Author Income and Getting Paid to Write Books

One of the regular questions I hear from aspiring authors is some variation on "What's the average income for authors?" Fortunately, there aren't any reliable statistics, because if there were, quite a few writers would give up without trying! Last July I wrote about the average income for small publishers (including self publishers) and quoted the BLS figure of $13,348 for those publishers reporting a profit. As discouraging as that may sound, trade authors and self published authors share a common economic truth, which is that most of them don't earn a living at it. Getting paid to write books is not the same thing as making a living writing books, and those six figure advances that get so much publicity are strictly for bestselling authors, or for newcomers to whom the publisher is paying a big advance more to create industry buzz than to close the deal.

In my experience, trade authors who are earning a decent living on advances and royalties still aren't ecstatic about their relationship with the publisher. Quoting from the correspondence of Frederick Marryat, a successful novelist writing in the 1830's and 1840's:

Your remark as to the money I have received may sound well, mentioned as an isolated fact.; but how does it sound when it is put in juxtaposition with the sums you have received? I, who have found everything, receiving a pittance, while you, who have found nothing but the shop to sell in, receiving such a lion's share. I assert again it is slavery. I am Sinbad the sailor and you are the old man of the mountain, clinging on my back, and you must not be surprised at my wishing to throw you off the first convenient opportunity.

The fact is, you have the vice of old age very strong upon you, and you are blinded by it; but put the question to your sons, and ask them whether they consider the present agreement fair. Let them arrange with me, and do you go and read your Bible. We all have our ideas of Paradise, and if other authors think like me, the most pleasurable portion of anticipated bliss is that there will be no publishers there. That idea often supports me after an interview with one of your fraternity.

Most of the "successful" trade authors I know, successful because they are always in demand to write another book for a modest advance, don't actually earn their primary income as authors. Many hold full time jobs in the professions or make their living as speakers and consultants, and some have sufficient wealth or retirement income to render any royalty payments a pleasant bonus. On the other hand, the common definition of a successful self publisher is one who makes a living at it. Therefore, successful self publishers earn a higher median income than successful trade authors by definition. I won't say I higher average income, because it doesn't take many J.K Rowlings or Rick Warrens to raise the average.

I think most unpublished writers would argue that anybody who gets paid to write a book is a successful author, without regard to what happens down the road. I remember very distinctly being out running one day in the mid-1990's and swearing to myself that if I could just break into the trades and earn $20K a year as an author I'd be happy for life. Not long afterwards I started earning that income and more as a trade author, but my attitude changed by the third book, despite the fact it brought in well over $50,000. As I learned more about the business of publishing, I went from feeling lucky to feeling I was trapped in a bad contract. An agreement first signed in 1998 continues to tie my hands in an area where I once had a terrific Internet following, lost to the publisher's inflexibility on managing the intellectual rights.

Turning down a trade contract to self publish is an iffy proposition for most authors, and I generally discourage anybody writing fiction from doing so. For nonfiction writers, the financial results are going to vary on a case by case basis, but if you care about control, self publishing will always be the better choice. Control isn't just about the editorial process, when to release a new edition, and whether or how to publish on the Internet. It comes down to the most fundamental question of all facing any author - What's my next book?


Anonymous said...

Very fascinating comparison between, essentially, the difference between being an author and a publisher. This is a large topic and I think many factors come into play, such as goals (money or just getting the word out?), time (do you have time to start a company?), busines savvy (are you even capable of starting and running a business - well?), and many more.

In my publishing company I find that to make a living, I need to do multiple activities. For example:

1. I wrote 4 books, not just 1.
2. I publish other authors' books (this is a new venture for me).
3. I pound the pavement and try to get the books into niche stores, so far have about 200 health food stores that carry books.
4. I seek a wide range of internet advertising options, publicity, video blog, online support group (2500 members), and more.
5. I have a website where I sell about 20 other books and DVDs - most not published by me.
6. I do a few newsletters each year, to a large email list.
7. I sometimes attend conferences to sell books.
8. I have about 10 advertisers who pay me fairly well to display their content in various places.

I could probably list more. Even WITH all this stuff, though, I still barely make a "living." My definition of "Living" may be higher than some people, but I will say I make less than 6 figures. So, all that said, publishing is hard!!! Still better though than getting a real job in my opinion. :-) I love the constant challenge.

I am to the point in my business now that I have only so much time but could spend a lot more time expanding some of the above areas. So, now that I have "grown", I need to spend some time optimizing that growth and deciding what areas to invest in and what areas to put on autopilot. I think one of the most important factors for consideration in this business is opportunity cost. I'll report on the results of this in 5 more years when I have it figured out - if the book industry is still around then!


Morris Rosenthal said...


