How Writers Earn Money: My 2020 EOFY Report

Welcome back to How Writers Earn Money, in which I pull back the curtains and reveal closely-guarded secrets  about writers’ incomes. I believe it’s better to have honest conversations about the realities of the incredibly low incomes most writers earn, as well as exploring other avenues for earning income beyond advances and royalties. I share real figures, facts and tips  and stories from writers about how they manage to pay the bills while writing.

We are once again at the moment of reckoning known as tax time, in which I crunch the numbers on my writing income in the hope of creating more transparency and realistic expectations among writers. This year I earned $34,000 from writing-related income. Until recently I was married, and I was the primary carer for my son while my husband was the primary income-earner in our family. Any money I earned was a bonus, not necessary for our survival, but I am now supporting myself, which has necessitated earning more. Obviously $34,000 is NOT enough to live on, and my income has been supplemented by government assistance, child support payments and help from family. I had hoped that I could turn my writing-related freelance work (teaching, public speaking etc) into a living wage, but after a year I have admitted defeat and am currently looking for a more stable job.

Teaching

This financial year, teaching has accounted for more than half my income, which has come through a number of sources: libraries, writers centres, universities and schools, as well as a private course.

LIBRARIES Almost half of that came from workshops I delivered at metropolitan and regional libraries (12 in total). Many of these were return visits to libraries where I have delivered workshops in the past and with whom I have built a relationship. I charge ASA rates for these workshops ($561 for 3 hours).

AUSTRALIAN WRITERS CENTRE One third of my teaching income came from the quarterly weekend workshops I do for the brilliant Australian Writers Centre, who are an absolute dream to work for and whose courses I love teaching.

WRITERS CENTRES 14% of my income came from 3 one-day workshops I did for other writers centres, in WA and interstate. These workshops pay very well but once I deducted the cost of flights, again, I barely broke even. I always try to organise a cluster of events in a city to affray the travel costs but this does not always work out.

UNIVERSITIES 6% of my income came from a university where I had the fortune to be invited to teach online in a course based on my novel The Ark as well as delivering two guest lectures. Because I have a PhD, guest lectures pay well at around $160/hour. The online teaching averaged out around $100/hour, and $50/hour for marking.

PRIVATE COURSE I experimented with running a private course, for which I organised a venue, and took the bookings. Despite having a decent-sized mailing list (700) and Facebook following (1000) these were poorly attended and I didn’t charge anywhere near enough, so I only just broke even, and I’m not in a hurry to try that again!

SCHOOLS I ran a series of 5 workshops at a school, which accounted for the last 3% of my income.

Mentoring

My second-biggest earning stream this financial year has been mentoring. Much of this has come through one program, in which 4 writers centres in WA were allocated funds to match emerging writers with mentors, and I was engaged to mentor 4 participants. In addition, I have a handful of clients who have come to me through referrals, or have engaged me after attending one of my workshops. I charge $70/hour for mentoring and find it very rewarding.

Public Speaking

13% of my income in 2020 came from public speaking. Of this, almost half was from delivering presentations at libraries. I charge ASA rates for this ($357/hour). At a glance, this is an excellent hourly rate. But there is often a lot of time spent pitching and following up with librarians, in order to nail down a single event, plus preparation time, travel time and petrol money, after which the rate is probably closer to $100/hour. Having said that, many libraries have invited me back for repeat events in subsequent years so the investment in time has paid off. A quarter of my public speaking revenue came from appearing on festival panels. These generally pay around $200-$250 per panel and there is usually minimal preparation involved unless it is a highly specialised topic. Another quarter came from being invited to give an address at the presentation ceremony for a competition I had judged, and record an interview talking about the judging process. And finally, a small sliver came from being asked to speak at a conference, for which I was paid $350. Very little of my public speaking is about my own books and writing process. Most of the talks are information-based and aimed at aspiring and early-career writers.

Royalties, Direct Sales & Lending Rights

I’ve written in detail about royalties, and lending rights in other posts. It’s been almost 5 years since I published a book so my royalties have dwindled almost to nothing. I continue to sell books direct at workshops and talks, but I’m not exactly laughing all the way to the bank. Huzzah for the old lending rights, which are the gift that keeps on giving, even when your books are a little long in the tooth.

