Wednesday, January 15, 2014

How Much Does an Author Really Make?

Unfortunately her post was removed after it went viral because it included proprietary contract information. I won't share the numbers she posted for that reason, but I will share the broader message and open it up for discussion: don't write just for the money.

 Here are a few things to take into consideration when doing the math and planning for your writing future.

1) You have to pay back your advance before you start receiving royalties.

An advance is NOT a bonus.  It is exactly as the name states: an advance on future earnings. Many authors will not sell past their advances, meaning they will never receive royalties for their books.  And for those who do sell past their advances, it can be a long time before they start to see those royalties hit their bank because it takes time for books to gain momentum.  Net: what you receive upfront may be the only money you see for a while, or ever.

2) Advances are becoming smaller and rarer.

Publisher's Marketplace announces advances using the following terminology:

"nice deal" = $1 - $49,000
"very nice deal" = $50,000 - $99,000
"good deal" = $100,000 - $250, 000
"Significant deal" = $251,000 - $499,000
"Major deal" = $500,000 and up

Skim through the announcements, and you'll see that most debut authors fall into the "nice deal" range.  But you'll notice that some don't have anything next to them, because the author didn't receive an advance.  And if you do some Googling, you'll start to see that $4,000 - $15,000 is a realistic range for a debut author signing with a larger house.  For smaller houses, advances are typically smaller, if they exist at all.

Yes, some authors get nice sums of money up front when a publishing house wants to make a bet that a book will be a big hit (especially if they're bidding against other houses).  But most of the large deals are not tied to debut authors.  And there seems to be a consistent message from the publishing industry as a whole that the industry is moving away from them, at least to some degree.

3)  Royalties rates range, but don't expect a high take home percentage.

This is where things get sticky and proprietary to publishers, so truth be told I'm intentionally not posting the figures.  If you quickly Google, you can get a decent sense of the averages.

Royalty percentages vary depending on whether your book is sold in print, ebook, or hardback.  You will earn a smaller percent on physical book forms because the publisher is absorbing higher costs (and thus higher risks).  Ebooks, therefore, typically pay higher royalty rates, although note that because something like a hardcover book has a higher retail price tag, your absolute earning per book may be similar because the percent is taken from a larger base.

In short, only a small portion of each book sale will go into your pocket.  This means you need to sell a lot of books to really start raking in the dough.  And in an increasingly fragmented market, selling a million books is no easy feat.

4)  Don't forget that agents share 15%.

Agents work hard to get you a great deal, and their average reward is 15% of your advance and all subsequent royalties. Most people would argue they earn it in spades by getting you that great deal, but it's an important piece of the earning puzzle that should be accounted for - whatever you bring in automatically gets a 15% haircut if you're repped.

5) So how much does a "successful" author make?

According to my research, an average mid-list author will make an income in the mid-five digits ($50,000-65,000). But it will take time to get there, because success doesn't happen overnight.  And the reality is that many of us won't actually get to that place (see point #1.)

There are other factors that can influence your overall earning potential as well, like your proliferation as an author.  If you're releasing a book a year and are reasonably successful, then your earning potential increases. If  you release a new book every two years, you'll likely see the number go down.

Yes, some authors rake in the money.  They get huge advances, sell millions of books, and close movie deals.  But they are the exceptions, not the rule.  I'd go so far as to say they represent < 1% of the writing community. It's a fact that we all should recognize when making choices about our writing careers.

So maybe I won't quit my day job anytime soon, but I still consider myself a success.

I started writing because I had a story to tell.  Whether or not I sell a million books or a hundred books shouldn't cloud my view of accomplishment. I said I'd write a novel, and I did.  I said I wanted a publishing deal, and I got one. I said I wanted to see my book in print, and it will hit store shelves next January.  For those reasons, I'm calling my writing journey  a success, and I will do my best to keep that in focus regardless of the size of my royalty checks. I'll also keep writing because it's something I love to do.

And here's the honest thing:  even though I've done the math, am very aware of the financial realities and consider myself a pragmatic person, there is still a little part of me that thinks I could possibly maybe someday be one of the exceptions.  It's the same part of me that buys the occasional lottery ticket, won't walk under a ladder, and eats black eyed peas on New Years Day.

Because there's always a chance.

Happy writing, and may you all sell a million books!


  1. Great post! I feel the same way about writing. Sure it would be nice to have all that money, but the real reason I write is because I have to, I need to. The story inside me at times just won't let me be until I at least put some of it down onto paper. I love writing and I create stories for fun. Anything else that might come from it is just gravy! It was also fun to see the figures. Thanks for the research and I can't wait to see your book on the shelves.

  2. Thanks, Karen! Glad you enjoyed the post. And your so right - if we get anything else on top of the simple enjoyment we get from writing, then that's awesome. But in the meantime, hopefully we find the simple act of writing to be an enjoying, passion filled process.

  3. So insightful - thanks - passion is everything in this life !

  4. Thanks for this! I'm working on revisions with my agent and it's hard not to day dream! But it's good to keep these things in mind :)

    1. Kudos on the agent and good look with the revisions.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Glad to hear so many folks found this post useful. Seems I wasn't the only blogger who took interest in the story. If you follow the querytracker blog post (which I highly recommend - it's a great resource) they recently shared several other posts about the aforementioned blog post. In case you're interested, here are the links:

    What makes this post on The Passive Voice interesting is that the CEO from Kensington (Steve Zacharius) got in other conversation:

    Which spawned this post, where an indie author explains how they improved earnings after leaving the world of traditional publishing:

    Here's another post on the same topic:

    Needless to say, the author income debate has quite a few layers...

  6. Great article and responses. Thanks for the info. I know that I'm gonna write successful books and sell millions of the online and in hard copy form. Blessings to u all on your writing endeavours.

  7. So being mid level gets you 50,000? And low level would be 30,000-40,000 a year? Jeeze, maybe I'm just used to being dirt poor, but those figures look real good to me, expecially the mid level. Mid level is a nice living, low level is definatly livable. So why say don't quit your day job?

    1. Hi Luke, fair question. My point wasn't that earning mid-level or low-level isn't liveable, but rather that those figures are hard to achieve and even harder to maintain. If you hit that level, awesome, but I think all writers need to understand that it will take hard work, time, and it's vary rarely doable on a single book. Also some people jump into this business thinking they are going to make millions, which unfortunately is not a realistic expectation. Hope that helps.