Advances, Royalities and Work-for-Hire: How Writers Make Their Money

Know what you are agreeing to before you sign the contract.
Photo by Alexander Mils on

Yesterday (see post) when I was writing about how to pick a publisher, I mentioned royalties and work-for-hire. Then I realized that maybe not everyone is familiar with those terms. They have to do with how wirters are paid.


The writing that I do for Red Line, whether it is published by Abdo, Capstone, or Brightpoint Press, is work-for-hire.  That means that the publishers owns the copyright. I am hired to write it and am paid a fixed amount.  No matter how much money the publisher earns, I get paid the contracted amount and no more.

When you blog for someone, like the blog posts I write for WOW! Women on Writing, this is also work for hire. I make a set amount per post.


The work I did for Schoolwide was royalty based.  This meant that I earned a percentage on the sales of my work.  The more my work sells, the more I make.

A royalty is good because the better the work sells, the more you make. But it also means that until the work sells you don’t make a dime unless you get an . . .


I haven’t been in this position . . . yet!  When you sell a book, you are sometimes paid an advance against royalties.  The publisher pays you $500 or $1000 or $5000 when you deliver the project.  When the work starts to sell, the publisher keeps track of how much you have earned in royalties.  You will get a check once this amount is greater than the advance.

If you get an advance, it is worth-your-while to do whatever you can to help market your book. Because if it doesn’t earn more than the advance, the publisher may be less likely to take another book from you.

It sounds complicated because it is. The formula for calculating royalties is more complicated than it sounds. You make X% on a hard cover and a smaller percent on a paperback. Bookfair sales offer up yet a different royalty as do e-books and audiobooks.

Does this mean that you should only do work-for-hire? That’s up to you. I am not going to say no to royalties. Do you hear that, publishers? I will not say no!


5 Tips on How to Pick a Publisher

Choosing a publisher should be a bit more systematic than roulette.
Photo by Naim Benjelloun on

When the time comes to send out your writing, it can be tough to pick a publisher. But there are a few things that can help you make the choice.

Publish What You Write

First things first, do they publish what you write. Wait! Don’t leave. If you’ve got some experience this might seem obvious. But way too many editors and agents complain about this for it to go unsaid. If you write picture books, make sure the publisher publishes . . . picture books.

There. Now I can get into meatier issues like the . . .

Look of the Books

This isn’t advice that I see very often but take a look at the publisher’s books. Do you like the book design? The illustrators? The book jackets? How the books smell? Yeah, that ones a little strange but once you open a book that makes you gag, you get it.

If you don’t like the physical books, don’t submit to this publisher. I know that this sounds super picky, but there are publishers, especially picture book publishers, that consistently put out books that I hate the look of. And I really don’t want to hate the look of MY book.

And don’t think this doesn’t matter for e-books. If that’s the route you are going to go, make sure you like their design whether that means graphics, font and links or keeping it clean and simple.

# of Books Published

Another thing to consider is how many new books the publisher has each year. If you like two publishers equally and one puts out 40 books a year and the other only puts out four books a year, the publisher who puts out more books may edge out the other.

This past year isn’t going to be a great example but take a look at their catalog online. If they don’t produce a catalog, look at new books. You should also check . . .

# of New Authors

A publisher may publish 40 new books a year but who writes the books? Publishers like working with the same authors again and again and that’s great – if you are one of those authors.

If a publisher never seems to publish anyone new, they probably aren’t the best bet. This doesn’t mean that they should come off your list but other publishers might come first. And don’t forget about

The Backlist

The backlist is the catalog of books that aren’t new. A backlist is where the publisher makes money and, if you get a royalty, so do you. Some publishers don’t give a book much of a chance. If it doesn’t sell well in two years, that’s it. Bye! But other publishers keep books in print for much longer. My first book, Ancient Maya, came out in 2015. It is still in print.

I’ve been lucky. Most of my books are still in print. I don’t make a royalty (I’ll post about payment options tomorrow) but this means that my book is still avalaible to librarians and young readers.

What other considerations would you include on this list? This is one of the topics I will be discussing in my new WOW! Women on Writing class, Learn to Pitch, Query and Submit Your Work.


