Not much is taboo to me, speaking as a filthy sex-book writer. My characters get up to some major copulating for all the world to read about, and discussing the details with perfect strangers doesn’t make me blush. Erotic romance writers are a shameless group, generally, and we love to overshare. Except about the last real taboo: how much money we make.
When I was a new writer, there was only one place I knew of that offered a sense of what money there was to be made in this gig, and that’s the famous Brenda Hiatt blog post, Show Me the Money! Even now, I don’t really know what my closest writer friends make—and we blab in excruciating detail about nearly everything when sequestered late at night in conference hotel rooms, with our Costco merlot swirling in plastic tumblers and our achy dance-floor feet dangling off the edges of our overpopulated beds. I know random bits and pieces about their earnings, from when I’ve mustered the gall or the wine buzz to ask. I might know that a certain friend scored a certain advance from a certain publisher, but on the whole, no one really asks, and no one really offers…not unless they’re making crazy money. The people making crazy money can sometimes go a little Born Again on you. If you only had the people who talk about how much they make to go by, you’d be forced to assume that every romance writer makes six figures.
Spoiler alert: I don’t.
I’ve been thinking about all of this because toward the end of 2014, I met what I’d always imagined was a ridiculous, pie-in-the-sky professional goal—a dream more than a goal, really. I set this goal when I sold my first book, just over five years ago. I was infatuated with writing, and I told myself that I would feel satisfied and proud and legitimized forever if I could manage just this: to one day make as much money in one calendar year of writing as I’d made as my salary when I stopped being a full-time graphic designer. And this past year, I did it. With a couple thousand dollars to spare.
I say a dream more than a goal because I tend to classify dreams as things you pray for, and goals as things you accomplish through effort and discipline. Goals can be largely controlled. Goals are things like, “I will write 250,000 new words this year,” or, “I will self-publish that manuscript.” Dreams, by contrast, are things you hope will happen, likely through a combination of hard work and good fortune—and you can’t control the latter. I now consider how much I make to be somewhat beyond my control. The market’s just about impossible to predict, as is the performance of any given book. Hitting a list also falls into the dream category, and it’s one I don’t trouble myself with. (The closest I’ve knowingly come has been to break into the middle of the Amazon Top 100 Paid in Romance, with a full-priced book, which I’m led to believe is pretty hard to do. So I think if I were feeling adequately insecure, I could tape a vague but not entirely fraudulent “Bestselling Author” to my name. Time will tell if it ever comes to that.) The lists mystify me. If I ever hit one of the big two, I’ll proudly stick it in my bio, but for now it feels beyond my ability to influence, like a lightning strike—I can keep on waving a golf club around when the storm clouds roll in, but I can’t will the heavens to pick me.
Let’s Get Gauche!
Now, let’s get the figures out of the way, because in all honesty they’re probably not going to blow your mind and so I don’t want a big build-up. At the time my old office in Boston closed in 2009 and I lost my design job, my salary was $44,000 a year. I wasn’t raking it in by some standards, but hey, I went to a state art college. The kid done all right. And now my “Book Earnings 2014” spreadsheet tells me that, from January through December of last year, I earned from royalties and advances $46,517. And eighty-six cents.
I don’t have any expectations about what anyone reading this post will make of that sum. I think a few years ago, plenty of people would have been impressed because writers, aside of those at the very, very top, were largely expected to be starving artists. But since I began writing, a lot’s happened in the industry. First ebooks and then self-publishing exploded, as well as my genre specifically, and these days you can’t swing a turgid member around without whacking an article about a savvy, entrepreneurial self-pubber or fan-fic phenom who’s making millions in erotica, overnight. Hats off to them, but I suppose I’m here to let everyone know there’s a middle ground between penniless obscurity and obscene insta-wealth. It’s called being a working writer. It is a thing. I am one.
I’m comfortable writing about this because in all honesty, I don’t care what anyone thinks of what I make. Money to me is strictly about security and freedom, not prestige or worthiness or even success. I want enough money, but not much more than that. Having much more money doesn’t seem to bring people much more peace of mind. Some might think the amount I now make is great, while some others will probably try to draw me aside in the lobby at RT this spring and murmur conspiratorially, “You know, you could be making so much more by self-pubbing. Let me share with you my secrets.” My intention here isn’t to brag, as in a post-E.L. James world, I’m certainly not blowing the tits off this industry.
“Woman Writes for Several Years, Eventually Makes a Living Wage” is not a headline that’s going to inspire thousands to quit their day jobs.
But at the end of the day, I’m super fucking proud of $46,517.86. I’ll have been published for five years next month, and I worked at my old office job for just shy of five years. I now make twenty-five hundred dollars more a year as a writer, compounded by the fact that I’m 3000% more fulfilled and excited by my current gig. Whether anyone thinks that number is amazing or pathetic is neither here nor there. I only hope some new writer reading this might find it useful to hear that it’s possible to make a living at this, with some talent and ambition, and a lot of hard work and patience, and some luck, and rational expectations. But mostly hard work and patience.
Anyhow, you have now read the bulk of what I wanted to say about my earnings. From here on out, I’ll share more detailed figures, but the moral of the story has been revealed. What follows are just some numbers, for those who might find them interesting.
Let’s Get Even Gaucher!
