Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 5) Money

Business Musings free nonfiction On Writing

I know most of you are going to stare at this title and think: Yep, writers fail because they don’t earn enough money.

Um…nope. That’s not the problem at all.

Money causes writers to fail because writers bring the wrong expectations to their view of their financial spreadsheet.

First, let’s talk about money in general.

Some people are very bad at handling money. For example, they’re single and have a good paying day job, and yet they can’t make it from paycheck to paycheck. They certainly can’t save for something important or for retirement or whatever they’re supposed to save for.

Other people simply don’t have enough money. Full stop. They’re divorced and a single parent, trying to live in a house (for example) that it takes two paychecks to maintain. Or their wage, when they got the job, barely covered expenses. Now, with the pandemic and inflation and a whole host of other financial changes, their bills went up and their paycheck remained the same.

Then there are the people who think money grows on trees. I married one of those the first time. He fully believed that if he spent money, he would end up with more money later. Imagine living with that.

He’s a type. Some members of that type manage to con people out of money so that the type can maintain their lifestyle. Others manage to convince people to take care of them…until the caretaker gets wise and bails. The last member of that type, well, they manage for a while, and then everything craters around them.

There’s another type on the opposite side of the spectrum, the type that is so terrified of dying broke that they won’t part with a dime. No amount of money is enough for them. Even if they have enough money to retire or to pay all their bills for years, they won’t because it’s just too stressful for them. They’ll sacrifice dignity before they give up on their day job. Hell, they might never give up on their day job.

Lastly, there’s the relatively balanced type. I say relatively balanced because no one is completely balanced when it comes to money. These people, though, have it in perspective. They know how to handle debt, they can manage their credit, they actually have money in savings, and they’re able to invest.

Or, if they’re on the lower end of the income ladder, they know to the penny how much each bill is, and they know how to find the money to pay that bill. They figure out how to make their paycheck stretch to the end of the month, even if it means taking some government assistance or a few hours on an extra job.

For these folks, money is a tool, a means to an end, something that enables their life, but doesn’t control it.

That’s where we all want to be. Many of us never achieve it.

Our attitudes toward money are rooted in our pasts. For the most part, here in the U.S., no one learns money management until college. By then, it’s often too late. College students hit the dorms with credit cards in hand, and spend like there’s no tomorrow, without realizing that someone needs to pay. Parents aren’t really helping their kids by paying that bill at the end of every month, even if the bill is outrageous. Especially if the bill is outrageous.

Here in the U.S., money is considered personal. Some people would rather answer in-depth questions about their sex lives instead of discussing how they handle money.

A lot of parents never talk to their kids about money. Even more parents don’t give their kids an allowance, just pay for whatever the kid wants. Most parents don’t know how to manage money themselves, so how can they teach their kid?

Why am I bringing all of this up first?

Because, if you’re going to fail as a writer due to money, it’s most often due to your attitudes toward money—the attitudes rooted so deeply in your past that it might take therapy to dig them out.

Because the U.S. culture is so hush-mouthed about money, most people learn to lie about money. The lying sometimes comes in actual spoken words: Sure I make $100,000 per year, says the guy who earns $50,000 some years.

But usually, the lies come in lifestyle. Those people who have the big house and the beautiful furniture, the lovely boat on the driveway and the two big cars in the three-car garage, who wear expensive everything—even casual clothing, and who look down on people who aren’t making any money at all—often those folks are living paycheck to paycheck or worse, on a revolving series of credit card bills, as they overspend.

That house of cards will eventually topple, but the toppling occurs in the form of a divorce (and then, of course, it’s the other spouse’s fault) or in the form of a move (oh, we decided it was time to downsize) or whatever other B.S. they come up with.

In the U.S., we use money to impress.

—He’s going to an Ivy League college (read: expensive as hell)

—She can afford a Lexus at 30 (wow, she must have a hell of a job!)

—Look at the diamond he bought me (I’m marrying up)

And so on and so forth.

