Writing SF/F for a Living

Posted: July 22, 2006 in Uncategorized
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Yesterday, I responded to a post in the Baen Bar (http://bar.baen.com) from a new writer looking to break in to the field. He was between jobs and figured he’d just sell his SciFi/Fantasy novel instead of getting a job.

That’s not realistic.

Get a job now and keep it until your writing has replaced that income at the same level. Period. You’ll get the same advice from any self-supporting writer you’ll meet, even best sellers.

A couple years ago, I had an unsettling conversation with a friend who wanted to sell his first SF/F novel. He was also between jobs and had just received a small inheritance. I advised him to get a job instead of relying on potential writing income, but he balked. I have a degree in mathematics, so I worked up a spreadsheet with my friend’s expenses and several writing income scenarios, and showed him how he’d run out his inheritance inside 18 months, which was too short a time to make an income from writing. Needless to say, he ignored my advice, ran out of money and had to find a job.

Hoping to help this new writer avoid this same fate, I posted this sobering timeline of the money you can expect from most publishers when you sell your first novel. Some of this is from my own experience (my wife, Sarah, has sold over a dozen novels and about 50 short stories; I’ve sold over a half-dozen novels and edited an anthology), and some is from other people I know well. All of it is pretty typical in SciFi/Fantasy. Not guaranteed, though. You could sell your first novel in a day, or it could take you 20 years.

But you won’t see a living wage immediately, unless you sell that novel for a million dollar advance.

Now, down to the nitty-gritty. Strap yourself in and get ready for a reality check.

====== Writing Income Timelines ======

Absolutely EVERY first-time novelist believes that someone will publish his novel if they’d just read it! Some are even right, but the reality is that 99% of those novelists are not ready for prime-time. And even if you are, the likelihood the FIRST editor to see it cold will buy it is remote. Baen works a little differently (more like a family business, taking more of a personal interest in their authors in our experience), but in most New York City publishing houses, editors/publishers typically handle up to 200 authors (depending at their levels) at any given time, spanning 3 years: the novels that came out last year (some need reprints or go out of print, etc.), the novels that are out this year, and the novels coming out next year.

If you’re bound and determined to live from writing, here’s some OPTIMISTIC timelines from our personal experience for an unknown to consider when trying to sell your novel to one of the major NYC (non-Baen) publishers.

DISCLAIMER #1: PLEASE don’t take this as discouragement. You can do it, but you need to be realistic about breaking in. Once you’re established, things usually happen faster and more lucratively. (But not always; there are authors out there with dozens of books published who are barely eking out $10-30K/yr)

DISCLAIMER #2: I, too, have a novel that I’m sure someone will publish — once I finish some rewrites. And Sarah has sold over a dozen novels. I’m not blowing smoke, here. Just trying to set some realistic expectations in the hopes of preventing you doing something that ends up with you living on the streets and eating at the soup kitchen.

DISCLAIMER #3: I would like to point out up front that editors are by and large overworked, underpaid and harassed by overzealous, impatient authors and do this job as a labor of love. Some of the things below may sound mean or petty at first, but they’re not, honestly, and I hope you won’t take them that way. It’s all part of ANY business, not just publishing. I’m just trying to illustrate that things don’t always go smoothly, and you’re not likely to get rich from only ONE book.

Scenario #1: The 5th editor accepts your manuscript(remember that JK Rowling was rejected by dozens!):

Jan 2007: Submit MS to Ed #1

Jun 2007: Ed #1 rejects MS

Jul 2007: Submit MS to Ed #2 the next month after finding that rejection is depressing (it’s not YOU being rejected, or even necessarily your manuscript, so get over it).

Dec 2007: Ed #2 MEANS to reject MS, but is partying in NYC until New Year’s (seriously, this happens every year after about mid-October through the end of the year; I know this is their prime networking time, but there DO seem to be a LOT of parties!)

Mar 2008: Ed #2 uncovers MS and rejects

Mar 2008: In a fit of rage over length of time for rejection, submit MS to Ed #3 next day

Oct 2008: Ed #3 rejects MS, trying to clear her desk before party season and end-of-year results

Dec 2008: You receive rejected MS in the mail, tattered and torn and clearly read by your postal carrier (the sarcastic comments in the margins give it away)

Jan 2009: Submit MS to Ed #4 after Christmas vacation (I’m not PC, sorry — even if you’re not Christian, you probably take some time off around then)

Feb 2009: Ed #4 rejects MS with apologies (inscrutably, sent FedEx with signature required on Sat AM — yes, this actually happened to Sarah once!)

Mar 2009: Submit MS to Ed #5 after obsessing for a month on why Ed #4 rejected your MS so quickly

Feb 2010: Ed #5 sends you a “letter of 1000 edits” (apologies to Laura Anne Gilman) and asks to see MS again after you’ve fixed the problems

Dec 2010: Resubmit MS after months of rewrites, ’cause you didn’t understand what Ed #5 MEANT by half the edit requests, some of which were very broad and subjective (“Pinky is lame”, or “Your world didn’t seem real enough to me”) and others were way too specific (“Pinky doesn’t work as a woman; make her an alien male”)

May 2010: Ed #5 says she likes MS, but it has to “go to meeting” (monthly) for approval by the Executive Editor

Jun 2010: No response from Ed #5 (what really happened is that Ed #5 failed to impress her boss and will try again next month)

Jul 2010: Ed #5 says her Exec Ed liked your MS, and they’ll give you a standard, $4K advance. Who’s your agent? (Note: except for Baen, at the houses that claim they take unagented subs, your MS will usually fall into the hands of junior editors fresh out of college who are primarily looking for the kind of writing careers their professors had and drilled into them: literary. Which is great if you have a “literary” novel, but that also means your advances top out at about $10K every 1-2 years, and you’ll probably never see a dime in royalties. You’ll notice that NONE of those professors have quit the college yet — they still need to eat. If you can live on $5-10K/yr, go for it; if you’re looking for a PAYING career, try writing something lots of people want to read.)

