Michelle Rowen

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In which I discuss the M word

I received this email the other day and thought my answer to the sender was something more people might like to know about, so I asked permission to post some of it and here it is. 

Dear Michelle,

I have some questions I hope you can answer, if they are not too private I mean. I have always wanted to write full-time. But I’m worried that I won’t be able to write a book fast enough. On average, how long does it take you to finish a project? Does a writer’s deadline depend entirely on the editor? I write five pages a day at the most when in the middle of a project. I get an hour a day to write, which is part of the problem. Would I be able to survive being a full-time writer? And how do you deal with this?

The money side of writing has always been the part I worried about the most. A lot of writers that put stuff out very often are what I have heard being called as “midlist”. If most writers end up there, what exactly does that mean in terms of money? Would I be able to support my family?

–Aspiring Writer


Dear Aspiring Writer,

I can’t really tell you too many specifics about money — mostly because it’s very different for everyone. You’ll have one author who makes a couple hundred dollars from their book and another who gets a million dollar advance. Doesn’t mean one is any better than the other, in my opinion. It’s just the luck of the draw and how marketable the publisher thinks your book is.

DO NOT become a writer because you want to make a lot of money at this. I can pretty much guarantee that you will be disappointed if that is your goal. While I do currently make enough money to do this full time, that is due to my four book a year writing schedule. That’s one book every 3 months, and that includes editorial revisions, proofreading and promo (which takes up about half of my time). I work seven days a week at this and my vacations in the last five years have all been writing related (conventions, NYC, etc). These expenses are not comped by the publisher, they’re out of pocket.

The average new author will make between $5000 – $10,000 for their first book when they sell to a big New York publisher (this may be a generous estimate) — this is split up over several payments: usually half up front, a quarter when you’re finished the revisions the publisher wants, and a 1/4 when it’s published (so this could take up to a year to get your entire advance). If the book does really well, you may see royalties on top of that, but you will not see them for at least a year after the book is published (so now we’re at two years since the book was initially bought). There are exceptions, like I said above. You may very well get a huge advance, but the odds of that are similar to winning the lottery.

The midlist author is essentially any author who is not on the major bestsellers lists — New York Times, USA Today. So that is the majority of us. It is incredibly difficult to break out of the midlist, and again the lottery scenario comes into play. It’s hard enough to get published in the first place, but getting to the next tier is another major hurdle.

I’m not saying these things to discourage you, but they’re simply facts — ones that you’ll learn eventually if you pursue this whole-heartedly. I encourage you to write because you love your characters and want to tell stories. Write in the genre that you love to read. Don’t try to write to the market in order to sell because if you do sell you’re going to have to write that kind of thing for a long time since it will become “your brand.” That’s not to say that you can’t write with an eye on the market. See what’s selling and how your voice can fit in. Do tons of research both online and off about publishing. I have a section on my website with my advice to writers (it’s off the bio page).

It’s hard not to get excited about the money end of things when people like Stephenie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King are seemingly cashing in but, believe me, they are the exception to the rule.

As far as being prolific, five pages a day is a very good pace. I usually do 15 pages a day when I’m working on a first draft. Bitten & Smitten took me the better part of two years to write but I took my time with it and wasn’t working to any assigned deadline. While I had a full time job I was only writing a book every 10 months but I knew this wouldn’t help me build my name so I took a risk and quit my day job. To say I’m driven right now would be an understatement. To write 4 books a year I’m always at the computer. It’s my life. You have to ask yourself how much you’re willing to put into it and sacrifice for it.

Bottom line, I would strongly suggest working hard on your first book, shopping it out to get an agent, and seeing where this takes you. In other words, cross the money bridge when you come to it, but always, always remember that the writing should be the reward itself.

I wish you great luck with your writing. As difficult as it can be sometimes, it’s been an adventure I wouldn’t trade for anything!

Best wishes!

15 comments to “In which I discuss the M word”

  1. gwen hayes
     · October 19th, 2009 at 9:11 pm · Link

    Great post and very important info.

  2. Jen
     · October 19th, 2009 at 9:18 pm · Link

    Nice post. You balance the reality and the dream very well.

  3. Nick Pollotta
     · October 19th, 2009 at 9:18 pm · Link

    What Michelle said is pretty much on target. We write because we must, there is a fire in our blood. We write because we must, there is no choice in the matter.
    Don’t try to become an author purely for the money. You are guarenteed to be disappointed.
    As actors like say, “Don’t quit your day job, kid!” That’s good advice.

  4. Jessica Wilhoite
     · October 19th, 2009 at 9:23 pm · Link

    Get information. I’ve had those same questions myself.

  5. Jessica Wilhoite
     · October 19th, 2009 at 9:24 pm · Link

    Oops! I meant to say great information. Sorry, I’m half asleep. :)

  6. Lisa
     · October 19th, 2009 at 9:25 pm · Link

    Thank you!! I am so grateful to you for sharing this info.

  7. Melissa Blue
     · October 19th, 2009 at 9:32 pm · Link

    Don’t try to write to the market in order to sell because if you do sell you’re going to have to write that kind of thing for a long time since it will become “your brand.”

    I needed to hear this five years ago. So, ditto to everything you said.

  8. Laura
     · October 19th, 2009 at 9:37 pm · Link

    Thanks for writing this. It is hard to find real information about the money and the realities of fiction writing.

  9. Cari Quinn
     · October 19th, 2009 at 9:52 pm · Link

    As I said on Twitter…I love when you do these kinds of posts, Michelle. :) I have one saved from a couple years ago that you wrote to another aspiring author, and I’ve even gone back to read your old blog posts from when you got your first book deal. They’re inspiring to me because you’re living your dream. Any of us who have been writing for awhile know it’s not necessarily the stuff Cinderella’s were made of, but for us crazy types who love to write, this dream is what keeps us at the keyboard. (Oh, and that little thing called paying the bills, LOL)

    Thanks again. :)

  10. RKCharron
     · October 19th, 2009 at 9:56 pm · Link

    Hi Michelle :)
    Thank you for the informative post.
    I admire your work ethic & output!
    I love this post.
    Thank you for sharing,
    Love & Best Wishes,

  11. dakota cassidy
     · October 19th, 2009 at 10:20 pm · Link

    That second para describes my life to the nth degree. I’m ALWAYS at the comp. I’m now writing four books a year, too–one every three months and though it allows me to write full time, you do make sacrifices.

    Like showering. I do that like every three days or so when I’m unchained from my comp and allowed outdoor privileges for 20 minutes between the hours of 12 and 12:20. LOLLOL

    I’m kidding. Sort of :)

    Dakota :)

  12. Ash
     · October 20th, 2009 at 3:33 am · Link

    Hi Michelle

    Great info.

    You totally ROCK!!!!! I wished I be a great author just like you. Who knows one day in life I might be an author.

    From Ash’o

  13. Katy
     · October 20th, 2009 at 5:10 am · Link

    Really sensitive handling of a prickly topic, and lots of useful info – thanks Michelle!

  14. Tori
     · October 20th, 2009 at 5:40 pm · Link

    Michelle did a very good job answering this question. I just wanted to add that I don’t think the person who asked only wanted to do this for the money- they just wanted to know what they could expect if they became published. Just my two cents.

    Michelle- I think this post will answer many people’s questions regarding money. Thank you for being so sensitive to us aspiring writers while still remaining truthful.

  15. Michelle Rowen
     · October 20th, 2009 at 6:10 pm · Link

    You’re very right Tori. I cut some stuff out of the original email so the focus of this post would be the money issue, since it definitely is a reason why a lot of people do think that writing is an easy way to make money.

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