Chairing, Freelance Writing, Consulting & Judging

Before Covid struck I chaired a few sessions at Perth Writers Festival, which is poorly paid given the time investment required to do a good job, but is incredibly fulfilling in other ways. I wrote 2 freelance articles, one of which I pitched and was paid $300, the other for which I was commissioned and paid $800. Freelance rates vary wildly and I plan to do a post dedicated to that topic in the future. I judged one short story competition, for which I find the hourly rate is usually not great but is a way of giving back to the writing community. And finally, I did some random bits and pieces of social media consulting for micro-business for which I charge between $75 and $85/hour.

On one hand, I’d like to wear fewer ‘hats’ and spend less time toggling between the many different tasks and roles that make up my income. On the other hand, I enjoy nearly all of the things I do and it’s nice to have a mix. The most frustrating part is how few of these gigs are consistent and reliable from year to year, necessitating almost constant hustle for the next cheque. That said, I do feel lucky to do work I love and that feels meaningful for me, as I know this is a privilege very few people have.

WRITERS: I believe we all benefit from more transparency in this area. If we know what a ‘normal’ income looks like, we are much less likely to feel that we are failing. It also empowers us to ask to be paid fair rates. So if you feel like sharing your EOFY stats you’d be doing a community service. I hope to hear from you in the comments.

Annabel Smith is the author of US bestseller Whiskey & Charlie (published in Australia as Whisky Charlie Foxtrot), digital interactive novel/app The Ark, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards. I am currently working on Monkey See, an epic quest with a sci-fi twist featuring a monkey, an evil priestess and the mother of all tsunamis.

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12 thoughts on “How Writers Earn Money: My 2020 EOFY Report”

  1. It doesn’t matter what work you do, it’s almost impossible to find time to write! Even when your work is being a writer. Hope you’re doing OK in this brave new world x

    1. Thanks, Jane. Yeah, it’s an eternal problem for most of us, it seems. I feel like mostly I’ve accepted it but of course I still occasionally lapse into a fantasy about having a breakthrough book which changes my life.

  2. Hi Annabel
    Thank you for your generosity in sharing this frank account. Much appreciated. Many years ago I read that fewer than 12 authors in Australia could live solely and comfortably on their royalties. I wonder if that number has changed. Happy writing and hope to see your talents in print again very soon. — Robyn x

    1. Thanks, Robyn! i think that figure may have changed now due to self-publishing. I’ve heard there are now a number of writers in Australia – writers most people—even other writers—would not have heard of. They write in niche genres (demonic abominations??? bikie erotica???) and sell truckloads of books. But I haven’t seen any hard data on this. I guess it also depends what you mean by living ‘comfortably’. For many people, the idea of living ‘comfortably’ resides on home ownership, whereas I am happy enough renting so my income could be much lower and could feel comfortable.

  3. OK, my results aren’t particularly awe-inspiring, but in the spirit of disclosure and for the sake of greater clarity and understanding regarding writing and $$$$… I earned almost $6K last financial year. I’m a mid-list author of 5 contemporary fiction novels with one of the big 5 publishers. All have earned out and sold decently. I haven’t had a novel out for three years though, which partially explains why this year’s earnings are so paltry (I’d hoped to have one out this year, but that’s another story, sob).
    Worth noting: I have never and will never earn a living solely from writing. I don’t want to- the uncertainty would kill me, and I don’t find writing so delightful that I want to do it every single day, or make it sing for its supper. I work 2 days/week as a consultant neuropsychologist, a job I really enjoy, am good at (which is IMPORTANT to me- because I don’t always feel that proficient at writing, it’s lovely to have a job I know I do well) and that (now, after 25 years) pays well (remembering that I work in the public health system. I’m not ordering a personalised Lamborghini just yet). I aim to write 2 days/week too, and any money I get from that is pure icing. The money I earned this year, a year in which I did not sell or publish a novel, came mostly from Public Lending Rights (2.5K), a bit from royalties (just under 1K- which is not heaps, but I’m gratified that my novels are still selling at all, to be honest, given the first 4 were published between 6-10 years ago. Note that almost all royalties are on ebooks too, which make slightly less than hard copies), a film option on my latest novel and one big piece of freelance writing (thank you Griffith Review- but as a rule I do no freelance writing any more, having done a heap in the past and been utterly burnt out by it). The most I have ever earned in a year where I have sold a novel/audio rights/had good royalties etc is about $35K.
    I’ve never worked it out, but my average income over 12 years of being a published novelist would probably be around that oft-quoted industry figure of 12-15K pa. It’s in no way enough to live on. Any money I make from writing goes into an account for holidays. My proper job (and my husband’s) pays for the real stuff. (Also in the spirit of full disclosure- my husband makes real money, not writer or public health money. And I’m mentioning that because it makes a difference- his real money meant I could work part time to get my first novel up, that I’ve never had to worry about feeding our kids or heating the house, that my writing doesn’t have to do anything for our family at all. A lot of writing success is hard graft and talent, but there’s also plenty of luck involved, and some of that luck is your life circumstances. Writers, would-be writers and everybody really should never underestimate that. I’ve worked hard to get 5 novels written and published, but I also know I’ve been incredibly lucky to be in a position to be able to put time into that.)

