Sunday, April 12, 2020

Real Information on Author Finances

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is again eerily timely. We're talking writer finances. How do you budget for uneven income? What’s your biggest expense?

With so many people struggling financially due to the #COVID19 shutdowns, managing money is heavy on many people's minds. It's odd to find myself well-equipped to deal with this because - as a full-time writer with no other income and with a non-salaried spouse who does not provide me with health insurance - I am always juggling the financial balls.

Though many people regard writers as wealthy, most are not. There's a huge spectrum of author incomes, from approaching zero to multi-millions. Various groups use surveys and data-mining to estimate median author incomes - eliciting huge arguments, too - but the short answer is that how much an author makes varies. And it doesn't just vary from author to author, but it varies over an author's career. There are good years and bad, feast and famine, upward trends and downward ones. Even within the course of a year, that income varies.

The bottom line is, if you're relying on writing income to pay the bills, then budgeting is a major challenge. There is no salary, so the standard method of budgeting - knowing your monthly income and keeping expenses below that number - doesn't work. So, what does work?

The simplest and lowest-risk method: many authors who write full time have a stable source of income that does not come from writing - a retirement annuity or a spouse's salary. In this scenario, budgeting can be done according to the reliable income, with income from writing counting as "gravy." Now, the reliable income budget can be pretty bare bones, meaning the gravy is pretty important, but this also allows for a percentage of writing income to go back into the business.

I'd love to be doing it this way! However, I'm not. My husband retired early from his state job, so while he does have a monthly stipend, there's not much left after his health insurance premium. (I self-insure through the ACA.) He's also non-salaried, so his income fluctuates wildly.

So, how do I handle budgeting when in some months I receive 15% of my annual income and in others 2%? (Those are my 2019 numbers.)

Very carefully?

What I'd love to be able to do is budget annually. I'd love to set aside a year's worth of fixed expenses - mortgage, utilities, groceries, etc. (which are, by the way, my biggest expenses) - and pay those ahead or out of an account set aside for that purpose. I've come pretty close to being able to do that, but not as consistently as I'd like. If I ever received good-sized advance - like more than $100K - I'd set it aside for that.

What I usually can do is budget quarterly. At any given time, I like to have enough money to cover projected expenses for the ensuing three months. That way, if what we have in hand looks like it'll dip, I have a few months to try to supplement the income.

One thing that helps hugely with stabilizing income is self-publishing. While an author still can't control sales, the retail platforms pay monthly, which really helps to even out the income. Diversifying income streams as much as possible helps, too.

Of course, keeping expenses low is ideal, but that's true of any budget. So is earning a Whole Bunch of Money!

In the meantime, we do our best to make the ever-shifting ends meet.


  1. It's generally recommended for all people (not just authors) to aim to have 3-6 months of expenses in easily-accessible savings accounts. Times like these really show why that's so important.