Your favorite writer might male a lot less money than you thought… a lot less. Cheryl Strayed, the author of the best-selling book Wild, learned this first-hand. While she was on her book tour, Strayed’s husband texted her that their rent check had bounced.
Strayed, it turns out, didn’t get her first royalty check until nearly a year after her book hit stores. A new book, Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, tears off the veil on the dirty knowledge of just how writers earn money.
In Scratch, author Manjula Martin looks at how authors turn books and magazine/online articles into a living.
How Writers Make Money: The Dirty Economics Of Book Advances
For instance, book advances, which are advances against the royalties a book might earn after it’s published, aren’t paid out in a lump sum. Instead, portions of the book advances are paid to the author when different milestones are met. For instance, they might receive 25% of the advance when the contract is signed, another 25% when they deliver half of the manuscript, and so on.
Of course, an agent takes a cut of the advance as well–typically in the 10-15% range.
This means that a book with a $50,000 advance–which sounds like enough to live on for a year on paper, might not actually pay an author enough to live on. If they receive the $50,000 in four installments for a book that takes two years to write, suddenly an author won’t have enough money to pay rent or mortgage.
Combine that with the fact that many writers (and we say this with love) are bad with money, and you have a recipe for disaster.
How Writers Make Money: So How Do Writers Make Money?
There are a couple of different ways that writers can make a living.
The most stable business models involve working as a journalist or a ghostwriter. These involve semi-regular paychecks for both full-time and freelance employees.
Many authors–especially poets and fiction writers–also work as academics. This provides a steady income, although adjunct paychecks are low-paying in many cases. Tutoring and online courses provide supplemental income.
Meanwhile, many self-publishing authors exhibit a marked entrepreneurial streak that other kinds of writers often don’t have. They may do creative promotions, gated online sites, and launch other projects in order to maximize their intern.
But many authors rely on book advances and royalty checks to make a living. They combine this with other income streams and work sources, and the exact mix varies from person to person.