Canadian Fiction Writers’ Average Income: reality cheque please!

How much do Canadian fiction writers earn, on average, per annum?

Writers generally hate being asked how much they earn. But then, so do most people. To be fair, it’s often a difficult question for writers to answer. How much do they earn from book royalties? from spin-off gigs associated with their published work? the promised-but-not-yet-actual movie rights? freelance magazine and newspaper writing? And how do they count the years they earned nothing, or nearly nothing, because they were writing, all day, every day?

But we are curious. I think it might go something like this:

  1. Stephen King is a writer.
  2. Everyone knows Stephen King’s name.
  3. Even if you say you don’t read Stephen King, you watched at least one episode of “Under the Dome” last fall.
  4. If everyone knows Stephen King’s name and some of his movies, then-
  5. Stephen King must be rich. Really, really rich.
  6. So if you meet Writer X, whose name you also know, then Writer X must be on her way to similar fame and riches and therefore-
  7. One day you will be, too. I mean-
  8. How hard can it be?

Alas, there are more things to leaven, regarding worth, than are dreamt of in this philosophy.

Let’s keep it simple: book royalties. How much do Canadian fiction writers earn, on average, each year, based on physical book royalties alone?

I was given this as a child with a note admonishing me not to ever fold it, or the value would decrease. I have kept it nice and flat and mostly untouched and last I checked, it has in fact doubled in value. I have a writer's instinct with money.

I was given this as a child with a note admonishing me not to ever fold it, or the value would decrease. I have kept it nice and flat and mostly untouched and, last I checked, it has in fact doubled in value. I have a writer’s instinct with money.

First — a brief reminder about the meaninglessness of the statistic called “average.” It’s usually the only one we remember from high school math classes, and it’s certainly the one wielded most often in broadcast and print journalism, from weather (“the average snowfall this month was…”), to violent crimes (“on average, the number of murders per capita is much smaller in big cities than in towns X, Y and Z”).

But here’s why averages aren’t that meaningful.

A guy goes into a bar. No, really. He sits down and orders a drink. He is joined by a colleague and they sip and chat. After a while a third colleague joins them (must be the bar in the building where they work). The first guy makes $50K a year, the woman makes $60K, and the third person rakes in $70K. On average, then, these colleagues earn an annual salary of $60K. Not bad for a single income in Canada.

Then a fourth colleague walks in and foists herself on this happy trio. Except that she owns the company. She earns $1.2 million a year. At least, that’s how much it says on her tax forms. So now we can say that, on average, this table of collegial drinkers earns $345,000.

Suddenly it’s hard to explain the boss’s house in the south of France and her racing yacht, and the fact that at least one of the co-workers is having trouble paying down his student debt. An average is the result of pushing the top down and the bottom up, towards an imaginary middle. The meaningless middle. It’s not the number that tells you what most people are earning or anything about the breakdown by other meaningful factors.

There are plenty of bad words and "average" is one of them. (photo credit Edward Scoble, Flickr Creative Commons)

There are plenty of bad words and “average” is one of them. (photo credit Edward Scoble, Flickr Creative Commons)

Why did I tell you all this (which you already knew anyway)? It was, of course, to soften the blow of the following statistic:

  • The average fiction writer in Canada earns about $500 a year in royalties.

That’s five hundred dollars, per year. When the CEO of a major publishing house recited this statistic to a group of paying listeners at the Humber School for Writers in July 2012, you could have heard a pen drop.

And many did.

But now you are armed with the knowledge that this is a meaningless statistic, so you can read on with an enlightened and more optimistic heart. Even though the meaningless middle will gnaw at your insides.

Ideally, writers receive royalties as a percentage of the list price of their book. (Although some publishers offer royalties on net receipts, so it’s up to the authors and their agents to negotiate for list price.) These list price percentages range from a typical low of 7.5% to a decent and less common 10%. So if your published book is for sale at $22.95, you would get about $1.72 (7.5%) for each book that sold. If your book became a Canadian bestseller, which means it sells 4,000+ copies, you would get about $6,680 in royalties, and possibly more depending on your contract. That’s a nice chunk of change – if you wrote your book in a month. But it probably took you at least a year. Or three.

