The Slow and (Hopefully) Steady Climb of a New Author
Want to know something?
Most writers aren’t rich. Most writers don’t break out with their first novel. Most writers take a long time to hone their craft, to make inroads over the publishing landscape, to begin broadening their reach within fandom and the industry at large before they see any real money from it. A journey of ten years—from the first words to making strong sales—isn’t uncommon. Some writers are faster, of course, some slower, but I think ten years is a reasonable expectation to set for yourself. Assuming you’re dedicating a goodly amount of time to writing (but not full time), those ten years also line up roughly with Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule. And those ten years are when you might start seeing some good income from writing. It’ll take years more to start building solid, predictable income from it.
Recently, Jim Hines posted his now-yearly recap of his writing income. Kameron Hurley posted similar statistics, broken down by book advance instead of yearly income. I thought I’d do the same, for whatever good it will do anyone out there. At the very least, it should help to dispel the notion that writers become rich the moment their first book deal lands.
I’ll post two charts: first my yearly writing income from 2004 to 2014, then my 2014 income, broken down by category, along with some thoughts on each.
This is an interesting graph for me to reflect on. I’d been dabbling in writing for years—in high school, in college, as I began my career in software—but it wasn’t until 2002/2003 that I started getting serious about it. That’s when I started going to conventions, attended my first workshop (Viable Paradise in 2003), began writing short stories along with the novels I was working on. 2003 saw my first sale, but it was a “for the love” market (“Secrets of the Shoeblack”, published by Deep Magic). I had no income that year, but in 2004, I broke out with my first paid sale (and a pro sale! woo hoo!) to Writers of the Future.
I continued to attend writing workshops after Viable Paradise. The Writers of the Future workshop was held in Hollywood in 2004. In 2005, I went to Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp. In 2006 I attended Clarion. I took 2007 off from workshops, but in 2008 and 2009 attended Starry Heaven I and II, a Blue Heaven-style novel workshop run by S.K. Castle (a Clarion classmate of mine). In 2010 and 2011, I ran the Wellspring Writing Workshop, again based on the Blue Heaven format. And finally, in 2012, I attended Coastal Heaven, run by Grá Linnaea. Also, in 2004-2006, I attended the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, a good conference with a slew of great seminars on writing in both in and outside genre fiction.
Let’s call 2003 to 2010 my apprenticeship. During those years, I wrote novels. I wrote short stories. I wrote an article or two. I started getting more traction in the field. I attended conventions. I began to know people, and they began to know me. I started sitting on panels at conventions, and giving seminars on writing. I was honing my craft, bit by bit. It was a slow and steady climb, in which I worked hard to make my own writing better, not just by writing my own stuff, but by critiquing others’ work, by reading, by learning about the business, by learning what conventions to go to and what I could expect of them, and so on.
There’s a clear bump in income in 2010. Let’s call it the start of my journeyman phase. That’s when The Winds of Khalakovo sold to Jeremy Lassen at Night Shade Books. It was also the year I signed on with my super-awesome agent, Russell Galen. I had pitched the book to Jeremy late in 2009 at World Fantasy, and several months later, Jeremy sent me the offer. I didn’t have an agent before the offer from Jeremy, but immediately upon receiving it, I spoke to Russ and we agreed to work together. He handled all the contract negotiations from there and has been guiding my career expertly since.
It’s interesting to note that in 2010, Night Shade were expanding after some good successes from things like The Windup Girl, their anthologies from John Joseph Adams, and more, so in a way, the road to my break was paved by others’ success. Not that that takes away from the pride I have over the book or the sale to Night Shade. It’s just interesting to look at the gears of publishing to see how things make their way into the system. It’s impossible to get the whole picture without looking beyond the book itself. You have to look at the company, what came before, what their plans are moving forward, the personalities involved, and so on. And in this case, Jeremy Lassen and Jason Williams were looking to get into epic fantasy (along with a number of other sub-genres), and hoping to broaden their reach as a publishing house. They brought on so many debut authors, in fact, that they called it their New Voices program. It may actually have been too many new voices, but that’s not something I care to dive into here.
2011, 2012, and 2013 saw the release of The Lays of Anuskaya trilogy (The Winds of Khalakovo, The Straits of Galahesh, and The Flames of Shadam Khoreh). 2013 was also the year that Night Shade went belly up and sold off their assets to Start Publishing (for ebooks) and Skyhorse Publishing (for print books). Oddly enough, I parted ways with Night Shade a few months before everything went south and got my rights back, which was why I ran a Kickstarter for The Flames of Shadam Khoreh. I also ran a Kickstarter late in 2012 to pull together my fantasy short stories into a collection called Lest Our Passage Be Forgotten & Other Stories, which bumped up the income for 2012.
