Would you ever approach a stranger and ask “how much money do you make?” Probably not.
Yet, as an author of feel-good romance, I have been asked this question by both strangers and those I know quite a few times.
“You must be rolling in it!” they say. “Did you receive a big advance?” and “how much royalties do you get paid?”
Having pondered what gives some individuals the idea they can glibly interrogate authors about their income from their writing, I’ve come to the conclusion that it must be the perceived fallacy that all writers are generously paid for their articles and books, and that we enjoy an indulgent lifestyle.
If only that were true!
So, how much do book authors really make? How much can they make? And how can we, as writers, maximise our earning potential?
In this article I will be answering that question as well as providing suggestions on how to improve your earnings. I have included a list of rough earning potential in both dollars and pounds – but please remember all these totals can vary greatly.
What Salaries Do Authors Make?
The sad truth is that authors don’t make a regular salary, so it’s really a matter of ‘close your eyes and take a stab.’
The answer to ‘how much money does an author make?’ depends on many factors, such as whether the author is self-published or traditionally published, the number of projects currently in their pipeline, how many novels the author in question has previously published, and what the details of these publishing deals might be.
Because the publishing world has evolved to such an extent over the years, many more avenues are now open to writers – making it harder to provide a ballpark figure for author earnings. According to the site uk.indeed.com, the average author salary in the UK stands at $33,078 per annum as of 9th February 2022. Although this may be a generous overestimation if they calculate that by including all the millions authors like J K Rowling make and dividing it by the number of published books out there.
In reality, most writers don’t make the minimum wage from their books and work full- or part-time to supplement their book earnings!
Writing is not like other professions, where there are salary scales and overtime payments. It all comes down to which path to publication you decide to take, how much time you have to write, how you sell your work, and how many books you can produce in a year. That’s just to make money from your first book – because staying a published writer takes even more work!
Self-published authors can earn up to 70% royalties from their books, while most traditionally published authors make 5-18% royalties which they only receive after ‘earning out’. That means the books sales have “paid back” their advances and the publishers then start giving them a cut of book sales. From a major publisher, such as one of the “Big Five,” an advance can start from $5,000 for a first-time, unknown author and can go into five figures. This may be more if the author is well-known, happens to have a more established literary reputation, it’s a multi-book deal, or the author has an impressive back catalogue.
Sometimes a debut (or less-established) author can hit upon a very topical idea and write a book that has publishers bidding against one another. Debut Middle Grade author, Anabelle Steadman, recently won a seven-figure book deal with Simon & Schuster (including Sony film rights) for her bloodthirsty unicorn series. So, although very rare, you can get lucky!
Smaller, independent publishers, tend to offer lower advances to their writers – sometimes in the region of $3,000-$10,000. Although some compensate for this by paying their writers a higher royalty revenue, which kicks in sooner as it takes a lot less time to recoup the advance.
Plus don’t forget that advances are taxed, and 15% goes to your agent who negotiated the deal in the first place.
Bearing all this in mind, some may argue that the answer to making lots of money writing books is to self-publish. Yes, you will certainly receive more money per book – but it’s not that simple either.
Author and Jericho Writers founder, Harry Bingham, wrote about this in his recent article for Jericho Writers. Unlike traditional publishing, when you self-publish you have to cover all costs of design, editing, typesetting, distribution, marketing and advertising yourself. You can expect to pay anything between $800-$2,000 to have your book professionally edited and proofread, as well as anything from $100-$600 for a decent cover design.
You may not have agent fees to worry about, but you will also need to be your own publicist – and with self-publishing becoming more popular by the day, that means understanding online advertising and getting your book to market.
Basically, there’s no easy way to make money from your books.
Let’s look at traditional publishing first, and the different ways you can earn money.
Making Money From Traditional Publishing Vs Self-Publishing
What To Expect From Big 5 Traditional Publishers
The biggest publishers, also referred to as ‘The Big 5’, are Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan. And within those publishers there are many imprints.
If they purchase your manuscript, the sale is generally executed by a literary agent who will keep 15% of all earnings from that book deal (sometimes the deal includes more than one book).
These publishers often (not always) pay bigger advances than independent publishers.
If they decide your book will be one of their lead titles, then they will use their enviable distribution network to make your book available for sale as widely as possible, which means you can expect to see your book in a dizzying array of retailers, ranging from bookshops and online retailers to supermarkets (depending on what ‘path to market’ they think best suits your readership).