Those two habits—lying about money and using money to impress—flood the writer ranks. Especially the indie writers.

When this new world of publishing started, a lot of writers made a lot of money very fast. There weren’t a lot of ebooks for people to buy to put on their Kindle (and back then, Kindle was the name of the game). Readers were willing to put up with bad interior designs and bad (or no) copyediting and terrible covers, just to be able to have something to read on their ereader.

Those gold rush days lasted maybe two years, maybe less. We cashed in, as did many other writers. But ultimately, the situation changed, just like it did in the real American Gold Rush. Sure, back then, there was gold to be found if you were willing to pan or dig for it, but the people who made the most money were the ones who provided the secondary services—groceries, housing, alcohol, and kits for gold-panning.  As the Gold Rush continued, the only people who got rich were the ones who provided the supplies.

That’s not quite a one-to-one comparison. But there are a lot of people who are making a ridiculous amount of money offering needless services to writers who don’t know better. Developmental editing? From someone who has never finished a book? Please. All they have are their uninformed opinions. What about from a former New York editor? Um…they didn’t do editing when they were in their chairs. They acquired books. They didn’t develop them. And yeah, they’re former. Why pay them thousands?

And so on and so forth. Cover designers who charge $5000 a pop to use the same services the writer could use. Web designers who’ll “improve” your website for $10,000. Gurus who will give you (and everyone else who ponies up $2000) the secrets to their success at selling books.

(The secret? Write a book that sells somewhat well, and then make money off your system, not off the book itself. There are waaaay too many of those scammers.)

This stuff isn’t new. These hangers-on and scam artists and so-called experts existed before indie publishing came along. They just ran a slightly different version of the same scam. Can’t sell your book to traditional publishing? Then have this developmental editor—a former NY editor—help you fix the flaws before you send the book to an agent.

My ex trained me well, but not in the way he thought. I married young and learned the lesson hard. Flim-flam artists always seem like they know what they’re doing. They can lie about everything, including money. My ex used to tell me that the secret to sales wasn’t in the product, but in the pitch. And an important part of the pitch? The guy making the pitch needs to look like he’s making money.

Oh, the other key to the pitch? Tell as much of the truth as possible, but shade it to benefit you—especially on the unverifiable stuff.

Here’s what’s unverifiable in the indie world: How much money some other writer makes.

Back when Amazon was the only game in town, writers looked at the various bestseller lists that Amazon compiled and tried to do the math based on a book’s ranking. Which worked, if the author had one or two books, and those books were exclusive to Amazon.

But it didn’t work if the author was smart and had gone wide. It really didn’t work if the author was licensing other products that went with the book like games or movie options.

(I never tell you when I get a movie or TV option, because it’s vaporware. I get money, but so far, none of the many projects I’ve worked on of mine (not other people’s) have gone past the In-Development phase. Other writers blather about “their” movie all the time, even if they’ve only sold an option. Eventually, they stop talking because the option doesn’t move any needles…on anything.)

Trying to figure out what other writers earn really fails when the writer has a backlist as extensive as mine and that backlist is in print. Some books sell as little as one unit per quarter, but over hundreds of titles, that’s hundreds of books. Others sell hundreds, and some sell more than that.

The thing about book sales is this: They rise and they fall. Not even long-time bestselling titles like The DaVinci Code, traditionally published back in the day, sold the same number of copies from month to month. It sold enough to stay on all the bestseller lists for two years in hardcover, but sometimes that was 20,000 copies per month and sometimes it was 200,000 copies per month.

Who knew? Well, really, no one. Because traditional publishing has terrible accounting systems.

If the book was actually in modern systems, like Amazon’s or Kobo’s or D2D, then the author would know how many copies the book sold, and how much money that made him.

But the author is under no obligation to tell anyone.

Still, there are times when it’s tough to remain silent. Some writers are lucky enough to earn mid-five figures per month for a while, anyway. Some have a project that gets really hot and they might earn six figures for months and months.

