More Money (Another Followup)

Some more follow-up bits on “The Money Entry 2007,” based on comments and e-mails:

* For those of you who have been speculating as to where my fiction writing fits in with my overall writing income, for 2006 I made about $123,000 total from writing and editing. That’s up a bit from last year. The share of my income from writing fiction has gone up this year, while the shares of some others have gone down (corporate writing, which I didn’t do a whole lot of) and other segments have remained largely steady. This is standard — my writing income sources increase and decrease from year to year, depending on my opportunities and interest. I suspect that over the next few years (at least) fiction writing will be a substantial percentage of my income; I also suspect that I will continue to generate writing income outside of fiction writing, because, well. Money moves slowly in the fiction world. Which brings us to the next point.

* For folks who are surprised that I made only $67K in fiction writing last year when I am an award-winning, best-selling author (and I smell nice, too), there are two things to note here. The first is that while I know it seems like I’ve been around science fiction forever (an illusion which this blog has no doubt helped to perpetuate), my first formally published novel in the field, Old Man’s War, debuted only two years ago, and despite being reasonably prolific I still have only four novels in the marketplace, one of which was a limited edition and is currently unavailable for sale. From a business point of view it’s still the early stages of my SF-writing career; I’m only now, in 2007, beginning to accrue some of the economic benefits of the notoriety and sales I’ve garnered over the last couple of years.

The second thing to note is a reinforcement of a point I made in the original article, which even if you are fortunate enough to receive royalties on your work, as I have, there’s a substantial lag time between when those royalties first begin to accrue, and when they actually arrive in your hands. At this point, for example, the royalties I’ve seen from Tor are only for the hardcover of Old Man’s War, with some early sales of the trade paperback. It was in trade where the sales of OMW really began to climb; those sales won’t likely be reflected until my next royalty statement, which I’m a couple of months from receiving. That royalty statement will also show the early sales of the hardcover of The Ghost Brigades, which came out a year ago… but the bulk of the royalties of that edition of the book will wait until the royalty statement after that.

All of which is to say that it’s very likely that I earned more than $67k in science fiction income in 2006; much of that income — the royalty part — won’t be disbursed to me until this year, and it’s entirely possible some of it won’t get to me until 2008. As I noted in the original article, I’m counting the checks I’ve received, not what I expect to have made. Doing that might have been good enough for Enron, but look where they are today.

* Let me offer another perspective on the royalty payment time lag: Tor made the offer on Old Man’s War in December of 2002; it took another two years for the book to be published — January 2005 — and then another year and a half before I received my first royalty check for the book. So: about 42 months from offer to royalties, during which time I wrote six other books (all since published but not all in science fiction) and got nominated for three major genre awards. I hope this sufficiently illustrates the time-delay principle. And remember that I am one of the relative few who earns royalties at all.

Bear in mind I don’t wish to imply Tor is screwing me over by making me wait so long for my royalties; the mechanics of book distribution and sales is sufficiently complex that I am willing to believe it takes some large percentage of that lag time to accurately track sales.

* Having said all that, let’s all have some perspective: for most humans, even in the US, $67k is a nice income. I think people may also have an unrealistic expectation of what even well-known authors bring home for their work, particularly in genre. As David Dyer-Bennet noted in a previous thread, and to which I agree, that figure almost certainly puts me in the top 1% of earners in science fiction; there are almost certainly bigger names than I who earned less for their SF writing in the same time frame. Is it fair that all these intelligent, interesting people telling fascinating and mind-expanding stories are trundling along making relatively paltry sums while Paris Hilton gets paid a million dollars just to show up at a party? Not really; Hell, it’s not even fair these folks are earning less than me. But as I’ve noted before, you’re in the wrong universe for “fair.”

Being a reasonably successful author in any genre is the doorway not to uncountable riches but to a fairly comfortable middle-class living, provided you’re not stupid with money and you’re reasonably healthy and you don’t snort or drink things that make you want more of them, now. But generally speaking there’s a reason that so many authors do something else, too, although what that job is does seem to vary from genre to genre; science fiction is laden with authors who are also scientists or IT folk, while literary fiction is teeming with authors who teach creative writing, and many non-fiction authors are journalists or commentators. It’s also why a spouse with a good job and (here in the US) good benefits is worth his or her weight in gold.

