How much money do writers really make?
Last year I wrote a post about how much money I made as an author, and it got a LOT more attention than I could have anticipated, both positive and negative. The purpose of the post was to correct a common misconception that all authors are “rich,” and to explain to readers why I could not send everyone books and swag when they wrote me requesting free stuff. But what happened was that the post was used by some as an anti-traditional publishing platform, which was never my intention. Many called me a fool for staying with traditional publishing and “outing” myself as a broke midlist author, but those kinds of judgments didn’t and don’t concern me. Only the truth concerns me.
I think that post went viral because it touched a nerve and surprised people. Authors have a way of projecting a certain persona, and it's not always accurate. I remained publicly positive, but I was struggling at the time, not sure I'd be able to afford being a full-time writer much longer, and not certain if any more of my books would be picked up for publication.
As is the way with publishing, a lot has changed in the year since I wrote that original post. Now that I’ve experienced a much broader spectrum of the publishing process, I want to republish my original money post, making minor revisions and adding new information. I learned the hard way that it’s a no-no to give exact amounts regarding my advances. Though it is my right to share that information if I choose, I’m going to respect the unspoken rule and give estimates instead. You’ll still get the big picture.
Please understand that my purpose of this post is to be brutally honest to readers and budding authors—there is no information booklet you get when you publish. If you don’t have a mentor, you have to learn everything as you go, and I would have appreciated a post like this five years ago so I could have known what to expect.
ORIGINAL POST (revised):
I'm going to talk about money.
Are you cringing yet? I am, a little. It's just one of those taboo subjects, you know? Sort of...tacky. But I'm an open book so I don't mind sharing personal stuff for the sake of informing people. Mostly because I think there's a huge misconception out there—one that makes me feel bad almost on a daily basis. I get asked for free things a lot. I'd be willing to bet that I get as many requests for free books and swag as I get fan mail. It's just part of the industry, but when I have to say no, and I get a sad-face response I feel even worse.
I'm not mean and greedy. I promise you. Us Higginses are your average North American family working our butts off to keep our heads above water and be able to send our kids to college someday and retire in peace.
Before I begin, please know that I am NOT bashing my publisher. They are a business, so it's safe to say their goal is to make money along with spreading the love of reading.
In fall 2010, when my first agent told me the publisher was going to make an offer I remember his exact words. He said, "Now, don't go thinking you're going to be able to buy a beach house." I thought perhaps he was being a bit cynical. Then told me to try and stay grounded and focus on my family. So I braced myself. And he was right. I was given a 5-figure advance (think low end), which was very decent for a brand new author. Not all publishers offer advances. (More about what advances mean later.)
Shortly after I accepted this offer, I came across a conversation on Goodreads that made me laugh. Readers were discussing upcoming books and they mentioned a new author who they believed was given over $100K for her book. The reason this was funny to me is because I knew that author and I knew her deal was about the same as mine with the same publisher. See, the average debut author does not get a 6-figure advance. It’s rare. But I think a lot of people have the assumption that that’s the kind of money being thrown around to authors.
The thing people don't realize about advances is that: 1) You don't get it all at once - you get the first half when you sign the contract, which can come months after the offer, and you get the second half when you turn in the final manuscript, again months later, 2) It's not "bonus" income - it's an advance on future royalties you will make from your portion of the book’s sales. When the book publishes you have to pay ALL of that advance BACK from your royalties earned before you start getting paychecks, 3) You have to share that advance and all income made with your agent (not complaining, believe me, they earn their 15% and I'm happy to pay it!!), and 4) You have to put a percentage of that money away to pay taxes.
Essentially, from the time I received a verbal offer for my first book, I received my advance over the course of that following year, earning a grand net total in the 4-digit realm. We used it to pay my husband’s business taxes. It was depressing.
Now to forge ahead into regular pay.
I got the offer for my book in October 2010. I received my advance in 2011. My book published in 2012. I did not get a paycheck during my publication year because all earnings went to paying back the advance, and my sales were not stellar.
I did not start getting paid until eighteen months after my book hit the shelves. From what I hear, this is completely normal for an average traditionally published author who hasn't hit any of the bestseller lists, but I was shocked at the time and my husband kept asking, “When are you going to start getting paid?” I had no idea. I didn't even know my sales numbers at any given time. Since then, I've learned that many authors never pay out their advance, and therefore never receive royalties. It's impossible to know how your book will do. You can be a hyped book that flops or an unknown book that suddenly explodes. All you can do is wait and see. For me, it was all slow. Slow sales and slow pay, while working full time hours to keep my face out there and write, write, write despite feelings of desperation and disappointment.
After my advance was paid back and regular paychecks began to trickle in, how much did I make? In my first year of getting paid, I received one paycheck of 4-digits. After much worry that the publisher wouldn’t want anymore of my books, we were able to sell books two and three to them, yay! My advances on those two books were .5% higher than my first book advance, but all I cared about was that my complete trilogy would be available together on shelves. That was my dream, and I achieved it.
Now let’s talk book royalties.
The Sweet Evil trilogy books are paperback originals—not hardbacks. I make 6% of the paperback sales, and 25% of ebook sales—these are average/common royalty amounts for traditional publishing. Publishers take a big chunk because they have a lot of employees to pay, and print costs are high, and well, because they can. Of my percentages earned I share 15% with my agent and put away approximately 20-30% for taxes. That means for every $10 paperback of mine that is sold, I pocket approximately $.50.
You read that right. Fifty cents per book. So it's not that I don't want to send books and swag when people ask for them—believe me, I'd like to send a book to every person on earth who wants it. But I' have to sell 60 books in order to send one internationally. Pretty crazy when you think of it like that, huh?
