The Money Entry 2007: Science Fiction Income

Last year, in response to a question from the peanut gallery, I spilled the beans on how much I made in a year from my writing. This year I thought I’d return to the subject, not in an overall sense (in 2006 I did fine, thank you), but looking at one segment of my income: The income I received from writing and editing science fiction.

2006 was an interesting year for me in this regard, primarily because it’s the first year that, frankly, I’ve gotten any substantial amount of income from science fiction. To bracket this, allow me to note that I’ve been making income off of science fiction since 1999, which is the year that I first offered Agent to the Stars online as “shareware.” So from 1999 through 2006, here’s how the income came down. Note that I’m breaking down the income as to when it was actually received, ie., when I had cash in my hot little hands:

1999: About $400, from Agent readers
2000: About $1000, from Agent readers
2001: About $1100, from Agent readers and a short story sale at Strange Horizons
2002: About $1000, from Agent readers
2003: About $6000, from Agent readers and from first part of advance for Old Man’s War
2004: About $5000, from Agent readers and from first part of advance for The Android’s Dream
2005: About $15,000, from second part of OMW advance, first part of The Ghost Brigades advance, advance for Agent to the Stars hardcover, and short story sale to Subterranean Press.
2006: About $67,000.

As you can see, there’s quite a jump from 2006 from the rest of the years; I made more than four times as much in science fiction than the year before, and about twice what I made for all the years previous. So what happened? Lots of things:

1. 2006 was the first year I received royalties on sales of Old Man’s War. The book had earned out on its advance roughly halfway through 2005 — but royalty statements are tallied up only twice a year (halfway through the fiscal year and then again at the end) and it takes a few months after that for the information (and checks) to be sent to agents and authors. And even when your book is in the black, there’s another publishing accounting practice called “reserves against returns,” in which the publisher holds some of your royalties in escrow just in case more than expected copies of your book come flooding back to the publisher from booksellers. What this reserves does (or, at the very least, did for me) is to retard the flow of royalties to the author by one royalty statement, which is to say, by another six months. So although Old Man’s War was published in January 2005, I waited seventeen months to get my first royalty check.

(There was also another another wrinkle here in that in addition to earning out its advance, OMW also had to earn out the advance of The Android’s Dream, which I sold at the same time; the contracts specified I wouldn’t see royalties from either until both were earned out — so theoretically it would have been possible that I wouldn’t have seen royalties from Old Man’s War until deep into 2008, since TAD wasn’t published until late October 2006. Fortunately, OMW was up to the task — and because of that I get royalties from TAD from book one. So buy it, damn it.)

Bear in mind it’s not a guaranteed thing that an author will receive royalties; the conventional wisdom is that most books either don’t earn out for their authors or just about break even, and I suspect that most publishers try to calibrate their advances to authors based on what they expect the author to make from the book over the course of the book’s run. Indeed, I’ve heard at least one author say to me that if you’re getting royalties, that just means the publisher didn’t pay you enough up front. We can have a philosophical debate as to whether it’s better for an author to get a big chunk of money up front or a smaller flow out the back; for now, however, I can say I’m pleased to have the royalty income.

I should also note that while a time lag for royalties is standard operating procedure, there are times when royalties can come more quickly than not. When the limited edition hardcover of Agent to the Stars sold out its print run midway through 2006, Subterranean Press quickly cut me a check for the royalties I was owed. This was partially because as a limited run, there was a finite timespan the book was available (i.e., up until the moment the last one sold) and also a finite amount or royalty I would be owed, and as a small press Subterranean has pretty tight control of its inventory, all of which is not necessarily the case with an open-ended book run. It’s also partially because Subterranean Press publisher Bill Schafer is a hoopy frood who knows where his towel is, and also knows authors like to get paid sooner than later whenever possible.

All told, my royalty income in 2006 was about $15,000.

2. My fiction agent Ethan Ellenberg began to sell foreign-language rights for Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades, and has been reasonably successful, as OMW has been sold in eight foreign languages now, and TGB in five. The income from foreign language rights varies considerably: I made nearly as much for Old Man’s War for the German language rights, for example, as I did for the English language rights. The Chinese language rights? Not so much. A whole lot depends on the the foreign market itself: whether SF is a popular genre, how much income the readers in the country have to buy books, how much books sell for in each market and so on. In aggregate, however, it can add up to a comfortable amount.

The problem with foreign rights is that they are typically contingent on the success of the book in its original language and market — and then of course subsequent sales in that language will be charted against how one’s previous editions do in that language. So to make foreign language sales work your work has to be commercially adept in two different tongues. Given how little control authors have on the sales of their work in their first language, they can expect even less control in the second language, so you basically hope everything works out in the end.

Naturally, in the case of OMW, I suspect that the fact it was Hugo-nominated is a substantial selling point for foreign-language editors; me winning the Campbell Award doesn’t hurt, either.

Theoretically it’s possible that somewhere down the line I might see royalties from foreign-language editions. That’d be nice, but I’m not waiting up nights for that.

All told, my foreign sales income in 2006 was about $20,000.

3. Because my sales of Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades have been healthy, my advances have gone up commensurately (having a good agent helps in this regard as well). In 2006, I signed a three-book contract with Tor, with each book bringing $25k each, some of which I got upon signing. One of the books (The Last Colony) is in the can; the other two I have to write yet (they’re on hold while I bang out the follow-up to The Android’s Dream, for which I have a separate contract; yes, Tor will have me for a while.)

What do I think of $25k for a novel? I think it’s fine; I’ve seen my sales so far for my books and it’s in line with that. It’s less than the advances I’ve gotten for non-fiction but that’s an “apples and oranges” comparison in terms of sales and distribution. Other friends of mine who are writers are making more, but then again, they’re selling more as well, and some of them are also in other segments of the publishing business that pay higher advances; anecdotally it seems genre pays less in advances than mainstream or lit fic.