Eventually, those sales drop off.

But a lot of writers still talk as if they’re earning that high figure, month after month after month.

That sets impossible expectations. I know a lot of writers who start indie publishing their titles and do everything right: great covers, great interiors, great blurbs and great stories. Yet those writers don’t make a fortune in the first month, no matter what they spend on advertising. They don’t make a fortune in the eighth month either, or the fifteenth month.

Eventually, they give up, because they think they’re failing.

Even though—if they were to look at their numbers realistically—they would see a steady growth across their titles, and a very real spike every time they released a new book.

They were so busy chasing the elusive “wealth” that they didn’t see they were actually developing a following …and they quit.

It takes perseverance to make a career as a writer.

Writers who end up having a career ride the ups and downs. I admire the heck out of the writers who stick with it, even when it’s hard.

For example, for eight years, writer Ron Vitale has posted his year-end numbers. He started indie publishing in 2012. He did his first year-end update in 2013, and he continues to do them.

If you actually look at the graph he published for his entire indie career, ending in 2021, you’ll see that from 2018, his book sales have grown dramatically each year.

What did he do differently? I don’t know, because I’m not going back through his numbers. He’s experimenting a lot and learning a lot, so his expenses are greater than his income.

I do know one vast difference, though. In 2013, he had only published two books. By 2021, he had published fourteen. (He has a demanding day job and he spends a lot of time with his family.) As he started to get into double digits on books published, his readership grew steadily. (Readers want more books. Once they finish one, they want another. When you only have two, readers move onto other writers. With fourteen, you’re going to keep them occupied for a while.)

It’s both courageous and useful that Ron publishes his numbers every year. Most writers don’t.

Some do give out interesting information without attaching a dollar figure. Michael Lucas does that. He’s up front about where his income comes from. It comes from writing books.

What does he earn? Hell if I know. He hasn’t told me, and he doesn’t put the figures out there.

What he does is show the breakdown of where readers buy his books. Some of this income is front-facing—his Kickstarter, for example. But not all of it. And for the most part, he’s pretty quiet about what he earns and how he manages his money.

I worry about the folks who aren’t quiet about it. The ones who teach that You Too Can Earn $50,000 in a Month! Not month after month, mind you. But in one month.

I hate the message those folks send. They seem to believe that all writers are equal. If you too do the same things that person has done, well, then, you’ll be rich! Famous! Have $50,000 in your bank account.

And pigs will fly out of your butt, then play kazoos in celebration.

One of my closest friends has had a lot more bestsellers than I ever will. He has made a boatload of money over the years (and I know about much of it).

We do not write the same things, but if I did the things he does to promote my books…well, I still wouldn’t make the kind of money he is.

Another friend won the TV show lottery. He’s making a fortune of ancillary rights, but at the expense of his own writing. Come to think of it, I have several friends like that.

I’d rather write, thank you, even if I could win that TV show lottery.

And then there’s a casual friend of mine who had mega bestseller—one of the books of the year in fact—which was made into a movie and was buzzed about for nearly two years.

Since that book was published, fifteen or so years ago now, she’s published two other books, neither of which are hitting those stratospheric heights…because books outside of a series almost never do. (And yes, she’s traditionally published). She never quit her day job. She still thinks of herself as a part-time writer…which she is.

And as for the indie writers I’ve known? The ones who were making ten to twenty to fifty thousand per month five years ago? Most of them have quit writing. They drowned in debt. They froze because they felt like they “had to” write the same thing over and over “to please their fans.”

Then there are those writers who just continue. They made a lot of money early on, and they’re continuing to write and make more. But they’ve stopped talking about their earnings. They’re too busy running their businesses to impress other writers with their “system.”

So…how do writers fail with money?

