Finances for Authors

So we’ve all seen The Piece. You know the one. About the advance. I’m not getting into judgement one way or another except to say that it was bold to share that and it got people talking. And talking is good because in publishing there’s a whole lot of not talking because it’s considered… I dunno, uncouth or something.

And yes, you have to arm yourself with knowledge. It’s all out there on the internets. The problem is that the good advice is really very often nestled amongst bad advice. A lot of people are ready to tell you how publishing works, despite having no idea how publishing works. Some people consider this “branding,” like if you present yourself as an expert you’ll be taken more seriously.

I have shot from the hip with advice over the years and some of it has been good and some of it has been bad. I’m still learning. No one has it all figured out and anyone who says they do is lying. I do feel like at this point I know a little about a little–I’ve worked as a publisher, published seven of my own books at both small and large presses, co-authored a book with James Patterson, and navigated the weird and winding road of a bananas book deal with The Warehouse.

And one thing that was really hard to figure out–because there’s no guidebook!–is the financial end. Chuck Wendig touched on it briefly in this very good article about the overall tomfuckery of publishing. It’s a must-read. It also made me think I had some information to share about navigating the financial end of things.

Because, again, people don’t always talk about this stuff. And some of the people who do are dumbasses. So… here’s some stuff I learned, that you may or may not find helpful (and while some of it applies to The Warehouse deal a lot of this I was practicing before that, when my advances amounted to four figures instead of seven):

  • Every check you get, put away 30 percent. I actually do 35, just to be safe (my tax bracket got a little higher recently), and you’re going to owe it in the end, so better to have it ready. I have a separate savings account and I put it all there so it can earn a little interest. Then I send out estimated payments straight from the account.
  • Put reminders for your estimated payments into your calendar, with alerts, or you will forget to do them. Like I did earlier this year!
  • Consider getting an accountant. I hate dealing with this stuff and it’s worth it to me, to get guidance on deductions, have my estimated payments set up, etc. It used to be you could deduct the cost of that but I don’t think so any more (fucking Trump). But it’s a worthwhile expenditure to get it right.
  • There are a lot of things you can deduct. I won’t list them here. You can find them or ask your shiny new accountant. But the best advice he gave me was: if you question whether you can deduct something, explain to a friend why you need it for your job. If they don’t laugh at you, you can deduct it.
  • Also talk to your accountant about setting up an LLC. I have not. He doesn’t seem to think it’s worth it–it doesn’t actually lower my tax burden, it’ll cost money to set up, and all it’ll really do is protect my assets. He’s not worried about it and I probably don’t need to do it unless I branch out into other mediums, like TV and comics.
  • Consider a financial planner, especially as you get to higher income levels. They can help you with retirement accounts, college saving accounts, etc. Another worthwhile investment (they take a small cut of what you dump into your accounts–you don’t even notice it’s gone). This was especially important for me because after Warehouse I couldn’t contribute to my Roth IRA anymore–I was over the income limit. I have to open a Single K, which I promptly maxed out for the year. But a planner (or even an accountant) can tell you what’s right for you.
  • A lot of people will tell you what you need or don’t need–a lawyer, a business manager. I decided on neither, because my agent and his office handle all the lawyer-y stuff (mostly contract writing/review). No reason to pay twice. If I get into TV or heavily into comic work or something, maybe. And I spoke to a business manager who told me… I don’t need a business manager. He said most of what he would do, my publishers and agents are doing, or I’m doing, so I’d be paying him for duplicate work. Not worth it.
  • I tweeted about this yesterday but I recently became a full-time writer. I did it because my college loans were already paid off, my cost of living on Staten Island is (relatively) low for New York City, and my wife has a good job with solid health insurance. Also, my Warehouse payments were equal to about 11 or 12 years of my then-salary (I thought it was seven but re-crunched the numbers).
  • Speaking of–my accountant is begging me to move to Florida, where there is no income tax, or Jersey, where I’d save seven percent over what I’m paying now. I won’t, but hey, it’s an option!
  • Also: pay off all your debts before you do anything else!
  • And enjoy the money a little, if you have it. Don’t be afraid to buy a fancy dinner or trip or pick up a meal for friends, once you start making bank… but also treat every check you get, even if you have more coming in that you know about, as the last check you will ever get. It is safer that way. But also consider giving some money to charitable causes, because the world is a fucking trash fire right now.
  • I’m going to say it again just because I think about it every day: this could all disappear tomorrow. This could be the last book I ever write. It could fail. I could fail. It could all disappear. Internalize that. Make it your mantra.
  • I know we all want the big book deal out of the gate but I think there’s some real wisdom to starting with a smaller press and working your way up. You learn to find your voice. You learn to work with editors. You learn a little about how fucked up publishing really is, so you can figure out how to set your expectations. I’m happy for the path I took. I think it’s a pretty good one.
  • Also, when you reach a higher earning level, be prepared for people to ask for money. Know to be kind but also know how to say no, because then you’ll turn into an ATM. You and your family come first.
  • Make sure your agent is there for you. If you have an agent who is afraid to negotiate, or takes the first offer, or doesn’t push back against things, or isn’t working to get you to the next level–consider getting a new agent. If your gut is telling you something is wrong, something might be wrong. To be clear: if my agent called me at 3 am to paint his house I would ask “what color?” The original Warehouse offer blew my hair back. Then he went and got more. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
  • Speaking of agents–they really can help you navigate this stuff. They’re not there to hold your hand, but it’s a business partnership. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’re not bothering them. That’s what they’re there for. Navigating the foreign stuff has been nuts–I’ve had to fill out a lot of paperwork–often not in English!–to avoid stuff like double-taxation. They guided me through it and when I had questions, they answered them (thanks Soumeya and Ellen!). That’s how it’s supposed to work.
  • Know, too, what you and your time are worth. I’m not a die-hard “the writer should always get paid” guy. If I know some folks putting together an anthology for free or low-pay and it’s for a good cause or it’s a good group of authors–fuck it, I’ll probably get in on that. But I’m also not going to take on a lot of work or travel that distracts from my own family or writing–unless it’s contributing to my own family or writing in some way.
  • Also–there’s a lot of stuff you think you need to spend a lot of money on as an author that you do not. You don’t need swag. Swag isn’t going to get you readers. Ever go to a conference and see all those tables full of the bookmarks and postcards no one ever takes home? Yeah. I made up bookmarks for my first book. You know who uses them? Me. It’s wasted money. And you don’t need to spend thousands on a website. I maintain this myself, on WordPress. The costs come to maybe a hundred bucks a year? I’m also a little more tech-savvy and can usually figure shit out. But there are plenty of cheap options and anyone who tells you that you need to have a super fancy bells and whistles site is full of shit.
  • Finally, on conferences: there’s always a lot of talk about whether you should attend them. They are expensive. You’re spending hundreds of dollars–maybe even over a grand–to, if you’re lucky, sell a handful of books. There’s something to be said for networking and seeing friends and recharging creative batteries. But as a strict dollars-and-cents business proposition? It’s a waste of time. You’ll never sell enough books, either there or then through word-of-mouth, to equal out the cost. This one is just a matter of having the right expectations. I still go to them. I just do it to have a good time, maybe meet a few new potential readers, and eat some good food for a few days.

So, that’s what I got. It’s worked for me thus far. Maybe you’ll find something helpful. Or just think I’m a bougie asshole. I get that I have a massive fuckton of privilege in this industry. Not just from being a straight white guy with all my hair–but now I’ve got a major book release on top of it. But… again, people don’t talk about stuff, and there’s a lot of bad information out there, and maybe it’d be good for people who’ve been through the crucible to pull back the veil a little.

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