It’s kind of taboo to talk about money. Especially for writers. John Scalzi’s recent deal is a refreshing exception; Jim Hines also shares a breakdown of his writing income every year, as do a few other writers. It’s great to get these glimpses into what’s really happening behind the vague “a good deal”, “five figures,” etc.
I’m going to tell you about my writing, and about money, and other stuff along the way. About what it costs to try to make a living in the creative arts. I’m sitting here looking at my Quicken printout for 2015, and some royalty statements, and my tax folder, and I’m pondering all of this.
I write because I love to. I write because I can’t not write. “I’m a writer,” I’ll tell you, if we’ve just met at a party and you ask me what I do. My writing brought in $3,010.03 last year. Not much, huh? And that’s actually high, for me; more often it’s only a few hundred dollars. Maybe it’s on an upswing? That would be nice. But I’m not banking on it.
The majority of our household income last year was earned by Mark, working on the Thimbleweed Park game. That too is an aberration for us; usually, most of our income is from my freelance proofreading and copy editing work, and one-off art commissions for him (mostly book covers). It was great to earn more money last year. Sadly, we don’t have any more savings than we did a year ago (i.e., almost zero). Where did it all go?
Lots of places. An increase in income meant an increase in income taxes, of course. It also meant paying for health care–we were so poor the previous year that we qualified for free health care. It was a crappy plan, but it was FREE, and we were thrilled to have it.
In 2015 we spent a lot more on property taxes than the previous year, because in 2014 I’d paid in installments, because I couldn’t afford to pay them all in one lump. This year, with Mark’s income, we not only could, we figured we ought to (this job of his ends in March); so in 2015 we paid five-thirds of the usual amount. I guess that’s going to help on the income taxes? Hope so.
We spent a lot of money going to conventions, to promote our writing and his art and my freelance business, to run dealer’s tables and to display in art shows, to stay in touch with the industry. Even at conventions where we don’t make much in the moment, we still make connections, which lead to work. Conventions are expensive, though; often, we stay with friends, or at Motel 6 rather than the con hotel, or at home if the con is local; even so, meals and travel and parking and all that, they add up. Plus art supplies–my goodness, you guys. Printing (in house or at a print shop) and mat board and special plastic bags and lucite and display clips and All The Things. Which of course are cheaper (per piece) if you buy them in great quantity.
We spent the first month of Mark’s Thimbleweed pay remaking our tool shed into my Tiny Office, so that I no longer had to occupy the dining room. Money well spent!! But spent, all the same; and it will be deducible over some years, because it’s a capital improvement.
Our groceries total was more than twice as high as our dining-out total; we both do like to cook, and eating out is expensive. We signed up for life insurance. We’re in the last few months of an auto loan. We bought some books, a little clothing, went to a few movies, bought little things for the house. I got a pedicure or two. Utilities cost a LOT: almost exactly the same as five-thirds of our annual property tax bill, as it happens.
We spent a few thousand dollars on the garden (not counting water, which goes under utilities, above). The garden is probably our biggest extravagance; but, oh, it gave us such joy. We ate almost every meal outside all summer long, on the deck. We entertained out there. We took pictures of flowers and posted them on Facebook. I regret nothing.
I’m looking at this royalty statement for the first year of publication of Our Lady of the Islands. In a sense, this is also the “final” royalty statement, because its publisher has ceased operations, and the publisher who supposedly bought the imprint has not actually produced any contracts. So the book is currently out of print, unavailable anywhere. Unless you’re local and you ask me, I have a few copies on the shelf here. (My co-author’s agent is working on trying to get the book back in print, somehow, somewhere. But these things take time.)
Our Lady got starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and from Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly named it one of their Best Books of 2014, and it was short-listed for an Endeavour Award. I promoted it as best I could, scheduling a (self-funded) book tour in Oregon, Washington, and California, giving readings in as many bookstores as I could arrange for. Over its year or so of availability, it sold 814 copies, across ebook, paperback, and hardcover formats. It also was sold to Audible; they pay a lump sum, so I don’t know how many audio copies they sold. Most of the money I made off this book came from Audible. For the 814 copies, after the publisher’s expenses, Jay’s agent’s 15%, and then the 50-50 split with Jay’s estate, I made forty-nine cents a book.
I re-edited and republished Eel River in 2015 as well, through Book View Cafe. Audible bought that book too, and I only had to share out 5% to Book View, and none to an agent. That was by far my largest chunk of 2015 writing income. (Theme for this year’s writing income: Hooray For Audible!) Sadly, no copies of the ebook sold in its first quarter of release. None at all. It’s royalty-statement time again soon; I’m hoping there might have been a sale or two this time around. I did hand-sell a few copies at conventions, of the print books. But of course, I had to pay to get them designed and printed and shipped to me. At least my cover art was free.
I’m working on a new writing project. This one has grabbed my brain, burning to get out; I dream about it at night, I think about it all the time, it won’t let me go. I am SO EXCITED about it. I squeeze writing time in whenever I can. I’m nearly 11,000 words in, as of today; it’s going to be a series of shorter novels, so this draft should come in around ~65,000 to ~75,000, I think.
I’ve been thinking hard about what to do with it, and I’ve decided to straight-out self-publish it. Just direct to Amazon. It’s a lighter story, fast-paced, fun; at least at the moment, the writing is coming out fast, and clean. (Ask me again later when I bog down in the middle…) I used to think self-publishing was a bad idea; that it meant you weren’t ‘good enough’ to get published ‘for real’. Probably that used to be true. Now? Not so much. Many of my clients are very successful self-published writers–like, support-the-whole-family, travel-overseas successful. They work hard, they write a lot, they are comfortable with social media. They write, write, write, and write some more. Their stories are good, often very good. They’re also hiring editors and copy editors (me!) and cover designers and other professionals to help ensure they put out a quality product. They are becoming their own little publishing houses, in effect.
Between Mark and me, we have most of the skills to do that. And I know where to hire the rest. Well, most of the rest. I’m not sure where to find a copy editor. But I’ll have to–one does not see one’s own errors.
I’ve spent a few days writing this lengthy essay (between work on the New Project, and other matters). I’ve been thinking about writing it for months now, or longer. I’d like to know how it is for other writers and other creative types, how you make it all work. I know many of you have day jobs, and write (or create) in the corners and pockets and little spaces around the job. I used to do that; making the leap to freelance only happened for me due to a series of life events–divorce, relocation, divorce settlement. It was the divorce settlement that made this possible at all. The income and the savings are all gone, but I did buy this house. If I had to make mortgage payments on top of everything else, I’d have had to find another day job long ago. So I feel very grateful about that.
I also, let’s be honest, feel pretty grateful about my life in general. I get to wake without an alarm in the morning, and go to the gym at 2pm if I want, and garden, and I get paid to read books. And even get paid a little to write them. The trade-off of this flexible schedule is that we really don’t have anything resembling weekends, or days off at all–there’s always more work to do. If your work is at home, you don’t get to leave it at the office at the end of the day. And I do worry about money…there’s always a sort of low-grade anxiety about, Will the freelance work dry up? Will I never make any more money writing? Have I been out of the ‘real job’ market so long that I could never get in again if I had to?
But those are quiet anxieties, underneath a whole lot of life satisfaction. So, I’m not complaining.