Would I like to get paid more up front per book? I wouldn’t mind. However, inasmuch as a large portion of my writing income comes from outside of fiction writing (and I have a spouse with a good, benefits-laden job) I’m not living from book advance to book advance either. I can afford to look at intangibles as well. In the case of Tor, for example, I’ve been very pleased with their long-term strategy for promoting my work (and me!), and that has its value as well, in terms of the overall health of my fiction career. My agent will probably stab me in the eye for saying this, but sometimes intangibles like that are worth as much as more money up front.

Mind you, this warm and fuzzy feeling for Tor and its folk doesn’t stop me from approaching the business side of my career as a business – this is why I have an agent, after all: so I can say nice things about Tor while he wrestles and argues with them about money and rights and what have you. Ethan earns his 15%. What I’m saying is that from a business point of view, it behooves me to look at an entire package, of which money is one part, and many other things are many other parts.

In addition to the three-book contract discussed above, Tor also bought the rights to publish Agent to the Stars at some point in the future, most likely as a trade paperback (I’ll be revising that one prior to its Tor publication to bring some of the cultural references up to date).

All told, my advance income in 2006 was about $30,000.

4. Miscellaneous income — This includes my fee for guest editing Subterranean magazine issue #4 and payment for the short story “How I Proposed to My Wife: An Alien Sex Story” (“The Sagan Diary,” which I also wrote in 2006, I took no upfront payment for; some of you will recall that I wrote it in exchange for a $5k bid on a draft copy of The Last Colony, the proceeds of which went to the John M. Ford Book Endowment — although SubPress is splitting the back-end profits with me, which will end up being nice, indeed). I recognize that it might be offensive to some to label income from short story writing as “miscellaneous,” but please understand that it’s strictly an economic designation; I write little enough short fiction, and the payment for it is typically so low relative to other writing, that it doesn’t really earn its own breakout designation.

My miscellaneous income was about $2,000 in 2006.

(Caveat: These numbers aren’t exact because I don’t have all my 1099 tax forms spread out in front of me when I’m writing this. There’s probably a margin of error of, oh, about $3k.)

Now, what really happened in 2006, in regard to my science fiction income, was that I had been in the science fiction publishing business for enough time, and had been successful enough at it (for various reasons, one of which was being just damn lucky) that this was the year that many potential revenue sources began to flow income in my direction. In short, time was a major contributing factor — I’ve now been doing this long enough, basically.

Should I expect this level of income from science fiction every year? I don’t think so, as there are any number of ways this income could go down. If one of my books sells poorly, that will have an impact on my future advances and on my royalties. If my books sell poorly in other languages, that will have an impact on future foreign sales. I could develop a massive writer’s block or simply choose to write more in other fields and thus write fewer SF novels. My publishers could suddenly have economic seizures and be unable to pay me what they owe me. Rampant electronic piracy could eat away into my sales! (sorry, had to throw that one in there for all the fearful Luddites out there.) There are lots of ways this income could go away. Writing SF isn’t a great way to have a stable income.

(Which isn’t to say it couldn’t go up, mind you: OMW is selling very nicely in mass market, TGB is heading to mass market in April/May, I’m touring with The Last Colony when it comes out, TAD is holding its own nicely, “The Sagan Diary” is doing mind-bogglingly well for a novelette, and so on. And there are still foreign languages to sell in. Don’t get me wrong, I think I’m going to do just fine in 2007, as far as science fiction is concerned. It’s simply foolish to assume that just because I’m doing well one year, that all years in the future will be equally cheery. Anyone who has been a writer over the long haul will tell you that some years you’re up, and some years you’re down.)

In any event, this is what a reasonable amount of success in science fiction publishing looks like, circa early 2007.

The floor is now open to questions and comments.

(Edited in later: Why I write about my writing income, and some follow-up thoughts, based on comments and e-mails)

106 thoughts on “The Money Entry 2007: Science Fiction Income

  1. Glad to hear Agent to the Stars is going to get reprinted, it’s going for just under a $100 on amazon now.

  2. Congrats John. It’s great to see that you’re doing so well and wish you good luck (read: $$$) for the future as well. Now, if you can send some author-signed copies my way, I’ll be on my way to doing well too.

    Seriously though, I wish it weren’t so hard to get your books in India–I’ve never seen them here. I’ll build my Scalzi collection eventually though.

  3. Percy:

    Old Man’s War going to be released in the UK via Pan MacMillin in June; as PanMac (I assume) would have the right to distribute in India, it might get there that way.

  4. For someone who prides himself on persuasive writing, your MAKE.MONEY.FAST pitch here needs serious work.

    Does the relatively smaller amount of money for writing fiction affect your choice of writing gigs all that often?

  5. Stephen G:

    “Does the relatively smaller amount of money for writing fiction affect your choice of writing gigs all that often?”

    In terms of novels, not really. One, at the moment, the money is increasing so that’s useful. Second, the amount of money I make overall is sufficient for my lifestyle and to support my family, so after a certain point I have the luxury of choosing to write what is most interesting to me without worrying if I going to take a hit in terms of how I live my life.

  6. Jeez, guy, I don’t see this as a pitch of something. I think John’s putting his cards our on the table for people to see.

    Among other things, this blog’s about writing: the art, the craft, and the business. It’s John’s blog, and also his business what to put up. I actually think MORE writers should put up about their incomes, perhaps, to give us aspiring folks an idea of what’s going on.

    I’d tell you how much money I make, but I honestly don’t know. I’m still waiting for the Excel file to open on my G4. I do know I got to buy some new synths this year and lots of CD’s, without bankrupting the family.

  7. Thanks for putting these numbers out there. You and Toby are doing us newbies a tremendous service by breaking the American taboo against talking about income.

  8. I love the post, John. I’m going to link to it from my blog, so that aspiring writers can see a good breakdown of what they can realistically expect–if they’re lucky. So many people go into this business thinking that they’re going to be rolling in the big bucks, and that’s just not true.