Tips on How to Focus

tips on how  to focus

I’ve got a book due Friday so, no big surprise, I’ve been thinking a lot about needing to focus. Love the infographic above although I don’t agree 100%.

This time of year, 90% of my struggle to focus is seasonal allergies. That means that I need to stay hydrated and, if I still feel like rot, take something. No, really. It does no good to talk about it. I have to do it. This might not be essential for everyone, but my teeth actually hurt when things are bad.

Yes, yes, yes on the headset. Classical music is a must although I have been told by my husband and office partner that I can sing to Bach cello instrumentals. Can and do. What can I say? I like music.

Shutting everything off is also vastly important. Yes, I can ignore email and Facebook and Twitter. But way too many people know when I am at my desk and they message me. Seeing that tab blinking is way too distracting!

Pets? No. No. And again, no. Pets do not help my focus. Maybe this is because I have a senior cat. At 21 she is a complete nag. When she isn’t on your lap, she yowls. When she is on your lap, she stands on the keyboard to see what is in your cup. Coffee? What about the fresh water? And when she doesn’t like what is in your cup, she knocks it over.

Have I said that she is not relaxing?

But I’ve also learned to periodically just give her my chair. My monitor and keyboard are on an adjustable standing desk. She takes my chair. I stand up and work. And that along with music? That really helps my focus.

What helps yours?


Nonfiction Narrative Arc

Be careful to start your race . . . and your manuscript . . . just so

As in fiction, nonfiction narrative must include a beginning, a middle and an end. But where you begin the narrative and how you present the information to your reader is going to depend on the nonfiction story that you’ve chosen to tell.

This means that the beginning of the narrative may not be, chronologically speaking, the beginning.

The Beginning

As in fiction, the beginning of a piece of nonfiction has to hook the reader. Crafts and science fair projects aren’t narratives but I still need to hook the reader. That’s why I don’t start with the beginning of the activity itself. Why? Because the beginning of the activity would be the supply list. Before I give the reader the supply list, they have to know why they want to do this particular project.

I face a similar situation when I start a book-length piece of nonfiction for Abdo Publishing. With Evolution of Reptiles, I didn’t start with the earliest reptiles and immediately present how one group evolved into another. Instead, a built a narrative nonfiction scene with a massive Mansourasaurus shahinae searching for food while looking out for predators. Then I moved on to the discovery of the first M. shahinae fossil in Egypt.

Pick a place to begin that will grab your readers attention whether you are writing a biography or about a scientific discovery.

The Middle

The middle of the piece has to keep your reader reading. In a how-to, the middle is generally the supply list and possibly the instructions. This one is easy because your reader wants to make the project. Your job is to give them enough information to make it easy to find what they need.

In a science book or a book about the discovery, this is the place to talk about successes (yay!) and misses (sigh). I make sure to talk about what people thought when a fossil was first discovered and what they later learned through another find or genetics or simply realizing that a fossil they already had on hand was part of the story.

Shape your nonfiction story so that your reader feels compelled to keep reading.

The Ending

As in fiction, the ending of a piece of nonfiction has to wrap things up. The conflict must be resolved. The reader needs a satisfying take-away.

In an activity or project, this might challenge the reader to consider what they learned. What would they do differently next time? How will this impact their life? Will they challenge someone else to do this?

In my science books, this is where I talk about what is likely to happen in the future. What projects are scienctists talking about even if they don’t have the tech (yet!) to carry them out? What is on their wish lists? What are young scientists, those who are still students, working on? How are they challenging the status quo?

A beginning, a middle and an end aren’t just something you need in fiction. They are also 100% essential in nonfiction.

For other pieces on writing nonfiction see –

Nonfiction Story Arc

How I Built a Career in Children’s Nonfiction

Learning to Research Your Nonfiction

Three Things to Remember about Dialogue in Nonfiction

If you are interested in taking a class on nonfiction writing or on researching children’s nonfiction, my classes as WOW! Women on Writing are open for enrollment.


3 Reasons to Recharge

My gardening buddy – Pollen Bee.

The next two weeks are going to be super busy. I’ve got a deadline this Friday and another on June 7th. But I’m making sure to spend time outside every day.

The more work I have to do the more important this becomes.

