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Write From Home
Kim Wilson
P.O. Box 4145
Hamilton, NJ 08610

E-mail: kim @ writefromhome.com

Can You Make Money At This Job?

by Shirley Jump

One of the top questions I get asked as an author is whether you can make money at this job. People are of two camps—those who assume I am rolling in dough because my name is on a book (the JK Rowling type of author) or those who picture me wasting away behind my computer, affording only generic tuna and mac-and-cheese (the Starving Artist).

In reality, it's somewhere in the middle. I'm making the same—or better—income than I could have made at a "real" job, but I still have a few days where I worry about the bills. However, I sold my first book in December 2001, so it's taken a little while to get the money ball rolling.

In book writing, there are a few things you have to be aware of when you think about the money:

1. Count only the advance: Advances are often all the moolah you're going to make. Everyone involved in your book's sale—agent, editor, publisher, you—want, of course, for the book to surpass expectations. For it to sell out of the ballpark, take over the New York Times list, get mentioned on "Oprah"...but in reality, that isn't the case. There are around 185,000 new books released each year. That's a whole lot of competition for your hard-won novel. The best piece of advice I ever received was from a multi-published, best-selling author who said "count on the advance and consider anything else gravy." I too have found this to be true. Books with great sales expectations sometimes tank.

2. Bad things happen: Which brings me to my second point. Sometimes bad things happen. A train could derail, sending your entire print run up in smoke. By this time, the publisher has already moved on to printing next month's star and they don't reprint yours. You could get a bad cover and everyone will be so turned off, the only copy will be bought by your legally blind Aunt Lulu. You could have a book come out on a bad day or a bad month—I had a book come out on September 11, 2001, which didn't sell hardly any copies for two months because the world was glued to CNN. Other authors have had books come out during Hurricane Katrina, when shipping in that area was a mess and the rest of the country, again, watched news instead of bought books. Recessions happen, belt-tightening happens, accidents happen.

3. Fairy dust is possible: In that same vein, good things also happen. My wise friend Suzanne Simmons says that some authors are simply sprinkled with fairy dust. It's not about having the best book or the best title or the best cover. It's about your book being in the right place at the right time, with the Fates all aligned and shining on it. You never know which book will be a hit and which won't. Even books that have been released with much publisher fanfare have sunk lower than the Titanic in sales.

4. Don't give up the day job too fast: If there is one thing you will learn about the business of writing books, it's that the money never arrives when you expect it to. Contracts get delayed, etc. And, just when you think an editor is about to make an offer on your baby, he goes on safari in Africa and gets eaten by lions because he carried a Mars bar in his pocket, leaving your offer somewhere on the African plains.

5. Know how the money works: In the typical book deal, an advance is paid, half on contract, half on delivery of an accepted manuscript. What that means is that you don't get the second half until all revisions are done and your editor is finally satisfied with the final product. That could take some time, depending on the revision process. Secondly, royalties are paid twice a year, in June and November, typically, and you never know if you're getting a check or not. It's all this big secret until the statement arrives. Sure, you can check your numbers obsessively on Amazon and use some convoluted  math formula to try to predict your sales—but you'd be wrong. No one knows anything for sure until all parties involved—bookstores, online outlets and your publisher—get their numbers together. Third, there is a little clause in your contract called "reserve against returns." This allows the publisher to hold back on paying for a certain percentage of the copies sold, in case they get returned. As a new author, your negotiating power over that clause is minimal, if at all. It's just part of the business. So, if you are looking to quit that day job the day after you sign your first contract—don't. Wait until you have enough sales under your belt to reliably predict your annual income, and then shave 20 percent off your estimate because of Number Two above.

6. Find other income sources that work into the plan: If you can write other things besides books, find income sources that stream into your overall plan. If you want to be seen as a comedic nonfiction author, for instance, sell comedic essays to widely read anthologies like Chicken Soup for the Soul. If you want to write mysteries, try your hand at selling short stories to Ellery Queen. The smaller jobs can often tide you over between checks. I have also pitched articles on topics I wanted to research for a book, so that I could get paid for my research. A win-win all around.

7. Remember the agents cut: If you decide to go with an agent, don't forget to figure in his/her cut on all sales and royalties. Often, the agent gets you more money up front, which covers that percentage, so it's a wash for you financially.

8. Join other writers: There is nothing more empowering than knowledge, and knowledge in a group is even better. You'll learn more than you could imagine about contracts, sales, negotiating, etc. Groups like Novelists, Inc. (for authors with two published books or more), Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writer of America, etc. all give you avenues to network with other authors and draw from their pool of knowledge.

By being a smart author, you can have a better handle on your career. This helps you make decisions in terms of how much work you can handle, when to quit that day job, and how to budget for business expenses. You might even want to consider sitting down with an accountant who can look over your financials, tax records and income projections and then help you make a relatively accurate financial plan.

In short, yes you can make a living at this. You likely won't be riding around town in a limo (my kids told me they'd know for sure I'd made it when I got a limo...still waiting on that one) but you may just be able to trade in that old jalopy for something a little more fitting for a stylin' author!

The Bachelor Preferred PastryShirley Jump writes six books a year for Harlequin and Kensington, raises two children and too many pets, and tries to avoid cooking and cleaning at all costs. Her current release is The Bachelor Preferred Pastry, a romantic comedy with recipes from Zebra Books. Visit her Web site at http://www.shirleyjump.com











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