How much do authors make?

  • The top 10% of writers account for 70% of all writing revenue. That means not all authors make the kind of money that J.K. Rowling or Stephen King make. In fact, only 19% of authors have writing as their sole source of income.
  • Royalty rates differ depending on your circumstances. Traditionally published authors typically get 10% - 12% royalties per book. If you self-publish, royalty rates are closer to 40% - 60% per book - but you’ll need to cover the publishing costs, too.
  • Self-publishing offers authors more creative control. You get to choose everything from your book cover to your book launch date.

If you're interested in a career as a writer, you may be wondering: how much do authors make? Will I be able to make a living out of it? Is it a sustainable career in the long run?

It can be tough to make a living as an author. The top 10% of writers account for 70% of book revenue. But by combining your book sales with other income streams, you can make a comfortable living as an author.

There are several paths you can take to get your career as a writer off the ground, whether it be by going through a publisher or self-publishing. Here, we’ll look at how much authors can make writing books (and through other revenue streams) to give you a realistic picture of author income.

How much do authors make a year?

An annual survey carried out by the University of Glasgow tracked author earnings over the last 15 years. The results showed a clear drop in average author income, from £18,013 in 2006 to £10,497 in 2018. By 2022, author income has dropped even further, with professional authors earning an average of just £7,000 a year.

Most writers aren't solely living off writing alone. This same survey looked at the average household income to give a broader view of authors’ income.  A professional author’s average household income stands at £81,000 per annum.

Research suggests just 19% of authors earn their income solely from writing.

What affects an author’s salary?

There are four main factors that impact an author’s salary:

  • The book genre or type of book.
  • The author's experience, reputation, and renown.
  • The size and reach of the publisher or self-publishing platform.
  • Marketing and promotion efforts for the book.

‍Generally speaking, the more book sales an author gets, the higher their salary. However, there are a few other factors which need to be considered to get a better understanding of how author income works.

With traditional publishing, authors usually get an advance and book royalties.

An advance is the amount of money that a publisher pays an author for the promise of a book, Authors usually receive half upfront and the remainder upon completion.

In self-publishing, you won’t receive an advance since you are the publisher.

Book royalties are the percentage of each sale that the author gets paid. These rates vary significantly depending on a variety of factors, including:

  • Whether you’re self-published or traditionally published.
  • How many physical or digital (e-book) copies are sold.
  • Where the book is sold.

Traditional royalty rates are typically significantly lower than self-publishing rates, which means authors can earn more money per book sold with self-publishing. But unlike with a publisher, you’re responsible for everything – your book cover, marketing, distribution etc.

Amazon, for instance, offers a 30% or 70% royalty rate for eBook authors. This means that an author will earn 70% of the total list price of their book when it is sold on Amazon’s platform.

The difference between author salary and book earnings

An author’s salary is their total earnings in any given year, while book earnings are just one component of an overall author's salary.

An author might still work a day job or do freelance work while they establish their reputation as a writer. Many authors with devoted followings join networks like Patreon, where their fans can pay them directly to continue releasing their work.

An author's biggest financial success is usually mid-career. One of the biggest differences in earnings is royalties. Publishing houses take a big chunk of your earnings, so even though you have a reputable name attached to your work, it might not be the best option.

How much do bestselling authors make?

Let’s take a look at authors that have a long track record of writing best-sellers. Many of which are also adapted into films or tv series (which also obviously has contributed to their earnings). How how much these well-known authors made in 2018:

  • J K Rowling: $54 million (2018) - JK Rowling needs no introduction, she wrote the best-selling children’s series of all time.
  • Stephen King: $27 million (2018) - Stephen King is the ‘King of Horror’ due to his many popular scary novels.
  • John Grisham: $21 million (2018) - John Grisham is a popular legal drama writer, best-known for books like The Firm.
  • Jeff Kinney: $18.5 million (2018) - Jeff Kinney wrote The Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
  • Dan Brown: $18.5 million (2018) - Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code.
  • Michael Wolff: $13 million (2018) - Michael Wolff is the only nonfiction writer in the 2018 Forbes list with $13 million in earnings.
  • Danielle Steel: $12 million (2018) - Danielle Steel is a romance novelist and bestselling author.
  • Nora Roberts: $12 million (2018) - Nora Roberts is a romance novelist who wrote The Awakening series.
  • Rick Riordan: $10.5 million (2018) - Rick Riordan wrote the Percy Jackson series.

How much do self-published authors make on Amazon?

