Independent Author’s Toolbag: Economics of Writing

This is going to be one of those boring articles where I go into one of the important professional aspects of writing. This is both from my personal perspective as well as from talking with other authors and going through some internet research. There’s lots of information out there on the subject, because it’s near and dear to any author who isn’t a trust fund baby, retiree with a good pension, or someone who is idly rich.

The question at hand: Should you take that leap to quitting the day job and writing full time? More, how do I write full time and still do those fun things like eating and having a roof over my head? It’s an important question, because without being able to pay the utilities, it becomes rather difficult to power up the old computer and write. Sure, you can emulate the writers of yore and click away at your typewriter, but seeing as most agents, publishers, and even indie platforms require digital submission, you’re going to have issues.

There’s a variety of metrics to consider. A single person with aesthetic tastes can live off considerably less than a married writer with several kids. For the importance of renting versus owning versus a mortgage, the author may have a fixed chunk of money that has to go out. Then there are the unexpected expenses: car repairs, medical expenses, etc. How can you judge whether you can afford to write full time?

It’s an economic decision. Part of it is dependent upon your method of publishing. If you’re traditional publishing, how much of an advance will you get, do you have a contract, how much of a cut does your agent get (if you have one)? Then you have to track your royalties, project your sales trends and decide for yourself if this would pay for itself. For most of us, it can be a fairly easy decision: I have a contract to do Y books, each with an advance of X dollars. X times Y equals Z, and my expenses are A. Z minus A is negative, well, then I need to keep my day job. Z minus A is slightly positive, I might want to keep my day job. Z minus A leaves me lots of money, well, get writing.

It can be a lot more difficult as an independent author. You’ve got to study your sales trends, make sense of what you’re seeing, and really make some hard decisions about expenses and savings. There are no advances to judge your initial income. You’ll be a couple months (or more) into sales before you really start to see any kind of trends… and even then, sales can change overnight.

At its roots, it’s the same perspective with either method of publishing. The important thing to remember is that your book sales and your royalties are your income. That cut of income is the deciding factor between working a day job and writing full time. For independent authors, we get a bigger cut of the royalties (as much as 70% dependent upon the platform), but we reach a smaller pool of readers than many who go the traditional publishing route. Depending upon your audience, that can be the difference between working and not needing to.

My own personal experience is rather mixed. I’ve had very good initial sales with the release of The Fallen Race. Assuming I see a similar spike with the release of it’s sequel, The Shattered Empire, I should continue the trend. However, my novella series sells moderately, with most sales driven by people who read The Fallen Race and want to read more of my stuff. The issue, there, is that my novellas sell for less and also give me a smaller royalty cut. Why is that important? Well, the novellas, all told, are somewhere over 200,000 words, which is a hefty writing challenge. Because I priced them at $0.99 I get only 35% royalties with Amazon, so if a reader buys all five, I get: $1.75. If a reader buys my novel The Fallen Race, I get 70% of the royalties, or around $3.50. So I’d need to sell twice as many of the novellas as I do novels to make as much off of them.

The issue there: people like novels more than novellas. This is a sales trend I’d heard, but I didn’t really understand it until I saw it in action. It becomes all the more important when I’ve got expenses like a mortgage and such. Writing full time will require publishing novels, more than that, publishing series of novels. The reason publishers and authors like selling series is that it builds a fan base and is a good way to maintain interest and grow additional readers. In action, as readers become attached to the characters, they tell others about the book series. Since it’s not just one book, but several, it means a higher overall income off of the ideas presented. Why does that matter? Well, authors like Robert Jordan, David Weber, and George R.R. Martin show that there is a good money in writing a long series, one which can continue to capture fans and make money over not just years, but decades.

Making money as an author is made more perilous by taxes. Authors, whether independent or traditional, are considered self employed. Which doesn’t seem too bad, right? You make your own hours, work from home, and can set your dress as casual or formal as you want. The issue is, more money comes out of your earnings at the end of the year than if you had an employer. You’ve got to pay the self-employment tax. Also, your royalties don’t automatically have deductions. So you’ve got to work through your taxes yourself and set aside enough money to account for your earnings. If you’re earning enough to quit the day job, you’re probably earning enough to bump yourself into a higher tax bracket (unless writing is a step down for you). This can be especially difficult in your transition from working a day job to writing full time. If you find yourself successful while still working that day job, then you might just find yourself giving lots more of your hard earned money to the tax man than you expected.

As with most things, having a plan and keeping track of how things are going is a vital part. You may be one of those self motivating types who can write all day without any deadline pressures, but even so, you’ll need to monitor your finances. For those of you who are procrastinators like me, deadlines (and bills) can go a long way into ensuring you write hard for your supper. And though you may find initial success, you have to be ready to dig in and do what you don’t want to do: go back to working a day job. It sucks, especially with that first taste of freedom, but it’s far better to suffer a little and still maintain yourself and your family than it is to end up out in the streets. While the starving artist is a trope, it can be painfully accurate if you aren’t careful. Remember, lots of those starving artists die young, miserable, and alone. Don’t be like them. Make a plan, map out your route to success, and look before you leap.

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