It’s not just with writers that people make the assumption that a certain amount of success and notoriety equates to lots of money, but in other fields it’s also true that until you’re right near the peak of the field, money is not mind-bogglingly great. A good example of this would be this article about the Dresden Dolls, a musical group who in many ways is at in their career where I’m at in mine: Relatively new, a bit niche-y, but with a good base of fans and a not insignificant amount of success (hey, I bought their last album). They’ve traveled the world, they’ve seen a million faces and rocked them all, and the two members of the band are clearing $1,500 a month when they tour. That would come out to $18k a year if touring was all they did. I assume the band members have other sources of income, of course, but I would be willing to bet that what they made last year, individually, is not too far off (either one direction or another) from what I made.

Which is to say there are more middle-income “famous” people than you might expect.

19 thoughts on “More Money (Another Followup)

  1. Interesting…
    I was friends with the former bass player of Metallica “Cliff Burton” before he was killed in Sweden. I remember him telling me after the release of album “Ride The Lightning”, he was bringing in about 2k monthly from royalties. At that time (84)I thought that was a huge amount of money. In 1984 It was a lot of money. But the rules of record contracts have changed dramticly over the years. Just how much has the rules of publishing and payouts changed?

  2. This reminded me of this Courtney Love speech about the music business, especially where the money does and does not go. It talks a lot about the money and where it does not go. Although, I am not saying the publishing business is as bad as music.

  3. I vaguely asked this in another thread (and perhaps you aren’t answering because you are being coy or your agent would knife you in the gut), but has anyone optioned (or sniffing around) the movie/TV (etc) rights to the OMW universe? Presumably that would be a significant chunk o’ change if/when it happened.

    You’d have to live with someone butchering your universe, but they’d pay you nicely for the privilege.

  4. I may be mistake, but I’m under the impression that ‘being optioned by Hollywood’ equates to ‘enough money to put you in lower-upper-class if you want to be and manage it wisely’

    Not enough to live off indefinitely, mind; but six figures invested can pay off quite nicely.

  5. You are semi-mistaken, Max. Some movie options are not for particularly life-changing amounts. They can be; they often aren’t. Even people in Hollywood choose not to pay more money than they absolutely have to.

  6. Your reference to the Dresden Dolls reminds me of Steve Albini’s Problem with Music.

    While I grant that the circumstances you’re in are only tangential to the ones described in that essay, it seems a lot comes down to the time and resources needed to track sales numbers…

  7. I know a lot of famous, and semi-famous people; and I make more in a year than most of them do.

    I’m a security consultant and contractor; and I charge pretty much standard rates for the industry, and my experience level (I make about $150k a year most years. Some a little more, some a little less)

    Most actors, writers, playwrights, athletes, and most every other employment that commonly engenders fame, only pays well at the very highest levels.

    I played pro football (American football, not soccer), in what is effectively the minor leagues, in Europe for three seasons. Our teams were lucky enough if we broke even. We pretty much got paid for our transportation, food, insurance and medical expenses.

    The bottom level of the NFL make about $200,000 a year; and they last on average three years, usually being sidelined by injury to the point where they can’t perform at the pro level. If they want to stay in the game they make $30-$50k a year in the euro leagues, the arena leagues, the CFL, or the Asian leagues; beating themselves into early crippledom before they hit 30, for a lot less than an auto mechanic makes.

    Most actors I know, even people you’d recognize, make scale (about $750 a day) or not much above it (at most three or four times that), for most of their work; and if they are very lucky, they’ll work 100 days a year.

    Even low level “stars” by which I mean people your mom would probably recognize; will typically only see $100k a year to at most $500k a year , and that’s if they manage to work consistently.

    Its only when you get into the top couple hundred or so actors or actresses of any given year that you even break the 1 million mark.

    Now, a couple hundred thousand is a lot to most of the country; but if you live in hollywood, you may share your house with three other actors, and you’re all paying $2000 a month in rent…

    And remember, that couple hundred thousand a year is assuming you are working consistently. You may not work at anything more than scale for two or three years, or more.

    Even a “big” star may make a hell of a lot less than you think. The second tier characters, on CSI Miami for example, make about $500k a year for their roles on the show (in comparison the CSI Las Vegas cast make a lot more. William Peterson makes about $5 million, Marg Helgenberger about $3 million, and the second tier characters make about 1.5 million each). This is one of the biggest shows on television, and they are very recognizable faces; but they really don’t make all that much comparatively speaking.

    If you’re a second tier character on a second tier sitcom, you may be working steadily; but you’re getting as little as $5,000 an episode (a standard season runs 22-24 episodes).

    From those salaries, now take the 20% (or more) for your managers, agents, and accountants right off the top. Then give the government the 40% that a middle income self employed person has to pay, and see what’s left over.

    Millions of people see you every week, and you make less than a middle manager at your bank.

