A college English professor once told me, “There’s dozens of dollars in writing.” Save for big-ticket authors like Stephen King, James Patterson, and Janet Evanovich, whose books will feature everywhere from airport newsstands to indie bookstores, writers are never going to have vaults of coins that they can dive into Scrooge McDuck style.
Authors have to bring home the bread like anyone else, but their professional title does not inspire confidence in the way that “banker” or “tech programmer” does. New York Magazine once said — seemingly unabashedly — that one sure way for publishers to make money is to “underpay writers.” Yet for all the stereotypes about writers and the “starving artist” archetype, writers do manage to make ends meet somehow, as evinced by the fact that not everyone has abandoned the profession.
So then, just how much do authors make a year? Is it enough to live off of, or do authors have to work off of an alternative revenue stream? This How Much Guide to the income of authors will illuminate all that goes into an author’s income.
What are the Main Forms of Income for Authors?
Writers will earn money through many different streams of income. The structures of hourly pay or annual salary cannot usually be used to describe the ways in which authors earn money. There’s no hourly rate for pages written, nor does a book pay a yearly salary divvied out by month. To understand how much authors make a year, you first need to understand the methods of payment that they receive. Here are the main ones:
Advances: Not every writer will receive an advance for her work, but many will. Advances are sums of money paid to writers in advance of their manuscript being turned in. It’s best to think of advances as investments made in a writer on the part of a publisher. As a result of this, new writers are rarely going to get advances, or if they do they are not high-dollar advances. Book publishing isn’t as lucrative as it used to be, and it is not productive or smart for even a big publisher to go all in on a first-time writer. That said, there are exceptional cases: Garth Risk Hallberg received a two million dollar advance for his hefty tome City on Fire. In most cases, sizable advances will only be given to the most storied of authors: Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated, received an unspecified advance that was enough to buy him a brownstone in Brooklyn, where real estate is not cheap.
Royalties: Royalties are what authors make each time a copy of their work is sold. Royalties exist in many different artistic arenas. Any time a play is performed by a theatre company, they must pay royalties to the author of the play and the publishing house that owns the play text. When people stream music on Spotify, artists are paid (all too meager) royalties for each stream. Book publishing operates in a similar fashion, and authors will usually end up getting compensated through royalties. This can be done in one of three ways:
- Flat Payment: An author gets offered a sum of money for a book, which includes giving the publisher first rights to the text. This payment is all the author gets; even if the book sells well, no additional funds are given.
- Royalties Per Copy: In this form, no advance is given, and an author only makes money if her book sells. This is the riskiest of all the models, insofar as it’s up to the whims of book readers and the market if the author will make any money.
- Advance with Royalties: The blog Writers in the Storm gives a helpful example to explain this method of payment. Suppose you are offered an advance of $60,000 dollars, in addition to the royalties that would come with excellent sales of your book. This sounds like a great deal, but it’s important not to get ahead of yourself: that $60k sum is not a pre-royalty payment, it is an advance royalty payment. In effect, the publisher has paid you an advance on the royalties for a set number of books; Writers in the Storm calculate the aforementioned example out as advance on the first 20,000 copies (20,000 copies at $3 per royalty = $60k).
Several factors influence the amount of a specific royalty payment. These include: (1) past book sales if you are an experienced author, (2) size of publisher, (3) expected popularity of the book, (4) payments to co-authors or illustrators, and (5) whether a book is in paperback or hardcover (the latter being the more lucrative of the two).
Advances and royalties are the two main ways that authors make money specifically from their book publishers. It should be obvious by this point that it is impossible to say how much “authors” as a broad category make: there too many variables to account for in determining author salary. So many of the success stories you can find about authors making bank right out of the gate — like Emma Cline, who with her 2016 debut The Girls got to ink a publishing deal with Random House to the tune of two million dollars — have to do with blind luck, not meritocracy.
There are thousands of manuscripts floating about in the aether of the publishing world, many of which are probably masterpieces waiting to be read. But getting the attention of the big publishers is up to chance a lot of a time; you have to hope that someone reads your email, or that the right editor happens to flip through the paper of your manuscript.
Frame from The Fault in Our Stars, the film adaptation of John Green’s mega-successful young adult (YA) novel.
The authors that make it big, like John Green (who made nine million dollars in a year) or the seemingly unstoppable James Patterson (who earned $90 million in 2014) don’t do it overnight. The best way to ensure that you get good payouts for each book you write is to build a strong career in the industry; the more reliable your name, the more people will be willing to pay for it. So much of being successful as an author is having an identifiable image: Stephen King makes lots of money in part because he is known as the “horror guy,” just as Patterson is known as “guy who writes generic thrillers that are addictive enough to keep you occupied at the airport.” If someone walks by a bookstand, sees an author’s name, and is immediately interested in it, then that’s an author that publishers will want to keep on their rosters.
But it’s important to remember that writing is not something that pays a yearly salary. Authors are paid for what they write (or, in the case of advances, what they are going to write); publishers don’t pay them a yearly sum to keep them going. This is an issue for authors that don’t rake in Patterson or King-level sums of money — that is, the overwhelming majority of writers. To compensate for the issue of a non-existent yearly salary, authors will often look to other forms of making money to supplement their own writing practice. Some common alternative sources of income include:
- Teaching: Whether at the college or high school level, teaching offers a more steady income for writers in need of something to keep them going during times where they aren’t being paid for their main writing ventures. For instance, author and critic Daniel Mendelsohn publishes extensively (especially for The New York Review of Books) and has written many books, but also teaches literature at Bard College. An additional benefit to teaching is that it lets you continually practice the craft of writing even when you aren’t writing your main projects. Those who teach literature and/or composition will be constantly thinking about those subjects, which will in turn make them better writers.
- Other Writing: Authors who write novels may turn to writing in newspapers or for magazines.
- Editing: Not all great writers are great editors, but some will be, and editing the work of others offers both a steady source of income and a chance to refine their literary skills.
- Other Careers: It should also be noted that “author” does not have to be a totalizing job summary; many authors will want to publish their work professionally but not devote their whole lives to writing. Brent Ghelfi, who wrote two excellent crime novels in Volk’s Game and Volk’s Shadow, is a lawyer by trade. Given that it is increasingly difficult to get good, regular income as an author, many feel it more freeing to not give themselves up to the whims of the writing profession and instead write from a place of financial security. It’s not as glamorous a vision of authors that we are normally presented with, but plenty of people do great work writing on the side.
The biggest takeaway from all of the points above is this: if you are interested in becoming an author, don’t ask yourself questions like, “How much does an author make per year?” The category of “author” is vast, and there are lots of incomes encompassed by that lone job title. In order to understand how much money you might make with your writing, consider the following questions: “What kind of publishers do I want to work with?” “Do I have the time and money to devote large chunks of time just to writing?” “What kind of markets do I hope to sell to?” Once you get concrete answers to those questions, you can then begin to understand how much money you’ll likely take in.