Don't Quit Your Day Job
The financial reality of writing science fiction and fantasy
When I attended Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in 1994, I was given
two very specific pieces of writing advice from my teachers:
1) Write every day, and
2) Marry rich.
Although the first piece of advice is obvious, the second addresses
the hard reality, the open secret, of writing science fiction and
fantasy: despite its thriving community and dedicated fan base,
writing novels may not the best way to make a living.
At the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s of America (SFWA)
cocktail party in November, author and editor Darrell Schweitzer
(Weird Tales) scanned the room and said, “I see at least one author
here who makes maybe $6,000 a year on his writing.” He would not name
names, but Schweitzer, with thirty years in the genre trenches, says
that he earns more on a second income than he does as a writer.
Schweitzer is not alone. According to Jane Jewell, executive director
of SFWA, very few science fiction and fantasy authors live the
lifestyles of the rich and famous. In fact, only a few support
themselves solely on their writing income.
How many? Jewell says, "Peter [Heck, SFWA's Emergency Medical Fund
Chairperson] was saying that he wouldn't be surprised if it was fifty and would be
surprised if it's a hundred."
Science fiction pays very well for those few, who earn money from multiple book
deals, lecturing tours, and that holy grail of writerly achievement, film and
However, talent does not effortlessly translate into cash. "There are award-winning
writers who don't make a living from their novels," says Schweitzer
Once upon a time, as the fairy tales begin, SF/F authors did not suffer from this
problem. Back when the genre was new and pulp fiction reigned over the magazine
racks, writers who could churn out manuscripts as fast as their fingers could type
supported themselves on their writing income alone.
In Wonder's Child: My Life in Science Fiction, the late author Jack Williamson
wrote that he earned 2 cents per word in 1931. He earned $1,427 that year, enough
to support himself, albeit not in luxury's lap.
Publisher and editor Gordon Van Gelder (Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine)
quoted an anecdote about writing and money: "Back in the day, a writer like Phil
Klass could make $100 a story, but rent would cost $10 a month." However, Van
Gelder said that era ended in 1958, with the advent of television. "A slew of
magazines folded that year."
Today, F&SF's guidelines state that writers earn six to nine cents per word. A
short story of 3,500 words therefore earns a minimum of $210 and a maximum of
$310. Unless one lives in a third-world country, $300 does not pay the rent, or
even the grocery bill.
Short stories pay little, but it takes less time to write them. On the other hand
novels, which take months and sometimes years to complete, do not pay
comparatively well either. Jewell says that first novels tend to pay an advance only
"in the five-to-ten thousand dollar range."
The news gets worse. Literary agent and founder of the Spectrum Literary Agency,
Eleanor Wood says that neophyte novelists are not the only ones to lose out
financially. "The problem many authors face is that if their novels are not
consistent bestsellers, then publishers may lump them in a 'mid list' that they're
not interested in. The result is that many fine authors with fairly solid past sales are
finding decreasing interest and advances from publishers."
And worse yet, Ace editor Ginjer Buchanan confirms that first novelists have not
received raises in the last twenty or thirty years.
Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden explains why: "Science fiction doesn't sell
better than it did…years ago." If more people bought science fiction and fantasy
novels, authors would earn more.
But not only are authors not earning much money, but also they're earning even
less than ever thanks to inflation -- as well as, according to David Brin (Tomorrow
Happens), a cramped market. "Today's bright neos are entering a world where
ironies abound. Where it is more possible than ever to become a writer(!) But also
possible to be lost in the crowd…. The supply of good writers has gone up! We
have been so successful at raising a generation of bright, articulate, unabashed and
vivid new scriveners that we suffer from the curse of surfeit."
Nielsen Hayden agrees. "The sheer quantity of [science fiction/fantasy novels]
dilutes other people's sales."
So why do writers keep writing, even though it frequently makes a meager living?
