Making a living as a freelance writer or novelist is a tough gig. If you aren’t aware of how to get started or what some of the terms truly mean help is here. I love finding useful information for new writers and even for writers who are stumbling a little in the void. There is too much information out there and it’s difficult to grasp all of it. Over at Bubblecow, there is a terrific list of helpful terms and how you can utilize them in your real life writing.
The Tools Needed to Make a Living as a Writer
To build any kind of meaningful discussion, I am going to need to work with generalisations. Forgive me for this, I know there are exceptions to these rules, but I have tried to stick to ‘real life’ as far as possible.
The first generalisation is that most books deals begin with an advance. This is a sum of money, paid by the publishers, to the writer prior to a book’s publication. This advance is exactly that, an advanced payment of royalties the book will (or should) earn. It is possible to negotiate a deal without an advance, but if an agent is involved then an advance will almost certainly be paid.
This brings us to our second generalisation, the size of the advance. Once again these vary greatly and depend on the book’s potential market, the writer’s potential selling power and the agent’s ability to negotiate. However, as a general rule of thumb, an advance for a debut novel will be anywhere between £500 and £10,000 (or more). Advances tend to be paid in two instalments. The first is on signature of the contract, the second is on delivery of the manuscript. Since we are generalising, I am going to use a figure of £5000 per book. In the US it is pretty safe to work with a figure of $10,000 per book.
A royalty is the amount of money that a writer receives for each book that is sold. This sounds simple in theory but is painfully complex in practice. The writer will receive a percentage of… something. It may be the cover price or the price at which the book is sold to the trade, or something else determined by the publisher. Add to this, differing rates for different vendors, varying digital models and promotions and you can quickly see a complex mess of confusion arising from the gloom.
I know this will be controversial, but I would not build royalty payments, beyond your advance, into your immediate calculations. Many books never sell enough copies to earn back the money that a writer has been paid as an advance, and those that do often don’t start paying out until after a full year of sales (if not more). In short royalties are important, but when starting out it is dangerous to rely on royalty cheques to pay the bills.
Rights, be them foreign or film, are potentially a rich source of income for writers. The problem is that they are unpredictable and often beyond the control of writers. Agents and publishers will wrangle over the rights when a contract is negotiated, and then proceed to try and sell them through their own departments or third party companies. Whether a writer is luckily enough to sell additional rights is largely in the lap of the gods. However, a general rule of thumb (more generalisations, sorry) is that the better a book sells in the home territory (UK, US etc.), the easier the rights will be to sell.
Foreign rights are often the key for many writers to making a full time living. Foreign rights are the rights for a book to be published and sold in another country. What normally happens is a foreign publishing house will pay an upfront, a one off fee for the rights to publish the book. In addition, the writer will also receive a percentage of future sales, in essence a second royalty stream. In terms of figures, we are once again into the realm of generalisations, but you are probably talking £5,000, rather than £50,000. However, three or four foreign rights sales and the writer’s income suddenly starts to become attractive.
Film rights are another potential source of income. What tends to happen here is that a film maker will option a writer’s book. This means a lump of cash is paid for an exclusive period of time in which the book can be turned into a film. If the period lapses, and no film has been made, the rights revert back to the writer (but they keep the cash). So how much can a writer expect to get for an option? The answer is – it varies. The better the book sells in the real world, the higher the option price. You hear stores of hundreds of thousands being paid, but in general terms, for a first time writer, it is more likely to be in the tens of thousands. Read more here.