Revenue Streams, 2018

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 FireHead 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.

39 Comments on “Revenue Streams, 2018”

  1. Additional notes:

    * Not covered in this piece: investments (including retirement investment), as these tend to be long-term and I didn’t take either profits or distributions here in 2018. At this point I don’t have non-writing related income (other than, uh, music), but if I did I probably wouldn’t talk about it specifically. Also, I’m discussing my own revenue streams, not the overall Scalzi Household revenues, since my wife’s income, etc., are her business to discuss, not mine.

    * It should be understood that this revenue stream breakdown is not exactly typical for most writers/authors. It should also be understood that this particular revenue stream is for Year 29 of a professional writing life (I count my pro writing life to 1990, when I started freelancing to help pay for my last year of college) and that assuming expecting that you will see something similar to it in a shorter period of professional writing may be unrealistic.

    * I’ve avoided mentioning my specific annual income for a while, but because I know people will speculate, I will make this very general statement: The amount noted in my 2015 Tor contract? Between that announcement and today, I’ve made at least that amount (because, of course, the amount of the contract was not the total amount of income I’d have coming in, which is a thing I told people but some people perhaps intentionally had a hard time processing). No more details, lest I invoke the wrath of Krissy. I’m sure you understand.

  2. Hi John, You’ve talked about your income for awhile, but I’m also curious your thoughts on inheritance. I’m assuming your “estate” will continue to make money well after you’ve gone and though you are not Rockefeller/Bezos rich, I would imagine your estate after 20 or 30 (or hopefully 50+) more years of writing, movies, TV, etc. would be worth quite a bit.

    Do you ascribe to the Warren Buffett route of donating most of it to charity? Are you going to just do a traditional “leave it all to the wife and kids”? Set up some John Scalzi Scholarship at your alma mater?

  3. Speaking of free food, you don’t mention offerings of mice and other dead critters from your cats. If you don’t count them as income, your cats should probably count them as gifts in their tax returns…

  4. Bob Collins:


    Wait, what?

    Brian Chu:

    Without going into it, let’s just say my affairs are in order, and that both my designated charities and my daughter will be cared for perfectly well.

  5. Speaking of taxes, have yours been impacted by recent changes in the tax code? I know our tax accountant is muttering under her breath at the changes, and I for one have never been happier that we are paying someone else to take care of the business and personal tax prep.

  6. Taxes:

    We had substantial reduction in our taxes, which is nice for us and bad for the rest of the country (as tax cuts usually are, since the main beneficiaries are people who are already well off). We’ve been having an accountant do our taxes for nearly 20 years now.

  7. timeliebe – Central NY – Dreaded Spouse-Creature to bestselling fantasy author Tamora Pierce (SONG OF THE LIONESS, THE CIRCLE OPENS, BEKA COOPER: A TORTALL LEGEND series), a co-author of TORTALL: A SPY'S GUIDE, Co-author with Tamora Pierce of Marvel's WHITE TIGER: A HERO'S OBSESSION for Marvel Comics. Contributing Editor for VIDEO Magazine during the 1990s, Columnist for C/Net 1999 - 2002.
    Timothy Liebe

    So have you incorporated your cats, or turned them into a LLC yet – so anything you pay for (pet food, vet visits, etc.) you can write off as a business expense…?

  8. First off, I love that you make money at all off the music.

    Second, a question… for foreign language deals, do they do advances etc like US publishers or is it a “we’ll translate it and pay you royalties” thing? I assume the publisher fronts the translation cost which it seems would cut into an advance or the royalty rate (unless it’s not material to the overall cost? )

  9. The most surprising thing I’ve learned today is that John Scalzi makes Never-Nudes levels of money by singing. What the hell kind of world are we living in?

  10. You’re not JK Rowling rich (you might get closer if any of your books ever actually makes it to a movie screen), but you’re doing far better than most published authors. Yay you! It’s inspiring to know that it is possible to reach that level.

  11. “anyone who’s seen me do my thing knows I like to talk and that generally speaking I can be entertaining.”

    I’ll vouch for that, as well as a fair bit of ukulele playing talent. I’m partially deaf, so I wasn’t able to judge your singing voice.

  12. I will be shocked in maybe five years if you don’t have an income stream from media-related activities. Could be from any of writing screenplays, sale of rights to movies, tv, or video game concerns, royalties, etc. Any number of your books seem adaptable.

  13. Lisa R. Hirsch:

    I already do, under “film/TV options” and also “video games.” But there is always the possibility of more.

  14. Glad things are going well for you, not surprised by the continued sales on your back catalog. I would think most people who discover you will end up picking up most of your work. I started with Red Shirts (possibly as recommended by IO9?) and ended up get all of you writing. Fuzzy Nation is a fave.

  15. Thank you, John, for these kinds of posts. I couldn’t care less about how much money you make, but delight in these posts because they help me see a living example of how the nuts and bolts of the publishing industry works, and that is something I find very valuable.

    Thanks again!

  16. Do you think your standing as a professional (“professional” not in the sense of writing for pay, but in the sense of meeting your commitments–turning in manuscripts on time, holding up your side of any required contractual actions, availability for book tours, and all the other things involved) helps you significantly, or are those things normal and expected from those who have their works handled through a publisher?

  17. You are probably not the person to ask, but how does it work when a writer is paid an advance, and then the book fails to make it back? Is the writer obliged to return the money?

  18. “…audiobook fans seem to like my work in that medium.”

    As someone who has developed the habit of reading your books first and then listening to them late, I think to a certain extent your writing adapts well to audio and to a great extent you’ve had great luck with your voice talent. It’s like you and Wil Wheaton were made for each other, and Zachary Quinto did a marvelous job as well.

  19. Film/TV Options: Have you ever put much thought into “How can I write something that has a much higher chance of actually making it to production?” Writing to that market, in other words?

  20. This whole post was fascinating (and the part you left out – specific annual income – is actually not that interesting, at least to me). The most interesting thing, to me, was where back list royalties fit into the picture, in terms of overall signficance and year-to-year stability.

  21. Do you have an overview of what is all currently optioned (perhaps by whom) by any chance or is some of it unable/unwilling to be disclosed at this point?

  22. Joey L:

    I can say Old Man’s War and The Collapsing Empire are optioned. Everything else you’ll have to wait to hear about. But one of them I get to talk about more soon!

  23. Thanks for this. I find it particularly interesting because I’m not an author but I do deal with the checks of a certain titanic author and the variety of such always intrigues me.

  24. Chris: I’ve never owned a pony but my friends who own horses say they are not income streams, they are money sinks.

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