $125,000 author’s share. For just the hardback edition (one slice).

Example #2: The $20,000 advance from earlier. What are the sales numbers the publisher is hoping for? Say this is a genre hardback. Do the math. $20,0000 divided by $2.50 author share of the $25.00 hardback. Publisher would be beyond happy if this book sold 8,000 copies. More than likely they would be happy with 3,000 copies, a decent paperback sale, and some overseas sales bought in the contract, with e-book sales, to make the author’s advance back.

It doesn’t take a lot of sales to make some really, really nice money in this business. I have published over 90 novels and hundreds of short stories. I have over 8 million copies of my books sold. Many of you reading this have never read a single word of any book I have written, yet I have been making a living with my fiction for over 20 years now.

Why? Because I have a very full Magic Bakery, with a large number of pies to sell pieces from. I am not a brand name, I am not a New York Times bestseller. You haven’t read any of my fiction. Yet here I am, making a living with my Magic Bakery.

I sell one slice here, another slice there, a bunch of slices over here, and I keep selling them and the new stuff as well, over and over and over. I understand copyright completely, and I use that knowledge.

Can you make a living after writing only one or two novels and a few short stories? The answer is no, of course. You have a bakery with no inventory.

But once you fill that Magic Bakery, once you have customers who know where to buy, know that your product is good, quality product, then the money will come. Each piece of the pie is a cash stream. And a writer with a good inventory and the ability to sell the inventory to customers can make a large amount of money with fiction writing.

If I can do it, if I am one of the thousands and thousands of fiction writers making a living with our fiction writing, you can do it as well. Just write, finish what you write, mail what you write to someone who can buy it. You know, Heinlein’s Rules will build you one very nice Magic Bakery. In a very short amount of time, actually.

Oh, yeah, it’s also a lot of fun.

Copyright 2009 Dean Wesley Smith.

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54 Responses to Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Can’t Make Money in Fiction

  1. Sam says:

    I want to shake your hand when next we meet, Dean. You and Kris both. I cannot believe I have let these myths (spouted at me by both writers in general and family/friends who are concerned for my financial security) keep me writing slowly so I could torture myself with “quality” concerns, sending out to agents and trying to write to what they say they are looking for, failing to write and finish what I write (because if it’s easy or fast it must be crap, right?), rewriting endlessly, and then thinking that there is no way I can make a living at this writing thing I love so much.

    I’ve always had my doubts about these myths, but you two blow them right out of the water and stand as proof of your experience against the myths. I don’t know how to thank you enough, I really don’t, except to say that if/when we meet, I plan to be a full-time writer supporting myself on my writing income, just like you guys, and that the drink AND the meal are on me.

    Sam

  2. I have always thought those surveys about writing income were specious at best. You don’t even have to be a math-whiz to understand that there’s something wrong with them, either.

    I don’t know what Rowling pulls in every year, but I read a couple of years back that Stephen King pulls in $20M+ per year and that the Tolkien Estate pulls in about the same. So, between those two alone, we’re talking $40M+ PER YEAR. To get to the average you cited earlier, $2345/yr, would require 17,057.56 writers responding to that survey, all of them reporting an annual income of $0 from their writing alone. And that’s just factoring in only King and Tolkien. Nevermind J. K. Rowling. Nevermind Dean Koontz. Nevermind Nora Roberts. Nevermind Michael Chabon, Ken Follett, Tom Clancy, Stephenie Meyer, Stephen R. Donaldson, Dan Brown, Jack Higgins, Tess Gerritsen, and on and on and on. For everyone of them, as you obviously know, thousands more making zero, zilch, and nada damn thing can be added to the roster of those who had to have been surveyed to come up with such a low average.

    To me, a survey that would be halfway meaningful (if surveys are even capable of being meaningful) would be one that reflected the average yearly income of writers who earn their income from their writing ALONE (nevermind income from writing-related activities, such as speaking engagements for which they are compensated). This survey would no’t include people who have sold only one novel, or two novels and a handful of short stories, or just one short story (for say $5 and a contributor’s copy). Anyone whose writing income is parttime would be excluded. Obviously, this would exclude anyone whose primary income is from a factory job, or waitressing, or working at a retail store, or selling insurance, or, like me, working at a high tech job. Now that’s a number that would interest me.

