The Royalty Check

One of the discussions we seldom get into at writers’ panels at conventions is the financial side. For some, they’re uncomfortable discussing what they earn for their efforts. Others truly can’t figure out their finances so can’t talk about it. For whatever reason, it’s just something that doesn’t get explored often.

As most know, a writer of books usually receives an advance for their efforts. Publishers differ so some will pay in steps such as on signing the contract, on delivery of the manuscript and on delivery of final corrections. Others will pay in halves; some won’t pay anything until publication. For most books, the advance works to keep the writer motivated and then once the work is in print, there is the tantalizing promise of royalties.

Royalties are a negotiated percentage of the book’s cover price so the author may profit should the book sell well. The advance is actually that, an advance on the royalties the book will begin generating from the first copy purchased (thanks, Mom).

In theory, writers accept assignments knowing full well not only when the work is due but what they will be paid and when they can reasonably expect their money.

Since every publisher works differently, and their accounting systems work with varying degrees of efficiency, freelance writers have very sporadic incomes. Those trying to earn a living solely as a writer have to ensure they have a deep cushion to pay their monthly bills irrespective of when their publishers will cough up any cash. For those who write on the side, which is the vast majority of writers I point out, we count on the extra income in different ways. Some need it to live on, others put it aside for their retirement and others use it for things like home repair or even vacations.

However, given the iffy state of book publishing, no one except a small handful of top selling authors can expect much in the way of royalties above and beyond the advance. As a result, there have been some debates elsewhere on the net regarding whether or not authors should forego the advance and just start taking the royalties. The reverse is also argued, that authors should get as fat an advance as possible since few books actually earn royalties worth a damn anymore.

Given my own experience, the latter seems to be the way to go. I discuss all of this today to provide a peek into the process. Upon returning home tonight, I opened up the mail and there was the 113 page royalty statement from Pocket Books. Buried within the 113 pages was the check. I excitedly said to Deb, “I had more books out this year; maybe the check will be for $6.” I was off.

It was for $4.14.

Yes, since Pocket Books began publishing my fiction in 1990, I have produced 28 separate works according to the royalty statement. Those 28 works breakdown to several editions of books and electronic versions of these same books. Some were actually printed without advances so should be generating cash in perpetuity.

And I still got a check for $4.14.

I’ll point out the postage for this 113-page masterpiece of arcane accounting cost over $5.

Now, I don’t blame Pocket Books for the $4.14 check. They printed the books, paid me handsome advances in all cases, and marketed them as well as can be expected for media tie-ins. In the past, when errors have been noticed, they have corrected them and sent fresh cash. But, this is how the publishing business works and would-be writers should understand this going in. Especially since I will be taxed for this income.

So, why do we write? Certainly not to get rich on the royalties. And thank goodness for that.

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