Yes, writers really do get paid. Unless they fall for the “exposure” scam that’s reaching epidemic levels in the arts. But that’s a different post.
The Rule of Three applies here, as it does in so many areas.
First, there are writers who are on a salary. Technical writers, advertising copy writers, newspaper staff reporters, and anyone else who draws a regular paycheck. Not exactly exciting, is it?
Second, are the freelancers. They get paid by the piece, typically a set amount per word or per article. Malcolm Harris has an interesting piece in Medium on the economics of freelancing. The TL;DR is that the price per word paid to writers has not increased at the same rate as inflation. That’s certainly true in the genre fiction space. In science fiction’s golden age–roughly, the late thirties and early forties–the magazines paid between one and two cents a word. Today, rates are basically between five and ten cents a word, not the twenty-five cents (give or take) inflation would call for.
I’d also include ghostwriters in this group; my understanding is that most often ghosts receive a flat fee per book, regardless of how well it does.
One doesn’t get rich writing short stories, or even non-fiction for glossy, comparatively well-paying magazines. Famous–or at least well-known in your field, perhaps, but not rich.
The amounts are less than many non-writers would guess, but the payscale is simple.
Finally, we have books. This is the group most people are thinking about when they ask what writers make, and it’s the most interesting.
Bottom line, writers of books–fiction or non-fiction–get paid by the number of copies sold. How much? Well, that depends on the writer’s negotiation skills. But let’s use The RagTime Traveler as a reasonably typical example.
If you bought TRTT in paperback*, I got 9% of the list price. Yes, even if you bought it at a discount, my percentage is based on the full price. So each copy sold brings me about a buck forty.
* And my very sincere thanks to those of you who did!
Well, right now it does. But it’s more complicated than that.
There’s an elevator clause. Once y’all have bought 3,500 copies–that’s all of you, not each of you–my rate goes up to 12%. Even better, after 6,000 copies, I’ll get 15%.
Not complicated enough? How about the ebook? I get 40% on ebooks, up to 10,000 copies. That sounds really nice. 40% of $15.95 is $6.38. But wait!
My share on ebooks isn’t based on the cost of a paperback. It’s a percentage of what the publisher receives after the seller takes their cut. Amazon’s cut, for example, varies between negligible and outrageous, depending on the list price of the book. (Other sellers work along the same lines, but the exact percentages vary.)
But let’s run with it. As I write this, the Kindle edition of TRTT is selling for $9.99. Amazon will keep 30% of that–call it three bucks. Of the remaining $6.99, I get $2.80. Not quite as good as that mythical $6.38, but a bit better than the paperback rate.
Of course, if the publisher decides to run a sale to encourage people to pick up a copy, my cut drops in proportion. At a sale price of $4.99, I’ll only get $1.40. If they really get aggressive and run a limited-time promotion at $0.99, Amazon takes a much larger cut. As a result, my share would be fourteen cents.
Great fun, huh?
But wait! It gets even more complicated.
See, there’s this thing called an “advance*”. This is (generally) the publisher’s best guess for how much the author’s share of the money will be over the course of the book’s lifetime.
* Historically, this was money paid to the author before the book was finished. The theory was that he could live on the advance while writing the book. Needless to say, this was one case where theory and reality quickly diverged.
There are a number of reasons why it makes sense for the publisher to pay the author up front, though “tradition” certainly ranks high on the list. And, it should be noted, not all publishers pay advances at all, or pay a fixed amount, regardless of how well they expect the book to do.
But in any case, if the writer gets an advance, she doesn’t get any more money until the publisher recoups the advance from the writer’s share of the book’s proceeds.
I got a thousand dollar advance for TRTT. That means I don’t get anything more until it sells about 700 copies. (I’m ignoring the ebook here, as the majority of the sales have been paperbacks.)
Selling enough copies to “earn out” is something of a big deal. Not because you’re getting rich, obviously, but because publishers will look at how well a writer’s previous books did when deciding whether to buy the next one. Earning out is a convenient flagpole: it shows the book did about as well as the publisher expected, and that’s a positive indication for future works.
I’ve simplified this discussion. When you throw in “actual returns,” “reasonable reserve against future returns,” “remainder sales,” “reuse,” and all of the other contract clauses about money, it gets really messy.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little peek into the darkness. I’ll leave you with a couple of simple questions:
Have you bought The RagTime Traveler?
Wouldn’t you like to have it in electronic form?