#PublishingPaidMe

It’s always been weird to me that in the modern United States, we will readily tell our friends and even totals strangers about our medical problems and our sex lives . . . but talking about how much money we earn? How crass.

Well, there’s a hashtag trending on Twitter, #PublishingPaidMe, that’s aiming to examine whether there’s systemic bias in the industry against writers of color. You can certainly quibble with the methodology there — are you getting a representative sample? — but let’s face it, we know the answer is probably “yes,” because the alternative would require publishing to be some magical place that escapes the systemic bias permeating our society, and that seems unlikely at best. And since every past look at the stats of who gets published, and even what kind of characters the published ones are writing about, has revealed that bias is alive and all too well, I think it’s safe to assume the same is true here.

Having said that, transparency is good. My agent once went about seventeen rounds on my behalf with a publisher, fighting against a confidentiality clause that would have prohibited me from talking about the terms of my contract; in California (where I live) that kind of thing is illegal in employment contracts, and while a writer selling work to a publisher is not an employee, the underlying principle holds. Barring the people being paid from talking about how much they’re being paid — or any other terms of their contract — is a move that only benefits the company, never the individual. So it makes me sad to see how many writers posting to #PublishingPaidMe have at least one contract where they can’t disclose the advance; it means that poison is threaded through the industry much more deeply than I thought.

Anyway. I posted my numbers to Twitter, but if you missed that and/or want a less cryptically concise version of them, here’s what the life of this particular full-time writer looks like, with footnotes:

  • 1st contract (Warrior and Witch): $5000/$6000 [1]
  • 2nd contract (Midnight Never Come and In Ashes Lie): $6000/$6500 [2]
  • 3rd contract (A Star Shall Fall and With Fate Conspire): $25,000/$25,000 [3]
  • 4th contract (A Natural History of Dragons, The Tropic of Serpents, Voyage of the Basilisk): $12,500/$12,500/$12,500 [4]
  • 5th contract (In the Labyrinth of Drakes, Within the Sanctuary of Wings, Turning Darkness Into Light): $30,000/$30,000/$30,000 [5]

After that, as I noted on Twitter, things get squirrelly in a variety of ways. For Born to the Blade, for example, I was paid on a per-episode basis, and each episode is basically a novelette’s worth of words, plus there was payment for the weekend where we all got together to hash out the story and break it into those episodes for writing. Driftwood, being a fix-up of short stories with additional material and also coming out from a small press, had a lower advance ($5000), which is entirely to be expected. For The Night Parade of a Hundred Demons I’m pretty sure I would be in the clear to name the advance, but since that contract does have a confidentiality clause (not unexpected when you’re working with existing IP and proprietary information), I’ll play it safe and say that it’s on the lower end of my range, but not the bottom, because Aconyte is just getting into those particular waters and nobody’s quite sure how things will play out. The Rook and Rose trilogy is $30,000 apiece for three books, but that’s split between me and Alyc — they’re buying the book, not the authors, so they don’t pay extra because there’s two of us.

Footnotes:

[1] These earned out in no time flat, and in fact went on to be the Little Novels That Could; they stayed in print for nearly a decade and earned me roughly ten times their advances in the long run. In case you are wondering, this — not a huge advance — is often how you make a living as a writer.

[2] Although I put the book titles there for clarity, in fact this contract was signed for “two books TBD” on the basis of how well the Doppelganger series was shaping up to do. So it had no bearing on the nature of the books themselves, which wasn’t decided until much later. They also earned out quite rapidly.

[3] This was where I shifted from what had been Warner Books and was by then Orbit to Tor. To this day I’m astonished my agent managed to get that much of a hike in my advance when I was moving in the middle of a series.

[4] I could have had $15,000 apiece for two books, but I accepted a lower per-book advance in order to make it a three-book contract. My reasoning was that I really, really wanted to make sure I’d get to finish the series, and getting Tor to commit to three books gave me more time to build enough momentum to make that happen. (Which wound up being completely unnecessary, as I seem to recall they offered for the rest not long after the first one came out, but I don’t regret the decision.)

[5] Technically the third book in this contract wasn’t Turning Darkness Into Light. It was originally “book TBD,” but I wanted to make sure I had at least a tentative agreement with my editor as to what the third book would be; said tentative agreement wound up being written into the contract, which didn’t stop us from swapping it for something else when we agreed that what I originally had in mind wasn’t the best direction to go in next.

If you’re wondering how I feed myself on an income like this, the answer is threefold: first, the advances aren’t the whole story. Many (though not all) of these books have earned me royalties, and/or have had separate audio deals or translation deals that bring in additional money. Second, I do other things like my Patreon and short fiction and the stuff I publish through Book View Cafe, none of which is earning me money comparable to those advances, but it does add up. And third, I have a husband who works in tech. For the last several years I’ve been bringing in enough money that if I lived somewhere cheap and didn’t mind a bit of financial uncertainty in my life I could probably survive on my income alone — but I live in California. So yes, like most full-time writers, I pull it off in large part thanks to the cushion of a spouse with a stable and lucrative job.

I don’t know how the numbers crunch for marginalized writers, except to repeat that I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that they don’t do as well on average. We won’t get properly analytical results from a Twitter hashtag — but even so, I think transparency is good. So here’s my share of it.

One Response to “#PublishingPaidMe”

  1. Carolyn McBride

    Thank you for your honesty and transparency. On one hand, I find it all mind-blowing. On the other…humbling because there is so much potential. But then again, you are THE Marie Brennan. *grin* Talented beyond compare.

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