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Posted on Dec 29, 2020

How Much Do Authors Make? Figures + Tips to Earn More

Asking “how much do authors make?” is, as the saying goes, a bit like asking “how long is a piece of string?” Authorhood doesn’t come with a set salary range like LinkedIn jobs — it’s an artistic and a professional pursuit, with a financial outcome that varies wildly depending on countless factors. These include whether you’re a full-time or part-time author, what sort of books you write, which publishing path you take, and more.

Nonetheless, “how much do authors make?” remains one of the most pressing questions for those considering a career as an author, as well as established authors wondering whether they are being underpaid. We hope to shed some light on the subject with the figures below, plus tried-and-true advice on how to earn more money as an author.

How much do authors make?

Self-published authors make up to 70% royalties from their books, while most traditionally published authors make 5-18% royalties after “paying back” their advances. From a major publisher, such an advance is typically $5,000-$10,000 for a first-time, unknown author, more if the author is well-known. Small press advances are lower, usually in the $1,000-$2,000 range, though some make up for that with higher royalty terms.

how much do authors make? self-pub, small press, and Big 5 royalties
*Self-publishing figures based on Amazon KDP royalties.

There will always be outliers, of course, some more extreme than others — like the household-name authors who nab hundreds of thousands in advances. To name a few:

💰 Roxane Gay received $100,000 for Hunger (her fourth book, a memoir).
💰 Scott Westerfeld received $175,000 for Extras (his 15th book, YA sci-fi).
💰 Viet Thanh Nguyen received $250,000 for The Refugees (his third book, a collection of short stories).
💰 Gillian Flynn received $400,000 for Gone Girl (her third book, a thriller).
💰 Kristen Roupenian received $1,200,000 for You Know You Want This (her first book, a short story collection including the viral “Cat Person”).

These authors are obviously the exception, not the rule. Readers will also note that they all published books with lower advances (or in Roupenian’s case, got a story in the New Yorker) before ascending to the six-figure mark. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that you need to be at the top of your writing game before you can get there financially — and traditional publishing still requires a great deal of luck.

Finally, one can’t ignore the racial disparities in trad pub payments exposed by 2020’s #publishingpaidme campaign, in which BIPOC authors reported much lower advances than white authors. To give a particularly egregious example, N.K. Jemisin — one of the most prominent sci-fi/fantasy authors working today, boasting four Hugo Awards and a MacArthur Genius Grant — received just $25,000 for each book in her Broken Earth trilogy. And this was after she’d published multiple successful series in the same genre!

We won’t pretend that self-publishing is devoid of discrimination either, but at least indie authors aren’t subject to the prejudices of stuck-in-the-past publishing houses. On that slightly more optimistic note: let’s dive into indie author earnings based on data from the past few years.

How much do self-published authors make?

Despite those outliers, many more self-published authors make a living than traditionally published authors do. This was proven by several years of Author Earnings reports — most notably, one study that divided authors into groups earning more than $10k, $25k, $50k, and $100k. The study found that the number of indie authors earning 5-6 figures/year from book sales was much higher than the number of Big 5 authors earning the same.

Curious about the success an indie author can achieve? Check out this list of 8 self-publishing success stories every author should know.

Though the raw data is no longer accessible to the general public, the Author Earnings methodology was extremely thorough and much more reliable than any self-selecting author surveys. Their reports analyzed the sales data of up to a million published titles, crawled directly from the Amazon site. With that in mind, the major findings were as follows:

  • There were more high-earning self-publishing authors than Big 5 authors at every single publishing “age”. Whether an author debuted in the last century, in the last decade, or in the last 3-5 years, they were more likely to have a higher income as an indie.
Graph from authorearnings.com.
  • The gap was much wider among new authors (those who’d published in the previous 3-5 years). Even looking at authors earning $50k+/year, recent indie authors outnumbered recent Big 5 authors by a factor of three (see the right side of this next graph).
Graph from authorearnings.com.
  • Adjusting for non-Amazon sales still left indie authors with a significant income lead in every category except “authors who debuted in the past century” — which is no surprise, given the popularity of classics in brick-and-mortar bookstores.

In short: indie authors tend to make more than traditionally published authors overall, and especially if they’ve debuted recently. This is in part because indie authors get more digital exposure (extra helpful for those with extensive backlists!), but mostly because they receive a much higher percentage of royalties than their traditionally published counterparts.

Choosing a profitable publishing path

Is self-publishing or traditional publishing right for you?

Takes one minute!

 

Even if we didn’t have the data to prove it, the self-publishing odds would probably be in your favor with regards to profitability. Again, you can earn up to 70% royalties on each book as a self-published author, whereas traditional publishing royalties max out at 25%. And you can self-publish (and begin profiting from) multiple books in a year, while a major publisher would wait at least a year between books, if not more.

All that said, you may still be on the fence about which publishing route to take. Perhaps you suspect that small press publishing or Big 5 publishing is more viable for you based on any number of other factors — mainstream marketability, a personal connection in the industry, etc. Want to find out for sure? Take the quiz above!

How to make money as an author

We’ve covered royalties, advances, and yearly author earnings based on some of the most comprehensive data available. But while these figures are useful for understanding the industry, you shouldn’t fixate on them; as Teddy Roosevelt once said, comparison is the thief of joy.

Instead, focus on producing the best, most reader-worthy book you can — over time, your efforts will pay for themselves. On that note, here are five actionable tips to help you make more money as an author.