    It would also be interesting if the same thing was done, but a distinction was made between non-fiction income versus fiction income.

    Numbers like these are interesting, but, ultimately, I think they’re meaningless.

  3. Yes indeed! And now with the e-book and eReader “revolution” heating up as we write, there’s several more pie slices. Probably now even the self-publisher/distributor can do very well.

    Basically, need good content, good marketing and having enough sense not to blindly take the first offer.

    Good on ya!

  4. Jim Johnson says:

    I love the magic bakery analogy, Dean. Thanks for that.

  5. I’d like to add a couple of other points. Surveys of this sort are really quite pointless not only with freelance writing (regardless whether one is writing fiction or non-fiction), but also pointless in industries like the cinema. They’re useful for positions where people are salaried or paid hourly. (I’m paid hourly.)

    I was talking to my girlfriend about this, and she was saying it would be more useful if surveys would report their statistics in a fashion like this: 77% of writers make less than $2000 per year, 9% make between $2001 and $10,000, 5% make between $10,000 and $40,000, and so on.

  6. Is that what we ought to be calling the Smith ‘n Rusch compound out in Lincoln City? The Magic Bakery?

    I’m just stoked that I finally brought in some bona fide cash this year, for the first time ever. And it wasn’t $20 + contributor’s copies, either. Like, enough money to pay some serious bills with. Very timely, considering that December always manages to be the single tightest month in the entire year, for my family.

    Dean, I suspect a large part of the problem — with this myth, and others — is that just about everybody who starts out, starts out believing that there is an Us and a Them. Us is the aspirants and the wannabes and the hopefuls, and the Them are the big-name-bestselling famous authors who are Extra Special and have been gifted with luck and talent and everything everyone in the Us pool wants to have, but deep down fears will never be possible.

    The ‘no money in writing’ myth plays into that perfectly, because it presents one of those L-curve models where 99% of the writers all make next to nothing, and then the bend in the graph happens and suddenly that 1% is making millions upon millions, getting movie deals, etc, etc.

    One thing that blew me away in June, when you and Kris discussed it — though it had not at that time been named The Magic Bakery — was income streams, and how even writers who don’t make bestseller can accrue a better-than-good yearly income, as long as they keep selling and are smart with how they sell their rights, and to whom.

    It’s these business aspects that are boggling to most of us, and you’re doing the lot of us a service by exploding some of this in a public place, though I wouldn’t bet money on people suddenly dropping the myth. I suspect there is a certain romanticism at work, too, in that writers tend to be infatuated with our own struggle. “Oh woe to me, the poor writer, forever denied my gold and silver!”

    I scanned my first writing paycheck, and have a printed duplicate of it framed and hanging on my wall at my writing desk now. I look at it every day, and I think of the streams — excuse me, the pie slices — and I (metaphorically) salivate.

    I seem to recall once arguing on your SNW web board that nobody could make a real living at writing, that everyone should just plan on keeping their day jobs.

    I recall you busted me in the chops pretty good for that.

    Sorry to be a myth-spreader. Consider me reformed.

  7. Dear Mr. Smith,

    Thank you so much for your excellent offering about the Magic Bakery!

    I, too, have always been suspicious of such skewed “statistics” that keep the writing magazines in business, the MFA schools chugging along, and megapublishers publishing.

    Here at http://www.LongShortStories.com, I have taken my marketing degree and my experience at writing more than 65 short stories, DIRECTLY to the global reading community.

    No middleperson
    No cutting of precious trees
    No agents
    No big-box book retailers taking a cut
    No overhead
    No carbon footprint (OK, maybe a tad)

    And am I successful?

    I answer that I am, setting out with a Five Year Plan and plowing back all my front-end income into making more pies and pie-pieces as you so eloquently stated.

    My best advice to other fiction writers is to “BE what you wish to see!” and not believe for a minute the negative, self-fulfilling prophesies of statistic skewers.

    May your Christmas be bright and your bakery just right!

    Wayne C. Long
    Writer/Editor/Digital Publisher
    http://www.LongShortStories.com
    Where the Short Story LIVES!

