How Much Do Authors Make? The Answer is Complicated
Breaking down where and how the money comes to authors, and what you can do to make more of it.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median yearly pay for a person who identifies themselves as a writer or author was $69,510 in 2021. At first glance, that’s amazing! Authors making that much can live comfortably on just their writing, which is the dream.
Unfortunately, this raw statistic doesn’t really take everything into account. Its data is skewed by the fact that most of those writers work in business contexts - copywriters and bloggers and technical writers and such - rather than as novelists. Beyond that, it doesn’t really show you how authors make money beyond actively selling books, or even how selling books makes you money in the first place.
The simple truth is that author earnings are wildly variable. Yes, there are New York Times bestselling authors like James Patterson, John Grisham, Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling out there making a million dollars or more every year, but the average author has a day job other than writing books to get the bills paid, meaning writing is their part-time side-job. A typical author salary, based only on money made from the number of copies sold, is less than the minimum wage.
For authors consistently putting out quality books, the earning potential can be extraordinary, but this requires you to have a number of books published, and both business and book marketing savvy.
Let’s break it down a little bit. Here’s what you need to know about author incomes, from how you earn to how much you can expect to make.
How authors make money
Authors can make money in a variety of ways, some of which depend on the publishing route they use to get their work into the world, and some of which operate independently from their writing itself.
For a traditionally published book, there are a couple of different ways for an author to get paid.
First, they might be paid an advance when their contract is signed, the amount of money based on an author’s experience and sales history. First-time authors won’t see the same kind of advance payment that a consistently bestselling author would. An advance is exactly what it sounds like - it’s money paid to the author in advance of their book being printed, which is then recovered by the publishing company in book sales. Advances are one-time, lump sums paid with faith that the author’s book will do well. It’s not a loan, however - usually, unless you break your contract, whether or not your book makes up the sales, your advance is yours to keep.
Next, the author is paid royalties, or the profits of the book after fees taken for printing, distribution, publishing, and agents. This money is often paid monthly and will continue to be paid to the author until the book goes out of print. Unfortunately, the big catch is that authors do not get paid royalties until the publishing house has recouped the cost of their advance, which if your book doesn’t sell well, might never happen.
Self-publishing is a different beast when it comes to getting paid. In this part of the industry, the author is paying for everything upfront: editing, formatting, illustration, cover design, print costs, distribution, audiobook production, marketing, and more. You don’t have a literary agent working for you, nor are you likely to have direct connections with the right people in book retail to get your books in bookstores.
Because of these expenses, most of the money that the author makes on the book - at least initially - is going to go toward paying off those costs. So, until the profits from book sales exceed the expenses of getting those books out in the first place, the author is working at a pretty significant loss.
Once that overhead has been paid off, though, self-published authors stand to make some pretty good money. Because they don’t have a middleman to pay constantly - publishers will always take a cut of the money from book sales - their royalty rate is significantly higher. For instance, Amazon pays self-published authors 70% of the list price for ebooks and up to 60% of the list price for print books (that is, before fees). Authors direct-selling to their fans through Laterpress or other direct-sales providers can earn an even higher royalty, often taking home more than 90% of the retail price.
Still, getting past that roadblock of upfront costs can be extremely difficult, and you have to account for other ongoing costs like website maintenance and marketing.
Let’s say you’re a self-publishing author, looking to become a full-time author and make at least $70k a year. (I’m taking that median pay mentioned above and rounding up a little.) Let’s use the 70% Kindle royalty per sale as a working baseline. You have only a single book available, an ebook you’re selling for $5.That would translate to roughly $3.50 earned per sale (we’re ignoring taxes and fees right now). At that rate, your book would need to sell 20,000 copies to earn $70k. If you get there, congratulations on releasing a smash-hit bestseller! The book publishing world can learn from your example. The more books you have out, the less each has to sell individually to help hit your annual income goals. Think 20 books selling 1,000 copies, for example, instead of one book selling 20,000.
