The Money Entry

An e-mail this morning:

You’ve said before that you make more than most other writers. If you don’t mind me asking, how much do you make? How do you know it’s more than what other writers make?

Just in case any of you were wondering whether people feel like they can ask me anything.

On the other hand, I have in fact suggested that I tend to make more money than other writers at my (low) level of notoriety, and I’ve talked dollar sums on convention panels where I’ve spoken about making money as a writer, so I don’t suppose there’s any reason not to talk about it here. And as it happens Krissy tallied up my 2005 income last week while preparing our taxes.

So: In 2005, from writing and editing, I made $100,600. And as it happens that is pretty much dead-on average for my writing income since 1998, which is the year I became a freelance writer. Some years I make more (the top year was 2001, when I made about $150,000 due to a huge amount of corporate work) and some years I make less (in 2004 I made about $80,000), but put it all in the pot and 100K is more or less where it averages out. This is my writing/editing income solely; our household income (which includes Krissy’s salary, rental income and other income sources) is naturally higher, and you’ll forgive me if I don’t break that out for you because while I’ve talked about my writing income before, the rest of it is not for public consumption. Regardless, we’re doing okay.

Where does this writing income come from? In roughly the order of percentage of income, thusly:

1. Corporate work: Work I do for various business clients, primarily in the financial and online sectors. I work with some of these folks directly and also work as a sub-contractor for marketing and consulting firms. This is the stuff I consider my “day job,” in that it is consistent, to the extent that any freelance work can be, and therefore I can reliably budget this income (or more accurately, Krissy can, since she handles the finances in the Scalzi household). This is the stuff that pays the bills (my AOL blogging income is in this section).

2. Book income: This is primarily income from book advances, although last year for the first time I had income from royalties (on Book of the Dumb and The Rough Guide to the Universe) and also from foreign sales. Aside from the books that carry my name, this also includes contributions to the Uncle John’s Bathroom Readers, in which contributors get an acknowledgment but not a byline. They pay well enough (and writing the stuff is fun enough) that I couldn’t possibly care if my name is on every piece I write for them.

3. Magazine/Newspaper income: This is primarily from two sources: The Official US PlayStation Magazine, for which I write DVD reviews and commentary columns, and the Dayton Daily News, for which I write a separate DVD column and occasional features and columns. I will also occasionally sell a Whatever as a reprint to newspapers; two examples of this are the “Standing Up For Dubya” entry, which I sold to the Philadelphia City Paper, and the “Being Poor” piece, which was in the Chicago Tribune and other papers (although, as it happens, I chose not to take payment for that particular piece, which is not a usual thing for me). The OPM and DDN income is also predictible (I’ve been writing for both for a number of years), so this also gets put into the “money to pay bills with” planning ledger. For 2005, this amount also included income I got from guest-editing Subterranean magazine.

4. Short Fiction income: This is a new addition, based on the chapbooks I wrote for Subterranean last year (“Sketches of Daily Life” and “Questions for a Soldier”), for which I was paid pretty well (which is to say, higher than the general rate for SF short fiction). Be that as it may, short fiction is, by a significant divisible, the smallest section of my income. I don’t tend to do much short fiction purely for economic reasons — my experience with Subterranean notwithstanding, I can be paid significantly more for writing short non-fiction than short fiction, and there are more places and opportunities to write short non-fiction. So that’s what I gravitate to. Now, I do intend to write somewhat more short fiction in the near future (it’s a form I want to get better at), but given the generally very low rates the field pays, I don’t ever expect it to be a significant part of my income.

Generally speaking, there are four reasons I am able to pull down low six figures from writing on a regular basis. First, I am a reasonably competent writer who is reasonably easy to work with; I make it part of my writing ethic not to be a pain in the ass to clients and editors, and also to do what I can to give them what they want and need the first time. This is particularly the case in corporate work; my ego there is focused hitting the clients’ needs (it helps I have other outlets where I can do what I want when I want to). But all the way around I try to be useful and not a problem for the people I work with.

Second, which is an extension of the first, I have a lot of contacts in various writing spheres and an extensive writing history, which makes it easy for people to hire me/buy my work, because they can see what I’ve done before and know I can hit the marks that need to be hit. Third (and again, an extension of the first two), I have multiple writing competencies, so when work in one sphere is slow, I can work in another sphere of writing. This also allows me to develop additional competencies while still pulling down income in things I already have a track record in.