    What about newspaper and magazine columnists? If they’re lucky and have been around a while they MIGHT make $150k-$200k a year, but probably not. They probably supplement their income with book writing, freelance work, lectures, maybe teaching at a college etc…

    Network news reporters? Unless they’re on a nightly network show, or a major local star, probably the same thing.

    I know dozens of authors in SF, mystery, action, and romance fiction. Of all those, the only people who make all their money from their genre fiction, are the action and romance serial writers (i.e. modern pulp fiction). They all write on a work for hire basis, 300+ days a year, six or eight hours a day; and they all make from $60k to $150k a year.

    Not exactly the lap of luxury; though they all consider themselves lucky because they make a living writing every day.

    Is this hardship? Of course not; but don’t assume that someone is rich (or even that they make more than you do) just because they are famous.

  8. Oh and John, I’m with you, I don’t particularly “get” why people are so hung up about other people talking about money.

    Sure, bragging about how much you make is pretty classless; but I think people should be able to have a sensible discussion about money without taking personal offense.

    After all, if you don’t know what other people make, how are you supposed to figure out if you’re being under (or over) paid?

  9. Interesting info, Chris. I always suspected that.

    I agree with you and John that people shouldn’t be so hung up on money, but it is soul crushing to find out you are the underpaid.

    That said, I find it more interesting how people SPEND their money. I don’t want to listen to someone complain that they have no money when they carry two $600-800 a month car payments plus insurance, buy the latest computer and TV equipment every 6 months, etc…and then act jealous when I go on a cruise ship for a vacation.

    That is really why people get all freaky about money. They don’t really think about where their money goes.

  10. Oh, in the interest of disclosure. I am a software consultant who travels nationally for a large software company. I make 110K as a base salary. I can’t say what the net total is because I’ve never established how much I save by being able to expense breakfast, lunch and dinner 3-5 days a week.

    110K is about the max for my current position. I have team members in the 75-80K range. For me to increase, I would have to take on more responsibilities – either management or implementation designs and I think that base gets up to about 150K. I am happy with my income level and not seeking the additional stresses of the higher paying jobs.(Plus, I’m here so, I write and hope to make that a profitable job, too.)

    My wife is a full time mom.

  11. //The second tier characters, on CSI Miami for example, make about $500k a year//

    So Emily Proctor might not be out of my league? Woo Hoo!!

  12. Patrick,

    We’re also lucky enough that my wife and I have been able to make the same choice, to have her stay at home.

    We’ve got two girls, 5 and 3 right now; and when the younger girl gets to Kindergarten we’re going to try again.

    We did the math, figured out that in order to break even on taxes, childcare, and additional costs, my wife would have to make about $45,000 a year… that’s jsut to break even. Then we looked at the value of her staying home, and there was no comparison.

    I’m also able to do much of my work at home; meaning we probably get more time together as a family than most; and we feel very lucky.

    I could be making quite a bit more than I do as well, but it would require extensive travel and time away from my family, and I really don’t want that anymore.

    Oh and as to where the money goes, that IS a VERY intersting subject; and one that surprisingly few people understand.

    When I lived in the Bay Area, and was making over $200k a year between my regular job with a startup, and the writing I did for various tech magazeins and reference books; you’d be amazed at how little of that I was keeping.

    My lifestyle was much simpler then; as compared to tdoay. I rented a 2 bedroom condo, drove a saturn (we now have a BMW – paid for – and an Expedition – not paid for), and didnt have any kids yet; but still my expenses alone were about $8,000 a month.

    That was life in the bay area during the .bomb

    Over the past few years I’ve watched my expenses go from about $2000 a month as a single man with one car purchased for cash, and no debt; to about $8,000 a month for two cars, a house, insurance, utilities, food, private kindgarten tuition (and another bite coming from pre-school for the younger next year), and taking care of my mothers bills (she’s critically ill and disabled).

    They say that expenses will inevitably expand to fill the resources available to pay them; and man they arent kidding.

    But, other than the house and car, we still have no debt; and won’t be acquiring any anytime soon; plus there are a lot of expenses we can drop if we need to (I worked this out when John did his post on the subject… was it last year, or 2005?).

  13. Hmmm… I’m a fairly typical state-employed staff scientist in marine sciences, and I make around $28k (my salary is public knowledge, and it’s even online somewhere, though I don’t recall where it is offhand. Also I just got a raise in January that nobody told me about, except it got reflected in the monthly statement, so at the moment I actually don’t know how much I’m making…). After all the taxes, retirement plans, health insurance, etc. etc. gets deducted out of it, the monthly income is not quite $1700.