I read once that this is how it is for musicians, as well. They make only a small percentage from each sale. Now it's clear why musicians and authors get so upset when we come across sites where people have downloaded our books and music for everyone to enjoy without paying. Piracy sucks. I may be living my dream, but I still need to feed my children and pay my bills like everyone else. Being in the entertainment industry doesn't mean someone is filthy rich and it's okay to steal from them. (I digress...tiny rant over.)
(end of original post – now I will share my updated/new info)
The funny thing about traditional publishing is that if your book catches on with readers, if word of mouth does its job to market you, if you keep your face out there and continue to write and interact with readers, each year when a new book of yours publishes your sales go up and your pay increases a bit until it eventually steadies.
Let me break down the five years since I got my first offer for traditional publication:
Year one – nothing Year two – nearly nothing Year three – fast food worker income Year four – starting small-town teacher income Year five – comfortable (by my middle class standards) *happy sigh* Next year - who knows??
In March of this year I decided to independently publish an Irish fantasy that my publisher passed on. One financial difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing is that you begin getting paid 6-8 weeks after you self-publish your book, and then you get paid monthly thereafter. Awesome, right? My indie book, See Me, did well that first month, hitting the #1 spot in all three of its Amazon categories, and breaking the top 100 on B&N. I was thrilled! My first paycheck for that first month of sales was in the upper 5-digits. I made as much from that first month as I did from my first book advance. That’s because with self-publication you can earn up to 70% of the proceeds. The downfall of self-publishing is that it’s hard to keep those numbers. Each month my sales dropped by nearly half. So, you start strong and teeter off to something steadily lower unless you can keep publishing consecutive books every 3-4 months (which I cannot).
HITTING A LIST:
In May 2014, six months ago, the third book of my trilogy released (Sweet Reckoning), and to our great surprise it hit both the USA Today and NY Times bestsellers lists. This changed everything, folks. I was only on the lists for one week, but that's all it took to ensure I could continue to be published, for now. Mine was one of the only books in the series category that week that was not being made into a movie. It was surreal to see my little book there with the biggies. I didn't break rich that week, but I was able to pay back my advance in a month, rather than a year and a half, so things were looking up!
For eight months prior to that we’d been trying to sell my fantasy duology idea, with no luck. When I hit those lists, I was offered a 3-book deal for those books plus a forth Sweet book, with advances five times the advance for my first book. It’s nowhere near Stephen King/J.K. Rowling/Stephenie Meyer kind of income, but I’m making a living now off my books, officially, and after all these years that’s a huge achievement for me. (Writers, please note that it can take eight months on average from the time you are given an offer to when you actually get your contract and advance money.)
This year I have been able to support our family financially (albeit tightly) through a major move to a small town where my husband is building a new veterinary business, opening next year. While he’s been out of work, I’ve been the “breadwinner,” and I’m so thankful to be able to help him achieve his dream since he stood by me while I reached for mine and finally grabbed hold. My story really could have gone the other way. Being a writer is a tricky business. So many ups and downs, good years and bad years. There’s no guarantee I’ll keep earning as much in the future. I might never hit a list again. It’s not a steady or secure job. All I can do is work hard and keep hoping.
It’s best to go into writing for the love of your story and the desire to share it. Those reasons make this job fulfilling on a level that no other job has ever been able to do for me. I love interacting with readers. I love making stuff up and crafting it into a world that will transport someone's mind away from the harshness of reality for a bit. That's what it has to be about. That has to be the pay to get you through when you're not actually getting paid.
I hope this post will help dispel the myth that all published authors are loaded with money. It's an unhealthy assumption that hurts and disappoints all involved.
Here are a few other author facts concerning funds that are not general knowledge:
1) Publishing houses do not send all of their authors on book tours. In fact, some don't send any, and some select only a choice few authors who are either huge sellers or who they're trying to promote into becoming huge sellers. I have never been sent to any signing events. Anything I attend comes out of my own pocket (and just to give you an idea, full cost of attending an out of state event can cost around $1,000 for fees, hotel, food, travel, etc.) I'm lucky if I get to do one big event a year. As far as signings, I will generally only agree to signings that are in driving distance - day trips, woot! - or I’ll set up events in places where I'm planning to travel.
2) Publishing houses do not provide swag for most authors. Some might, but mine doesn't. All bookmarks and buttons, launch parties, etc, are paid for out of pocket by the author.
3) Authors do not get a lifetime supply of their books. We get a certain amount of our books up front, and after that we have to buy them (I get 25 of each book when it publishes). I can contact the distribution warehouse to order them at 50% off, which is awesome, but not free.
Unfortunately, we also don't get a bunch of free books by other authors. I naively thought this was going to be one of my author perks. I was very disappointed to find out I'd have to wait and buy the books on release day like the rest of the reading world, LOL! Poor me.
4) Big publishing houses pay their authors twice a year. I receive a paycheck every six months so we have to budget carefully.
I hope all of my divulging has been informative and not abrasive. Remember, this is just one story. Every author's situation is different, but you can bet there are many, many authors out there just trying to get by and keep readers happy while struggling to afford the lifestyle of doing giveaways and attending fun author events. As for self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, to each his own, and I will be more than happy to go both routes again. It’s an ever-changing business, and we have to roll with it.
For most authors it’s not about getting rich. We’re lucky to feel comfortable financially. We do it because we love books and we love book people. We appreciate everyone who buys our stories and spreads the word. Thank you.
(In case you're interested, here's a link to a guest post where I share more things about publishing that I learned the hard way.)