This essay, which was written in 2004, previously appeared in The New Fear. Four years later, the figures may have changed a little bit, but it’s still pretty accurate. I’m reprinting it here because I wanted to post it to the HWA forum as part of a discussion, and the forum says it’s too long.
HOW I MAKE A LIVING WRITING FULL-TIME
You keep asking me for a “How to Make a Living Writing Full-Time” column. What you fail to understand is that there is no patented answer. Instead, I shall offer “How I Make a Living Writing Full-Time.” And yes, just to get it out of the way, there are many people who will tell you that I’m wrong, and that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. In truth, there really is no right or wrong way to go about it. What works for one person might not work for another. This is how I do it.
You want to write full-time, do you?
You sad, silly bastard. Are you sure I can’t talk you out of this? You do realize that people are making wonderful livings as plumbers, software engineers, HVAC technicians, and oil company C.E.O.’s?
Sigh. Okay. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
To write full-time like me, you will need the following things:
1. A spouse or partner who is willing to continue working (if you do not have this, substitute a trust fund, wealthy benefactor, or windfall at Vegas).
2. Reliable health insurance.
3. The ability to work a minimum of five days a week, eight hours a day. (More will be helpful).
4. The clarity to separate art from profession and business from pleasure, because we are not having fun with a hobby—we are paying the fucking bills on time.
5. The ability to take honest criticism, because when you’re writing four or five books a year, not all of them are going to be your best work.
Now already, we have somebody in the back row, shouting, “Neil Gaiman creates art! Stephen King’s wife doesn’t work a day job! Danielle Steel only writes an hour a day!”
Yes, this is all true. But they are all residents of a plateau that I will probably never reach. They write books that are “lead titles.” I write books that are “mid-list titles.”
Let’s visualize all the books a publishing company puts out in a month as a big, long list. At the top of the list are the lead titles; folks like Mr. Gaiman, Mr. King, and Ms. Steel. The lead titles are the moneymakers. They get the 90% of the promotional budget, 99.9% of the advertising, the largest print run, and the most editorial attention. As a result, the lead titles make money, just as they were expected to do.
Now, at the bottom of our big, long list is something called “the backlist”. These are books that have been reissued or reprinted; everything from Mark Twain to H.P. Lovecraft to Zane Grey. These books first saw publication three months to ten years to a century ago. They went out of print, and are now back again.
Everything in the middle, the books between the “lead titles” and “the backlist” is the mid-list. Learn the term now, because if you want to write mass-market horror novels (i.e. paperbacks that get their covers stripped off and returned when they don’t sell) and you want to write them for a living, chances are you will be a mid-list writer.
Yes, one or two of you may be as good as Michael Marshall Smith or Chuck Palahniuk and may indeed get a six-figure advance and a metric fuck-ton of promotion and advertising dollars. But the cold, hard fact is that 98% of you will be automatically relegated to the mid-list no matter how good your book is. This is called “market demand”. This is called business. This is called capitalism. This how the machine works—and there is nothing wrong with it, because the moment you decided you wanted to make a living writing full-time, you agreed to become a part of this machine.
Where are you going? Don’t run. Get the hell back here. I warned you and you didn’t want to listen. Well, it’s too late now. You will sit your ass down and make a living writing. And what you are writing is product.
Here is what you need to know about being a mid-list author. The advances are lower. The promotional budget is non-existent. The print run is smaller. And your story doesn’t matter as much. Why? Because the mid-list is all about margins and slots—learn those two words class, and repeat them with me; margins and slots.
Let’s say Publisher Y produces 36 horror novels per year (three per month). That means they have 36 “slots.” Chances are that 12 of those slots will be taken up by backlist titles. Authors who are already in that publisher’s stable will take up another 12 to 20 slots. Then your manuscript hits their desk. It’s cohesive. Double-spaced. Competent. Publisher Y then does the math. If they print 10,000 copies of your novel, ship them out to grocery stores, drugstores, and bookstores, and think your book will sell 55% or higher of those 10,000 copies, you get one of those remaining, coveted slots—meaning, they buy your book.
