Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Writing Business Basics


When I first started writing, I had no idea how the business of writing worked, and specific information about what writers earned was practically nonexistent. The business side of writing is still surprisingly opaque, partly because individual writers are reluctant to reveal publicly what they earn and partly because the range of earnings varies so much that it’s hard for a new writer to be able to predict what a project might be worth. Now with the potential for independent publishing (as opposed to traditional publishing with an established, royalty-paying publisher), writers have more publishing options than ever, but the indie model, where 200,000+ new titles appear each year, has even more uncertain variables.

Let’s keep it simple. Here are a few basics on finding a traditional publisher and what happens financially.

1. Agents. Writers rarely submit their work directly to publishers these days. It’s far more common to find a literary agent first and depend on that agent to submit your work to editors (who acquire novels) at publishing houses. In addition to negotiating contracts, an agent may suggest revisions and advise a writer on her career. Note that a legitimate agent never charges any fees up front, so avoid any agent who charges for services or expenses. Instead, after a deal is made, it’s standard for an agent to earn 15% of the writer’s income. A great starting point for seeking an agent is the searchable database AgentQuery.com.

2.  Skipping an Agent. Certain romance publishers, like Harlequin and Kensington, do accept unagented submissions. They explain submission guidelines on their websites, and offer a standard contract that doesn’t allow for significant negotiation for new writers. On the upside, Harlequin has a huge distribution for its category romance lines, but on the downside, its royalty rate (6%) is one of the lowest in the industry, and getting rights of a book back is nearly impossible. 

3. Timeline. It typically takes from a year to a year and a half from the time you sell a book to the time it hits a bookshelf. The time allows for revisions, a production schedule, marketing, and distribution.

4. Payment.  A writer with a contract from a traditional publisher typically receives a check for an “advance” at the time the contract is signed, which can be 4-9 months after the writer receives an initial verbal offer over the phone. Sometimes an advance is divided into two chunks, one paid on signing and one paid when the final revision of the book is accepted. Once the book comes out, if it sells enough copies to “earn out” the amount of the original advance, the author will receive additional royalties. For example, if an author is paid a $4,000 advance and has a 10% royalty rate, and the book sells for $10 per copy, then after 4,000 copies are sold, the book earns out its advance and the author is due more money. Those royalties are distributed twice a year.

5.  How much? If you take a look at figures compiled by writer Brenda Hiatt, a first-time romance writer often earns around $3,000 for an advance, but the range is large. Examples of advances for first YA novels are in the $13,000-30,000 range, but again, they can be much smaller or larger. Many books never earn out their advances, in which case no additional royalties ever are paid. On the other hand, a writer never has to pay back an advance, no matter how few copies of a book are sold, so an advance is a writer’s to keep.

6. Taxes and business expenses.  Writers are self-employed people who typically keep track of their business expenses, send in estimated quarterly tax payments, and set aside their own retirement funds.

Is it possible to make a living as a writer? According to the Authors Guild’s latest survey, full-time writers make, on average, $17,500 a year, and that’s down 30% from 2009. However, because writing is a creative field and each project is valued uniquely, the average is not much of a guideline for any individual writer’s career. We each make our own choices about how to go forward, creatively and business-wise.

Find this helpful? Have insights to add? Your comments are most welcome.

Caragh M. O'Brien is the writer of The Rule of Mirrors and other YA novels.

15 comments:

  1. Excellent information, Caragh. Whoever it was who said there was "nothing new under the sun" hadn't been in publishing, where there is ALways something new!

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    1. So true, Liz. Yet when I looked up recent figures, I was surprised to find that first time romance writers earn about the same today as they did two decades ago. Some things stay the same.
      Best,
      Caragh

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  2. The business has always been an unknown, even for those of us for whom it was a primary career. Sadly, many writers also need a day job to make ends meet, which affects their writing energy and output.

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    1. Kathleen ~ As you say, the day job is a reality for most writers. I hope my blog post isn't discouraging. I believe that information is empowering and writers can make wise decisions about their incomes. The trick is knowing what is in our control and what is not.
      Best,
      Caragh

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  3. There are also more digital-first publishers now and they don't offer advances (generally speaking) but offer higher royalty percentages than Harlequin. And often, they'll accept manuscripts without an agent. Things are always changing!

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    1. Bonnie ~ The digital-first publishers and indie publishing are both important evolutions. I don't know much about those options, but they might make good fodder for a future blog post.
      Best,
      Caragh

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  4. It makes me sad to see that most authors are unable to live off their earnings. I know the second year I went to indie publishing I paid more in federal income taxes than I had earned in ten years selling to New York. I know I'm one of the lucky ones. After many years of bad luck!

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    1. Cheryl ~ I think of your situation often. I think it matters that you had a strong traditional publishing base before you went indie and you were able to draw your readers along with you. You're lucky, but you've also worked incredibly hard and adapted to a new publishing model. Hats off to you!
      Best,
      Caragh

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    2. Awww, you're too sweet, Caragh.

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  5. Lots of good info, Caragh. Thanks for sharing. :-)

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  6. Very nice, comprehensive post, Caragh. Thanks for sharing! I've self-pubbed for so long I'd almost forgotten the traditional processes. :)

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  7. Kim ~ The two kinds of publishing require different skills, that's for sure. We're always learning.
    All best,
    Caragh

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  8. Excellent analysis of the business end of writing that most people never think about in connection with being an author.

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    1. Thanks, Joan. I was hoping a basic overview might be helpful, especially for writers who are starting out.
      Best,
      Caragh

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