Mega Millions!!!

 Recently a few of the folks here at SFNovelists have been complaining about friends and acquaintances who think, just because a writer gets a book published, she’s suddenly rich.

We should be so lucky.

I may be sipping daiquiris by the side of my heated pool (yeah, right), but, really, very, very few fiction writers make enough money to live on.  Of the thirty or so writers I know well, I can think of only three who make a living at it.  (I know a lot more who make a living writing nonfiction.)  The rest have day jobs, understanding spouses, or both.  Moreover, only one of those three is making more than they could probably make as a high school English teacher.

Writing fiction is actually a lot like playing the lottery, only you wager your time instead of your money.

Let’s look at the numbers.

The average Mega Millions jackpot is $15MM.  The odds of winning that jackpot are about 1 in 176 million.  Since you can play Mega Millions twice a week for an entire year, that’s $104 dollars spent for 104 chances to win $15MM.

What are the chances of publishing a book that might earn you $15MM?  In 2008(the most recent year for which I could find numbers), they were zero.  No one published a book that made $15MM in 2008.  Stephanie Meyers’ Breaking Dawn came closest, selling 3.31 million copies.  But, at $25 a book, and Meyers’ 15% cut of that $25, she made about $12.4MM, and that’s assuming that every one of those books sold were hardcovers.

Nor, as a writer, do you have 104 chances to make that $12.4MM.  At best you might have three or four.  (Worse, you could be like me, and take two years to write one book.)  And if you compare the cost of playing the lottery to the opportunity cost of writing — say, 6 months to write a book at four hours a day at a minimum wage pay scale of $6 an hour, that’s $3,120 in lottery tickets you gave up.  Which, if you played them all on one of the $100MM jackpots that come up once a month or so, would reduce your odds to about 1 in 56,410.  Given the fact that maybe 125,000 novels were published in 2008, that makes the odds of winning the lottery a little more than twice as good as getting rich from writing.

Which is why, when people ask me why I write, I tell them it’s because I’m a gambler.  Though I do feel a whole lot more in control of the game when I write a book than when I buy a fistful of Mega Millions tickets at my local bodega.

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  1. 1. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Butler, an excellent topic and a problem (folks thinking I’m bucks-up) I hope to have some day. Stephen King, (I think) said he didn’t write because he wanted to, he wrote to keep his head from exploding.

    My writer’s group (very close to support group at this point) discussed dreams and motivations last night. Everone wants one of those King-checks. And I wouldn’t refuse it either but having read Mr. Hines’ excellent posts on average earnings, I don’t write with that expectation.

    So, they asked, what are you writing for? It came down to two points. I can’t find the stories I want, written the way I want and I hate both my jobs.

    So I write the stories I can’t find elsewhere and dream of making enough money off what I love to give one of my gigs to someone else who may love it.

    My wildest MEGA-dream is to make enough off my writing to drop both my state and limo hustles and write full-time… talk about writing fantasy, shesh.

  2. 2. S.C. Butler

    Elias – That’s a great quote by King, and pretty dead on, too.

  3. 3. Kevin

    However if you spend $3120 on gambling you would have learned little and unless very few buy your book, you will get some some pay for your time.

    What percentage writers made over $3120? Those are the odds to keep one out of a depression.

    (No not rhetoric. I really would like to know.)

  4. 4. S.C Butler

    Kevin – I can’t speak for other genres, but the general rule of thumb for a first novel sale in SFF is from $5K to $10K. Some, of course, are a lot higher. However, there are a lot more unsold novels out there than sold.

    Then again, if you write like me, and it takes you two years to write a novel instead of six months, the hourly wage drops substantially.

Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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