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You Can Afford a Balenciaga Bag on a Novel Writer's Earnings

You can afford a Balenciaga or Louis Vuitton bag on your earnings from your cherished book, but you'll have to choose which one. You probably can't afford both. Or anything else. If you knew the truth about book writers' earnings, would you still choose writing?


In Sycamore Dawn, my novel-in-progress, the protagonist augments her earnings with adjunct professor gigs. She has begun to feel that writing books is the extra-curricular activity and teaching her real job, rather than the other way around.


That's an unfortunate reality for many writers. An Authors Guild 2018 survey of published book authors discovered that the median income for all book-related activities of the responding authors for 2017 had dropped to $3,100*. That survey included 46% traditionally published writers, 27% who only self-published, and 26% who both self-published and published traditionally. The percentages put to rest the idea that self-published writers make considerably more than the majority of traditionally published writers. Most of us are in the same boat. Or bag.


Expanding that category to include all writing-related activities such as teaching in fellowship programs, freelance journalism, editing what others write, and speaking, Authors Guild reported that the median salary increased to $6,080, according to the responding authors. Those numbers increased considerably for full-time writers, to about $20,300 for all writing-related activities.


That's why I sometimes laughingly call myself a kept woman. I have contributed to my family's wellbeing in many ways, including economically. For a thirteen-year-period, I stopped writing fiction in order to earn a steadier income writing for a business-related website and occasionally for the educational market. However, even then, my husband's earnings far eclipsed mine, as they have consistently since I finished putting him through law school about five years into our marriage.


When I sold my five YA novels, my typical advance was in the $5,000-6,000 range. For most of those books, that was all I collected on the book. Many writers don't earn out their advances and begin getting royalty checks. I collected royalties on only one: the German version of Call of the Deep, which was a book club choice in Germany. Because I wrote YA novels at that time, I sometimes received a small fee from schools for speaking to students.


For those contemplating a writing career, the realities prove stark. Still, most writers are capable of holding two opposing and contradictory beliefs at the same time: I'll never have anything published and My first submission will result in an auction that brings me a hundred-thousand dollar advance from the winning bid.


I hear the same tales of earnings woes from actors, musicians, voice coaches, and artists. Moreover, recent tax code changes have hit some hard, not allowing deductions that were previously allowed.


If I'd known the financial realities of a writing career, would I choose it again? The only appropriate answer to that is that I didn't choose this career in the first place. It chose me when I was about eleven. Of course I'd do it all over again. 


*Survey results reported in "Six Takeaways from the Authors Guild 2018 Authors' Income Survey," The Authors Guild. News and Events, 5 JAN 2019.

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