Recently I posted a small, self-deprecating remark on Twitter, only to have a lovely stranger pipe up and declare me beautiful. Turned out she was published author of poetry and literary fiction Dr. Alexandria Constantinova Szeman, and that she had a plethora of knowledge about that big taboo subject: writers and how they make money. She graciously consented to give a small interview to share her experiences. Please enjoy!
Please summarize for me each case in which you attempted to make income as an author.
I began writing early, and tried to “sell” my stories for 25¢ each when I was 12. When I was in high school, I began sending my work out for publication, without doing much research into the markets first, so I got nothing but rejections. By the time I was in college, I’d learned to research the poetry market, and my work began to get published. Most of my work was published for copies of the journal in which it appeared. I worked several jobs all through high school, college, and grad school to earn enough money to support myself and my writing, and I continued to take additional work when I was a Professor to help pay for my writing career. This is the list of my writing income.
• Articles for encyclopedias: $50-100 each article, about .025¢/word, 3 years work = $900 earnings
• Prize money $800 for poems that took 5 years to write and get published in literary and university journals
• Creative writing fellowship: $7K for one year to write full-time, based on my published-to-date body of work
• Advance from HarperCollins for my first novel, The Kommandant’s Mistress: $25K ($15K for US publishing rights, $10K for foreign publishing rights). Divided into two payments, 1 year apart. 15% to agent, 30% to IRS, 18.78% to Social Security Self-Employment tax, 10% to state and local taxes.
• Advance from Arcade Publishing for second novel, Only with the Heart: $10K, divided into two payments, 1 year apart. 20% to agent, 30% to IRS, 18.78% to Social Security Self-Employment tax, 10% to state and local taxes.
• Advance from Story Press for third book, Mastering Point of View: $6K, divided into 3 payments (1st on negotiation of contract, 2nd when manuscript delivered 1 year later, 3rd on publication of book 1 year after manuscript delivery). Agent commissions and tax payments the same percentage as for second book.
• Film option from Patrick Stewart’s Flying Freehold Production Co, for 10-year option, for The Kommandant’s Mistress: $4K, paid a little more than a year after book was optioned. Agents’ commission and taxes the same as for second and third books.
• Since self-publishing 5 years ago, Amazon has paid me $10K. I have to pay taxes, including Social Security self-employment tax, but no agents’ commissions.
All my work was traditionally published until 2012 when I Indie published my Out-of-Print (OP) books with Amazon. All the traditional publishers claimed that, though I earned out the Advances for each of my titles, i.e., I “repaid” the publisher’s Advance with my royalties, I never earned any additional monies. I found that difficult to believe since the publishers still wanted my work, which indicated that they were earning money that I was not aware of, but authors never get to see their sales figures. Ever. And their agents can’t look at them either. We have to accept whatever Royalty Statement the traditional publisher sends us.
Total earnings for 40 years of publishing: $63,700 = $1,592.50/year, before paying agents’ commissions and taxes.
The costs of running my writing business are, on average, $18K per year.
Sheesh, no wonder I had to work full-time plus several part-time jobs until retirement in order to support my writing career. Now I live on my pension and write full-time. Literary fiction is one of the hardest genres to get published, and it’s even more difficult to get poetry published, especially as books, since agents traditionally do not represent poetry.
In your opinion, which type of publishing would you recommend to others? Feel free to give any caveats.
Self- or Indie publishing is best if the writer knows the traditional publishing industry well enough to format and design his own book (or has the funds to pay someone else to do that work), design covers, write editorial copy, purchase the artwork for covers, etc. The author has to do his own marketing whether traditionally or Indie published.
Traditional publishers will still come to any author whose book becomes a bestseller, as Amanda Hocking’s career demonstrates, so a writer has nothing to lose by publishing his own work.
Caveat: Being a writer is not the same as being an author. Being a writer is for yourself, and all you need to do is write, preferably every day. An author is a published writer. Being an author is not romantic or glamorous: it’s tremendously hard work with virtually no financial or critical reward. Don’t even try to become an author unless you cannot live without being a published writer.
Alexandria Szeman is the author of New York Times Book Review Notable Book and University of Rochester’s Kafka Award winner for “the outstanding book of prose fiction” The Kommandant’s Mistress, as well as the true crime memoir M is for Munchers: The Serial Killers Next Door, which empowers abuse survivors. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.