Talking About Writing Income, or Not

A question in email:

On Twitter, you’ve linked to Jim Hines and Kameron Hurley when they’ve talked about their writing income, and you used to talk about your own writing income in detail. Do you ever plan to do that again?

Probably not.

For context for those of you who have come in late, for a number of years I talked about what I make as a writer, and how I made it, in part because I think it’s useful to have writers talk about what they make and to share information. It demystifies the process and keeps publishers and editors asking for writing from underbidding. The more we all know, the better off we’ll all be (in the long run, he said, hopefully).

As time has gone on, I’ve talked about my writing income less. One significant reason is that I have become an outlier, financially speaking, and sharing that particular bit of information has less overall utility for most folks. Jim and Kameron, among others, are in the thick of it more than I am and I think have more relevant things to say to most jobbing/aspiring fiction writers about writing income than I do, which is why I point to them and recommend people read their thoughts on the topic.

(Also, and I want to be very clear about this because the risk of being seen as condescending here is oh so very high, I don’t want to suggest a great separation between Jim and Kameron and indeed most working novelists and myself in terms of quality of work. We’re all within hailing distance of each other, skillwise, and who you think is better is mostly a matter of personal taste. I’m a financial outlier for a number of reasons, and one of them, a big one, as I frequently remind people, is luck. I have been very lucky in my career.)

Another significant reason I talk less about it publicly is because Krissy prefers I don’t. I’m inclined to respect the wishes of my spouse, who I live with, and love, and who is effectively the chief financial officer of our homey little domestic corporation. I have this general rule that any time I want to discuss online something that affects Krissy or Athena directly, I check in with them to see if they’re okay with me talking about it. Why? Because it’s their life, too. I literally just now checked in with Krissy on whether she was comfortable with me talking about my current writing income, and she was “yeaaaah, no.” Which means I won’t.

The closest I’ll come to talking about my current income level here on the site is to note a) I’m in the 1%, b) this discussion in 2015, when I got my long Tor contract, and I noted in relatively non-specific terms what I’d been making leading up to the contract. Without going into it further, I will say my income since then has not gone down. It does fluctuate year to year, but possibly less than you might imagine, since we’ve designed things to keep income flowing to us on what passes for the regular basis for a writer. This (relatively) consistent flow of income is at least as important as the dollar amount, to be honest about it. It makes budgeting and tax planning a little more predicable than it might otherwise be.

That said, there’s certainly a chance for things to substantially change one way or another. If several of my books flop, in the long term that’s going to be stone on my income level. If the movie/TV stuff actually happens in a significant way, that’s going to be a rocket. Who knows? I don’t! Other than trying to keep writing good books that people hopefully want to read, there’s a lot that’s out of my hands. What we’ve done is to set things up so that if problems do happen (and they might), we see them far enough out to prepare. And if things go great? Great! We’re prepared for that too.

But essentially that’s where I am with talking raw income numbers at this point. If you were hoping for something more here, I’m not sorry to disappoint you, but I do hope you’ll understand. And as noted, with Jim and Kameron and others on the case, there are more useful discussions about writer income than I could do, based off my own numbers. As a community, we’re not lacking in disclosure. And I’ll talk about other things regarding writing and careers, never fear.

32 Comments on “Talking About Writing Income, or Not”

  1. Given the very public details of your deal with Tor, further disclosure would definitely be very unwise at that level of income (even if it is amortized over a number of years). It can sometimes attract the wrong sort of attention, particularly from folks outside the genre.

  2. Inasmuch as it’s not anyone’s business what you make or how you make it or when you make it, I’ve always appreciated your openness about the financial part of your career.

    But yeah, I think at some point what you make and where you allocate it is … well … your business. And if you and your wife have decided that this the line, more power to you.

    I’m just happy to see that people are still able to be successful in creative fields and to enjoy that success.

  3. Some people are unbelievably nosy .

    To me, it’s like talking about sex. I think, overall, the places online I’ve found Frank, honest, fact-based information about sex has been extraordinary helpful, especially when it comes to body positivity and sexual confidence and safety while disabled in the way that I am. The sexual revolution was a good, helpful thing.

    But. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to ask strangers about their sex lives. In most cases, it’s awkward if someone begins talking about their own sex life even. And even among close friends who talk about that part of their life, questions regarding, say, the frequency and quality of orgasms would grind the conversation to a screeching halt.