When novelists could keep themselves in champagne and caviar, or at least in
health insurance and a summer vacation, with 9-to-5 jobs free from deadlines and
the stress of book tours? The authors I've interviewed could, if they chose to, work
as writers for business or advertising. (And successful advertising writers can earn
$150,000 a year.)
For some, the rewards compensate for the lack of money.
James Alan Gardner (Radiant) says that writing is a joy to him. "It's wonderful to
come up with little touches that make a scene come alive, or to surprise myself
with jokes that arise naturally from the action. Every day has its triumphs."
Anne Harris (Inventing Memory) says she writes because, "the better you get at
writing, the more you can do, and the more you can learn. It's never boring."
James Patrick Kelly (Burn) says, "I can look at…fan letters and emails and what
people say to me at conventions…. People want to come up and argue with me
about what I've written, and that's cool. I like that a lot."
The sad reality of the marketplace has forced most SF/F writers to look beyond the
pages of SFWA-approved literature into another way of earning a living. The
authors I've spoken with have other ways of supporting themselves while writing
their next book or story:
- Kelly says, "I've been married twice and both my wives have been -- and my
current wife still is -- supportive in what I do, and that has helped a lot."
- Harris says, "I don't support myself on writing income. I've been very careful
with a modest inheritance and that has allowed me to limit my outside employment
to part-time and freelance gigs."
- Kij Johnson (the upcoming Kylen) says, "I have to have a day job, because I'll
never make enough money to afford private health insurance."
- Brin, one of the genre's more successful authors, earns "a large part of my
income incanting ideas in public speeches or consulting for big corporations... and
sometimes inventing things. Even had a TV show for a while."
For Kelly, the need to write is more important than the need to make money. "The
value I'd put on it is, does it make me a more fulfilled person? The answer is
without any question that it does…. I'm not driving around in a 2006-anything, but
I'm doing well enough to enjoy my life and it's an important thing."
Writers perhaps write for the chance of making money, giving birth to that break-through novel that gets them in the same country club as JK Rowling. Jewell says
that she knows of an author who "a couple years ago made $200,000 for a two-book contract. But that's so rare… In fact, every time I see [a contract] over
$20,000, I'm startled."
Wood offers a bit of hope: the high-end payments for authors can go quite high --
as much as $250,000 for "the next Tolkien."
And Buchanan suggests that even though advances have not changed much,
"what's changed is that the higher end is a different kind of book than it was
twenty, thirty years ago. If you have a good urban fantasy, it's worth more than a
hard science fiction [novel]."
And some authors say that having another job actually benefits their writing career.
Johnson says, "A day job meant that I was something more than just a writer -- if
the writing was going badly, I had this other thing that made me money and gave
me positive reinforcement…. Day jobs were almost always a positive thing for my
Kelly, who teaches part-time and volunteers, says, "I've done things that kept me
from writing every day but enhanced my ability to understand the culture I'm in,
and the people I've lived with, and understand the world…. I can help [people] and
learn from them and learn what the world is like now in ways that I would not be
able to do by just making it up from looking at the Internet and television."
Gardner, who makes a living writing computer documentation, says that his day
job gives him a sort of mental release. "I don't know if I'd have the stamina to
write science fiction full-time…. There's just so much I can squeeze out of my
brain on any given day...so if I quit the computer job, I don't know how much
more SF I'd actually write."
A writer of speculative fiction can earn awards, the respect of peers, and the
admiration of fans. However, what the writer frequently does not earn is a living
wage solely off of spec-fic writing. To many, this is a depressing consequence of
working for love instead of money. Or as Schweitzer says, "It's enough to put the
Sigh back into Sigh Fi."
But this lack of connection between output and earnings does have one important
benefit: a writer doesn't need a million-dollar paycheck to be considered
Of course, it wouldn't hurt.
Some tips for SF/F writers to stay afloat while writing:
- Sell books online, autographed, of course
- Teach writing
- Write part-time in the lucrative field of business or tech writing
- Try the ultra-hot field of science fiction journalism (just kidding)
- Marry rich
- Have wealthy relatives, and kill them (still kidding -- this is advice for