Writing For A Living

We’re taking a break from our first-page critiques today to welcome my friend and fellow thriller author Mark Terry as our guest blogger. Mark and I shared the same publisher for a number of years and on many occasions we’ve discussed the ins and outs of this writing life. As a matter of fact, Mark maintains his own blog by the same name; This Writing Life. It’s worth your while to drop by and read his latest thoughts on life and literature.

fallenThis month Mark celebrates the publication of his latest thriller in his Derek Stillwater series, THE FALLEN. James Rollins said it was “blisteringly paced and unrelenting”. And Paul Levine called Stillwater “tougher than Jason Bourne and smarter than Jack Ryan”. If you like action and suspense all wrapped up in a tightly written bundle, grab a copy of THE FALLEN today.


Writing For A Living by Mark Terry.

For probably a decade now I have been on a quest. That quest is to get the answers to a two-part question. This question is one I have, off and on, directed at published novelists or, just as likely, guessed at. Here they are:

  1. Do you make a living writing novels?
  2. How much money do you make annually writing novels?

mark-terryThis is a question mostly dodged by novelists, I’ve found. I believe the rationale goes like this: readers want to believe in the mystique of the rich novelist, of the novelist who makes a lot of money writing their books; if a writer is not making a living from his novels, then he/she must not be a very good novelist, the books must not be worth reading, and hence, I’m going to lie and say yes.

Something like that.

From time to time someone really lets it all loose. Lynn Viehl, who writes under a number of pseudonyms and in several different genres, actually published one of her royalty statements for all to see, and discussed the print run and her advance ($50,000).

There are a number of things that shocked me, starting with her $50,000 advance. She’s a New York Times bestseller, so I expected a much larger advance, despite the fact she’s a paperback original author. Moreover, although I would welcome a $50,000 advance (with open arms, c’mon, I dare you, lay it on me!), after my agent took 15% and the federal government took 24% and the state took 4% (your mileage may vary), I wouldn’t exactly be rolling in money. I’d be looking to bring in some more income somehow.

Lynn Viehl brings in more. She publishes multiple books a year, she undoubtedly has foreign sales, and she has a nice backlist that continues to bring in income. So she’s doing fine.

Which brings me to another thing. Periodically someone invites me out to lunch so they can pick my brain about writing for a living. In fact, I’m going out to lunch next week on just such an occasion, and it’s happened 3 or 4 other times as well. A lot of times the individual wants to know how to either make a living writing or supplement their income writing. I invariably ask, “Well, how much money do you want to make?”

That’s an important question, because someone making $30,000 a year is going to have different goals and needs than someone already making $100,000 a year.

Okay, let’s back up a minute. For the last 5-1/2 years I’ve made my living as a full-time freelance writer, editor, and novelist. I make a good living, which is to say, usually somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 a year. (Last year sucked, by the way; this year’s looking good). My wife has a good job and has excellent healthcare benefits, which is definitely helpful. The vast majority (a phrase I don’t like much) of my income comes from things other than novels.

Now, Ms. Viehl aside, I have over the years gotten to know a lot of novelists and even to get some idea of how much money they make a year (sort of). In 2007 SF novelist and freelance writer John Scalzi wrote an enormously honest blog entry about income. It’s illuminating. I have another writing friend, Erica Orloff who writes in several different genres in several different names and although she has not gone so far as to post a royalty statement that I know of, has been quite honest on her blog about bringing in somewhere over $100,000 a year annually. Joe Konrath recently posted on his blog about how much money his books have made and how much his e-books are bringing in and I’ve been sort of surprised by some of the numbers there, too.

So after talking to a lot of authors over the years and questioning my own assumptions about writing income, I’ve come to a couple conclusions. Your conclusions may be different.

  1. Just because a writer gets published doesn’t mean they make a living as a writer. It may just be one of the ways to make a bit of extra money when you retire.
  2. Many writers who write full-time as novelists have:
    • A well-paid, supportive spouse
    • Retired from a job and are on pensions and social security
    • Made a lot of money somewhere along the line and are now living on it
    • Write more than one novel a year
    • Supplement their novel-writing with other types of writing
    • Are lying.
    • Are Top 10 bestselling authors
  3. Just because their books says “bestselling author” does not mean they’re making tons of money. Point in fact, my for-Kindle novel, DANCING IN THE DARK, recently jumped onto two or three of the Amazon Kindle bestseller lists, allowing me for the rest of my life to call myself Mark Terry, Bestselling Novelist. Yay me! And with the money I’ve made so far off that novel, I can take you out to dinner—one of you and one of you only. Maybe in a couple more months you can bring a friend and we can afford appetizers.
  4. There’s money to be made, but it’s not very reliable.