  9. I second that thank you, John. You and Tobias are doing great stuff to help us new and wannbe writers. Please, keep it up.

    Also, as a general note, John is very modest. In conversations with starting and midlist writers, John is often describes a “teh hot writer.”

    John, does your agent handle the foreign sales, or does he have a relationship with another firm?

  10. Steve Buchheit:

    “John, does your agent handle the foreign sales, or does he have a relationship with another firm?”

    He usually works through subagents, as I understand it.

  11. Thanks a ton for sharing, John, this is very interesting stuff. One of the things that strikes me about advances is that they could make for a very unstable income situation. It would seem like managing that is what makes one a quality professional author, as much as consistent output, good relationships with publishers, etc.

    Curious about the Unnamed Fantasy Novella. Doesn’t seem like you’ve said much about it. Any updates?

  12. Chang:

    Jeez, guy, I don’t see this as a pitch of something. I think John’s putting his cards our on the table for people to see.

    That was a joke. If this post does anything, it emphasizes that writing is very much not a way to make money fast, a position Scalzi’s been very up front about from the beginning. Also note that at no point did I chide him for sharing the information.

  13. I am curious. I don’t know what your non-writing job is – is it an 8-hour-a-day, full-time thing? How do you allocate your time between the job that is not fiction writing, the fiction writing, and family / fun? Are you writing your fiction between 5am and 6am, before you schlep in to the office every day?

  14. James:

    I’m a full-time writer; my office is about 15 feet from my bed. As for time allocation, it really depends what I have on the writing menu. At the moment it’s mostly given over to fiction writing (i.e., the Android’s Dream follow up).

  15. Something that probably should be mentione din any discussion of money (but doesn’t apply to you, since you’ve said that your wife has benefits provided through her job) is that these numbers do not included benefits. I worked for a couple of years as a an IT contractor. In absolute terms, I pad more than I did as a full time employee, but when you added in the full cost of medical and retirement benefits, the difference almost disappeared. Any US writers who want to depend upon writing as a full time occupation are going to have to factor the not insignificant cost of individual health care in this country; writers from everywhere will have to factor in retirmeent and the like.

    So that 67k is not as impressive as it may seem. And, as John said, he’s been really successful.

  16. Congratualations on a good year! Since the success in the foreign market has a high stake in your future, improved, income; do you have plans to localize your blog for other countries/languages? It’s obviously a great marketing tool. That’s how I found you and decided to read one of your books.

  17. Brent:

    “do you have plans to localize your blog for other countries/languages?”

    Not really, because I can’t actually write or speak in other languages. Also, of course, it’s not like I have the time.

    Kevin:

    “Any US writers who want to depend upon writing as a full time occupation are going to have to factor the not insignificant cost of individual health care in this country.”

    Yup. True of any self-employed person, that.

  18. This is all very educational for me, as my agent prepares to sell my manuscript to editors. (Hopefully things will go well enough that I can have that philosophical debate about royalties vs. advances you mentioned.)

    My question: do you do your taxes yourself, or do you hire someone, and if you hire someone, did you find an accountant knowledgeable in entertainment taxes who helps you determine what you can write off and what you can’t?

    Also related: Did you incorporate so your income goes to a business first?

    Wow, those are quite possibly the most boring questions I’ll ever ask you. Except for maybe the follow-ups.

  19. Kaytie:

    I haven’t done my own taxes since 2001, which is when I a) started doing business as Scalzi Consulting and b) became a landlord. After that point things became too complicated that I didn’t think I would be getting my best returns on TurboTax.

  20. I know just about nothing about Science Fiction writing, which is why I stay away from those conversations. Finances, though, is a little more up my alley. So, two points:

    First:
    My agent will probably stab me in the eye for saying this, but sometimes intangibles like that are worth as much as more money up front.

    Your agent would be correct. Money up front is always better than money later on, as long as you have a modicum of self-discipline (which, in this case, seems to be Krissy) about not spending it just because it’s sitting in the bank account. Aside from the time value of money aspect (you earn interest on the money if you get it up front, Tor earns interest on it if they wait a while before giving it to you), there’s also the issue of risk. When the advance is small, you’re taking most of the risk (you get paid based on how well the book sells). When the advance is big, Tor is taking most of the risk (they make money only if the book sells well). While a buddy-buddy relationship with your service providers is a good thing, it’s always in your best interest to have someone else absorb risk.

    Also, you mention the intagibles – i.e., the support Tor gives you throughout the year. Unless I misunderstand the process, a big advance actually ensures you more support from Tor during the year, since they need to make you successful to turn a good profit. If they paid you a small advance, they have the option of matching poor book sales with reduced promotional expenses (not that they would do that, I’m just speaking hypothetically). So even in terms of intangible benefits, you (and your agent) prefer larger advances.

    Second:
    I [have] been in the science fiction publishing business for enough time, and had been successful enough at it (for various reasons, one of which was being just damn lucky) that this was the year that many potential revenue sources began to flow income in my direction.

    I’ll try to avoid sliding into fanboy-mode here, but the above is only true if you define “lucky” as “being good at promotion, marketing, and strategic planning in addition to writing.” You make the point that someone who makes less money isn’t necessarily a worse writer. I’m sure that’s true, but someone who makes less money (ignoring the timing issues you discuss)is also probably worse at those other things you’re doing well.

    Continued success…

  21. Brian Greenberg:

    “Unless I misunderstand the process, a big advance actually ensures you more support from Tor during the year, since they need to make you successful to turn a good profit. If they paid you a small advance, they have the option of matching poor book sales with reduced promotional expenses (not that they would do that, I’m just speaking hypothetically). So even in terms of intangible benefits, you (and your agent) prefer larger advances.”

