In the comments yesterday on the Why Am I Not in STEM? post, we got into the topic of writing as a career. It is not known as a particularly stable or high-income line of work.
However, it’s not inherently grim. People who call themselves writers do not, on average, do badly. According to the BLS, there are 41,990 Americans who call themselves “writers and authors.” The median (50th percentile) annual income is $55,940. The 75th percentile is $81,200, and the 90th percentile is $117,860. To be sure, some would do less well than average, but the 25th percentile is still a non-poverty wage at $39,050. Things could be worse!
Some years I’ve done better than others, but even with my sanity-keeping requirement that everything I take on have some career boosting element, I’ve done OK. In order to make a decent living writing, I think of my work in four categories.
I aim to have about a quarter of my income come from steady gigs. Right now, I’m writing for Fast Company. In the past, I wrote for CBS MoneyWatch. I had a contributing editor gig with Reader’s Digest years ago. To be sure, the particular nature of my main steady gig has changed frequently — which I guess means it’s not truly “steady” — but on the other hand, some people change their real, W-2 jobs every 2 years too.
In my mental system, another quarter comes from advances on my books such as Mosaic, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, All the Money in the World, and 168 Hours. Book income comes in chunks over a long time. You get some chunk on signing the contract, some chunk on manuscript delivery, some chunk on publication, and often some chunk with the paperback. These things can literally all occur in different calendar years. So even if you get a decent advance for your first book, you probably don’t want to quit your day job, since you may only get 25-33% of that advance in year one. On the other hand, if you write more than one book every 3 years, these payments start stacking up. In 2013, I got the paperback payment for All the Money in the World, the on-pub payment for the WTMSPDBB paperback, and the first advance payment for Mosaic.
Here’s something else that happens with books: maybe some will “earn out.” That is, you start earning royalties beyond what you got in the original advance. There’s an argument that you shouldn’t be happy about this, because you want to get all your cash up front — kind of the same argument that says you should be unhappy about a tax refund because it means you loaned Uncle Sam money. Rationally, this is true, but in practice, everyone loves a windfall! The before breakfast ebook is in that position now, and some other projects will be there soon. I get royalty checks every 6 months. Yay!
However, I haven’t really built royalties into my income targets up until now. Another quarter of my income has come from big side projects. In the past I’ve co-authored books (“by so and so, with Laura Vanderkam”). I’d put my Philanthropy Roundtable books in this big side project category. Over time, I see the royalty category being substituted for this category, so my commercially published books will represent more like 50% of my income.
The last quarter is “other.” Articles for various publications (USA Today, Fortune, City Journal, etc.). Speeches. Being the voice talent on my audio books. There’s a lot more one-off stuff in this category. Sometimes in a year I have 10 or more 1099s that fall into the realm of “other.”
The mistake many people make in writing careers is thinking that category 2 (book advances) or the articles in category 4 should constitute 100 percent of their income. It can work, but it’s not easy in the first few years. Articles alone are always going to be hard to make work. You can place 6 major magazine features a year, but if each is going to top out at $7500 that’s still only $45,000. Not pocket change, but not awesome. And a lot of magazine features are shorter. Many end up at $800-1200. Speaking is a more efficient way of making money but it’s a business line you have to grow like anything else. It also tends to correlate with category 2 and 2.5 (royalties). If you’ve written a book that’s turned into a great success, chances are people will pay you to speak about it.
Obviously, this all involves more hustling than collecting a paycheck every 2 weeks, but by keeping this mindset on income categories, writing can be a decent career. I wouldn’t discourage my kids from doing it. Then again, my kids may decide that they want to be writers, but only want to write sonnets about plants. We’ll see how that pans out.
ADDENDUM: Thought I’d throw a “sources for stories” bit at the end here. I’m looking to write about accountability partnerships and accountability groups. Have you accomplished something big — or are you working toward something — with the help of an accountability partner? Please let me know: lvanderkam at yahoo dot com.