Hooray! You just sold a novel. And while you’re out partying and logging onto the message boards to tell the rest of the genre that Publisher Y bought your book, do you know what Publisher Y is doing? They are already moving on to the next slot. That’s because they are conducting business. They are looking for product. The next manuscript might not be as brilliant as yours, but they’ll snatch it up, too, because they have slots to fill. Their business model is to maximize their profit by fulfilling a market niche—in this case, horror (though it could also be SF, romance, westerns, etc). Their average customer will buy these books on impulse while standing in line at the grocery store, and therefore, your skill as a writer doesn’t matter as much as whether or not they think they can sell 55% of those 10,000 copies.
Now understand, I’m not saying that you should just write a paint-by-numbers novel, where all you do is insert the character names. You should still try. You should still have fun. Your number one goal is—and should always be—to entertain your readers. That’s our job. That’s what we’re here for. But while you’re trying our best to write an entertaining read, you need to understand what your publisher’s job is, and what they are here for.
So… you’ve celebrated your big sale. You’re on your way to writing full-time, right?
You sad, silly bastard.
The average advance for a 2004 mid-list novel, regardless of its genre, was between $2,000 and $5,000 dollars. That’s your paycheck. The year you spent working on that novel; the blood, sweat and tears you poured into it? The time you spent away from family and friends? It’s all worth somewhere between $2,000 and $5,000.
You made more than that working in the call center, didn’t you? And I bet the call center gave you health insurance.
But stick around. It gets worse. The check for $2,000 that you’re expecting? You’ll get it about two months after you’ve signed the contract. It will be a year later before your book even comes out. And it will be a year after that before you even begin to see any royalties—if, indeed, you earn royalties. (Many authors don’t).
I really hope you didn’t tell that fat fucking foreman at the foundry to stick that grinder where the sun doesn’t shine because you’re on your way to being the next Stephen King. What? You did?
You sad, silly bastard. You’d better fucking pray that your spouse kept their job.
Shhhh… Stop crying. It’s okay. Everything is cool. Uncle Brian’s gonna make things better.
Remember, the title of this rather long-winded essay on shock economics is called “How I Make a Living Writing Full-Time.” Here’s how. I’m not saying it’s the right way. I’m not saying it’s the only way. I’m not saying that everybody else is wrong. I’m just saying this is what works for me.
The first step is becoming comfortable with what you are, while constantly striving to do better. I am a mid-list writer. I choose to be, simply because of what I choose to write. If I wanted to, I could probably write a touching story about a mother and daughter having dinner on Thanksgiving Day, and sell it for six-figures and go on Oprah and The Today Show and make a shit-load of money. But writing such a novel doesn’t appeal to me. I like writing about zombies and giant worms and yo-boys robbing banks and serial killers with homicidal pet tapeworms. However, I’m also realistic enough to know exactly where books of that type fall on the food chain. If Thomas Ligotti is a $200 meal at a five-star restaurant with a French-sounding name, and Stephen King is McDonalds (his quote, not mine), then I am fucking White Castle.
And I’m cool with that. It doesn’t mean I can’t strive to do better, but I’m realistic with my expectations. I’m realistic with what the market will let me do. Terminal may very well be the best thing I’ve ever done, but at the end of the day, it’s still a midlist book.
When you become comfortable with your place in the machine, and you’re still striving to do better, a wonderful thing happens. That lady who bought your book on impulse at the local CVS while waiting in line to get her prescription filled? She enjoys it much more than the other two midlist horror novels she picked up that month, because even though you could have, you didn’t just phone it in. You tried to entertain them. Tried to tell a good story. Tried to give her what she wanted. Yes, even if the title of your book should have been Contractually Obligated Sequel, if you gave it an honest effort, and entertained your reader, she’ll enjoy it enough to remember your name. She’ll pick up the next one based on your name, or maybe even take five minutes to pop your name in Google.
This is how you build a fan base; one reader at a time. And that fan base improves your margins. Instead of counting on you to sell 55%, Publisher Y knows you can deliver 60% or maybe even 65%. Publisher Y is then inclined to give you more money because you are good for business.
I’m not going to get into specifics, but let me break down an average year for you.
Advance on midlist novel to Publisher Y: $6,000
Advance on midlist novel to Publisher X: $3,500
That’s $9,500. How do I live off $9,500 a year? I don’t. However, let’s say that last year’s midlist book sold 55% or better. I earned out my advance and can expect some royalties this quarter. So let’s add another $1,000 (give or take). Now we’re at $10,500.
