how much money can a writer make

This guest post is by the author of one of my favorite books of 2016, Prostitute Laundry; Charlotte Shane is also a woman who, like myself, runs a small business and freelances for a living. Originally published on her own tumblr, I felt this piece, which is phenomenally open about finances, was something that my readers might enjoy as well. 

Listen to me read the below here:

I have a history of oversharing in many areas (most especially sex and money), so it only felt natural that I’d make public a financial breakdown of my first year as a publisher and regular freelance writer. I thought the numbers were interesting as I was going over them for my own purposes, and my guess was that other people would find them interesting, too—or more than that, that they would find them practically useful with regard to their own expectations and demands. I’m so excited that worker solidarity seems to be making a comeback through unionization and greater financial transparency, and I think sharing information about our incomes is a powerful way to make our community stronger while also freeing ourselves from paranoias, insecurities, and shame that otherwise fester inside the silence.

In 2016, between payments for my freelancing writing and sales of TigerBee books, I took in $43,125. I feel good about this number; it’s not as much as I would have liked, but it seems like a respectable sum. (Don’t tell me if it isn’t; let me live in my dream world.)

Here’s how it breaks down:

  • $21,454 from (30) articles. The least I was paid for a single piece was $50; the most was $1500.
  • $12,400 from my site’s book sales
  • $546 from Amazon sales
  • $8,815 from third-party booksellers, like Emily Books and indie bookstores. (Strand is our biggest buyer, btw. Thank you, @strandbooks, I owe you my first born.)

If you’re wondering exactly how many books were sold—me too! I did not do a great job of keeping records on this, but it was over 1300. Prostitute Laundry is the bestseller of the TB Catalog, which makes sense because it’s the most normal-seeming, it’s been out the longest, has gotten the most hype and coverage, etc. etc.

If you’re wondering how this compares to my 2015 income, I can help. That year I made $7855 from 31 pieces of writing. The least I was paid for a single piece was $50 and the most was $800. But then I got a big chunk of money from my Kickstarter campaign ($27,512.32.) That was nice.

But. Those figures are gross sums. It’s not my profit, what I ended with after paying all my work-incurred bills. It doesn’t factor in how much I owe in taxes or my expenses. And there were a lot of expenses this year because I was investing in a press, a press that makes its own books instead of just assembling the content and then outsourcing the manufacture. It could have been cheaper if we used paper that wasn’t as nice or paid our contributors less but that wasn’t what we chose to do. So what I ended up spending on the press in 2016 was $29,898: everything I made through freelancing and then some.

Here’s some information (but not all the information–trust me it would be tedious to break it down any further) about how those expenses shook out, roughly:

  • $4125 for contributors. (That means anyone who wrote or drew anything for a book, and a copyeditor.)
  • $2400 for paper. (It literally grows on tress and it still cost this much? Not cool.)
  • $7000 for postage and packing materials. (Am training a fleet of birds to deliver them in 2017.)
  • $1500 for ink. (Am training an octopus to squirt multicolor for 2017. Her name is Jody and I think she’s a great addition to the team.)
  • $4560 for all sorts of assorted office charges: a lawyer to draw up contracts, the e-contract service so contributors can sign remotely, website hosting, various hardware for making books like a stapler and printer and binding machine, ISBN numbers and barcodes (those fuckers are expensive, it’s a racket,) etc.
  • $6753 for N.B. and PL, which are made by Bookmobile (a lovely company that creates beautiful products.)

financial transparency quote

Now let me say this about all of that. Pretty much everything material in my life is the result not of writing but of sex work, which I did for over a decade, rapaciously. I made a lot and I saved a lot, and I had other jobs in tandem though they usually paid very little. (Like: teaching, writing.) I was also in a relationship with a generous partner for a long time, and that further facilitated my saving, though—sadly, in retrospect—I spent a lot, too. Basically my third income right now is consigning designer clothes that don’t make sense for my lifestyle anymore, and I wish I were joking about that but I am not.

I’m in an extremely privileged financial situation and I still worry about money almost every day. It’s my great fear that I’m building something that can’t sustain itself, and that sometime in my 40s I’ll have spent all of what should have been my retirement fund. These concerns are not entirely rational; I’m pretty good with money, meaning good at acquiring it and holding on to it, and if I really fell apart my family could probably help me put myself back together. But I also have the sensibility of someone who used to earn major hooker money, and I live with the anxiety that I won’t shake myself out of that mentality until it’s too late, and that writing will never pay me much more than it pays me now and that I’ll spend my later years, my 50s or my 60s, living hand to mouth and feeling really stressed and sick all the time, like even more so than I feel stressed and sick now.

But, neuroticism aside, I am so grateful to everyone who’s supported us, who’s worked with us, who’s sold our books. I hope this is useful for you if you’re a freelancer or considering self-publishing or just a nosey person like me who loves learning about other people’s financial business. I don’t know if I’m living the dream but I’m living a dream, and if you’re reading this you have probably helped me do it.