The Full-Time SF Novelist: Probably Not as Endangered as You Think

In e-mail, I’m asked if I have any comments about Robert J. Sawyer’s recent blog post, in which he worries that within a decade, it will be impossible to make a living solely as a science fiction novelist. As what follows here is comment on what’s written there, I suggest you click over and read that first, and then come back.

(Update, 9:37am: I think I might have crushed his server. If you’re having problems accessing the link above, here’s a Google Cache of the page.)

Read it? Okay:

To begin, it’s worth noting for clarity’s sake that the vast majority of science fiction novelists already live in a world in which it’s not possible to be a full-time novelist, and have for as long as the genre has existed. It’s not just science fiction novelists who have always lived in that world, but novelists in general. Full-time novelists have always been a fortunate minority, and that minority would get even smaller if you only counted the ones who made enough from their novel writing to support themselves and their family, rather than having that income thrown into a larger pool of household income into which their spouse or spousal equivalent was also contributing.

As far as science fiction was concerned, at any time in the history of the genre the number of full-time novelists supporting themselves from their novels was a slim number — indeed smaller than the number of actual full-time novelists, since not a few of these writers, some of them now quite famous, lived all or part of their careers in a poverty that’s not as romantic to live in as it is to read about. Science fiction is genre writing, and genre writing has always paid poorly relative to other sorts of writing, and this is nothing new, either; Robert Heinlein’s famous invasion of Saturday Evening Post and Colliers back in the 40s was motivated in no small part because the man wanted and needed to be paid real money for his work.

When Rob’s worrying about the death of science fiction novel-writing as a full time endeavor, he’s discussing what is and has always been fundamentally a high-class problem, and one most science fiction novelists of any era would love to have been in a position to worry about. To recast it a different way, you could very easily say that Rob’s concerned that within a decade, the very top tier of science fiction novelists will be forced to do what every other science fiction novelist out there has already done: get a job.

This isn’t to minimize Rob’s concern — it’s actually not a trivial concern, either for him personally or anyone who hopes to write science fiction/fantasy novels full-time — but it is to give it context. When Rob worries about the possibility of anyone making a full-time living writing science fiction novels a decade from now, implicit in this is the idea that anyone can make a living writing science fiction novels now. Well, theoretically anyone can; as a practical matter very few do, or ever have.

More generally, Rob’s piece is a meditation on the fact that the business model of the industry is changing and the ways that authors get paid for their work is changing with it, and leaving aside the issue of full-time novelists, this is a matter of no little concern for anyone who wants to get paid for their writing. I’m not going to gainsay Rob’s concerns, and certainly he’s not alone in these concerns. I will say my own perspective on the matter is more optimistic than his appears to be. 2010 is not 2000, the publishing industry for all its faults is not the music industry, and its reaction to electronic media has not been what the music industry’s reaction was a decade ago, which was to shit itself in a panic and demand everything go back to the way it was before.

If nothing else (and it’s not a “if nothing else” situation), it’s worth noting that every major eBook reader on the market connects directly and seamlessly to a bookstore, and that to date the major battle in eBook sector was over how much eBooks should cost on release and who should dictate those prices, not whether eBooks should cost anything at all. There’s a secondary and pertinent question regarding whether ten years from now writers will need publishers in the same ways and for the same things as they do now; while that’s an interesting question, it’s not necessarily here or there about whether authors themselves will be able to support themselves on their fiction, or on their science fiction particularly. There are lots of challenges to this task, some specific to this particular era. Every era has its own set of specific challenges.

My personal prediction for science fiction authors a decade from now is this: There will be a few who will be able to support themselves full time on their science fiction writing, but the large majority won’t. Which is to say it’ll be pretty much like it is today. Some things will very likely change, including which science fiction writers will be able to write full-time; some pulling it off today won’t be doing so in ten years, while others we haven’t heard of will be at or near the top of the heap (said the Hugo-winning, New York Times best selling incoming President of SFWA who no one in science fiction even knew was alive in the year 2000). It’s also possible that what we consider a novel will have changed somewhat, just as today’s 100,000-word standard for a novel is different than the 60,000 word (or less) standard of a few decades ago. And so on. The details will change, as they’ve changed before, and will yet again, even after the digital switchover becomes old news.

But at the end of the day, a few science fiction writers will be lucky enough not to have to do anything else with their time, while everyone else will have to do it also, meaning they do something else too. Just like now.

80 Comments on “The Full-Time SF Novelist: Probably Not as Endangered as You Think”

  1. Dean Wesley Smith has an ongoing attempt to kill what he sees as the meme that few people make a living writing. He points out that when he’s often on a panel with other authors the myth that there are X people making a living writing SF in the world – he then points out that in the current room there is a number that would stack up to be a decent percentage of X and that the likelyhood that a decent percentage of X happened to be in that room at that time was vanishingly small. His argument is not unpersuasive.

  2. Heh. How many people can support their family with one income anymore?

    But yeah, story tellers should always be able to get by. Humans love to hear about themselves. Ooh, shiny mirror!

  3. Great insight, John. But I have to wonder (and this is an honest question) does geographic location have anything to do with RJS’ concerns? He’s a Canadian SF author, and I don’t know if that has a bearing on his sales and other income sources (appearances, speaker requests, etc) as opposed to US-based SF authors

  4. There’s “make a living writing” and “full time novelist”. Making a living writing full time can include journalism, ad writing (pays well!) and other word related pursuits.

  5. Orin:

    “Dean Wesley Smith has an ongoing attempt to kill what he sees as the meme that few people make a living writing.”

    As Josh notes, “making a living writing” and “making a living as a novelist” are two separate things. I’ve been making a living as a writer for 20 years, but it’s really only since 2006 that I could have made a living solely as a novelist. And even since then I’ve made a substantial amount of my income writing and doing things other than novels, because I believe in multiple revenue streams.

    There’s also the fact that “making a living” is a highly fungible concept and is not actually pegged to a specific dollar amount. It might be worth asking how many science fiction novelists grossed the US median income ($25,149 in 2005, which may be the most recent official date) in the last year solely from their novel writing.