    I certainly agree that the more money they put in up front, the more they’re obliged to put in to support the writer to get it all back. In my case, I’m at the spot in the advance scale where the maximum I could get is still well below the “holy crap, we gotta to promote the hell out of this dude” sum, so the question is how much are they going to promote me even though their financial exposure regarding me is not frightening. Basically, I’m still at a level where those sorts of intangibles do come into play.

    Naturally, I aim to achieve the next level of advances as soon as humanly possible.

  22. Interesting breakdown! Your big advantage over me (apart from having more books in print!) is the foreign sales. My first novel didn’t do squat in terms of foreign sales, but I have higher hopes for my new urban fantasy series that starts this year (it’s more commercial, more accessible, but no less quirky and fun). Just in terms of short story sales overseas, though, I’m discovering that foreign rights sales are sweet delicious free money. Gotta love the weak dollar in those cases, too.

    I made about $30K from science fiction last year (I got half the money on a two-book deal up front, and various short story sales, a collection sold, etc.), which is double what I made the year before, which itself was double what I made the year before *that*, so my general trend upward is very nice indeed. Thanks for providing such a detailed breakdown. It’s instructive. I’d been thinking you probably got heaps more money per book than I do, but instead we’re in the same general ballpark. (Though my first book hasn’t earned out, and I’m not holding my breath…)

    Of course, thinking about the money I made writing last year just makes me think about the taxes I’ll have to pay *this* year, which is a whole different tale of woe.

  23. I appreciate you sharing this, John. Although each set of circumstances is different, it’s nice to see a generalized version of how that income works. As has been mentioned a few times already, aspiring writers want to know this kind of information to help set expectations and quantify the financial aspect of a possible writing career.

    And congratulations on finally making the transition from potential income streams to realized income streams. I hope that trend continues.

  24. Hmmm, and here I was thinking that I had about 10% of Scalzi’s talent and maybe I could make a little side income – you know, just to cover the car payment and a few goodies. Best rethink that plan…

    Thanks for writing about the business side of writing. I’ve never seen anyone else do so and it is very interesting to learn that the amount of creative work encompassed in writing a good novel does not generate the amount of income I thought it did.

  25. Tim Pratt:

    “I’d been thinking you probably got heaps more money per book than I do, but instead we’re in the same general ballpark.”

    It’s not too surprising, I think; we’re both at the same general point in the career (we were both up for Locus Best First Novel award last year, after all). And hopefully we’ll both continue to see the same general upward trend.

  26. I loved reading this post. I think it’s good education about the realities of writer economics. (It reminds me of my graphic design teacher explaining how not to be a starving artist.)

    I also think it stands in good contrast to a recent storyline in the For Better or For Worse comic. The eldest Patterson child, Michael, now grown and working as an editor for a small magazine. He spends his nights working on The Great Canadian Novel. His beta reader is his mum–and while she used to own a bookstore…she’s still his mum. Eventually he finishes the novel, which he shows to a few contacts, and voila! he gets a contract for 25 thousand dollars and rights of first refusal on his next novel. Never gets rejected once–in fact the very first publishers he approaches give him an offer.(This might be slightly more believeable if the FBoFW website wasn’t linking exerpts of his novel, which are filled with florid and flabby prose.) Then….he quits his job. It’s not that this story CAN’T happen, just that it usually doesn’t seem to happen that way. It’s a little too Hollywood, I guess.

    And comparing it to the publishing stories I’ve read from other relatively new authors, it just feels implausible. Your fellow Campbell nominee, Brandon Sanderson, had a dozen novels written before his sixth, Elantris, got published by Tor. You had Agent to the Stars working for you, and if I recall correctly, wasn’t Old Man’s War serialized on this website before getting picked up?

    In any case, I find all this information fascinating and useful. (I do have one further question though–who does your taxes? Does your agent tell you how much the government wants out of your hide? I occasionally think about moving to some country where artists and writers are given income tax breaks for their cultural contributions to society, although I hear Ireland, the most notable, is considering revoking that status.)

  27. But John, you won the Campbell Award! You got a tiara and everything! I just assumed they started raining jewels down on you after that!

  28. Scalzi-

    Thanks for this! I’m a veeeery new writer, and it’s nice to see what *could* happen after 7 or 8 years. Heh.

    This year I’ve made: $7.00 from my writing. (When you win NaNoWriMo, Lulu lets you get one free published book of your work, worth seven bucks). I’m on my way! heh.

    “Rampant electronic piracy” made me laugh out loud. Oh man.

    One more thing. Agent to the Stars is awesome. I read it online (when Penny Arcade linked it awhile back). Bought a copy from Sub Press and read it again. And now, I’m reading it online again again. AAAAH

  29. Tim Pratt:

    “But John, you won the Campbell Award! You got a tiara and everything! I just assumed they started raining jewels down on you after that!”

    Yes, well, see. All the contracts enumerated above were signed prior to the aforementioned prancing about in a tiara. Curse Patrick Nielsen Hayden and his precipitate haste in providing me with a three book contract!

  30. Hey, thanks for a great post. Just a couple of questions (from a guy whose writing income was $50 last year):
    Is the 15% you pay your agent tax deductable?
    Any $$$ from the SFBC? Does that go under advances or roayalties?

  31. Thanks for posting this, it’s interesting to see what the breakdown is for authors. This is not information that is commonly available, so it’s good to see.

    Since you’re in a self-revelatory mood, there’s something else that I’d like to know. Obviously you spend a lot of time writing for your blog. Also, I’ve heard that SF writers (perhaps all writers) read a lot of new-release SF to stay current with the market. How much time do you spend on these tasks: commercial writing/editing, blog writing, reading.

  32. Pat Lundrigan:

    I’ve never thought to ask if my agent fees are tax deductible. I suspect not, as the direction on the money is from publisher to agent to me, not publisher to me to agent. As for SFBC, I get paid for that and the amount is deducted by my publisher against my advance; there’s also a small chance of seeing additional royalties, which are added onto my royalty statement from Tor.

