It’s no secret that Australian writers today struggle to make ends meet. According to a study published last year by Macquarie University, most Australian authors make only $13,000 a year from their writing, earning at least as much from other writing-related activities—such as teaching and editing—as they do from their books.
Much of the public commentary around this report was what a disgracefully low figure it was. But anecdotally, the reaction from most writers I spoke to about it—online and in person— was along the lines of, Wow! I’d be ecstatic if I earned that much from my writing.
There is very little transparency around author incomes. Though the relationship between talent and commercial success is tenuous, there is still a sense that admitting to making no money is like advertising your own failure as an artist. Those who are making money are probably reluctant to brag about it, out of solidarity for their much poorer counterparts.
Three years ago, devastated by a paltry royalties cheque from my novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, I wrote a post called On (Not) Making a Living from Writing in which I fessed up to my meagre earnings, which looked a little something like this:
In the two years since I published these figures I’ve earned substantially less than $7,320 from my writing. I experimented with self-publishing my third novel The Ark, which was—financially speaking—an unmitigated disaster, selling a total of 300 copies in the two years since it came out. (A lot of the hype around self-publishing focuses on the fact that you get to keep a much higher percentage of your royalties. But 80% of diddly squat is…well, you do the maths).
Last year, I had a change in my fortunes when US publisher Sourcebooks published Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, under the new title Whiskey and Charlie. The reason for the title change is best encapsulated by this image:
Sourcebooks ordered an initial print run of 12,000 copies – ten times what I sold in Australia, which I was ecstatic about. Then, Whiskey and Charlie was selected by Target USA as one of their monthly book club picks. They ordered 30,000 copies of my book. I asked my publisher if they had accidentally written an extra zero on the order. Nope. THIRTY THOUSAND COPIES.
I just crunched the numbers for my tax return, and as you can see, it looks quite different to my 2013 chart. I earned over $20,000 in total, which is probably more than all my other years of writing put together. Party on, Wayne, party on, Garth!
On the domestic front, sales of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot are still ticking over (probably just enough to cover my chocolate for the year, not kidding). Like most of the writers in the Macquarie study, I supplemented my writing income by doing other writing-related activities:
Professional Services refers to activities like social media consulting and grant assessing.
Public speaking includes workshops, lectures, chairing at festivals, library talks & school talks.
Two thirds of my income came from my US sales. But my royalties take about a thousand years (9 months) to arrive from America. So my earnings in this financial year is for book sales in the previous financial year; (that is, the first two months after publication).
A few other factoids about this income:
Retail Price & Royalties
- US royalties are 7.5%, compared to 10% in Australia
- The RRP is $15, compared to $25 in Australia
- Therefore for each book sold at full price, I earn $1.125 (compared to $2.50 in Australia)
- Royalty rates for books sold to Target and other discount department stores are only 3.75% = 56 cents per book
- E-books, have higher royalties but a much lower RRP
- 20% of all my US royalties goes to my Australian publisher, Fremantle Press, who sold the rights on my behalf (because I don’t have an agent). I am super happy for them to have this money, and be able to take a chance on publishing another early career writer.
I’m not in this game for the money. I share these details about my income because I think honest conversations about what writers earn are useful. If you are making a lot more money than this, fantastic! If you are making a lot less: rest assured, you are not alone. When I feel down about this I remind myself that the value of creating art cannot be measured in dollars. Sometimes this thought helps, other times, not so much! Interested to hear your thoughts on this!