How much money can you make writing romance novels?


“I’ve never been a millionaire, but I know I’d be darling at it.”
-Dorothy Parker

One question I’ve gotten lately is how much money a writer can make by writing romance novels.

“It depends” is not a satisfactory answer, but it’s the most honest one. How often you write, what type of romance you write, and let’s not forget how well you write. All these factors influence how much money you can earn.

Honestly, I’m not the person to ask. If you want specific numbers, Courtney Milan wrote a post comparing a royalty statement for a traditionally published novella and a self-published one. Cara McKenna described the years it took her to earn as much by writing as she had at her last full-time (non-writing) job.

Brenda Hiatt has a section on her website titled Show Me the Money, where she breaks down how much writers make on average from independently publishing and from various traditional publishers, including the different lines that Harlequin puts out. That’s a good starting place to get an idea of how much money you might make. Mind you, that’s before the IRS taps you on your shoulder and requests up to  half of it.

Don’t write a romance novel because you want to make quick money. Nor if you don’t enjoy reading them in the first place. Writing is a lot of work. If you don’t like romance novels, or you don’t like writing, you’re not going to make enough money to justify the time you spend writing the novel.

Characters do what they want

Jane Austen coloured version
There’s a scene in The Man Who Invented Christmas where Dickens complains, “I can’t make the characters do what I want… I’m the author here!”

That reminded me of Shannon Hale’s book, Austenland. It’s the story of a woman who’s becoming frustrated with her inability to find a modern-day Mr. Darcy. In an attempt to overcome her Darcy obsession, she goes off to a resort where guests can interact with actors pretending to be Regency-era characters. And of course, she meets a man who resembles Mr. Darcy, as well as another tempting man.

As I see it, there were three ways that Hale could have ended the story:

  1. The heroine ends up with the grumpy-but-charismatic Mr. Darcy-type hero.
  2. The heroine ends up with the lowly-but-charming gardener.
  3. The heroine rejects both men and ends up with living on her own and feeling good about it.

Reading this story, I had the strong impression that Hale wanted one ending and the heroine wanted another. That sounds odd, but it’s true that sometimes, as Dickens said, you can’t make the characters do what you want. It felt as if the author were pushing the heroine toward one particular potential hero. There were whole scenes where the heroine waffled back and forth about whether she should make that choice. The trouble was, that choice didn’t make sense in the context of the way the story was developing, how the heroine interacted with the two potential heroes.

The ending felt right, and I’m glad the heroine made the choice she did, but I don’t think it was the direction the author had wanted the story to go.

When a good description turns into bad writing

Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of creation
I love reading the winning entries for the Bulwer Lytton contest. It’s a contest devoted to writing the worst possible opening sentence of a novel. Deliberately bad writing is not as easy as unconsciously bad writing, in my experience. I’m great at writing badly when I’m not paying attention. But reading deliberately bad writing is not only funny, it’s often useful.

Writers are told to include sensory detail. I’ve had a contest judge ding my writing because in one scene I only included sensory detail from three senses (sight, sound, touch) instead of all five. I don’t think the reader notices or cares whether you use all senses in describing a scene. Writers get so focused on including the sensory details that they miss the reason for including the details in the first place.

One day—though this was no average day, it was gloomy; uncharacteristically forecast for mid-July, yet not extraordinary considering the geographic location, on the northern coast of Germany, where drastic changes in weather are indeed quite common although not so common that they were expected yet common enough to leave no one shocked by the small gathering of clouds above their heads—Linda went on a walk down the street.
— Benjamin Matthes, Founex, Switzerland Dishonorable mention, Bulwer Lytton contest

I’ve read stories where the writers devote a page or more of meticulous description in precise detail, for example a clinical description of the taste, sound, scent of eating an apple. The problem with that? Clinical detail, by its very nature, is detached from all emotion. I don’t need to know what eating an apple is like. I need to know what this character feels about it.

Description is an elegant way to tell the reader how the character views their world. It slips information into the scene subtly, providing details in the background while the main action is going on.

She was the most desired object in the room, not unlike the last deviled egg at an Easter Day potluck.
— Christine Hamilton, Atlanta, Georgia
Dishonorable mention, Bulwer Lytton contest

Description is also a good way to set the tone. If you want your readers to know you’re writing a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, an opening sentence like the following would definitely work.

The elven city of Losstii faced towering sea cliffs and abutted rolling hills that in the summer were covered with blankets of flowers and in the winter were covered with blankets, because the elves wanted to keep the flowers warm and didn’t know much at all about gardening.
-Kat Russo, Loveland, Colorado
Winner, 2017 Bulwer Lytton contest