Where’s The Money, Honey?
Everybody knows authors are very well paid, right? After all, we get those sweet advances and royalties. Cross country book tours, and 3 martini lunches with our agents and editors in NYC. Cocktail parties rubbing elbows with the likes of Stephen King, JK Rowling, and George RR Martin. Research trips to exotic locations. The best part? It’s all on the publisher’s dime. Nice, huh?
Well, it would be, if it actually worked that way. Danielle Steele and Nicolas Sparks might live that life. Very few other authors do. I thought I’d break it down for you. How most authors get paid. Until I started writing seriously with publication as a goal, I didn’t have a clue how it worked, and most of the readers I know still don’t have. So, here it is.
Advances? Only authors who are lucky enough to have their work picked up by a traditional publishing house – Harlequin, Bantam, Harper Collins, Penguin, etc. – get advances. Oh, a few small presses pay advances, but not many. The average advance for a newer author is around $5k, paid in 3 parts which can be spread over many months, even a year or more.
And, advances aren’t free money. They’re like a loan against what the author will earn in royalties. Until that book sells enough to earn the author enough to cover the advance, the author doesn’t see another penny. The vast majority of books never earn out their advances. Publishers rely on the big sellers and celebrities to keep their accounts in the black.
Royalties? Authors with traditional print publishers get a small percentage of the publisher’s net income on the book. Before you think the publisher is a big meanie taking advantage, know that roughly 50% of the cover price goes to distribution – getting the book onto the shelf at your local bookstore. Then there’s production costs and overhead – editing, formatting, printing, cover art, sales expenses, a portion of the salary of every person who works on the book, and countless other expenses. That leaves the net to be divided between author and publisher, and the author’s share is normally 8-15% of the net. The author usually gets paid royalties, assuming the book earns out its advance, on a quarterly basis.
E-Publishers pay differently. Production costs are different from print publishing. There’s no printer to pay, but there’s still all the editing, design, and cover art costs. Someone also has to be paid to put the book into the proper format for each retailer. Books sold on Amazon are formatted differently than one sold on Barnes and Noble, or one of the other vendors. Distribution costs are different as well, with different retailers/vendors charging different rates for handling sales and seeing that the reader gets the book she paid for. Authors generally earn 30-45% of the publisher’s net, paid quarterly, or sometimes even monthly.
E-Publishers are not to be confused with self-publishing. An e-publisher is an actual company that purchases the rights to publish and distribute a book. Self-publishing these days often refers to an author who “uploads it to Kindle”. The author takes her manuscript file, formats it for whichever vendors/retailers she wants to sell through, and lets that retailer handle the sales and distribution.
Self-publishers have to hire their own editors, designers, and cover artists – or learn to do it all themselves. They have to handle all the publicity and promotions for the book, as opposed to authors with publishing companies who have some marketing support. In return for doing it ALL themselves, self-published authors usually earn 70% of the cover price. The vendor takes the rest in return for sales and distribution.
No matter which path the author takes to publication, she makes anywhere from a few cents to roughly $3.00 on each book sold, often less than $1.50. Every single sale matters.
Book Tours, Research Trips, Cocktail Parties, NYC Lunches? Completely non-existent for the vast majority of authors. A bestselling author, and a few others that are expected to sell extremely well, might get a tour, including some talk show interviews, on the publisher’s dime. For anyone else, the publisher might make arrangements for a few signings or interviews, but a book tour is usually at the author’s expense.
The same applies for research trips – they come out of the author’s pocket. And an occasional author who isn’t a bestseller might have a lunch meeting with an agent or editor, but most of the business of writing books is now carried out via email. Entire manuscripts with editing notes are sent back and forth as attached files.
If a book is expected to sell incredibly well, the publisher might foot the bill for a launch party. If an author wants to celebrate the release of her book with a party of any kind, she normally arranges and pays for it herself.
Bestselling authors probably attend the occasional cocktail party. The rest of us? Highly unlikely to rub elbows with the rich and famous, unless it isn’t related to writing.
The fact is, most authors will earn a few hundred bucks for months of work. Some, who have several books published, and new releases coming out regularly, might earn enough to be able to quit their day job. A few earn a comfortable living. A tiny fraction get wealthy from writing.
Far from leading the glamorous lives portrayed in books, movies, and on TV, writers have to work very hard for very little reward. Writing can be lonely, disheartening, exhausting work. Like so many other jobs people do because passion compels them to, the pay usually sucks, when there is pay. None of that matters though. We have to write anyway.