They also work closely with the press and, depending on the marketing budget allocated to the title, will support the release with a carefully executed PR campaign.
Being signed with the Big 5 means you are also more likely to receive a five-figure plus advance and your book will almost certainly appear in print, as well as sometimes audio, e-book and even hardback. If you’re lucky enough that your sales ‘earn out’, you will also receive royalties.
Most authors dream of such a deal, which is why they may spend many years (and many scrapped books) trying to be signed by a great agent, as without an agent you will never be signed with a big-name publisher.
What To Expect From Independent Traditional Publishers
Independent traditional publishers work in exactly the same way as the Big 5 – but with slightly less budget, and slightly less reach. But the good news is that they often accept submissions without an agent and are more likely to take on less-commercial books as they are smaller companies with more subjective decision-making.
Although they often pay smaller advances, as mentioned previously they often provide larger royalties and they may choose to pay big bucks as an advance for a book that they wish to make their lead title, when the Big 5 may have paid less and made it one of their lesser titles.
So bigger is not always better. Once again, each book and each author makes a completely different amount of money, but it’s worth understanding how the business works and realistically what’s at stake.
Whether the publisher is large or not, they can both take a book quite far – to audio, abroad, and even to the big screen.
Different Ways To Make Money With A Traditionally Published Book
It can be very confusing for a new author to understand how a book makes its writer money. Every book deal is different, and every author earns a different amount. This is in no way a reflection of the quality of the book; it hinges on how well the editors and sales and marketing teams at the publishers think the book will do.
Remember – publishing is a business, and your books are products. If you produce something that is destined to sell well, then you will be compensated as such. The only problem is that books can be mercurial things and what works once doesn’t always work again!
So how do authors get paid?
An advance paid by a publisher is intended to cover an author’s expenses while they write the book the publisher has bought. It should be a rough estimate of what the book might earn, paid up front, to give the author support and reassurance. The amount of an advance can vary from a couple of thousand pounds to a seven-figure sum and it is usually paid by the traditional publishers. However, some publishers opt not to pay an advance to writers and instead pay higher royalties.
A publisher pays authors book royalties in exchange for the rights to publish their work in book form. Royalty rates are made up of percentages of book sales and they are entirely negotiable, though some publishers do have standard royalty rates that they try to adhere to for the majority of their book deals. Average retail royalties tend to fall in the 10% – 15% range on hardcover sales, and 5% – 7.5% on trade paperback sales. These are paid quarterly by some publishers, yearly by others.
Authors who retain translation rights, may submit their book to a foreign rights agent (sometimes their agent works with foreign publishers and reps), or their publisher may commission a foreign rights agent to represent the publisher’s catalogue, or collection of titles.
A foreign rights agent represents translation rights on a worldwide basis or for select languages. Then, the foreign rights agent plays matchmaker, matching books with foreign publishers who have published or are looking to publish similar works.
You get paid by a foreign publisher for every language or territory you sell your book to – this can be anything from $1,500 per book, per territory, to six figures (not as common).
Literary agents receive a slightly higher commission for foreign subsidiary rates and translations, generally 20% commission compared to the usual 15% a literary agent receives.
One of the first steps a TV/film producer makes when developing a project for the screen in which they are interested in, is to obtain story rights. The usual legal vehicle for this is an option contract. The producer options exclusive rights for a specified time to develop your creative work and determine if there is any interest in adapting the work into a film before committing to purchasing the work. The option puts money in the writer’s pocket in exchange for putting the book rights on hold during the negotiated time period. Sometimes that time runs out and the options are sold again, so the writer is receiving money for nothing while the producers try and get the project off the ground. Again, options vary in amount and contractual length, but $15,000 for three years is not uncommon.
This can be handled by the publishers or the agents direct. Most literary agents have experience of such contracts and would be more than happy to handle this on your behalf!
The literary agent commission on film rights and audio book rights is typically somewhere between 15%-20%.
And now for self-publishing. A completely different kettle of fish…but one that more and more traditionally published authors are diving into.
Publishing your own book means you never sell the rights to the book. It’s yours. There is no advance (ie money up front) in self-publishing – it’s completely down to you as the author to make whatever investment you can afford to get your book out there.
Most indie sales take the form of e-books, often taking advantage of print-on-demand services provided by suppliers such as Amazon. But that means limiting your distribution to online sales. For those with dreams of seeing your work sold in physical bookshop and adorning the shelves, this is much harder to do with self-publishing. You can personally go from bookstore to bookstore, many independent bookshops love to support local indie writers, but you’re unlikely to see huge sales of your hardback in Waterstones and B&N if you self-publish.
