Does it pay to be a top author?

Does it pay to be a great novelist in New Zealand? The Detail talks to two authors about how they make a living spinning a good yarn.

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Catherine Chidgey’s latest book is a finalist for New Zealand’s top fiction prize
Photo: Helen Mayall/supplied

Catherine Chidgey

Catherine Chidgey has been writing novels for almost 30 years – and she’s one of our most celebrated writers on the scene at the moment.

Every morning, she’s up at 6, writing. She does the school run, goes to her day job as a lecturer in creative writing at Waikato University, gets home, dinner, and then she’s in bed – again, writing.

“It’s insane,” she laughs. “I don’t recommend this schedule for anyone out there. Basically I have no other life.”

She’s just cracked the shortlist for the Jann Medlicott Acorn prize for fiction in this year’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, for her 2022 novel The Axeman’s Carnival.

It’s a prestigious prize, too – carrying a $64,000 pay-out to the successful author.

But Chidgey’s not in it for the money. She’s in it for the passion.

“Even if I wasn’t bringing in any money at all from the writing, I’d still be doing it, because I’m driven to do it.”

She gives The Detail a peek behind the curtain into how authors get paid for writing books.

When a book gets accepted for publication, publishers pay the author a sum of money called an advance, with half of the sum paid when the book is accepted and the other half paid once the book is actually printed, Chidgey says. 

It’s an advance on the money the publisher expects to make from sales of the book.

Once a book has “earned out” its advance, authors start receiving royalties from each copy sold.

This is around 10 percent of the cover price, excluding GST – so if a novel sells for $35 at a bookstore, less than $3.50 will go to the author. The rest goes to the retailer and the publisher, who recoups the cost of printing and distributing the book. Plus, if the author has an agent, like Chidgey does, they’ll take a cut, too.

An advance of $10,000 for a book retailing for $50 would need to sell 2000 copies before royalties would start getting paid.

“A work of fiction is considered a real success in New Zealand if you hit 5000 [copies], so we’re not talking about huge figures,” she says.

And the advances publishing houses are prepared to pay out are getting smaller.

“An advance is really a risk that the publisher takes on. They do their sums and figure out ‘we think this book is going to sell x number of copies, therefore we can take this much of a financial risk in signing this writer’,” explains Chidgey.

“But if the book doesn’t have that commercial success, then that publisher is left out of pocket.

“I don’t think that I would advise anyone to take up writing as a profession if they want to rely on that for a steady income, because it’s only a very few number of writers who can do that – who can bring in a regular steady income that they can live on from their writing alone,” she says.

Graci Kim smiles widely at the camera.

Graci Kim is a children’s and young adult author writing for the American market.
Photo: Supplied

Graci Kim

Graci Kim has been writing children’s and young adult fiction since 2017. With her latest trilogy of books about a group of Korean witches breaking the New York Times bestsellers list, she’s now able to support herself with writing as a full-time gig.

A former diplomat, when Kim made the switch to writing, she knew she wanted to make it sustainable – something that could not only support her young family, but be a career for life.

“Even though I consider being an author a creative entrepreneurship, so both creative and business, you still need the product…you need something that people will want to read, it can’t be rubbish,” she says.

She researched market trends in the book industry online to find a niche she could step into with her writing.

This led her to hone in on children’s books, and on the much larger American market.

“I know some writers might feel that that’s against their creative purity, and that’s fine. If you write for yourself, and your desire is just to write, then I think that’s fine. But if your goal is to be published right now or in the near future, then it really helps to have that understanding of how the market is going.

“For me it was a mix of researching what is trending and what is being sought after by editors and agents, and finding that sweet spot in the Venn diagram of what I can offer and what is being sought after.”

Once writers have a finished manuscript, they need to send it out to publishing houses through “query letters” to see if anyone wants to acquire their work. Publishing houses are “inundated” with these query letters, Kim says, with some not giving a reply for months or even years.

She broke through the market by participating in Twitter pitch contests: for 24 hours, budding writers are invited to summarise their book in the space of a single tweet using a hashtag so literary agents can scroll through the submissions for interesting new material. There, she picked up her first agent.

Even then, Kim struggled to get her books picked up.

“We amassed so many rejections I could wallpaper my room,” she laughs.

Finally, a publisher gave her a ‘maybe’. That ‘maybe’ came with 19 pages of edits she’d have to make to her work if she wanted to be published.

“I read through it and I initially thought, this is preposterous. I can’t do this, this is changing my entire book, I’d have to rewrite the entire thing. And then I went away for a few weeks and I realised [the publisher] was absolutely right.”

“Writing has really taught me a lot about humility, and reflection, and that sometimes the things you don’t want to hear are the things you need to hear.”

She made the changes and landed a book deal with Disney Hyperion in the US – and not just any book deal, but one that includes translation and film rights.

Hear more from Catherine Chidgey and Graci Kim in the full podcast episode.

You can find out how to listen to and follow The Detail here.  

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