the sad financial truth about writing

So you want to be a writer and become rich and famous?  You might want to dial down your expectations a bit — at least, in regards to the “getting rich” part.

An organization called Novelists, Inc. (NINC) conducted a survey of its membership last year.  NINC is a terrific group, by the way, to which I belong.  Its membership is restricted to multi-published authors.  NINC queried a random sample of 100 of their members.  All 100 members responded, so this is a good sampling, with no self-selection involved.  These 100 authors had published a median number of sixteen (sixteen!) novels apiece.  Their genres were all over the board, with most of them published in mystery/thriller or women’s fiction/romance.  Nine percent of them have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.  Nineteen percent of them had appeared on the USA Today bestseler list.  Clearly these are accomplished professionals. 

So they must be raking in the bucks, right? 

These writers were asked: “Do you (or could you) support yourself on your current writing income?”  The results:

Yes — 22%

Probably Yes — 9%

Probably No — 17%

No — 52%

These are depressing figures.  Only 31% of multi-pubished novelists are able to support themselves on their writing. 

Frankly, I’m not surprised by the results.  The novel-writing business is in many ways like the acting business.  We hear about Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, but we seldom hear about the struggling actor who’s moonlighting as a waiter.  We hear about JK Rowling, but we seldom hear about the mid-list author who’s written twenty original paperbacks.  Writing, like acting, is a buisness of dreams.  Sometimes those dreams come true; sometimes they don’t. 

So why do writers stick with it?  Because most of us love what we’re doing.  And we’d do it anyway, whether you paid us or not. 

9 replies
  1. Anne Germain
    Anne Germain says:

    It would be very interesting to know (well for us French people at least) what the results would be here in France, because, from what I hear, more and more people are trying to get published (and consequently it is getting more and more difficult) and those people think they could live from their writing and give up their jobs.
    Anyway to know that you depend on your writing to earn a living must be quite exhausting and hard for the nerves (is this the reason why you, Tess, are sending this article instead of being in your bed at 6 am???) because how can you know that you’ll still be as good as you were before (is that you who recently mentioned the difficult task of writing a second book?)? And if you can’t live from it…

  2. Tess
    Tess says:

    as you noticed, I wrote this post at 6 am. And as you guessed, it’s because I’m anxious about finishing the next book, so I find that I wake up these days at 5 am, just so I can get to my desk early!

  3. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    ‘So why do writers stick with it? Because most of us love what we’re doing. And we’d do it anyway, whether you paid us or not.’

    Absolutely! 🙂

  4. Bill_Peschel
    Bill_Peschel says:

    Well, that’s a beginning. I would have liked to have seen more information. Do genre writers stand a better chance of becoming self-supporting? What about the time between publications? There’s a big difference between the sales of a literary writer and a paperback mystery novelist, and a writer who publishes yearly compared to one who publishes every other year.

    Also, how much are these people earning. It’s quite possible for two people, earning over $100,000 to be one paycheck away from disaster, while those who earn far less have learned to live within their means. (Hmmm, not to mention those who live in NYC needing quite a bit more income to meet expenses than, say, someone in Iowa City.

  5. pbalester
    pbalester says:

    I don’t expect to be able to support myself on my writing, now or in the future (even though my first novel is getting some good word of mouth), simply because it is so hard to achieve those sales numbers.

    So why do I do it? Because I had a story that I wanted to tell, one that hadn’t been told before. Because of the passion.

  6. David Montgomery
    David Montgomery says:

    Let’s assume that a person needs to gross $100k per year in order to support themselves. (A not unreasonable figure, I think, for most of the country.)

    Leaving aside whatever other expenses are associated with a writing career — and there are many — an author would need to earn $120k (minus agent’s commission of 15%) to get to $102k.

    To achieve a figure of $120k, the author would need to sell 30,000 books in hardcover (average $3 royalty each) and 60,000 books in paperback (average $.50 royalty each).

    That’s not an outrageous number of books by any means — but it is far beyond the potential of most authors.

  7. struggler
    struggler says:

    David, the average income in Britain (where I live) is apparently £26,000 pa, equivalent to US$52,000, or about half the income that you suggest is ‘not unreasonable’. If I earned a consistent $52,000 a year from writing full-time (after expenses) then I would not hesitate to do just that. I don’t need to be rich to be happy. I spend a great deal of time with my two young children, I’m able to take them to school and pick them up later, and I read them bedtime stories every night.

    So if I can sell 15000 hardbacks and 30000 paperbacks, I’ll be a happy writer. But I am well aware that even that modest target is far easier said than done.

  8. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    Well, we can only pray that we land in the 31% (or, hopefully, the 22 DEFINITE percent) that can live off of it. I’m realistic about my odds, and I’ve suffered through earning my Marketing degree when all I’ve wanted to do was go to a cafe with my laptop (don’t judge me on how cliche that sounds!). I’ve done the realistic, sensible thing… now I want to DREAM.

    And, if it doesn’t work out, I can always kip a tent with the donkeys, right Tess? I’m kidding, I could never live in Maine (the snow in Boston is bad enough!). Plus, the donkeys scare me. As do the porcupines. :-[

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