All good points, but keep in mind that people come from different backgrounds. Some of the activities you mention, like pounding the pavement, make other writers hair stand on end. It doesn't mean they aren't serious, they just have a different skill set or personality.

For example, I've received a few invitations to speak at conferences over the years which I turn down without hesitation. I'm no public speaker, and since I have no interest in selling my time as a speaker or a consultant, I don't see any benefit in accepting.


Barbara Frank said...

Bryan's comments are very interesting to this small publisher.

As for speaking at conferences, Morris, I do it for two reasons: one, to encourage those who are still new to homeschooling, my area of expertise, and two, speaking drives up my book sales. Even at small venues, I can make two or three hundred in sales, plus the speakers fee, and often, a free booth in the vendor hall.

That doesn't mean I'm comfortable before doing it. The anticipation makes me anxious, but once I get started, I'm fine.

Morris Rosenthal said...


My publishing partner from the offset days used to speak wherever he could, always did nice sales that way.

But I have this thing about selling my books passively, letting my website do the work. When people e-mail me questions (and I get several every day), I never mention my own titles, and I push books by other authors if I think they're good.

And yes, speaking of things, I have one about public speaking as well. It's not stage fright, something more sinister:-)


Jude Calvert-Toulmin said...

Hi Morris, I bought your book Print-on-Demand Publishing a while ago and have been referring to your blog for a few years now. It is due to the pioneering work by you and Aaron Shepard in New Publishing (I think the phrase New Publishing should be TMd to Aaron actually!) that I felt confident to set up my own publishing company, Fleur De Lys Publishing Ltd.

Enough about me, though. As regards your public speaking...

> For example, I've received a few invitations to speak at conferences over the years which I turn down without hesitation. I'm no public speaker, and since I have no interest in selling my time as a speaker or a consultant, I don't see any benefit in accepting.

I see your point, but you know as well as I that one only achieves when one pushes oneself outside one's own comfort zone. I've just watched your video about long tail searches on your site, and the video about pen names on your YouTube channel. What struck me was just how much presence you have - you have such a natural, down to earth delivery style, I think you should think again about public speaking.

A mate of mine is a hugely successful best-selling author - I'm not gonna drop his name - but he's making more money from corporate speaking gigs than from the royalties from his most famous book and from the film deal for the multi-award winning docu-drama made from one of his books. He flies all over the world, does 3 gigs a week, all expenses paid as well as the substantial speaking fee and he loves every minute of it.

Tbh as an author, that's something I'm looking forward to doing in the future should the demand be there and I think you should at least think seriously about it too. You and Aaron are a bit like the Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid of New Publishing, yeah? You should be out there! :)

No-one who does Clint Eastwood impressions on YouTube can tell me they're shy of public speaking! ;)

Anyway I'm banging on a bit here, what I really wanted to say is that due to your inspiration and the inspiration of Aaron, I've thanked you both in the acknowledgement section of my debut novel Mother-in-Law, Son-in-Law which is on Amazon now, available to buy in about a week; I've just approved the proof at LSI.

I'm going to be sending both you and Aaron a free signed copy as a thankyou for your pioneering work. The novel is in the genre of erotic literary fiction, maybe not your cup of tea, but you can always flog it on Ebay, wink.

Best wishes, Jude x

Morris Rosenthal said...


You have a good last neme for erotic literature, has a nice foreign feeling. I'll admit my tastes run more to your first name, I think "Jude" is one of the best novels in English, wich Hardy had written more.


Thomas Huynh said...

Hi Morris,

I would have to concur with Jude in your delivery style. It's genuine and credible because you have competence in the field, and that's worth much more than hype and flash.

Thomas Huynh

Morris Rosenthal said...


Ok, if my delivery is so good, maybe I'll put all my videos on a DVD just for fun. I wonder if CreateSpace would be an option, will check it out. At least it would give me a subject for a verbose blog post:-)


Jude Calvert-Toulmin said...

> I'll admit my tastes run more to your first name, I think "Jude" is one of the best novels in English, wich Hardy had written more.

I read Jude The Obscure last year. It's a work of art and it made me feel very disturbed for a long time afterwards. I didn't see any of it (the story arc) coming, especially the ending. I have to read all of his work now and then I must start on Dickens and finally get round to reading The Idiot (Crime and Punishment is my favourite novel of all time) but my for-pleasure reading time atm is so limited.

I have a photograph of Hardy right next to my computer as inspiration, btw. But I needed to write something with an established market demand in order to help finance the completion of MY ADVENTURES IN CYBERSPACE which is literary fiction and a trilogy.

> I would have to concur with Jude in your delivery style. It's genuine and credible because you have competence in the field, and that's worth much more than hype and flash.

So, Morris, that's two of us who think you're a natural...