Let me tell you a dirty secret that may surprise you. Authors don’t make a lot of money, generally speaking. How much does an author make? It varies, but if you’re not famous, probably less than you think.
Writing the book is the easy part of making a living as a writer. Selling the book is the harder part, and many authors find there aren’t enough hours in the year to do both and make an average income.
Bernie Sanders got it wrong
“If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too,” Bernie Sanders infamously said in the spring of 2019. He’s oversimplifying there.
Someone who is already famous can make a quick million bucks on a book deal. That’s because it’s a reasonably safe bet their book will be easy to promote and sell. They’ll be able to make appearances on television, and at the end of the appearance, the host can casually mention the book and flash the cover onscreen. A publisher will give them a pretty hefty advance and royalty.
If you’re not already famous and you do manage to write a best-seller, you’ll get a better deal on your second book than your first. Will you become a millionaire as fast as a senator would? Probably not.
You’re far more likely to end up like me.
How non-celebrity TV appearances go
Just publishing a book doesn’t mean the TV appearances happen automatically. I got an offer for exactly one TV appearance. But it was going to be a segment of 5-15 minutes, and I was responsible for all travel and accommodations. There was also no guarantee I wouldn’t get bumped for someone else if I took a vacation day (or two) to fly out there and back.
If I’d had some reason to be in the area anyway, it would have made sense. I didn’t. So I asked my publisher what they thought. They said I’d have a lot of fun, but probably wouldn’t see enough of an increase in sales to be worth taking vacation time and traveling on my own dime.
What a non-proven author makes: My story
I went to school hoping to become a tech journalist of some kind. The plan I formulated was to get my journalism degree, get a job in the IT field, then eventually pivot to writing about computers.
In the 1997-98 timeframe, I accumulated a large collection of tips for making Windows machines run faster. As my colleagues moved on to other jobs, they started looking me up and asking me if I’d be willing to send them a copy of it. Eventually it dawned on me that I had something. Eventually the opportunity arose to pitch the book idea. By then I had several ideas, and that one wasn’t even my favorite. But it was the one the publisher liked best.
I got a $10,000 advance to write the book, with the promise of about $1.75 per copy royalty after the advance earned out. “Earning out” means I sold enough copies to repay the advance.
The book took six months to write, working part time. More on that in a minute. Just doing the math, it seemed like I might be able to make a decent living writing once I had a couple of books in print.
The problem was, that advance and royalty was on the high side. In 2000, a very well-known publisher approached me about writing a book about building a Linux PC. They offered me a $5,000 advance and 25 cents per copy royalty. It would have been fun to write, but my odds of making more than minimum wage on the project looked slim.
And from talking with other authors, that’s a more typical rate today. They’re supposed to write a book for five grand, cover all the expenses themselves, then try to sell enough copies to recoup the expenses and make a living. I talked with one author via social media who was supposed to write a comprehensive guide to expensive restaurants. She was expected to do all the writing and photography, and cover all the meals or convince the restaurants to provide them in exchange for publicity. She didn’t think she could do the project for any less than $15,000. Her publisher offered her a royalty of 25 cents per copy. She turned it down. The risk of losing money was too great, and the publisher was making her bear all of it.
How much an established, but not famous author makes
I’m always eager to talk with other people who’ve published books. One of the first authors I met got a similar deal to mine on his first book, found he couldn’t make a living, and ended up driving trucks or something.
I knew another author for a while who actually managed to make something of a living writing books. He told me to make sure I had a year’s salary in the bank before quitting my day job. And while he never came out and said what he made as an author, he said enough to allow me to estimate it. I don’t think he made much more than $50,000 a year and it’s entirely possible he made closer to $30,000. He died a few years ago, but toward the end of his life and career he was using his books as a vehicle to sell other products, and he seemed to be making more money off that than the books. At anywhere from 25 cents to two bucks a book, that’s understandable.
I know a third author. I met him around 2002. He’s good, and he publishes occasionally, but he has two part-time jobs in addition to writing.
People have a perception that authors are rich. Most of the authors who are rich started out rich. That meant they had enough money to devote some time to writing books. Don’t expect to start out poor and achieve the American Dream by writing books full-time.
