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December 24, 2004

Novelist Money

Justine Larbalestier, whose perfectly fabulous YA novel is coming out in a few months, asked some author friends of hers what sort of advance they got for their first novels, because she's curious and because enough people Googled her site to find out that she felt she might as well have the information there. The results of her informal polling are here; and yes, I'm one of the data points (I'm the 2002 entry, in case you're wondering). Add this to a rather more extensive list of what romance publishers provide for advances, and you get the general indication that very few people who are not already famous (or related to someone famous) get a whole lot of advance money for their first works, particularly in genre markets. But then, if you hang out here, you should have known about that already.

However, for me, this was the paragraph I found most interesting:

Of the 18 people I asked, only seven are full-time writers (no, Samuel R. Delany is not one of them, he earns his dosh as a university professor) and of those only two of them are doing fine (New York Times' bestseller, Shut-up! or I'm-getting-the next-round advances fine—definitely no longer worrying about where the next cheque is coming from). The rest are in their words "scraping by" or "barely comfortable" and depend overly much on their redit cards, except for Scalzi who is smart enought to also make money writing non-fiction.

Yup. Non-fiction and also corporate and newspaper/magazine work; if I had to rely only on the money I get for books under my own name, I'd be doing a lot less fine, both in terms of raw income and in terms of spreading out the income I did get throughout the year. Bills come on a regular cycle, even if book money doesn't. Although book-writing income has become a greater percentage of my writing income, at the end of the day it's still the minority.

And the income from fiction writing -- which at this point is purely advance money -- is a small enough amount that, to be quite blunt about it, I pretty much forgot I was owed an advance on The Android's Dream until Krissy (who manages the money around here, and thank God) reminded me and told me to pester Tor about it. As a functional part of my income (i.e., the part that pays bills, mortgages and other such things), my fiction advances are not a consideration, and at the level that I'm paid for fiction at the moment, if it did become part of my functional income, I imagine I'd be pretty concerned. I'd need to both lower my expenses and raise my income.

Would I like to get larger advances writing fiction? Well, sure, and I am; I'm getting more for The Ghost Brigades, for example (for Android's Dream I made the same amount as for OMW). But unless I become a major-selling author, and reliably so, it would be unrealistic to assume I will get eye-popping advances, and in any event it will take a few years to see where I stand in terms of moving books off the shelves. In other words, even if I do get to continue to publish fiction (and I hope I do), realistically I expect fiction advances to be one of the smaller segments of my income pie for some time to come.

And if it stays a small portion of my income, well, I'm fine with that. One doesn't get to the income level I'm at without being money conscious (and reasonably not-stupid about money)but neither am I wholly money-motivated, particularly when it comes to writing fiction; the fact I put Old Man's War on my Web site to begin with, rather than shop it to publishers, bolsters this point. I want to make money with my fiction, yes. But what I really want to do with my fiction is write some really good stories. If I make a lot of money, swell. If no one buys them and I post them here and get not a single red cent, that's fine, too. It's nice to be in a financial position where I can do either and not have to count my change walking away.

(Note to publishers: Please do not assume this means I'll be happy being low-balled. My agent is likely to correct such misapprehensions.)

Posted by john at December 24, 2004 12:58 PM

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Richard Armstrong | December 24, 2004 03:48 PM

Congradulations on your success as a writer.

It was exactly 37 years ago that your father and I ran USS Guardfish (SSN-612) aground on Ahua Reef off Pearl Harbor on Christmas Eve. We had no food, and no cigarettes. Our Christmas dinner consisted of Cheese, Cheese Whiz, and frozen salted turkey roll parts.

Happy Holidays!


Justine Larbalestier | December 24, 2004 04:36 PM

Actually, Scalzi, I was only counting fiction-writing income so I *didn't* count you as one of the two. I shall have to rethink that paragraph . . .

Jim Winter | December 24, 2004 04:39 PM

Book advances are not income. They are either operating or investment capital until they reach the "I'll Get The Next Round" stage.

Hence, I plan to become a slum lord. (Just kidding. Sorta.)

John Scalzi | December 24, 2004 04:40 PM

Justine: Ah. Well, then. I am abashed!

Justine Larbalestier | December 24, 2004 05:15 PM

Don't be abashed, it was me not thinking straight. I shall think on how to fix the paragraph.

And thanks so much for posting about me humble musing here and at metafilter. The discussion over there has been fascinating and the traffic at my site has been unbelievable!

John Scalzi | December 24, 2004 05:35 PM

Heh. Well, writing and money: two subjects everybody loves.

Chris O'Brien | December 25, 2004 09:54 AM

Not 100% on point, but one motivation for me for my 1st book was making money for my publisher too. At the end of the day, an acquistions editor agrees to take you on because he or she believes in you despite the fact that you may be untested. I really wanted to do good for my editor as well for me.

Andrew Cory | December 25, 2004 02:16 PM

I just finished Old Man’s War. Good stuff! Is Ghost Brigades a sequel to that?

John Scalzi | December 25, 2004 09:39 PM


drood | December 26, 2004 03:38 PM

As much as I love a fat advance . . . or let me rephrase. As much as I'd love a fat advance, theoretically, I'm more interested in getting my agent to expand my interests on the back end of the book contract. I've been fine with getting a modest increase in my advances from book to book, and upping the royalty rates significantly with every new contract.

I think we all know someone who's not earned out an advance and had a career sputter (or crash-dive) because of it.

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