Back in the early and mid-parts of the 20th century it was actually possible for writers (usually men) to make a living and support their families by writing short stories and novels. Yes, writing short stories and novels—I’m not talking about newspaper reporters or journalists. Back then there was a demand for short fiction and there were many commercial magazines that published short stories and paid well for them. Obviously times have changed. There are very few commercial magazines that publish short stories now. Most of the markets for short fiction today are poorly funded literary journals that pay only in copies of the journal. And, furthermore, you usually have to pay a reading fee to submit a story. A few journals might pay around $800 - $1,000 for a story, but the days of making a living as a short story writer are long gone.
Very few people today make a living writing novels. This is anecdotal, of course, but most all of the novelists I know (and I’m talking about those who have been published by major presses) work at other jobs to make money. Or if they don’t work at other jobs, they have a spouse who supports them and the family or they have come into an inheritance or did well in the stock market. They do make some money from their novels, but it’s far from enough to support themselves, let alone a family. Novelists do exist who make a fine living from their books, but they are the exception rather than the rule. We all know who they are so there’s no need to mention names. These are the authors that our friends and family know about and assume that our success will be identical to theirs.
Here are 5 cold hard facts about making money from novels:
~ Many novelists get a very small advance when a publisher buys their book, if they get one at all.
~ Often, advances are not paid in full, but over time, so even if the amount is substantial, there is no big fat check.
~ Many, if not most, novels sell less than 1,000 copies.
~ Authors do not start collecting royalties on their novels until they earn out their advance.
~ If a novel sells less than 1,000 copies, it is unlikely that the author will earn out her advance.
What about self-publishing, you ask? Yes, with the new e-book models novelists can earn more money and have the capacity to earn attractive royalty rates. Again, as with traditional publishing, there are a few authors who have made a killing with self- publishing. And those who are already known and/or have regained the rights to their backlists of books can do well. But the majority of those who self-publish do not make enough money to support themselves without taking on other jobs or being married to salary-earning, supportive spouses.
Money had never entered into the equation for me in becoming a fiction writer. I remember giving one of my first readings for my debut novel. I was so excited to be published, something I had worked toward for many years. To even be in the position of having a reading at a bookstore and to know that there were some people who showed up who weren’t just my friends or relatives felt like such a wonderful accomplishment. I was over the moon. During the Q&A a gentleman asked me if I had put together a spreadsheet and calculated the time it took me to write my novel paired with the amount of the advance I’d received from the publisher in order to know how much I’d earned per hour. It took me a moment to even understand the question. I tried to explain how it wasn’t about the money, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He said he could probably make more money writing software so he wasn’t going to waste his time trying to write his great American novel.
And he shouldn’t. You should be writing your novel because you can’t not write it—not because you’re dreaming of fame and fortune. This, I think, is the most important cold hard fact about writing fiction and making money.
Wendy Nelson Tokunaga is the author of the novels, "Midori by Moonlight" and "Love in Translation" (both published by St. Martin's Press), and the e-book novels, "Falling Uphill" and "His Wife and Daughters," and e-book short story, “The Girl in the Tapestry.” She's also the author of the nonfiction e-book, "Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband." Her short story "Love Right on the Yesterday" appears in the anthology "Tomo," published by Stone Bridge Press, and her essay "Burning Up" is included in "Madonna and Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop." Wendy holds an MFA in Creative Writing from University of San Francisco and teaches for Stanford University's Online Writer's Studio Novel Certificate Program. She also does private manuscript consulting for novels and memoirs. Follow her on Twitter at @Wendy_Tokunaga, friend her on Facebook and visit her website at: www.WendyTokunaga.com