My life as a writer
I wrote my first book after hours, maintaining a regular 9-to-5 job. It took me about six months to write. I made my initial $10,000, but the book never earned out, so I never made anything else off it. It was frustrating, because the book got good reviews and the publisher really wasn’t paying attention. The book sold pretty well in Canada, but it was in short supply up there. I actually had people track me down asking if I knew where they could buy the book. The publisher actually told Amazon it was out of print, so for a while they couldn’t even order the book off Amazon. I called the publisher and asked about it. They said they had thousands of copies in a warehouse in Tennessee. I asked what they were doing in Tennessee when the book was selling well in Canada. They never answered.
The publisher did very little to promote the book. They advertised it in 1-2 magazines the month after it was released, and they passed along an offer to appear on TV, but that was it. If I had it to do again, I would have done more to promote it myself, because the publisher didn’t.
The book did get the attention of a magazine editor in the UK, so I wrote a few articles for him. Potentially I could have milked that for more than I made writing the book. Like book pay, magazine article pay varies fairly widely. I’ve made as little as $100 publishing an article, and as much as $1,000. As you can guess, $100 is more typical.
If you’re cynical, you might say it’s possible to have a book or two in print and still not make enough to stay above the poverty line. That’s cynical, but not entirely unrealistic.
What about self-publishing?
I know people who self publish, with varying degrees of success. Of course, they have to promote the book themselves, because no one else is. But that was true for me, too, even though I had a publisher. If the book costs $10 to print and they sell it for $20, they get $10. That’s a lot more than I got, but I got an advance and they didn’t. At $10 per copy, a self-published author has to sell 1,000 copies to make what I did.
It’s hard to think of ways to sell a thousand books. Paper books, at least.
A better way to go, especially in this day and age, is selling e-books. Whether you call them e-books or “digital products” or something else doesn’t matter. They’re something you charge between $5 and $100 for someone to download and read. The cost to you is much lower because there’s no printing or shipping involved, just payment processing.
What about book signings?
Book signings are one way authors promote themselves and sell some books, possibly at a slightly inflated profit. It works in theory. In practice, the author makes a couple hundred bucks and spends a lot of time listening to people tell them the book is cheaper on Amazon. Then they say they’ll think about buying it on Amazon. You can guess how many actually follow through.
Publishers suggest book signings as a way for authors to make a ton of money, and to justify paying pocket change per copy as royalties. But the model works better for people who are already famous. Hundreds of people, or even thousands, will show up to see a politician at a book signing. I’m not going to draw that kind of a crowd.
Established authors, or people who are already famous, can indeed make a fair bit of money at book signings. They’re not a bad way for an established author to make some money. But they’re probably most useful for politicians to get votes, frankly. Which is why they do it.
What about blogging?
If you want to make enough money to make a living as an author, blogging is probably a better way to go. There are people who claim to make six-figure incomes blogging. I’m not convinced their methods work for everybody, and I’m also not convinced it’s sustainable. Once enough people are doing it, the money’s going to drop.
But I’m more confident in being able to make $20,000 a year off a blog than I am off a book. It’s not easy, and I would estimate it would take as much effort as writing two books to get a blog into position to make that kind of money.
If you want to make enough to make a reasonable middle-class living, it’s probably going to take a combination of a monetized blog, including affiliate links and good SEO, some digital products, publishing some magazine articles, and publishing a book at least every couple of years. Having a steady job while you build out that blog is probably a must, too.
How to make a living as a writer without selling books
I’ve seen several authors whose work I respect drop out of the market. They just flat out stop publishing books or magazine articles. Instead, they end up working in the marketing or PR department of large corporations, writing press releases and other marketing material. Or they might take a job as a technical writer, whether that means writing manuals for consumers or writing internal documentation.
Some bounce in and out of corporate life, while others stay there for good. Those who bounce in and out must be saving money they make, and perhaps collecting stock options, to make enough of a nest egg to close the gap between an average income and what they can make on their own as writers.
It’s not a glorious life by any stretch. And the writing typically isn’t very exciting. But the pay is decent and steady.
I ended up choosing a different path. My plan was to work in IT long enough to really learn it, then write about it. After nearly 25 years in IT, there’s no way I can make more as a writer than I make as a high-end security analyst. So I work as a security analyst during the week and write on the weekends. If I can make 10 grand writing, that’s great. In the years that I can’t, I still have enough to put food on the table and pay the bills.