A friend of mine who had self-produced several of her own movies has decided to turn to writing novels because she sees it as another way to increase her income. She asked me how much money I made with my books. Like many people, she had the mistaken notion that writers with many published books should be rich. I wish that were so.
I probably disappointed her greatly when I told her that writing books did not, for the most part, make a fortune. The reason a million dollar contract for a writer like Stephen King or Mary Higgins Clark gets notice is because it’s unusual.
Several years ago when my daughter was acting on Stan Lee’s Who Wants To Be A Superhero, we were filming at a downtown park. A homeless guy approached a friend of mine asking for a hand out. My friend responded, “I don’t have money. I’m just the writer.”
Writing is one of the few professions where you are expected to produce first before you get any payment at all. (And sometimes, you get nothing even after major revisions are made.)
In a recent lecture, Brad Schreiber equated it to when he was a house painter. There he would get half upon the start of the job and the rest upon finish. But the house owner didn’t come in the middle of the job –or even just as your were finishing -- (as editors or producers are want to do) and say, “Gee, maybe it would look better blue and not yellow.” As a painter, he would have gotten paid for painting the yellow house and a new fee if the owner wanted it redone as blue. In writing, that is often not the case. Unless you are well established and have a good agent or good attorney to negotiate your contract, the revisions are often on your time and your money.
Today, with so many major publishing houses consolidating and becoming fewer and fewer, and with the rising up of more independent smaller publishers, the advances (money paid to the writer against the royalties) that writers used to receive have become less and less. If the author receives an advance at all – and many places no longer give advances at all – it’s likely to be a few hundred to only a few thousand. Since the money paid as an advance is paid back to the publisher BEFORE the writer sees a royalty check, and since fewer and fewer books are published, that money might be the only check that the author sees. (One of my publishers only printed enough copies so that the advance would be paid back. They did not do a second printing even though the book was selling.)
Dividing up the advance against the time it takes to write your book, you might be lucky to get a few cents per hour.
Most publishers these days, unless they are positive you are going to be a best-seller, are not willing to get behind you and put money into publicity and promotion for you. (This is, of course, a catch-22 because if publicity isn’t done, people don’t know about your book and don’t buy it. Look at the PR done for 50 Shades of Gray. I don’t think it would have sold as well and the movie wouldn’t have made so much money if people were not just curious about what could be so great about it.) You, the author, are responsible for paying for your own ads, tours, postcards, etc.
Filmmakers, especially those who are independent, and who are savvy in the business, learned long ago that you have to plan on the promotional budget for their movie being equal to or even double and triple the cost to make the movie. Most of them do not make money from their movies. They do it for the love of it.
Then there are those who self publish and have no idea of how to publicize their book or what is really involved in the business aspect of it.
I am often told by new writers that they want to write, but they really hate the writing. What they really want is the “fame and glory” of being a published or produced writer without having to do the hard work, doing the revisions, understand the business, or do the promotions necessary.
If you want to write, I explained to my friend, you write for the passion of it and because you have a story that you are burning to tell. You do not write with the plan of getting rich from your books. Even if your book is discovered by Hollywood, chances are the option/purchase price will not be what you hope for or envision and the subsequent film will be totally different from the book you have written.
I hope you’re one of the lucky ones and get a fat advance with a lot of publicity, but don’t hold your breath. Write because you love it, because you have a story that is burning inside of you that has to come out. Don't listen to nay sayers - especially family who think you're not doing anything worthwhile. Just write your heart out.