Last night I was at an author reading at the Strand, New York's premiere overpriced used bookstore. I have to give them credit as a store for building and marketing their brand so well that people will work for them despite accusations of discriminatory hiring policies.
Anyway, the author was a favorite comic strip artist of mine who now had her first collection published, by a traditional publisher and everything. She was swamped by fans, and the signing lasted over an hour and a half, so much so that I went down to the main store, bought some books, then came back up, and there was still a huge line. I wish her all the best.
The Q&A was a bit awkward. People were happy about her success, but seemed to be under the impression that because she had one books published, she was rolling in dough and spending all of her time writing new comics to post on Tumblr, and those hand sales of the night were really helping her out. Meanwhile, I was estimating that if she made 7.5% (an average rate, though maybe not for illustrators) per copy at a $15.00 cover price, that meant she made ... $1.13 per book. Given the average costs of living in New York, even if her book is wildly successful, and she got some kind of advance, she'll be lucky to break even the first year, and beyond that, well, here there be dragons.
When I got into fiction writing as a career, I was told that for the first book, I would make about a $5000 advance, then about $35,000 for each additional book, meaning if I put out a book a year (a very reasonable rate for me) I would do okay. In fact I would do better than being an editorial assistant at a publishing company, where the salaries I was offered were from 28-30K, which could move up to 35K in five years, provided I was promoted. So that seemed like a plan.
Instead, my first advance was $1000 (after I talked them up from $500), my second advance was $2500 for a two-book deal, and several books continued in that vein until I was offered no advance at all and started self-publishing. At this point I have about fifteen major publications, between the novels, novellas, and short story collections, and I can't begin to make ends meet. (Skyrocketing health care costs don't help)
What I really wanted to ask this poor author, but didn't, was "So what's your other job?" Because I'm curious. Most writers who are not also English teachers guard their actual source of income from the public as a source of shame, which ends up misleading aspiring authors. I didn't want to shame her; I was genuinely curious myself, as I find myself at a career crossroads. But I didn't ask for obvious reasons, though she did mention in passing that she got started on comics when she was bored on a night shift security job, which got me wondering how I could score a sweet job like that that let me sit at a desk and write all night, because those jobs usually prefer to hire beefy guys and she was not a beefy guy.
What writers are doing for a living now has become a genuinely interesting question to me. An established pop culture writer, whose books I own, recently posted to social networks that he'd been hired to do an article but was posting to GoFundMe because he couldn't afford the transportation costs. In other words, the company had not paid him the money required to even get the assignment done, resulting in a loss for him. What was he writing for - exposure?
If anyone wants to sound off on this, anonymously or otherwise, I would be interested. It would be good for upcoming writers to know what they're getting into. Not that I want to put you off from writing that novel. I just feel that if you're that committed, it'll happen anyway.