Finally: I write a lot. An average week will see me writing 20k-30k words across the various writing jobs I have (and also here at the Whatever, which does not generate income directly but which has significant indirect benefits). That’s a million words a year, most of it pay copy. It adds up.

(Oh, one other thing: I’m also selective, which means I don’t write everything that’s offered to me; I have to see whether the job is actually worth my time relative to other opportunities that exist. This can lead to some painful choices; last year I turned down an opportunity to do what would have been a really fun book because I couldn’t make it fit with other things I wanted and needed to do. I’ve also passed on work simply because there wasn’t enough money there to make it worth my while. Turning work away is still painful — the paranoid voice in my head who says you’ll never work again shouts the loudest at these times — but it’s eventually necessary.)

I think it’s possible that any competent writer who is not a pain in the ass to work with can pull down a reasonable sum of money working as a freelance writer, but I will also note that my ability to make a lot of money as a freelancer from my first year is non-typical and a little deceptive. I didn’t begin as a freelance writer without experience; by the time I went freelance I had done a seven-year writing apprenticeship inside the confines of corporate America, first as a newspaper writer and then as a writer and editor at AOL. Both of these were extremely useful — the newspaper for writing quickly and to specification, and AOL for both corporate world experience and because AOL was a hothouse for ambitious folks who went out in the world to their own start-ups and called on me when they needed work done because they remember who I was. So a lot of the years in which I should have been a starving freelancer, building up my chops, I was toiling happily for The Man and doing my chop-building there. Also, I was lucky in that the people I worked with were both ambitious and happy to get in touch with me for work. I have never been shy in admitting that luck has had a lot to do with my career; here’s another example. Of course, luck only gets one so far; sooner than later I had to back up the luck with competence. Even so, It’d be disingenuous to suggest it was all me.

My experience is why among other things I tell people not to be in an all-fired rush to give up their day jobs. My time in corporate America allowed me to build a portfolio of skills that were useful when I went (somewhat unwillingly) into the freelance world; other people can and should do the same. Now, my corporate experience was directly on point to writing, which was additionally helpful, but even those folks with day jobs that are not directly related to writing still can get advantages from them while they are also working on their writing. And of course, all this comes in handy whether one intends to make writing ones primary revenue source or not.

Let me note two obvious things. First, writing income is not necessarily an indicator of how good a writer is stylistically, since speaking personally I can think of several writers who I think write better than I who make less than I do — and several who I think write worse who make more. Second, writing income isn’t necessarily an indicator of writing happiness. Some writers don’t care all that much about money and write either for fun or because they feel compelled to; using writing income as a metric for them isn’t very useful or relevant. As for me, I think it’s possible I could make more as a writer than I do, but at this point in time it would mean taking on more work I have no interest in, which wouldn’t make me very happy.

What writing income corresponds to is competence, opportunity and willingness. I am a competent writer; I am fortunate to have a lot of opportunities to sell work and I’m willing to do a lot of work, including some stuff which isn’t particularly exciting in the “writers are so bohemian” sense. Commensurately I make a fair amount of money doing writing. Most writers have these three factors in varying amounts and make corresponding amounts of money. There are other factors to be sure; these are the three big ones, however.

Naturally, I’m happy with what I make, and I think overall I have a good balance of work that’s fun and interesting, and work I’m happy to do because it gives me a stable income base for my life and my family’s needs (and when those two factors overlap, as they sometimes do, even better). I wouldn’t mind making more, although not at the expense of my current quality of life in terms of family time and range of projects. I don’t mind making less, as long as my family’s needs are met and the work I get to do is sufficiently appealing for its own sake. Writing is a business for me, and also a calling. The key is being able to get to a happy medium between those two axes. Where that medium is, work and income-wise, is different for everyone. I think you find it out mostly by doing.

39 thoughts on “The Money Entry

  1. Wow. People do ask you everything.

    But you didn’t answer one critical question, “How much of a cut does Petey take?”

  2. I’m not surprised that someone would ask how much you make. What impresses me is that you answered.

    Congrats on living the full-time writer dream, and thanks for sharing so many backstage details.