  8. L. M. May says:

    Ditto on what everyone is saying, Dean.

    Those writer salary surveys drive me nuts because they’re so sloppily done and presented in such a manner that the data is worthless.

    And the Magic Bakery metaphor is terrific to help explain things to newbie writers.

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, everyone, for the nice comments. Glad some of that is making sense. I had a couple different ways of explaining cash streams to people, but just couldn’t make them work until the idea of the Magic Bakery came up. I’ve always described copyright as a pie of rights in a work, just took that metaphor and extended to ugly lengths. (grin)

      And those surveys are just too damn silly for words. Yet they seem to always make news and are spread by every new writer. Never understood that.

      Of course, if I took an income pole of the 100 professional writers I knew personally, we’d have just as skewed a number, far far over six figures, which would have no meaning at all either worth talking about.

      Thanks again for the comments and support on the donations. Very much appreciated here in my magic bakery. Cheers, Dean

  9. Amanda McCarter says:

    Well of course you can make money writing. You can make money doing anything really. If some lazy slob can sit on a corner, beg for change, and make 6 figures a year, then surely someone who actually puts some effort into their life can do the same if not better.

    However, I never realized how many revenue sources there are for a writer. The numbers are staggering. 10,000 on one short story? Hell, I’d be happy with 100. Truly a mind-boggling and informative post. Thank you, Dean.

  10. JohnsonB = blog comment spam.

  11. Dean, nice analysis. It reminds me of a signing I went to, where Kristin Cashore said that it was the foreign rights deals for her best seller Graceling that finally let her write full time. Out of curiousity, how long did it take you to build up the bakery to a point where you could make a dependable living from just writing, and how many books/stories was that?

    • dwsmith says:

      Actually, Livia, as with more writers, I didn’t understand this Magic Bakery when I was starting out. But I listened to the likes of Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Lawrence Block, who could all write a story in a day, and Harlan often wrote award winners in bookstore windows in an afternoon on a manual typewriter. And then I found Heinlein’s Rules and with the combination, I was off, trying to improve my craft and writing like crazy.

      I wrote one short story per week (about 44 per year after misses) and mailed them all and started selling after a year at this level. I wrote my first two novels three years into the process. Then, except for a few I had sold, I lost it all in a house fire and had to start over with almost no inventory. (Lost both novels and about 150 short stories).

      I wrote about ten stories per year and three novels in the next five years (mostly due to editing stupidity I took on ) then went back to writing full time and picked up speed in 1992. At this point I was working full time as a writer, with part time editing. Not sure when exactly I made the cross-over, besides that I have never worked a real world job since 1988. But I can tell you during those first years of freelance I had very little expenses. That helped a lot. And allowed me time to build inventory.

      Problem with this business is you, the author, just never know when you’ve written a good story that will resell all over the place, and when you think you have written a good story that won’t ever sell. So the key is to follow Heinlein’s Rules, and Ray and Harlan’s advice and just write a lot and put it out there.

      But to answer your question directly. If you write two short stories per year and one novel per year, you will never get there, at least not in a generation or two. But if you write three novels per year and a dozen short stories per year, it won’t take you long at all to pick up real speed and practice enough to learn your craft.

      Hoped that rambling made sense.
      Cheers
      Dean

  12. Chuck Emerson says:

    first time I’ve heard you use the term Magic Bakery.
    I luv it.
    Happy Holidays to you, Kris, and your Muses.
    [smile]

    • dwsmith says:

      Chuck, Actually, just came up with it to try to explain how writers make money at this business. When we were first coming into the business, and starting to sell, a long-time professional turned to us and said, “You’re at the fun point where you start going to the post office and checks drop out of the mail.”

      I thought he was nuts, but guess what, that’s how it happens. When you have enough slices of pie out there earning money, checks just drop out of nowhere. A royalty check from an online publisher, a reprint check from an overseas country, reprint checks from short stories, and on and on and on. Sometimes you know they are coming, often you don’t. No beginning writer believes that. I didn’t, because it seems to make no sense.

