Good question! And every aspiring word-wrassler wants to know the answer, but good, honest answers are a bit hard to come by. So I’m going to be embarrassingly up-front about my finances to start with, and hook you up with some good discussions about it shortly. Keep in mind that this is about fiction writing. There are many kinds of writing, and a competent person can make a good living in areas like copywriting, technical writing, and journalism without all the uncertainty involved with things like promotions, advertising, cover design, and begging their friends to buy their books and write reviews.
First up-front confession: I’ve published one novel. Okay, I self-published one novel. So far. So I haven’t been in this business for decades with vast amounts of experience battling the stingy moneybags of the publishing world. What I do have experience with is research and experimentation and the stories of a whole boatload of other people who have researched and experimented and battled the moneybags for decades. I’ll start with mine.
The bare facts are that in three years, I’ve sold 205 books. About a third of them were e-books, and of the two-thirds that were paperback, about half were sold through Amazon and I sold the other half myself, through my website or the mail or a couple of consignment sources or the cardboard box in the back of my car. I’ve brought in a whopping $940.07, which doesn’t sound bad for that number of books, but that isn’t profit. On the outflow side, I’ve spent $1,008.18 for printing, shipping, PayPal fees, advertising, cover design, and all that happy stuff. So, after three years, I’m still $68.11 in the hole.
Is that normal? Kind of. Everybody’s situation is different, and everybody has a different approach. I did all my own editing, formatting, uploading, and account management with Amazon and Draft2Digital, the companies that handle distribution of my book. Those functions are beyond the capabilities of some people, who would need to pay others to do that for them. On the other hand, if I’d had a professional editor go through my manuscript, it may have become so much better that it would have made more money.
Another example is the cover art…I paid a professional to do it even though I could have gone with something I cobbled together myself or used a generic one. But if I had, it wouldn’t be nearly as good and I may have lost sales to customers who were drawn to the book by the cover. Did it attract enough sales to make it worth what I paid? That’s almost impossible to know. You gamble with every aspect and do the best you can.
I know people who have invested a whole lot more and sold half as many books. Some struggle less and sell more, but from all my research, it looks like my start came out reasonably well compared to the vast armies of authors out there. What you have to understand is that the entire writing thing is a work in progress, just like that masterpiece you have partly bottled up inside you that needs to come to the surface, become complete, and get out there to amaze the world. The more you write, the better you get, the more worth your writing has, the more people will enjoy it, the more it will sell, the more money you make.
All the advice-givers come up with three great truths: 1. Don’t give up your day job. 2. The best way to increase sales is to write the next book. 3. You have to start with a measure of talent, but the greatest indicator of how much money you make is how much effort you put into it.
The result of my first foray into authorhood is that I’ve basically spent that $68.11 on a tremendous education in the ins and outs and obfuscations of the publishing world. I’m working diligently on the next novel and I know a whole lot more about the business, so everything will come a little easier and smoother this time and the next time and the next time. And that’s what life’s all about.
So here’s that extra discussion I promised, with the wisdom of Jane Friedman — author, blogger, professor, and advice-giver. It’s not just her blog post that has a bunch of info in it…three links she posts at the beginning have much more detail and discussion about a lot of aspects of this subject. So chase those links as much as you care to, and learn all you can, and get out there to take on the world of writing armed with more of an understanding of what you’re getting yourself into than most word-wrasslers.
How Much Do Authors Earn? Here’s the Answer No One Likes.
Posted on by Jane Friedman
In the last month, there have been a few informative articles discussing how much authors earn:
- The One Where Writing Books Is Not Really a Good Idea by Elle Griffin (Substack)
- How Much Do Authors Make Per Book? by Sarah Nicolas (BookRiot)
- How Much Do Authors Actually Earn? by Lincoln Michel (Substack)
All of these are excellent pieces, written and reported by people bringing transparency to the money side of the writing life. If you go and read them, you’ll have a meaningful education in what to expect as a writer if you’re just starting out. This is a subject near and dear to my heart and why I wrote The Business of Being a Writer. I’d heard too often—usually from speakers at AWP—that they wish someone had told them, before they went into six-figure debt for their MFA, that writing doesn’t pay that well. Not even a minimum wage.
So I’m always happy to see the veil lifted. We need more discussion of what writers earn, with specific authors talking about their advances, royalties, sales, expenses, connections that led to earnings and profitable gigs—all of it. In an industry where talking about the money is often taboo or even shameful (few want to admit how little or how much they earn), the more we all open up, then the more we can normalize the practice of talking about art and commerce, and the more people can make the best decisions for their careers. And I’ll disclose my own book earnings by the end of this post.
The big secret I haven’t revealed until now
OK, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s the thing: I do not like this question. Of course I understand why it’s asked, and I empathize with those who ask it. But it’s like asking what does a musician earn? Or what does an artist earn? The answer will be influenced by all kinds of factors that may or may not apply to you—and that are entirely misleading about your own potential.
So, with the posts above, you’re going to find limitations. Someone will react to the information and say, “BUT [exception here].” From my POV, these exceptions can often be categorized thus:
- Traditional publishing earnings can have little in common with self-publishing earnings.
- Your genre/category can determine a lot about your potential earnings. So does how much work you have out on the market. More books equals more earnings potential, period, no matter how you publish.
- Authors who participate in the so-called Creator Economy can have little in common with authors who do not. (Here’s one perspective on the creator economy if you’re not familiar with it. This is a more optimistic view; there are pessimists, too.)
This is also why it is a tortured exercise to try and run any kind of meaningful survey on what authors earn. I’ve written at length about the problems of these author earnings surveys. However, authors organizations engage in these surveys regularly, partly because they have to. How else can they pressure lawmakers and advocate for their members? They need some kind of evidence that says, “Look! Writers are suffering. They earn less than ever before. This is an emergency!”
Is that true?
But is publishing and literary culture changing?
Are the changes bad?
It depends on who you ask.