  3. Wow. I believe that is above-average — for anyone, really, not just free-lance writers. Congratulations on living the dream, making money while doing what you love and not letting it consume your personal life.
    Way to break stereotypes!

  4. I agree, that’s a lot of money for a writer — certainly more than I make. I’m not as sure it’s a lot for John’s level of intelligence and education. If he had gone into, say, accounting, with the same amount of zeal and passion that he has for writing, he’d be making a lot more right now. But of course, that’s not what he wants to do.

    Just to play devil’s advocate a bit, what John is saying is that a very successful writer makes only a fraction of what a moderately competent accountant or lawyer would make — and don’t forget that John’s job doesn’t come with benefits.

    In short, if you want to be a writer, you better not be in it for the money.

  5. My thanks to Dave Munger for pulling me back down to reality. I was sitting here wondering how quickly I could get a writing gig rolling, with the pay being roughly double what I make and all…

    It’s true…I suspect John doesn’t have anyone handing him life, health, dental and vision insurance, and I also suspect that a ridiculous chunk of that money goes to pay self-employment taxes and the like. It’s much the same as a neighbor of mine who likes to boast that, as a subcontractor for FedEx driving their residential routes, he makes eighty grand. And then you subtract the taxes, and the van payment, and the maintenance costs (tires and oil and gas pumps, oh my!) and the insurance he buys through his wife’s employer and the gasoline each week, and suddenly you’re talking about closer to $40,000 for job that sees him working 45 weeks on average.

    All I can say is that I hope to hell that Krissy is doing something she really loves, or you’re a rotten bastard for making her work at all, John. :)

  6. What impresses me is how much you must read, to write as much and as well as you do. If you are writing a million plus words a year, it must be millions more that you have read first.
    Thanks for sharing with us so openly. I had wondered.

  7. Dave Munger:

    “what John is saying is that a very successful writer makes only a fraction of what a moderately competent accountant or lawyer would make.”

    Well, to be clear, if all I did was corporate writing, I suspect I could clear 200-250K a year, which is not bad even for a lawyer or an accountant. But I wouldn’t be happy doing only corporate writing, and at a certain point you ask yourself how much money you actually need. For my lifestyle purposes, what I make is more than enough.

    Jas:

    “All I can say is that I hope to hell that Krissy is doing something she really loves, or you’re a rotten bastard for making her work at all, John. :)”

    Heh. Well, in fact, she knows she doesn’t have to work unless she wants to. When we first moved to Ohio I paid for medical and dental insurance (I established a business, Scalzi Consulting, and hired her as an employee — she handled the finances — and thus was able to reap significant tax benefits therein. It was all quite legal, according to our accountant). However, Krissy prefers to work. Some people are constructed not to have to work, but she’s not one of them.

  8. “I believe that is above-average — for anyone, really, not just free-lance writers.”

    Median household income in the U.S. is under $45K, and that includes two-income households. $100K would, if it were the only source of income for the Scalzi household, put their income higher than that of 85% of U.S. households.

    So, yeah, a bit above average.

  9. One of the many things I love about you, John, is I never have to wait for long to have my curiosity satisfied. I’d never ASK this question, but I had wondered. Honestly, you are doing a lot better than I thought you were. LOL I guess there are no worries about where Athena’s college tuition is coming from. ;-) Now, the only other thing I am currently curious about… how is the new bed?!! Honestly, we need a new one and I’ve been dying to hear your review on the high-tech one you guys got.

  10. I’m wondering how you’re able to balance corporate and non-corporate writing. My day job is technical writing, which pays well, but takes up too much time to allow much non-corporate writing.

  11. What exactly is entailed in “corporate writing”? I’m not sure that really is – do you flesh out outlines, turn in report summaries on some topic they are interested in researching, transcribe into short works marketing campaigns?

  12. Ryan: In this case it simply means “all manner of work I do for hire for corporate entities.” I noted that my AOL blog in there, but it also covers various writing assignments ranging from marketing collateral to writing FAQs for Web sites.

  13. Nance: For corporate consulting? I typically bill by the hour, and my rates start at $125/hour. However, not every job is best accounted for via an hourly rate, and if a client wants to negotiate an overall job fee, I can typically accomodate them.

