Hi lovely subscribers,
In my continuing quest to give you real talk about publishing, I want to break down how you achieve the dream—how you can quit your job and write full time. It might not be your dream right now, or ever, and that’s ok, but if you’re writing, novels or long form non-fiction, don’t lie and say you’ve never thought about it. Even I’ve thought about it and I love my job. I don’t think I’ll even quit my job tbh, even if I got a monster book deal. And here’s why.
So, as you probably know, book publishers pay authors an advance against future royalty earnings. A lot of things, merit based and not, go into figuring out an advance, but for argument’s sake, here, let’s say you get a $20,000 advance for your debut novel. Any genre. $20k is a nice round number and not a bad deal for a debut in this economy.
Very likely, you’ll be paid that advance in halves, $10k when you sign the contract and $10k when the publisher accepts your final manuscript and all the editing is done. Let’s say you sealed the deal with your agent and new editor yesterday. You can quit your job now, right? $20k might pay most or all of your mortgage for a year, right? Maybe you have a partner whose job pays for food and provides health insurance! Great! But let’s look at when the checks actually come, and how much they are.
Given that it’s mid-ish July, that contract isn’t going to come in until close to Labor Day. Maybe sooner, but things are slower in the summer, so we say in publishing (it’s not actually true, except when it is). Your agent will take a few days to vet the contract and then send any changes back to the publisher. Let’s say everyone’s super quick about that and the changes are light (because your agent already has a great boilerplate with that publisher and has already fought for all the big things) and it takes two weeks from receipt of the first draft contract until you get a version you can read and sign, if it’s ready. It’s ready, so you sign, and the publisher uses an electronic signature program like DocuSign, and you’re able to sign and send back your contract in an hour and the next day you have a countersigned agreement signed by all parties in your inbox. YAY! This is an area of publishing that’s embracing technology and making EVERYTHING BETTER. But you might not have this opportunity and it could take another 2-3 weeks for everything to get signed and sealed.
With the DocuSign set up, it’s often easier for the editor (afaik) to hit the Pay the Author Now button. Just last week we got a direct deposit of a client’s check DAYS after the contract is signed. THIS IS A MIRACLE. It usually takes weeks.
So, deal signed on July 9, first check maybe on September 25th. That first check will be:
$10,000 - $1,500 agent commission - $3,000 federal and or state taxes* = $5,500
*YMMV re: taxes but you have to pay them yourself. Talk to an accountant about how to figure out and pay estimated quarterly taxes.
In Brooklyn, that’s a month and change rent. Take yourself out for a nice dinner at least to celebrate your book deal.
Now, your book needs some edits, and by the time the contract comes in, your editor has gotten her notes over to you. Great! You’re hard at work, and the revised manuscript is due after the New Year. WOOOO! You make great revisions and deliver it on time. You’re a pro.
After New Years, plus a week for everyone to get back up to speed after the holidays, your editor reads your book and it’s wonderful! No more editing needed! It’s ready to go into copyediting! At that point (and this is a real sweetheart of a situation), it’s time for your next payment and the editor hits the Pay the Author button. Another check comes to your agent in a week or a month and you get another check for $8,500. You put aside $3,750 this time because that’s what your accountant told you to do. Take yourself out for another nice dinner. YOU WROTE A BOOK AND IT’S GOING TO BE PUBLISHED.
In January, 2021. That’s when your book is scheduled to be published. In the meantime, you’re writing another book and working with your agent on it. You have 6 GREAT chapters and a solid outline and you’re ready to send it to your editor in May.
But your editor isn’t quitttttttte ready to buy another book. They’re not sure how many copies retail stores are going to buy yet—that doesn’t happen until closer to Thanksgiving. She doesn’t want to reject your new book quite yet, but she’s not sure if she can buy it quite yet either. You can shop it elsewhere, but you really like this editor and want to establish a relationship with her. You and your agent decide to wait until the summer to see how things look. You write another novel in a different genre in the meantime, but it’s not working. You sit tight.
July comes around again and SURPRISE your editor wants to buy your next book! This time they can only offer $15,000 because reasons reasons reasons that make sense but are still a little ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ to you. Your agent gets them up to $18,000 and you’re excited. Another book deal is another book deal! You get a check for $7,650 in September and put aside $2,300 for taxes. Another nice but not too nice dinner! Your books are kinda on a schedule now, so you get another check for $7,650 in the new year. That’s 2021.
AND THEN YOUR FIRST BOOK COMES OUT AND YOU ARE A PUBLISHED AUTHOR!!!!!
So, what about royalties? You have to earn back your full advance before you earn royalties. You can do this by selling books, but also depending on the deal, the sale of subrights by your publisher (translation, audio) also fill your royalty account. For ease of explanation, let’s just look at hardcover book sales.
Your book costs $24.95. You earn 10% of the retail price of your book each time one is sold! To earn out $20,000 you need to sell roughly 8,000 copies of your book. That’s not impossible! It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. After those 8,000 books are sold, you start earning about $2.50 per book.
And when would those royalties come in? Your book published in January, 2021. You will receive a statement from your publisher showing the sales of your book during the period of Jan ‘21 - June ‘21 in roughly October 2021. Yeah. That’s how it works. Each publisher is different on what 6 month period they cover and when statements go out, but that’s the rough schedule.
You’re not likely going to see a royalty payment that first October, 1: because most books don’t earn out, but 2. because the publisher can hold a reserve against returns. Bookstores can return copies they don’t sell. If the bookstore send them back, you can’t count those books as sold, obviously. So the publisher puts a buffer in the statement so they don’t pay your for books that may ultimately be returned by the store. That reserve goes away in a statement or two, so about a year later. If you’re book is doing really well, you might get a check in January, 2022, but it’s hard to gauge how much it’ll be. $136.50? $5,673.23? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Of course, you have the second payment of your second book coming in around January ‘22. And then maybe you’re writing something new…..
This may all depress you. I’m sorry. I’m the kind of person who looks at information like this and is energized by it. A puzzle to solve! A system to work in! A goal to attain! I hope you’re this kind of person, too, or at least this information is motivating in such a way that is helpful and not hurtful. Maybe it helps you make decisions now so that you can capitalize on them later. Maybe you downsize your house, save a little more money. Maybe you take a certain kind of job now that you might quit later when things take off. Maybe it helps you decide whether to go to grad school. (An MFA does not equal more money in publishing FYI.)
In the best of all possible worlds, it gets easier to sell subsequent books, and your readership grows and so does the amount you can get in advances. Maybe you can write in two different genres (hard, but not impossible). Maybe you get one huge deal and can live off of it for a while. Maybe you keep your day job a few years, banking on a future full-time writing career. I’ve described a pretty idealized scenario here. It’s not the only way, but it’s also not guaranteed for anyone. Your editor might leave, and so goes your in-house champion. Your first book might tank. Your publisher might be sold or close. The market could shift and no one wants your speciality anymore. Anything can happen.
Publishing is fickle. Books are wonderful. Writing is fickle and wonderful and horrible and sometimes the only thing you can do. If you want to do it full time, you have to know how the system works. I hope the system works for you the way you want it to.
Less depressing stuff next week, I promise!!