  6. he then points out that in the current room there is a number that would stack up to be a decent percentage of X and that the likelyhood that a decent percentage of X happened to be in that room at that time was vanishingly small

    Uh, the chance that there are a decent percentage of X (where X is those making a living writing SF) in a given room goes up substantially when the room has a scheduled SF panel going on, I would have thought.

  7. As sibley points out, given he’s on a panel about writing talking to writers, I would expect a greater than median density of writers in the room population, it being a self-selecting audience and all. I believe Dean Wesley Smith is experiencing statistics fail from not understanding his sampling technique.

    And also, technically, Mr. Sawyer isn’t making all of his living from “novel writing,” as he has leveraged his novel writing to get gigs speaking and consulting. Or as he says, “few can spin what they write into something businesses and government agencies will pay thousands to hear you speak about.” My guess is that he makes a good percentage that way.

    Which, while tangentially related to his writing, isn’t actual novel writing. And yes, that’s a semantic argument, but I’m pointing out that he is making the distinction in his mind that the speaking/consulting is a part of his “novel writing” which isn’t always the same in everybody else’s mind.

  8. Steve Buchheit:

    I think Rob’s piece notes that he’s making that money aside from the income from novels, and that he recognizes he’s in a fortunate position there that not every novel writer is in. For the purposes of his concerns, he’s speaking specifically to the amount of money SF novelists can make off the novels themselves.

  9. John, I’ll have to re-read his article then. As I admit, I’m doing this as I do my “other job” and couldn’t give my full attention to it.

  10. I think the idea of being a full time novelist that puts out a book every year and needs no other source of income is part of the career plan and expectations many of us have when we begin writing. However, I find many of the books I love best are written by “amateurs” or “hobbyists” who don’t produce a new book every year. Art and commerce are not always so easily combined.

    I really felt that Sawyer’s argument was undercut by his suggestion that $3000 for a ten-day teaching job was an insult, because it does not pay more than his day job.

  11. how many science fiction novelists grossed the US median income ($25,149 in 2005,

    Yeah, I think part of the issue is not whether people can make a living just as a novelist,but whether people can live on what the average person makes for a living.

    if I was making 25k a year, I’d lose my house. And given where I’m living, I’m not even sure how far away I’d have to move before I could find a place whose rent I could afford.

    And I don’t know what the statistics are for novelist sales, but I don’t think 25k is too far from the bell curve for a novel. And on top of that, “making a living” as a novelist implies that said novelist is not a first-time novelist but someone who has published a few novels. I don’t know what a multi-published novelist might get for a novel, but I’d hope 25k or so wouldn’t be too far off from the minimum. (And this is assuming a multi-published novelist could write one novel a year, which I think isn’t too outrageous.)

    God, I hope it’s not much worse than that.

    But, yeah, the question sounds much less dramatic when put in the form of “Can an SF novelist make $25k a year by 2020?” rather than “Can an SF novelist make a living in 2020?”

  12. Greg:

    “I don’t know what a multi-published novelist might get for a novel, but I’d hope 25k or so wouldn’t be too far off from the minimum.”

    At the moment, I think the average advance for a science fiction novel is something on the order of $13k – $15k, and most novels don’t earn out their advances.

  13. Even worse, what about Sci-Fi web comic artists? By 2020, will any of them be able to make a living and support their families?

  14. Based on insights from (among others) Cory Doctorow, I’d always assumed anyone who could be a fulltime novelist felt incredibly lucky. In my time reading SF, I’ve noticed that Pohl and Card had columns in computer magazines, Asimov and Ellison had columns in a genre magazine, Moran is a programmer, Moon is a paramedic, and many others worked in television and movies as well as a completely random assortment of “day jobs” (biologist, typesetter, etc.). Who is really surprised that it’s not a common thing to be a self-supporting fulltime novelist?

  15. Gary Bunker:

    “I’d always assumed anyone who could be a fulltime novelist felt incredibly lucky.”

    Anyone who is full-time in any creative endeavor feels incredibly lucky, basically.

  16. You’ve really got to read all of Dean’s comments to understand why he makes that claim. He appears to be right in his claim, but you need to understand the context he’s working in.

    For one thing, Dean writes several books per year. Like three or four. He’s not writing these multi-year magnum opuses such as Robinson’s Mars trilogy or Sawyer’s WWW works.

    Another thing is that he doesn’t limit himself to a particular genre.

    A third thing is that he’s really good at reselling his rights, and getting multiple payments for single works. For example, that Killing Sacred Cows series started as a series of blog posts and is going to get published as a book.

    A fourth thing is that he’s a businessman, and he’s obviously good at maintaining a positive cash flow. He even makes money teaching this skill to authors (see the list of classes he teaches).

    But yes, I think he’s right: there are a lot of people making a full-time living writing novels.
    What most of them are not doing is taking three or four years full-time to write a book. That is a hard model to make work, because you HAVE to write a best seller every time to make that particular strategy work. Furthermore, if you look at most of the stellar best-sellers, they aren’t following that strategy either.

  17. I’m not sure how helpful this comment is for the discussion, but I just wanted to say that I was trying really hard to concentrate on the arguments in the comments (English is not my first language) and I noticed a sort of smudge on the screen so I took a cleaning wipe and proceeded to clean my laptop’s screen for about ten minutes, until my wife stopped me in a gentle way and pointed to me that the smudge was part of a background picture of you, mr President.

  18. At the moment, I think the average advance for a science fiction novel is something on the order of $13k – $15k,

    Just to make sure I got this right. This is the average for already-been-published-before authors?

    Or is this the average for all novels, first timers and old timers alike?

    then again, I’m assuming a couple things here:

    (1) that a first time novelist won’t get as big an advance as an already-been-published novelist, pulling the average down.

    (2) that a lot of novels are first time novels and maybe only one-time novelists, pulling the average down.

    If 1 and 2 are true, and you take out the first time novelists from the “average advance”, then you’re left with the average advance for already-been-published authors, and it would be a higher average.

    If 1 is false, then…. oh lord…. I might start feeling guilty when I buy some SF at the used book store.

  19. Writers are small business owners. Most small businesses either fail or make very little money. I know people have had failed small businesses. I have my own company that is on hold right now.