  14. As a newly minted professional writer who’s just starting to get work, I understand that most corporate writing is “work for hire” (ie – the copyright goes with the people that bought the words), but how does that work when you are using that piece later as a clip. Is there a standard procedure for using ‘work for hire’ stuff as part of your clip file, and is it different if you are uploading it to an online portfolio (which could be technically construed as publishing it online under your own name)?

  15. Soni, just place the clips in a password protected folder online; that way they’re generally private enough not to be construed as published online. Then give the password to whomever needs to see your clips online.

  16. Well, to be clear, if all I did was corporate writing, I suspect I could clear 200-250K a year, which is not bad even for a lawyer or an accountant.

    Dude. _I’m_ a lawyer and you’re making more than me *now*.

    (Of course I could make more than this, but that would require working at a big firm and hating *every* *single* *second* of it, so I’m okay with this, really. Though still a bit surprised.)

  17. Mike:

    You’re right, in that John’s family makes much more than the average U.S. family. But John also has much more education than the average American. Just having a bachelor’s degree puts you in the 91st percentile of Americans, education-wise (see this nifty NY times graphic).

    John:

    You might be able to make $250K as a writer, but that would still make you an exceptional writer. An exceptional doctor or lawyer would make much more than that (and of course, many doctors and lawyers, like you, choose to earn less than their potential). My main point is not that you’re not making plenty of money, but that writing is not a great career choice for people mainly interested in making money.

  18. Dave Munger:

    “My main point is not that you’re not making plenty of money, but that writing is not a great career choice for people mainly interested in making money.”

    Indeed not — particularly if one is interested doing writing that it generally thought of as “fun.” One can make a great deal of money as a writer if one is phenomenally successful and lucky. But it’s not at all likely. However, I think one can make a decent living (50k-100k) doing writing, if one put a mind to it.

  19. “However, I think one can make a decent living (50k-100k) doing writing, if one put a mind to it.”

    Agreed. But even that requires a lot more scrambling and hustling than the fantasy most people have about “the writer’s life.”

    I don’t know where I’m going with this, except to say that writing is a very difficult career choice, so it had better be done out of love for writing, rather than a desire to get rich. I’d submit that a really smart writer could probably make $50K doing something much easier than all the scrambling around you need to do to be a professional writer, then still have enough time to do the really “fun” writing on the side, with the idea of never making money off it.

  20. I’m very impressed at how open you are with this subject, and actually find this quite intruiging. I had this delusion a while back of becoming a fiction writer with a day job, but had given up on it mainly because the day job became so demanding, and quite frankly I never felt like my writing was that good. It was damned fun to do though (but selling stories, for example, that are comic-bookish in style about WWII superheroes is probably a bit of stretch :), especially when a large portion of it is already posted for free online). Reading this has made me want to explore it a bit further again, so thanks for that.

  21. Dave Munger:

    “I’d submit that a really smart writer could probably make $50K doing something much easier than all the scrambling around you need to do to be a professional writer, then still have enough time to do the really ‘fun’ writing on the side, with the idea of never making money off it.”

    Yup. Given sufficient drive and opportunity, making decent money is not really that hard to do in the US (being well-educated also helps). There are lots of middle-class jobs out there.

    Your comment about writing works equally, of course, for every form of creative endeavor. It’s generally more financially renumerative to keep a day job and play music on the side than it is to be a full-time musician, or to have a day job and paint on the side than be a full-time artist, or whatever. Working in a creative field is wildly renumerative for less than 1% of any practicioner set, somewhat renumerative for an other 10%, and a piss-poor way to make money for the rest. This is why I advise people to keep their day jobs for as long as they can.

  22. “I’d submit that a really smart writer could probably make $50K doing something much easier than all the scrambling around you need to do to be a professional writer, then still have enough time to do the really ‘fun’ writing on the side, with the idea of never making money off it.”

    I’m not claiming to be a really smart writer (because it seems to me John fits this category and is not going this route), but this is my game plan. Architecture’s not a high paying job either, but it’s a damn sight more stable than free-lance writing and it typically pays what John cited as “a good living.” The trick is not only balancing the two, but also developing the different skill sets required to be successful in both. There is, of course, obvious overlaps — time management, ability to process criticism, working well with others, etc. It’s a slower path but focusing on the process on not the product helps.

