Thursday, November 19, 2009


Author Lynn Viehl has, for the second time, posted her sales and income figures for her novel TWILIGHT FALL on-line ( TWILIGHT FALL was a paperback original that spent a few weeks on the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list in the paperback division. It has now gone through two royalty periods, and Viehl has posted both actual statements. She's brave to do this, since most writers do not share their numbers and would feel more comfortable discussing their sex life, drug history, or criminal records than their incomes.

Viehl is not just brave -- she's disgruntled. Her initial advance for the book was $50,000. Sales so far are about 61,000 copies, with the publisher holding back income against an estimated 7,500 more returns. She figures that after taxes, agents' fees, and "expenses," she earned about $25,000 for the year it took her to write the book.

However, even though this is an accurate depiction of why most writers have day jobs, it is not the whole story. Viehl says that she sells overseas copies through her blog, and has not yet had foreign-rights sales. For many authors (including me), the foreign-sales income eventually equals the advance for a book. It can be a very long "eventually;" I just sold Korean rights to a book published ten years ago. But if you keep on slogging, eventually you earn as much from overseas markets as from the English-speaking one.

In addition, authorship -- and I should think most especially NEW YORK TIMES bestseller authorship -- brings offers to teach workshops, give keynote addresses at writers' conferences, and speak to a variety of groups from schoolkids to old-age homes. This, too, generates income.

Finally, writers vary tremendously in how long it takes them to write a novel. Viehl gives the impression that she writes full-time, and needs a year for a book. Many of us (including me) are a bit faster, and manage to fit in short stories and/or articles as well in the course of a year.

Writers are all over the map in their incomes. Viehl's story is honest and interesting -- but readers should not assume it's universal.


Dolly said...


Thanks for posting this. It is very interesting and also very helpful to get views of authors who are established in the industry. Gives us a more accurate picture of what to expect.

Amy Sisson said...

I too find this interesting. I think I'd prefer the figures before taxes instead of after, though. I understanding deducting the agent's fees right off the top, but we all pay taxes no matter what we do and we all incur expenses related to our job -- it costs me $50 in tolls per month to get to work, but I don't say my income is $600 less per year because of it. I'm afraid to calculate what I pay in gas.

When I hear someone makes $120K as an engineer, I know that person pays taxes and has some non-reimbursed job-related expenses, but the figure $120K still gives me an instant mental picture, right or wrong, of the relative income that person has. Deducting the taxes and expenses in advance makes it harder for me to make mental comparisons.

Mileage may vary, of course (figuratively, I mean!).

Andrew said...

Though I wish her well, this bursts no bubbles for me. As a not-yet-published writer, I've always assumed that the only way out of a day job is with hardcover success. It sounds like you just can't get there with paperback sales alone--especially mass markets--unless, as you point out, you're willing to wait a decade or two.

Mark said...

It seems like the top of the heap, fiction-writing income wise, is to pump out some scripts that actually get made into movies or shows. There's a lot to be said for volume. Plus, this is typical of all worlds of art and enthusiast industries. So many people are willing to do it for little recompense, or even free, that it's rare to be able to do it for a living. So hats off to those who are able to do it full-time!

Mark Asher said...

She's saying she earned $25 AFTER taxes? She should look at it like a salaried position, perhaps, since we all have taxes taken out. Maybe after agent's fees, etc., her "salary" for writing the book was closer to $35-40,000?

And like you say, foreign rights, workshop fees, etc., garner some extra income. And doesn't a backlist of books continue to bring in some money too? Won't she make a something from the book just published in 2010 also? I would think a new book spurs sales of older titles too.

James A. Ritchie said...

I may be a bit out of date, but last time I checked, the average income was only $33,000 before taxes. This for a job where the person actually works for someone else, very often at a job they hate, at least forty hours per week.

And that "average" is a dream for the millions stuck in minimum wage jobs that, even after the lastest increse, is still less than $15,000per year.

Earning about four times minimum wage, and keeping half of it, for writing a papeback that I believe only reached eighteeth spot, didn't stay there long, and that has had no other sales, no hardcover edition, etc., seems a bit out of touch, to me.

If anything, this should be encouraging news for writers.

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