    I think one problem for authors is the wealth of quality science fiction and fantasy writing. There is a Barnes and Noble about a mile from my house. I am in there about once/week. There generally have 30+ science fiction and fantasy books alone in the new release section. There is too much to choose from. I generally find myself reading 1-2 books by an author and then moving on to the next author since there is so much quality work out there. That does not net authors much money.

    As far as conventions not paying for guest of honor speakers. This may be an indication that the number of people attending the conferences have declined or that there are alot more authors to choose from so they can find someone to do it.

    I am a big Robert Jordan fan. When he came on the scene he really out classed the other fantasy authors and basically took over the genre. Today there are so many good genre writers, there is less room for people to make significant money. I have read Robert J. Sawyers books. He is very talented. However so is Stephen Baxter, John Scalzi, Brandon Sanderson, Joe Haldeman, Stephen Erickson, Kim Stanley Robinson, and many others.

  20. heteromeles:

    So you’re saying Dean Wesley Smith’s path to success works if you’re Dean Wesley Smith. Yes, well. My particular path to success works if you’re me, too.

    It’s possibly cogent to say that there are a number of roads to possibly be a full-time novelist, but that those roads still narrow to let relatively few people do that, overall.

  21. A subject near and dear to my heart, since I make a nice living as a freelance writer and I am also a published novelist, but the novels, as of yet, don’t play a significant role in the “making-a-living” thing. Who knows what my next royalty statement will say.

    As for Dean Wesley Smith, let me just say that his Killing The Sacred Cows of Publishing is absolutely fantastic reading and I suggest that all writers take the time to read it. That said, Dean encourages all writers to take what other people say about publishing with a hefty dose of skepticism–to which I would add the addendum, “including what Dean has to say about it.” That’s not to say that he’s wrong. I’m not sure there’s any right or wrong out there, but what Dean has to say is very provocative and although it seems to work for him, your mileage will most definitely vary. What he does suggest varies greatly from how most published and working novelists approach the business (in my experience).

    As for “making a living” as a novelist, I’m always rather cautious, because “a living” is, as John says, a rather fungible concept. I have a successful novelist friend, Erica Orloff, who typically publishes 3 or 4 novels a year in a couple genres under a couple different names, and if she were inclined to, could make her living solely off the novels. But as she has explained to me, with 4 kids, one in college, and being essentially a single parent, she needs somewhat more reliable income, so she supplements the novels with freelance work of many varieties, including corporate writing, ghostwriting, etc.

    There are definitely novelists who can write a novel a year and make good money doing so. Or multiple novels a year. And there are novelists who choose to remain at their “day job” despite a lot of income from their writing. (John Gilstrap and Steve Berry are two that come immediately to mind). Some of this has to do with the unreliability of a novelist’s life, personal ambitions, or as Gilstrap recently commented, he was too Type A of a personality to just write novels, so he went back to his job.

    Although many people seem confused or surprised by this, I LIKE freelancing a variety of things, and although the multiple revenue streams are also part of my business plan, I’m not entirely sure I’d be as happy just writing fiction, even if the money became substantial enough that I could.

  22. As most of us know Isaac Asimov’s day job was as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, it gave him an office to write his stories in between lectures. And we know Philip K. Dick’s story about asking a store clerk how much he made and discovering he made less than the clerk. Both of these authors wrote more than just SF.

  23. Jerry Pournelle has always said that his monthly Byte column paid better than his novels back in the day, it also provided consistent “cash flow” which can be the bane of any small buisiness.

  24. This is an old (relatively old at least) debate but I am seeing it in new light as I am in the middle of reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. The point of the book is that while we crave predictability, the real world is full of randomness and the “black swan” events that come completely out of the blue.

    One of the distinctions he makes is between industries where the “black swans” tend to be negative (like banking, where profits come hand over fist, but where the surprises are financial ruin”) and publishing, where the “black swans” tend to be positive (like novel writing, where for most profits are predictably low but where the surprises are JK Rowling like megasuccess.)

    I know for myself, twenty years ago I made the decision not to be a technical writer because I the money I was earning at that, given the advances at the time ($5k for a technical book) didn’t match what I could make as a programmer. I chose stable salary over the small chance of being the next Peter Norton. (Which I suspect was financially wise.)

    The situation may be inevitable not because of the publishing industry or business models, but simply because readers have a limited mindspan and therefore can only follow a few authors, and human nature means they’ll tend to follow a small subset. (Given that friend recommendations are the biggest driving force.) Combine that with a far larger pool of people with talent, and desire, and mix in unrealistic expectations caused by the higher visibility of those authors who can support themselves comfortably and the situation seems inevitable.

  25. Robert touched on the idea that ebooks are not going to save the day. I am a Kindle reader and I have to agree with him, with one qualification. Just as my desktop computer helps me work more efficiently, my Kindle helps me consume reading entertainment more efficiently. I think I read more books now than I did when I had to find time to get to the store or wait for delivery of had-copy purchases. For me, this probably only results in 4 or 5 additional purchases a year, so the scale when spread across all e-readers is probably still small. But maybe the ease of obtaining my preferred content will help as the scale increases.

    On the downside, since it is so easy to download books I already know about, I less frequently make impulse purchase and discover something new that way. Luckily, this blog helps address that concern.

  26. Gee, we’re certainly in “let me count the variables” land. A great example is the Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, which Sawyer cited as an example of work that couldn’t be done these days. I don’t know the entire story on that work, but I do know that Robinson got a grant from NSF (National Science Foundation) under a program to get artists to create art about science. He also wrote five books off that trilogy, including the last (Antarctica) which he was bound to write under the NSF grant. This suggests to me that you couldn’t do that type of epic science fiction back in the day, either. It also suggests that creative funding is a good way to go, if you can swing it.

    Anyway, there are lots of ways to make a living as an author, and some of them include selling your work. If your business plan is predicated on you being the next JK Rowling, it’s probably not going to happen, but if your goal is writing full time and your definition of making a living is flexible, it’s doable.

    The other important thing to point out is that writing is a pipeline process, and once something’s written, it can be years before it sees print and you see money. That’s an ugly cash flow problem that every author needs to solve. But it is solvable.

    Anyway, I’ve got some writing to do.

  27. “As most of us know Isaac Asimov’s day job was as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, it gave him an office to write his stories in between lectures.”
    True, but his income only really kicked into high fire when he got fired from BU and started writing full time.