Refuel Energy Levels

Writing may not involve a lot of hefting or hammering but it does use up a lot of energy. Time spent away from my desk is one of the best ways to refuel.

What I chose depends on how much time I have and . . . well, 2020. How much do I really need to explain?

Ideally, time away from my desk can mean taking a day trip to the Botanical Garden or hiking at Elephant Rock. But it can also be as simple as baking cookies, cooking a brilliant soup, or working on the garden.

Refuel My Senses

In writing, details matter. They can pull your reader in and make a scene more realistic. They can make your writing lyrical and poetic.

The easiest sense to include is sight. As a result, we write about how things look. But when I’m outside, I’m getting a feel for how things sound – the wind in the leaves and the difference between the buzz of a humming bird or a pollen-laden bee. Hint: The humming bird actually sounds annoyed. I get a feel for how things smell – heat and sun on leaves, bruised sage or chives, even grass. And there’s movement. Sitting at your desk you miss out on movement which leads me to . . .

Refuel Your Body

Simply put, motion is good for us. Have you noticed how much better you think after you get up and move around? How a walk generates story ideas? Or maybe you’ve reached the point that whenever you sit, the first few steps after you stand are a bit stiff and staggery. We need motion to lubricate our joints.

I’m not saying that you need to get up and run a mile. But every 30 or so minutes, get up. Do some stretches. Run downstairs and move the laundry to the drier. Check the mailbox. Run something out to the recycling. Even something small will help.

A bit deadline can tempt me to stay at my desk. I have to get it done! There is so much to accomplish!

But the longer I stay there, the less effective I am. I work much better when I move. Not only do I have the benefits of the motion itself, but I know that in 15 minutes, I’m going to be getting up. Time is limited so focus!

For more posts on recharging and the benefits of motion, check out –

5 Ways to Recharge (click here)

Creative Energy (click here)

Reenergizing (click here)

What do you do to reenergize?


Rewriting: Cutting the Excess

Whew.  That’s always a lot of work.  I’ve been rewriting which often comes down to making sure I have the strongest nouns and verbs so that I can keep my writing as tight as possible.  Of course, this also involves cutting the excess.

The easiest things to cut are excess sentences and paragraphs.  I find them when I reread a manuscript from start to finish.  If possible it is best to do this in one sitting.  Why? Because that’s when you realize that you wrote about the same thing in chapter 2 and Chapter 4.  Although I might be okay to mention it in one place and go into greater depth in the other, this time I could cut.

The harder things to cut are filler words, verbal padding.  My own personal problem words?  “That” and “start.”

I’m not saying that I should never use start because sometimes it is vital.  “The Civil War started…”  But there are other times that it is filler.  “He started to talk.”  “She started toward the door.”  “I started writing.”  How much better it would be to write something more concrete and often shorter.  “He spoke.”  “She strode to the door.”  “I wrote.”

I recently rediscovered this infographic.  Whenever I see it I have to laugh.  When my son wants to imitate me he says, “Well, actually…”  I don’t use this phrase in my writing but it is my verbal tag line.

Check out this infographic by Grammar Check.  The last eleven examples are word pairs that can be cut to one word.  That’s something that I look for in my writing – characters who stand up instead of stand or speak out instead of speak.

What I need to cut has changed over time.  My current issue?  “She wondered if she would find an acceptance letter when she got home.”  No need to have her wonder.  Or ask herself.  Or ponder.  “Ten days.  The letter was supposed to come in ten days and today was number eleven.”

Do you have filler words or phrases that didn’t make the list?  Mention them in the comments below.


3 Ways to Make the Story Problem Matter

School Lunch, Outdoor Dining, Picnic

Have you ever picked up a book, gotten two chapters in and thought, “Who cares? Not me?”

The author has failed to make the story problem matter. Here are three ways to make your character and your reader care.

Make It Personal

Your reader isn’t going to care if the story problem isn’t a big deal for the character. Forgot his lunch on the kitchen counter? Pfft. That’s not bit enough. It isn’t personal enough.

Forgot his lunch on the kitchen counter which means having to get to “free lunch” at school. Maybe this is heading in the right direciton now. Let’s raise the stakes a little more. And just so you know, that’s “make it matter #2.”

