GETTING RICH QUICK AS A NOVELIST
An Inside Look at the Financial Realities
By Eric Wilson
We’ve all heard about authors paid million-dollar advances. We’ve seen the debut book that sells millions and attracts a huge movie deal. Such stories make the headlines precisely because they are so uncommon.
In recent years, I released a vampire trilogy (a biblically-based tale of spiritual warfare), and certain people accused me of selling out for money, “fleecing the sheep,” and cashing in on the vampire craze generated by Twilight--although I started pitching my own series in 2005 before I’d ever heard of Stephenie Meyer. I’m not concerned with unbiased accusations. I am, however, intent on helping new authors as they step into the fray. A decade ago, as a budding novelist myself, I would’ve loved an honest representation of how the finances worked. So here goes . . .
I signed my first fiction contract in 2002. I committed to writing two novels for the publisher, Dark to Mortal Eyes and Expiration Date. My advance was $12,500 per book, with 15% going to my agent and another 20% going to Uncle Sam--meaning, I brought home around $9,000 per book Of course, I received only half up front, the other half upon publication. So I planted my butt in my chair and started writing. I turned in book one and book two. They hit the shelves in ’04 and ’05. They never sold enough to earn back my advance, and so the publisher had no obligation to ever pay me a dime in royalties. In the meantime, a film company optioned my second novel for a movie, paying $500 for that right. No screenplay was ever approved by investors, no movie was made, and my publisher kept the $500 toward the money still unearned on my advance.
I signed my second contract in 2004. Same terms. Same basic advance. Same results. The Best of Evil and A Shred of Truth came out in ’06 and ’07, and neither book earned me a cent in royalties.
Yep, you guessed it. My next three novels, Field of Blood, Haunt of Jackals, and Valley of Bones, all sold to a different publisher for the same advances I had earned on my earlier books. I pushed for more, I really did. But my agent said I had little bargaining power, based on my previous sales. Those books came out in ’08, ’09, and ’10. Slightly better sales, but still nothing close to earning any royalties.
In between publishing my own novels, I had the opportunity to write three novelizations based on original screenplays for the movies Flywheel, Facing the Giants, and Fireproof. Each book sold in accordance with the success of its matching film, and the third book earned good royalties--a first for me! It hit the lower end of the NY Times bestseller list, in the trade paperback category, and stayed there for 17 weeks. Many of my friends and family thought I must be set for life. I have to admit, I wondered how lucrative these types of sales numbers would be.
The reality? With twelve books published, I have brought home $225,000 since 2002. That’s $22,500 a year, after taxes and agents. Personally, I believe in giving from my income to various ministries, so that came out of there too. I’m not complaining about the published books, or the bestseller, or the approximate $200,000 net earned. No sir! But I could’ve made that amount of money in five years instead of ten if I’d stayed at my corporate job back in 1996. And, my family would’ve had health insurance. And 401(k). Unfortunately, those are not things publishers are in a position to offer, and most contracted writers and musicians have limited ability to obtain them.
I will never regret the road I’ve chosen. My wife has walked hand-in-hand with me on this journey, and we have seen provision in unexpected, often last-minute, ways. It’s a struggle some days, a joy many others, and yet I have the satisfaction of pursuing what God has put in my heart.
If you want to write, be aware of the financial realities. If you’re married, be sure you are committed to this path as a couple. Then, I say, do it with all your heart, soul, and mind. Do it so as unto the Lord. As followers of Jesus, as those who want to honor God through our work, we find life’s truest riches on the path that leads to Him.