I'm reading James Scott Bell's The Art of War for Writers. I highly recommend the book. In Part 1: Reconnaissance - Section 5, Mr. Bell addresses the reality of a career in writing with this point:
Career Fiction Writers Must Be Aware of What a Successful Writing Life is Like.
We've all heard of "overnight" successes in the writing world. Brandon Sanders, and J.K. Rowling are often cited as examples of "overnight" success. J.K. Rowling has spoken about the numerous rejections she received before she sold the first Harry Potter book. Brandon Sanderson's "first" novel was the fourth he'd written. Brandon's post-college job was as a night clerk in a hotel, specifically so he could write. Both of these writers worked for years before they became "overnight" successes.
The average advance for a first novel from a traditional publisher is about $8,000. E-publishers often don't pay advances but give you a greater percentage of sale revenues. I'm going to use $6,000 for the advance because it makes my math easy. You don't get that $6,000 in a lump sum. You'll get $2,000 when you sign, another $2,000 when you turn in the finished manuscript, and the final $2,000 "on publication." It's likely to take 2-3 years before you get the full $6,000. But wait, you forgot someone. You probably didn't get the book contract without an agent. Your agent's going to take a percentage of the advance. After all, that's how she gets paid.
"Okay," you say. "The advance isn't great. An extra $2,00 a year over three years isn't enough to let me quit my day job. So, I'll retire on the royalties."
There's a few hitches here too. If you know the writing market, you know it takes time for a book to "earn out," meaning generate enough revenues of offset the advance and allow for the payment of royalties. Even when you "earn out" the house will keep your payment for up to 6 months against any returns.
I think in some ways it the realization that I'm still going to work at a day job for a long time while working on a writing career was easier for me since my base salary at the day job is significant. Even assuming an $6,000 advance from a traditional publisher, it would take a lot of new books under contracts to replace my day job's income. The numbers work a little better with an e-publisher since I'll get a percentage on each sale. But, keep in mind that on a $5.99 e-book, it takes a lot of sales to reach the $8,000 mark.
So, what's that mean?
The best way to make a reasonable living off royalties, other than the break away novel, is to have a lot of books in print. Many successful writers have their names on over 100 books. Sometimes they wrote them, some were collaborations, and some were anthologies they edited. The only secret to "overnight success" is to work, and work hard, for years.
If you think this is bad news, sorry, but someone had to say it. For me, it gives me hope that I too can be an "overnight success."