publishingPublishing Fear Freeself-publishing

Earning a Living?

This little ditty revealed itself to me recently: Self-publishing: under 10% of authors earn living, and if you are an indie publisher, you should read it. According to these findings, you have the greatest chance of success if you are a 40-year-old female with an agent who has never been rejected by traditional publishers or who has previously been published and who writes romances. It also states that half the respondents failed to earn $500 in royalties in 2011.

Sounds bad, right?

There are many ways I could take this blog response, but I will focus on this question: in comparison to what? If half of all indie authors only earned less than $500 in 2011, then how does that compare to trad-pubbed authors? If only 10 percent of indie authors earn a living at writing, then how does that compare to trad-pubbed authors? Ten percent would indeed be bad if 100 percent of trad-pubbed authors earned a living. But do they?

I would like to cite some numbers that put this into perspective for me. From the Author’s Guide to Publishing and Marketing by Tim Ward and John Hunt, which was published in 2009:

In a survey of 1.2 million books in the US,

  • 950,000 sold fewer than 100 copies
  • Another 200k sold fewer than 1,000
  • 25k sold 5,000
  • Fewer than 500 sold 100,000
  • 10 sold 1 million

Average sale: 500 copies

Five hundred was the average at the time of this survey. 500! Can you earn a living with only 500 sales on traditional royalties? I don’t think so.

So where exactly in that scale does earning a living start? Let’s just say it’s at the 5,000 sales mark for kicks and grins, and this is being extremely generous to account for other factors and differences in the surveys. That means out of 1,200,000 books in this survey, 50,000 were earning their authors a living at the time. What percentage is that?


But let’s look at some more numbers. What about here, which is a survey of “typically experienced writers – that is, with multiple books published, with an agent, and boasting both overseas and domestic sales.” These 321 respondents had published more than 1,000 books among them, most of which were produced by one of the Big 6. You can find the full dataset here.

And one more stat before I continue. According to this NYT essay, only 3 out of 10 books earn back their advances.

Okay, back to the survey of authors.

When asked about advances, here is the response:

Most authors were paid an advance equaling less than $7,755 in today’s dollars. Can they live on that? If you move to the next bracket, they were paid $23,265. That’s income barely above the poverty level in the US in 2011 for a four-person family. So that means that 22.4 percent of these writers, most of which are published by the Big 6 and considered successful are making a living for one year off their advance, and according to the stats in the NYT article, which may be low considering the set of those who were polled in this survey, only 3 out of 10 will earn anything beyond that. And that doesn’t account for the rest of the authors out there who are published traditionally, but by smaller presses.

When you read the indie stats in comparison to traditional stats that are available online, two things become clear. First, the writers of that article wanted you to assume that the results of their survey proved something negative about indie pubbing. Did they? I’d say that 10 percent of indie authors earning a living is pretty damn good in comparison to the data I found.

Second, traditional authors may have prestige, but they also have to live off something else: money. It’s a fact of life.

Note: I could not find a hard statistic on how many traditionally published authors are earning a living. I crunched these numbers myself. Remember I’m a writer not a mathematician, so don’t go citing these numbers until you verify them yourself.

8 thoughts on “Earning a Living?

  1. Hi Jen

    It’s our survey you refer to in your (excellent) piece. And I think your numbers are pretty much, but not exactly, right. Bear in mind that authors of smaller books (eg: for kids, educational stuff, etc) may bring out more than one book a year. Also that plenty of authors will get royalties as well as advances.

    But I quote numbers in my book on Getting Published that do give you a guide as to what professional (British) authors are being paid. To cut to the chase, an annual income of £13,000 / $20,000 is about par for the course for a “pro” author – that is, one who makes more than 70% of their income from writing. Those numbers are no somewhat out of data, but they’ve most likely deteriorated since they were first gathered.

    So you’re right: traditional publishing pays very badly for a majority of authors. For trad publishing to scorn indie publishing for low incomes – well, it’s ridiculous.

  2. Harry, thank you so much for your response and correction. You are right. I did assume one book per author per year. And thank you for quantifying what “earning a living” means in your survey and book. I assumed more than poverty level, but I’m glad to know how you quantified it. I’ll have to look into your book. It sounds like it should be quite revealing.

  3. I wouldn’t say the self-publishing study was attempting to bash indy publishing. Other than one poorly worded phrase (“Other keys to success included making a book trailer, investing in proofreading, editing and cover design, and being over 40.”), the article approaches its topic properly, that is descriptively rather than evaluatively. That being said, life as an author possesses the same problem as any other form of specialty retail, regardless of the publishing route you take: a mysterious, fickle market. Success is not yet predictable and is not linked deeply (or even solely) to quality. Luck and the market’s zeitgeist will determine sales until we have better tools to understand the market.

    Traditional publishing remains superior to indy in several ways, most importantly production process. Hopefully, however, indy will pressure traditional into adopting more flexible and innovative payment schemes for authors.

    I have no love for indy publishing inasmuch as I openly oppose everyone having the ability to publish a novel. I would much prefer a magical system by which only good novels get published and we never see the flood of schlock that acquisition editors face. In fact, if we could rig keyboards will electrical shock to punish bad writers…

    1. I don’t feel like figuring out how to quote with this silly comment thing. But I agree with you: traditional publishing would be vastly improved if it innovated and adapted to the faster pace of digital life and began to accelerate and improve payments.

      I also agree that luck is a factor in book selling and quality is, sadly, of lesser importance. Even so, I believe that the traditional editorial process–content editing, proofing, cold reading, etc–produces a better product. That’s why I always advise indies to hire professionals to help.

      But I have to disagree with your objection to just anyone being able to publish. The only reason there is pressure on the traditional system today is that the doors have been opened to all people. More books, regardless of quality, means more competition, and competition forces everyone who wants to succeed to innovate and improve.

  4. I just read my mom this article, lol. It’s nice to be able to get a dose of reality once in awhile. I can say with some certainty that I’ve earned what I likely would have received as an advance for a first time author in my genre. That makes me all sorts of happy happy joy joy inside.

  5. Hi Jennifer!

    I know of your books and that you self-published. My dad is writing a book and considering how he wants to publish. I’m making his website and getting excited for him to publish!

    I saw your latest entry (as of 6/25/2012) says that now you can print paperbacks… I was wondering how you like self-publishing. Do you think it’s a good way to go or that it’s the best way to go after trying big publishers? Do you have to make your own book art for every book? What are the benefits? I’d love to hear your insights, or even get links to posts that have your experiences. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.