My last post about my wonderful, horrible, exciting, terrifying year of trying to be “a writer” seems to have struck a nerve with some other writers. Some people expressed interest in more details of that year, with an emphasis on the economics. So here’s my brutally honest look at how those economics worked out (or didn’t) for me. I’m not saying that this is what other people would experience, and I’m not even remotely pretending that I made wise or even halfway intelligent choices. This is just what I did, and what the results were.
Be warned. This is long. And detailed. And probably not very flattering to me, and potentially discouraging for you if you are a writer trying to make money. Also be warned that I didn’t consult a spreadsheet for this, the math might be off a bit here and there, and certainly isn’t accurate to the penny, but the story is accurate enough.
To recap… On December 15, 2014, I was laid off of my corporate job. It was a good job, I had reached that supposedly magical plateau of “six figures” several years back, so by most traditional measures of personal financial success, I had “made it” before losing that job.
Being laid off included a generous separation package. I won’t reveal how generous, I know some people who got better ones and some people who got worse ones, but it was good enough that I decided I could live for a year “unemployed” and after that year, either return to the work force, or carry on in my new dream career of “author.”
Now, I realize that the decision I made to pursue a writing career was incredibly risky and many, many people would consider it not merely “foolish” but downright “foolhardy.” And they may well be right, you’ll see at the end of this what my current financial situation actually is. But there is more to life than money… I think.
To continue the recap, I had significant savings for retirement and pretty decent equity in my home as well. And we (my wife and I) both wanted to move closer to our families, so we also decided to move during that year, and build a “dream home” in a dream location. So, yeah, not only did I decide to throw away a solid career, I also uprooted my family and dragged them halfway across the country. In retrospect, not something I would recommend to others. But to get back to the economics…
For seven years previous to that layoff, I had been working on my own version of the “Great American Novel” in my spare time. So as of that layoff date, I had the severance, my savings and about 120,000 words cobbled together into something like a story. I also had managed to snag a fairly decent free-lance opportunity that allowed me to pick potential articles from a list presented by the editors, and if they liked the proposal, they would pay for the finished article. So besides the savings, I had an avenue that could produce some income, depending on how well my proposals were received, and whether they were published.
And then I jumped into the grand adventure of my life.
So we’ll start the accounting there. Zero dollars invested so far, and zero dollars made. I announced my intentions on Facebook, to remarkably little interest among my friends, and posted some comments on some of the blogs I followed, such as Sarah Hoyt, a sci-fi writer who lived near me. Upon hearing my crazy plan to “become a writer,” Sarah recommended that I sign up for something called the “Superstars Writing Seminars” or SSWS. So I did. Because I was signing up at the last moment, I had to pay something like $750 for the seminar, and also reserve a hotel room in Colorado Springs for another $270 or so. Figure a grand. So now I was a thousand dollars in the hole, before I even started.
From Dec 15 to Jan 18 I focused on whipping my first book “Warrior” into something resembling a novel. That included doing my own editing, my own artwork and my own cover. On Jan 19, 2015, just over one month into my grand adventure, I hit the “publish” button on Amazon.com’s Kindle Select program and entered the realm of “published” authors. Well, “published” in the sense that anyone with an Amazon.com account could buy my book. Then I waited for the money to come pouring in, while I prepared for the SSWS event in early February.
By the time I rolled into Colorado Springs to join my fellow authors in celebration of our literary ambitions, I had sold roughly sixty books, most to my family and friends. At $2.99 a copy, that meant I had pocketed the princely sum of approximately $104.31. I say “approximately” because it turns out that it’s pretty hard to figure out exactly what you make until Amazon actually deposits the money in your bank account, and they pay out sixty days after the end of each month. So even that $104.31 was mostly theoretical, and I wouldn’t see it until the end of March. And now I was buying gas and meals in Colorado Springs as well. So by the time I got done with the seminar, I was about $1,500 in the negative column.
But now I was just writing. Since I was still living on my separation package, I didn’t count my living expenses against my writing income, at least not until a year had passed. In February and March, while still writing Warlock, I sold a couple of free-lance articles and made a couple hundred bucks each month, which I did count as writing income, so by the end of March, when my first Amazon paycheck came in, I was back down to -$1,000.00 in the balance sheet.
And Warlock, my second book in the series, was coming along fine, or so I thought. But in March we began the process of moving to Arkansas in earnest. I was driving to and from Arkansas twice a month, spending several days at a time, looking at lots to purchase. That went on until the end of April, when we finally found a beautiful lot on Norfork Lake, outside of Mountain Home, Arkansas, and bought it.