  28. What about merchandising? Who wouldn’t purchase a cool t-shirt related to a book? Or a black shirt with some kind of skull design? Am wearing my Diesel Sweeties black golf shirt with skull for staff meeting day. And if you have a cool series, maybe a GURPS book or two?

  29. Let’s not forget insurance. I can think of several decent selling authors off the top of my head who have full-time jobs primarily for the health insurance, which they would not be able to afford as independent contractors.

  30. The state of column-writing jobs for writers is interesting to me. It makes me wonder what impact the Internet has had on that revenue stream. On the one hand, there are more publications out there than ever before. On the other hand, they’re Internet-only and I can’t imagine they’d pay as much as the magazines did back in the day.

  31. Well, mensley @31 says what I was planning to say: it’s hard to be a full-time novelist without decent health insurance. I made more than the median this year in part due to foreign rights sales, but I’m not going to chance the individual insurance market until I see how the Affordable Care Act shakes out.

    Also, you know who makes a living solely on novels? The person who drives the truck load of books from the warehouse to the bookstore. Also the printer.

    The problem for novelists is that the competition is fierce.

    One more data point before I move on: In the book he’s giving away on his website (no link because I’m day-jobbing), Donald Maas surveyed his own writers to figure out how some of them managed to reach consistent six-figure salaries. The results are interesting (and as I said, available free on his site) but the big point was that they did it with their back list. They had ten or more books in print, and the back list paid their bills.

  32. I believe rule one is: “Don’t quit your day job.”

    eBooks have a lot of things going for them towards supporting an author’s goal of making a living writing full time. Quick publication, high royalty payout, low consumer price, ease of distribution, etc…

    However, while eBooks will continue to eat at print books’ market shares, I really doubt it’ll be the 50% by the end of the decade that some ePublishers will try to tell you. I think a slow steady rise for the immediate future is quite practical, increasing in speed as eReaders drop in price and increase in quality.

    Still: don’t quit your day job.

  33. soooo
    I predict that there will be MORE full time scifi writers in the future than there are now or have been in the past. (more, certainly does not mean “lots”)

    the reason is quite simple. special effects.
    it is becoming cheaper and cheaper to bring a scifi story to life on the big or small screen.
    stories which would have been impossible to bring to life or would have ended up as rubber-suit b-films, can now be given serious treatment.

    the cost of bringing Niven’s Draco Tavern stories to film and not looking like 70s era Dr Who episodes is now much cheaper. and with cable micro/mini markets there are acutally niche markets ready made for scifi.

    10-20 years from now things will be even cheaper, therefore the STORY will be the most important part of what gets made.

    /looking forward to my favorite short stories coming to life

  34. As someone who is a consumer of novels (not an author) I can say that there are a number of changes that have changed for me over the last few years – and where I see my consuption going

    note that I spend 2+ hours a day on a train so I believe $1000/yr is not too much to spend on books – I need something to read

    10 years ago:
    since I prefer hardbacks to paperbacks I found myself purchsing many books from SFBC – the only place that I had access to titles that are only in paperback (or out of print) elsewhere.

    if a ‘best seller’ intrigued me – I’d wait until it was in the bargin bin at the local bookshop (or if there was a good deal at SFBC)

    5 years ago:
    same as above – but I might buy from Amazon for new titles vs. wait for the bargain bin – I almost never paid cover price – the exception being if going on vacation – I’d splurge for a new hardcover to read on the plane (sometimes at the airport)

    I COLLECT books from my farorite authors – so I might pick up used hardcovers from ebay or amazon to fill a hole

    3 years ago:
    I discovered Subterranean Press, PS Publishing and Night Shade books’ websites – even fewer books purchased at local bookstore – now I can get my hardcover in a deluxe/autographed edition

    this year:
    I still my 8-12 books a year from Sub Press – but NONE from SFBC- I picked up a Sony E-reader (DRM is a pain) -collectable books I buy hard copies – for daily reading – I buy electronic versions. Local bookstore is for coffee/impulse buys/ book signing events.

    I find that I get more of my ebooks from alternate sources vs. the sony reader store/ etc

    I REALLY like Baen’s Webscriptions site – no fuss, reasonable prices, nice selection (of Sci Fi/Fantasy) from several publishers

    I also think I’ll be a regualar Hugo Voter – if for no other reason to get the packet.

    My wish list:
    Ebook versions included in the purchase price when I buy a deluxe/hardcover from SUB. press (heck it would be SUPER if they took a look at my purchase history and sent me a packet of ebooks of the titles I’d already purchased)

    What does all this MEAN? – I think (maybe incorrectly?) that the publishing industry currently relies on sales of NEW releases in hardcover (or the electronic equivalent)for a large portion of the revenue of a title. For my buying habits, this is an epic fail. I almost NEVER buy my books this way. I don’t have a problem throwing down $45+ on a limited edition for my ‘permanent’ collection but I won’t pay $24.95 for a just released hardcover – I’ll either wait until I can pick it up cheaper (under $10) and if big publishers want to make money from me they need to either:

    offer ebooks at lower prices and find a way to compensate authors well and still make money – I will not pay MORE for an ebook that I can pay for a peperback/bargain bin hardcover/’new’ condition used hardcover

    offer deluxe/limited editions – (preferably w/ bundled ebook)

    and to Bill at Subterranean Press – keep doing what you are doing – (but see my ‘wish list’ above)

    what (I think) this means to authors:
    Publishers cannot make money w/o content – they need to compensate authors well enough to continue to get good content. And it is both publishers’ and authors’ best interests to have MORE titles in print/available but maybe NOT in hard form (I don’t know whom to be pissed at – but I am pissed that Charles Stross’ Family trade Series is available as e-books BUT ony volumes 1,2 4, and 7 how did that happen?)

  35. Actually, I’m agreeing completely with both Rob and John. What I have always said is that if you are going to limit yourself to writing only science fiction, it would be almost impossible to make a living doing so. Not impossible, but almost. The restrictions in the science fiction publishing field of one book a year and the low advances mean that to make a living you have to be a fantastic short fiction writer at the same time and have your standards of “living” set very low. Or hit it big and have the words science fiction taken off the spine.