I’d be making more if I was still working on the docks.
That’s where the small press and collectible market comes in. If you have a fan base that is willing to plunk down fifty bucks for a hardcover book that you’ve written your name in, you can do well in the small press. The small press has changed over the years. These days, reputable outfits like Cemetery Dance, Night Shade, Subterranean, and Delirium, often pay advances that are equal to, if not more than, the advance you’d get for your midlist paperback.
However, if you thought competition was tough for those midlist slots, it’s fucking Thunderdome competing for a small press slot. They key to successfully selling a small press title is, in fact, sales. You have to be able to sell out that print run, be it 250 or 500 or 1,500 copies. If you can do that time and time again, small press publishers will fall over themselves to sign you. Not trying to sound cocky or arrogant. Just telling you how the business works.
So, let’s take our $10,500 and put it on the table. Let’s add four small press publishers: A, B, C, and D. Publishers A and B buy the rights to do limited edition hardcovers of the two midlist paperbacks you just sold to Publishers Y and X.
$10,500 + $5,000 from Publisher A and $3,000 from Publisher B = $18,500.
Publisher C buys a novella from you and Publisher D is doing a collection of your short stories.
$18,500 + $2,500 from Publisher C and $3,500 from Publisher D = $24,500.
Not bad. If your partner or spouse is still working that day job, and you’re willing to do the house cleaning, cooking, laundry, etc.—you can probably get by on that and what they earn, right?
But we should strive to do better. Thus, we increase our workload. Instead of writing five days a week, we go to seven. Instead of eight hours a day, we put in twelve. Is our work quality going to suffer as a result? Possibly. But remember, you told me your goal was to write full-time. So suck it up when the critics lambaste your next book, saying it was below par when compared to your usual work. With the extra hours, we can bang out two more novellas and sell them to two more small press publishers, netting us an additional $5,000, which puts us up to $29,500.
Add in some short story sales—that nets us another $300. We’re at $29,800.
Sell the rights for one of your midlist paperbacks to a comic book publisher and maybe net another $3,000 = $32,800.
Convince a small press publisher that a collection of your Blog entries will sell, and add another $2,500. A producer in Hollywood options it, and add another $10,000. (See why it’s important to hold onto those rights, rather than signing them away just so you can sell the book?)
This is how I do it. The figures above are not exact because, in truth, I’m not comfortable with you knowing exactly how much I made last year. But they are pretty accurate, based on my experience.
The key, the way I see it, is just to keep writing and keep producing. I used to work in a foundry. My job was to make power steering gear molds all day long. If I wanted to get a paycheck, I had to make a minimum of 500 molds per day. I achieved that goal, and made sure my molds were good ones, so that quality control wouldn’t get on my ass. I apply the same rule to writing full-time. I write X amount of books per year to ensure I get a paycheck. I try my best to make sure they are good ones, so that quality control (the readers) doesn’t get on my ass.
I enjoy my job. I am very, very, very lucky. I get to stay home and make up stories about monsters and entertain people with the same things I like to be entertained with. I get to give something back to the genre that has given me so much. And I get paid for it. But I’m realistic. In order to earn that pay, I can’t get romantic about things. This isn’t a hobby. It’s not art. This is a business—and I approach it as such. If I don’t, I’ll be back in the foundry tomorrow.
A sad, silly bastard.
Hi. I’m Brian Keene, the White Castle of the horror genre. My burgers may not be duck almandine under glass, but they taste good and go down easy, and people buy them. My philosophy is simple. Call it the Tao of Keene, if you like. I work on two books a day, one in the morning and one at night. On average, it takes me four months to write the first draft of a novel. For every novel I’m currently working on, I have two more contracted. If the time ever comes where I don’t have that two to one ratio, I will go get a regular job. (I won’t write the first sentence until I have a contract and an advance check, and neither should you, if you can at all help it—however, I know that’s an unrealistic expectation for beginning authors. But why do I say it? If you spend four months on the book and the publisher goes bankrupt, you’re out four months of wages).
Writing full-time? That means that my income keeps the power on and the creditors off my back and allows us to buy groceries and clothing and go on vacation once a year. And in the end, that’s all that matters. I’m happy. My wife’s happy. We do okay.
That’s how I write full-time.