Eight years ago I wrote up this piece about my revenue streams, talking about where it is my money comes from. In 2010 I had just made the switch to having the majority of my income be from writing fiction, after two decades of having other sorts of writing be my primary source of income. In that time some things have changed and some things have stayed the same, and I thought it might be interesting to talk about how my money comes in today, so you can have an idea of the contrasts.
This time I did not make a pie chart (too much effort) or specify percentages; rather I will do a ranking of the income streams, and I’m going to divide up “books” into several specific categories because I think the mechanics of the revenue streams will be of interest.
So, let’s dive in, shall we?
1. Domestic royalties: This includes royalties from my US publishers (mostly Tor, Audible and Subterranean Press, although there are others), and is mostly from novels, although I do get royalties from non-fiction, novellas and short stories as well. The main driver of my royalties is my backlist, and specifically the works that were published before my 2015 long-term contract with Tor, although I am earning royalties from some titles covered in that contract. I’ll note that in 2010 I was making relatively little money from audiobook royalties, but in 2018 audiobooks were a significant part of royalty income stream; this is due to the audiobook segment of the market expanding hugely in that time, and also, me being lucky that audiobook fans seem to like my work in that medium.
I’m very fortunate that my novel backlist sells well — the Old Man’s War series essentially sells the same amount year in and year out and is as close to constant as one can get in the business, and Redshirts and Lock In are also reliable sellers. The other standalones outside the 2015 contract go up and down but chug along. However, and perhaps surprisingly to people, the shorter pieces available in eBook form also sell solidly; people seem happy to spend a couple of bucks on a short story. The non-fiction books — mostly the essay collections from SubPress — also tend to be solid backlisters.
2. Domestic advances: My advances for my Tor books are sliced into four bits: An amount at contract signing, an amount at acceptance of the manuscript, an amount at hardcover publication and an amount at paperback. This means that in any year I’m getting a chunk of advance money on books at different stages of publication. For example, in 2018 I got five advance payments: Two for delivery of a manuscript (Head On and The Consuming Fire — Head On was completed in December 2017 but the payment came in 2018 — two for publication (same two books), and one for paperback publication (The Collapsing Empire). In 2019, I’ll get three: Delivery for The Last Emperox (assuming I turn it in on time, which I will) and paperback for Head On and Consuming Fire. The gist of this is that thanks to the 2015 Tor contract, my advance income is fairly predictable, so long as I finish my books on schedule, which I tend to do.
There have been years where my advances income has been greater than my royalties income; they’ll switch from year to year depending on circumstances. However, generally speaking, domestic advances and domestic royalties are usually my top two income streams at this point, and that seems unlikely to change (I’ll note a possible exception later).
3. Foreign language sales: This includes both foreign language advances and royalties. I am fortunate that my literary agency (Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency) does a very excellent job in placing my work outside of the English language as well as inside of it. My books are currently in a couple dozen languages. The advances in other languages don’t tend to be as much as they are in the English, although they can be sizable, but if you’re selling rights in multiple languages, the amounts add up. Another wrinkle: foreign language rights tend to be term limited, so you can sell them again after a few years, either to the same publishing house or to a new one. Foreign language sales tend to track one’s success in the English language market — foreign publishers prefer you to be a hit in your own language — but if you can manage that, it’s a nice income segment.
4. Film/TV options: I have five options out at the moment, and those options come with (typically) low to middlin’ amounts attached up front, with (usually) more coming if the project makes it into production. Those options can also (usually) be renewed at a certain point. This year I had some things optioned and some options renewed. If anything gets into actual production, this particular line item could jump up in the rankings, possibly all the way to number one. But as with everything regarding the film and television industry, the time to count one’s chickens is when they’re deep fried and in a bucket on your dinner table. Also, of course, these could dry up in an instant. Hollywood is a fickle beast.
5. Speaker’s Fees: This is a relatively new revenue stream for me, and one I actually like, since anyone who’s seen me do my thing knows I like to talk and that generally speaking I can be entertaining. This isn’t ex-president money for me, but it’s not chicken feed, either, and it’s one I think I can expand, and hope to, in the coming years.
6. Consulting Fees: Occasionally people or corporations invite me out someplace to pick my brain on one topic or another. Apparently I’m an expert on some things! This is different from doing a speaking event largely because it’s I’m being a resource rather than entertaining people. This is, I will note, a markedly different type of corporate consulting than I used to do, which was mostly doing writing/editing for companies.
7. Freelance writing: I’m a “Critic at Large” for the Los Angeles Times, which means I write a few pieces a year for them, and they pay me for them, and I really enjoy both sides of that deal.
8. Video Games: Got a payment I wasn’t really expecting from Industrial Toys, with whom I was involved on Midnight Star and Midnight Star: Renegade. It’s nice to get money you’re not expecting.
9. Short Story Anthology Payments: I had a short story appear in the Robots vs. Fairies anthology, for which I was paid (and another story in the Resist anthology, the payment for which was donated to the ACLU). I wrote a couple other short stories but published them on my site rather than bother to submit them anywhere, because I’m lazy, you see.
10. Download/Streaming payments on my music: Wait, what, now? Weirdly, it’s true! I have an album of music you can download or stream, and apparently people actually have or do, since the payments show up in my PayPal account. I made dozens of dollars with my music last year! Dozens!!!
For 2019 things my revenue streams are likely to be similar to 2018, with the possibility of new streams coming online depending on how some business deals work out. I’ll let you know if or when those happen.
In the meantime: This is how it gets done, or at least, got done in 2018.