    1. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your income details, Kylie, I really appreciate it, and I’m sure other readers do too. I think it’s pretty amazing that you earned $1000 from royalties when you haven’t had a book out for 3 years. Film option – woot! Fantastic. and thank goodness for ELR?PLR, hey?! I appreciate your honesty too about your husband’s income being part of the equation. This is rarely talked about but it is indeed one of the pieces of ‘luck’ that make up the whole picture.

  4. Time and money and support (of all kinds) are such crucial elements of The Writing Life, and they definitely need more open discussion. I appreciate everyone’s comments on this.

    I remember saying to Laurie Steed that I didn’t know whether being in work or out of work was a bigger distraction from writing. 18 months ago I had a new tertiary qualification, but I’d been unemployed for a year and was flat broke and working for the dole. I couldn’t give myself time or even permission to write because you have to spend hours and hours applying for work just to give yourself an even chance of getting one. Fast forward to now, and I have a secure job (thank God, given the current situation) but a heavy workload. I have to write in snatches when time, energy, and head-space will allow. Much like most writers who have to provide their income for themselves. Then again, one has to be very disciplined if one has even adequate time, or you can squander it or just go stale.

    I really commend you for keeping so many balls in the air, Annabel. It would drive me nuts having to chase after so many earning opportunities–just getting one job was a full-time job for me. And you barely mentioned being a mum on top of everything else you do. I hope you’re getting all the support and professional satisfaction you need.

    1. YES! More discussion. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Glen. The ideal job seems to be the one in which you don’t use your brain, thereby saving it for writing but it seems like those jobs no longer exist! I think it must be so hard to make time for writing when you work full-time because you’d just be tired! Thanks for your kind words.

  5. I love the open and honest discussion about this. I think my royalties from books was about $17 last financial year ( can’t remember the exact dollar amount I put into etax but it wasn’t much). I do work full time so it doesn’t have to pay my bills – but also my work sector isn’t going well due to covid so the ramping up of other income streams is certainly on my mind in case of redundancies.

  6. Absolutely fascinating article and comments from readers; thank you Annabel and everyone for the honest sharing. As a children’s writer I’m able to tap into the school-visit aspect of teaching, which comprises the biggest part of my annual income. (I don’t have specific figures yet for this year as I can’t bear to face all the tax paperwork!!) Royalties are the smallest part of my earnings, and, like many of you, I’ve not had a book out in a few years. That’s partly a function of needing to keep working to feed the family but also because I’m an insufferably slow writer. Not having a book out recently has not only a financial impact but a psychological one — it’s quite demoralising, I find. ELR and PLR are the second biggest income source for me, at about $5K this year — ELR is always great for children’s writers and I’m so enormously grateful for this. But as one of your readers says, Annabel, raising children, earning an income AND writing novels amounts to a heap of work, and we have to remember that. I once was in that excellent position of being able to write thanks to my husband’s income, but we are no longer in the same financial position, and haven’t been for some time. I completely concur with Kylie as to how important it is to acknowledge that assistance. Let’s bust these myths!! Now when kids in schools ask me if I’m rich I just point to the window and say, can you see the Lamborghini in the carpark?

    1. Thanks for your response Deb, and for sharing your ELR/PLR. Love that answer!!! Think I might use that next time someone asks me if I make a lot of money. Thanks also for acknowledging the role that a supportive well-remunerated partner can play in the equation. Hope you manage to get another book out sooner rather than later.

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