Friday, August 16, 2013

How Much Money Do Writers Really Make?

One of the primary questions people often ask when I tell them I'm an author is, "How much money do you make?" Before you ever choose to ask a writer this question again, I would like you to please watch this video.

For those of you still with me who haven't lost your faith in humanity, or an eye to a nearby pen, this video sums up a great deal of the preconceived notions and the focus of the public at large in my experience. For some the very idea of writing a book is so alien (particularly to those who don't understand reading for pleasure in a world where DVDs exist) the only yardstick they have to measure the quality of a book by is what financial return it gave the author. These are the same people who, by and large, assume that only writers who are rolling in piles of money reeking in fan sweat are "real" writers. Unfortunately there is a lot that goes into how much money a given writer makes. Things like...


Becoming a successful writer is kind of like storming the beaches at Normandy. You're hungry, tired, damp, you've pissed yourself, and you're running straight into the teeth of oncoming criticism. With hundreds of explosive obstacles in your way and machine gun nests full of battle-hardened editors, it's a race to see who gets up the swell and comes through that mess without getting shredded to pieces and sent back to the sea.

Unless, of course, you're dropped behind enemy lines because you know a guy, who knows a guy.

Some of the biggest names in the game, from Christopher Paolini to Joe Hill are where they are at least partially because they had a head start. If someone has the ability to walk into a pitch meeting, or to put a manuscript right into an editor's hands after stepping over the slush pile, that is a powerful thing. Problem is that most writers don't have the ability to punch a number and talk to a family friend/uncle/mother/father and just set a time. We get to run up the beach.

Market Appeal

Sometimes there is no explaining the trends in entertainment. No one really knows why "Twilight" became a smash success, or why "50 Shades of Grey" is a monstrous blockbuster. At the same point, most people would never have predicted that a book as unpopular as the "Lord of the Rings" series would bounce back from obscurity and become a standard-setter of an entire genre. If a book was guaranteed to make these kinds of sales, then publishers would perform sexual acts for which there are no names to get the author's name on a contract.

There is no such thing as a guaranteed bestseller, unfortunately. What publishers have are past sales reports and estimates from market research. If they see a book that looks like it could be a celebrity look-alike for a big hit, then they'll often be willing to gamble on it and back it up. If a book is projected to do poorly, or if there are no readers for it (an unfortunate truth for the many talented writers who want to explore the romance between single-celled organisms fighting to create a new species in the bowels of an elder beast between the stars), then getting the word out will be nearly impossible.

Fan Base

Speaking of getting the word out, perhaps the most important a writer needs to make money is a fan base. Ever wonder why it is celebrities, even boring, stupid, D-list celebrities that only a few people have ever heard of, seem to be able to get book deals with a snap of their fingers? It's because people know who they are, and there's a slice of the population that will pay good money to see what's between those pages. The bigger the name, the more grease is on the skids from keyboard to release date. Kanye West, we're looking at you. Disapprovingly.

Speaking of names, a writer's past performance also weighs into this category. Publishers are not in the business because they want to sponsor new and experimental artists, and they aren't in it to give the struggling guy a hand up. Publishers exist to make money; they are a business. If a writer is an unproven talent then that makes him or her a risk. If they have a strong fan base and they've made money in the past, then regardless of how poorly-written or juvenile the books those writers put out are a publisher would be stupid not to keep raking in profits.


It is not an accident that this category is last on the list. I'm not cynical enough to make the case that the whole publishing industry has gone to shit and that the inmates are running the asylum. Not yet, anyway. But unproven talent it a lot like an unproven soldier. All the training, polish, test scores, and simulations in the world cannot predict exactly how someone will do once they get out in the field and the safety comes off. Even if a writer can create a great narrative that sucks in the reader and dodges every single pitfall of bad storytelling there is, it's still no guarantee that book will make any money.

So How Much Money Do Writers Make?

For the last time, it depends. If a writer goes to a major publisher then he or she might get a $5,000 advance, or a $70,000 advance on a book. Depending on how that book sells that writer might be set for life. Or if the book doesn't sell then that writer will never see another penny after the advance check. If a writer goes to a small press then there might not even be an advance; just a promise of 10% of the physical sales (if they have them) and 40-60% of the electronic sales.

A writer could become a self-publishing sensation (they do happen from time to time) and sell 100,000 copies in a year, netting $80,000 or more in sales. Or a writer could invest a huge amount of time in getting a book to that tipping point, just to watch it sink like a stone and return no more than a few bucks because friends and family gave it a pity purchase.

If a writer works for a newspaper or a magazine then there might be an annual salary, or a flat fee per piece that gets published. Short story writers might get between nothing and $30 for a story (though bigger publishers will often pay $200 or more for a single story), or if the story is featured in an anthology then they'll get a cut of the royalties.

Just like the books they put out, every writer is different. Generally speaking, though, the bigger a writer's company, the more famous that writer is, and the more coverage the book(s) in question get, the bigger the numbers on the tax forms will be.

If you made it this far, thank you very much for reading. Check out what's new with my work by following me on Facebook, or if you're a fan of harder drugs, find me at The Literary Mercenary on Tumblr. If you're wondering about all the stories I've published, then type my name into your friendly neighborhood bookstore's website and see what comes up (psst!, check out the anthologies Sidekicks, Noir Carnival, and Big Damn Heroines). Lastly, if you'd like to help support me and my blog, go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss some bread in my jar. $1 a month goes further than you think.


  1. Great post. Thanks for writing it. That is pretty much what I had concluded after a few years enjoying writing. Fortunately I am doing this after a career that provides me with a pension, so I can indulge myself writing rather than worrying about the rent. I think the fundamental thing for all writers to remember is not to do it unless they HAVE TO or unless they find it fun.
    The sad bit about the publishing industry is that they try to set themselves up as arbiters of taste and quality, whereas actually they are quite happy to publish crap if they think it will make money.

  2. Honestly, I'm glad I'm a hack freelance writer for websites and ebooks. That way I can just say "I work in computers" whenever anybody asks and thrust the conversation firmly beyond Pluto, where it's guaranteed not to be followed up. And I always hanker to see my name on paper books on the shelf, until I read one of these types of blog posts and realize that I'm actually making comparable money grinding out web crap.

    But I'm young yet...