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.