    Living expenses every month are about $1200, plus extra in the months where I pay car insurance (twice a year in full) or taxes (twice a year – October for the car). I live in a two-bedroom townhouse in the coastal southeastern U.S. for $605 per month. Gas is high in winter, and electric is high in summer, so in the end it works out to be about the same year-round at $100-150 per month (though last winter it was closer to $200). Cable tv/internet is $100 per month (the last “luxury” to go if I ever go back to being financially insecure). The rest is food, gas for the car, laundry, bimonthly water bill, misc random stuff, and phone. I have a cell phone instead of a landline home phone because it’s cheaper that way.

    This leaves me with about $500 extra per month most of the time, which mostly I’m trying to save. I only recently stopped being in debt and have to build up the savings account again. It’s been hard, though, not to relapse into expensive habits such as eating out at good restaurants more often. Also I have family members that hit me up for help more often than they did before, now that they know I’m not in permared.

    There it all is, laid out in cold hard facts. I tend to get two reactions whenever I try to describe my personal finances in any detail: a) “quit bragging” or b) “you’re just saying that to get pity” / “get a better job already (you moron).”

    The latter half of b) comes from people who want me to spend money at the level they spend it – expensive travel, gadgets, wining and dining, etc. Then they get more upset when I try to explain that I’m happy where I am, because I can’t possibly be with the pittance I have. Meanwhile the ones who think I’m rich think that means I should be more generous about spending it on them for frivolities (restaurants, movies, being their chauffeurs around town when they don’t have cars, etc). In the end, even though I’m perfectly willing to be open about my personal finances, most of the time I just keep quiet.

  14. “You’re in the wrong universe for ‘fair.'” This comes close to the elephant in the room: the non-financial rewards of having your name out there on your writing (fiction or not). As in all the arts, people who are doing what they really want to do — i.e., would do it for nothing — tend to get paid less.

    In 12 years of nationally published science writing, I peaked at ~$60K (2007 value) as a 9-to-5 staff writer. Then I shifted to byline-free corporate speeches, presentations, and writing-centered consulting — and within a few years was making several times more working 3-4 days a week, most of it at home. That paid for the suburban house with mongo school taxes, etc. More importantly, it gave me a lot of days with my children as they grew.

    I suspect far more money is paid for writing in advertising, PR, and various kinds of business writing than in all of publishing put together.
    Recently I’ve been putting 2/3 of my time into research and writing for another non-fiction book, but have no illusion that it’s likely to earn back as much as I’m foregoing. It’s really important to approach writing for publication with an attitude of “I want to write for publication; making a living would be nice, making a prosperous living would be gravy, and wealth/fame would be winning the lottery.” If you don’t, you might as well be the inner-city teenager pinning his hopes on NBA stardom.

    John — within non-fiction, what’s your mix of byline and non-byline work?

  15. Other things I apparently forgot to mention… I own a 1998 Saturn in good working condition, and I’m single with no kids or pets (though I’ve been thinking about starting up a fishtank again sometime soon).

  16. As I noted in the original article, I’m counting the checks I’ve received, not what I expect to have made. Doing that might have been good enough for Enron, but look where they are today.

    I suspect you know this, but the Enron line suggests otherwise: there is nothing illegal or misleading about income accounting (recognizing income when it’s earned) as opposed to cash accountnig (recognizing income when it’s received).

    They measure two different things. The former measures how well your business (in this case, your writing) is performing and the latter measures how well you’re able to feed your family. Consider an extreme example: you write something tomorrow that is so profound that someone buys it for $1 million. Even if you receive that money in 2009, 2007 would have to be looked at as a fantastic year success-wise.

    Not that I’m asking you to share, but you may find it useful to track your money on an income basis as well as a cash basis, so you can get a sense over the years as to where your success lies (e.g., which genres, which clients, which media). I have a corporate job with a relatively steady income, and I track both myself for similar reasons.

    As long as I’m rambling, one other thought: the upside to delayed payments is the “money for nothing” syndrome at the end of the cycle. If you stopped writing professionally right now, you would still earn a pretty good living from writing for a couple of years. That’s a severance package us corporate folks just aren’t going to see…

  17. Brian Greenberg:

    “I suspect you know this, but the Enron line suggests otherwise: there is nothing illegal or misleading about income accounting (recognizing income when it’s earned) as opposed to cash accounting (recognizing income when it’s received).”

    Oh, I know. However, what I report to the IRS is on a cash accounting basis, which is why I used that metric here.

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