Despite one or two exceptions (and of course there are always exceptions, even though few of us have ever met one in the flesh), self-publishing remuneration isn’t much better.

The days of the astronomical advances are gone (exceptions, exceptions, I know). Advances are modest and sometimes don’t come at all until the writer has a good track record with two or more successful books. And “advance” means just that — it’s a paycheque you get, in good faith, before you’ve earned the royalties. Some writers never see a royalty cheque at all because the royalties don’t earn out the advance.

Wayson Choy speaking in the Humber School for Writers tent, at Word on the Street.

Wayson Choy taught English at Humber College for 30+ years until his retirement a few years ago. His insightful, intelligent and honest teaching style make him a favourite at the Humber School for Writers. (photo credit ardenstreet, Flickr Creative Commons)

Agents, the people you never pay up front to flog your book to publishers, typically make 15% commission on domestic book sales and it could be 20% for foreign sales. Commissions on other intellectual property rights and territories vary, but roughly speaking, 15% is a reasonable guideline. Where “reasonable” is  subject to change.

If you thought the world of grammar, syntax, style and literary critique was complicated, you should see a state-of-the-art book contract. Some run the length of a novella. That’s why you need an experienced and recommended agent. For now, the Toronto-based PS Literary Agency offers a few helpful points.

You can often earn more money talking about and teaching writing, than you’d earn from your royalties. Some Canadian writers command single engagement fees of $5,000 – $10,000. But of course those are the writers that are already published and well-known.

The Canadian Authors Association pays invited speakers about $100 (it varies from branch to branch), for a 40 minute talk followed by 20 minutes of Q&A, and most of these speakers are fairly well-known, at least in their particular fields, within Canada.

And then there is the problem of getting paid at all. There are plenty of stories of writers who waited a nail-biting length of time to get their due. Well-known, award-winning writers are not immune.

Antanas Sileika, former Descant co-editor, now author and Director of the Humber School for Writers, makes the important point that:

  •  A writer’s first book publication opens the door to other money-making possibilities.

Only those with a published book get asked to give talks, workshops, and seminars. The most lucrative grant applications often require that you already have one published book. Your chances of being awarded a grant may only be one in five, but without a published book, they are significantly worse.

The Stone Diaries won a pulitzer...

Carol Shields’ first five novels didn’t sell well. Then she published The Stone Diaries in 1995 and won a Pulitzer. After that, royalty cheques from the first novels picked up.

About 200,000 books a year are published in Canada. The vast majority of these  Canadian writers have day jobs. Many are teachers, often in creative writing or English programs. A lucky few have working spouses who have agreed, for awhile anyway, to be a patron of the arts. Kafka was a legal secretary in an insurance company, Kurt Vonnegut managed a car dealership after the publication of his first book, and, in the early days of her writing career, Alice Munro raised three children and worked part time in a bookstore (but okay, she and her husband owned it). Canadian writers on the bestseller list are offered $600 to provide a writing workshop for a room full of hopefuls. Hmm. Maybe not Ms. Munro.

The Writer’s Union of Canada (TWUC) is a great place to start when looking for more information regarding contracts, fees and writers’ rights in general. You can join them — after you publish a book.

Remember the words of Gustave Flaubert —  better yet, if you are a writer, emblazon them on something near your keyboard, or a tattoo, perhaps, on the back of your dominant hand:

“Writing is a dog’s life. But it’s the only life worth living.”

The publishing world is fifty shades of crazy. Don’t dismay and, as Wayson Choy would tell you, “Don’t suffer for your art!”

We encourage you to get out to literary events where you can talk to other writers and find out how they are making a go of things. Because many are. Maybe no racing yachts — but who can write at such speeds anyway?

Keep your hat on, your head down, and your pen on the page. Maybe one day we can brag that you got your start in Descant.


5 Responses to Canadian Fiction Writers’ Average Income: reality cheque please!

  1. Curious where you got the 4000+ copies = Canadian bestseller statistic?

  2. Hi Steve. This number varies between 4,000 and 5,000 depending on who you talk to in the industry. The number for the US is, as you’d imagine with a population 10 times more than Canada’s, 50,000 for a bestseller.

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  5. Gurmandeep singh

    Writing is dog’s Life.really feeling sad because I want to be writer. But will I do with an average 500$ per annum

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