GUEST POST #5: “What Every Author Needs to Know About Writing for a Living” by Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan


Michael J Sullivan


Michael J. Sullivan is the author of the epic six-book fantasy series, The Riyria Revelations. Originally published with a small press, the series was picked up this year by Orbit books and is being released in three volumes. The first, Theft of Swords, released in November, contains the first two volumes. The second, Rise of Empire, features the third and fourth volumes and came out this month. The final volume, Heir of Novron, collecting the final two volumes of the series, is due out in January 2012.

This is the fifth of five posts that Michael J. Sullivan will be doing this week on BookBanter. Check back tomorrow for the next post, or you can subscribe to the BookBanter Blog by entering your email at the top right of the BookBanter Blog page.

Listen to an interview between BookBanter and Michael J. Sullivan.

What Every Author Needs to Know About Writing for a Living

It’s not good to hear, and sorry to say, but most authors simply don’t make a living from novel writing. Even those with multiple books still have day jobs to pay the bills, and many times their writing provides just a little additional cash for a vacation or a small luxury. I write genre fiction (epic fantasy) and multiple sources tell me that the average advance for a debut author is $5,000 – $10,000. Considering that most novels take years to produce, this obviously is not enough to live on. Sadly, the novel writer’s mantra really is, “Don’t quit your day job.”

I feel fortunate that I can count myself as one of the minority that does indeed support my family through my writing. For years my wife was the sole bread winner, allowing me to tap away at the keyboard without the added distraction of a nine-to-five job. I was pleased when we had enough saved up so that in April 2011 she was able to leave that behind.

One thing that I should mention is that non-fiction writing is generally easier (more books produced, higher pay, easier to find a publisher) but I’m going to limit my discussion here to novels. So, let’s say you want a shot at writing novels fulltime for a living…what would I recommend?  Well let’s break it down.

Write within a Genre

In the broadest definitions fiction can be categorized as either literary or genre (sometimes known as popular) and for a new writer, breaking into genre fiction is much easier as there are a larger number of books produced, more copies sold, and in general it is easier to find readers that gravitate toward a particular subject.  2010 book data from Simba Information shows the breakdown between the various categories as:

  • Romance/erotica: $1.358 billion
  • Religion/inspirational: $759 million
  • Mystery/thriller: $682 million
  • Science fiction/fantasy: $559 million
  • Classic literary fiction: $455 million

Write a Series

Series are very common in romance, fantasy, science fiction, and mystery/thrillers genres. Usually they follow a particular character (or set of characters) and provide repeat buyers a familiar experience to dive back into. Writing series is a key to financial security as you don’t have to rebuild a fan base from scratch with each new book. Also, series have longer legs, in other words the sales of the first book (and those in between) will receive a boost each time the next book in the series comes out.

I have some pet peeves about series writing. First I hate a true cliff hanger where you need to read the next book in order to obtain closure on the book you just read. To me this is a cheap trick to get another sale. You need to ensure that each book has its own conflict and resolution. That’s not to say you can’t have hints or tease of an ongoing mystery, just make sure that your books contain a complete episode. Sometimes books break at unnatural places because they are too long to publish as a single work. This happens often in fantasy and again is another pet peeve of mine. If you are going to write series, I recommend you design your breaks from the beginning…no one likes to be stopped in the middle of the story and your goal is to make a reader want to read your next book not force them into anther purchase.

Be Prolific

Few authors will be able to support themselves with a single book.  Most won’t be able to even with two or three (unless they are wildly popular). You must produce a body of work and you need to constantly keep your fans well fed. Putting out multiple books in a single year is most often accomplished by self-published authors and some of the most successful ones have released six or more books in a single year. This generally is not a pace that can be maintained, and I’m not saying that you have to do that. But if you are able to produce at least two books a year, then you’ll probably be in pretty good shape.

The infrastructure of traditional publishing sometimes struggles with prolific writers. Generally there are release calendars, which are basically windows when books are scheduled, and some finished books may take up to two years to hit the street. Even my books, which were finished and fast-tracked took a year to come out (the Fall 2011 was the next release calendar available) but I was fortunate that Orbit released all the books in subsequent months: Theft of Swords (Nov), Rise of Empire (Dec), and Heir of Novron (Jan). My contract has a period of non-compete…a time of exclusivity when only the Orbit books are available for sale. So I’ve been hard at work writing my next books so they will be ready once the period expires.

Write Well

In some respects I should have led with this, but I consider this as a “given.” In real estate it’s all about location, and when it comes to publishing, it’s all about word-of-mouth sales. No book can become a success without readers falling in love with it and recommending it to others. Authors today are fortunate in that there are many more ways for people to share their excitement about a book. There are thousands of book blogs, and sites such as goodreads, Shelfari, and Library Thing where millions of people are discussing books.


Most writers abhor the thought of self-promotion. Many think that this is a task relegated only to self-published authors and being published traditionally means you don’t have to dirty your feet with such activities. This is a huge fallacy. ALL authors need to promote their books.  If you are self-published you wear all the hats, so of course marketing is one of the pieces you’ll have to tackle, but many traditionally published authors complain about lack of marketing support.

