So, I guess this is a tradition now!
As 2019 draws to a close, it’s once again time to take a peek at my—dare I say, “burgeoning”?—writing career and see how it’s fared over the last year. As I’ve written before, I’m fascinated by the daily realities of writing, especially when it comes to money.1 Finances aren’t something that everybody feels comfortable talking about, but I’m a firm believer that sharing information helps writers—whom big companies often have a vested interest in keeping in the dark—understand the weird business of publishing even better.
Before we dive in, let me stress one important point: this is my career and my career only. Talk to another writer and their experience will be totally different. Such are the vagaries of publishing. Don’t try to extrapolate too much about someone else’s career—or, frankly, your own—from mine.
So, it’s been a little more than five years since I was laid off from my last full-time job, and my freelance career has continued more or less stably since then, divided between tech writing, podcasting, and fiction writing. Here’s a look at the breakdown in my income for 2019.
As in past years, I’m not going to share exact dollar amounts, but I will say that my gross income this year was within 2 percent of my gross income from last year, which, as I said then, was well under six figures.
A few things to take away from this. Last year was the first year I made more money from podcasts than from tech writing. While some of that is because I have a couple shows with very strong ad support—in particular, Clockwise—and several shows that have some degree of member support, a large part of it is reflective of where I put my energy in 2019. Other than my recurring gigs writing my weekly column for Macworld and blogging for Six Colors, I took on very few additional freelance tech assignments.2
But the big news here is fiction writing, which continues its upward trend. Last year, it made up 5 percent of my income—this year that more than doubled. Put another way: my income from fiction in 2019 exceeded all my previous income from fiction (2016-2018) put together.
I’m not going to lie: it’s hella gratifying. I’d love for that trend line to continue upward, but this was in large part bolstered by the fact that we retained the audio rights for both the books I wrote for Angry Robot and the deal with Audible for the audiobook adaptations closed in January of last year. That’s in addition to advances for both The Bayern Agenda and The Aleph Extraction, which are paid out in parts when certain milestones are hit (i.e. manuscript delivery, book publication, etc.). There is also some royalty income in there for The Caledonian Gambit, which is a nice little bonus, though it’s not exactly “hang it all up and live on residuals” kind of money.3 So, while it’s great that 11 percent of my income came from fiction, it necessarily follow that 89 percent didn’t.
As I’ve said in the past, my goal is to continue increasing the chunk of my income that comes from fiction writing, and I’m glad that I’ve been able to sustain that this year. But can I keep that trajectory going in 2020?
Well, here’s the thing about this line of work: stable it ain’t. The only certainty is, in fact, instability.4 Going into this year, I have The Aleph Extraction coming out in May, and…that’s it. Currently, I’ve got no other books under contract, though I’m hoping one or two other projects might hit maturity in the not too distant future. But barring a substantial increase in the value of my deals, I’m not confident that it will bolster the bottom line that much.
Let me illustrate this point. With five years of freelancing under my belt, I have a little bit of data to work with, and what that data can tell me is, again, volatility. Here, for example, are the changes in my gross income for the last four years.
||Change from Previous
All. Over. The. Place. Frankly, Mr. Toad might think this ride too wild.
From the viewpoint of January 2020, figuring out whether this is going to be an up-50% or a down-20% kind of year is impossible. And, again, I’m privileged to be in a position where I can weather the down years, thanks to diverse sources of income, savings I’ve socked away, a stable living situation, and a partner with a steady job.5
Anyway, thanks for reading along: I hope at least some of you found this perspective of one working writer illuminating. Again, let me disclaim that I’m an N of 1 and every writer is in a different situation. Check out posts from folks like Jim C. Hines, Kameron Hurley, and John Scalzi for different perspectives6. And hey, if you’ve got any broad questions, drop me a line or hit me up on Twitter. I’m always happy to talk about these things, because as I said before: the more information that’s out there, the more empowered all writers are. I appreciate all of your support over the past five years, and let’s all stick together in 2020, huh?