When I was beginning to take my shot at being a “real writer” (whatever that means) I could never find good information on a very basic question: what kind of money do authors actually earn?
I understood that most aspiring authors—like most aspiring artists in any field—end up failing. And I also understood I had no chance of being a Franzen/Tartt/whoever type household literary name much less a Grisham/Steel/whoever bestseller staple… especially since I had no interest in writing the types of books that achieve either. But I wanted to understand what was possible for writers who aren’t filling up the airport bookshelves yet are still being published. What ranges of income? What revenue streams?
There are lots of articles on writing and money out there, but most of them don’t say much. They are either far too vague, offering no insight beyond “don’t quit your day job,” or far too broad, covering everything from technical writers and Hollywood screenwriters to self-publishing authors pumping out six ebooks a year. (Nothing wrong with any of those occupations, but they don’t tell you want your debut literary novel might earn.) The rare hard numbers you can find are all over the place. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that “Writers and Authors” earn a median income of 67k a year. OTOH, the 2018 Author Income Survey found a median income of 6k!
Mostly, if you try to research this question you’ll just be told that authors almost never earn money so you need either A) a “real job” or B) a rich spouse and/or a trust fund. There’s plenty of truth to that, yet merely saying “don’t count on it” doesn’t actually give emerging authors much of an idea how much money and by what means authors earn money.
Although I’ve hardly gotten rich in my decade plus of being a fiction writer, the “there’s no money in fiction!” line irks me because it is used by people as an excuse to pay writers even less. “It’s always been hard to make money writing” is a rationale used by book piraters and anti-copyright crusaders to defend paying authors even less. Even if fiction writing is rarely the only source of income doesn’t mean it isn’t a source of income. Let’s assume the low 6k a year number is accurate. That’s not enough to live on, but it’s enough to max out an IRA. A few thousand dollars a year can still make a major impact on a writer’s life. (And if you actually did put 6k a year of side income into an IRA account for a few decades getting 7% returns, it would literally grow over million dollars by the time you retired.)
Since I’ve been in publishing for over a decade now in various roles (author, book editor, magazine editor, professor), I’ve learned a lot of things I wish I knew when I started out. And since one of the goals of this newsletter is publishing demystification, I’m going to try and tackle the question of how, where, and why writers earn money.
Caveats and clarifications
The first thing that’s hard about discussion author income is figuring out what exactly counts. Many authors have a “real job” unrelated to their writing, but many others earn their income from a variety of writing-adjacent activities. I consider myself a fiction writer, yet I make very little money from fiction. OTOH, I’ve been able to earn a living wage teaching creative writing classes, editing for online magazines, and writing freelance non-fiction that’s often fiction-related (author interviews, listicles, etc.). I’m hardly atypical in that regard. But covering all literary-adjacent revenue streams would take far more than a short newsletter. So for this piece I’m going to focus on income that I consider directly or closely related to the art itself. That means the money you get publishing (book advances, short story sales, etc.) as well as the opportunities directly created from publication (guest readings at universities, award purses, etc.)
My focus here is fiction writers who are writing the kind of things that fall outside of “commercial fiction.” That is both “literary fiction” and the kind of genre fiction that might compete for, say, the Hugo and Nebula. Obviously, fiction writers are not the only types of writers out there. But how Hollywood screenwriters, investigative journalists, ad copywriters, or small press poets earn money are all very different questions—and ones that I’m not qualified to comment on.
Let’s dive in.
In a recent post I talked about book sales and when a book is considered a success or not, and threw out some numbers about advances and royalties. These are, of course, the most direct way the authors make money. You write a book, and the publisher pays you to publish and sell it. Simple. (Well, kinda. The actual math involved is complex and weird and has lots of factors.)
Advances are a lump sum payment—typically divided into 3-4 installments over 1-2 years—that are an “advance” against royalties. That means the author doesn’t earn any new money off of book sales until they’ve “earned out” their advance. Most books don’t earn out the advance, so often royalty checks never appear.
What kind of advances do authors make? It really is all over the place. Even in the realm of literary fiction, the writers that I personally know have gotten debut novel advances of 1k, 3k, 10k, 50k, 100k, 300k, and even more. I would say that generally speaking indie presses pay 3-15k for novels, big presses pay 10-25k for paperback originals and 20-300k for novels that will be both hardcover and paperback. (Various lit agents seem to agree that 5-50k is an average advance in general.) You could halve all those ranges I gave for a short story collection. The upper range of big press novels goes up to a million or more at times. The lower range of indie presses goes down to 0 dollars.
After the first novel, well, your future advances are going to depend on sales. If you sold well, you get more money. If you sold badly, you don’t.
When there is, say, a Twitter discussion about how authors are paid or a news article on a book deal it is almost always the advance that is mentioned. However, the advance is only the first step in the income an author makes from a book.
If you “earn out” your advance with book sales, then you start collecting royalties. A rule of thumb is that an author makes 10% of a book’s cover price. The actual royalty rates are more like 10-15% for hardcover books, 25% for ebooks, and around 7-10% for trade paperbacks. But let’s call it roughly $2 bucks a book. If you get 30k advance, you are probably starting to earn royalties after 15k copies sold.