Raise the Stakes

Make the problem matter to your character and your reader in part by raising the stakes.

Getting the free lunch at school means going through the “free lunch line.”

What? A line just for the free lunch kids? How humiliating! And now, it matters. This is something that is going to take place in public. So what’s #3?

Raise the Stakes Some More with Backstory

Thomas who has forgotten his lunch isn’t just poor. He used to be well off but his father was the mayor and sent to prison for embezzlement. And before his father went to prison, he slashed funding for a local food pantry.

Your main character is going to find that free lunch line humiliating. And you also have the opportunity to add a bully. Maybe the kid whose mom operated the food pantry before it closed and she lost her job.

See how you just keep piling it on?

Tormenting our characters is hard to do. We generally like our characters and don’t want to make them suffer. But you need to raise the stakes. Make things matter in a big way. Do this and it is a lot less likely that your reader will find your story ho-hum or dull.


Reading Level: One Way to Test It and How to Make It Right

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

When you write for young readers, you often have to pay attention to the reading level of your work. When I write for RedLine, the reading level is always on the spec sheet. A book might need to have a reading level for upper elementary readers and they want me to keep it in the 5.1-6.5 range. Or, if I’m writing for teens, they might give me a target reading level of 8.5 to 9.1.

If you aren’t used to discussing reading levels, those numbers probably look confusing. 5.1 means 5th grade, 1st month.

Reading levels are pretty easy to calculate because you don’t have to do it by hand. I use the ATOS Analyzer. You can find it here.

Here is how to run a sample:

  1. Save your selection in a file you can change because you have to remove formatting. I usually call mine something clever like TEST.
  2. Remove footnotes.
  3. Change it to single spaced.
  4. Take out titles and subheadings.
  5. Go to the site.
  6. Key in the estimated word count for your manuscript.
  7. “Choose” your file.
  8. Click Submit and then wait.

When you get your results back, they will look something like this.

The reading level for this passage is 3rd grade, 3rd month. All you need to do to raise the reading level is make the text harder. That sounds simple but it helps to know what the analyzer looks at. Look again at the stats. If you want to make the reading level higher, make your words and your sentences longer.

When I need to do this, I look for ways to combine sentences or add phrases. I look for short, dull words and replace them with longer, multisyllabic words that are more specific.

If, on the other hand, my text is too complicated, I do the opposite. Instead of “complicated” I might use the word “hard” or “simple.” I try to write simpler sentences with fewer phrases.

Once you’ve managed to reach the correct reading level, read your text aloud. Sometimes, in the course, of rewriting, I manage to create something that doesn’t flow so this is the very last thing I check.

Massaging your reading level seems tricky and it is as first. But once you get used to creating text at a certain reading level, you will find that you can do it, or at least get close, with very little effort.


Backstory: How Much Do You Need When?

The past informs the present.
Photo by Julia Volk on

I love my critique group. We write such a wide variety of books from picture books to middle grade novels, TV, and nonfiction. One of the ladies started her story with a page of notes, backstory to help set the scene.

At the time, I knew that working this into a chapter wouldn’t work, but I couldn’t verbalize why. Then I saw this post on Janice Hardy’s blog. It was written by guest blogger Jenna Harte.

The short version is this – backstory helps your reader understand what is going on. Give the reader just enough to make sense of what is going on the story right now.

Ta-da! Isn’t that an amazing explanation?

When I open my middle grade novel, I open with the space ship waking up. I don’t reveal why the kids are in it. I don’t tell the reader about the kids’ hobbies. I don’t reveal where their parents are.

I start with the ship. That sets the tone. This book is science fiction. It is a little creepy and a little ominous and that’s what you need to know right this moment.

I don’t talk about the various family members that the kids are named after. That will come in later when Ada gets made when someone tries to give her a nickname. I don’t talk about why Jaxon refuses to chokes down a meal that includes protein powder although he hates it. No one needs to know about his training regimen just yet.

The trick is that as the author, I need to know all of this and much more. These kinds of details inform how your character will respond to the things that happen in the story. You need to know why they do what they do. It is how you keep their behavior consistent.

But your reader? Youe reader only needs to know enough to make sense of what is going on the story right now. (Ta da.)