      But if you understand copyright, and understand how many thousands of rights there are to sell (license) with every story you create, this starts to make more sense. If I had to make my living only on advances from novels, I’d be living in a shack somewhere eating almost nothing. But luckily, that’s not the way it works, so I live on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s all in how you slice it.
      Cheers, Dean

  13. Adam Colston says:

    Excellent post. I was unaware of how much it was possible to earn from a short story–I thought I’d done well recently, but now realise how it can spiral nicely out of control…

    Like crashing upwards.

    You mentioned having links to some other posts you written about writing. I’m probably being dumb but couldn’t find them.

    • dwsmith says:

      Adam, just go to my main page on my web site and scroll to the post right below this one. That’s a post titled KILLING THE SACRED COWS without an focus subtitle. It has links to all my other Sacred Cows posts.

      Thanks for the comments. Yes, it does spiral nicely upward. Fun when it starts happening, that’s for sure.

      Cheers
      Dean

  14. Pingback: Can’t Make Money in Fiction? Who Says? « Shadows in Mind

  15. Vicky says:

    Hey, just spent a few hours browsing your site (well, just the myths bit so far, but will be sure to search more thoroughly at another time) and I must say, it’s really a huge eye opener.

    And so, I wanted to thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience. It’s really appreciated. I’m only nineteen, and am still wondering what it is I want from life (career-wise), but I do know that I love writing, and that it is a huge part of my life.

    Once more, thank you.

  16. I read recently where William Sanders — a self-declared “retiree” from fiction writing — went to the mailbox and discovered a royalty check for something he’d sold and which had subsequently been re-printed ages ago. In his words, “A nice little three-digit check.” Also in his words, “I have to admit that’s one item for the plus side [of being a writer]: even after you quit doing it, you can still go on getting paid for it.”

    I’ve been filling my wife in on how this all works, and she’s intruiged. Until now she’s been insisting that I switch my focus over to screenplays, because she sees stuff like AVATAR on the movie screen and thinks screenwriting is where the big money will be.

    I told her that all I have to do is have some books on the shelves that get optioned, and suddenly we’ll be getting money for free, just on the off chance that someone in Hollyweird actually wants to move forward with a project. The movie doesn’t even need to get made, and we’ll get paid thousands as long as the option is held. If multiple books are being optioned, that’s many thousands, potentially.

    That raised her eyebrows a little.

    I was e-mailing some co-creative friends of mine who work on a homespun SF space opera audio serial called Searcher & Stallion, and I was telling them how I thought S&S could potentially be a ‘franchise’ cash cow, because there is potential for all kinds of licensing, assuming the product gets in front of the right people and attracts enough interest.

    The more I explore the Copyright Pie, the more it literally seems like a loaves ‘n fishes kind of thing: no matter how much the basket gets passed, if you manage the licensing properly, the basket will never be empty.

    $10,000 on a single story… That just excites me endlessly.

    • dwsmith says:

      Only one way you can empty the basket completely, or as I like to think of it, have the entire pie leave the bakery. That’s selling “All Rights” in one fashion or another. Never do that unless you are hired to write in someone else’s universe, like Star Trek. Then you have no other choice because you don’t own the pie in the first place and are only hired to write a slice of the pie for the pie owner.

      But never sell all rights to anything original you wrote. Ever. You just don’t know, as the author, what will be big and what won’t be. Authors are the worst judges of their own work, no matter how much they will claim otherwise. You may think it’s crap, but keep the money coming in from the crap as well as the stuff you think is quality work.

      By the way, I’ve made a ton more than $10,000 on one short story. A bunch more on numbers of stories. I think my leader is the story that’s in Writers of the Future Volume #1 and Best of Writers of the Future. But it’s running a close nose ahead of a time traveling jukebox story I wrote called Jukebox Gifts. Both are a distance past $25,000 each in income. Kris has a number of stories in that range as well, maybe higher.

      Cheers, Dean

  17. OK Dean, stupid newbie author question: how in the heck do you get people interested in picking up a story that’s already been published elsewhere? Is it simply word-of-mouth? Your story gets talked about, so someone writes or calls and says they want it? Or do you actively market the thing?

    Larry Niven once said that anything worth selling once, is worth selling again, and again, and again. You’re preaching much of the same doctrine.