    Wayne:

    How much time I spend on each really depend from day to day. I don’t keep much of a formal schedule.

  33. John,
    Thanks so much for sharing these details. Its very interesting to see numbers for a successfull, rising, mid-list author. I say midlist with all due respect of course as opposed to the Rowlings, Kings, and Jordans who get the big bucks. I am going to link to this in my blog unless you have an objection.

  34. Hello John -

    Perhaps you can satisfy my curiosity with some insight into what authors that are between you and the aforementioned Kings, Rowlings, Crichtons, etc. in sales might be earning. I particularly have in mind folks like Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, and, outside of the SF/fantasy realm, James Ellroy. Even educated guesses as to order of magnitude would be interesting (e.g., they get 5x what you get in advances).

    Also, film rights. Is that still something like the Holy Grail of paydays for authors, or is it less than we might imagine (my imagination starts in the six figures)?

    Thanks for sharing.

  35. Benedict:

    Given Neil Gaiman’s laudable track record in sales, I would be deeply surprised if he is not at least mid six figures per book; Dan Simmons I would imagine low six figures. Low six is probably where most non-King/Rowling/Grisham best-selling authors reside. However, be aware this is merely my speculation, unsupported by piddling things such as facts.

    Film rights: It depends, basically. If a studio comes calling, the numbers can be significant; if it’s an independent producer the numbers can be lower (think low five figures). Naturally (and understandably) film folks will generally try to option works as cheaply as they can. It’s very possible not to get rich through an option.

  36. I’m honestly surprised the number is as low as it is. I mean, I realize that most fiction writers don’t make anything near that, but extrapolating on the following facts:

    1. Best-selling genre authors like Jordan sell well over 100K copies in hardcover per book.
    2. Royalties are typically around 10% of cover price for hardcover sales.
    3. You write commercial fiction that’s been well-reviewed, including in mainstream magazines, and have won and been nominated for significant awards.

    … I would have figured that you were selling around 50K copies per book in hardcover, and thus making a six-figure fiction income. But I guess the drop off from the Big Bestsellers to everyone else is steeper than I thought.

  37. Mike Kozlowski:

    “I’m honestly surprised the number is as low as it is.”

    Don’t be. Remember there’s an effective year to 18-month lag between sales and what I’m seeing in royalty statements. The royalty statements I last saw reflected sales in 2005. Old Man’s War’s sales really kicked into high gear with the trade paperback release, the sales of which are not reflected in the royalty statements yet; likewise OMW mass-market sales (which were only begun in jan ’07), the Ghost Brigades hardcover sales (which have been pleasantly healthy) or the hardcover sales of The Android’s Dream. Simply on royalties, I should be doing reasonably well for the next couple of years.

    Having said that, selling 50K in hardcover is not something I’ve done so far; nor, for that matter, is it something a lot best-selling authors end up doing. But you’re not to be faulted for thinking that this would be some sort of norm; publishers and authors are generally cagey about actual sales numbers. Partly this is due to the publishing distribution apparatus, which makes it hard to pin down actual sales numbers. Even BookScan (which measures register sales) only tracks a portion of the market. There’s a lot of fudging of unit sales.

  38. David Klecha:

    “You and Toby are veritable wellsprings of useful, hard-as-nails information.”

    We Ohio-dwelling SFers tell it like it is, yo.

  39. Thank you for the (somewhat painful) look at the author’s steady climb above the poverty line. (Yowch.)

    Since I do intend to win the MegaMillions tonight, my spouse and I shall shortly join the ranks of the indolent rich, merely waiting until the spring thaw to blow through Ohio in our newly-acquired Ferrari. Testarossa.

    Until they pay me my MegaMillions winnings, I’m afraid my Renaissance-style-Medici-inspired patronage is limited to baked goods.

    Do you like chocolate chip cookies?

  40. Deb Geisler:

    “Thank you for the (somewhat painful) look at the author’s steady climb above the poverty line. (Yowch.)”

    Heh. Well, I’m not entirely sure it’s accurate to say that I was climbing out of poverty during this time; my average annual income from writing during these years was a bit over $100,000. It was just from sources other than science fiction. This year SF-related income is about half my total writing income.

    Also, I never turn down a good cookie.

  41. A note for Benedict @ February 23, 2007 05:45 PM above:

    Skimming ~Publisher’s Weekly~ from time to time at the library (a lot of their site is subscription-only access) will give you a much better sense of advances and book sales. While, as John says, publishers are cagey about unit sales, the folks at PW are good at ferreting out information, and if anybody knows, they’ll know. It gives you a good idea of the financial arrangements of the have-nots, the haves, and the have-mores in the writing business – for genre fiction, mainstream fiction, nonfiction, how-to, children’s books, and on and on.

  42. Thanks for putting this up. This is the first year I’ve had any income from my writing at all, being a whole $10.32 in actual money, and about $307 in goods/services, aka prizes. Obviously I have a while to go before I start bringing in money in excess of a cheap night out.

  43. John, thanks for the great posts. We’ve been having this same discussion over on my forum and it’s great to see someone as smart as you are about business and writing lay out the exact numbers. I’m sending people this way and telling them to pay attention.

    And glad things are going so well.

    Cheers
    Dean

  44. Are those numbers before or after the 15% for your agent? Does the agent negotiate a $28,750 advance so that the author gets an even $25K or something like that?

  45. It’s very refreshing to see you sharing the hard numbers like this. Although you’re half crazy to do so. :)

    John, are you doing about 10k in hardcover? I’m sure it’s only going to grow from there.

    To address a previous question… An author who reliably lands on the New York Times bestseller list is worth a hard/soft deal of around $1 million per book. (Talking North American rights here.)

    That’s for the lower slots. The higher up on the list you go, the more money we’re talking.

    For someone like James Ellroy, who is not a predictable bestseller, but still sells well, I’d estimate he’s probably in the 300k range.

  46. David J. Montgomery:

    “John, are you doing about 10k in hardcover?”

