Making money as a writer

| February 25, 2007

John Scalzi, author of Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades (both of which I highly recommend), gives a revealing look over on his website about how much money he has actually earned writing and editing science fiction over the past several years. For example:

2006 was the first year I received royalties on sales of Old Man’s War. The book had earned out on its advance roughly halfway through 2005 — but royalty statements are tallied up only twice a year (halfway through the fiscal year and then again at the end) and it takes a few months after that for the information (and checks) to be sent to agents and authors. And even when your book is in the black, there’s another publishing accounting practice called “reserves against returns,” in which the publisher holds some of your royalties in escrow just in case more than expected copies of your book come flooding back to the publisher from booksellers. What this reserves does (or, at the very least, did for me) is to retard the flow of royalties to the author by one royalty statement, which is to say, by another six months. So although Old Man’s War was published in January 2005, I waited seventeen months to get my first royalty check.

If you read Scalzi’s full posting (and you should), you’ll understand just how hard it can be to work up to full-time-salary-equivalent income as a writer. I managed to do it for a few years in the late 1980s (mostly writing for BYTE Magazine), but it’s tough and usually involves (as Scalzi notes) a long lead time and a certain amount of luck.

Be sure also to read Scalzi’s follow-up posting on why he wrote all this (quote: “…because someone should.” Italics his.), as well as his other follow-up posting on how his science fiction writing income fits within all his other income.

My own writing field, information technology, took a major, major hit with the 2000 Tech Crash — trade press publishers found themselves stuck with warehouses overflowing with now-unsellable 500-page books on various development technologies and tools. I attended the Waterside Productions Publishing Conference in 2001 hoping to find publishers interested in some of my book proposals; what I mostly found were publishers trying to survive and looking at significant cutbacks and consolidation. As far as I can tell, the last such annual conference was held in 2004, though I don’t know whether that reflects on-going struggles in the IT trade publishers or a decision on Waterside’s part that the conference just wasn’t worth it.

Anyway, kudos to Scalzi for having achieved what he has; it is no small thing. And go buy his books. ..bruce..

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Category: Writing

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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