Aug 2010: Interview 5 agents; by some miracle, an agent in Minnesota is willing to take you on (the others all say, “I don’t see a career potential here, sorry”)

Sep 2010: (And, believe me, this is really FAST) Resubmit to Ed #5 through your new agent

Jan 2011: Agent finally gets contract (it’s that darn party season delay again!), but wants to “hash out some minor details” dealing with royalties

Mar 2011: Agent and you and Ed #5’s legal department finally come to an agreement; you still get $4K, but the royalty structure looks better if the book comes out in hardcover (no promises, though); you also get a signing payment of $1.3K with the contract (less your agent’s 15%), with a delivery/acceptance payment of $1.3K on the schedule for Jan 2012 (there’s still some edits they’d like done, and you’re not likely to get slotted in the Christmas quarter, with Stephen King and James Patterson and … you get the idea) and a final payment of $1.4K on the scheduled publication of Jan 2013 (yes, a year from acceptance is not uncommon)

Apr 2011: Ed #5 sends you the additional edits

Jun 2011: You submit the final edits (through your agent)

Jul 2011: Ed #5 approves of final edits

Jan 2012: Your agent gets the delivery/acceptance payment (trust me, they won’t send it to you until the contract says they have to — it really doesn’t matter far ahead you do the changes; they’re running a profit-making business, remember?)

Feb 2012: You get a check from your agent (there’s up to a month lag time while it makes it through HIS accounts)

Dec 2012: Ed #5 suggests to you that your “laydown” (the number of books initially ordered and shipped on the publication date) looks good, and she’d like to see proposals for another 2 (full MS for the second by Mar, so they can slot you in Jan 2013, and a partial for the 3rd, to be slotted in Jan 2014)

Jan 2013: Your agent gets the publication payment and you now have your brand-new paperback on the shelves! (Oh, well, there go the extra royalties for hardcovers — but, honestly, your new writing friends tell you horror stories about how THEIR first novels went hardcover and got delayed 2 years from the contract date in the process, so you’re not feeling too badly about it)

Feb 2013: You get your final check from your agent

Mar 2013: You submit proposals for #2/3 after feverishly working through #2 over Christmas break (good thing you anticipated this and started on it right after you finished the final edits on #1 back in Jun 2011!)

Jun 2013: You and your agent spend a week of sleepless nights getting the contracts for #2/3 worked out in time to get #2 on the shelf by Jan 2014; the house has ALREADY begun work on it 2 months ago, and you’re getting $12K for the two of them!

Jul 2013: Your agent sends you a $5.1K check ($2K signing on each book, and $2K for delivery on #2, all less 15%)

Sep 2013: Your agent gets your first royalty statement (first half 2013, issued twice a year and takes about 3 months from the publisher — they have a LOT of books to deal with, you know) and forwards it on to you: no money, since you haven’t yet “earned out” (made as much as your advance, which is technically an “advance against royalties”, and they track that on the royalty statements)

Nov 2013: You submit #3 ahead of time, ’cause YOU want to party THIS Christmas!

Feb 2014: Your agent sends you a $3.4K check ($2K pub on #2 and $2K delivery on #3, less 15%)

Mar 2014: (And this is REALLY optimistic) You get your first royalty check … for $14.35 (it’s actually pretty rare for a first-time author to earn out)

Feb 2015: You get your final $1.7K check for publication of #3

Okay, to recap: You’ve made $13,614.35 net in 8 years, or less than $2K/yr. Not nearly enough to live on.

Now, Scenario #2: Ed #1 buys your novel. You cut off 2 years and 2 months. That’s it. So you made just a little MORE than $2K/yr. Still not enough to live on.

Scenario #3 (aka the fairy godmother scenario). Ed #1 buys your novel for $100K. It still took 6 years, so you made $16K/yr (if you’re lucky; usually they’ll space out your payments more with a larger advance — instead of 3, you get 6). Assuming for the sake of optimism, you earn out and make another $50K in royalties, you still only made $24K/yr. In most places in America, you still need a day job.

Scenario #4 (aka the Harry Potter option). Ed #doesn’t-matter buys your novel for $advance-doesn’t-matter and it sells 10 million copies. You’re in clover and your recently-promoted editor loves you, along with most of the world (or at least America). You feel like you should buy a lottery ticket, but you suspect you already won — and you’d be right. And in a VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY small crowd of others who did the same.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed a pattern forming.

Write the next novel BEFORE the last one gets published, and keep write on going. It’s a job that demands a lot from you, day in, day out, like starting a small business. Hopefully, you’ll get better in the process and your books will get better and you’ll build an audience. But there’s still a large lag time from submission to all the payments, so you have to stagger sales in order to keep your income stream going.

At some point, if you’re lucky, you’ll “break out” into Scenario #3 with one of your later books, and if you’re even more lucky, manage to become a best seller. Then you can relax about your income stream some. (Maybe. They say Stephen King still keeps his teaching certification up to date, just in case).

Of course, getting the best-seller income stream brings with it other challenges I’ll save for another post.

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