Thursday, September 20, 2007


My brother was talking about me to a neighbor. He said, "My sister is a respected science fiction writer and sells everything she sends out."

"How much does she get for a story?" the neighbor asked.

"About a thousand dollars," my brother said.

"Then she should write 50 stories a year and sell them," the neighbor said.

I usually get around $700 for a story, and the story is a novelette, about 17,500 words long. (This means I am getting 4 cents a word, which is kind of scary.) So, if I wrote and sold 50 stories a year, I would make $35,000; and I would be writing 875,000 words a year, which is the equivalent of 7 novels. I would also have a story in every single issue of Analog, Asimov's, F&SF and one or two other prozines. Interzone? Realms of Fantasy?

Back in the 1970s, Norman Spinrad said no writer should accept less than $10,000 as the advance for a first novel. That was enough to live on for a year then. I know, because I did it. To live equally well now, you would need around $40,000. The last time I heard a figure, first novels got around $5,000. I don't know what the advances for a reasonably successful midlist author are. Maybe Kelly and Tate could tell us.

I need $30,000 a year gross. I could reduce that figure by not buying coffee out and not taking vacations or buying clothes or cute little thingies such as jewelry or pens. But I am no longer willing to suffer for art, if I ever was. And I need more than $30,000, if I am going to save for retirement, which is getting pretty close.

For me to be a full time writer, I would need to write a book a year and make $30,000 off it -- and do this consistently, year after year. The fastest I ever wrote a novel was 18 months. In order to make a living at this rate of writing, I'd have to get $45,000 per novel.

I was first published in 1973. Since then, I have published 5 novels and more than 30 works of short fiction. Off the top of my head, I would say I have made $60,000 total. I am not adjusting this figure for inflation. $150 for a short story in 1973 would be about $660 now. (The stories I was selling in the 1970s were very short. I was getting 17 cents a word in 2007 dollars, which means my rate per word has declined 76% over the past 30 years.)

Leaving aside inflation, I have averaged $2,000 a year income from writing. Granted, I am a slow writer. I have averaged 27,500 published words a year, which means my average pay rate has been 7 cents a word. At that rate, I could make $7,000 or $8,000 a year, if I consistently wrote and sold 100,000 words a year.

The most I ever got for a novel was $8,500 for Ring of Swords, which was my fifth published novel. I sold it 15 years ago. $8,500 then would be $17,000 in current dollars. If I could write and sell two books a year at that rate, I could live on writing. That's about 250,000 words a year or 2-3 pages a day, which would be doable. I think, at this point in my life, I know enough about writing so I could produce at that level, though it would be a lot easier if I didn't have to work close to full time. But do I have that much to say?


tate hallaway said...

Of course I wish you'd write more, money or not... :-)

I think it's much harder to make a living writing now. My advances (thank the higher powere and my awesome agent) have continued to go up, albeit incrimentally. We were offered $15,000 per book for the last contract. Plus, if my agent continues to aggressively sell foreign rights, I could conceivably make a living. *If* I could count on the money coming in one year, which it almost never does.

However, I also hear from lots of mid-list authors who have actually had their advances decrease. And, of course, people are being more agressively dropped by publishers than I think they were in Mr. Spinrad's day.

Kelly McCullough said...

The numbers I've heard are of 10-30k variety for moderate success in the mid-list. I'm personally not there yet, though WebMage did well enough that I moved past the advance and into royalties on the first statement and that was reflected in a 20 percent increase in advance on the contracts for CodeSpell and MythOS. I'm hoping to be at the make a living mark in 2-5 years, but that would be writing and selling at least two books a year.

Kelly Swails said...

Writing two books a year could be tough. I have no doubt that you can do it, Y. That's cool that you made royalties on your first book. I understand that's not usually the case.

At this point in my career I would jump up and down and buy myself something pretty if a market bought a short story; I can't quit imagine what it would be like to actually make enough money to quit my job and write full time. Is that a point I'd like to reach five or ten years from now? Absolutely. But it's still hard to imagine having that many books on the shelf with my name on 'em.

Kelly McCullough said...

Jumping up and down and buying yourself something pretty when a short story market buys a story is wholly appropriate at any stage in your career, IMHO.

Two isn't actually too bad. That's the pace I've been writing at for the last two and a half years. I'm actually hoping to get up to three with a three month break that corresponds to my wife's summer break. That's going to be a little bit tougher, but I don't think it's entirely out of reach.