  23. The thing I appreciate the most about what John had to say was that he understood customer service. It really doesn’t matter how brilliant someone is, the ability to get along with your clients is actually more important. Human nature being what it is, people will gravitate towards those who make their lives easier, instead of those who have to score “points” by being difficult. I’ve got to say that OMW and TGB are enjoyable to read, and I’ll reread them several times, gleaning out further points of enjoyment. It’s difficult to choose who I like more right now, Scalzi, Richard Morgan, or Chris Moriarty. This blog is a cool thing, and we’ll see ya again.

  24. Miles Allen:

    “It’s difficult to choose who I like more right now, Scalzi, Richard Morgan, or Chris Moriarty.”

    Well, see, that’s the thing: you don’t have to choose. You can like us all. But if you end up liking the other guys more, that’s fine too. I’m happy with bronze.

  25. Thanks for posting this John; even without the $ figures, this post is something that would help a lot of freelance writers. It’s good to hear that you’re doing so well and that you’ve found the Holy Grail of freelance writing :-).

  26. It would be interesting if Krissy could interject a little bit about the expenses that come out of that 100k – as someone upstream mentioned, John as a freelancer is paying different taxes than someone Working For The Man and thus bringing in 100k as a freelance writer is not the same thing as having a 100k annual salary working for a corporation. Aside from the issue of subsidized health care there’s the employer-paid 7.5% social security withholding that most of us never see (though economists would claim we’re actually paying it) and other incidental costs.

    On the other hand as John mentions, there’s also some tax benefits of being one’s own corporation.

    John, I’d love to see you talk in another post about the division of your time between hustling up new work and doing the work, both now that you’re more established and back when you first raised your own flag. When I was self-employed one of the things I found most difficult was switching gears between the Doing and the Landing of work. I have come to think that it’s a significant skill in and of itself and sometimes wonder if some people are innately good at it and others not cut out for it.

  27. Damn, man… I beat you just by selling a house.

    The next time your agent is negotiating with someone, get that someone’s number. Give it to me, and then kick back and wait.

    There’s a better than average chance that I’ll blow the deal, but it’s a 100% certainty that I’ll do it in such a manner that the press it gets sells more books than all this Mr. Nice Guy stuff you’ve been wasting your time with.

    People thought Ozzy was crazy when he bit off that dove’s head, but how much more money do you think he makes when compared to Tony Iommi? When it got down to check cashing time, Ozzy took the ball in from the one.

  28. But even that requires a lot more scrambling and hustling than the fantasy most people have about “the writer’s life.”

    Well, here’s the truth, straight from mr. Wells’ mouth:

    “In the literary household of fiction and the drama, things are usually in a distressing enough condition. The husband, as you know, has a hacking cough, and the wife a dying baby, and they write in the intervals of these cares among the litter of the breakfast things. Occasionally a comic, but sympathetic, servant brings in an armful–”heaped up and brimming over”–of rejected MSS., for, in the dramatic life, it never rains but it pours. Instead of talking about editors in a bright and vigorous fashion, as the recipients of rejections are wont, the husband groans and covers his face with his hands, and the wife, leaving the touching little story she is writing–she posts this about 9 p.m., and it brings in a publisher and £100 or so before 10.30–comforts him by flopping suddenly over his shoulder.”

  29. Notes

    John Scalzi gets personal about money, specifically, money made from writing. I tried to talk about this with my husband, but all I got was a fish-eyed stare that said, “And why aren’t you making $100,000 this year?” My laptop has started in with this …

  30. Notes

    John Scalzi gets personal about money, specifically, money made from writing. I tried to talk about this with my husband, but all I got was a fish-eyed stare that said, “And why aren’t you making $100,000 this year?” My laptop has started in with this …

  31. Notes

    John Scalzi gets personal about money, specifically, money made from writing. I tried to talk about this with my husband, but all I got was a fish-eyed stare that said, “And why aren’t you making $100,000 this year?” My laptop has started in with this …

  32. Notes

    John Scalzi gets personal about money, specifically, money made from writing. I tried to talk about this with my husband, but all I got was a fish-eyed stare that said, “And why aren’t you making $100,000 this year?” My laptop has started in with this …

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