Hello, writers! I’ll start with my annual disclaimer.
If you think it’s impolite to talk about finances, skip this article!
Now that that’s out of the way…One question I hear often from aspiring writers is, “Can I make a living at this?” We’re not greedy, but we do dream of earning a living doing what we love. In our case, writing.
This field is very tough, though, unless you happen to have a book that dominates the bestseller charts for a while (and even then, writers don’t earn as much as everyone thinks). But it’s hard to know that, because most people are understandably private about their income. I have no financial filters, though, so every year since 2007, I’ve shared my income publicly.
You can click on the links below to check out some of my older income reports, too. Also, you may be interested in a book I’m working on called How to Make a Living as a Children’s Writer (or something like that). If you don’t subscribe to my eletter for writers (what? why not?), but you’d like to know when this book comes out, just here and I’ll notify you. I won’t share your email or do anything but send one email to you.
OK, here’s my 2016 income breakdown. If you just want the bare facts, with no explanations, my gross income in 2016 was $46,348. That breaks down into:
Trade (bookstore) books: $16,991
Work-for-hire books: $2,772
Indie-published books: $1,508
Short passages: $2,600
Speaking to educators: $2,597
School visits: $11,580
Teaching online: $618
Mentors for Rent: $2,521
Miscellaneous sales: $144
Trade Book Sales/Royalties: My trade sales added up to $16,991! That’s about a 60% increase from 2015. Whee! I am passionate about my trade projects, so this is happy news. This figure includes $8,500 in advances on four different forthcoming titles, $1,851 on BookSpeak royalties, $6,513 on Leaf Can Be… and Water Can Be… (A Rock Can Be… has not earned out its advance yet—uh oh), $100 for a poetry anthology poem, and $27 for a poem in Cricket. Those amounts are earnings AFTER my agent commissions were paid: $1,560 in agency fees. It’s not an I-could-live-off-it income, but at least the number is rising! [37% of 2016 income]
Work-for-Hire Books: $7,233. That includes three leveled-reader “picture books” (kind of) at $1800 each for an F&P project through Heinemann/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Those were really fun to write—topics I came up with and was interested in—though they did include the leveled reader tasks of art specs and such. I actually wrote two or three more than that that haven’t yet gone through the revision/acceptance process. In addition, it’s $1,000 for two sight word story poems—a fun writing puzzle/challenge. And it’s $833 that is 1/3 payment for a branded picture book that I’m writing for Lerner. On that one, the topic came from the publisher (typical for work-for-hire), but I had lovely latitude on the approach and creativity. This is a big increase in work-for-hire from 2015, but it felt like challenging and enjoyable work-for-hire, so I’m pleased with that. [16% of 2016 income]
Indie Published Books: $1,508. That’s a small increase from 2015, but I’m happy with it for now. This includes both Kindle and CreateSpace books, and these are all books either for writers or teachers. I do not self publish children’s books. This is a very small income stream, clearly! But it gives me an outlet for things I want to share with writers or for poems I want to share with teachers (poetry is notoriously hard to sell to traditional publishers). [3% of 2016 income]
Short Passages: $2,600. This was seven passages at $300 each and one at $500. I turned down several projects this year, due to our move, our daughter’s wedding, my mom’s death, and other family events. I’m forever torn about this income because I enjoy the writing but hate the overuse of assessment in education. [6% of 2016 income]
Speaking to Educators: $2,597. This is a nice increase from 2015. I did one virtual visit with a homeschooling group plus three in-person events at libraries or teachers’/librarians’ conferences. I love speaking with educators. I wish I knew how to increase this segment of my career more. This dollar amount is also a little misleading, as it includes hotel stays and out-of-pocket expenses that I got reimbursed for. My speaking fees ONLY were $1,975. I also spoke to educators at both ILA and NCTE last year, but those are unpaid gigs. [6% of 2016 income]
School Visits: $11,580. This is almost as much as I earned in 2015 on school visits, so that’s great! This is for 16 days’ of in-person school visits or young authors conferences. As with speaking, this number also includes some reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses. [25% of 2016 income]
Teaching Writers Online: $619. I started offering online video courses this past year through Teachable, and I really like speaking directly to you in videos. I do a terrible job of marketing my courses, though! That’s something I need to get better at in order to make this feasible. This year, my only new course is Writer in Progress: 30 Days in the Life of a Children’s Writer. I have told myself I cannot create any more courses until I figure out a doable marketing system. I price them REALLY cheaply, because I want them to be accessible. But that means I need a lot of writers to buy them. But who wants to spend time on marketing? Oi. [1% of 2016 income)
