Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is writer finances and such issues as how do you budget for uneven income? What’s your biggest expense?
First, a little history. I sold my first book to Carina Press in late summer 2011 and Priestess of the Nile was published in January 2012. It obviously wasn’t the first book I ever wrote, but it sure was the first one I ever sold. I also self-published my first science fiction romance Wreck of the Nebula Dream in March 2012. At that stage of my career as an author, I was thrilled to have actually been published, to have readers and reviews, and to be able to say “I did it!” Lifelong dream of becoming published – realized. I was immersed in my day job as NASA/JPL on the business side of the house and I knew next to nothing about the publishing or the self-publishing world. I was happy just being published.
My career path lay at NASA/JPL and I had no expectations as far as the books.
In 2013 Carina Press published the second and final book of mine that I would be doing for them and we amicably parted ways. I self-published a second scifi romance and started to believe hey, maybe I could chuck the day job (no offense to NASA/JPL) and be a fulltime writer. Day dreaming commenced...
2014 – self-published two more scifi romances, was much more involved in the online author world, had been to conferences (what a rush on so many levels), won several awards for my books, was contributing to the USA Today Happy Ever After blog and a few other places…the world was my oyster, I was sure. The day job, in an office dealing with contracts, audits and process improvement and the like was less and less what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be. I decided to go for the new dream. Serious planning ensued...
2015 – I left the day job to become a fulltime author. I had a best-selling scifi romance that went to number one in its category on Amazon. I chaired a panel at a big conference…I thought I had it made and wow I was sure my decision was the right one.
Umm, guess what I was totally and blissfully unaware of? The whole ebook self-publishing situation was a gold rush and not only had I come into it at the tail end, the entire industry was about to be rocked by the tidal wave that was Amazon Kindle Unlimited (KU).
Kristine Kathryn Rusch has written several excellent blog posts about the gold rush situation and the effects of KU, if you’d like to read them. Here’s the 2015 post and then a follow up in 2017 after a major outlet for indie ebooks (All Romance eBooks) had just gone out of business. According to KKR, the gold rush actually began tapering off in 2012 and pretty much crashed in 2015, when available content caught up to the demand and then KU hit. Note the amazing alignment to the fledgling career of yours truly.
One of her key points is that an indie author must stay flexible because the situation is always going to change. You have to adapt. You also have to write good books that the readers want to read.
So, to back up a bit and track to the original SFF7 topic for the week, in the beginning my day job salary supported the books. Even when I went fulltime as an author, I was still using my savings to support the writing. A big no-no by the way but I was naïve. I thought that was temporary and I could absorb the costs for a while and surely my royalties would skyrocket and cover everything. I might not ever become a J. K. Rowling with theme parks and movies but I’d be doing okay. Right?
I also blithely expected the arc of my writer career to be like the arc of a more classic career (the one I had at NASA/JPL), where each thing leads to a bigger thing, more responsibility, a better office and title and oh, more money. Well, the author world really doesn’t work that way for most of us, as it turns out.
I see you shaking your head and telling me I ought to have done a whole lot of intense and focused research before I jumped. Well okay, but it was a gold rush even if I didn’t know it and the mentality of the moment grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I have a tendency to succumb to magical thinking at the drop of a hat. It was the chance to live that glorious fulltime author dream life, people! No more commuting on the freeways, no more staff meetings, no more scrutinizing of fine print in the tech specs for spacecraft… And I did do a certain amount of financial planning but I didn’t know what I didn’t know and I probably didn’t want to hear it anyway by then.
I had a LOT of fun though. I truly have no regrets about the choice I made to go fulltime as an author.
Things began to look brighter for my author career right on schedule in 2015 with that big hit, Star Cruise: Marooned, which is the book I mentioned above. My sales continued to be strong while a lot of other people’s sank. I think I got about three extra months of great royalties before the inevitable happened and the tidal wave hit me too. (Yes, we used to get 90 days of sales ‘lift’ from a new release – wow, those were the days. Now it’s a week, maybe.)