    But I’m looking at my Writers of the Future story and I am sorta scratching my head about how — when the anthology comes out next year — I would go about re-selling that same story to other venues or anthologies? Do they find me, or do I find them?

    • dwsmith says:

      Brad, a lot of the time, they find you. But there are a few tricks to this that all writers need to think about, but seldom do. First off, time. Time is your friend with this stuff. Contracts have limited times and you need to pay attention to that time frame in all contracts you sign, and with novels, really, really pay attention to reversion clauses. Those are critical to writers of novels.

      Reselling stuff happens over time. I sold the Jukebox story back in the early 1990′s, it got picked up for a couple reprint anthologies over the next year or two, then went silent. Then it got picked up for a magazine called Jukebox Collector, which never published fiction, but liked the story and wanted to include it. Then it got running a Hollywood option, then got put into another collection, and will end up in a collection of jukebox stories and also up on this site and in Kindle and on Scribd and other places, making sales and getting out there so more people can see it and offer to buy a right or two.

      And that’s how it works. And by the way, the story you sold to Writers of the Future will get you money. Then it will get you free plane tickets and rooms and a very expensive workshop. You don’t think the plane tickets and free food and free workshop don’t have a value that is directly attributed to that story. I met Kris because of my story in Writers of the Future. I got to sit in a chair in the United Nations because of that one short story. So keep in mind next year when you are enjoying all the great stuff at Writers of the Future, it all came from your writing one short story and mailing it.

      By the way, because of another writing project, Kris and I got two free trips to Hollywood and about a week of free rooms at an expensive hotel there. And another writing project allowed me wonder around the lot at Paramount Studios on another free trip. And free trips to New York on another short story. You write and put it out there and it happens. Time.

      Oh, and you can send stories to overseas markets after sold here, or before for that matter. But that’s up to you. Just like mailing to markets here.

      Cheers
      Dean

  18. Pingback: Are Non-Genre Authors Slow? Part I « Shadows in Mind

  19. Zoe Winters says:

    I find this all very intriguing. And the few myths that I’ve held onto up until now, I find your posts liberating me from those. I can’t imagine someone being angry over something which will make them a more free human being.

    At any rate, I this particular chapter/article really hits home for me because I’m an indie author. I’m writing and producing things under a few different names on my own, and if/when some of them are successful enough I would look into selling subsidiary rights. I can see a lot of potential in the ebook revolution and print-on-demand. Will I get “rich?” Hell if I know. But I do believe there is a strong potential for me to make money following the magic bakery principle which I’ve been calling “multiple profit centers.”

    Some of it is fiction, some of it is nonfiction, some of it is monetized websites. Just a whole bunch of different things.

    I have three releases coming out in March and I’m very excited about the challenge and all the places I intend to go.

  20. lizardyoga says:

    thanks so much for this – it’s really encouraging and deconstructs the situation in a much more helpful way than I’ve seen before. I’m in Britain, not the States but I imagine it’s substantially similar. Your article gave me hope – particularly the bit about cutting up the pie! I recently wrote an article about Home Ed for one magazine, re-jigged it for another, then rewrote it as fiction for another.
    Thanks!

  21. I have been teaching composition to a young man still in HS. It is obvious that he sees writing as somewhat akin to being caught with a Playgirl magazine in his room.

    I have sent him a link to your website. What he does with it is up to him … but it should be immediately obvious that writing is a respectable way for a macho sort of guy to earn a substantial living and drive, if he wishes, a macho kind of car.

    It may never get him a house on a hill overlooking the Pacific, but it should get him out of the slums of Detroit.

    Thanks for crunching the numbers for us. It looks like you have done an honest job and that’s all any honest man needs to see.

    – Bill

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, Bill, for the kind comments. I hope the young man sees the possible ways to come at fiction in this modern world. It’s a great time right now to be coming into writing. And you should be complimented on helping someone forward. Keep up the great work.

  22. Nova says:

    Thank you sooooooooooooo, much for this article!
    I am going crazy over here, trying to get my first novel published. I’m reading all these blogs by these agents and sometimes publishing people with these superior attitudes. They are basically saying “you are going to give us BLOOD and we are going to give you the BUS FARE to get over here”. And you’d better act like you would die for that bus fare too!