    Are you talking in sales or advances? In both cases, at this point, I’m a bit higher than that.

  47. Sales, I meant. (I should have been clearer.)

    I enjoyed Old Man’s War a lot. You’ve got a fan in Frank Wilson, my editor at the Philly Inquirer. He’s the one who first turned me on to your work.

  48. Thanks, David. And I’m glad Wilson likes the work, too. The Inquirer has been good to me so far, and I appreciate that.

  49. I’m a crime reviewer, with only a limited experience writing about SF/Fantasy, but it seems like your kind of stuff is ever harder to get reviewed than mysteries.

    So keep fighting the good fight! And please drop me an email if you get a chance. I have something to suggest (davidjmontgomery@yahoo.com).

  50. John, I remember being shocked at how few hardcovers are actually printed. In PW, one debut novel in the mystery genre was pegged at 10K, which probably comes out to 2 copies per bookstore.

    Now, older and wiser, I can see how that might be an optimistic run.

    The one thing your essay points out is that you’ve built up a long tail of product. Barring tragic circumstances and continued publishing, your income should grow exponentially.

  51. And here I was thinking that writing was the more “reasonably large return on a not impossibly large investment” option (as compared with law school.)

    Am I to assume that the SF income is so much lower than the rest of your writing income because everyone loves to write SF, and the audience is really tied to existing names and series, and everyone waits till it comes out in paperback and Grisham fans buy everything in hardcover — or is it because you spend five times as many hours on your non-SF work?

    (I base my belief in “everyone likes writing SF” on the size of the SF/Fantasy forums on NaNoWriMo and other large boards. But, maybe SF/Fantasy people just spend all their time on blogs and bulletin boards instead of writing their stories…)

  52. Hey Bill, good to see you over here.

    Talking about print runs… I was absolutely flabbergasted to learn how small many print runs are. I’ve talked to a number of authors who are getting only 3k-5k runs. (And I’m talking about major publishers. Not small presses.)

    Try to make a living as an author when your max payday is going to be $15,000, if you have 100% sell-through (which nobody has).

    Man, what a business.

    John’s post shows how important the backlist is. Most authors couldn’t live without it.

  53. Sarah:

    “Am I to assume that the SF income is so much lower than the rest of your writing income because everyone loves to write SF, and the audience is really tied to existing names and series, and everyone waits till it comes out in paperback and Grisham fans buy everything in hardcover — or is it because you spend five times as many hours on your non-SF work?”

    Well, this year it was half of my writing income, so I don’t know that you would say it’s so much lower. In previous years it was lower because the amount of salable material I had out there was lower.

    I was fortunate to have a reasonably large number of people check me out in hardcover, but I do suspect ultimately the bulk of my sales will be in paperback, into which my books are now going.

  54. John, let me add my thanks to the others for this post.

    You mentioned the inability to get exact numbers on sales and distribution. I’ve read similar things about the music business, where artists find it extremely difficult to answer a simple question: how many discs did I/we sell in our latest release?

    Does/can your publisher tell you, ‘look John, this is how many of OMW you sold in the last six months?’ Or is it too convoluted?

  55. Getting money upfront is good. Royalties are quite unpredicable. I had a book out a while back. First two installments of royalties were just great. Third one was zero, and fourth pocket change. Fifth was zero, though after debating the point I got them to make it a few thou.

    The book had gone from hardback to paperback. Naturally, all the booksellers then returned the hardback. Hardback prices were about 50% above paperback, and royalties twice as high as a percent of price. So it would take three paperback sales to offset one hardback return. And of course the publisher shot the reserve way up on top of it. And held it high that after it was logically impossible for there to be more than a handful of potential returns out there — no sense paying out now when they could pay out in six months.

  56. your old man’s war touched the heart. as a fellow writer, I say “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” irrespective of the coins. keep at it. for all of us.

  57. I linked this, John. Every word rings true to me. Oh, and congrats – grossing 67K from SF writing is something like being the backup shortstop on a World Series baseball team, percentage-wise.

    (Assuming that the SF writing isn’t for film or tv, that is. The biggest, fastest checks I ever saw were for tv writing…)

  58. What Bill said. I think the number puts you right up near the top from all those I have talked to who are working in science fiction, outside a few of the bestsellers. I made far over six figures a year writing science fiction for almost decade, but it was all on media science fiction like Star Trek, Men in Black, and gaming sf novels. I would never suggest anyone try that route. In fact, I tell people to avoid it.

    After your post, I went back and looked at my income flow for last year, breaking it out by genre. Since I’m writing almost exclusively original thrillers, mystery, and young adult these days under other names, I’m far under you for only science fiction income, even with an extensive backlist of books under my name and other names. My total for only science fiction was just under $20,000, and most of that was royalty. I still make well over six figures a year with my writing, but it’s all on original books outside of science fiction and usually under other names.

    So I was very impressed by your number. I showed it to my wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and she said, “Wow, in science fiction only. Nice.”

    Thanks again for posting the number. It has brought up a lot of great discussions.

    Cheers
    Dean

  59. Damn, that’s surprising. Well, thanks for keeping at it; I enjoyed your books a lot.

    Sci-fi marketing must be a tough nut. I’d pretty much given up finding any good new sci-fi (I’d re-read all my Zelazny stuff three times over) till I starting Instapundit, who has introduced me to several authors’ work and has yet to steer me wrong. I don’t know why publishers have such a tough time finding me, as a sci-fi consumer.

  60. John:

    Having managed to work my way up to a full-time income as a writer about 20 years ago (and only sustaining that for a few years), I admire both your success as a writer (well deserved, I might add) and your honesty in laying all this out here. It’s a tough business, and one that you have to stick with for a long time (as per your posting).

    Keep up the great work; you’ve made it to my (relatively small) “Yeah, I’ll buy whatever he writes” list. :-) ..bruce..