You are also less likely to see your book in the national press (again, local publications do support local writers, but you have to do all the PR yourself).
But, because you can decide on the price point of your book and have the possibility of publishing as many as you can write a year (whereas traditional publishers generally publish one book per author per year), plus you get a larger cut per sale, you have the possibility of making a lot of money. After a year, some self-published authors are making a living wage from their books. Some are even making millions!
Here is a list of more Jericho Writer resources about self-publishing and how much you can expect to make:
- Traditional Publishing Vs Self Publishing
- Should self-published authors turn to traditional publishing?
- Why A Best-selling Author Chose To Self-Publish
- How Much Does it Cost to Self-Publish a Book?
- How to Control Your Self-Publishing Costs
- How Much Does it Cost to Publish a Book?
And remember, unlike traditional publishing which is very subjective and often down to getting the right agent, the right editor, and publishing at the right time, with self-publishing you get out what you put in.
So the question you should really be asking yourself when considering self-publishing is not ‘How much money will I make?’ but ‘How hard am I prepared to work to make enough money?’
Getting published is an amazing experience. However, for the sake of your future writing career, getting published is not the same as staying published!
Securing one good book deal does not mean you can give up your day job. You should therefore try to remain productive and add to your back catalogue of books and articles, in order to establish a steady income.
Luckily, most authors make their money not from their books, but from being a writer. Here’s how…
Tips For Authors To Make More Money
Here are a few tips which you might like to consider for increasing your cashflow as a writer.
- Enter writing competitions. Many offer generous cash prizes and it is a good way of potentially boosting your writing coffers. It is also a very enjoyable diversion from your usual writing routine.
- Come up with pitches for freelance articles and approach newspapers and magazines. It’s a competitive market, but editors are always on the lookout for new ideas. If you can suggest an original and eye-catching pitch, there is money to be made. You might also find if the editor published you once, they will publish you again.
The figures below from the National Union of Journalists website, gives a rough estimate of what you could expect to earn writing articles in the UK (fees vary country to country). For example, once you are an established feature writer, writing a 1,000-word tabloid feature can earn you approx. £800.
|Page lead, tabloids – sky’s the limit, rarely less than||1250.00|
|Tip-off leading to exclusive or large spread, upward of||1000.00|
|Splashy features for “qualities”, per 1000, from||800.00|
|Normal features for “qualities”, per 1000, from||500.00|
|Page lead, for “qualities”, per 1000, from||500.00|
|News, for “qualities”, per 1000 words, from||430.00|
|Tip-off for news, “qualities” – much more for big stories||200.00|
|Commissioned online blog post – e.g. “Comment is Free” from||110.00|
|Tip-off for diary – minimum||50.00|
|RATES: Writing, reporting and researching |
category: Newspaper supplements
|Splashy features for “qualities”, per 1000, from||1000.00|
|Per 1000 words, generic||600.00|
Being a writer, means you have publishing experience. That means you can also get paid to:
- Attend paid literary events and give talks (approx.. $200-1,000 per event, depending on how sought-after you are)
- Lecture on creative writing, either privately or to uni students (approx. $250-$500 per day)
- Write blog articles like this one (approx. $100-$200 per blog)
- Become a freelance editor (approx. $750 to $2,000 per book)
- Be a proof-reader, beta reader, blogger or sensitivity reader (bloggers and beta readers don’t often get paid, but you do get to read some great books).
- Be a writing mentor (you may charge an hourly rate of $80-120)
- Become a ghostwriter (this can vary, and some writers get paid in royalties only, but others can get $5,000-$10,000 up front per book)
Explore Different Writing Opportunities
I hope this article has given you some indication as to how much money you can make being an author. Sadly, unlike being a plumber or solicitor, the career trajectory of an author is never a straight line and no amount of qualifications can guarantee you more success or money.
But, the one way you can help yourself as an author, is to keep learning and keep writing. The more books you write, the better you will get and the more ‘products’ you have to sell. And with determination and dedication, writing books can not only lead to great things but can also help get you other paid work opportunities.
You just have to be creative – and luckily that’s exactly what we are!
Jericho Writers is a global membership group for writers, providing everything you need to get published. Keep up with our news, membership offers, and updates by signing up to our newsletter. For more writing articles, take a look at our blog page.