  1. They fail to realize what their financial weaknesses are. If you know what your weaknesses are, you can learn how to correct them.
  2. They fail to see that they’re actually building a business that is theirs. Not a business like someone else’s. Theirs. With its unique strategies and problems.
  3. They expect to earn as much money as the braggers out in the world. Not everyone who talks about their own sales in glowing terms is a con artist or even a scam artist. Many really do want to help other writers, but those talkers fail to realize that their strategy is theirs, and only works with their books or their product (and not always then).
  4. They give up because they haven’t hit some magical dollar figure. They tell themselves, If I don’t make $10,000 this month or this year, then I’ll quit. That’s not how businesses get built, folks. Businesses take time, and perseverance. They take a lot of trial and error. They take a willingness to try new things, yes, but also a willingness to fail, and fail often.
  5. They fail to analyze their numbers. Are they growing? Are they producing enough material? Are they actually writing? Are they publishing their work? There’s so many factors that go into sales, which also have an impact on the amount of money someone makes.
  6. They put unrealistic financial pressure on themselves. Some people quit their day job much too soon, without any savings. Others never quit, because they’re terrified of what will happen if they do. Both extremes hurt the writing.
  7. They equate writing with winning the lottery. Only they’re as unrealistic as people who play the numbers every day. If they just hit it big, then they can get out of the crummy life they’re in. Whatever big is. Sometimes big isn’t big enough—$100,000 well managed won’t last more than a few years at best. But even big (millions) won’t be enough if…
  8. They allow success to put them in a financial bind.

People who make a lot of money, particularly early on, don’t manage it well. I’m not talking about hiring a money manager. (Please don’t. Don’t hire a middle-class middle-income person to handle your millions. Seriously.)

What I mean by the fact that they don’t manage it well is this: They raise their expenses to match their super-high income. If the income is short-lived—a month, a year—suddenly the writer, who might have earned millions, is broke, and maybe even facing bankruptcy.

It happens all the time.

Failing to handle money well is probably the biggest thing that will destroy a middlingly successful writer’s career. Learning to handle money well requires a lot of work. Sometimes it even requires therapy.

But the writer—you—need to learn how to do it. Because trusting money “managers” and financial advisors is a quick way to get scammed. Don’t believe me? My ex (see above) had two weeks training to be a money manager and dined out on that for years. He couldn’t manage his own checkbook. But he talked a good game.

So did all of his friends and the managers who trained him. I saw how they lived. I still meet money managers who know how to dress the part, but don’t know how to manage their own money let alone someone else’s.

And let’s not even talk about having an agent (you traditionally published writers) who “handles” your money. Have you even bothered to run a credit check on them? Of course not. Tried to see if the agency they work for was ever sued? Of course not.

Money will trip up writers of all strips. Failing to learn how to handle it will hurt the writer, no matter how good they are. No matter what else they do right.

You have to figure this one out—and it’s different for every single one of us.

Good luck.


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“Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 5) Money,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / scanrail.

15 thoughts on “Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 5) Money

  1. OMG, all too true. I’m solely to blame for so many of my money failures as a full-time author. I recall Jim Harrison making nearly a million bucks on movie deals twice and going bankrupt twice. He called himself the Leon Spinks of writers. I am, or was, no different.

    After nailing a mid six figure book deal with Dell back in ’99 I got myself in such financial distress I couldn’t pay my quarterly taxes. On top of that, my two books in the deal didn’t sell. So I was not only back to square one, I was way behind. This is after being the toast of the town in NYC. I nearly had a nervous breakdown. No joke.

    Years later, I got the rights back to my two Dell books and they sold hundreds of thousands of copies on Amazon.. Bam! I’m back in the game. Thomas & Mercer comes calling and I give up the rights to six books in exchange for a very nice advance. I spend it all. But they take three more books all the while the advances getting smaller and smaller until they show me the door.

    The money’s gone and I’m back to square one.

    My dad dies, I come into some real money, and doesn’t my ex-wife decide she loves and wants to be with me again. I take her and our daughter all over the world, I get more book deals, win the Thriller and the Shamus, hit the NYTimes and USA bestsellers list, hit the overall Amazon No. 1 two or three times. Life is good. Only thing I notice is my bank account is shrinking by the day because I haven’t invested my money. D’oh!!

