How to Get Ahead In Writing

I’ve learned some hard lessons in this life.

The big one is that internet dating is bad. Because, if you think about it, what’s wrong with these women that they have to turn to a dating site? The only chance that they’re attractive, interesting, and disease free is if they’re friendless agoraphobes. Related to this, another lesson is that you should never date a large woman who opens up the conversation, on the first date, with: “I like food.” This has, to my amusement and despair, happened to me several times.

But we’re here to talk about writing, and another great lesson: There is no money in writing.




Before we continue, I want to take a stab at the 99% of no-money writers who just disagreed with me. Please name the authors who make solid money just at writing. You know them. Let me know if you get past ten. Now go count the currently active authors present on the shelves of Barnes & Noble. I’ll assist: Ten thousand books are published every year. Now work out the formula, which is also the percentage you have at making money, and report back to me in 15 minutes. But don’t let me get you down. There are secrets… And I’m going to share them with you.

Lots of authors make money through other means. Teaching, lecturing, reviewing, working as columnists, never quitting that night job at Wal-Mart… You name it. Many will say that to write is to teach, but that’s a dangerous slide. You start reading all those shit manuscripts for any length of time and you’ll feel the burn. Some who teach have the so-called “calling” and can pull it off. Personally, I fear any activity that encourages even more cynicism.

There’s lecturing. If you have the credentials and ability to do it, amen. Do so. Dave Eggers sucks down tremendous amounts of money that way. He was the 2006 keynote speaker at GMU’s Fall for the Book last year and, Jesus, the money he got for a 10 minute speech would hurt you. Rinse, repeat for 12 months, and you’re golden.

I hear ya! He only gets paid like that because he’s Eggers, sure. But, think about it – he’s Eggers! Why’s he gotta drag himself to every two bit event that can dredge up his fee? Because, for the writing, the money’s gone before you get it.

Here’s where you’re at. Your average advance, as a new writer, is going to be between five and fifteen grand, assuming you’re in the small percentage of folks who actually make it that far. (And we’ll discuss later about how that five to fifteen will soon drop to one to five, or nothing, and why you want to do that.)

So, okay, top of the pole. You get your fifteen grand. Holy cow, you’re the golden child of Random House. 25 year old editor Tony who, suspiciously, seems to have never read a book, and your egg-sucking agent whose daddy owns Random House, all agree.

Your street is paved with gold. Book sells. You learn to hate Random House pretty quickly during the production process. You become increasingly suspicious of Tony, who is treating you alternately like livestock and a dangerous retard. Your agent has only vague advice for you – he suddenly became redundant after the contract shenanigans, which you didn’t understand at all because you’re a legal-phobe, so you just got the digest version from your egg sucking agent who talked really fast, lingering only on the carrots and never explaining the sticks.

Bang! Out it goes. You finally get your advance. And, thank god, because you have a car note, rent, and all the various costs of living. You get everything paid up. But the money’s all funny, so you need an accountant to put your taxes together for the year.

I always say that you pay around 50% on income earned from your writing and all of the budding, wishful writers say I’m lying. So you do the math. Take your paystub. What is your gross and what is your net? Easy. How much was taken out for income tax, social security, medicare? Okay, now take that 15k advance and do the same. Oh, and add 5-10% because you’re self employed. Don’t forget to pay your agent 15%.

Probably still okay, no? You’re clearing a good chunk of money, compared to your starving writer existence before the 15k, right?

Good. Because you have to pay back that 15k to the publisher. Books are going out, royalties coming in. You get 10% on the retail (assuming your egg-sucking agent was as good as he said he was). Oh! Accounting for returns. Oops. Returns can be estimated at 30%.

We’re getting complicated here. I’ll try to break it down. (I won’t even look at the hardcover release that doesn’t sell, upon which time you go out of print and they let you die. We’ll return to that.) Your book costs $15 retail. You get $1.50 a sale. You owe that fifteen thousand advance, which is paid for out of your royalties. That means ten thousand books need to sell before you see any more money. In an old, old article, I noted that a “bestseller” for a new author is twenty thousand books, and that’s rare as a happy wife on poker night. So that ten thousand, if it happens, may take three months…it may take a year. It may never happen. And, accounting for those returns, you actually need to sell 30% more than 10,000 before royalties even start to swing into action.

Then there come the checks. Twice a year. $1.50 a sale. And if your book hit ten thousand – or more – to get to the point where you are getting checks bigger than a few bucks, you can be pretty sure it’s spun out pretty far. As in, its day is over. Your agent is asking for another book, your publisher has moved on. Look, they published hundreds of books that season, and if it took you six months to sell ten thousand copies (which would be a very good book), then you’re backlisted. Old news. No one’s helping you sell anymore. Except you. And there’s the first lesson:



The author must have a marketing mind.  If you are unable to sell yourself and run your writing like a business, stop right now.  Go to trade school or something.  Stop cluttering up this business.  I don’t care if you’re the next golden child, it’s the selling that counts.  Mass quantity. You must be a whore. That book – and you – have to run harder than underdog presidential candidates. Radio, blogs, readings, schools, webpages, newsletters, your friends quietly hoping you’ll shut up. You want this to be your life, right? You do want to write for a living, right? The money will not come in without help. Writing is not a passive activity. You have to run it and you have to appease your fans. You have to go wall to wall.

There are many, many ways to market yourself. You can research them all online. But the big one – cater to your fans. People think writing is easy. They think everyone writes a book every night and out it goes. They don’t understand that a book can take years, sometimes, to put together. So they come looking for you, wondering what you’re doing. Blog it. If you’re worthy of a webpage and fans and all that shit, then talk to them. Today I had eggs for breakfast. One more chapter of Melissa’s Midnight Madness has been completed! Character naming contest! I’ll be reading from someone else’s book at the Appalachian School for Drooling Retards on Thursday!

Man, people eat that up. Writers are superstars. Always remember that. You have done what they want to do, and they enjoyed reading it. How did you do it? Well, you had discipline. But don’t tell them that. Tell them the standard “just write X a day until X and then X! Easy!”

Oh no, though. The big ass publisher that signed you is not scheduling events because sales have slowed down and you’re on the backlist! Oh, lordy… You really need that agent, don’t you? You know, when it comes to the agent, there’s a lie somewhere around.

The second lesson is… Wait! Before I give you that, let’s take a little break and talk about the history of publishing. And since this is the internet and you have no attention span, and since I’m late for my day job, we’ll continue that conversation in a post I promise I’ll put up soon.