    And you have to be willing to work outside of the five main publishers. I’m working on a multi-media science fiction novel project right now with a start-up that is making me more than a living this year. But I also write two mystery series under other names and a romance series under yet another name. I write about five books a year plus short fiction. Far too much for science fiction only, even though the field is my top love. I would still be tending bar if I had stuck to only science fiction I’m afraid.

    Thanks for the nice comments on Killing the Sacred Cows. Glad I’m not making everyone angry with them.

  36. I tend to view things from Scalzi’s POV, but I have the following observations:

    Someone mentioned that Jerry Pournelle observed that he made more money from his Byte magazine columns than he did from writing, and considering that he’s been partner in several Niven/Pournelle blockbuster selling novels in the 70’s and 80’s, that’s pretty scary!

    This also reminds me of part of the plot from Peter F. Hamilton’s “Misspent Youth”, whereupon the protagonist of the story invents a super-cheap method for ultra high capacity memory storage and releases it to the public domain. Shortly thereafter any business related to entertainment collapses from rampant piracy. When you can pay $25 for a device with enough non-destructive memory to hold every book, movie, audio recording, etc. ever made, the collector comes out in everyone and EVERYTHING gets pirated.

    I’ve always seen professional writing as split into three different strata:

    1) Steven King, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steele, etc. – MEGA-writers who sell so much, and who have regular media adaptations that they can get by on that alone. You can also include writers who were wealthy to begin with in here as well, i.e. Larry Niven.

    2) Working writers, but not necessarily filthy RICH – with several sub strata within, i.e. Scalzi, Jerry Pournelle, Charles Stross, etc. Writers who CAN make a living writing (various kinds) alone. I’d include the successful and VERY prolific (I’m talking about YOU Alistair “Million Pound Contract” Reynolds), and the successful enough but not as prolific (the aforementioned Peter F. Hamilton).

    3) Everyone else. Those talented enough to write well, but still need to keep ‘day jobs’.

    It was one of the rude awakenings of my first SF con as a teenager to discover that my favorite SF authors weren’t rich from their efforts. :(

  37. John –

    Not to statistically wonk this too badly, but (if you have or can locate the numbers) the median speculative fiction novel advance would be a more valuable number than the mean (average). The average will be skewed by outliers of authors who are very successful. The median (and 25th percentile) values will be more useful for “How many people can make a living at this”, I think.

    I don’t know if that info is available or not. And average is useful to know. But median would be better.

  38. Hey, I do my best to keep SF novelists from starving! I buy books faster than I can read them. Sometimes, I buy the same book twice (paper and e-versions)!

    When I am old and poor… I will have a lot of reading to catch up on, and won’t be able to help writers out anymore.

    And frankly folks, old is creeping on me faster every day. Some day, it’s going to catch me!

  39. ‘Not as prolific’? Lubert @39 -ah well. I can only assume you must be thinking of number of novels rather than total word length written. Something my wife (a professional accountant) is forever pointing out to me, that if I’d just split the books I do write up into ‘normal-size’ we’d get a truckload more advances.

    A point I’d like to make here is that everyone is talking about advances for single books produced on a one-a-year basis; while someone in my lucky position of long-term established writer also starts getting advances from foreign language publishers as well, then the truly lucky among us eventually earn out and start getting royalties direct. This last phenomenon is heavily dependent on a publisher keeping your book in print long enough for this to happen. From memory I think it took The Reality Dysfunction about 6/7 years to earn out. If you can keep a career going long enough the numbers do start to build in your favour.

  40. It might be worth asking how many science fiction novelists grossed the US median income ($25,149 in 2005, which may be the most recent official date) in the last year solely from their novel writing.

    That’s in the right ballpark for me, though I’ll note a significant percentage of my writing income is from short fiction. Also, as a 46 year old with a daughter in private school, a mortgage, and rather substantial healthcare expenses from recurring bouts of cancer (even with decent insurance from the Day Jobbe), I couldn’t remotely begin to live on my writing in come.

    (In my case, possibly literally.)

    I am not complaining. Not in the slightest. But my novel sales would have to go up by at least half an order of magnitude before I could contemplate that as income replacement. And unlike my Day Jobbe, income projection is chancy. One bad book, one bad year, and I’d be in the soup unless I had some serious evergreen back list. Also, having a Day Jobbe frees me to write what I want, within some contract parameters.

    The world is. I just live in it, and write.

  41. @42 – Absolutely. The more titles available, the more potential sales. That’s another advantage to eBooks. They’re never actually ‘out of print’.

  42. I think the Internet will become the primary distribution medium for entertainment and once a good business model is created I think creative people will finally be able to make a living off of their talents.

    Imagine a company that created a website like Netflix that charges their subscribers a monthly fee. You get access to not just videos but also music, art, blogs, novels, short stories and anything else that can be enjoyed online.

    The company would obviously take a large portion of those subscription fees but they would also pass along royalties to the entertainers who provide their services. Possibly this could be done with a small payment for each “hit” on one of their pages. Maybe there is also a downloading fee for people who want to download a novel to their E-Reader or a song to their iPod.

    I don’t know what form these payments would be or how they would be handled but there must be a way for the artists to make money off of their creations that is proportional to the enjoyment that we get from them.

    Maybe there would be a Scalzi Channel that we would pay a small monthly fee to join and which would contain Whatever and links to various Scalzi material like novels, short stories, articles, photos, etc. If Mr. Scalzi actually got paid directly for Whatever as if it were a daily column in a well-read newspaper that would be “a good thing” for the Scalzi household wouldn’t it?

    I know I have purchased a lot of books lately based on The Big Idea and other links from Whatever. If those links went directly to the authors channel and they got a small payment for every hit on their works I think that would go a long way to making it possible for people to make a living off of their writing.

    The same “word of mouth” linkages would apply to less well known authors, artists and musicians. If every video that goes “viral” actually generated money for the person who posted the video think of the explosion of new material that would be available. And the number of people making a good living off of their creativity.

  43. @44 – You bring up a good point… since we’ve got Mr. Scalzi as a captive audience AND we’ve been joined by professional writers Peter F. Hamilton and Jay Lake, can any of you give us insight into digital book sales? How does this work, and more importantly how does revenue from that get back to the author?

