I’m always surprised when this question comes up, but I guess, actually, it makes a certain sense. Writers don’t get a salary, or standard wages of any kind; our trade is nothing if not patchy.
First thing to be said about writing, is that it’s really not a big earner. Take me; when my first novel was published, it was announced as a ‘high five figure fee’. It would have been more accurate, to call it ‘one pound more than a high four figure fee’. Which, make no mistake, is fantastic – particularly for a teenage girl who’s suddenly realised that she’s gonna be able to pay for university. When it comes to money, there are two kinds of writers – there’s J.K.Rowling, earning massive amounts for every book, and then there’s the vast majority of everyone else, who, of course, aren’t. I would cite examples, but by definition, writers who aren’t earning very much are those you probably haven’t heard of and those you haven’t heard of are, alas, the majority. This isn’t to say they’re artistically inferior to J.K.Rowling, not in the least – I’d argue many are far, far better – simply to point out that it’s a fickle market out there where the best way to achieve guaranteed success, is already to be successful. For my part, I am very much a small fish in a large pond, professionally speaking; but I like to think that as small fish go, I have a really shiny tail. Anyway…
So let’s say you are offered a ‘high five figure advance’ for a novel. Actually, in fairness, it’s usually for two novels, as publishers love sequels and so, for reasons which will become apparent, so do writers. If you’re really lucky, it might even be an offer for three novels, each novel earning said five-figure advance; however, for a publisher to request anything more than three novels is very rare and unlikely, as if there’s one thing publishers hate, it’s putting all their eggs in one basket.
Your payment will come in three stages. First, you receive one third of your advance for a book, when you sign the actual contract. Then, you receive the next third of your advance, when you actually deliver the novel. Actually, it’s usually delivery and acceptance, and this latter part is vital since if your novel is total crap, odds are no one’s going to want to pay for it. Finally, you receive the last part of your advance when the book itself is published, by which time, with any luck, you’re well on the way to having finished the sequel. And, if you’re lucky, the system can work very well for you – certainly in my case, whenever I look at my bank account I always remind myself that just because I haven’t received much money recently, doesn’t take away from the fact that I’m about to receive a lump sum, fairly soon.
However – and this is why I always tell people that writing doesn’t earn diddly squat – there’s time factor on all this. Let’s say I agree to write a new book in September. By November, my agent will probably have negotiated the contract, and by December at the latest, I’ll have received my advance on signature of the contract. I’ll then get scribbling. I write quite fast, but for now, let’s say it takes me six months to finish the book. That’s six months… on one third of an advance. I finish the book; my editor will then take anywhere between 4-6 weeks at the quickest, and 3-6 months at the slowest, to read the book. (I once had an editor who took over a year, but that’s a different story…) Best case scenario, let’s say I get paid the next wodge of money, in July. I have never known publication to happen sooner than six months after delivery, and often it can take a whole year or more; so again, best case scenario, I receive my final payment a whole year after the initial wodge. That’s a year, living on an income that is a long way below the national average. And that’s assuming that actually, the turnaround process is quite fast; often, it isn’t.
There are several ways in which writers deal with this. Having multiple book contracts, for example, gives you a chance to carry on writing and delivering books even while waiting for publication to happen; I’m currently writing a book at the moment, even though one of mine is released in the next 3 weeks. (Hurrah!) However, speed is not always your friend. For example, I’m not really in a position where I can write more Urban Magic books for my publisher, until the next two are released; simply put, my publisher has no idea whether the next two Urban Magic books are going to flop, and if they do, they almost certainly won’t want more of the same. (Let’s hope it all works out, shall we?) Like I said – no one wants all their eggs in one basket. So, even though I can write pretty damn fast, to a degree I’m still going to have to wait for the market to play catch up, and for the publisher to have some sales figures in on the last few books I wrote, before they’ll buy the next lot I’ve written. It is, quite often, a case of ‘here’s one I wrote earlier….’
There is one great redeemer of all this, of course, and that’s royalties. You start earning royalties from a book once it’s ‘earned out’ its advance. Simply put – if the publisher spent £100,000 on a novel, then you have to have earned your publisher £100,000 or more before they start giving you extra money. If it was as simple as selling £100,000 divided by £7.99 = number of books needed to be sold, that’d be fine, but alas, publishing is full of percentages. A percentage of hardback sales and a percentage of online sales and a percentage of paperback sales go towards ‘earning out’, so in truth if you have a large advance, you’re going to have a really, really long wait before you start getting royalties. (This is a reason why amazon is often so disliked by writers – the exorbitantly low price they pay publishers for their stock, means that writers get an even smaller percentage of an already tiny figure from any amazon sales. Sulk.) And when you do, you’re still only earning a percentage of a sale, so if you were planning on retiring to Hawaii any time soon, think again.
Even as I write this, I can feel my editor twitching at the back of my mind, so I should take this moment to add that for all this is not a particularly lucrative system, it is, as Winston Churchill would probably have said, the least bad currently available. My publisher has one great feature which endears them to me above all others, towit, they’ve been paying me reliably for twelve years, and I salute them for this. Stability, in a writer’s life, often counts for more than anything else.
Sure, there’s been talk of ‘new models’ of doing things. Certainly, the advent of the e-book and the ease with which people can now self-publish straight to iTunes could change things. But, from my albeit very indulged position, I am actually a little nervous of self-publication, for two reasons: firstly, because the bigger the market gets, the more I fear getting lost in it (also known as the ‘hard-nosed selfish reason’); secondly, because at the end of the day the publishing process gives the authors the income and stability to work on their craft, to hone it and get it up to a high standard, with the input of editors and professionals who are utterly immersed in their field. And I am absolutely certain that there are many excellent writers who slip through the net and are forced to self-publish in reply; I am also sure that sometimes, there are just bad books written and churned out onto the internet, and to pretend that this isn’t so is rather insulting to everyone, published, self-published and unpublished, who have the skill, talent and dedication to excel.