“People don’t publish books to make money.” Those were some of the first words the instructor said in my very first Publishing 101 course at Ryerson University. We’ve all seen some miraculous authors hurdle over the roadblocks of the book business and make their fortunes. JK Rowling just might be the literary world’s equivalent to The Beatles and I’m sure Stephen King isn’t worrying too much about his retirement income. But out of the 500,000 titles published in English every year, not many of those are true bestsellers.
Heather Demetrios is an author who, by most accounts, has had a pretty successful run at writing. She received a six-figure advance for one of her first books and has gone on to publish eleven titles. She’s also written a cautionary tale about how difficult it is to make ends meet as a writer. It's worth a read.
Before you go after your dream to write the next Harry Potter, it’s a good idea to get your financial house in order. Here are a few tips:
Learn how to live frugally. If you’re going to take time off work to dedicate yourself to writing, or if you plan to quit work altogether, get used to living on a shoestring budget. Make your meals at home, upcycle old furniture, get to know the sharing economy, buy second-hand goods, move to a low-rent area. There are a lot of benefits to the frugal life. Besides being more affordable for artists, it also means we walk more lightly on the earth.
Build up a healthy savings account. Start saving and start young. The average writer takes about ten years to break through. Before you do, it’s a good idea to sock away as much money as you can. Keep in mind, writers are expected to shoulder a lot of the expenses of publishing. Until you have an agent or publisher, you'll likely need to hire an editor to give yourself any chance in a highly competitive market. You may need to pay for permissions for copyrighted material you want to include in your book: illustrations, quotations, images and other graphics. If you go the route of self-publishing, then you’ll have to cover all the costs of book production: editing, design, proofreading, printing, distribution, and promotions. Besides all of that, a healthy savings account will make it easier to take time off work when publishers ask for your second title.
Invest in property and other assets. This is another way to save. If you own the place you live in and have other financial assets, you’ll be less stressed about your financial future while you wait for those royalty cheques to come through.
Maintain a flow of income that’s not related to your book. The fact is less than one percent of books earn a profit. Some calculate that less than one in a thousand books are profitable. Writing a book is more about offering creativity, passion, and ideas to your readership. It usually has very little to do with making money. So don’t lose sight of other important aspects of life, like making a living and paying your bills.
Keep up with your professional networks. Even if you can take time off work to write your book, it’s a good idea to stay in touch with all the good people you’ve worked with before. In other words, try to restrain yourself from enacting that fantasy of shouting “I quit” and storming out of the office to ride into the sunset so beautifully described in your pages of prose. Heather Demetrios learned the hard way. Several books into her writing life, the advances dwindled and her books didn’t sell enough copies to provide a reliable income. By being financially smart, your story as a writer can be different.
Educate yourself about the book business. Everyone should have a dream. But don't let your dreams come at the cost of your reality. We all need to eat. As with any job or career choice, you've got to find out as much as you can about writing before making it your life's work. Last time I checked, the average income for writers was $7000 a year. So, while it's important to learn the craft of writing, you also need to educate yourself about the business. Read industry news, dig deep to find sales figures for books like yours, take a course in publishing, and talk to other writers, editors, agents, and publishers. That way you'll be swimming, not sinking, in the book market.