I have been writing seriously for 6.5 years.
In that time, I have sold 39 original books and novellas to 5 publishers. (I’m not counting anthologies featuring previously released stories, foreign editions, or re-releases.) Of those 39, 6 titles are not yet released.
My first title was published just under 5 years ago, with Ellora’s Cave. (Roughly four people have read it. It’s a strange, borderline dreary novella about a WASP-y divorcée who occasionally assembles a harem of young men in her Beacon Hill brownstone, and watches them jack off. I wish I could say my books have gotten less weird with time. Just kidding. I don’t wish that at all.)
My first royalty check was for $141.00. (Always one to keep my expectations low, I had been hoping for $40, enough to pay for some celebratory drinks, so I was stoked to surpass that by a hundred and one bucks. I’m pretty sure we got Indian food that night.)
In 2010, my first year of being published, I made $11,000 from my writing, with 7 titles released and 1 more contracted. (A large chunk of that came from my first advance, with Harlequin Blaze.) That’s a lot of titles in one year. I wrote short, and quickly. I was intoxicated by this new job that I ached so badly to keep. I was on unemployment, so money wasn’t too much of a stressor between me and my husband. I was very excited to have made five figures in my debut year, considering my initial hopes of getting $40 out of that first royalty period. It was enough of a sign for me to think, “This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m going to fight to make this my job.”
In 2011, I made $15,000 from my writing, with 14 books out and 1 more contracted.
I used up my unemployment insurance that year (and was not-especially-secretly-pleased not to have found a new design job) and tensions began to simmer between me and my husband. I was suddenly making $30,000 less a year, after all, and the pressure was on him to provide the bulk of our income and all of our health insurance. Greater Boston isn’t a cheap place to live. It was the only time in our marriage when we’ve yet been driven to “serious talks.”
In the spring of 2012, I took a temp design job at an ad agency for a few months to bolster the coffers and prove to my husband that I wasn’t planning to leave us destitute while I traipsed about in pursuit of my dream. (Much as I would have liked to, had he offered.) I was miserable at that job, but in the midst of the misery I sold a three-book proposal to Harlequin and felt I’d finally kicked my way through a soggy, direction-less slump. Also, thanks to Fifty Shades, in 2012 publishers went a-courtin’ after somewhat-known erotic romance authors—in my case it was Penguin who called—and I wound up selling three books to them in early 2013 for the then-largest advance of my career. I also scored my agent with that offer on the table.
So in 2012, I made just under $24,000 from my writing, with 21 books out and 3 more contracted, and the Penguin deal percolating. That year started out very bleak and ended on a high note; to make $2,000 a month felt like real money. My husband relaxed some.
In 2013, I made $33,000 from my writing, with 28 titles out and 5 more contracted. 2 of those 5 contracted titles were my first non-category mass market paperback sales, which garnered me my largest advance to date, in the low five-figures per book. There have been no “serious talks” about money in our house since then.
In 2014, as I said, I made $46,517.86 from my writing, with 33 titles out and 6 more contracted. I’d round that number off, but after carrying that dream around with me for five years, I’m too proud to exclude a single cent.
As of today, I have made a little under $130,000 from my writing, in total. That gives me an average “salary” (over the 5.75 years I’ve been writing full-time) of $22,600.
My highest-earning book to date is my fourth release. As I write this, it has made me $17,800—no advance, no agent cuts. It’s been out for four and a half years, and continues to consistently bring in about $400 a month. Bear in mind, it had a three-year head start on my second-highest-earning title, which has made me $12,000, after agency fees.
My lowest-earning title has made $420, to date. My lowest-earning title that’s been out for a considerable length of time is my first novella, which has made $870 since it came out nearly five years ago. In an average month, that very first book pays for a bottle of wine. (All of my lowest earners are short, so bear in mind that they bring in less money per book sold; in terms of units sold, I’m sure they’ve all outperformed my longest, weirdest, and likely least popular book, which out-earns them only because length dictates price.)
Taking together all of my titles that have been out for 12 months or longer, the average earnings to date per book is roughly $3,500. The median is $2,600.
The healthiest chunks of my income arrive as advance payment checks, not individual books’ royalties. I would not be surprised if my yearly income takes a dip in 2015, if only because I’m contracted and on deadline through the spring of 2016, and don’t imagine I’ll be seeing any juicy signing checks for selling new proposals this year.
Of my 8 books that came with advances and have been out for 12 months or more, only one has yet to earn out its advance—and even that straggler’s getting very close. Modest advances aren’t a bad thing, provided you don’t like a lot of pressure and you’re not too vain.
I won’t bother pulling out any trends I’ve noticed over the years—i.e., ménages sell better than m/f, series sales trump stand-alones, alpha heroes trounce betas in book earnings or vice versa. Write what fascinates you. Readers can taste your excitement with their eyeballs. It’s science. And it’s a facet of craft that no one talks about, but we probably should. Maybe another day, in another post.
So I will leave it here, with what little wisdom I’ve gleaned in six and a half years of writing, and five years of published-authordom, and some numbers pertaining to exactly one writer’s individual career thus far. Results will vary. Take from those figures what you will—hopefully encouragement and not despair, and maybe a little bald candidness amid all the industry murk. And best of luck to everyone with their goals—and dreams—for 2015.