    I ask this because only a couple of weeks ago, I purchased Amazon Kindle-based copies of Peter F. Hamilton’s “Dreaming Void” and “Temporal Void” in order to re-read them in preparation for the August release of the third book in the Void trilogy. Now I already had purchased hardcover copies of these books in the past, but I wanted to be able to read them from my iPod Touch, and the were quite inexpensive in Kindle form.

    Finally, what percentage of digital book purchases do you think are first timers, and what amount do you think are ‘return customers’ like me purchasing the book for a second time?

  44. Catherine Shaffer @12 “I think the idea of being a full time novelist that puts out a book every year and needs no other source of income is part of the career plan and expectations many of us have when we begin writing. ”

    I think most of us would grant that Robert Heinlein was one of the most successful ($$) SF writers (1st million dollar advance, broke the slicks market, etc). John even brought him up in the original post, and used him, to some extent, as a model for the profession.

    Heinlein was at the peak of his powers and influence during the 1950s. Even then, he averaged more than a novel a year (many years, a juvenile, plus a “adult” book). He also worked on screenplays and TV and radio scripts. He wrote a number of short stories during this decade (some were non-genre). He sold the novels twice — once serialized in a magazine (SF, or not), and once as a book.

    He made a point of writing to the market — see his letters in _Grumbles from the Grave_. (Eventually he became successful enough that he could write what he wanted instead of what the market/editor wanted, but that’s another decade).

    Dale Allen @24
    “As most of us know Isaac Asimov’s day job was as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, it gave him an office to write his stories in between lectures.”

    And when Heinlein started writing, he had a Navy Disability Pension to pay the day-to-day bills. He started writing to pay off a mortgage he incurred while running for political office.

    And on a different tangent:
    Catherine Shaffer @12
    “I really felt that Sawyer’s argument was undercut by his suggestion that $3000 for a ten-day teaching job was an insult, because it does not pay more than his day job.”

    I didn’t read that the stipend was an insult, just that he made a cold business decision about the value of his time and the teaching job wasn’s sufficiently renumerative. I think John Scalzi has made the same point numerous times over the years in Whatever.

  45. Wish I had seen this earlier, but like a lot of others I was actually at work. :)

    This completely and utterly jives with my point of view. I’ve surrendered to the fact that I’m likely never to make a living as a full-time novelist, or even as a writer, but so what. I’m no longer in this to write a best selling book and make millions. (Though that would be very, very nice.) No, I writing cause I love it, and I finally have job where I can support myself and have time to write. Heck, even if the change to become a full-time novelist came up I’d probably say no, as I’d be giving up some really good benefits and job security.

    There were a few things I didn’t agree with in Mr. Sawyer’s post, but I’ve ranted about them on my own blog so I wont here.

  46. Dean@38: I write about five books a year plus short fiction.

    Holy crap! Seriously, I am agog. 75k to 150k words per novel means one-third to one-half a million words a year. That’s one-thousand publishable words a day, which I guess is plausible, but, damn.

    Also, average $13k-$15k advance per book times five books equals $65k, well above the $25k national median, so there’s that for a data point.

  47. @47 I have reasonable e-book sales, which actually equates to a slightly lower income because the price is lower than a paper book. The theory behind all this is that increased volume of sales at the lower price compensates for loss of the higher percentage paper sales. When e-readers are the norm it might actually happen because the distribution via internet has huge potential -which is why I can live with it for now. One of the constant complaints I get is lack of e-availability in territories outside the US and UK, which is due to the old-market model territory and rights issues. Publishers are slowly realising this, but change is never fast in this industry.

  48. Bill @48 If Sawyer only meant that working for ten days for $3000 did not make business sense for him, then his point was rather obscured by the context it was in, which was a list of paid gigs he had been offered which exemplified work that would not provide him a living. $3000 for ten days’ work is a fine honoriarium for a visiting lecturer/teacher, and certainly a rate of $300/day is a living wage anywhere in the US/Canada, no? Whether it is a *better* living than whatever his day job is is another question entirely. Certainly if he has the option of paid vacation time, he could have used that to teach the class, and then received the $3000 on top of his regular wage, more than doubling his wages for that time period, so maybe he really doesn’t want to give up his paid vacation. And if that’s the case, he should keep his day job. (From someone who has spent many a family vacation with a computer in her lap, trying to keep up with freelance writing commitments.)

  49. Jason@36: Thanks for the kind words. The fact is that we don’t own e-rights to most of the books we publish, but are now working to acquire those rights to newer projects, and publish more of same.

    We’ve also discussed bundling ebooks with certain hardcovers, but I don’t yet know in which direction we’ll head in regards to that issue.



  50. Catherine @52
    “If Sawyer only meant that working for ten days for $3000 did not make business sense for him,”

    Sawyer said “Other offers that have crossed my desk in the last few months include me teaching writing at an austere retreat for $3,000 — for ten full days, on-site (I make more than $300 a day normally, so this would be me subsidizing the cost of the event so that students could pay less)”

    “Did not make business sense for him” seems to be _exactly_ what he meant. If you read his statement to mean anything else, I don’t follow your train of thought.

    “Whether it [$300/day] is a *better* living than whatever his day job is is another question entirely.” No, it’s not another question, it is _the_ question. He is discussing why he won’t take some gigs — they don’t pay as well as staying home and writing.

    “Certainly if he has the option of paid vacation time,” — a freelance writer with paid vacation time??
    As Norm Peterson once said to Cliff Clavin, “What color is the sky in your world?” For a freelance writer, all time is fungible. If you spend time that you could use to be writing by doing something else, you have lost the money that you would have made by writing. If you can make $350/day writing, and you instead spend the time doing something that pays $300/day, you are not making $300/day, you are losing $50/day.

  51. There are also intangible benefits to con appearances and public appearances – despite complaints that not much gets sold, typically at most cons the writers in attendance do sell a lot of stuff to people who want autographs, and getting an authors’ autograph and some face time increases the odds of future sales.

    Hard to account for that with a hard dollar value, but one shouldn’t ignore it.

  52. I think the “sacred cow” that Dean Wesley Smith was talking about was the myth that there were only 200 novelists making a living in the world, which is not true. (Or if it is, I guess I know almost all of them.) But yes, there are relatively few, in the scheme of things. Health insurance, dependents, what counts as a “living” — these are all factors.

