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.