The book cover of Iron Widow, featuring the protagonist looking defiant.

Publishing’s Unlivable Wages Delayed a Highly Anticipated Sequel From a Bestselling Author

Bestselling author Xiran Jay Zhao highlighted the flaws in the publishing industry as they explained why their Iron Widow sequel was delayed for so long. Zhao was still a college student when they wrote and sold their debut novel, Iron Widow. It didn’t take long for the ambitious novel to rise to the ranks of a number one New York Times best seller and sweep up several literary accolades. The novel is a blend of sci-fi and history that offers a stunning reimagining of the tale of Wu Zetian, the first and only female emperor of China.

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Following the debut of Iron Widow, Zhao continued writing, with a new book, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Empire, debuting on May 10, 2022. Their second book was another smash hit that made it to the New York Times best seller list. However, while fans happily devoured this new work, there was the question of where Iron Widow’s sequel was. After all, when Zhao first nabbed their deal with Penguin Teen Canada, it was for a two-book deal. Publishers Weekly even slated the sequel’s release for just one year after Iron Widow‘s release.

However, the sequel, Heavenly Tyrant, still has not hit shelves. It will not be available until April 30, 2024, about a year and a half after its original anticipated release date. The reason for the delay was not due to Zhao’s, but the publishing industry.

Zhao wasn’t paid enough to write Iron Widow’s sequel on time

In a candid TikTok video, Zhao explained to their followers why Iron Widow’s sequel was delayed, and it was because of what/how the publisher paid them. One of the main sources of income for writers is an advance, which is a sum that the author receives for selling the rights to their book. This sum is usually paid in installments and is paid against royalties, meaning writers don’t receive royalty payments until the book has earned more revenue than the amount of the advance. This system can negatively affect debut authors like Zhao when publishers pay a smaller advance because they don’t yet have confidence in how well the book will sell, leaving the writer short on income ahead of the book’s release.

@xiranjayzhao

?‍♂️ publishing can’t ask us to write bestsellers for them on no money #booktok #books #yabooks #yabooktok

♬ Somewhere Only We Know Lofi – Xdx prod

Zhao said they made a total of $18,000 as an advance for Iron Widow, paid in two installments of $14,000 and $4,000, over two separate years. While this might seem like a lot of money, it is certainly not enough for an author to live on for even a year. Plus, at the time the book was published, Zhao was unemployed and had no option but to write a different book in hopes of nabbing a second, more fruitful book deal.

Even though they did receive a better deal on Zachary Ying, it took months for Zhao to actually receive that money. They also say it took nearly a year after Iron Widow’s release for them to receive royalty payments. So, for a full year, Zhao, a bestselling author, made their primary income from YouTube, as a social media influencer and cosplayer, while waiting months and months for those book payments to hit their bank account.

As a result, Zhao simply had no time to write Heavenly Tyrant because they had to earn a living after not being paid a livable wage by the publishing industry. As they stated, “I got paid late, so the sequel is late.” It also raises the question of how publishers who strike multi-book deals expect their authors to continue writing book series with no money. Essentially, Zhao says they received $18,000 and then had to wait about two years until they received another payment, but they were also expected to write Iron Widow’s sequel in those two years.

Even the most careful spenders won’t be able to stretch $18,000 across 1–2 years. Hence, these authors have no choice but to find another source of income while waiting months or years for the industry to pay them for royalties and other book deals. Meanwhile, how is one supposed to write a bestselling novel while being forced to find other means to live? Hopefully, Zhao’s response will help push the publishing industry to rethink how they handle paying authors, especially if more bestselling authors wait to write more bestsellers until they get what they are owed.

(featured image: Penguin Teen Canada)


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Rachel Ulatowski
Rachel Ulatowski is a Staff Writer for The Mary Sue, who frequently covers DC, Marvel, Star Wars, literature, and celebrity news. She has over three years of experience in the digital media and entertainment industry, and her works can also be found on Screen Rant, JustWatch, and Tell-Tale TV. She enjoys running, reading, snarking on YouTube personalities, and working on her future novel when she's not writing professionally. You can find more of her writing on Twitter at @RachelUlatowski.