    When I decided to go freelance, it was because I was making more writing novels than at my day job (and living like a grad student, so I could save). My friends who were lawyers or other high-paying jobs found it considerably more difficult when they transitioned to full-time writing. Now, with a mortgage and a family, I probably would be a lot more scared to make the leap. I feel glad I obtained and planned for these things AS a freelancer.

    I think it also depends on WHAT kind of science fiction you write. For instance, right now, YA hardcover is paying better than your median adult SF paperback. Trick is, there aren’t anywhere near as many spaces. I recently contracted my first (YA) SF novel.

    I make the majority of my income from novels, averaging 1-2 per year. I do the occasional anthology or non-fiction, but these don’t make a substantive difference in my income. My backlist is still in print, I have a handful of foreign sales, and my seventh book since 2006 will be out this fall.

    As for ebooks, they currently comprise a miniscule fraction of my sales. I know this will grow in the coming years and I hope there will still be an income stream potential for when that happens. Having seen some writers make a living from ebooks, I think there’s a possibility, even if it means adjusting the way I do business now. Just keeping my ear to the ground and typing away.

  53. Orin @1 and silbey @7, as Smith describes the situation (unless you’re thinking of a different one, but it sounds like the one you mean), it was a slightly different; at a panel at a writing convention, a NYT-list bestselling author said that there were only 200 people in America making a living writing fiction, and it ended up that a dozen people out of a gathering of 500 identified themselves as making $80K a year writing fiction. Smith’s point is that if that number were true, it would be a remarkable thing that so many of the Great 200 just happened to be present. (In the writer’s defense, he said “That’s what I’ve always heard” as his reason for giving the number. There’s no suggestion that he was trying to brag about being in the Writerly Elite or discourage talented young’uns.)

  54. Bill @54 I assumed that he was talking about a day job. Perhaps he will stop by to clarify his intent. I do not think you are really adding anything by adding your words to his words in an attempt to make it mean what you think it means.

  55. If Faulkner can write As I Lay Dying during his dinner breaks while working at a power plant, I think everyone else can manage as well.

  56. Adam @59, I really cringe at the idea that because [famous person] was able to do [thing] that surely everybody else can manage to do [thing] if only they could be bothered for five bleeping seconds. Yes, there are people who (as our host has pointed out) could find that elusive “time to write” if they watched an hour less of TV per day. There are also people who are having trouble finding “time to write” because if they had that extra hour, they’d be (for example) using it to catch an extra bit of sleep in between double shifts.

    Encouraging people to take a good look at their time use to prioritize writing is great. Hinting that anyone who hasn’t been able to make time to finish the Great American Novel is just a soft, lazy whinebag, not so much.

  57. I read somewhere that the number of books Americans read every year have dropped alot over the last 20+ years. As I posted earlier, there seem to be an awful lot of quality science fiction/fantasy books released. I am guessing that there are far more books released now than in the past.

    So authors have more competition and a smaller market.

    One thing that Robert J Sawyer wrote was that over the last couple of years conventions cut back on paying airfare for guests of honor. That coincides with the bad economy. I am guessing there are less people showing up to these conventions. I do understand why he would not want to go.

    I have read a lot of author blogs lately. It seems like authors get asked for a lot of free labor. I don’t think people who run a small restaurant business are expected to provide free food? I am a programmer and I have my own company. I rarely get asked for free labor (I do get asked though). Maybe people don’t realize that authors are small business owners? Maybe people don’t realize it because they see your name on a book and not a business name?

  58. I am in a profession where I -by law- routinely have to give free labor to those who cannot or will not pay for the services I render (I work in an Emergency Room). Aspiring writers SHOULD be grinding out the shoeleather, the words, and such. It’s how they get better and get noticed. I liken it to residency for a physician: learn the craft properly because eventually a lack of formal training will bite you in the butt.

    Writers/Novelists SHOULD charge for the incidentals. Writers/Novelists SHOULD be reimbursed for their time and such. They’ve spent a great deal of time and effort perfecting their craft.

    Should they be able to live off their efforts? Depends. They are in a craft where the final arbiter of worth is how many people buy their wares.

    You can’t spend, eat, or clothe your children in critical acclaim, unless you cut the newspaper [i]just right[/i].

  59. I understand that not all writers are willing to be flexible, but there are many of us who would be happy if the income from our “writing careers” weren’t necessarily comprised merely of writing novels but of cobbling together whatever creative endeavor it takes to keep from looking at the want ads. Making public appearances (getting paid for that is definitely a genre-dependent endeavor), selling subsidiary rights, doing other kinds of freelance work, selling t-shirts — it’s way better than a 45 minute commute in heels to a cubicle, answering telephones for an evil insurance company (one of my former jobs).

  60. I’m more optimistic than even you are, John. I think there will be more SF/F novelists making a living then, compared to today.

    1. The number of traditionally published authors able to make a _really decent_ living probably won’t go down significantly in ten years. I think the field will shrink, but the real successes won’t go down greatly.

    2. The ease of ebooks is already leading people to read more. This should continue.

    3. The major difference: Many more authors will be able to make a decent living off of independent releases. Even today, it’s 70+% royalties on ebooks.

    #3 is what will open up a whole new ballgame; it’s barely happening now, but in ten years it will probably be fairly common.

    Backlist will still be key, but writers have so many options available to them now.

  61. Catherine @58
    Yeah, I can see in retrospect that quoting his words and reading them for their plain meaning was a bad idea. What I should have done was read his words, assume they meant something that isn’t so (like, for example, that he has a day job), and and argue from that position. What?? You mean someone else beat me to that strategy? Darn.

  62. @29 Jacob I’m certain that Asimov was never “fired” from his position at BU. As far as I know he was a tenured associate professor until he died. had he been fired (extremely hard to do for anything that won’t get you prison time, aside from plagiarism), I’m sure we would all know about it. I think John has explained the situation pretty much as I always understood it to be (over the last several decades). And, like him, I don’t expect it to change a lot in the next couple of decades. I’m even surprised that a Hugo winner like himself could make a living ONLY from his novels (I suspect that includes foreign rights, but it’s none of my business). There are undoubtedly even fewer science writers who can make a living solely from their books (Timothy Ferris comes to mind). I think the median advance there is probably more like $5-7K, from what one of my colleagues who has published several popular science books has told me.. And I don’t know ANY professional educator (you know, someone who teaches for a living) who would turn down $3K for two working weeks…..

