How to (realistically) make six figures as a writer

How one author brings home six figures each year without a day job – and how you can, too.

How one author brings home six figures each year without a day job – and how you can, too.

Hard Way #2: Get a six-figure advance

My first novel was sold in 2008 in a three-book deal in a bidding war that topped out at $110,000. It was the dream come true! The very stuff writing fairy tales are made of! My 911 friends were elated. “When will you quit? Today? Please let me watch! Or will you wait until the check comes in?” They’re cautious folk, as you’d imagine.

“I can’t quit,” I said. I’d read my contract carefully, and I’d done the calculations. “I can’t live on $22,000 a year.”

 

Let’s Do Some Math!

This might break your heart. That’s OK. You’re a writer. Your heart is strong, made of pencil lead and heavy typewriter keys. You can handle this.  

That first advance was for $110,000 in a three-book deal, delivered one book per year for three years. After agent fees (15% is industry standard – my amazing agent is worth every penny) and taxes (including standard tax and self-employment tax and things I don’t understand like qualified business income deduction), I brought home $66,849 for my deal. Hot damn! I’m still amazed when I see that number.

But that $66,849 was divided over three years, so I actually took home an average of $22,283 over those three years (the numbers fluctuated a few hundred dollars either way because of contract and tax reasons). I personally couldn’t quit my day job on that money.

I continued to write books, as many of them as I could. I kept doing complicated math around money because let’s face it, having the freedom to write full time comes almost always down to cash.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs says that before we even get to write a book – let alone live off the royalty checks – we need food, water, shelter, clothes, sleep, health, emotional wellbeing, safety, friendships, intimacy, and, at the very least, some basic self-esteem. If we have all those things and still have some money left over to pay for health insurance, writing snacks, and the internet, only then do we get to think about writing full time. I have a wife who supplements my income (she has health insurance for us! So important!), but we won’t make our bills or mortgage payment without me bringing in money. To pay my share of the bills, I knew that I had to bring home a minimum $3,600 a month, before taxes.

But how was I sure about this number?

Years before, after having a tear-filled panic attack in the car of another struggling writer friend, I finally accepted that I needed to get our finances under control. At that point, my wife and I were $115,000 in debt not including our mortgage. (Debt! Another shameful thing we don’t talk about enough!) We owed $25,000 on an old tax bill, $40,000 in credit card debt, and $50,000 in my student loan debt.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but in my mid-30s as the bill-payer in our family, I had no idea how money worked. I just knew that we shoved our paychecks in the bank every two weeks, yet there was never enough money to stretch between deposits.

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With a great deal of fear, I started to track our expenses, something all writers who want to go pro must do.

I used (and still use) a program called You Need a Budget, which changed our lives. You Need a Budget (or YNAB) is like Mint or Quicken, with one big exception – you give every dollar you own a job. After using it for a while, I learned astonishing things about money and about how much we actually needed, which was a much higher amount than I would have guessed based on our recurring monthly bills.

We started saving every month toward things like auto and home repairs, new computers and phones, and emergency expenses. The idea of having a fund standing by at the ready to buy the next computer when our old ones finally crapped out was revelatory. When our furnace died, we were able to write a check for a new one, instead of going into more debt. I’m not affiliated with YNAB in any way, but I’ve seen it change the lives of more than a dozen friends. I can’t recommend it more highly if you’re a writer who needs to get out of debt or to start saving for moving into full-time writing. 

Before I could leap from the day job, we needed to be out of non-mortgage debt. It took us six years of hard work, diligent YNAB-ing, and a nonprofit consumer credit consolidation to pay it all off, and when I clicked the button to send the last installment to my student loan, I felt prouder than I did the day my agent sold my first novel to HarperCollins.

From that moment forward, I worked toward building our savings high enough to allow me to quit 911. I wanted a six-month emergency fund, but I have to admit we didn’t get there. My wife’s mom got sick in another state, and I left my day job three months earlier than I’d planned. But I knew I’d been bringing in $3,600 a month from writing for a couple of years already. I thought I could probably keep it going.

I have. Here’s how.