Amazon offers two ebook royalty plans: a 70% royalty option and a 35% option. The 70% option comes with a few requirements:

  • Your book must not be in the public domain.
  • Price your ebook between $2.99 and $9.99. This price also needs to be at least 20% lower than the lowest list price for a print version.
  • Pay for file delivery. This doesn’t require any extra effort on your part — the delivery fees are automatically deducted from your royalty payment.

Keep in mind that only books sold to customers in certain countries are eligible for the 70% plan. Additional copies sold outside those territories will go on the 35%.

If you go through the regular Amazon-only distribution channels when publishing a paperback, you can expect 60% of the list price for every paperback sold.

But if you distribute your book through Amazon’s Expanded Distribution plan to non-Amazon retailers, like Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million, you’ll be looking at 40% instead.

Let’s explore the difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing.

Costs of traditional publishing

The most traditional way to publish your book is through a publishing house. The obvious financial benefit to getting traditionally published is that it won’t cost you anything to publish and market your book until you start making sales.

However, most major publishing houses don't accept manuscripts directly from writers. You'll need a literary agent, who takes a cut from whatever sales your book makes.

To get an agent, you need to send them a submission letter. Make sure you have a manuscript (if it's fiction) or a proposal (if it's non-fiction) that’s ready to share. The goal is to convince them that you have a marketable book that will sell. Then the publisher makes sure your book is ready for readers, and distributes it to booksellers

Great, you have a book! What does this mean for your career and your earnings? Unfortunately, one book isn't going to ricochet you into wealth. With a publishing house, you'll get 10% - 12% royalties per book. That doesn't sound too bad right? Well, with self-publishing it's about 40% - 60% per book.

Self-publishing: Costs of going solo

The beginning steps of publishing a book are similar, regardless of how you choose to publish it. But if you choose to self-publish your book, you’ll have to spend more money upfront.

There's the option to get a book editor, which will help refine your work and make it as polished as possible.

Then you have to consider the option of an e-book vs an actual print. Much of the work of getting a novel off the ground is investing money first, then hopefully getting a profit back.

There are many benefits to self-publishing.For starters, you'll have complete creative freedom. Publishing houses often bring in a group of creative experts to look over your novel. This might be great for some but for those who want to keep a lot of the creative decisions, it might be difficult to deal with. There's also the guarantee of publishing.

With publishing houses, it might take a while for the book to hit the shelves. Self-publishing is completely up to you; you decide when it's published and are responsible for making it happen.

By cutting out the middleman you also get a greater portion of royalties. One of the most popular options these days for self-publishing is to sell through Amazon. The ease of use and accessibility allows anyone with a dream and a laptop to write and sell their own book.

Best practices to maximise author income

Here are 6 ways to maximise your income as an author:

  1. Build a following on social media. Establishing yourself online can give you more credibility with agents, publishers, and readers, leading you to sell more books.
  2. Research publishing contracts. If you’re pursuing traditional publishing, understand what a book contract looks like so you’re familiar with the format and any issues you’ll need to consider. This will set you in good stead for negotiating your own contract.
  3. Understand a contract before signing it. Know which rights you retain and which you’re signing over to the publisher. If possible, ask a lawyer to look over the contract before you sign.
  4. Invest in marketing and book promotion. If you’re self-publishing, be prepared to invest in promoting your book. Come up with some creative but affordable ways to get your name and book title in front of your ideal readers.
  5. Diversify your income streams. Even established authors often have multiple ways of making money, from speaking opportunities to selling merchandise. So accept that you might need to find other income streams, at least in the short term.
  6. Invest in professional support. Editors, illustrators, and other supportive partners can make your book look more professional and therefore saleable.

Many authors manage to make a partial living selling their books. And even if you have to supplement your income with other work, it’s extremely satisfying to make money from authoring books. That’s why so many authors decide to self-publish their work and sell it online.

Found this article to be helpful? We have plenty of resources for you!

Advice from a published writer

Alex Fisher, "Seadogs and Criminals"

To begin with, for an establishing author, not much. Don’t quit your job just yet. You’ve done the hard work and are now published but that’s only part of the journey. The next step is getting it to the right audience and expanding the name of the book and it definitely helps to find a great publicity and marketing company to do this, but to begin with the royalties are limited.

Don’t let it dampen your spirit though, if you’re writing because you love to write books the money shouldn’t matter. Keep writing, keep creating, keep publishing until you reach a point where you can earn the big rewards.

This article is always evolving and being updated regularly by our expert writers. Information featured in it has been fact-checked and verified.
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