(Side note: often self-publishing evangelicals will claim that the book publisher is robbing authors by taking “90% of royalties,” but this is not true. The majority of the cover price of a book goes to the retailer—the book store—and the distributor.)
Sometimes you’ll see readers upset about an author’s low advance, assuming that was the only money they made. Not so! Any book that sold well after a low advance, and wasn’t published by a literal scam publisher, is paying out royalties. The reason to get a large advance is not necessarily because you will make more money. The reason is that publishers are more likely to allocate publicity and marketing resources toward the books they spent big advances on, so a big advance is a sign of the publishing houses investment in your work. But it’s quite possible for a book with a low advance to earn more overall than a book a big advance.
Here’s something I didn’t know about advances when I was starting out: foreign rights can exceed US rights. Foreign rights are typically much less individually than US rights, but they can quickly add up. If you sell a novel for, say, 25k to a US publisher and then sell the foreign rights to Italy, France, and Japan you might double your advance right there.
When authors publicly talk about money, the almost always only list their US advance (if anything). So foreign rights feel almost like secret money. You don’t need to be famous or a bestseller to get those foreign rights sold. Many authors I know of varying degrees of popularity have earned as much or more from foreign rights sales as US advances. And very popular books often sell to dozens of countries. (Sadly this is not something I know from personal experience, but if any translators are reading feel free to hmu…)
If your US publisher retains worldwide rights, then they will be the one to (hopefully) sell the foreign rights and that income will payback your advance. So, if you sold a book for 100k and the publisher sells 100k in foreign rights your advance would now be effectively $0. Which means you’d earn royalties immediately. But if they sold 50k in foreign rights and your book bombed, you’d never see that money. Only the initial 100k advance.
These days, audiobooks are big business. So big publishers tend to keep audiobook rights although sometimes—especially at indie presses that might not produce audiobooks—you can keep those rights and then sell them for another payment. Perhaps as much or more than your advance. When a publisher keeps audiobook rights, those audiobook sales count toward your advance just like print or ebook sales.
Short Story Sales
Well, here’s something where the “you can’t earn a living” line is always true. Most magazines pay very little, and even if we restrict ourselves to the better paying places you’re normally looking at 100-1,000 bucks for a story. You can get a few thousand at the biggest places like The New Yorker or Audible originals, but you’d be very lucky to sell to more than one or two of those markets in a year even as an established writer. In general, genre magazines pay better than literary ones and there is a much more robust reprint market in SFF. Still, you’re unlikely to earn anywhere near a living wage writing short stories alone.
For those interested, I did a longer breakdown of the SFF vs. literary fiction story markets here. The SFF writer Kameron Hurley has a good piece called “The Sad Economics of Writing Short Fiction.” Bottom line: short fiction doesn’t pay much.
I’m a pretty well published story writer who has been in big lit and SFF mags like The Paris Review, Granta, and F&SF (forthcoming) and I publish several stories a year. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever cracked 3,000 in magazine short story sales in a single year. Still, a couple hundred of thousand a year certainly doesn’t hurt. And if you sell a collection of stories to a publisher, you can effectively a second payment for those stories.
It is also worth pointing out that writing short stories can help you get an agent and then sell a novel as Eric Nelson explains here.
Ah, now here we getting into bigger money. When a work of literature becomes, in Hollywood lingo, “IP” (intellectual property) it turns into cash. An option buys the right to theoretically make an adaptation but no requirement to do so. The producer or studio is buying the “option” to be the only person who can adapt the work for a set period of time.
As with everything in writing, the range of option prices is all over the place. Typically it’s only a few thousand, but you can get six or seven figures for a single piece of IP. Those only happen with bidding wars between multiple studios or a major player is attached. My guess is that the average non-bidding-war story option is 2k-5k and the average novel option is 5k-25k. But it can be much much more.
Here’s something a lot of new writers don’t know: you can make decent money with options even if no adaptation is ever made. An option typically lasts 12 or 18 months, and studios will often pick up an option multiple times. When I was in undergrad, one of my creative writing professors brought in a guest author to talk about the writing life. When asked how this author made money, she told us candidly that she earned a good amount of money from one novel of hers that get kept getting optioned year after year. The studio kept waiting for “the right time” to make the film. Meanwhile, she kept getting checks.
If a studio does actually produce a film or TV series from your work then you are getting six or seven figures payout. And if you’re attached to write/produce/consult the money can pile up quickly. The amount of money that fiction writers get from Hollywood can seem baffling—“you’re paying me 10k to maybe make a film someday?!?”—but less so when you realize how much money movies and TV shows make. If you’re spending 100 million on a feature film, what’s a few 10k checks here and there to buy up adaptation rights? Certain Hollywood producers are even known to buy up tons of book rights they have no intention of ever filming, in part to prevent rivals from making adaptations. A weird way to do business, but free money for authors.
