# 2 – So are you writing full-time now?

The second of six things not to say to an author is this:  So, are you writing full-time now?

This question is most often posed by people I’ve just met. I am usually at a reception or some kind of  work event where I’ve indicated that I’m a realtor. Someone (often the host) will join us and say, “oh, did you know that Peggy has a book out?”

And the person I’m talking to immediately assumes that if I’ve published a book, I must be making piles of money (and I guess, dabbling in real estate) and says something like, “So, are you writing full-time now?” or “So, will you be giving up real estate to write full-time?”

These questions assume that  I am, or should be, making a sufficient living from writing that I don’t need to be a realtor anymore. But the reality is that very few Canadian authors can make a living from writing. And here’s why.

The author is paid an advance by their publisher. These advances are calculated based on how many books the publisher thinks it can sell. A bestseller in Canada is 5,000 books. If a publisher thinks they can sell 5,000 copies, at a royalty of $ 2.00/book, they will offer a $10,000 advance. I have heard of advances as low as $ 500 with some smaller publishers. I have a friend who is now a publisher who plans to pay his authors $ 2,000 per book, which is considered generous in his genre.

My agents told me when I got started that authors who once managed to get six figure advances in the pre e-book era are now being offered advances as low as $ 5,000. But for the sake of doing the math more easily, let’s assume the advance is $30,000. (I know authors who would kill to get an advance that high.)

The advance is typically paid in three stages: once the contract is signed; once the manuscript is accepted, and once it’s been published. It is not all paid upfront.

The book will take 18 months on average from contract to publication. So using our hypothetical example, the author will get $ 10,000 once the contract is executed. Their agent deducts 15% of that as commission fees, leaving them $ 8,500.

Five or six months later, after the editor has read the manuscript again, proposed changes, and the changes have been made, the manuscript will be accepted by the editor and the second payment of $ 8,500 will be made.

It could be another year before the book hits bookstores and the final $8,500 instalment is received. If the author has no other source of income, that’s it. $ 17,000 in year one and $ 8,500 in year two. Not too many people can live on that kind of money. 

Most of the authors I know who write full-time and don’t have other jobs have working spouses to  help carry the burden, or receive pensions. But many of us end up juggling the demands of two full-time jobs: writing and whatever pays the bills.

I have tried to explain this to those people who ask why I’m still in real estate. And they then  say, “but don’t you get paid something for the books you sell?”

The answer is yes. But I’ve already received it in the form of those advances. Any royalties I am entitled to from booksales are set off against those first.  

Royalties are usually 7-10% of the retail value of a book. So let’s say a book is selling for $20. Using the highest royalty of 10%, the royalty is $ 2.00 per book, less that 15% agency commission,  or $ 1.70 per sale. But royalties aren’t paid  until  the advances have netted out. It’s an advance against royalties not in addition to them.

The big money is (I’m told) in films. But even if your book gets optioned by a studio, the option amounts are quite low, as little as $ 1,500. The real money doesn’t flow unless the film or series actually gets produced. Most never make it to the screen.

So, yes, I am writing full-time now. But I’m also working full-time as realtor. When you ask me that question, I  sometimes feel like answering with the title from that old book: I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can.

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9 Responses to # 2 – So are you writing full-time now?

  1. What a wonderfully intelligent note you posted, Peggy. I do write full-time, but I drive an old car and I’m a vegetarian so to heck with the cost of steak. Most all of my friends are professional writers and none of them can make it on their novels alone, including me. It it weren’t for speaking engagements and writing an occassional screenplay (for hire), there is no way on this green earth I could survive on what I would earn on my books, for all the reasons you point out. I feel bad for beginning writers who think it will be like the old days when writers wrote and publishers marketed whatg they wrote then sent the author a handsome check. Thanks for sharing that great information, Peggy. You’re absolutely one-thousand per cent right.

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    • Peggy Blair says:

      Thanks, Esther. It can be a real struggle for a lot of writers. People have such a distorted and romanticized view of it. Good for you for finding a way to make it happen despite the sacrifices.

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  2. Sam says:

    Hi Peggy

    I am just wondering – based on this, and the other hassles authors experience dealing with publishers why folks even bother going the traditional route anyway?

    Often marketing is given as the answer, that the publishers can push a book better than self-publishing an e-book – but I am not convinced!

    Would it not be more efficient for a first time author to pay for proper copy-editors and then self publish their book?

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    • Peggy Blair says:

      Definitely more efficient. You can get a book out quickly and you have more control over things like title, cover etc.

      But without the kind of platform that can be provided by a traditional publisher, you won’t sell many books. You need to build a platform and that’s where traditional publishing has the inside track.

      I think it’s a hard business whichever route you choose to be honest. But the folks I know who self-pubbed (whether ebook or traditional format) worked just as hard and made even less money.

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  3. Peggy Blair says:

    (Of course, the upside of self-publishing is that no one ever asks you if you’re writing full-time!)

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  4. Sam says:

    Some people aren’t in it for the money though!

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    • Peggy Blair says:

      I think that’s what most people say until their book is actually published. But after that, pretty much everyone I know is focussed on sales. You need sales if you want to stay published (if you don’t have them, a traditional publisher won’t keep you for long), and even if you’ve self-pubbed, you want to get something for your efforts. Unless you’re printing off a hundred copies for friends and family, that’s an entirely different matter altogether. But I’ve known many authors who said “I don’t even care if it doesn’t make any money — I just want to be an author,” who have since been published and now work tirelessly trying to make sales.

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  5. MishaBurnett says:

    I just wrote in a blog the other day that I feel like I have two full time jobs, one that pays the bills, and one that I want to pay the bills.

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