  63. @Peter Hamilton: You said that people outside the US and UK can’t get your ebooks. How come they can just log into Amazon and buy them over the internet? Is it blocked?

  64. Bill @65 I don’t think I’m getting you. Can you rephrase that for me? I think you need about five more comments to clarify your position. Yes, that should do it.

  65. Okay, I spent some time poking about on Robert Sawyer’s web site and it looks like he does not have a day job and putatively makes all of his living being a science fiction writer–writing, speaking, teaching. This is not stated either way in the post. In that context, the comment about him having to subsidize the retreat by accepting $300/day makes even less sense. It appears in a list of other crappy low-paying or non-paying opportunities such as being asked to submit a short story for royalties only, or having to provide his own transportation and other costs to speak for free at a conference. One can’t help but infer that he feels insulted by being offered $3000 for the ten-day retreat. If it was purely a business decision, it would not be worth mentioning in the post, which is not about running a small business, but about the gloomy outlook for science fiction writers. If he already has a better paying opportunity for those specific ten days, then I don’t see the point in complaining about it. (I pass up paying opportunities frequently, too, because they don’t pay enough, but I consider it to be a good problem to have.) If he does not already have better-paying work, but turned it down because he feels he is worth more than $300/day, and then subsequently spent those ten days *not* earning $300/day, I think that would be pretty foolish. So either way I’m not sure what he’s complaining about, and when you are talking about whether science fiction writers can make more than $75,000/year, that is quite a different question than whether science fiction writers can make “a living.”

  66. Jacob @ 29 and Coolstar @ 66: Some clarification on Isaac Asimov’s career. Yes, Asimov was ask to resign his post at BU, because he was spending all his time writing and not teaching his classes. Asimov then hired an agent and started doing high paid speaking gigs as a supplement to his writing. Asimov later came back to BU as a lecturer and was promoted to full professor in 1979. Isaac Asimov was a great speaker as well as a writer.

  67. @67 Amazon and other e-book retailers are blocked to you if you log on from outside UK or USA. You need an ISP address from within the country. At least that’s certainly how it used to be.

  68. @71: I am guessing its because they need to get the right to sell in each country. I didn’t realize that. Thanks.

  69. @52 Catherine: $3000 may be typical honorarium for a visiting professor. However, this is professional training. Professional programming training can often cost $600/day per person. Most professional training is so expensive that its not worth taking. However, there is a difference in expectations between professional and academic pay.

    Further $300/day 5 days/week for say 47 weeks translates into about $70,000/year. That is probably more than most authors make. So for most authors this is probably worth taking. Robert J Sawyer is one of the more successful authors so it may not be worth it for him to do this. $3000 is probably not alot of money to him.

    That being said, I don’t know how you can ask struggling authors who are trying to break into the business to pay more than $3000. They probably don’t have the money. so the bottom line is that they need to get someone else to teach the class.

    I don’t fault either party.

  70. @52 Catherine:

    Hmmm! 300$/day for ten days of teaching writing. Sounds good… if you don’t factor the “prep time” before the event… or the (often necessary) follow-ups afterwards.

    Just a thought.

  71. “Further $300/day 5 days/week for say 47 weeks translates into about $70,000/year.”

    This is exactly the kind of math that people do before they come up with ridiculous claims that writers thereby are in a good position to make a fair bit of money, if only they worked smarter or harder. It’s a variation of the “why do you choose to be poor?” question. The fact is that the opportunities simply don’t exist for most writers that the public assumes exist.

    The $3000 is for 10 days. A fixed amount. It’s not $300/day for 47 weeks. This $300/day is an UNUSUALLY HIGH average for a writer. Sawyer is just lucky that it’s lower than his average day. In fact, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that the $3000/10 days is not for writing. It’s money paid for teaching. So even if you made $300/day like this, you would be a teacher, not a writer. Which is why so many writers make their money teaching.

  72. Needless to say, teachers don’t get paid that much either. You get paid it as a “celebrity guest” teacher — and good luck trying to string enough of those together to make $70,000/year! You’d be lucky to make $3000/year.

  73. Somewhat on-topic: Back in the late 80’s I met George Alec Effinger (When Gravity Fails). He was talking about having to live hand-to-mouth, and that he got more from Playboy for a short story than he did for When Gravity Fails. I had two thoughts: one, that was either really cool (go Hef!) that Playboy paid that much, or sad how little novels went for, and two, that I needed to buy Playboy FOR THE ARTICLES. And that’s still the excuse I use. Articles.

  74. Coolstar @ 66 and Dale Allen @ 70.

    Asimov himself said he was “fired”. What happened was the school stopped paying him and insisted that did not have tenure. Asimov said he did have tenure. After a two year fight he managed to keep his title and, as Dale Allen said, was later promoted to full Professor. However, Asimov always taught his classes. Always. He was a great lecturer. The school’s problem was that he was doing science writing instead of research. That is the context where the great Asimov line to his boss comes from about him being the best science writer in the world but only a mediocre researcher and if there is one thing the Boston University School of Medicine did not need it was another mediocre researcher.

  75. @79 is close enough for government work, I say as the biographer of The Good Doctor Asimov in the Gale Encyclopedia of Computer Science.

    His research that earned him his Ph.D., he was sad to tell me, had never once been cited in a peer-reviewed biomedical paper. I promised him, as only the 2nd professional American Science Fiction author to have done PhD research in Enzymology, that I would do so. And did.

    He was, contrary to the public image, humble about his research. In part this was because he freaked out in his 2nd year of university Calculus, because he could get the right answer in Integration by Parts homework, but wasn’t intuitively clear on WHY this worked. So he dropped Calculus.

    Back then, you could get a PhD in Biochemistry without Calculus, or computer programming, believe it or not, you whippersnappers.

    Though his essays used nothing more than logarithms and elementary algebra, they should not be dismissed as research. His work could have been repurposed into peer reviewed papers if he were in a “publish or perish” struggle for Tenure. But since he was not, and was more interested in earning upwards of $10,000,000 from royalties, he wrote what he darn well wanted to.

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