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How Much Do Authors Earn? Here’s the Answer No One Likes.

money icons from Noun Project

In the last month, there have been a few informative articles discussing how much authors earn:

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:

  1. Traditional publishing earnings can have little in common with self-publishing earnings.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

No.

But is publishing and literary culture changing?

Yes.

Are the changes bad?

It depends on who you ask.

The majority of writers don’t earn a living from book sales alone.

This hasn’t really changed over time. We all know people don’t go into the writing profession for the big bucks unless they’re delusional. Rather it’s the pursuit of a dream, maybe the pursuit of fame and prestige. And it’s like playing the lottery if you’re hoping to become one of the bestsellers.

The good news, for some? I referenced The Creator Economy above. In short, there are more opportunities than ever for creators (including writers/authors) to earn money directly from readers. But that has very little to do with writing and selling books in the traditional, old-school, pre-internet manner. And that’s what traditionally published authors (like those who belong to The Authors Guild) really care about. Can I earn a living from publishers’ advances and royalty checks, while I focus solely on writing more books? And the answer to that is: for the majority of traditionally published authors, most of the time, no. You should not expect this today. Yes, it happens. But without some other support or income (a spouse, a day job), it’s tough. Should this be the ideal the book publishing industry strives for? That’s another post.

There are a good number of self-published writers, though, who can make this happen. They work largely in genre fiction. They have to put out a ton of work each year—multiple titles. It’s a treadmill. It’s not for everyone. But it can be done, and some enjoy it and wouldn’t trade that model for a traditional publishing life.

I’m a writer and author—and also a “creator.”

I traditionally publish and self-publish books, but that’s a very small part of my income—less than 5 percent. I’ve made about the same amount of money from my self-published book as my traditionally published book. I was paid a $5,000 advance for The Business of Being a Writer and I earned out that advance after the first year of sales. After my advance earned out, I’ve received an additional $20,000 in royalties (since 2018).

But most of my money comes from teaching and hosting online classes (by myself and others) and by selling a paid subscription newsletter, The Hot Sheet. I also offer some services and consulting, but I’ve been drawing that down to focus on my own writing and publishing. Why? Because over time, I’m earning more from my writing and publishing activities. This is the way it works for most people. You don’t earn that much at first, but you keep at it. If you can stay in the game longer than others dropping away from discouragement and disillusionment, it’s possible to see results.

There are many other issues I have not touched on here. This is obviously not an exhaustive post about what authors earn but why the question is so challenging. What you earn is about what business model you can envision or build for yourself and whether it’s sustainable for you over the long term. And by sustainable, I also mean enjoyable and not something you wake up every morning regretting.