The truth is that there is a pecking order in publishing, with best-selling authors at the top. Those near the bottom (midlist or new authors) may receive little marketing support. Most will only be included in a catalog that is sent to libraries and chain store book buyers. Projects that are deemed as having a higher potential of success will get more attention: print ads, online ads, co-op dollars for premium placement in bookstores, and so on. These activities are all fine and well, but even if you receive such attention you shouldn’t feel that it is “good enough.” Keep in mind that all marketing departments are spinning plates of multiple titles at once. You…and only you…will be 100% dedicated to your titles, and the more messages about your book(s), the better the chances that they will get noticed.  As mentioned above, word-of-mouth is king but you have to prime the pump and get enough people to know it exists before the self-perpetuation of one person telling another will kick in.

Subsidiary Sales

I’ve received a significant amount of income from the sales of foreign rights. I’ve signed contracts for: Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, France, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Brazil, and Japan. Although I had a higher than average US advance (six-figures instead of four-figures) I’ve made about double that through the sales of foreign rights.  Whether this is additional income, or goes to paying off your advance, depends on your contract and I’ll discuss this more in a minute.

While generally not huge (in terms of initial income), I’ve also received additional monies because Orbit has licensed the books for a hardcover book club edition as well as an audio version. I look upon these formats as a way of spreading the word. The income potential is not that high, but it does provide another way for people to discover that I exist, and besides, every little bit helps.

Earn Out

Most authors will never earn out their advances, which basically means the advance will be the only compensation they will ever receive for a book.  The statistics I’ve seen is only about 10%-20% will do so. For those that don’t understand what earning out is, let me explain.

Larger publishers pay advances for books. This is a sum of money that flows to the author before even a single book is sold.  It can, in many ways be thought of as a loan.  As books sell, royalties are earned (the author makes from $0.40 to $2.50 a book depending on format and price) but this money initially stays with the publisher because it is repaying the loan. Only if enough books sell, and the full loan is repaid, will the author will receive additional money.

It’s not only sales of individual books that can work toward “paying back the loan”. Any rights sold by the publisher as a subsidiary right (such as foreign sales, book clubs, or audio book contracts) will have a percentage of that sale going to the author, and that will be applied against the advance.  I have an author friend who was really happy because their contract was written with worldwide rights, and they received enough foreign sales to get them very close to earning out.  Personally, I think they would have been much better off if they had sold only English language rights as that additional money would have gone directly to them and essentially doubled their initial income from the books.

Earning out means you’ll have ongoing revenue (although it usually comes only once or twice a year – so you need to manage your cash flow carefully). Without it, you’ll have to ensure that contract income (from foreign rights and new books) will be enough to keep the bills paid. Without earning out you are basically treading water…consuming the income for each book as they are created. Having books earned out can help break that cycle and allow you a bit of breathing room.

An Uncertain Revenue Stream

Writing for a living can be very hit and miss and trying to determine when money will come in is almost impossible. What if the book is bumped in the release calendar? That 1/3 of the advance upon publication will be delayed. What if sales of a first book are too low and the publisher cancels the other books in a multiple book deal? Well you just lost a ton of cash. What if you earned out, but then sales decline? That ongoing stream is not so ongoing. What if none of the foreign publishers are interested? That’s a whole huge potential that is gone. You could easily have a six-figure salary one year and nothing the next.

My approach is to count no chickens before they hatch.  I make sure I always have at least one year’s worth of income stashed away and am always thinking about the date of my next book as that is the next chance for additional income. I  manage my spending…in other words I’m not extravagant in my purchases…as I feel more comfortable banking money for the potential lean times ahead.

Summing it all up

The most important take away from this post is to manage your expectations. Writing novels is not a “get rich quick” career. Sure, there are some who make millions at it…but those are few and far between. The bulk of “paid novelists” earn only a few thousand a year. Even if you are fortunate enough to earn a good sum of money, you need to realize that there is no guarantee about any future income, so the strategy of the ant is far better than that of the grasshopper.

Read Michael J. Sullivan’s previous post on “Query or Self-Publish”

You might also like . . .

Theft of Swords Rise of Empire

4 thoughts on “GUEST POST #5: “What Every Author Needs to Know About Writing for a Living” by Michael J. Sullivan

  1. Very clear concise and sad. It’s perfect. Here it is, all spelled out. I thank my lucky stars I like to wander. I mean, I was looking at Twitter and there was a Writer who writes about writing (@thecreativepenn), and she posted the link to this. I followed. It’s not as if I didn’t know, but I’ve just been learning, realizing, and it’s hard and troublesome, all along the way. I thank everyone involved here for making this post happen.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I’m always interested in reading accounts from published authors, because they can proide me with a perspective I lack at the moment. I realize that writing isn’t exactly easy and earning money with writing fiction is one of the most challenging routes you might take. So a realitycheck like this one helps a lot to adjust my expectations and plan out my career better. Thank you.

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