Of all the telltale signs of the holiday season's rapid approach, among the first is the lineup of made-for-TV Christmas movies. The Hallmark Channel has dominated the scene for as long as I can remember, but Netflix has become a strong competitor in recent years with hits like A Christmas Prince and its sequels, The Princess Switch, and The Knight Before Christmas.
In mid-October, Netflix shared a teaser for one of this year's Christmas films, A Castle for Christmas, releasing in November and starring Brooke Shields and Cary Elwes.
The official IMBD description reads as follows:
"A famed American author, Sophie, travels to Scotland and finds herself wanting to buy a castle, but the prickly owner, a Scottish Duke named Myles, is reluctant to sell to a foreigner."
As you can guess, Netflix's post was bouncing around the writer corner of Twitter. Some remarked about buying a castle being added to their bucket list or Christmas wishlist (with a few quips about wanting a Scottish Duke as part of the deal), but much of what I saw was questioning how possible it would actually be for an author to buy a castle.
There's an element of these holiday movies that turns wishful thinking into wish fulfillment, and with that comes a need to suspend disbelief. We tune into these flicks knowing full well we probably don't have a royal doppelganger and that the chances of marrying nobility are pretty low. They're festive, fun, and a little frivolous at times, but they're feel-good.
Nevertheless, the announcement of A Castle for Christmas opens up a chance to talk about how exactly authors are paid.
I'm sure I'm not the only writer out there who has been challenged with something along the lines of "Yeah, but what's your 'real' job?" or "An English degree is useless and a waste of money and time," or the opposite side of the coin where loved ones have high hopes if not expectations of you becoming an instant bestseller and raking in the proverbial dough with your debut.
The thing is, that's not how it typically goes—at least, not right away.
Since we don't live in the world of a made-for-TV Christmas movie, it's time to talk about the reality of earning money as a writer.
There are plenty of variables that contribute to the income of a writer. Since there isn't much information about A Castle for Christmas to go on at the time of writing this post regarding the author Shields plays such as her genre, whether she's traditionally or self-published, how many books this character has published prior to the events of the film, if she has another job apart from writing, how much her books are being sold for, and basically everything else that might impact her ability to purchase a castle, this is going to be something of a broad overview to give a basic idea of how this all works.
In the case of a self-published author, things are relatively easy to explain. Because the author is taking on a lot of the work that goes into the process and puts themselves in charge of assembling a team to assist in the areas they need help with like cover art and edits, they're usually taking on those expenses. Ideally, they are able to earn enough in sales to cover these costs and make a profit after that point.
This gets a bit more complicated for writers pursuing the traditional route to publication.
Once they've signed with a publisher, there's a bit of negotiation to be done. Whether it's done by the author themselves or the agent representing them, they and the publisher land on a deal and a contract. At this point, the author will receive a sum of money known as advance, which is intended to fund the author while the book is being worked on; this period might include additional edits and fine-tuning on the author's part, for example.
Chances are you won't be putting that money into buying a Scottish castle, and the likelihood of even being able to afford one with the sum of your advance isn't too high.
Debut authors shouldn't expect a tremendous sum of money. According to this article from The Bindery Agency, the average first-time fiction author can probably expect to see something between $5,000 and $50,000 depending on a bunch of different factors like size of the publisher, the market and what's hot at that point in time, and how well the publisher expects the book to do. This amount is often doled out in thirds. The first payment comes when the contract is signed, the second when the manuscript is finalized and handed over, and the rest comes at the time of publication.
If they give you a $10,000 advance, they anticipate the book making at least that much once it's released.
This last note is crucial.
Advances are not given out on a whim, but instead are derived a ton of research, industry knowledge, and calculations into consideration. This is an investment on the publisher's part. They're buying a product, the writer's manuscript in this instance, and hoping it will do well when published.
In some regards, the advance an author receives can be compared to a loan--especially since the author won't be making a profit until the publisher has made back their initial investment.
So how do authors make a living, even if they're not using that money to buy a castle?
A Castle for Christmas may have a duke as part of the deal, but there's a different form of royalty that authors are concerned with.
In the world of publishing, royalties refer to the payment an author receives in exchange for the publisher's rights to publish their work—and are only earned once the author has earned back their advance, essentially reimbursing the publisher for the chance they took on their manuscript.
On average, the sum of royalties seems to fall in the range of 10% - 15% for a hardcover and 5% - 7.5% on paperbacks, but this can fluctuate. Audiobooks and eBooks appear to be at a higher percentage, at 25%, but keep in mind that the price of either format is likely lower than a printed book.
Royalties find their way to the author once they have "earned out," meaning that their book has surpassed the amount of their advance.
How long does this take? That depends on a few things, like how much a book sells for and how quickly.
Let's say you're a writer on the lower end of the range with an advance of $5,000 and 5% royalties. If your book is selling for $20 apiece, that rate would mean you're earning $1 for every copy sold—which also means you would need to sell 5,000 copies of your book before you start earning royalties.
In other words, receiving a large advance (or an advance large enough to buy a castle) might sound appealing, but it means it could take longer for you to earn out and start seeing royalties come your way because you would need to sell more copies.
On the whole, there is no single concrete number when it comes to how much money an author makes from their writing.
Now, because I couldn't help myself and don't want to crush any hopes and dreams if I can avoid it, I decided to poke around the internet and see how much it would actually cost to buy a castle in Scotland. Much to my surprise, they're not as expensive as I expected!
For just £995,000 (just shy of $1,356,500 in the US) is Shennanton House dating back to c.1908.
On the opposite end of the spectrum in that post, you'll find one that closer to my taste called Stevenson House, which comes with a price tag of £4,000,000. This seems to be quite higher than the average of roughly £1.5 million to £3 million, the latter of which is the cost of another personal favorite, Brechin Castle.
If you're interested in a royal connection and have £8 million to invest in it, Seton Castle may be for you! This listing mentions it being a preferred residence of Mary, Queen of Scots (but also features modern amenities like a helicopter pad and cinema room).
I'm sure there are some out there that cost even more than that!
In looking into these castles, I found a few entries listed as Price on Application or POA, which means the price is not publicly available and must be obtained from seller or real estate agency directly.
None of these prices factor in what I call the "Now Whats" of buying a castle. Getting yourself to Scotland if you don't already live there and maintenance like tending to its grounds are going to come with additional charges.
There is a lot that Hollywood and the film industry gets wrong when portraying writers and the process of publishing a book, from something that's slightly off to okay, THAT would never happen.
As far as Brooke Shields's character goes, it's difficult to judge how likely it would be for her to afford a castle because there are so many factors at play and a lot of unknowns about her publication journey at this time. If she is a bestselling author with a few successful titles under her belt, an advance she has no trouble earning out, or a royalties deal with her publisher that lands on the higher end of the spectrum, she could potentially buy that castle for Christmas.
The probability of that coming to pass, however, aren't exceedingly high.
But with a stroke of luck, the stars aligning, and a little bit of Christmas magic, it could indeed be possible for a writer to buy a Scottish castle.