Other income streams
Some authors choose to also have other streams of income alongside their books. That’s what I do - I have published works like my novel and my poetry, but for my main income, I work as a freelance writer and editor.
Authors might have jobs in their fields of expertise - historians, teachers, mechanics, engineers, etc. They might even have a job in the publishing industry as an editor, copywriter, marketing professional, or even a publisher themselves! Some authors run their own businesses, selling goods or services often unrelated to their writing.
Apart from that, though, writers might have extra income that’s directly related to their writing. They might choose to run a monetized blog (either on a platform like Medium or through ads) or have social media accounts with a big enough fanbase to net sponsors. Some authors might give talks or presentations about their work, being paid to speak at schools, workshops, conferences, or events.
Many authors have merchandise or educational courses related to their work that they sell on their websites. They might even use platforms like Patreon to gather monthly subscriptions from dedicated fans who want to receive extra perks like live streams and previews.
So it’s enough to say that most authors aren’t just authors; they usually have other jobs that support their writing habits.
Myths and misconceptions about author incomes
Weirdly enough, money is one of those things that everyone has an opinion on but rarely understands enough about the publishing industry to accurately estimate. Here are some of the more common myths and misconceptions about author incomes, and the realities behind them.
Myth: An author who writes a traditionally published book will get immediately rich from it
If I sold my next novel to a traditional publishing house today, I’d be inundated with phone calls and texts from family and friends asking me where I’m jetting off to to enjoy my early retirement and bask in margaritas bought with book money. I would listen to these messages, laugh, and put down the phone so I could finish my work for the day and set up for tomorrow.
Just because your book sells to a traditional publisher doesn’t mean you’re going to immediately get rich. Even six-figure advances - which are incredibly uncommon in and of themselves - don’t tend to stretch as far as you might think. This is because your advance will usually be broken down into four or more installment payments over the course of about three years.
The average advance for new authors on their first book is between $1,000 and $10,000. Split that up over three years, and you’re getting $250-$2,500 every few months. Still money! But probably not enough to pay for a luxury vacation and your day-to-day expenses. On top of that, you still don’t get any royalties until your advance has been recouped, so it may take a very long time to see anything after those four payments.
Misconception: You have to be traditionally published to be a monetarily successful author
“Ah, but if traditional authors aren’t getting rich,” I hear you saying, “then self-published authors must be wallowing in the pain of obscurity and poverty! Those are the real starving artists!”
Nope! Actually, sometimes, being self-published can be more profitable than being traditionally published. Like I said earlier, self-published authors don’t have to pay a middleman (or group of middlemen) to get their books on shelves. Some indies have even found a way to get past the high upfront costs of self-publishing: crowdfunding.
Indie authors can set up crowdfunding projects to pitch their books to the public and gather capital resources from their intended audience directly in the form of donations. These donations act a lot like pre-orders in that regard; they tell the author how much interest there is in the book and how many copies they’ll need to budget for making. And unlike an advance, crowdfunding doesn’t have to come in little bits over years of time. Indie authors can use it as soon as their campaign ends and are encouraged and enabled to produce their books quickly.
That’s another big point: indie authors can, with the appropriate prep and scheduling, produce books much faster than traditional authors can; they don’t have to wait for a publishing house to pick a release date several years down the line - as soon as the book is done, they can get it on shelves digitally and physically.
Myth: If you’re focused on money, you’ve “sold out”
There’s a strange stigma surrounding authors that if you pay any attention to the money that you’re making at all, you’re “a sell-out” or you’re “writing for the wrong reasons.” I understand the mindset behind this; As creatives, we want to believe that authors are only writing because they are passionate about their subjects and any money they make is just a nice bonus. We want to think that being an author is a completely and unquestioningly creative career that thrives on talent and dedication.
The truth of the matter is, though, that often, to get anything published, you need to at least acknowledge the necessity of money as a factor. It costs quite a lot of time, effort, and, yes, money to make a book, so being at least slightly reassured that you’re going to get a return on that investment can make the process feel more worthwhile and enjoyable. Additionally, it’s okay to be proud when your book sells well - that means people are reading and liking it, and - to put it frankly - having money is nice!