Soooo….I began cutting back. And back. I stopped doing audio books. Too expensive and they didn’t earn out the costs for me. I quit going to conferences. I stopped doing the big pretty promo in magazines and on prestige romance sites. I cut back on some of the things I’d been spending time on that were so much fun but took away from the writing time (like being a TV blogger for USAT/HEA, recapping episodes for several scifi shows, interviewing the actors, etc.). “Does this pay the rent?” became my mantra. I made other adjustments in my personal life, including downsizing my living space. Out of necessity I also got more efficient at writing the books and had seven new releases in 2017, one of which was Aydarr, the first book in my very successful Badari Warriors scifi romance series. (Thank you, readers!).
The end of the gold rush really forced me to become much more serious that the writing was the thing. Plant myself in my chair and get the words onto the paper.
I have about forty books published at the moment, released 11 in 2019 alone. I was on track to do about the same this year until we all got hit with the pandemic. It’s proving to be hard for me to focus on writing in this stressful time, although I am managing about 1K a day on the new book. Thank goodness for the extensive backlist.
Amazon accounts for about 85% of my sales, although I remained ‘wide’, keeping my books at all the major ebook sellers, versus going into KU. I personally don’t like having all my eggs in one basket. Your mileage may vary. Amazon pays royalties every month, which does amazing things for me paying my bills, and the amount is from the sales 60 days ago. I check my dashboard every single day and monitor my royalties closely, so I can budget ahead and know pretty much what I’ll have to work with in two months’ time. It's a rolling balancing act.
Household expenses and bills come first, then the cost of the books. I set aside a fixed amount every month in the budget to cover certain book-related expenses. When I was writing on the 9 to 11 new books a year schedule, I knew what the monthly book-related income and expenses were going to be pretty reliably. Right now sales are down and since I’m not turning out books as rapidly (which could be a self-perpetuating loop because readers want new books but pandemic happening and my Muse is struggling…) it’s balanced out, although I am continuing to commission book covers. I know what my next few books will be and it helps incentivize me to write if I already have a gorgeous cover from Fiona Jayde to stare at.
My biggest expense is editing, followed by covers, with the formatting third. I’m not techy and can’t do my own formatting. I use the wonderful Formatting Fairies who work for Marie Force and they’re very calming to my anxiety and so helpful in general! Worth every penny.
(My high powered CPA is a once a year expense and I’m thrilled to pay that fee because I can sleep at night thanks to her, with no nightmares about the IRS.)
I’m doing very little paid promo right now. I did just put my Badari box set on sale and paid for some promo this month in connection with that, plus generous author friends helped spread the word. The SFR community is a really good place to be, pretty supportive of each other.
I have a newsletter and a blog. I’m active on social media and in various author and reader groups for my genre. I write about scifi romance for several national outlets (USAT/HEA sadly is no more.) I don’t get paid for those posts, which I know many people say is a no-go but I feel the exposure to potential readers in the SFR genre is definitely worth the time I put in. You never know what other opportunity may arise because of a post going viral. And a big part of my efforts is always spreading the word about the entire SFR genre. I believe the more readers we have for our SFR novels, the better it will be for all of us who write them. Romance readers are wonderfully voracious!
I have a strategic plan, which I’ve been working to since 2015. I update it once a year and then review it every quarter and make changes as needed. It’s an important tool for me to stay flexible and to watch out for changes that I need to make in my thinking and my author activities to respond to the industry itself. It's the opposite of magical thinking but reassuring in its own way and makes me feel more in control. I feel like I'm in a steady state right now as far as income and outgo but I need to get back to regular new releases pretty quickly and I'm counting on the readers to want more books in my various series.
The writing is the writing, thank goodness. Once I sit down and focus, the words flow and the stories tell themselves to me. If I can just keep myself from spending too much time staring in bug eyed disbelief at the news or going down social media rabbit holes – or binge watching TV shows and movies – I’ll be okay.
Always assuming the readers continue to enjoy the stories I offer!