Let’s Talk Money: Interview With Author Alexandria Szeman

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.

About Alexandria


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 Doorwhich empowers abuse survivors. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.





  1. Autumn Faraday

    Thanks for sharing this. ‘Big taboo subject,’ indeed. Even trad pub authors I know won’t talk about this. They are all unanimous in that one will not make a living writing.

    There are always exceptions.

  2. Making a living writing novels is highly unlikely. Somewhat like hitting the lottery. On the other hand, very prolific authors have made their mark and thrived. Others hit the “managing to pay the bills,” while the majority barely earn enough to cover the cost of marketing, etc.
    Of course, we authors would all love to claim we earn ‘a living’ with our work. Clearly, even someone as prolific as yourself could not claim that $1,592 per year qualifies as ‘earning a living.’
    Yet the total earnings are impressive and well deserved because writing is, as you say, hard work. Endless hours down the rabbit hole and equal hours questioning our sanity.
    In the end, we do not write for wealth or fame. We write because the muse calls us, because we are inspired, because we need to engage with the written word as much as we need to eat or breathe.
    Thanks for the detailed analysis of a topic everyone avoids. Happy Writing! And best wishes for your continued success.

    1. It’s not wrong to want to make a living doing what I love! I would encourage all writers to think of their work as an investment, provided they don’t put every hope and dream into something that can turn out to be so fragile. This always been my goal in life, however. I don’t write for money, but I put effort into improving my craft in the hopes of one day paying bills with it. I’m aware that it’s a tough game, but your chances are better the more that you learn about the industry and the craft. It’s very gratifying to see my books get better and to receive requests from agents and to earn clients of my own with this knowledge. In a way, I am already paying my own bills with writing (through editing) from sheer drive to do so. This in no way diminishes my love of writing; if I did not do it, I would waste away. But it’s not a simple hobby to me; it’s a plan. I do understand the risks, but it’s more fun that way. Besides, a 1% chance is much better than a lottery 🙂

      To clarify, this interview was of another author, and is not my own personal story. Comments are my own. Happy writing to you as well!

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