Q: When I got my very first short story published I was truly ecstatic and I'd always planned, if a book deal happened, to take all my clothes off, run around the garden, and roll in the grass. Now, I've worked long and hard to write a book good enough to sell, and succeeded: it's two-book deal with a well-known smallish independent publisher which punches above its weight in terms of presence in the industry. But I've never felt the euphoria. The thing is, there was no advance involved so I still feel I've achieved nothing. It's my family's voice inside my head all the time: "But have you made any money?" It's the first thing my sibling asked when I called to say I'd got a deal: "How much?". And then an in-law asked too, directly. I could have cried! Were I not with a partner who could support me financially, I wouldn't be writing another book, as I couldn't do it and have a full-time job. It would have to wait until I retired. I knew a big advance was unlikely, and I know that this is a perfectly good deal and I shall be published. I'm working hard, already, to augment the publisher's efforts at publicity and so on, I'm planning a launch and tackling the next novel. Why do I feel so flat?
Oh, congratulations darling! And, yes, you can't entirely hear me, can you. But first things first. There IS money involved. You will get royalties. Your book has been sold and you will be paid for it. Until fairly recently, that's how it worked for everyone and fundamentally it still does. An advance is an advance on royalties, and it wasn't the norm until late in the 19th century, merely something a publisher might do for a favourite author who was starving. And until the 1980s advances were quite modest, a sweetener, a token of good intent, and the main money a writer made from the book only arrived after the book had earned it. It's only since agents got powerful that advances have become the main money most writers expect to get from a book, and most advances never earn out at all. True, authors want advances for good reasons: it's money sooner, and it's a commitment by the publisher to selling the book hard, so as to pay themselves back not just for what it's cost them to publish the book, but for what they've paid you. But don't underestimate how good it is to get money from a book long after it was published: you only have to hear the jubilation that lights up the authorly world when PLR and ALCS payments are due, and it's not just because it means they'll be able to pay the winter heating bill after all.
Another thing you may not have expected is that book-trade time, being glacier time, means that the whole process of sending the book out, getting some rejections, getting some hopeful noises, toing and froing about rights and edits, etc. etc., would take the ecstasy out of - um - ecstasy. There may be considerable joy at some point, but that point is stretched very thinly over many anxious weeks while people Don't Get Back To Your Agent. And then they take weeks or even months to actually produce the paperwork of the contract. That's tiresome, but utterly normal.
Next, family and friends. Anyone who measures life, and creative achievement, by how much money you make - or, indeed, by what prizes you win - has, by definition, no understanding of either life or creativity. You can ignore them. Yes, you can. You know - and those who understand this stuff know - that what matters is that a publisher has decided that your book is good enough, and saleable enough, that it's worth gambling many thousands of their own money on publishing it. What more validation do you need?
When that sibling tells you proudly they've made another million, ask them when you'll be able to borrow those numbers and read them in bed, or hear them sing, or see them hung, glowing, in pride of place on the wall. When the in-law says proudly how they've re-built their garden, ask how much they'll be charging visitors. Writers don't "do it for the money", as it's usually said, just as in other fields many people stick at badly-paid jobs because they love them and are fulfilled by them, and others work hard and lovingly at hobbies which cost them money rather than earning it. Most such people would earn a good deal more, and much more reliably, doing something else. And compared to writing, the criterion of "more" and "more reliably" could be quite comfortably fufilled by flipping burgers.
But writers do have a complicated relationship with the business of earning money. It's not just that they are offended to be classed as amateurs, as hobbyists, when they work with professional skill and commitment, and expect to be paid for both. And yet the majority of professional authors don't earn a full professional income. If the only authors who were published were those whose advances are large enough, and frequent enough, to raise a family and pay a mortgage, the bookshops would be almost entirely empty. It is absolutely true that virtually every writer has a day job (which may be writing-related), a pension, or a supportive partner; as Emma explored in her post about the ways that it is possible to earn a living as a writer, no one earns a living by writing solely and exactly what they're moved to write. Some very notable authors indeed had a non-writing job all their lives: Anthony Trollope worked for the Post Office, Philip Larkin was a librarian; T S Eliot a banker; Magnus Mills a bus driver and postman; William Golding a schoolmaster, Raymond Chandler an oil executive.
On the other hand, while the world trades a great deal on the willingness of people to work not-for-the-money, from parents bringing up children to volunteers for charities, more and more authors very rightly refuse to work for nothing when all the other suppliers for a festival or a publisher are being paid. What's more, the public at large are just beginning to know it: see the current furore over how many literary festivals don't pay authors at all, and others which pay a token but only subject to impractical demands on the author in return.
But, of course, the money is what makes it possible to write, and if you aren't earning from it, you may need to be earning by doing something else. True, it's perfectly possible to write the shitty first draft of novel in a year, in half-hour snatches every day, as long as it really is every day. But it's not ridiculous to need more time and mental space than that - especially if those half-hour snatches get wiped out by wiping childrens' (or parents') noses and bottoms, and, failing the partner or trust fund, it has to earn something.
And it's not just that the labourer is worthy of his hire. Money is currency and so it embodies other kinds of meaning, other values. Like it or not, a great deal of a human's sense of worth, and of whether something is worth doing, is bound up with what it earns: whether you feel entitled to pay a childminder (even if you have the money) for an extra day or two so you can write, or go part-time at work for the same reason. It's true, too, of the other adjustments: whether you feel entitled to ask the child to put up with being childminded when it would rather be with you, or to ask your friends to forgive you for giving up Thursday evenings in the pub. Have you earned that entitlement? is the question in the back of your head, and "earned" is always easiest when it means earned-in-money.
So whether you're paid for your book matters for that reason, too: it's one measure of whether what it cost you and others was worth it. It's a form of external, conditional validation and that's something we all need. It's lovely when your aunty who never reads is thrilled for you, but it's not the same as a writer you admire saying they liked your book, or a publisher reckoning enough paying readers will love your book for it to be worth publishing.
What's more, don't forget that people's reactions to good news are partly formed by where they are with their own life. Whether the "How much?" person has just missed a longed-for promotion or is secretly wondering if their career's been a mistake from the start, putting your achievement down, or trying to drag you into the mould that they've built their own life in, is one way to shore up their own shakey foundations. So, finally, in dealing with this feel free to abandon an even-handed, modern effort to act as if everyone has their value, and we should all give their subjectivity the same credence as our own. Horses for courses, I say. In deciding whether to buy a house on a flood plain you wouldn't accept the opinion of someone who believes in astrology or denies climate change, you'd ask a climatologist and a structural engineer. So why in this case accept the opinion of people who know nothing about books, creativity or the publishing industry? Very possibly, they are stupid and ignorant people; at the very least they are people whose opinion is worth nothing in this case.
Instead, take those who do understand, and are thrilled for you, out to the pub, crack open the fizz, and promise them more when the first royalty cheque arrives. Unlike those who've been paid an advance, you know that there will be one.