    Magic pie! You are so right! If I ever become a big shot author you better believe I owe you a hug and a dinner too!

  23. Mr. Smith, I’m finding it difficult to express my gratitude (a bit embarrassing for someone who aspires to “express” for a living).

    Simply …thank you for sharing all of us this information. Your experience and expertise are invaluable. Look for a signed copy of my first published novel in the mail to you (as soon as that day comes).

    My best,
    g

  24. …as you can see, my difficulty expressing translated to the keyboard.

    Let me try that last thought again.

    “Simply …thank you for sharing all of this information.”

    Much better!
    g

  25. I can’t thank you enough for this very clear and honest post. I know as a new writer, I feel like I just floundering around trying to figure it all out. Pieces of the puzzle are starting to fall into place but I’m still missing a few :) This helped fill a lot of those spaces. I am going to come back and read more. Thank you!

    Blessings,
    Mel
    Please feel free to stop by: Trailing After God

  26. greggarious says:

    Nova wrote:
    If I ever become a big shot author you better believe I owe you a hug and a dinner too!

    If she means one of the big names regularly on the bestseller lists, making millions a year, then I think she missed the point of the essay.
    If she means big enough to make a decent living writing
    full-time and earning Residual Income (another term for receiving multiple payments for the same ‘product’ over time) using the various markets suggest in the essay, then indeed hugs and dinner are a good reciprocation.

    One thing I try to remember is that as a writer I am providing a service to editors, helping them meet their needs and reach their goals, keep their jobs, impress their bosses/publication owners, and indeed further their careers and live their dreams to be recognized and celebrated for their skill and diligence in finding good fiction–that meet the needs, etc, of their readers.
    Editors and readers both might not care if the story has been published before, so long at it meets these needs, etc.
    And any submission to any and all markets is not only meeting editors and readers needs, etc, but also mine–of course.

    One question: I’ve seen that original first-time publication can earn at least 5 cents/word, and second publication, also called reprint (if it’s in print and not e-publication) earns only 1 cent/word. ? How can I generate decent reprint or repost sales at this rate?

    • dwsmith says:

      Greggarious, by self-publishing it after the first initial publication. Over time, it will earn a ton more and won’t hurt your other reprint rights.

  27. Great article. I made more money writing novels last year than I ever have in a day job. Of course, I’ve been writing non-stop, seven days a week, 10-12 hours a day.

    Jesus, I’m tired.

  28. Lee McAulay says:

    I’ve been thinking about this subject for some time now and your recent post “Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Killing a Career” has helped to clarify my thoughts.
    If the question is “how much does an author earn” then you can average out all the titles that sold in a given year and list these by author name, which is probably happens in the studies mentioned. However, if you ask “how much does a writer earn” and include all the names under which they publish… then I think this is what you are alluding to. A different thing altogether.
    For example, if all five pen names (“writers”) listed on this site earned an average of $1K per year, the real-name writer makes $5K. Neat.

    • dwsmith says:

      You got it, Lee. We add in everything and trust me, dripping small amounts do fill buckets. (grin) Actually teaching a workshop this weekend with twenty-plus professionals on just that topic. Secrets of making a living with fiction writing.

  29. AJ says:

    Another newbie question: I’m a bit confused about how you’re getting this magic pie out into the marketplace. Are you saying you bypass agents altogether? I understand the idea of licensing off the various rights to a story but are you self-publishing, selling directly to publishers, or both? This is just blowing my mind! Then again, I can’t even imagine selling something to F&SF, either…

    • dwsmith says:

      Oh, wow, AJ, there are a ton of ways, and I’ll be updating this post as I get slowly through the updates of this series getting it all ready to go into book form over the summer. But in short, yes. Yes, you sell stuff directly as an indie publisher these days and yes, you also go at times with some projects to traditional publishers or with short fiction to top magazines. What happens when your work gets seen is that others get interested if your work is good. Especially with indie publishing. Overseas publishers and Hollywood are now looking for projects and books in indie publishing. So lots of chances to increase cash flow. Far more now than even two years ago, and it was good then. Again, I will update this chapter some over the next month or so.

