How much do writers 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 13.7% 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 something sustainable in the long run?

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. We can weigh the options and see what might be the best course of action for you.

What to expect financially

As you start, you'll probably need to find other sources of income. Writing has a sort of 'winner takes all' approach, where the top 10% writers account for 70% of the revenues.

It may seem pretty bleak for first-time writers but the beauty of writing is that you're able to combine it with other methods of income.

Let's explore all the different financial results you might expect. There's no one size fits all, the earnings of writers in the UK vary greatly depending on many factors. So, can you make a living as an author? Let’s find out.

How much do authors make a year?

An annual survey carried out by University of Glasgow tracked author earnings over the past 15 years. The results showed a clear drop in average author income, from £18,013 in 2006 to £10,497 in 2018.

You also need to remember that 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.  Professional authors average household income stands at £81,000 per annum.

The research makes it clear that just 13.7% of authors earn their income solely from writing.

What affects an author’s salary?

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 better understand how author income works.

When publishing the traditional way with a publisher, it’s likely an author would 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, and usually comes with half upfront and the remainder upon completion.

In self-publishing, there are not any advances given since you are, essentially, 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:

  • Being self-published.
  • Going the traditional route with a publisher.
  • 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 an author salary and book earnings

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

An author might still work a day job or do freelance work while they establish their reputation to supplement their income. For example, many authors with devoted followings have chosen to join networks like Patreon, where their fans can pay them directly to continue releasing their work.

In fact, 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 and even though you have a fancy new 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 TheDiary of a Wimpy Kid.
  • Dan Brown: $18.5 million (2018) - Dan Brown wrote TheDa 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 the 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.

The more traditional way to publish

At this point in your career, you have a piece of work that you're ready to publish. The most traditional way to get that done is through a publishing house. This dates back all the way to 1534 with the Cambridge University Press.

It may seem daunting to get your work off the ground but don't worry, there are plenty of resources, such as this one from Penguin to get you started.

The first thing you should know is that most major publishing houses don't accept manuscripts directly from writers. You'll need a literary agent. This is simple, the literary agent 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 feels ready to share. The goal is to make them feel like you are hard-working and that the book, and the author, has potential. Then the publisher comes in. They make sure that your book can be the best it can be.

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.

So, let's explore self-publishing as an option.

Self-publishing: Going at it on your own

The beginning steps of publishing a book are similar, regardless of how you choose to publish it. You want to ensure your work is in the best place it can be, a rough draft won't do.

There's the option to get an editor, which will place your work above others.

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, hopefully, get a profit back. There are many benefits to consider when 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 actually 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 participate.

Found this article to be helpful? We got 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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