My friend Erica and I had an interesting discussion a couple weeks on this very topic. Erica noted that she’s been steadily publishing novels for about 20 years now and that with her various pseudonyms and multiple genres, she could make a good living just writing fiction. But the nonfiction she writes—ghost writing, commercial copywriting, etc.—provides a level of stability and reliability that the fiction writing doesn’t.

Amen, sister. I don’t know if my novels will ever make so much money that I’m willing to stop writing nonfiction (and I honestly don’t know what that figure would have to be). One, I like writing nonfiction. And two, in my experience it’s been a hell of a lot more stable (not to mention lucrative) than my fiction. Not as much fun, certainly, but more dependable.

Anyway, for anyone interested, on my blog (on the right side) is a 12-part series I wrote titled Freelance Writing For A Living.


Mark Terry is a freelance writer, editor, and novelist. The author of The Devil’s Pitchfork, The Serpent’s Kiss, Dirty Deeds, and a collection of mystery novellas entitled Catfish Guru, Mark lives in Michigan.


37 thoughts on “Writing For A Living

  1. Thank you for this candid and very eye opening post.

    Yes, I do know several writers who need to supplement their income with jobs in the non-fiction world. Or I should say that their fiction writing is the supplemental income!

    Rather grim your experience at the book signing. I know that at the indie bookshop in my town (Washington, DC), authors are treated to a bigger and more involved audience. No takers for a lovely $25 gift certificate? Weirdness.

    Will go and read your 12-part series.

  2. Marisa,
    I think it was a fairly typical experience, all told. I sold some books, which is a good thing. Most writers have at least one book signing experience where no books are sold. And usually most have one that’s really terrific, with a lot in between. Some of it depends on the store, some on the weather (and phases of the moon) and some just on whether or not you or your book are hot. Even Stephen King wrote about some horrid book signings early in his career, as have John Grisham and Dan Brown. It’s just part of the gig and it’s totally unpredictable. Some bookstores do a better job of it than others, though.

  3. Hey Mark:
    I do like the reliability. Small correction . . . I’ve been publishing novels for about 9 years now, and have been a f/t writer/freelancer for 15. Four years into the novel-writing, I phased out side work. The novels were bringing in enough money. But it was precisely the instability that made me freelance again (“we love the book, we’re “working” on the contract,” that comes 8 weeks later, then you sign and counter-sign and wait another two months for the advance . . . um . . . I have four kids to feed . . .)

  4. Sorry Erica. I stand corrected. (Hell, I often stand corrected). I’m waiting for someone to tell me I’m totally full of crap any time today.

  5. Thanks for this post, Mark. I’ve spent the last five years ‘perfecting the craft’ in fiction. This year, I’m branching out to earn money from non-fiction writing as a sideline. Your post helps put things in perspective. Fortunately, I do not have to rely on my writing for an income.

  6. Mark. Good luck. I started out intent on making a living writing fiction. It was when I started writing nonfiction that I started making money and eventually was able to write full-time. I admit it works great for me, but being a full-time writer (of any kind) isn’t necessarily for everybody. There’s a hell of a lot of uncertainty in it.

  7. As an aspiring writer working towards life as a full-time novelist, I appreciate the honesty here. It’s not necessarily encouraging, but it’s good to know nonetheless.

  8. Kristan,
    I would point out that there are probably more novelists making a living writing novels than you’d think. I can name some like Barry Eisler who seems to do quite well with one novel a year. Kristin Katherine Rusch writes both mysteries and SF and other things, as does her husband Dean Wesley Smith, and both swear by fiction over nonfiction. But, like in my categories, they write numerous short stories and several novels a year. They also teach seminars.

  9. Crap, you’re telling me I’m not going to make millions off writing? Thanks for nothing…I’m outta here. (he he kidding!) 😉

    Thanks for keeping it real, Mark. It’s great to come across candid feedback from established writers like yourself, and despite that some readers may call this post a “dream shatterer,” I find your brutal honesty refreshing and a reminder of why I write.

