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.
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.
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.
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.