I published my first book, Suburban Zombie High in October of 2013. I had been writing for a few years and decided it was time to press the dreaded “publish” button. I self edited the book (my mastery of the English language is questionable at best.) The story didn’t quite fit into a genre, and the only saving grace was a cover illustrated by Amanda Kahl. I don’t know what I expected. It sold. People other than my family purchased it. Reality finally struck in the form of my first royalty statement: $18.65.
I didn’t have high expectations, but I think we all secretly hope it’ll take off and before we know it there’s a movie, a toy line, and a new societal trend based on our books. I recall staring at the number, and truth be told, I was a bit devastated. I was a novice, unsure of what I was doing, and not entirely sure I wanted to be a “writer.” Imposter syndrome (as I would later learn the term) sunk its ferocious nails into my hide and refused to relent. Authors don’t talk about their royalties frequently, it’s a well guarded secret. We might be judged based on our success because of a single number. The reality, we judge ourselves harshly based on that number.
That first year, I made $34.34.
My self-worth became married to that number. I wasn’t even worth $40. I couldn’t pay a bill after a year. I could barely afford a decent take out meal. Depression, insecurity, and wavering love for my hobby started to crop up. I was alone. I couldn’t talk to the “big authors” because they obviously wouldn’t understand. They’re living the dream and I can’t even afford a week of Starbucks.
I was picked up by a publisher and Nighthawks, my first superhero novel came out in February of 2016. I was stoked to have a partner in this journey and start washing away that horrible first experience. My confidence strengthened and I started working at a brisk pace. My book was professionally edited and the cover was supplied by the publisher. I was green, for me, this was the moment, my big break, my chance to be worth more than thirty dollars. In May of 2016, I received my first royalty statement for Nighthawks. My heart sank as I saw the phrase, “Grand Total: $7.66.”
In 2016, I made $105.76 from my fiction novels.
I had four books out at this point, three fiction and one non-fiction. My non-fiction managed to do well enough to make mortgage payments. I didn’t want to be a non-fiction writer, and I grew angry at the success of a work I didn’t feel passionate about. I had managed to make enough with my fiction to pay a single month of cable, a single hotel night, or gas for my car for a month. This “not good enough” mentality refused to shake free. I started believing I might simply be bad at this “hobby.”
Then things started to change. I decided to take a bit of a different approach to life after some catastrophic events happening in my professional life. I needed to be done with stress and start looking at things through a glass half full lens. Why did I have these doubts? Why did I feel insecure in my work? Why did I just feel not good enough all the time?
Let me point out some things:
- I published a god damned book. How many people fail before this step?
- I made money on something I love doing. Strangers bought my creation.
- My profit increased from one year to the next.
- My output increased. I now have fifteen (soon to be sixteen) titles between novels, anthologies, and audio.
- I started to learn the industry behind the “hobby” I love.
- I met amazing folks who support me unconditionally.
How do I put a price tag on those things? You can’t. Suddenly, my outlook changed. I stopped looking at myself as a creator and started thinking of myself as an artist who needs to commercialize their craft. I’m a graphic designer, essentially an artist for hire. It clicked. My worth is not a number. My identity isn’t a royalty statement. Those numbers are a byproduct of my effort and my blood, sweat, and tears.
In 2017, the number increased by ten fold. 2018 isn’t over, and the number is continuing to climb. I wish it was ten fold again, but I’ll take double or triple (you can calculate the math to guesstimate my income.) The number continues to climb.
I got my royalty statements yesterday. I didn’t even look at them until I needed to pay one of my vendors. I opened my account and said, “Uh, that’s more money than I thought.” I inspected my royalty statements and realized I made more in one month than I had between 2011 – 2016. Can I live off it? Absolutely not. Can I pay all my bills? I’m happy to report we’re nearing that threshold.
What I want you, the author reading this, the struggling artist, to take away? I want you to know that 1) you are not a royalty statement. You are so much more. You are a creator of worlds, a long-winded poet, a human. 2) Authors may not divulge our numbers openly, but when you get a royalty check that doesn’t amount to dinner on the dollar menu at McDonalds, we have all been there. Many of us are still there. We all struggle, even if it’s not visible, communicated, or disseminated across social media. 3) If you want to do better, you control your future. You can be better. There is no magical cap on your potential. Hard work can (and will) get you there.
I used to measure my success in royalty statements. It still colors my definition, but I’ve broadened what I find to be considered success. My definition of success comes in small steps, and each step I take leads to the next. I am not going to be Angela Lansbury and solving crime by tomorrow. I may not have a Netflix series out next month. But someday, one step at a time, I will finish this marathon a victor, even if my time is monumentally longer than those in first place. The take away of this I guess, you are not a number.