    Money is the same way. There should be more honest, frank, fact based conversation about money– how it’s made, how it’s used, income inequality and so on. But, the effort to combat myths and educate really shouldn’t be license to pressure people into answering personal questions.

  4. I do find the numbers on midlist author earnings very sobering
    In your case, you worked hard and things have worked out nicely, but as you note you really aren’t a useful metric for aspiring or working authors anymore

  5. Indoor Cat:

    To be fair, it’s based on the fact that I was open about my numbers before. I don’t find the question particularly intrusive, personally. Krissy does, and her opinion in this case controls, which to be clear is perfectly good by me.

  6. John, this entire post is somewhat disingenuous. A noble lie, but a lie to hide the real reasons for this post: It’s widely known you’ve been buying up most of La Paz in your search for your “Great White Whale”.
    You missed it in 2010[1], and since then, your search has been relentless[2]. Your Agent fears that once found, you’ll immediately cease writing and simply gorge, your passion lost. They might have even deployed such people as Gabriela Cámara in vain attempts to deflect you from your Arthurian Quest, to tempt you from destruction.
    So, please: the shameful story of spending so much on a custom-built Camper Van, the misappropriated College Funds, the lies about charitable support to others!
    Verily, a man lay low by his passions is both a grand thing and a tragic thing.
    [1] La Paz News: The World’s Largest…
    [2] Guinness Book of Records

  7. It might be interesting to hear about, not what John Scalzi makes, but about what a more or less typical first-time novelist makes, what someone at the low end of midlist, say with several successful novels, but no best-sellers, might expect to make, and what a long-established mid-list writer might expect to make. That might be useful for those considering writing as a career, and give context to discussions of writing and economics, and be interesting without being intruding on any real person to those who are just nosy.

  8. I know I’m more interested in the kind of things you can get paid for and the gotcha clauses in deals than any specific numbers.

  9. @Dave Robinson: Check your local library or bookstore for copies of The Writer’s Market, which will give you good information about who buys what where, and also get an agent, if you are at the stage where you have a contract to sign. Our Esteemed Host has written previously about some of the scummy deals that are offered to first time or inexperienced authors, and an agent or even competent lawyer will be quite useful.

  10. Geez, we don’t need to know how much you make or your net worth. And to heck with the nosy people who ask.

    (this is much milder than what I originally wrote)

  11. @ David E. Siegel

    Not a lot, relative to the skill level/abilities of most mid-list writers. The rate of return for someone able to write at a high level is probably less than they would earn in a mundane job.

    John’s an outlier, and not just due to the “burrito” issue :)

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  14. I agree with Lisa Hirsch up there, and Krissy. It is NOBODY’s business but yours and your wife’s.


  15. On one hand it’s rude to pry into what people are earning. On the other unless we know what people (in general) are earning, how do we know whether there is pay inequality due to race, sex, religion etc. I think the writing industry is probably a bit niche for this compared to companies and governmemt institutions, since you’re more of a single person company, and therefore you just can’t be compared (no author is exactly the same as any other).
    However I think in principle we should all know what people are earning, because it will
    (a) make sure we’re not being discriminated against and
    (b) give us a good idea whether our neighbours are paying their share of taxes or not. A lot of countries have tax avoidance as a national hobby and it doesn’t do them any good.

    Ps. I’m waiting for my pony to be delivered as well!

  16. I think people should talk more about their income (and their outgo). And I am using ‘should’, not in its sense of moral imperative, but in it’s less known sense of ‘yeah, I’m nosy, wanna make something of it?’.
    Also, you’ve already done your share. Thank you. Plus apologies to Krissy who deserves medals from all of us.

    Also, also, one of the reasons I think we should talk more about our incomes is because lawmakers are constantly trying to help poorer people with some legislation that helps hundredthousandollanaires. Hey, congress! Hundredthousandollanaires are already fabulously wealthy!

  17. As a given: Share what you want- no one should be so rude as to ask.

    However: Within the family, I think it’s very important to sit down with the kids on a regular (yearly) basis and talk about income, taxes, saving (short and long term), different kinds of investments, etc. And when we updated our wills now that the youngest kid is an adult, we sent them all a copy and told them where it was kept, and what the relevant numbers were (as of Jan 1).

    There are too many sad stories in the news about kids getting into serious credit problems, or finding out their retired parents are in a lot of money trouble. Some frank, no-nonsense, dollars and cents conversations within the family set up communication paths.