That meant it was time to start getting the house built. Or, at least the process of getting paperwork done and working with builders to get bids. Which takes a whole lot longer than I thought. Like months longer.
Of course, during all this, Warrior was still up on Amazon. In February I made another $140 or so, paid out in the end of April, so now I was at roughly -$840… Not great, but moving in the right direction.
Now, I have to admit that by the end of February, my enthusiasm was drastically declining, after making less than $300 in six weeks of sales. But I had made a decision to give this thing a year, so I persevered.
And in March, something amazing happened. I don’t even know why. I wasn’t buying any ads. All I was doing was some basic Facebook, blogging and other social media things, none of them at any cost. But Warrior started to sell. My total sales in March hit $1,010. I was actually making money now. That was huge. My investment in SSWS was paying off.
Then April came in at $1,040. I was now at a positive $1,200 or so. And looking up! And of course I had no expenses at all. I just sat at my keyboard and wrote. Well, when I did that. Most of my time was still involved in dealing with the move to Arkansas, but I did keep plugging away at Warlock. I actually had my first draft done by the middle of May. I figured I’d publish it in June, and then I’d be making REAL money.
At that point in time, I was full of enthusiasm and convinced that I had figured this whole writing thing out. Because I was bringing in money with Warrior, I wasn’t even doing any free-lance work anymore.
May brought in $1,230. Still going up. Woohoo! I’m +$2,000 now! Maybe I should get a real cover for Warrior and Warlock, and hire an editor for Warlock. You know, “do it right this time.”
So I did. My covers for Warrior and Warlock cost me $1,100. Editing cost me $2,300. So that was $3,300 committed (but not paid yet). But I figured “What the heck? I’m making money.” I had no doubt I would make the additional $1,300 I needed to pay for the editing and book covers by the time the bills were due.
Then I hit the downside of the Warrior sales curve. And when it went down, it went fast. I was a deer in headlights. June brought in $785. Not even enough to cover my editing and book cover costs. I had to dip into my personal income to pay them. While I was also negotiating the cost of building my house. After six and a half months, my great writing adventure had netted me a net negative $515.
And then I got the editor’s results. Oh my gosh. I had a lot of work to do on Warlock. I realized it would take weeks of hard work to finish it. Ouch.
So I hit the free-lance route hard in July and August. I pulled in about $1,500 in free-lance work those months. Warrior sales in July were only $682. But I was $1,700 in the black again. My free-lance work at least kept me hoping that I could make this work.
In August, the bottom fell out. $440 in sales. But I also spent $350 on cover design, so ended up netting only $90 in August.
By then we were heavily into the actual moving. I was hauling our stuff from Colorado to Arkansas every other week, and dealing with renting a house and selling our home in Colorado, so my writing on Warlock slowed to a crawl.
September was $209, and I did no free-lance work. Our closing date on our home in Colorado was Sept 11, so pretty much the entire month of September was devoted to moving, and to trips to see my cancer-ridden brother.
But I did manage to get Warlock finished. On October 8, I published Warlock. Just a few weeks after my brother passed away from cancer.
Now, that meant I had been a “writer” for almost ten months. Had written two books, published one and had “done well” with that first book by most people’s estimation. And I had a grand total of right at $2,000 in my writing account. Not even enough to pay for the covers and edits I would need on “Warlord” the third book in the series. And I had to pay $500 to reserve a slot for that editing, bringing me down to $1,500.
Having finished Warlock, I did return to free-lance work, and managed to make a couple hundred bucks in October, but most importantly, I was lucky enough to get an opportunity for a long-term free-lance gig starting in December.
So as I hit the publish button on Warlock, my spirits were low. My finances looked horrible. My year of writing was coming to a close, and my grand dreams of proving I had what it takes, were pretty clearly demonstrating exactly the opposite. Those were dark times, I’m afraid.
And then Warlock started to sell. But more than that, Warlock triggered renewed interest in Warrior. Plus I raised my prices and sold both Warrior and Warlock at $3.99 instead of $2.99. I thought that would potentially kill sales, but it didn’t.
October sales from Warlock and Warrior combined came in at $1,800. My biggest month by far. My roller coaster was back on the upward track. The only history I had to go on was Warrior, and that sales curve had lasted four months, so I hoped the same thing would happen again, but bigger. My enthusiasm soared, and I started hitting Warlord pretty hard. I had a Jan 4 deadline to deliver it to my editor, and I was feeling productive again. My balance book put me at $3,300. But remember, Amazon pays out sixty days after sales, so that big October payday wouldn’t come in until December 31, just in time to pay my editor. In an attempt to rev the sales engine even higher, I poured about $400 into advertising. Maybe it paid for itself. I don’t know. But it didn’t set the world on fire.
