The very talented artist Patricia Storms put up a great post on her blog that got me thinking.
People have a lot of assumptions about writers and illustrators and we're not doing ourselves any favours by not addressing them head on. So, for the curious, here are some realities about trying to make your living as a writer. (I can't speak for being an illustrator, but there are many similarities.)
1. Yes, getting published is very exciting and something that so many people strive for, but it does not mean we are rich. [See below.]
2. On average, writers receive royalties anywhere from 5% (for a picture book, for instance, since royalties are split with the illustrator) to 10%. Let's do the math. If the book costs $10, the author is actually receiving between 50 cents and $1. [See 1.]
3. Very few writers actually receive the "six figure advances" you sometimes hear about. Some receive $0. Others a few hundred or a few thousand. This varies, of course, but it is not "free money." These are "advances against royalties." In theory the publisher is advancing you monies they project that the book will safely recoup. Once it is published the writer makes $0 until that royalty advance is paid out. [See 1.]
4. Other than a few free copies (about 10, say) writers have to buy their own books. Yes, we get them at the same discount as a bookseller (40% off retail), but we don't have an endless supply of our own books without forking over cash.
5. When people demand cheap books [or cheap anything, frankly] someone is getting screwed. Like those big box discounts? It's because big box stores demand a very hefty discount (perhaps as much as 55%) while the "mom and pop" bookstore down the street can only get 40%. Writers, illustrators and publishers are also making less. [See 2. This means we might only make 30 cents for each sale! Whoopee! See 1.]
6. Writers often have to pay for things you might assume a publisher would cover. This includes purchasing photographs, paying for illustrations (maps, for instance), creating a website, organizing a tour, etc.
7. More and more, writers and illustrators are expected to take on publicity and marketing themselves. Very few books and authors get "tours" and big budget marketing plans. I have received a whopping total of $100 for travel over my 20 years as a published writer. (From publishers that is. I have received support from programs such as the Canadian Book Centre's Book Week and other festivals.)
8. Most writers and illustrators have to do other work to continue. While I have been a full-time writer and editor for many years, I work on many different things — textbooks, interpretive centre media, government documents, and the like. I love the variety, but it's not an easy go. Like Patricia, I have often had thoughts of throwing in the towel to become a waitress. I published my first book in 1991 and have published over 30 books. [See 1.]