  61. John:

    Thanks for the insight. Eric Flint at Baen books had also expounded on the subject and like you his recomendation is to have a good primary job first.

    This was also the first year that my writing income came into the IRS radar screen via 1099. I only wished that the $630.00 make the experience somewhat more agreable.
    :)

    Good luck and great success in your work.

    Jose

  62. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    You mentioned that you “became a landlord”. I would be interested if you compared your effort and reward being a landlord vs. SF writing. I specifically mean both the time/personal satisfaction as well as the monetary reward (or lack thereof).

    PS: I Loved OMW. We paid retail on Amazon. Thank Glen R. for the plug.

  63. On film rights:

    Asimov once remarked that there was one of his short stories that made more from film rights options than from magazine and anthology sales. Producers kept optioning it, the option would expire, they (or someone else) would renew it. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

    Hollywood is famous for buying film rights and sitting on them for long periods of time.

  64. Thank you for the highly informative post and comment responses. Though I am not reading a lot of science fiction these days, I greatly enjoy your work and you have been on my “Buy everything he writes!” list since OMW. It was especially interesting to read this post this morning as I am currently reading The Career Novelist by Donald Maass. The part I read last night before turning off the light focused on when to go full time as a novelist. He strongly cautions that too early a leap is a huge mistake leading to grinding financial pressures and disillusionment. He recommends two yardsticks. The first is when royalties (by themselves) equal minimum income requirements for two years running. His alternate is when you have published five books and all are in print, on bookstore shelves and earning. Your emphasis on the value of time and accumulated work seems to roughly agree. As a side note, he specifically warns against joint accounting on multiple book deals where the advances are lumped and all books have to earn out before royalties are paid. Is this the situation you refer to regarding your deal for OMW and TAD?

  65. McKie Campbell:

    “As a side note, he specifically warns against joint accounting on multiple book deals where the advances are lumped and all books have to earn out before royalties are paid. Is this the situation you refer to regarding your deal for OMW and TAD?”

    Indeed it is. My subsequent deals do not have such a feature regarding royalties.

  66. Very interesting. The only way Australian writers would make anywhere near that in SF is to publish in the States.
    And your 6 months for ‘reserve on returns’ is pretty good. Here the standard is 18 months! A long time to wait.

  67. I don’t think there is an SF writer around who doesn’t lust for some different distribution, marketing, and sales framework than the one we now suffer under, with impossible-to-decipher royalty statements, hidden sales, dozens of payment-delay gimmicks, and all the rest. Some of us thought the internet would be that system. So far, we have been wrong.

    NYC book publishers still pay more money than any other sales method I’m aware of.

  68. John,
    On your brief note about electronic piracy – I can’t read a whole book online – not even a chapter. And I’m a guy who surfs blogs and news sites for hours at a time.

    The couple times I did read a book free on-line (Baen Press, Gutenburg Project etc) I printed them off on a laser printer. With 80 gsm paper, 10 point Times New Roman and printed on only on side it was a sheaf 2 inches thick.
    Really boring to read. I would rather fork out ten or twenty bucks to get a paperback …

    I guess my point is that music, and video, played online is almost the same experience as what you buy retail.
    A book online is a totally different, and sub-optimal, experience to that which you buy online.

  69. This is kinda fun to think about, so please give me your 50-50 guess (not conservative or optomistic) for what Sawyer, Wilson or Gould make on an advance. What do you think each makes per year (factoring in their backlists, I know this is inexact, but you have some feel, I assume…in your head, you must think, if I were them, this is what I would clear.)

  70. John wrote:
    “I’ve never thought to ask if my agent fees are tax deductible. I suspect not, as the direction on the money is from publisher to agent to me, not publisher to me to agent. ”

    Of course they are deductable; they are a business expense.

    (Up until recently, the 1099s from agents showed net to the writer, but as of the most recent tax revisions, they show gross to the agent, so it’s very important to deduct that 15% as a business expense).

    Required disclaimer: I am not a tax lawer. Nothing I write should be construed as legal advice.

  71. TCO:

    I honestly couldn’t hazard a guess. I don’t actually spend a lot of time trying to guess what everyone else in the field makes. Robert Sawyer reads this site however, so he can tell you if he wants.

  72. John,

    I was wondering about the ‘basket accounting’ of your first two novels IE must earn both advances before royalties on either. Is that also the case with your additional contract(s) with TOR?

    My understanding is that it is typically a negotiable point in the contract.

  73. John, it might be fun to hear your estimate and then learn the truth. Learn more when you try to guess an answer before hearing the result.

  74. I assume that Sawyer is bigger than Wilson who is bigger than Gould. I don’t really know you, but I’m not up on newbie writers. So I assume you fit sorta in the Gould level of popularity.

    Although he does have a good gig going with both YA and SF. He might be above you. Now that I think about it, he probably is. He’s had some not so good ones, but the two Jumper books did well, he’s getting a movie tie-in and the Wildside one was good too. (Helm sucked…and that one with his wife…well, I hope it helped his marriage…didn’t help his readers.) Harumph. So, he is actually a tough case.

    Hmmm…maybe he is clearing 50K if you are clearing 25K. Wilson is probably clearing 60K and Sawyer 100K? Those are my uneducated guesses for advances. Only yardstick is your 25K as a reference and my guess for their popularity versus you.

    On income, well, Sawyer and Wilson each have 15 or so books out. So, if you figure a book a year for them. A book every 2 years for Gould. Wilson seems to usually have about 2-3 times the shelf space for his old stuff as Sawyer (but Sawyer has more overall. This is totally guessed, btw, I have not measured it or looked at it recently…so figure 2x on top of the advance, that gets Wilson to 180K/year and Sawyer to 300K/year.