Awards and Grants
Literary awards and grants can be huge sources of income for authors. In my article on literary and SFF awards I noted some of these:
In the literary world, winning an award can come with significant financial rewards. The Pulitzer’s give out $15,000. The National book Award pays $10,000. The Story Prize pays $20,000. The Pen/Faulkner $15,000. And there are a whole bunch of annual literary awards with even more serious money amounts. The Whitings are given to around 10 writers each year and each get $50,000. The Kirkus Prize gives $50,000 in each category. The Booker is a whooping £50,000. The Pen/Jean Stein Award purse is $75,000! To say nothing of the Nobel (over one million US dollars) or the MacArthur genius grants ($625,000).
And there are lots of prestigious (and obscure) grants all over the place that pay anywhere from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand. Awards and grants are obviously not money that you can count on, not even if you publish an acclaimed novel. But they are a piece of the author income puzzle for the lucky authors that get them.
Speaker Fees / Lectures / University Visits
Here is a major source of author income that’s often overlooked. Many authors I know make far more money from various craft lectures, speaking appearances, and university visits than they do on their novels. The scale of payments is all over the place and goes up and up the more famous you are. 500-5k fees seem common. But even a relatively obscure author with just an indie press novel or collection under their belt can earn decent side income via these opportunities.
This section obviously blurs the line between writing-related income and teaching income. Many of the gigs that appear here are a bit of both things. For example, a university might invite you out to give a reading from your novel and teach a one-day masterclass. Still, it seems worth mentioning here, especially as these opportunities multiply around a book’s publication.
Patreon / Substack / Micropayments
In general, it doesn’t seem like authors have harnessed the micropayment economy as well as musicians and visual artists. At least in the literary world. In the SFF world it’s a different story. Seanan McGuire’s Patreon page lists 13k per short story. N.K. Jemisin’s lists 5k a month. Most obviously don’t make that much, but there are a lot of SFF authors who make a few hundred a month from Patreon. And this can be a major percentage of author income. The author Kameron Hurley—mentioned above—used to do a series of public posts outlining exactly what she made each year from what sources. The last one I could find, covering 2017, lists this: 47k in author income with 29k of that coming from Patreon.
Then there’s the emerging newsletter ecosystem, where writers such as myself blog and beg for change. The whole Substack economy has exploded in the last year, and it’s hard to know how it will play out. (My own Substack just cracked, uh, 100 hundred a month. So not something I’m living on. But if you’d like to help me out, I appreciate!) There are lots of rival newsletter services. Twitter is rolling out payment features. For now, at least, the newsletter economy is roaring. Whether these sources will ever amount to much for fiction writers over time remains to be seen.
Agents cut: For most of the things listed above, you need to deduct 15-20% for the literary/film/speaker agent fees. Agents more than earn this cut, at least the good ones. They can bump up your advances, speaking fees, and film payments well beyond what you could negotiate on your own. But it’s a factor to keep in mind for your internal math.
Time: The other mitigating factor here is time. As in, how long does it take you to write a book? If you are writing one novel every 10 years, then you’re only getting 1/10th of the income related to that novel “per year” in a sense. On the other hand, if you can write a book a year (and are lucky enough to find a publisher for all those books) then you the above factors might add up to a yearly income. And the more books you have in the backlist that are selling and paying royalties, the more your current income goes up.
So What Does All This Mean?
Adding up everything above, what can you actually expect to earn as an author if you are lucky enough to get published on a good press? Well, who knows. If you’re lucky, you’re income might be a couple multiples of your advance. I know a lot of authors who got, say, 10-30k advances but then got that same amount in foreign rights sales and roughly that amount again in a Hollywood option. I was speaking recently with a friend who got a few thousand for an advance on an indie press book, but who earned over 25k from the book when all was said and done thanks to royalties, foreign rights, audio rights, and university visits. Then again, I also know authors who got six figure advances and not much else panned out.
Authors typically earn much more than the one advance number would indicate, but the average yearly income is still well below the median household income. Even those who get a big payout might find themselves struggling to write that next book or at least get paid the same amount for it. This is why “don’t quit your day job” is the eternal and accurate advice. Never go into fiction writing expecting it to pay all your bills, especially if you’re not writing formulaic commercial work. Even when writing does pay well, there is no stability and no benefits. Publishers do not pay your health insurance. Agents aren’t setting up 401(k) matching. There is no tenure track for writing short stories.
For 99% of writers, your creative work is always going to be a side hustle. Something you do not primarily for money. Even if it takes more of your time than your “real” job. Still, I think it is important for authors to remember that just because few authors live entirely off writing income doesn’t make the side income irrelevant.
When it comes to author income, publishing is a bit like gambling. Every time you spin the wheel, you might get a fortune, break even, or get nothing at all. I myself have averaged only a couple thousand dollars a year purely from fiction, but then my debut novel, The Body Scout, hasn’t yet been published. There is still the hope of foreign rights sales, Hollywood options, and awards. All my dreams could come true overnight. Or I could get none of that at all.
Either way, my only real option is to write the next book and cross my fingers. Then write the book after that and cross my fingers again. Again and again and again.