A Writer’s Nightmare: Budgets!

- by Elaine Isaak

One of the things I appreciate about being an RWA member (yes, I’m also a SFWA member, and an SCBWI member if it comes to that) is the interesting articles in the Romance Writers’ Report.  I often recommend RWA to authors in many genres because of the group’s focus on business, craft and professionalism.  So I read with interest Stefanie Sloane’s article “A Fine Balancing Act:  Creating a Marketing and Promotions Budget” in the July 2011 issue.

When she describes how she arrived at her Promo budget figure, she says, “I took the total of my first contract, subtracted my agent’s cut, my operating expenses for the period of the contract, and my portion of the household and living expenses.  Of what was left. . . ”  and I almost stopped reading right there with a burst of startled laughter.  She had something left?  After deducting all that stuff?  I don’t know much about Ms. Sloane, but she must have done pretty well on that contract.

I know many of you reading are already established novelists, and perhaps are in a similar position.  For those who are new, or who are hoping to break into publishing, I think we need a different take on Ms. Sloane’s approach. Brenda Hiatt Barber puts together an interesting survey called Show me the Money While some publishers are paying five digits for first novels, four digits is much more likely.  Tobias Buckell got similar results in his survey of mainly Science Fiction and Fantasy novelists, with a median of about $5000 advance for a first novel.

My annual writing budget is about $5000 (termed as Operating Expenses in the quoted article).  This includes travel to professional conferences, memberships and subscriptions, office supplies and equipment,  research materials, and regular promotional stuff like business cards and web hosting.   This budget is independent of my selling any books this year.  Essentially, it’s my overhead as a business.  And there goes that median advance, before I’ve even promoted the book I might have received it for.  It often takes several sales and a few years of royalties before an author is in a position to put writing money toward living expenses.  So how do you budget for promotion?

SF writer Robert J. Sawyer recommends putting the entire advance for your first novel into promoting it.  That way, you can get a big start on your career and hopefully build momentum more easily for future books.  He sees this as an investment in your future as a writer, rather than as a profit/loss consideration for that one title.  Rob is clearly successful not only in writing, but also in promotion of his works.  Of course, he also where I learned one of my favorite writing jokes.

What’s the difference between a large pepperoni pizza and a professional science fiction writer?

The pizza can feed a family of four.

For myself, when I make my promotional timeline, I focus as much as possible on cheap, free, and promotional tactics that can actually earn me money.  Thanks to the internet, there are hundreds of ways to interact with potential readers and gain attention for yourself and your titles, for which all you need is time.   Blog tours, Twitter, Goodreads–open to all, and totally free.  Writing up press releases for local media and arranging local signings–totally free.  How about selling articles to magazines related to your topic?  Free is good, but nothing beats your bio, title and/or website at the end of an article they paid you to write.


  1. In addition to Elaine’s post: Whenever I received a payment for whatever, it went into my spreadsheet. But I was always very careful to call my tax person, per quarter with my profit or not. She told me how much I could put into my SEP/IRA and Roths, etc. She kept track of my quarterly Tax payments, done per quarter, rather than divided into equal payments. By the end of the tax year, I usually came out ahead, and I work very hard on my spreadsheets/expenses, etc. Some writers completely forget these payments to their own retirements, and some even forget they will owe big-time, if not keeping alert. So a good tax person is a must.

  2. Thanks for weighing in! You make several good points, especially about keeping track of income and expenses as you go. Can save a big hassle later on!