Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Chris Eboch on Making a Living from Writing

Two years ago I wrote a post called “Can You Make a Living from Writing?“ wherein I shared information on where I made money as a writer in 2012. Since I’ve recently organized my 2014 tax information, and I’m giving a workshop called “Show Me the Money” at the New England SCBWI conference, I thought it was a good time to revisit the subject.

I am a full-time, working writer. I do not have a day job, and while I do have a spouse with a decent job, we could not survive on his income alone. I have been making in the range of $25,000 a year in recent years, creeping up slightly over the last couple of years. (For comparison, the US national median wage is about $27,000 for an individual. Hey, I’m average!)

My “writing” income includes writing-related activities such as teaching writing workshops and critiquing manuscripts

A couple of observations before we get into the dollar signs:

In some ways, it would be nice to “just write” whatever I wanted without worrying about money. However, when I was at a point in my life where I had to fully support myself through my writing, my career took off. I not only increased my income from about $5000 per year to over $20,000 per year, but I also got many more books published. Needing to make decisions based on what the market wants, and not just what I wanted to do, made that difference.

It’s been 20 years since I got my Masters degree in Professional Writing and Publishing. In the last year or two, I’ve finally reached a point where the business is getting easier. If I send out resumes for work for hire jobs, my response rate is probably around 25%. In the beginning, it was no more than 5%.

On the other hand, selling original fiction or nonfiction has not gotten any easier.

Now let’s look at my sources of income, comparing 2012 to 2014 (I’m quoting from the previous post regarding 2012, followed by 2014 numbers and comments if relevant):

Magazine Articles: 2012 – 22%. This included about 20 articles, paying from $100-$600. Many were for Children’s Writer or Writers Guide to 2013. I also did several for a New Mexico publication, one for a science magazine, and a few online articles.

2014 – 12%, and this is likely to go down even more, now that Children’s Writer is no longer publishing.

Critiques: 2012 – 21%. I did about 25 individual critiques, material ranging from synopses to 300+ page novels, plus a set of critiques for a contest. (Learn more about my critique business.)

2014 – 25%. I only count 16 individual critiques last year, but some of those were for long novels that paid well. I also got paid well to be a mentor by one of the SCBWI regions. That involved working with two writers, critiquing each of their novels twice.

Work-for-Hire Books: 2012 – 13%. I wrote three short nonfiction books, plus one longer one, but only half the income for that came in before the end of the year.

2014 – 33%. This income really went up last year. Most of my work was with one book packager. I did three short books and three longer titles.

Teaching: 2012 – 11%. I taught two in-person classes through a writing organization and also taught students one-on-one through a correspondence school. In 2011, I did a lot of workshops at SCBWI conferences around the country, but not in 2012.

2014 – 10%. I did several SCBWI workshops. Income from the correspondence school dropped to ~$200 as I lowered my student load, but I did several online workshops/webinars. The webinar business has failed to take off, however, and I don’t have plans to pursue that further.

Royalties: 2012 – 9%, all from The Well of Sacrifice, the first novel I ever sold. It came out in 1999, but it’s still in print and used in many schools as supplemental fiction when they teach about the Maya. None of my other royalty-paying work had earned out yet.

2014 – 14%. A nice increase, because the two books I did for Simon & Schuster’s Childhood of Famous Americans series, Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker and Milton Hershey: Young Chocolatier, started paying royalties. They came out in 2008. With three books now earning royalties, hopefully that will be several thousand dollars a year in passive income.

Self-Publishing: 2012 – 13%. By the end of
2012, I had five books published in e-book and print on demand, but the amount earned per book varied dramatically.

2014 – 6%. This one is disappointing, because I have more books available (both as Chris Eboch children’s book writer and as Kris Bock writing romantic adventures for adults), but I’m making less money. The market is flooded. I had hoped this would turn into a passive income stream as well, but so far it hasn’t been a good investment.

Educational Test Passages/School VisitsIn 2012 I had a little income from each. No school visits in 2014. I did a few test passages. Some authors make many thousands of dollars per year doing test assessment work.

Novel Advances: No income in either year.

For both 2012 and 2014, I drew in my income from many different sources. The main difference is that by 2014, work for hire books became more important, while income from magazine articles decreased. Both those trends show the rewards – and risks – of developing good relationships with a company.

Once you get in the door, if you turn in excellent work on time, you’ll likely get more work. This is obviously a benefit, but it also means you could lose a big chunk of your income if that company change its policies or goes out of business. While I’ve enjoyed working with the one book packager, I have also sent out resumes to other publishers, trying to build additional relationships. Having several options also means that you can afford to turn down the lowest paying or least interesting projects.

Other authors make money from different sources, or in different proportions. Literary agent Jennifer Laughran wrote a blog post called REAL TALK: $ix Figure Book Deal$ on “normal” advances, and on how the big numbers break down. If someone got the upper end $30,000 advance on a young adult novel from a midsized traditional publisher, that one sale would equal most of my writing income. (Except that it would likely pay out over the course of two or more years.)

However, for most of us, big-money novel sales are few and far between. Most of the writers I know making an annual “living wage,” or anything close to it, focus more on nonfiction, work for hire, and teaching. School visit used to be a major income source for a lot of children’s book writers. I suspect that has declined in recent years, but I don’t know for sure.

There is no single path or right path. Many writers don’t even care about making money from their writing– if you can survive without writing income, more power to you! But perhaps this post has given you some ideas for your own career or insight into what it means to be a writer.

Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages, with several novels for ages nine and up. In Bandits Peak, a teenage boy meets strangers hiding on the mountains and gets drawn into their crimes, until he risks his life to expose them. The Eyes of Pharaoh is an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt. The Genie’s Gift is an Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy adventure. In The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala rebels against the High Priest who sacrifices anyone challenging his power.