    Suddenly I’m down to my last 10K and the ex-wife decides she’s no longer in love and can you leave your keys to the house on the table and don’t let the door slap you in the ass on the way out. Not her fault, but my own.

    When do I finally grow up and become responsible with money? Not until very recently in my mid-50s. I’ve started a nice business publishing at least one title per month via my Bear Media label, and take the occasional trad deal. But the difference is that now I invest not only in my books and stories, but real assets. I also budget my money and think long term.

    If I have a fault it’s looking at my sales way too often. I see a short story that doesn’t seem to be selling at all. But when you look at the lifetime of sales, that short story has brought in maybe $1,400. It’s quite a shocker to see the power behind even selling one book per month. Right now I have about 100 titles but hope to have 120 by the end of the year.

    Anyway, live and learn when it comes to money.

  2. Thank you for writing this. It’s such a relief to see someone else thinking what I have been thinking for so long.

    My sister used to have a friend, Becky. Every time she played at Becky’s house, she would come home in tears because Becky was mean to her. I asked her once why she kept going there to play and she said, “Because maybe this time Becky will be nice to me.”

    I think a lot of writers live on that hope too – the underlying belief that writing is a kinder gentler business than any other business in the real world. Surely this time the agents will see the value of that manuscript. Surely this time, the course they took from a self proclaimed expert will pay off.

    What’s weird about it, is that I don’t think writers are stupid or necessarily gullible in other areas of their lives. Just this one. It’s as if they think that gravity doesn’t apply in the world of writing.

  3. “(I never tell you when I get a movie or TV option, because it’s vaporware. I get money, but so far, none of the many projects I’ve worked on of mine (not other people’s) have gone past the In-Development phase. …”

    Overall excellent advice, as usual, Kris. Although I disagree a bit on the part above. I just closed my first TV/movie Option-Purchase agreement. Besides the on-signing payment, which is not trivial, there will be at least 1-2 more that will bankable. And then there’s the PR aspect. An Option can be leveraged in several ways.

    1. The money is not trivial. I agree with that. But that’s personal. As for PR, I find that if you continually tell your fans that a movie/TV show has been optioned, the fans expect the show. Do that enough and they lose respect for you and the announcement. This is your first. I’ve had dozens. And they all take years to move. Getting something made is nearly impossible. Getting an option is not impossible. So, congrats on the deal. I hope it becomes a film/TV show. But more than that, congrats on the money.

      1. Good points. Which is why I try to qualify when I can: “who knows if it will ever be made, blah blah…” I only recently started writing fiction, so will see how many more options come along. And thanks.

  4. So true, Kris!

    In my day job, I manage two things that involve money: Travel vouchers and travel charge cards. It astounds me how poor people are with their money, and yet, I see it over and over again. When I travel, I balance everything against my card to make sure everything is correct. I even check the hotel bills before I walk away from the front desk to make sure there are no errors (it’s ten times harder to fix a billing error after you checkout).

    Yet, I see people who seem to have no investment in even getting paid correctly. Others treat the charge card as a tool. As in, a tool is something you use but you don’t have to take care of. And this is how writers get scammed. They hear someone appeal to all the right emotions and hand over the money. Then they wonder why they got scammed. Just sad. And so easily fixable.

  5. I’m sick of the myth of Amazon sales ranks. The fake gurus LOVE to lead with Amazon sales rank. First, it’s the rank in ONE storefront. Second, it captures a brief moment in time (ranks change hourly or so). Third, it counts KU borrows as “sales” when you’re only paid a tiny royalty on alleged pages read. I dabbled in KU and can tell you many people download, forget about it, don’t read it, then return the book. Thus, your Amazon sales rank could appear enviable at, say, 5,000 when in reality you’re making less that month than the wide author whose Amazon rank is consistently 250,000.