November was, again, my biggest month, at $2,010. Money I wouldn’t see until the end of January, but still entered into my ledger as income from writing. $4,900 in the black, and, hopefully still rising. But it was now the holidays and work on Warlord was not getting the attention it should. I was starting to really sweat that Jan 4 deadline. Plus, my severance money was running out, and $2,000 a month might sound like a decent performance for a couple books, but it wouldn’t come close to covering my bills. It was time to admit that this grand adventure was a failure, and to start looking for a real job. Taking more time away from writing Warlord, putting more pressure on me to finish it by Jan 4.
You can guess the rest. December sales were down to $1,400 and falling fast by the end of the month, promising a very disappointing January. My first free-lance jobs were coming in but those also tend to pay out 60 days or so from submission, so that wasn’t going to help much. After getting my December payout from Amazon, on Jan 1, 2016, more than a year after my adventure began, I had $6,300 on paper, but only $1,500 or so in the bank. And a big editing bill coming due, plus a book cover to purchase for Warlord.
Warlord wasn’t ready on Jan 4. I’m ashamed to admit that. I didn’t just miss a deadline, I delivered a sub-par product. I knew that my writing was suffering from all the stress, but I kept pushing it trying to make it happen. I ended up having to work out a partial edit for Warlord, with me finishing the editing, both because I wasn’t done with the book, and because I simply couldn’t afford to edit the full book. My editor was great, but I know it hasn’t done much for my reputation in the industry.
So, that leaves me where I am right now.
I went back to work last week, making a whole lot less than I used to. I think I’ll be able to make up a bunch of the difference with my writing, especially my free-lance writing. So I’m not terribly upset about my financial situation. We’ll get the house built and be able to pay our bills, and I’m still writing, so who knows what will happen with my next books?
But here’s the bottom line, if anyone actually made it this far:
After thirteen months from being laid off, and a full year from hitting “publish” on my first book, My total “profit” from writing exists right now in the form of sales I had since November, which will be paid out in January; sales from December, which will be paid out in February; plus some free lance payments I should get in that same time period. I’m expecting to maybe hit $500 in book sales in January. Warlord MIGHT be out near the end of February. I also have to pay for the SSWS seminars in February, but luckily I’ll get that big check from November in a little more than a week.
I’ve got $185 real money in my writing checking account as I type this. I’m sure I could have worked harder and been more productive, but I did get two books out and am very close to my third, which is a decent output for an epic fantasy author, I think. I have roughly $5,400 in earned sales that haven’t yet hit my bank account yet, but which I should be able to count on receiving.
If Warlord has a similar sales curve to Warlock (which I strongly doubt) then I’ll have made a profit from the War Chronicles Series of roughly $10,000 or so. I’ll have paid editors, artists and layout people about $6,000, spent about $1,500 on seminars and online writing courses and spent about $1,000 on ads. $10,000 net income in a year isn’t a career, that’s a hobby. And, oh yeah, I spent $1,200 a few weeks ago on a new computer, and charged it on my writing credit card. My ancient laptop was blue-screening so much that I was beginning to fear it would wipe out an entire day’s work, or more.
In the end, I’ve learned a few things.
- I don’t write well when I am in terror of ending up homeless.
- I don’t write well when I focus on the economics.
- I write well when I’m able to think about my stories without feeling like every single word has to make a profit.
- My “success” so far, in having made any profit at all on my first books, seems to be unusual for self-published, unknown authors. I’ve had a lot of other writers tell me they wish they had sales similar to mine. To which I can only say, “wow.”
Now that I’ve gotten past the pressure of deadlines on Warlord, the words are flowing again, and I’m feeling positive about the conclusion to the series. I think it will satisfy those who read the entire series, I just don’t think there will be that many readers who actually read all three books. But I will not deliver a low-quality product, even if it means it gets published in March.
I’m having fun writing again. I’m watching my house go up on our lot, and I’m enjoying my new job. This last year will be one of those years I look back on as a wild and crazy experiment that is totally at odds with my normal approach to life.
The thing is, for pretty much my entire adult life, I had told myself that I could make it as a writer. And despite the fact that I’m back at a regular job, and made a pittance of “real money” in my year of being a “pure writer,” I think I learned a lot, and what I learned will help me to keep on writing even as I’m working a day job. And now I will never have to go to my deathbed wondering what my life would have been like if I had only had the courage to follow my dream.
I followed it. And because of what I learned by doing so, I’ll be following that dream for the rest of my life. I wanted to become a writer. And I succeeded at that. And that’s more important, really, than the balance book in the end.