Earning an income

Back in April I did a Q&A with a group of highschool students. How much do you make from a book, they asked. Is being a novelist a realistic career choice? I think the teachers were slightly mortified but I found the candid questions refreshing. Frankly, these teenagers were a hell of a lot more pragmatic than most adults.

The answers, by the way, are: not much and no, not really. As I told the teenagers, most writers have day jobs. Because even if you hit a jackpot like the Giller, you have to make that windfall last until you sell the next book. And books take years to write (I started The Boat People in 2013, 4.5 years before it came out). Advances, even when they are generous, don't amount to a whole lot when spread out over the gestation and infancy of a book.

Those of us who are full time writers usually have a bunch of side hustles and income streams. This list is not exhaustive. It is limited to my own experience and what others have told me.


If you’re lucky, your publishing house will give you an advance. A small house might give you zero dollars or a thousand or $500. Someone recently told me that a generous advance for a debut novelist is $20K. I don’t know if this is true. In any case, these numbers assume you make a Canadian sale. There is more to be made on an American sale and then of course there are other international English-language sales, plus translations.

I think everyone should at least try to get a good agent because agents know everything and have an incentive to get you the best possible deal.

An advance is an advance against earnings. Meaning you have to sell enough books to earn out your advance before you see any royalties. Royalties are usually very detailed with a whole mess of percentages. I like to think of it as 10% of the cover price but that’s not really true. There are different percentages for all kinds of things. E-book percentages for example can be renegotiated after two years (because e-book sales are ever changing!) This is also why agents are helpful. They can spot contractual bullshit at a 100 paces.


People seem to think every book is being made into a movie (or at least that my book will be) to which I say: don’t hold your breath.

Writers get paid when a book gets optioned (which can happen several times over without a movie getting made) and then if the movie gets made, they get paid again for the rights and possibly also if they have some kind of role in the production. You really need an agent to get any of this done and I know nothing except that even getting an option seems pretty good because it’s cash money. And that is what we are all here for. CASH. MONEY. MAKE IT RAIN.


Some writers are on the speaker’s circuit, meaning they give key note addresses and speeches at conferences and fundraisers and large public events. The Massey Lectures are one example. But there are lots of other opportunities too (for example, law firm lunch and learns). I was asked to give a speech at Pier 21 in the spring as part of their author series and that’s when I signed up with a speaking agent. Since then my agent has found me other opportunities and looking forward to 2019, I can see that it’s going to be a key part of my income. The great thing about these events is there’s almost always a book sale table. Which means….royalties + speaker’s fee. These events are totally exhausting and hard work but they are also a great way to pay the bills.


Providing feedback on someone’s manuscript or short story takes time and intense creative energy but it can also be a good income stream. I personally get a lot of joy out of helping other authors improve their manuscripts. (Get in touch if you’d like a quote. I’m restarting my MS evaluation service in the new year.)


Festivals, panels, public readings, etc. The going rate ranges between $125-$300/hour. Sometimes non-writers get huge eyes when they hear this number but let’s get real: these events aren’t lucrative. There’s usually so much travel involved that it works out to pennies on the hour. You do events to sell books, get your name out, and meet readers and other writers. The pay cheque is appreciated and necessary, don’t get me wrong, but events aren’t money spinners.


If it’s part of a festival you’ll probably get the per hour rate (say $200) but if you’re teaching a workshop in some other context (say at home for your Writer’s Guild) you can set whatever rate you like. You’re the boss. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m planning to teach a workshop in the new year. Stay turned.


Some writers work as professors or instructors in MFA programs. Some teach out of their homes or lead one-off classes and workshops. Some act as mentors to emerging authors. Teaching can be a key part of an author’s income but again, income varies greatly depending on whether you are a tenured professor or sessional slave labour.


Grants and prizes all need juries. In my experience the going rate varies a lot but no matter what, the hourly rate is never going to be great. Some proportion of jury duty is just unpaid labour. You do it for good karma or to help get your name/ the name of your book out into the world. Or you do it because you admire the prize and are honoured to be involved. Or you do it because you respect the other jurors and think you’ll enjoy working with them. Weigh the pros and cons and factor all of it against the time commitment and what else you could be doing in that time (ie. writing).


Grants count as taxable income but most prizes are tax-free! Shortlisted authors sometimes get a cheque too. In both cases it’s a bit like the lottery and while I think everyone should apply to grants, it’s a mistake to count on the money.


Libraries that carry your book are paying a different price to the publishing house than you or I pay at the book shop. So you’re making money on those royalties. But every time someone takes out the book, you could potentially be getting a bit of money for each of those loans too. You have to sign up here.


Some schools are already set up with a budget for visiting authors and all you have to do is invoice. And some book clubs volunteer a payment. But often this is a case of “we have no money but will you come see us anyway?” You can choose to do this work for free or you can ask to be paid. And if the latter, you can set whatever rate you like. For an hour with a class $200-$250 is what you could expect.

Caveat: If you’re being invited to any event that charges people to attend then you should absolutely be paid.


Rates vary so, so, so widely. And often I end up writing content for free (if the request comes through my publicist/ I think it’s worth the publicity). Over time, I’ve been doing fewer of these freebies though. It’s demoralizing and unfair to be a professional writer who writes for free.

Writing articles can be a decent side hustle and some authors turn their essays into collections (smart). Some writers have regular columns in print or online publications. Some have an editorial or managerial role. I have no idea what this kind of work pays but it seems like it could be rewarding and fun.

And then there are short stories which we write and try to sell to magazines. It’s never a ton of money. I think the most I ever got for a short story was $350 (for a story that I spent years working on and a whole lot of money submitting to various places that rejected me). Note that you can make more if a story wins a contest but contests usually cost $$$ to enter. (If you’re in NL, the Arts & Letters is free to enter and lucrative if you win)


Writer-in-residence programs are usually run out of libraries or schools. You commit to a length of time (say a semester) and in that time you read and comment on the work of emerging authors in the community, meet them individually, maybe give a public talk and teach a couple of workshops and in exchange you get a pay cheque. The idea that is you also have time to work on your own project. But you usually have to pay for your own flight and accommodations so unless the residency is in the place where you already live, it’s worth scrutinizing the economics.


This might seem like a long list but the fact is that most of these items don’t come with a big pay cheque. It’s almost always a case of cobbling things together and crossing your fingers for a windfall (grant/ prize). Some months are feast and others are famine and literally I never know from one year to the next what my total income will be. It really helps to have a sponsor or a trust fund or a life partner with a secure 9-5 or be comfortable living like an undergraduate (this is my theory for why all Canadian writers own the same rug). It also helps to be frugal and diligent about money.

In addition, we all perform a metric ton of unpaid labour. Blurbs, reference letters, interviews, book shop readings, travel, writing articles that never see the light of day, having your brain picked over coffee…. And that’s on top of the administrivia that comes with running your own business: emails, chasing down cheques, tracking finances, publicity and self promotion, writing grant applications and job proposals, submitting stories to publications and contests, waiting on hold with CRA….

So it also helps to be comfortable with the word no. You have to say no a lot. Because in addition to making enough money, you have to also set aside time to do the thing we are really here to do: WRITE BOOKS. Oh yeah…that.