The question of how much a fiction writer earns is a tough one to answer, because there are so many fiction writers and they run the gamut from zero to richer than the Queen of England.
Remember sixth grade math? Average is found by adding up what every fiction writer earns in a year and then dividing the answer by the total number fiction writers.
So, if 100 fiction writers earned a total of $100,000 — then the average income is $1000.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the answer to the question of average into for ‘writers and authors’ in 2016 was $61,820 per year. (Writers and Authors covers more writers than just novelists. So this isn’t a perfect answer on more than one level.)
I’ll pause a minute for most of the fiction writers that I know to catch their breath from all the laughing.
The problem is that there are a few writers who earn the vast majority of that $61,820 average. So, using my example of 100 fiction writers earning $100,000 — there might be one that earns $75,000, leaving the other 99 to share the remaining $25,000 in some way. Probably with one other writer earning $24,000 of that and the majority of fiction writers earning nothing or very close to nothing.
My husband has spent most of his adult life as a craps dealer in casinos in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and Reno. At the end of each shift all of the tips (they call them tokes) earned during that shift are pooled and ‘cut.’ Each dealer earns an equal share.
If we all got to equally share all of the money earned by all of the writers in a year, ‘writers and authors’ would make $61,820.
Sometimes casino dealers don’t split tokes evenly. Sometimes, they ‘go for their own.’ That means that each person keeps any tokes that they’re offered.
Writers and Authors go for their own.
We don’t all get to equally share the money that writing endeavors earn in a year. Most make considerably less than the median. Many work for years without receiving any income at all.
This isn’t the kind of job where you get a nice, steady, reliable pay check every month, either. So even if a writer has a year where they earn the ‘average’, it doesn’t mean that they will again next year. Or any other year ever again.
Here’s my fiction-earning background.
In 2012 I sold two novels to a major publisher. My advance against royalties was $7500 for each book, or a total of $15,000. It took me two years to write the first book (before it was sold, of course, so two years of writing without pay or any real proof I’d ever be paid) and two years to fulfill my contract and be paid the entirety of my advance.
So, about $3750 per year for four years work.
Last summer (July 2017) I sold two more novels to a different major publisher. My advance this time was considerably larger: $75,000 total for two books. Most of that was paid in 2017, so I did actually earn close to the median for the first time that year.
I sold four books in six years and earned a bit less than $100,000. A solid part-time income.
The real answer to this question is this: The average income for a fiction writer depends on what kind of money they’re pulling in via their day job.
I talk sometimes about quitting my day job — which three years ago was pretty awful. I was the assistant to a burned out special education teacher. I earned $9 an hour and, although I loved the kids, going to work everyday was a struggle.
But the truth is, I didn’t quit my day job because I was earning a full-time income writing fiction. I quit my terrible day job for a much better day job where I can be my own boss. Doing work that is not fiction writing.
One of the best ways I know to be a happy writer is to learn to think wider.
Don’t isolate your writing as a separate thing. Consider it part of the whole of your life. If you can, think about your writing as a business and everything you do to earn an income as being in service to that business.
You’re probably going to have to have a day job for a while. Most likely a good long while. Whether you resent that or embrace it is entirely up to you.
Convince yourself that your employer is actually your biggest client. I know it sounds weird, but just try it.
You are the boss of You, Inc.
You, Inc.’s main business is writing. But also? It serves as a provider of whatever it is you do at your day job. A fine purveyor of retail blue jeans or seller of perfectly flipped burgers or provider of quality education to children in the third grade.
Right now, the burger-flipping, blue-jean-selling, elementary-school-teaching arm of You, Inc. might be subsidizing the fiction writing arm — but it won’t forever. Or maybe it will. Who knows? But, the fiction writing arm will eventually become at least more self-sustaining if you give it time.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s represented by Elizabeth Bennett at Transatlantic Literary Agency and her most recent book is The Astonishing Maybe. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the original Ninja Writer.