1. Write to market

The first (and arguably most important) thing you can do to sell books is write to market. You can start by identifying your target audience; that linked post will show you how to create a proto-persona, or theoretical “ideal reader” for your book, and expand from there to see who else you should be targeting.

Then once you’ve determined this audience, dive in with even more research to nail down their current preferences! Here are some ideas to assist you:

📖 Go to Goodreads and read top-rated reviews of your comp titles (books that are similar to yours). What did readers like and dislike about these titles? The more people agree on a given point — for example, “I loved the morally gray main character!” or “I hated the twist ending” — the more you should consider adhering to it in your own book.

📱 Type related keywords into Twitter and Instagram to see what comes up. As with Goodreads reviews, social media posts will tell you what readers really think — not to mention the understanding you can gain from other people’s comments and replies. 

📝 Check out agents’ manuscript wishlists. You can track down literary agents in your subgenre or category by seeing who represents your favorite authors — or by browsing through our literary agents directory! Then just look at their agency profiles and Manuscript Wish Lists. Most are nicely specific and provide a cutting-edge glimpse into what’s trending.

As you research, keep track of popular elements you could potentially include in your next book. Finally, pay attention to who is actually talking about books like yours! You might find your target audience is slightly different than you anticipated and need to adjust your proto-persona.

2. Invest in professional editing and cover design

Without exception, the highest-earning authors in publishing work with both pro editors and cover designers. The latter is especially crucial: our book cover marketing study indicated that professionally designed covers attract up to 50% more clicks than non-professional covers.

This post on cover design will take you through design essentials and help you narrow down the most important visual elements for your cover. But unless you’re a designer yourself, you’ll want to recruit a professional to carry out your vision! Look for a cover designer who has experience in your genre and whose style you genuinely adore.

how much do authors make? professional cover = higher profits
Like these covers? Check out this book cover art gallery for even more beautiful covers by Reedsy designers.

Budget permitting, it’s also best to hire an experienced editor — or team of editors — to polish your text before it goes to print (or digital copy, as it were). Make sure to perform a thorough self-edit before passing your manuscript off to a professional, so you’re not paying for adjustments you could have made yourself.

Not sure what sort of editing your book requires? This post on the different types of editing might help. Or if you’re really stuck, you can get an editorial assessment of your book, which will give you an overview to help you take your next steps with confidence.

3. Publish multiple books, ideally in a series

The more books you can sell, the more money you’ll make — and if those books are part of a series, all the better! With fiction, readers get invested in the plot and characters; with nonfiction, they’ll wonder what other insights you have in this area. These guides to writing series and writing trilogies will be immensely helpful as you proceed.

But even if you’re still working on your first book, it’s never too early to think about series potential. For fictional series, consider the following:

  • What might happen to your main character(s) after the events of this book? Is their story truly finished? You might find their arc in Book 1 is only the first stage of a much larger journey.
  • Could you shift the focus to a secondary character? Another common approach for series, especially in romance, is to write sequels based on secondary characters from previous books — allowing you to keep a familiar cast while giving the story a fresh spin.
  • What about a brand-new story in the same universe? Though this would technically become a new “interlinking” series, it would still draw readers from the original books.

 Alternatively, for a nonfiction series, think in terms of:

  • Do I have anything more to say on this topic? Is there an area you didn’t have time to research or space to expand on? Make it the subject of your next, related work.
  • What’s the natural progression from here? Think of your books as how-to steps. Say your first book is about how to set up a small business; your second might be about how to grow that business over the next five years.
  • What else would my readers find interesting? Return to your target market and figure out what they want! For instance, if your first book were true crime, you’d likely find that your target readers are gobbling up more of the same — which might compel you to write another book about a different case.

For a holistic approach to author earnings, one cannot overlook the importance of income sources other than book sales! If you’re looking to supplement your own author income, you might try the following:

🤔 Coaching or consulting (if you’re a nonfiction author). Many established authors offer coaching services to new authors, assisting them with things like project plans, feedback on their writing, and navigating the confusing world of publishing.

Also, if you’ve written a book on a nonfiction subject, you can earn money by consulting on it. Publishing a book (or multiple books) in your field has already established you as an expert; it’s only natural to leverage that status into consulting.

👩🏻‍🏫 Courses and seminars. While one-on-one coaching and consulting sessions are great, you might be better off hosting courses and seminars that multiple people can take at once. For these, you’d put together more in-depth, widely applicable content on a topic of your choice — for example, “How to Write Sparkling Dialogue” or “How to Turn Your Blog Into a Book” — and market it to other writers, either through a multi-part course or an interactive presentation.

👻 Ghostwriting and/or editing services. Then again, maybe you’d rather nix teaching altogether and do other people’s work for them. If you’ve got the skills to pay the bills, ghostwriting and editing can be very lucrative — but getting through projects can also be quite time-consuming, so prepare to commit at least several hours a week if you go this route.

Learn more about how you can become an editor and how you can become a ghostwriter over on our freelancer blog!

5. Keep on hustling

The one thing all high-earning authors have in common is that they hustle. Even superstars like Danielle Steel and Stephen King still release books regularly, simply because they’ve maintained this mindset since the early days of their careers!

We’re not saying you need to be at that level to earn decent money as a writer. But do take inspiration from the greats, and keep on your own grind. Write as often as you can, work toward multiple books, and get creative with ways to bring in more money.

It may take months or even years, but you absolutely can make a living as an author — and maybe someday, you’ll rank among the Kings and Steels of the literary world.

🤑 Want to learn more about making (and saving) money as an author? Check out these posts: