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.