  30. Alex Hajicek says:

    Hi Dean

    2 Newbie questions

    1) Is there a good resource for finding all those new online short fiction magazines. I’ve order writers market but somehow I have a feeling a lot of these new markets might be overlooked.

    I’d like to work on writing a few short stories a week.

    2) Is there a list of books you would recommend on both the business side of publishing and the writing “craft” side of the profession that doesn’t collide with you general premise. IE “You have to spend 10 years re-writing a book.”

    General Compliments (Grin)

    Very new here to the world of writing and your work but I must say it’s nice to see someone who isn’t arrogant doomsayer.

    I.E

    “Writing fiction is terrible, you’ll never make it… you could never do what I do. You have to be born a writer. blah blah blah”

    You’ve truly given me permission to do what I want to do and take myself seriously. I always wanted to be a writer.

    I know I’m leagues away from that dream but somehow you’ve convinced me that if I make the proper sacrifices, plan for the years ahead I can make it.

    I can achieve that dream not by a stroke of luck but like any other field “I.E Doctor/Lawyer” by working my ass off and out producing everyone else.

    Good Day,
    Alex Hajicek

    PS I read all those predator/alien books as a kid. Haha never knew you were behind some of them. I loved them (grin)

    Peace

    • dwsmith says:

      Alex, wow, not sure to be honest. I know there are a bunch of them out there that pay pro rates. Tor.Com being one, another owned by Orson Scott Card being another. I just don’t pay attention at the moment since I tend to stick with Asimov’s and Analog and then just put the story up electronically. But I do know there are a ton. If you put this question on this post after I get finished updating it shortly, you will get better response from others who know. Should be this week some time, so watch my front page on this blog.

      Actually, writing books by Ray Bradbury or Lawrence Block are great ones that don’t push the rewriting myth.

      And Alex, you have a great attitude. Yes, this can be done with focused practice and work. And it’s a ton of fun. So keep the great attitude and stay focused on learning, writing, and releasing.

      Yeah, I wrote a number of the Predator books, an Alien novel, and a Predator/Alien novel as well I think. Great fun working for Dark Horse, even though now they would never remember my name. (grin) Actually, I wrote two of them under the name Sandy Schofield which was a joint name with Kris but I did most of them and another I did alone under a ghost name. They were great fun.

  31. Melynda says:

    Dean,

    I apologize, I didn’t read through all of the comments after I read this article (and I think it is a very informative and amazing one, at that!) and I hope you haven’t already been asked this question and I happened to skip over it. (I apologize, it is fairly late and I do have to be up for work very early tomorrow morning.)
    My question is… How do you “learn copyright” as you mentioned in your article. I know the major part about making money as a writer is having good business sense and knowing what and how to sell your “product”, but how can I (a non-published writer) become fluent in the language of “copyright” so that I have a better chance of making a living off of my work once I have started to fill my “Magic Bakery” with “pies”?

    Just to give you a little info, I am a 25 year old Office Manager of a Veterinary Hospital and an aspiring author. I have self-published a poem but as of now, nothing else is complete enough to seek publication. I am in the process of writing my first book (YA Fiction) and plan to have that finished by the end of 2011. I am also setting a goal of writing at least 3 books in 2012 (or a variation of books and short stories). I understand that I am very naive to the writing world, but I am also a firm believer in “you can do anything you put your mind to”. With the right amount of knowledge, skill and committment, I don’t doubt that success is obtainable.

    Your information and feedback is greatly appreciated!
    ~Melynda

    • dwsmith says:

      Melynda,

      The Copyright Handbook put out by NoLo Press. That’s how you start to learn and keep looking at it all the time to pick up what you need. Glad you are smart enough to know early on that you need to know copyright. Most newer writers don’t even bother to understand what they are trying to sell and thus get into all kinds of problems they don’t even know about for the most part. Well done.

  32. Melynda says:

    Thank you for the information!
    I will look into it and keep revisiting and “re-learning” as need.