  10. Welcome Mark! I’m lucky i have the financially supportive spouse and the ‘cover story’ that I’m a mum to two small children so i don’t often get asked if I actually make a ‘proper’ living. There’s no way I could financially support myself on what I’ve earned thus far but I’m just going to keep plugging away hoping that one day I can.

  11. Well, let me just say that I am already making very lucrative living writing fiction. As long as I stick to a strict diet of otter-pops, eaten from the front flap of my refrigerator box.

  12. Welcome, Mark! I think it’s always a rude shock for writers when they find it difficult to make a decent living from writing fiction. One certainly can’t be in it for the money, at least not right away. The conventional wisdom I heard is that it takes 10 books that do modestly well to start making a living. However, I know a well-known genre writer who has published more than 20 books, and she’s still working part-time in another professional field.

  13. i lived in n. michigan most of my life…leelanau county to be exact. traverse city, leland, glen arbor etc etc. where do you write in michigan? do you ever use it as your base for locations? kathy d.

  14. Hi, Mark. Welcome to our little corner of the Blogosphere. Thanks for the very honest post.

    While I admire your willingness to share your income figures, I cannot imagine the rudeness of someone who would ask about them. It’s only happened to me twice (coming from adults–kids ask all the time, but being rude is pretty much in their job description), and each time, I’ve reversed it and asked them how much THEY make. That sort of takes the issue off the table.

    Another more roundabout way to ask the question is, “How many copies did you sell?” I understand that these questions come from an honest place, but jeeze. My stock response for that, so as not to be rude to a fan, is, “More than ten, less than a billion.”

    I do agree, though, that other writers in particular make value judgments about their peers’ success based on whether or not they write full time. The presumption, of course, is that it is every writer’s dream to cast away the day job and spend all his time with his family and imaginary friends. That’s true for many, I’m sure; but not for all.

    Nice post.

    John Gilstrap

  15. Thanks for being our guest today, Mark. Your post and the references you provided can be quite a stark reminder that money may not be the first motivation to start writing fiction.

  16. Hi Mark,
    Thanks for talking about this subject. It was about 20 years ago that I decided I wanted to write. Next year my first novel in a three book deal is coming out. 🙂 I’m thrilled, but not rich. And even after all this time of studying the craft I’ve still so much to learn.

    If you were sitting at a table at a writer’s conference, with a bunch of newly contracted authors what advice would you give that has nothing to do with money?

    Thanks for letting us pick your brain, and we don’t even have to pay for lunch. 🙂

  17. Foreign sales can also help writers earn a living even if they’re not bestselling authors. I think we often forget that people in other countries like good stories, too. And one thing that sells well overseas is a crime or thriller novel from the US.

  18. I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mark, I’m rollin’ in it.

    I’m fortunate to have many close friends here in SF who are also writers: around forty, give or take. Of those, precisely two are living well solely off their fiction income. Everyone else falls into the other categories you described. It’s a frustrating business in that regard, and I suspect the current changes in the publishing landscape are only going to make it more difficult to eke out a living writing professionally.

  19. Good point, Boyd. Precisely why you should ALWAYS try to hang on to those foreign rights (including World English. Aim for North American rights only with your US publisher, otherwise you lose Great Britain).

  20. Wow, get tangled up in outside activities and see what happens. Okay, here we go.

    Who knows, you could make millions off writing. I don’t intend to be a “dream shatterer” at all. But neither do I typically go all rainbows and unicorns about writing.

    I figure there are a lot of actors who make a living who aren’t Brad Pitt. There are a lot of musicians who make a living who aren’t Bruce Springsteen. And I also think there are a fair number of novelists and/or writers in general that make a living that aren’t JK Rowling. And maybe actors and musicians all expect to be rock gods and movie stars, but most novelists start out thinking they’re going to be Stephen King or John Grisham and most get reality pretty hard.

  21. Kathryn,
    I think it’s the arts in general. The problem with the “conventional wisdom” of 10 books is so many publishers won’t give you that many books to break out any more. I had a discussion with a very successful local writer a few years back and he cited an editor who said, “We want mystery authors to sell like Sara Paretsky.” And Paretsky apparently retorted, “I didn’t hit those numbers until my 8th book.”

  22. John,
    Well, honestly, I’ve never come right out and asked anybody “how much do you make?” I have asked “do you make a living as a novelist?” And I’m always careful to do it in a professional-to-professional context, not in front of the general public. A lot of the actual numbers have come through reading PW and blogs and trying to ascertain sales figures as much as possible. (Hey, my parents made a big deal about not asking people how much they make).