    Amazon sales rank chasing is crucial for gurus to sell their courses to impatient writers. Between AMS and Facebook ads, you can prop up your book’s rank to a pretty looking number and now not only be making peanuts but actually be losing money.

  6. Thanks for the shout-out, Kris.

    I don’t want to share my income–that information attracts trolls who insist you can’t make much writing books–but I did want to say: I pay my bills writing books.

    My wife works, but in the awful event that she was to pass tomorrow, I would not have to move. Health insurance would be an issue, but America.

    And I *do* tell folks how I manage money. I even wrote a book about it. 😛


    1. Thanks for your book, Michael Lucas! I read it last year and it was the first book about money matters and writers that made sense to me. Thanks for this post, Kris! It’s thought-provoking and I hope there will be more about how writers can improve in practical ways.

  7. This is so important. Thanks Kris.

    I’m a part-time writer, but my main gig is as a creative with project based income that is inherently sporadic. This means I may coin it for a few months, and then have little to no income for an extended period of time. I’ve done this for 20+ years. It has taught me a few things – so to elaborate on point ** 8. They allow success to put them in a financial bind ** here are a couple of things I think pertinent to writers.

    When I receive a windfall income it goes straight to savings for the investment plan say 20%, another 20% into a fixed term savings account (we used to get interest once-upon-a-time), and 50% into a regular savings account. Then from the savings account I give myself a small regular salary into a checking account. That salary is at a level so that even if there is no income I try to have a year’s worth (usually it’s less than that) of salary lined up in the savings account. This gives me a buffer that evens out spending. So windfalls don’t get spent – and usually I try to keep that ‘salary’ conservative. And then I spend that ‘salary’ carefully – and I have a mental trick I use.

    When I spend discretionary money I multiply the cost of the item being purchased by 3 to give it context into how much it cost me to save it. Discretionary money is what is left after I’ve paid my housing costs (30-35% of income), and food / transport / insurance costs (30-40% of income) – leaving me with 30% of take home pay as a personal ‘profit’ after expenses. So each dollar of discretionary income ‘costs’ me around +70%.

    That’s why I might have $60,000 in the savings account, but not enough to buy a new car, or to take an overseas vacation. I have to save for that separately. The $60,000 is not cash in the bank… it’s more like $20,000 in the bank as $40,000 is spoken for as cost of living drawn down as ‘salary’. And the $20,000 is for unforeseen expenses…. which I might use for that vacation if I’m confident of work coming down the pipe.

    This might seem to make me one of those people Kris talks about who never spend money – but that’s not the case. It just means that we spend the same money spread over time rather than feast then famine. You might enjoy the feast – but the famine might be life-changingly bad. So my wife and I know how to live within our means (our ‘salary’) – and can afford to take risks like moving country and foregoing income while we establish ourselves in a new home – because of the buffer.

    Now this is unlike most people who have a job. But it does give some ideas around how we manage sporadic uncertain windfalls of income like those a writer experiences.

    Spend money like honey – not like water (c) 🙂

  8. My family ran on credit cards, mortgages, and personal loans. I’m trying to change that, with a full time job and the plan to grow my catalog at ~12 books/year. Paying off debt, staying out of debt, investing in my home’s upkeep, investing in fruit trees and small berry bushes (because freezer jam is awesome), and taking care of my health. The game plan is to work the day job as long as I can, squirreling away money into investment accounts after I have the fully funded emergency account. My biggest fear is that one of my books will hit, and I won’t be prepared. I’m much more comfortable with putting out my books, checking the sales every quarter or so, and concentrating on learning the process. My goal is a modest 4 figures a month, paired with the day job, and letting the funds grow over time.

    1. Plan now for one of your books to hit big. Oh, not in detail, but in generalities – like, “The answer to any request for a loan is NO.” “I will only appear on talk shows/podcasts/blogs that XYZ.” “I will research the appropriate professionals and consult them before making any decision involving more than $X.”

      Whatever your conditions are – think about them, and make a “When I hit it big” list. Then put the list away against the day you actually need it.

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