Let’s get some depressing facts out of the way. If you’re a new author you can expect to have a first print run of 2,000 copies. This means that you can expect to get paid an advance between Rs 20,000-40,000. No, this is not a typo. And no, I haven’t missed an extra zero or two. This is the reality. To make things worse, you can’t expect much even from your royalties. A new author’s book will either not be reprinted or will see a poor reprint. Therefore, almost 90% of new authors cannot expect to make more than Rs 50,000 in total from their first book! When you take into consideration that you can spend 1-1.5 years writing a book, six months bringing out a book, and an infinite amount of time marketing your book, the return on investment on your time is poor. Like I said earlier, it’s depressing.
In India no one – except maybe Chetan Bhagat and Amish – can be full-time writers.
In my opinion, Amish and Chetan are the only ones who can get by easily with enough earning potential for the next 10 years. Other bestselling writers like Preeti Shenoy, Ravinder and I can sustain right now (but it’s possible that we might not earn enough if the market shifts), while for other authors it’s much less. Frankly, even I was a full time novelist for only one year. I worked with an engineering firm. I did my MBA. I had a management job. I set up my own publishing house. And I worked for TV.
Like India’s other bestselling authors (Amish, Chetan and Ravinder Singh), I’ve also done my MBA, yet the truth is that by the time my colleagues hit 40 they’ll be earning more than I will. This is why someone like Ravi Subramanian, who is the top-most guy in his company, won’t leave his job to become a full-time writer. This is because you cannot expect to pay rent or even the electricity bill with a writing income.
Choosing to write full-time also depends on your background. For engineering or management graduates who are from premier institutes, it doesn’t make economic sense. For other careers, it might, but only barely.
There are four mediums in which you can be a writer: TV, journalism, books, and movies. Movies present the same scenario as books, where only the top 5-6 writers can eke a living out of writing. But TV has a host of people who earn a lot of money. Even assistant writers stand to earn a lot, so for me, personally, writing for TV is a safe choice. Every month I have a target of writing say 22 episodes, which gives me a safety net. It also helps that in TV writing I’m not the only stakeholder, unlike in books where the author stands to gain or lose the most from the book’s success or failure.
The best thing about TV writing is that I don’t have to care about how much my book has sold! I write better when I know that I’m getting a monthly cheque from another job. I can write without the pressure and worry about sales targets or new book deadlines. It takes a load off my chest.
I often get asked whether a writer can make money from speaking engagements. Yes, a lot of us get a lot of invitations to go to colleges and conferences to talk. But sadly it is rare to get a paid engagement.
This only happens if you have some crazy fans, or a rich college or sponsor. Most often speaking engagements mean we end up wasting a day without getting anything in return. Unless all writers decide to stand in unity not to speak for free, you can’t bank on getting paid for speaking engagements. You can’t rely on making money off this. If it comes it comes.
This is the same with brand endorsements. Sometimes a few brands like to have authors represent them, but this is not a reliable or steady source of income. And it is definitely not the norm! Brands collaborating with micro-celebrities, like bestselling authors, are a new phenomenon, since it’s normally TV and movie stars who endorse products. Of course, my day gets made when a brand approaches me. It’s like Diwali! It’s exciting and surprising to make such easy money! Brands look at the social media profile of an influencer to decide what to pay them to promote their products and to push for certain experiences.
There are caveats, of course. Sometimes I get stuck whether to put up posts that I personally like, or posts that will click with brands. Sometimes it gets annoying for my followers if I push too many products or brands, or push the brands too often. Sometimes I get paid to endorse brands that I would’ve endorsed even if they’d just sent me a sample of their product! The truth is that if you tell any writer that “we’ll put you on TV”, they will not even ask you for money!
But brand gigs are rare for authors. Remember, for anyone to know you as a writer they have to spend money (to buy your book), and take out an entire day to read your book. It’s not the same with other influencers, like say comedians, where the content is online and the laughter is free.
Sadly, over the last few years, things haven’t gotten better for authors in the publishing industry. The advances and royalties remain the same as they were ten years ago.
This is because while it’s easier to get published, it’s not easier to get readers. It’s also difficult for a new writer to make a mark. In commercial fiction, at least, the same 5-6 top writers have been circulating for the last ten years. With literary books it’s even tougher to sell, and your focus as a literary author should be on earning awards and getting traction outside India.
To sum it up, don’t get carried away with the false notion of becoming rich writing books! Even if you’re a bestselling author, don’t quit your job! If you want to be a novelist who wants to tell stories, and you’re unable to maintain a full-time job, then look at jobs where you can write, like TV or movies, where there’s some connection to your passion. If you love writing you will find time for it even with a full-time job.