    Thanks for your blog! I enjoy that along with your more polished works.

  18. Pedro:

    At this point I think most people here, and a fair number of people generally, are aware I’m pretty well off; having a multi-million dollar book deal announced in the New York Times will do that. So that’s not the issue, and people don’t need the reminder. I think the issue here is specific numbers vs. general awareness. People have the latter but not the former.

  19. Yeah, raw numbers is kinda nosy. And obviously so.

    But I admit I’m curious on some of the nuts and bolts, like how to keep income consistent and less volatile (though I’m far from likely to be able to use that directly)(but somewhat more likely to cite that as advice). I feel less inhibitions about asking about methods and strategies (though if people don’t want to share that, that’s fine, too).

  20. I could have used some knowledge about how the writers contract works and common practices a year ago when I signed my second book deal. Seems that “by mistake” I was being paid a 10% of the publisher net profit, instead of 10% over the book total price, which is the normal practice, or 50% of the profit. Plus the lack of promotion, I was earning a few cents in a year. Luckily, that was solved.

  21. Honestly, I’m surprised you even reveal you’re in the 1%. But knowing the context of that was government practices favoring the 1% (including you) at the expense of social programs that would benefit many others, and how you’d rather everyone benefit, is likely the only reason that came out.

    I’m more interested in the nuts and bolts of the earning process, and that can be found in various seminars from Professor Google, when I get curious enough. Any input you have is appreciated.

    Too, my curiosity surrounding this subject is limited to my circumstances and my goals within those circumstances. For instance: I haven’t published yet, so my interest right now goes no further than what a good contract might look like, and newbie pitfalls to avoid when (and IF) a contract might appear before me. Long term goals do not include being a famous author, but simply a respected one; not rich, but able to supplement inadequate disability income. Very simple, really, and luck will need to be dealt into this game.

    So, please, keep your personal finances to yourself, but any time you want to riff on the process will be met with gratitude.

  22. From the above comments it’s apparent that a lot of you weren’t around when John did talk in detail about this. As he noted, Hurley and a few others have recently too and in all of those cases it’s been in the context of HOW that income was derived and done as a service to the writing community so that others could see how an author who was doing well in terms of notoriety and apparent success was really making their money. Even as a reader, I thought that analysis was interesting since it was a look into an industry that I don’t know that well.

    I mean, if you’re an SF fan, Hurley’s a pretty well-known name. But go read her post on her 2017 income – and you’ll see that not only are her earnings fairly modest but the distribution is different from what a naive reader might imagine. If you read the post (not just the numbers), it’s enlightening about what a real writer with real talent has to deal with and while it’s a curiosity to us reader, I imagine it’s really useful to a writer trying to suss out what they can and should expect.

    So I don’t think the questions about what John makes were done in a prurient manner (at least I hope not) but because people are curious about how writers make their money and their thoughts around the market and its conditions and he’s a prominent SF author. Of course, for reasons he’s stated, that also makes his example mostly irrelevant to the vast majority or writers so the lessons they could derive from his career aren’t applicable aside from ‘write consistently and write things that people might well like.’ No one can deliberately replicate the luck and timing.

  23. I don’t need to know John’s writerly income either. What matters more to me is a) he hasn’t done something evil with it a la the Koch Brothers or the Mercers and b) that he makes enough to keep the Scalzi menagerie in good health.

  24. Skill. Bragging about income while not bragging about income.

    Without being rude, Host has “fuck you” money, and has inched into the 1%, but he’s not anywhere near the levels you need to buy multiple real estate even in La Paz (average price home ~$2mil) nor could he afford to run a Michelin three star restaurant for more than a couple of years (price tag ~ $5-20 mil: that’s why a lot of them close down).

    That was kinda the joke: I’d suggest looking up what that Mexican chef has burnt through to understand just how things work. Hint: She’s very talented and has 10 restaurant franchises, but.. I’d bet you bottom dollar her margins are tight. (Or rather: she’s burning other people’s cash). If you want to argue, look up any number of “Best in the World” 3* restaurants and how many close due to not being economically viable.

    Authors don’t get to burn cash in that manner.

    What you need as a SF writer these days is some insanely wealthy ideologically driven Hedge Fund Manager who wants the next Ayn Rand.

    OH, SHIT

  25. Future Note:

    John. I hope your first post along the lines of “Thinking about Opening a Michelin Star Burrito Restaurant” and the subsequent “Someone totally by accident destroyed my writing hand in the park, might miss this deadline!!” will be seen as total accidents.