Mentors for Rent: $2,521. This is a decrease from 2015, but Mentors for Rent has never been a big money-earner. Lisa Bullard and I really enjoy consulting with writers, so we’ve kept it going. However, at the end of 2016, I was extremely overwhelmed and scattered. I knew something had to give. I analyzed my income streams, and it was glaringly obvious (unfortunately) that I had to step back from Mentors for Rent. At full price, I earned $48/hour for our joint consulting. However, marketing efforts and long emails with clients before sessions ever happened brought my pay to about $20/hour. In fact, we discovered we couldn’t afford to be “more successful” (i.e., to have more clients). The business model just didn’t work. So I am not critiquing, and, for now, my involvement is strictly through books and online classes and speaking gigs. (Lisa and I are dynamite joint speakers:>) We have a few ongoing clients who had prepaid for more hours, and of course we’re honoring that! Otherwise, Lisa is still offering critiques and coaching (contact Lisa here if you’re interested). She is awesome! [5% of 2016 income]
Copyediting: $555. This is way down, only about ¼ of my 2015 income. I had to turn down some projects because of my crazy schedule. [1% of 2016 income]
Miscellaneous Sales: $144. This is just me selling author copies of my work-for-hire books through Amazon using their Fulfilled by Amazon service. I end up making VERY littler per book. In fact, I’m not sure this number reflects all the storage fees and such I pay them. I might not have even broken even. I was glad to get the books out of my house before we moved, but I actually don’t recommend this for authors. Unless you have indie published a single title that is selling well—then it might be worth it. But if you have a lot of odds and ends of titles and they sell slowly, it is kind of torture to sell them through Fulfilled by Amazon.
So, my total income for 2016 was $46,348. That’s a 38% increase from 2015’s $33,653. I am super happy with that, because it means I have a decent mix of incomes right now that lets me pay bills plus have time to work on the projects I absolutely love.
Am I getting rich? No way. Very few children’s writers do! In fact, the income of some very well known writers might surprise you. It is just a hard career to earn a livable income at, so any time I top $40,000, I’m happy.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average elementary schoolteacher salary in the U.S. is $54,890. I earn less than that, clearly, but I’m OK with that. Educators are one of the few groups of people whom I think work as fiercely and creatively and exhaustively as I do—all toward growing kids and books. (I just wish all schools were understanding about why authors need to be paid for school visits.)
There are also writerpreneurs (entrepreneurs whose main customer base is writers) earning a lot more money than I do. And I’m OK with that, too. As a writerpreneur, your primary focus has to be on list-building and product creation and sales. Those things are part of my life as a writer and small businessperson (essentially anyone trying to make a living as a writer is a small business), but they are not my main focus. And I don’t want them to be. Writing what I love. Getting kids excited about reading and writing. Trying to celebrate the world as it is and change it where it needs to be changed. Those things motivate me. If I can pursue those and earn more than I’d make flipping burgers, I feel happy.
And please don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking writerpreneurs! I learn a lot from them. There are a couple in particular I follow, and the knowledge they share helps me do what I do! Neither path is good or bad. It’s figuring out if the path you’re on leads you to the place you want to go. The place I want to go is (ideally, in my dreams) making a living through my trade picture books (70%), speaking (15%), and courses and books for writers (15%). So I trot along my path with that goal in sight, way off in the distance.
I tried some new things in 2016. My Putrid Poetic Ponderings download was an epic fail and sold barely double-digit copies. Again. Marketing. Online courses were a hit with the students, but I need more students. Sigh.
In 2017, I will continue on the same path, though I want to spend some time refining my online presence and my marketing efforts.
I hope you find this information helpful. Writing income can be discouraging. It is hard work and a competitive industry. But it’s incredibly satisfying! And it’s possible to make a living at it, if you’re willing to hone your craft, write a lot, and branch out into writing-related activities.
For more information about earning a livable income as a writer, check out my Writer in Progress, a video/text course where you’ll see what my crazy writing life actually looks like for 30+ workdays, and sign up here to be notified when my book How to Earn a Living as a Children’s Writer comes out.
For you writers making an actual living solely through the sales of your trade books—congratulations! I want to grow up to be you! And for those of you still hoping for your first trade sale, I hope this gives you a realistic picture of what the income of a typical hard-working children’s writer looks like.
PLEASE NOTE: This is gross income. It doesn’t include any of my expenses—like travel, business cards, printer ink, Google storage fees, Paypal fees, office supplies, etc., nor the self-employment, federal, state, and sales taxes I pay. (The taxes alone are generally 30-40% of my gross income.) The only expenses already subtracted to arrive at these figures were for my agent and for all the fees Amazon charges to store and ship my books that I’m selling directly through them in the Fulfilled by Amazon program.