copyright 2014 by Sherry Garland
I just turned in my completed manuscript for my next historical picture book, VOICES OF THE AMERICAN WEST. One of the people I researched was George Catlin, an American painter who traveled among American Indian tribes in the 1830s and part of the 1840s, painting people and places that 99% of white men had never seen. His contribution to understanding early Native American customs, clothing and living styles is irreplaceable.
However, like so many other artists that are famous today, Catlin had a very hard time making a living. He tried several times to get the Smithsonian to purchase his paintings, but they always declined. You see, although Catlin was doing something that few other artists had done, he was considered a “B” artist because his style was not the accepted one of the day. He went to Europe to sell his paintings and drew great crowds — not to buy his work but to see the Indians he had brought with him. He finally became so poor that he was put in debtors prison and had no money to get back to America. A wealthy American capitalist finally bought Catlin’s paintings. A few years later, after the wealthy patron died, his wife donated the paintings to the Smithsonian. And the Smithsonian gave Catlin a studio to repaint some works that had been destroyed in a fire.
George Catlin – Buffalo Hunt
What has this got to do with being an author, you ask. Well, lately it seems like a lot of authors are posting their incomes and bemoaning the fact that it is a struggle to make a living at this craft. I agree with most of what everyone says, but I also add that some of those people posting are receiving advances and incomes a lot higher than the average children’s author does.
So, here’s my advice (for what it’s worth), coming from an author of 31 books who has been published since 1982:
1) Don’t quit your day job until you have enough in savings to last for one year.
2) Be prepared to go back to work when things don’t work out, but don’t give up.
3) Don’t spend all your money when you get it. Your income will fluctuate.
4) Marry someone who has a good paying, steady job with a pension plan and health insurance.
5) Recognize that this job is one of the most insecure in the world; there are no guarantees.
How do I know all this: because I did not do any of the above and my career took a lot of kicks.
1) I quit my day job in 1983 after I had two published romance novels. We had nothing in savings. I thought I had it made and was on my way to a prosperous career (even though I only received $5,000 advance each, that was the standard of the time). Then my editor quit and the next one didn’t like anything I did. I never sold another romance.
2) Even though I wasn’t selling adult books anymore, I didn’t want to give up my writing career. I became depressed; I piddled around, became involved with helping refugees, and basically didn’t write. Then a huge recession hit Houston and my husband got laid off. Neither one of us could find work, but I clung to wanting to make it as a writer. As a results we lost our house and had to move into a one bedroom apartment.
3) Losing the house was a wake-up call. We both finally found jobs. Instead of moving into a larger place, we stayed in the tiny apartment for seven years, putting everything we could in savings. I decided that my writing career had to be put on the back burner until we could get back on our feet financially. It wasn’t until 1988 that I started writing again, this time for the children’s market. This time I didn’t quit my day job until I had several books under contract.
4. Okay, I admit this one is a bit cynical. My husband had a good job with good insurance but at age 50 he decided to become self-employed like me. He had no pension. And there went the cheap health insurance. Self-employed health insurance for both of us became the single highest monthly expense we had.
5. If anyone tells you being a writer is an easy way to become rich, they are either lying, ignorant, or very lucky. For every J.K. Rowling, there are thousands of authors who make $1000 or less per year. Talent alone is no guarantee that you will make it. And, for those youngsters out there, being rich and even semi-famous is no guarantee that you will continue being that way.
Voices of Gettysburg
Voices of the Dust Bowl
Voices of Pearl Harbor
I made a great income for many years, not just from book royalties but from author visits. My earnings peaked in 1999, so much so that we were able to move and pay for our house in cash. This was due mainly to my Dear America series books. Once again, I thought I had it made and once again I was wrong. The Dear America series and historical novels in general bottomed out because of over saturation of the market. New writing genres (supernatural and fantasy) took the place of historical and realistic fiction. Since those are genres that I do not care to write, I went for several years without selling a single book. Each year my income dropped until today it is about the same it was that first year I went into the children’s publishing business in 1989.
And let me tell you this tidbit: editors and agents do not care about how successful you were twenty years ago. They only care about the book you are writing today. However, I am not going to give up. I have been writing a historical picture book series and I’ve noticed that more historical novels are on the market. And you shouldn’t give up either. Just be realistic and realize that there will be many bumps in the road.