    I think being a published author making money is a lot like a part-time self-employeed commission based job I had selling cookware. “You get out of it what you put into it” and that is talking about the hard, tedious business side of the work. Not the fun cooking, show and tell part. If I wanted to make money is sales, I couldn’t just rely on the fact that I knew I had a high quality product in my hand, I had to know it inside and out. I had to understand how the “mother company” worked, how the taxes were calculated, how payments were processed, how to replace a product that was less that satisfactory, etc.
    It was easy going to someone’s house and cooking for them and their guests but then again, writing is easy too. But I don’t want to just “show” my product. I want to “sell” it and sell it well, knowing that I understand the business and am making the best possible sell.

    Thanks again for the info! I really appreciate it!

    ~Melynda

  33. GrendelsWish says:

    I’m a neophyte to the business of writing. I enjoyed you the info you just graced us with! —oh no, i just ended a sentence with a preposition ;p — There was talk of many pen-names. It eludes me how one can utilize a pen name and desposit their check. Do all the checks from various names come with only your given name on it? I hope you understand my confusion. Do you have an article about pen names?

    Thanks again for your advice and inspiration!

    • dwsmith says:

      Grendels, yes, all checks come to your given legal name. The pen names are only the author name the book is printed under. Your contracts are all you, no matter the pen name.

  34. Sheri says:

    Wow – THANK YOU Dean! I’m working on my second novel. I finished the first one this summer and proceeded to get 50+ rejections from agents. Needless to say, it took the fizz out of my high hopes and caused me to delay starting the second book. If I hadn’t enjoyed writing the first one so much, I never would have found the gumption to start a second. Your post gives us all hope and inspriration to fill the Magic Bakery as fast as we can!

    You are an angel of inspiration and the info shared by further discussions also helped me greatly. God bless you for shining light where it is so badly needed for the newbies.

    It is worth noting that not only does the writer get residual monies, I see your 2009 blog is getting residual input/appreciation, too. Gotta love it! :)

  35. Mpho says:

    Hi Dean, thanks for the great article (relevent even 3 yrs later ;)) Much needed insight an dthe kind of ‘get going and do it already’ I needed. Though Im in a different country..dare I say continent…I believe the pie can still be sliced and sold in exactly the same way as over there.

  36. Fay Lin says:

    This post was really inspirational! I heard a version of the “only 200 writers make a living writing fiction” from a publisher who came to speak to my university creative writing class. But the number wasn’t 200, the number was 3! Now, I could name 3 authors who probably make a living from their writing off the top of my head, but for whatever reason I believed him. After graduating, I became convinced that there was no hope and basically stopped writing fiction (at least finishing anything salable.) I was at a party last week and the conversation turned to what degrees we had. I said, “creative writing, but there’s no money in it so I am a clerk.” The girl i was talking to works in marketing and suggested I put my stories on the kindle. I looked into it and I discovered there are savvy writers making THOUSANDS off e-book sales. I came across your post as I am still researching, in disbelief, that there is–surprise!–a market for books if one is willing to write them. Your analogy with the pie is great and by stressing the importance of understanding copyright law you have shown me some of the important “business” aspects of writing that need to be focused on if it is to be pursued seriously as a career. I went to school to learn how to do this and I was never informed of anything involving copyright law, self-publishing or e-book publishing was seen as the absolute bottom of the barrel in terms of professionalism, and I was told “the number of writers making a living off fiction in America–THREE!”!!!!!!!

  37. Jai Kulkarni says:

    I am writing my first novel ever. I searched in the net to get some idea about the money made in this field and I must say a large number of these search results almost made me quit the idea of writing altogether. Thanks to this article, I think I will complete my novel. Money making is just a business and one needs to handle it like a business. Thanks so much for this article. You are helping a lot of aspiring writers to continue with their aspirations.

    • dwsmith says:

      Jai, keep going and keep having fun and learning. Learning and enjoying the process is the key. You do that and the money will come.

  38. Diana McCauley says:

    I am also writing my first full length novel, though I have written fanfiction and short stories on and off for years. I have a good job in my field of study, but would eventually love to make the jump to writing full time. This has been very helpful and encouraging, so thank you. I have always wanted to make a living from writing, but will admit I was talked out of it. So here’s to second chances. I was not even really aware that short stories could be included in my “inventory”. Which has grown considerably at this discovery. I’ll start trying to get some of the short stories published while writing the longer work.

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