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  • Writer's pictureEdnor Therriault

My First Royalty Check

Fifteen years after my first book was published, I just received my first royalty check from my publisher, Rowman & Littlefield. This means that, for one of my books, they’ve recouped the advance money and now I finally get to wet my beak on sales. The check was for $189.51. I earned about the same amount playing music in a bar a few weeks ago.

 

The book is Montana Curiosities, 2nd Edition, released in 2006. The original book, published in 2009, had become the top seller in R&L’s Curiosities series, so a sequel seemed a sure bet. That news flabbergasted me so much I’d had to check with three different sources to see if it was true. It was, but the contract for that first book was a “work for hire”—they paid me a flat fee to write the book (including more than 100 photographs). No royalties. Despite having a cover that’s been called “butt-ugly,” it sold between 5,000 and 10,000 copies in its first few years. I was paid half the fee when I signed the contract ($3500), and half upon acceptance of the manuscript later that same year. Seven grand for a book that I probably spent $1500 to research and write—DSLR camera, travel expenses (I’d negotiated an extra $1000 because this was Montana Curiosities, not Rhode Island Curiosities), entrance fees, memberships—all that came out of my pocket. Of course, landing a book contract was the big draw for me, not the money, and that made it all worth it. I had a book on the shelf, and that’s priceless.

 

My subsequent book contracts were structured for royalties: If the book made money, I made money. That means a lot less money up front, but it’s enough to pay travel expenses for research, and once enough books sell to pay back that advance, royalties are out of the red and into the black. For the 2nd edition of Montana Curiosities, my most consistent seller, that has taken 8 years.

 

Why do I keep writing books that take forever to make me any money? Simple—because they keep publishing them. And they do continue to sell, so they will eventually make money once they hit that tipping point of paying back the advances. It’s for this reason I’ve kept the advances pretty low.

 

As I continues to add to my body of work, the catalog is there for new readers to discover. When people enjoy my latest release, Big Sky, Big Parks, they usually investigate my other books and may pick up another title or two, especially Myths and Legends of Yellowstone, a great companion to BSBP.

 

Still, how can I possibly pay my bills with the occasional modest advance? I can’t. Royalties are the long game. The short game is the ancillary work that comes from the visibility and reputation afforded by my books. I’ve written dozens of articles for regional magazines, and hundreds of stories for newspapers like the late, lamented Missoula Independent. Web designers have hired me to write copy for their sites. I’ve critiqued and contributed to other writers’ works, and I just finished editing my first book for a client, a memoir.

 

It’s not enough to pay off my house, but this royalty check is a huge personal milestone. It’s a watershed moment, because I’ll start getting mailbox money twice a year instead of an author statement showing how much I still owe on my advances.

If you got into writing because of the money, you’re already on the wrong track. You write because you have something to say. Keep writing, keep learning, keep getting better. Accept those challenges, welcome those opportunities—especially the ones that push you out of your comfort zone. You can make a living from writing but don’t count on lightning striking and your novel becoming a best-seller. You can get paid for writing reviews, for writing scripts for industrial films, for writing copy for



websites. The work is out there. You just have to widen your focus and be willing to write a lot. Keep writing. Keep submitting. Keep listening. Keep reading.

 

The life of a writer might not be for you. But if you have something to say and a fresh way of saying it, there are readers out there looking for you. This royalty check isn’t worth even $200, but the validation it carries for me is worth a million bucks. You can bet your ass I’m framing it.

 

And then I’ll write on.

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