    Because. Yep. Total accident. Rings some NFL pros. Your Wife would never condone such things. Corney Punch line: Love Hurts

    (Actually this is all about minority groups feeling extremely squished and punching back not at the actual perps but those they love in real terms[1] since it’s threatening their childhood most sacred memories and they can’t see the difference between Ladder Stage 33C and Ladder Stage 4B. This is here to show that Host, adult, family etc are also part of the machine and not just Llama Farmers.

    Trust me, little ones: They really do care and matter and it’s unfortunate that they’re on rung 33 rather than 4, but… that’s how it is. (And, no really: they change minds, not economics, that’s what they do).

    On, in other words: Yeah, Authors can feel dog-piled too.

    Even the top ones can’t afford pro-PR teams managing their affairs.

    [1] I have gone on record and protected the franchise once from this and noted how the vectors work. 63 mil vrs whatever it is now, I do it once out of charity, that’s it. Warned once about how detrimental it is to warp childhood memories, you don’t get a second shot without [redacted].

  26. I think that Indoor Cat summed up perfectly how the general attitude should be about these things and any other personal matter.

    I am really grateful for your posts over the years on the subject of your income as a writer and I am also very grateful to all other authors who make the choice to share such information. It is something that I have been curious about in the past but being British, it is certainly something I would never dared ask about.

    I remember being, naively, I now know, shocked when Steph Swainston announced that she had to give up writing full time and return to work after having published five excellent and well-received novels. She remains on my ‘Buy in Hardback’ list – as someone with a very limited income, it’s a tough list to get onto.

    I admire the way that so many authors are reaching out to their fans and finding new avenues to generate incomes – Patreon being a great example. It’s not something every fan can contribute to and some may find that difficult – I know that I get those guilty twinges and left out feelings sometimes when I can’t contribute to a Patreon fund or a cool Kickstarter, again – but everyone can engage with authors via blogs and Twitter, they can reTweet to get more support for their favourite authors even if they can’t contribute themselves. I try to put the need to have more diverse voices in our community of published writers first because in the end that gets me the kind of books I want to read.

  27. Though this comment may be lost beneath the burrito-flavored performance art, I’d like to add my voice to those saying that open and clear discussion of principles and process — especially what options exist at different career levels for smoothing out the jagged income curve of your typical jobbing worker of whatever stripe — is far more interesting to me than hard $$ values. I’m not a writer, but jobbing work exists in many industries (even more so now than in the past) and I’ve found that advice on financial planning and career strategies for that scenario is thin on the ground.

    This stuff can be very non-obvious to people, and the poorer your family background, the less likely it is that you have any idea how to implement an income management strategy beyond the next paycheck (ask me how I know). The knowledge that there are things people do to manage cash flow strategically is not distributed evenly.

  28. For people who haven’t been around nearly a decade and a half, it may be worth pointing out that Scalzi is getting the next round.

    I’ll add that the multi-year conversation about what writers are earning, and the surrounding conversation about practices within publishing may well have played a role in improving conditions for people working at making a living, or part of a living, in the field.

    My own writing income comes from translation, corporate writing, and various kinds of editing. (It has also included specialist journalism in the past.) So I am only adjacent to the fiction folks — as Scalzi was in times past with his non-fiction books, newspaper columns, and tv consulting — but I do watch developments there with interest. The days of publishers sitting on a spec manuscript for a year or more seem to be fading, and that is a good thing. Short-form markets are more aware that their prestige and quality depend in part on what they pay. (I remember how much pushback I got years ago for suggesting that 6¢ to 9¢ a word was a hobby, not a profession. I was right. Scalzi has said in the past that he won’t even roll out of bed for less than 25¢ a word, and even then it’s gotta be for something fun.) And so on and so forth.

    Demystifying the economics and the conditions has made things better for all kinds of folks.

  29. Asimov in his autobiography, detailed his income, sale by sale, talk, salary, and so on, up to the point when it suddenly became rather large. As he explained, who he was and the decisions he was making were strongly influenced at the time by those rather piddling and piecemeal amounts. Sometimes the physical checks even figured in a personal anecdote.

    Later on, it was just lots of money. That is was lots of money of course influenced him, but the actual numbers no longer mattered.

    He certainly had his share of very good luck (until the end), starting with getting out of Russia.