    That said, I’m very grateful for authors like John Scalzi and Lynn Viehl and Tobias Buckell who have actually come right out and written about their income levels. I tend to act more generally about it. But I do find it very useful information for getting some grounding on expectations.

    And yeah, I’ve had people ask me, “How many copies did you sell?” and my typical answer is, “I’m not completely sure, actually.” True enough. I like your answer though. Sometimes I’ll say, “In the thousands somewhere,” which is probably true as well and will remain true until I can say “millions” (which should be any day now) 🙂

  23. Joe,
    Absolutely. I think we can all agree that if it were simply about money we’d all go off and do something–probably anything–else. I can think of half a dozen jobs and/or careers that pay better with my same training that have far fewer hassles. But I’m a writer, so I’m sort of screwed that way.

  24. Jill,
    The best writing advice I’ve ever received was “think more, write less.”

    The gist of that is that sometimes we write and write and write and rewrite and write, etc., searching for a way into the story, and sometimes we need to step back and think about things for a couple hours or days and it’ll save us some of that writing time. That’s my best advice.

  25. Boyd,
    They certainly can and if there’s anybody on this list who can attest to that, it’s Joe Moore. His and Lynn’s foreign sales have been awesome. How many countries now, Joe? Thirty?

    I’ve sold in a three languages and although the deals were nothing to brag about, they did double or triple my advance, so I can’t knock that.

  26. Michelle,
    I’m glad you’re rolling in it. So if I get to SF, you’re buying!

    Like I said, I know a fair number of novelists and freelancers and people who do both and most of the people’s money comes from the freelancing. I do have the acquaintance of Doug Stanton, who is not a novelist, but was a fairly successful freelancer (Esquire, Men’s Journal, etc), then sold a nonfiction book (“In Harm’s Way”) for a ton of money and it went on the bestseller lists and even got film options, etc. So it can happen both ways.

  27. The years that I worked writing nonfiction pieces for major magazines, I made far more money. The downside was that I had to write about smoothies and spend whole days with celebutantes. So a mixed bag, all things considered.

  28. Boyd, you’re absolutely right. Foreign rights can make a huge difference in income. And the best part is: it’s free money. The writer does nothing. In most cases, the revenue is split 50/50 with the publisher.

  29. Yikes, I’m going to be much nicer to my day-job boss 🙂

    I used to think you could start teaching at university level once you’d published, then I taught an extension course and discovered how bad *those* dollars are too.

    I’m very lucky to be in an obscure corner of the tech writing world (API/cloud computing)…

  30. Michelle,
    Sure. There are days when I’d rather be writing anything but what I’m working on. So if I were to suddenly start really raking in the bucks writing novels, would I still write NF? Probably.

    Would I write all the things I do now? Uh, no, probably not.

  31. Hard Boiled,
    In my experience, the more esoteric the writing, the better the money. Technical and B2B. It’s astonishing to me how much money a company will pay a writer for B2B and marketing materials. I don’t know why that should be surprising. If they will pay a lawyer $250 an hour or more to file briefs, they can handle my prices.

  32. New Record for number of comments, even if more than half are from Mark.

    Seriously Mark, I once saw an article you authored figuring out what my income probably was. You weren’t even close, but it’s hard to figure. I can say I have between 1.5 and two million books in print around the world. All of my books are still in print. A percentage of them actually sold. I have been a full-time writer since 1996, but now I’m wishing I had another trade (aside from chickens) to supplement my authoring income.

    I’ve made a very decent living at this craft and I have no regrets other than I wish I was better at pushing myself.

  33. John:
    “You weren’t even close, but it’s hard to figure.”

    Up or down??? 🙂

    That was some time back and it seems to me that I didn’t factor in foreign sales at all. Also, when I write pieces like that they’re less about how much money the author made than to try to point out–okay, I’m Mr. BuzzKill, I got it–to aspiring writers that something that sounds huge gets eaten up by agent fees and taxes pretty quickly.

    Every couple years I trot out a first-novel advance analysis that starts at $10,000 and by the time the government, your agent, and various basic marketing things like a conference and a mailing are factored in, the balance is $0.

    p.s. I told Joe I hoped someone would prove me wrong on this blog post. 🙂

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