For many years, Jim C. Hines has done a fantastic service to the writing community as a whole by publishing his income from writing over the years. Of course, he was inspired by others doing the same thing and has inspired others to do the same. While his first year's post is higher than my current year, I think even my own numbers give a data point to those who are curious if they measure up to various authors.
I write because I enjoy doing it and others seem to like what I put together. I'm neither traditionally published nor do I have an agent. Instead, I post much of what I write online in hopes that someone will enjoy it. Over the years, those stories have gotten me a semi-steady measure of income writing commissioned works for individuals.
None of these ever see the light of day once I send them, so I realized I was plateauing as a writer and started to focus on more traditional pieces in 2010 though it took a few years before I actually published a book.
To hamper my potential as a writer, I'm also a dual classed Programmer/Writer. I write a lot of programs that contribute to writing, business, or just because I like finishing code. This also means that my free time is split between writing and coding.
All these numbers are rough estimates. I have exact dollar amounts because I have a fairly detailed accounting system set up to manage it, but it doesn't really add much.
In 2017, I brought in $2,500 after most expenses. Most of it ($1,900) came from my commissioned work. I also made about $264 on novel sales, $41 from Patreon, $221 publishing other author's books and authorial services.
Thanks to the joy of rather detailed accounting, I can show the slow accumulation of both income and expenses for my writing over the years. This includes everything and shows that I've managed to keep a low but positive net for writing since 2006 (four years after I started writing for money) and every year except 2016.
Breaking it down to just money made and lost over the year, you can see I'm doing more as the years go on. More money made but also more money spent. The green line is my net, which I strive to always keep positive throughout everything.
Commission writing has continued to dwarf most of my income. I've been lucky to have a number of commissioners who continually request large stories, but in the last few years, it has become less of a one-off payment and instead monthly or biweekly installments for larger pieces. The largest is for a quarter million word serial which will take me about three years to complete.
Despite not being able to share my work, I have gotten a steadily increasing amount of work through commissioned writing. In most cases, there is a higher payout for individual works (my average length is twenty to fifty thousand words for a one-time payment of three to five hundred dollars). However, there is no long tail for commissioned works, once paid, it doesn't contribute to the back catalog nor will there be another payment.
While most commissioners do not request a third-party to edit my work, I do have the occasional one where I end up getting it edited. That is why you see expenses show up on the chart above.
Even with the private nature of commissions, the only reason I can afford to do anything is because of those works. This pays for everything else I do and keeps me in the black, which is one of my primary drivers since writing is a hobby at this point in my life.
Broken Typewriter Press originally was created to help me manage my commissioned stuff and also give me a place to “hang my hat” since I was going to be self-publishing Sand and Blood. I figured I could also offer services for formatting and typesetting, two things on the programming side of writing that I enjoyed. Along the way, I was asked to manage online stores and publish other authors in the Cedar Rapids, IA area. Since I like accounting and the other detail-oriented stuff, I ended up being a “small press” along the way.
I wouldn't mind if publishing ended up being a steady income, but that isn't going to happen any time in the near future.
These numbers are in aggregate among all the authors and books I publish. This is a relatively recent occurrence in my writing career so it has the semi-predictable downward turn that starts to curve up as things get established. I've seen this a number of times, both in my overall income but with other companies.
The more books I publish, I know there is an accumulative effect that will make this profitable. I've seen that with the more recent ones though I only have one book that is in the black.
One of the main reasons there are a large amount of expenses is because I decided in the beginning not to treat my time as “free”. When it comes to publishing, I take into account how long it takes and give it the same rate I charge others ($20/hour). There are also costs for ISBN numbers, hosting services, and printing costs (all of these books are available in print).
My first trilogy (Sand and Blood, Sand and Ash, and Sand and Bone) started off as a “world building piece” while I waited for Flight of the Scions to be published however it ended up being a significant hunk of four years when I got it out through Broken Typewriter.
All three of the books have the same rough pattern of a surge of initial expenses which are then slowly matched by sales and income. These aren't as fast as I want, but I do hope they will eventually end up in the black.
I almost released Sand and Blood as a Creative Commons-licensed book but didn't at the last minute. Instead, I went with a more traditional approach and only gave a few chapters away and spread it out to everywhere I could.
After a few years, I realized that I'm was having difficulties getting readers to start the book. It could have been the cover, the accents in the names, I wasn't sure. Since I didn't have many sales, I decided to make it a CC-licensed book and release it a chapter a week, much like a web comic. Once I finished, I did the same with Sand and Ash and Sand and Bone (and now Second-Hand Dresses).
I have noticed that the second and third books haven't not made as much money as the first one. I don't know if it is making it free that caused that problem or the fact few people have read the first one.
Another observation is it pretty consistently cost me $2,000 to get a book out for these three books. That includes cost for editing, publishing, and the small amount of advertising that I've done. The reason Sand and Blood has a large expense in 2016 is that I went to WisCon but only had one book to spread the costs across.
Patreon, Flattr, and Donations
Which leads into the alternative payment for the books. Because I don't charge anyone to read them, I created a Patreon to give others the opportunity to support me if they did like the book. In the beginning of the 2017, I had two patrons, at the end of the year, I doubled it to four. This also meant I went from $6/month to $9/month.
I didn't do a writing post in 2016. I had a lot of expenses over the year, mainly because I put out five books: two of mine, one commission that required major edits ($1,400 for a 180k word commission), and two other author's books. Those expenses coupled with low sales basically put me dangerously near being red, which triggered certain of my aspects (depression being one of them) and I just couldn't write the post and still be positive.
Thankfully, 2017 was much better.
I can't afford to take certain risks. In specific, I'm the primary income for my family and I'm uncomfortable making decisions with writing if I can't substantiate them with income from my writing. This means that I have not gotten as much advertising and marketing as I wanted because I haven't sold enough books or written enough commissions to keep everything in the black. Of course, you have to spend money to make money. I'm just not in a place where I can “push” my writing other than social networking.
Of course, selling via my social presence is difficult because I find frequent advertising to be detestable which means I don't think I have a large network to work with. I also screw up and say the wrong thing too often, so I'm always afraid I'm going to alienate people who know me so I don't strive to interact as much as I cold.
My commissions and sales are what drive not only my ability to advertise but also to get books edited. At this point, I have a queue of stories that are written but waiting to get funded enough to have them edited.
This also means that my weekly chapters aren't fully edited. If I did that, I wouldn't be able to produce anything for a number of years because I have to follow that mandate of staying in the black. I'd really like to be able to produce fully edited weekly chapters but I need a steady income stream to provide it.
Writing is a “hobby job” for me. I love doing it, I love writing for others and I love seeing my book in print. I also spend hundreds of hours a year on it. Because of my personality, internal rules, and distractions, I continue to see a very small but steady growth across the board. It may take me a few decades to get where I want. It's frustrating but I'm still going to do it and I'm still going to enjoy it.
Just keep swimming. - Dory, Finding Nemo