Her book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

As Kris Bock, Chris writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page


  1. Chris, we often disagree, but I always appreciate your candor and honesty. I may not always sound like it (I do get emotional and hostile at times, because I want my publishing carere so bad it hurts!) but I do listen, and (SLOWLY) learn what I can.

    Now more than ever, we writers need to help each other in whatever ways we can,

    I know full well the more verstile you can be, the more opprotunities you can make for youself, that's true in most professions, and I know many writers like you who are so multi-skilled it's envy inducing!

    Sure, they face hard times as you and others have, but they're at least not limited to on or two areas. I took many a course on writing for the magazine market, and while I learned a lot, and my instrcutors challenged me in good ways, I realized that I prefered longer form writing, magazines were just too limiting for me length-wise, and I didn't feel comfortable giving up all rights to something I might want to use later.

    Nonfiction may be the easier sell, but nonfiction's not my strength, and I couldn't make that my primary focus right now, and I've TRIED in the past, not just for whatever money I could get () but because I want to have more skills I can leverage.

    Never say never, and I file away nonfiction ideas, but that's the truth for where I'm at now. I stick with fiction since that's where my heart is, and if it's going to be hard no matter what, I may as well be toiling away at something I truly believe in and love, and frankly it's what am better at.

    I'd just like to make enough so I can invest in making the next work better, I think one of the things I'm concerned writers at your level or higher don't respect or understand is the difference between "Can't" and "Won't" when it comes to making investments in your career, whether that's indie publishing your own work, or going to (in-person) writer's conferences to touch base and (physically) meet agents and editors looking for authors to work with.

    Just because you can't dish out the upfront costs involved, doesn't mean you don't value what they're worth, and I get concerned whenever writers at your level of experience or higher make light of. You don't, and I did misread you at times (I think was a mix a frustration and jealousy on my part) but I've heard many a writer make light of this push-pull between
    "Just do it!" and "Do it right"

    To be continued...

  2. One of the reasons I persisted the agent/publisher route for as long as I did is because for the gripes writers make about publishers don't do or haven't ever done, and even if that meant I'd make less in the long run, the best among them can still give two things writers starting out can't always give themselves on their own, editing and professional cover design. Not because they don't think their book's worth the flipping investment, for heaven's sake, they just can't afford to finance it all on their own. "Can't" is not a dirty copout word when it's the truth.

    I'm not saying that as an excuse not to be professional, please understand that, but I do think some of that is simply because that (hacks and plagarirsts aside) many writers feel torn between "Just do it!" and "Do it right."

    Sometimes writers "Just do it!" to both offset procrastinating on their ambitions and face the aftermath of not having ideally pro-level first impression of their work.

    Sometimes I think the sucessful indie authors (and for my purposes in this comment, or rather editorial, ANYONE who's not deeply in the red from indie publishing, even if they're not making "bank" is successful to me) overly hype "Just do it!" and make light of "Do it right" that often means paying for things you can't give youself like editing, illustrations and/or cover design.

    Conversly, authors like you and a few others I know, always stress doing it right, even if that means a longer journey to get there, and I can't count how many times I was tempted to but I smartly resisted.

    Even if I wasn't an impatient soul (which I sadly am) I don't want every book to take a decade! I've got too many stories in me for that, and I mean that both CREATIVELY and professionally.

    On the one hand, we can't stay in "learning mode" FOREVER and never act on that learning, yet making the pro-level first impression is getting ever harder and more expensive. Plus, on top of all that, we here more and more how having a backlist is ever more important so we're getting our name out there on a farily regular basis, etc.

    But there's a BIG difference between writing 10 books and those same 10 books being equally high quality, and just ONE book can require a lot of upfront investment if you're doing it on your own.

    I was able to sell my middle grade novel, GABRIEL, to a small press, one I trust, in large part because my editor believes in the book as much as I do, and I'm getting the editoral feedback and printing/production I could never have given myself, or could afford to outsource, and as you must well know, finding the right (and credible) freelance editor can be as hard as getting an agent.

    Even though you're the one directly paying them upfront, versus trying to get an agent where they have to make the first move, even though the final decision is ours as the author, if we haven't signed a contract we can turn it down and either keep looking or seek other options. But just getting an offer (even it's not good, but also not shady!) is a trial all by itself.

    I'm not saying that as an excuse. Just that I know that's what I'm facing, and I can't be alone in that, even if none of the wriers in my inner circle face it.

    Okay, enough of my rambling, thanks for the honesty and take care.

  3. Chris, I also thank you for your candor. You are braver than I am, although my income sources since I left my editor's job at Hearst and became self-employed mimic your own income sources. The one exception is I only self-published one NF writing book and don't have plans to self-publish fiction.

    Which brings me to my question. Self-published writers keep saying this market is turning around and will be the future of publishing. I even read an article today recommending librarians invest in self-published e-books by non-Caucasian writers. What is your take on the self-published market in children's lit now that you've had several years experience in it? Are you going to continue to pursue self-publishing fiction?

  4. Chris, thank you for tackling this subject--which can be such a taboo subject for many. I appreciate your openness, and giving us a realistic look about what income for a full-time writer can be like. My takeaway: diversify!~

  5. This is so fascinating. Thank you for this glimpse into your world and for giving us the comparative breakdown. Like I say, you're the hardest working writer I know!

  6. Fantastic post -- thanks so much for sharing. There is so much smoke and mirrors about writing income, and this is offers both truth and advice about how to make a living at this business, year in and out.

  7. An update on self-publishing – the market has actually gotten MUCH harder in the last couple of years, even for the "big sellers" like romance for adults, and it's almost impossible to make money off of books for middle grade or younger readers.

    1. Chris, any idea why this has happened? I keep reading that self-publishing is doing better and better.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!