So yes, writing for passion alone is the romantic dream, but writing with a budget in mind doesn’t make you any less of a “real” author.
Misconception: If you have the perfect marketing and sales strategy, you’ll make millions of dollars
In some opposition to the last one, there is another common misconception regarding focusing on money: if you focus only on the money and make an elaborate, detailed, optimized sales plan, you’ll easily make millions of dollars with your book.
Wouldn’t that be nice? Sadly, it’s not realistic in the slightest. Book sales do depend in a large part on marketing and production strategy, but there’s also a large component of it that you can’t necessarily predict accurately: public interest. You could write the most perfect scifi novel in existence and market it on every platform with the best deals and freebies, but it still might not appeal to readers, meaning it just won’t sell.
Sometimes this is simply because your book doesn’t resonate with modern times (I’m not too keen on depressing isolationist works right now, are you?), or it gets overshadowed by a larger release (looking at you, Stephen King). Sometimes it comes out during a particularly difficult financial climate when people are less likely to buy books in general, and sometimes, seemingly for no reason at all, your book just won’t sell despite your best efforts.
You’re not doing anything wrong and your work isn’t necessarily bad if it doesn’t sell. It just doesn’t have the perfect cocktail of luck that you need to hit the big bucks as an author.
Tips for making money as an author
So, that’s how authors, in general, make their money. But how can you personally, as an author, make money? Here are some tips.
- Write with your marketing plan in mind. Make sure that you know exactly who your target audience is and that you’re tailoring your writing to appeal to that audience, use age-and-genre-appropriate language and phrasing, keep the book to a manageable length for your genre, and keep an eye on your prose for any phrases that might make good marketing taglines.
- Genre Matters: Some genres sell better than others. Genres like young adult and science fiction do well, especially with their potential for long-running series. Non-fiction may be limited by the appeal of your topic, and children’s books (especially those aimed at VERY young children) can be expensive to produce, between artwork and printing costs.
- Invest in yourself and your work. To get money out, you have to put money in, so the old saying goes. Be sure that your book is high quality and looks professionally done whether you’re self-published or traditionally published. Talented editors, formatters, and cover designers are all very much worth investing in no matter how your book reaches shelves. You may also consider investing in your education to get more out of the writing process - a degree in English language and composition or an online course on storytelling or marketing can go a long way toward making your income goals achievable.
- Build your author platform like a business. Make it easy for people to find, buy, and promote your work by creating an author website and actively building a brand and a platform that you can use to promote later books and projects. Think of it like a store investing in a building and inventory; the more you write and the more you engage with your audience, the more you’ll have to put into that platform and the better chance of success you’ll have on your next book.
- Add value to your book with extras and companions. Is this the first in a series? Mention in your marketing that there’s more where that came from. Do you have something teachable in your work? Create a course or consulting service to go with it! Really love a side character or scene, but it didn’t make the final cut? Release it as a companion book or short story collection! By creating both free and paid extras for your books, not only are you bringing in extra income for yourself, but you’re also adding inherent value to the original book for the readers who already have it.
The biggest tip I can give you is this: work hard. As I’ve mentioned before, if you’re serious about a writing career, you need to treat it like a job and approach it with professionalism. Manage your time as you would for any other full-time job. Talk to other professionals and create a solid network of colleagues and industry contacts. Dedicate time and effort to your writing - don’t let it slip as a hobby or something to do later. Writing is hard work, so treat it like the work that it is, and you’re far more likely to get a return on your investment.
Being an author might not make you rich, but it can definitely make you a liveable income. As long as you understand what it is that actually composes an author’s income, you can work those factors into your budgeting plan and have a much better shot at making good money from your work.
You don’t have to be a starving artist; with the right financial planning and some determination to find your luck, you can (and should feel proud of!) make money as an author.