    Gould has 25K/year and he has a shorter list, less shelf space. Maybe he clears an extra 50K, so that would put him at 75K/year. I *think* I heard that he had been working a day job, so not sure if this is right. Maybe too high. He did just get some movie rights. No idea what that comes to, but figure 100K. Big lump sum. And I think he is doing a tie-in novel, so figure another 50K and pretty light work to write it. Big lump at one time, but he needs to get cracking and write more if he is going to keep getting that kinda cash.

  75. I’ve been making income off of science fiction since 1999, which is the year that I first offered Agent to the Stars online as “shareware.”

    So, I assume when you say “shareware” you mean “download and pay if you feel so inclined”?

  76. “What’s a more realistic number?”

    Clearly it’s going to vary a lot… But typically a tie-in novel will pay between $10k and $25k, with no royalties. (Sometimes the deals are structured to pay smaller advances and give modest royalties, between 1-3%.)

    Novelizations (turning a script into a book) pay less.

    A major writer on a major property can earn more, but those are definitely the exception.

    You can find out more about tie-ins at: http://www.iamtw.org

    The bottom line is that it is NOT a particularly lucrative area of the publishing business.

  77. Wow. I enjoyed OMW and TGB and you’re “on my list” of authors to buy. So I would certainly consider you a successful working author.

    Frankly, I’m shocked you’re not raking in more. I understand that each book is a revenue *stream* that you haven’t seen the end of yet. But, wow.

    I assumed a writer successful enough to have a following was a little more comfortable than that.

    No offense. I’m glad you’re happy and glad you’re writing. It makes me feel bad about buying used books though.

    LB

  78. I buy (rather willingly) books and often discard them after 15 minutes at home. This is AFTER already trying to find something enjoyable (having hard time) at the book store. And bringing home a lot in the hope that one carcass will make tasty eating. I just don’t think there is that much good stuff out there anymore. In the past, I could go with an author who I liked and I had not read so much of the older books. Now, I’m harder to satisfy and the genre itself seems to be running out of juice. Admittedly, I do buy paperbacks. Will only speculatively buy a hardcover if it is marked off. But I’m very loose with the bookbuying. And still not satisfied in finding anything that I like.

  79. Thank you–fascinating post and one I plan to share with other friends in the business. What’s interesting is that I write in a different genre–erotic paranormal romance–and yet our monetary careers are following a very similar path. I’d heard of the dreaded “reserves against returns,” but had no idea exactly what that meant! After receiving my first royalty check (about a year after the first book’s release) I finally understand…

  80. That’s interesting, TCO. Maybe you just have a lot more leisure money than me, but I almost never buy books at the store based on browsing them in the store. Either I’m buying something from an author/series I already know, or I get recommendations from other people that, if they sound sufficiently interesting, I first browse the reviews on Amazon.com.

    Book covers therefore have no impact whatsoever on whether I buy a book, though I do admire good artwork that matches what actually goes on inside the book. (I love Glen Cook’s Black Company covers.) I just don’t think I can get a good sense of how good a book is, or whether I’d like it, by the blurbs alone. The people who write those are paid to make the book look good.

    On the other hand, I remember paying more attention to the blurbs in my youth, when I was trying to decide what to read in the library. On the other other hand, I voraciously devoured just about anything that sounded remotely interesting…

  81. TCO:

    “Now, I’m harder to satisfy and the genre itself seems to be running out of juice.”

    Are you reading other genres? There was a long time when science fiction wasn’t doing it for me and I read a lot of crime book, from folks like Hiaasen and Elmore. I think it’s good to take a break from just one sort of book every once in a while.

  82. Actually I question the use of reading. It seems like such escapism. Great for grade school kids who need to you know, learn to read. But if you are an adult? Heck, you could be spending that time in sports or if you need something intellectual in all the analyses that one can do at any sort of business job.

  83. Actually I question the use of reading. It seems like such escapism. Great for grade school kids who need to you know, learn to read. But if you are an adult? Heck, you could be spending that time in sports or if you need something intellectual in all the analyses that one can do at any sort of business job.

  84. Surfing the internet, and landed here. Trying to work out whether to advise my 22 year old daughter to accept the spot offered to her for an MFA in Creative Writing – or to accept the spot offered to her at a top film school. Decision needed in one week. She writes amazing, unique stories but will not handle poverty too well. After reading this site, I guess it will have to be film school. Thanks for standing at the fork in the road!

  85. Hi John,

    Great reaad, great comments. Very interesting, yet ohh so surprising. Writers don’t make more???

    It will not deter me from pressing on with the work of the lefthand side drawer, but seems as if I will be keeping my dayjob a tad longer.

    Thanks for great (now bookmarked) blog.

  86. Hi, I really appreciate your blog concerning the realities of fantasy/science fiction writing. Honestly, it was a wake up call. I’m writing because I have a question that I hope you can help me with and because you seem to be really connected to your readers. I’m in the editing process of my first novel, it’s fantasy genre. I just found out I’m deploying to Afghanistan in November. When I send my manuscript out to agents, in my query letter should I let them know that I will be overseas by the time they reply back to me? I really think that my military background (US ARMY INFANTRY) helps give some of the scenes in my book credibility, but I don’t want my chances to suffer because I’ll be out of the US for a year. Any insight you could provide would be great. Thanks in advance.
    -Ryan

  87. Pingback: Quora
  88. Well, it’s September, 2013 now. Ebooks have exploded onto the scene and from what I have heard here and there shaken up the entire industry. Bob Mayer talks a lot about the electronic publishing industry in his courses. How has this impacted the Sci-Fi writer’s career path in terms of economics?

  89. John,

    I was wondering about the ‘basket accounting’ of your first two novels IE must earn both advances before royalties on either. Is that also the case with your additional contract(s) with TOR?

    My understanding is that it is typically a negotiable point in the contract.

  90. Hi John,

    Great reaad, great comments. Very interesting, yet ohh so surprising. Writers don’t make more???

    It will not deter me from pressing on with the work of the lefthand side drawer, but seems as if I will be keeping my dayjob a tad longer.

    Thanks for great (now bookmarked) blog.

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