How to Be a Writer and Still Get Really, Really Rich

Jessica Knoll. Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Knoll

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want. As part of the series, we’re interviewing women about how they feel about their bank balances.

In 2013, Jessica Knoll was a mid-tier editor at Self magazine, toiling away at night on the thriller that she was determined to make into a New York Times best seller. And it paid off: Luckiest Girl Alive spent four months on that list, sold 450,000 copies, and was optioned by Lionsgate, with Reese Witherspoon signed on to produce.* Knoll has since cranked out a second novel, The Favorite Sister — whose TV rights were snapped up by the producer of Big Little Lies — plus four other screenplays and a horror movie that was just picked up by Amazon. She’s also been unapologetic about her ambition to make piles of money. Here, she talks about hustling for book sales, the benefits of expensive therapy, and royalties that make her mouth water.

What was the first moment when you thought, “Holy cow. This is happening — I’m on my way”?
It started with the bidding war that happened around Luckiest Girl Alive in 2014. My agent took the manuscript out on a Friday. By Monday morning, we had an offer from Simon & Schuster. It was quite a large number, but then two more offers came in over the next couple of days and we were able to negotiate and get it even higher. My feeling was, “Yeah, this is exactly what I expected.” I look back on that now as a bit delusional, but setting out to become a New York Times best-selling writer, and then a screenwriter — these are wild dreams. You need a certain degree of naivete to even think it could be possible.

How big of an advance were you expecting?
I wasn’t hoping to continue to work in magazines and also publish books on the side. I wanted this to be my full-time job. I didn’t want to be living a starving artist life, either. It sounds vague, but I wanted something big. I didn’t pin a number on it. When the offer came in from Simon & Schuster, it was high six figures. I knew without my agent having to tell me this was a very good offer. My husband was excited. My parents were excited. There was a lot of excitement.

What made you decide to write the book when you did?
I’d been an editor at Cosmo and was working at Self at Condé Nast when we sold the book — I thought I had a good platform, and would be attractive to publishers. At Cosmo, I was in charge of writing a books memo for the editor in chief [Kate White]. When Gillian Flynn’s second book, Dark Places, came across my desk, and then hit the best sellers list, I paid attention. I felt I could write something like that. A couple of years later, when Gone Girl came out and was such a phenomenon, it was a perfect storm: That summer, Kate White retired from magazines. I’d been her teacher’s pet, so I was scared I was going to lose my job. I started thinking, Now might be the time to try this.

How did you make sure your book would sell?
I wrote 70 personal notes to editors, influencers, actors who talk about books they love on Twitter or Instagram. We sent the books out with a bottle of Veuve and macaroons from Ladurée, because there’s a scene in the book with Ladurée macaroons. And I leaned on people. A girl I’d worked with put me in touch with the girls from the Skimm. They always pick a book on Fridays, and they have a really engaged audience. So I took a Flywheel class with Danielle from the Skimm. If I had to pick three things that were most influential in getting my book out there, it was Reese Witherspoon, the Today show, and the Skimm. The Skimm sells books. It’s pretty amazing.

You’ve sold hundreds of thousands of books, foreign rights, movie rights — the works. Money-wise, which part of that puts you in the big leagues?
Royalties have made me even more than the advance. You get those checks twice a year. Every time my agency tells me the amount that’s going into my checking account, the woman is like, “You go, girl.” The deal with Lionsgate to option Luckiest Girl Alive was a lot of money. Then I was like, “This is my baby. I want to write this [screenplay].” And because I wrote that script, I’ve gone on to write screenplays for big studios, big actresses. I get the paycheck for writing them whether they get made or not. The big bucks are in writing your own book, getting it picked up somewhere, then writing the script as well, if you can, and producing — which is what I’m doing on my second book.

People have their real-estate porn? For me, it’s when a book gets made [into a show or a movie]. I track the Amazon number and my mouth waters. I’m like, “Oh, baby. Let this be me one day,” because it puts the book back on the map. That’s royalties for you.

What are some luxuries success has afforded?
Filling out the paperwork [when I bought] my Porsche, I had to put in what I make in a year. This was the Beverly Hills Porsche dealership — it looked straight out of Real Housewives. Everyone decked out to the nines. I had no makeup on, my hair in a bun. The guy who was selling me the Porsche looked at [the amount] and then at my husband and said, “Is that right?” My husband goes, “That’s right.” We love telling that story. He was so proud of me in that moment.