The elephant in the room is 2013. That’s when first three books in The Song of the Shattered Sands sold, first to DAW Books for the North American market (in an odd coincidence, I got the news the day after my split from Night Shade; how weird is that?), and next to Gollancz for UK rights, and Brilliance Audio for audio rights. As you can see, it was a good year. A really good year. And after the debacle of getting my rights back for The Lays of Anuskaya, it was a huge, huge relief. I didn’t know what was going to happen with the Shattered Sands series, but I was worried that if it didn’t sell, that and the relative failure of my first trilogy would brand me as a failure. Publishing doesn’t quite work that way. To a degree, yes, you’re measured by past sales numbers, but there are many other factors that will be considered, like the publisher of your previous books, their reach in the industry, the perceived potential of the new book(s), and so on. Still, I was really worried, and there are still days where I count my lucky stars to have landed with a slew of great publishers in DAW Books and Gollancz and Brilliance and Droemer Knaur.
I won’t give exact numbers of the deals to these publishers, but it’s important to know that advances are always paid out in installments. First, you’ll typically get a portion of the advance on contract signature (a quarter, a third; it depends on the contract). The remainder is split between the total number of books, and the amount for each book is broken down into additional payments—payment on acceptance (what “acceptance” means I won’t bother to go into here), payment on publication, and the like. So a deal may look amazing on the surface, but you have to remember that the total amount will be paid over the course of years. And when you also take into account the monies going to agents (both domestic and foreign), plus monies owed to taxes, the reality of how much a writer really makes, and how often, begins to set in.
Another item of note is the precipitous drop from 2013 to 2014. Why was that? Well, remember the thing I mentioned about a goodly chunk of the advance for book contracts coming on signature? Well, that came in 2013. And the other payments? On acceptance, on publication? Publication for Twelve Kings in Sharakhai (the first book in the Shattered Sands series) was pushed to 2015 (this year), and “acceptance” can take a while to reach and then process. We’re just now getting to copy edits and preparing ARCs, so those payments will come this year. Which means that relatively little of the new book contract moneys arrived last year.
It brings into stark relief how unreliable income is for a writer. One year, maybe you strike something big, but the years after, who knows? It’s why building a fan base and getting royalties is so important. It smooths out the curve and (one hopes) builds up the floor of your potential income each year. It’s also why getting books out on a regular (and relatively short) schedule is so important to building a career.
2015 will almost certainly eclipse 2014. There are several contracts and contract triggers that are ready to come through, including the publication of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai and the sale to Droemer Knaur in Germany. And, fingers crossed, I have a middle grade novel that might get traction. We’ll see.
Ok, let’s dive into 2014 income.
As you can see, I broke this down by category. (Because a few of the colors are similar, note that the chart goes clockwise starting with Book Advances at the twelve o’clock position and heading down the list.)
There’s some interesting things to unpack here. First, it’s clear that, even though I made relatively little from book advances last year, it still made up the lion’s share of the income. Book royalties? Smallish now. But as the new books come out, I’m hoping that starts to increase (and unless the book flops, it certainly will, though perhaps not until 2016). Also note that some of the other sales (Amazon, B&N, Apple, etc.) are partially (mostly) made up of sales of The Lays of Anuskaya, which I’m selling in e-book form through those venues.
Speaking of Amazon et. al., those sites are what make up my “indy” sales. After getting back the rights to Lays, I self-published all three books, plus my short story collection. Lightning Source represents the physical print sales of those books. And Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, Google iPlay, PayPal, and Smashwords represent the e-book sales. Last year, in an interesting turn of events, I sold print rights back to the new Night Shade Books (Skyhorse). I kept e-book rights, but it made sense to get the print books back into the hands of a publisher who could reach book stores, which I can’t easily do. Hopefully the sales of the Lays trilogy sees a bump when Twelve Kings in Sharakhai comes out this September.
Short story sales and royalties represent a pretty small portion of my sales these days. I just don’t focus on them too much, not because I don’t enjoy them (I do), but because they don’t pay much. Plus, I’ll admit that I like writing novels more than short stories. The short stories I do write tend to be longer—more like mini-novels than proper short stories (and I almost always write in the novelette or novella word count range).
One more item of note is that I made some money from speaking engagements last year. And it wasn’t an insignificant amount, either. It’s something I really enjoy—talking about writing, sharing my experiences—and I’m glad it’s starting to bring in a bit of cash.
That about does it, my friends. FYI, I’m going to write another post in the next week or so on my goals for the coming year, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, if you have any questions, go ahead and ask below.