Friday, 21 February 2014

Don't Give Up The Day Job?

This weekend I’m off to my first Scattered Authors Society conference, which I’m very excited about, but as part of our preparation we’ve all been asked to fill in an anonymous questionnaire on “Earnings and Yearnings” and this has been quite an interesting exercise, and it’s useful to take stock.

At school visits I’m often asked how much authors earn, and find that there are quite a few misconceptions, with many people assuming a book deal is enough to justify giving up the day job. When new acquaintances discover I write children’s books often their reaction is
are you the next JK Rowling, then?” 
I wish,” is my reply, although interestingly, when JK Rowling got her first publishing deal for Harry Potter, even she was advised to get a day job since she had little chance of making money from children’s books.

Likewise, Tom Clancy sold insurance while writing his first military/espionage novels, and John Grisham was an attorney, writing his first legal thriller, A Time To Kill, in the early hours of the morning before he needed to appear in court. When it sold only modestly, he did the same while writing The Firm.

So how much do authors earn? It’s a difficult question to answer because unlike most jobs, there are no set pay grades, and it varies from author to author a great deal, with 10% of authors earning over 50% of the total income (according to figures from the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society).

Book deals announced through Publishers Marketplace will sometimes tell which category the sale was in:

“nice deal” $1 – $49,000

“very nice deal” $50,000 – $99,000

“good deal” $100,000 – $250,000

“significant deal” $251,000 – $499,000

“major deal” $500,000 and up

That way people know how much a publisher paid for the book, without saying exactly how much money was offered in the ADVANCE.

This figure is an advance on ROYALTIES to be earned by the book, and is usually split into three installments:
1) installment on signing the contract
2) installment on delivery of the completed manuscript
3) installment when the book is finally published. 

But while an advance is an indicator of how many copies a publisher expects to sell, it is not the end of the story. For example, Stephanie Meyer received an advance of around £450,000 for the first three Twilight books, whilst JK Rowling’s advance for Harry Potter was just £1500.
Consequently, for either to start earning royalties their book had to earn out its advance first. So let’s do some quick maths:

So if the first of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books had an advance of £150,000, and let’s say she earned 10% royalties, and the book’s list price was £6.99, that means the royalties equal roughly 70p per book, and consequently would need to sell 214,286 copies just to break even.
Conversely, only 2,142 copies of Harry Potter would need to be sold before JK Rowling started earning

However, for various reasons, many books never earn out their advance.

A question authors are often asked is “How well is your book selling?” but to be honest, it’s really hard to know. have an Author Central area which will tell you exactly how many copies of your book they’ve sold in the USA, per month, and even in each state, whereas will currently only reveal your book’s sales ranking against all the other books they sell.

So how can you find out? Your publishers will know, and you should have access to your royalty statements every six months or so, but even royalty statements are confusing – for one royalty period you may sell thousands of copies, only to see hundreds of these returned in the next royalty period, which can be quite depressing!

So how much does a writer have to sell to make it?

According to an article in the Huffington Post, "Average earnings in the UK were around £26,500 in 2012. To make this amount on a book contract for a paperback edition selling at £7.99 that pays 10% a writer would need to sell 33,166 copies a year."

Writing is not a reliable or steady source of income. It’s not a career to go into seeking fortune, and no one can predict if or when you’ll get your first or next publishing contract, which makes it very tricky to budget and to plan your finances.

If you love writing, write. Write because you can’t not write, write to improve your writing.
If you get published – bonus
If you have another job you enjoy which you can do at the same time, and will pay the bills – fantastic.
If you earn enough to write full-time – brilliant
If your book is sold all over the world and made into a movie franchise – hurrah!

But that’s not the reason to write.
Write because you have a story to tell.
Write for love.


  1. As someone who has stared down the barrel of indie publishing, numbers are fascinating. One question though, that I couldn't follow. You said that to make the national average a writer had to sell around 33k books a year and to get on the no. list you would have to sell 20k a week but concluded that if you were on the no. list you wouldn't be making the national average. Is that right? If you're selling 20k books a week, that means (let me get out my calculator) you're selling over a million books in a year ... ok, not many manage that - but they must be making more than the national average. No?
    You've definitely hit the nail on the head though about writing for love - I can see no other motivation that would keep authors going ...

  2. Hi Larisa! I agree, that quote from the Huffington Post is confusing, so I've removed the last part. Perhaps they assumed that most sales occur in the first couple of weeks after release? I read about one author who, knowing that making the bestseller list relies on selling 20,000 copies in the first week of publication, tried to encourage pre-orders on Amazon as much as possible, sometimes in lieu of payment at events, knowing that all those pre-orders would count as first-week sales. A clever idea, but unfortunately Amazon records each transaction as one sale so where a venue or festival may have pre-ordered up to 100 copies in return for an event, that only registered as one sale :(

  3. Thank you, some interesting numbers.
    One way to make the average look like a lot is never to have earned very much in the first place!

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