My Porsche hasn’t made a meaningful difference in my life. My house has. When I moved to Los Angeles, it was really hard. I sobbed when I left New York. It was really important that I found a place in L.A. that felt like home. I felt like I could write books here, write screenplays here, be creative here. I could have a dog here. There could be love in this house.

Another thing that’s made a meaningful difference is therapy. The therapist I’ve been seeing for the past three or four years to address serious trauma in my life that I was numb to for so long — she’s $320 a session. I walked out of [an early] session with her feeling like, “I need this so badly but I cannot justify this once a week.” She recommended people that were covered by insurance. I saw all of them and was like, “This is not helping me.” I could feel the difference in someone who costs $320 an hour. Now that I have the means to see her, I’m so grateful. Once you’re committed to it and doing it for a couple of years you’re like, “Whoa. I was suffering so much. How did I get through life?” I also had a very disordered relationship with food and my body. I went through periods where I starved myself, periods where I binged uncontrollably and I was absolutely miserable around food. I found someone out here to treat me for that. So I see two people a week now. It’s a lot of money, but it’s well spent.

I also have a lawyer to protect me in all the deals that I do. She makes a cut, and I have to pay her, but I feel protected. Money has healed me. It’s protected me. It’s given me security. It’s given me peace in my home. It’s given me a lot of really meaningful things in my life.

A lot of people say that the idea of money or success fixing everything is false — that money’s not what really matters.
Money can’t buy happiness? I hate that saying. Money helps a lot of people. To pretend that it doesn’t is just woo-woo bullshit. We live in a capitalist society. Money improves people’s circumstances. It just does. Has it made me happy? I sometimes think about when I had no money, and I was living in this crappy apartment and I couldn’t afford a MetroCard. I would walk home from work. But I had so much fun: I was constantly out. I was meeting people. I was alive. I was vibrant. But I was also a very unexamined person in my early 20s. I didn’t know how to create boundaries. I didn’t know how to protect myself. I was numbing myself in a lot of different ways. Even though now I live a much more calm, quiet, in some ways less vibrant life, I’m so much more self aware, and I’m so much stronger.

Has there been a time when you haven’t had that rush of success?
You find out about the New York Times best-seller list the week after your book comes out — it’s Wednesdays at 5 p.m. EST. I was sitting in a hotel room in St. Louis on my book tour getting ready to do an event, sweating bullets. My publisher called to say, “You didn’t make the list.” We couldn’t say it was an “instant” New York Times best seller. I killed myself writing that book; I’d taken on two other screenwriting jobs. I was trying to juggle all three. I hated that year of my life. I felt like I had the flu half the time, I was so burnt out. When I got the call, I felt totally crushed. It was a teachable moment: It’s okay to be disappointed when we don’t hit our goals. That’s human. But I experience it on a level that’s not healthy. It shows me that I put too much of my worth into my work, and invisible measures of success.

Also, the book did make the best-seller list.
Right, but it wasn’t “instant,” and it didn’t spend as long on list as Luckiest Girl. It gave me perspective that if I want to be in this for the long game, there are going to be highs and lows. Meanwhile the fact that I considered a New York Times best-selling book a low? I want to smack myself. Get it together. I should be grateful, you know?

How has your success factored into your relationship?
My husband works in financial services. He does very well for himself. But I’m still the breadwinner, and he loves it. He gets such a kick out of it when we go to restaurants and they put the bill in front of him, and he always gives it to me.

You’ve said you want to be rich. Are you rich?
In my mind, not rich enough. To me, rich enough is not a number. It’s a lifestyle. Bi-coastal living is the big goal for me. Of course, if I ever get there, the bar will keep rising. I’ll find another thing to aspire to. That’s just how my mind works.

What else do you aspire to?
Shonda Rhimes — my goal is to get to that level. The secret sauce is being an author who can adapt her own material. Then you’re not only looking at the money that the publisher is going to pay you, you’re looking at the money that the studio, network, whatever is going to pay you. And the royalties you’re going to make because the book is on everyone’s radar. I want to be working on things I have equity in.

You seem remarkably free of self-doubt. It’s sort of intoxicating.
I just started my third book, and every day I sit down at the computer, I’m like, “This is ridiculous. There’s no way you can do this.” I experience self doubt all the time, but I do it anyway.

The Favorite Sister will be released in paperback in early April.


How to Be a Writer and Still Get Really, Really Rich