How authors get paid
(Hint: it’s not a great system)
There's a common saying that authors shouldn't quit their day job and at the current rate of pay in publishing, it's easy to see why.
In a recent Instagram post, we broke down how the system works for traditional publishing (note: not self-publishing), but there’s only so much that can be conveyed in ten carousel slides and 2,200 characters. So, here we are, breaking it down a bit more. It’s a bit lengthy, so settle in, and feel free to get angry. (Don’t worry: We’ve included action steps at the end to help direct that anger.)
Tell me: How do authors make money?
Typically, when an author signs a contract with a publisher, they or their agent negotiate for an advance against royalties. This means that an author will receive a certain amount of money upfront and that any additional payment will come from copies of their book being sold. However, there are a few big caveats. These advances are often broken down into three, four, or more payments that include one upon signing, one upon manuscript completion, and one upon publication. Problematically, over the past few years during the pandemic, these advances have been broken up even more. And it doesn’t seem like publishers are itching to change that.
And then, once a book is released, authors don't immediately begin to make money from its sales. Authors receive a percentage of sales for each book sold (royalties). However, because an author's advance goes against these royalties (hence the negotiation for an “advance against royalties”), they have to outearn that advance before they start to make additional income. Meaning, if your advance was $5,000, you’d have to make $5,000 in book sales—not in total sales, but in your cut of each sale—before you would start making money off of book sales.
This interview with a lit agent in Literary Hub breaks down the process even more, but using their example: A common royalty rate is 10% of the book’s price. That means an author would make around $2.50/book. If your advance is $5,000, you’d have to sell 2,000 copies before you’d start to actually earn $2.50 per book…and even then, a fraction of that will go to your agent (circling back to the Twitter thread shared above, this system is also problematic for literary agents!).
So if an author never outearns their advance, they'll never make additional income from their book sales. And given how much time goes into making a book, not to mention the fact that some publishers leave it up to the author to promote, market, and/or sell their book...authors could end up losing money. And, not to mention, end up feeling incredibly burnt out.
Okay…but advances are probably a lot of money, right? So not a big deal?
Nope! Advances are typically pretty small. The size of an advance depends on many factors, including:
Whether the author has already been published and how those books have sold
The author's following, recognizability, etc.
Whether the book goes to auction (which is when publishers "bid" against one another in hopes of signing the author, including by way of advance offers)
The size of the publishing house (This is part of the reason why mergers between The Big 5—Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, HarperCollins, and Macmillan—are incredibly harmful to indie pubs. The Big 5 already have larger budgets for advances, and these mergers only increase those budgets. The Big 5 have been securing breakthrough titles with obscene advances, not only leaving less budget to spread out between all of their other authors, but also preventing independent publishers from really having a chance with those authors in the first place.)
According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Authors Guild, the median income of 5,067 full-time authors in 2017 was $20,300—and that included income they made from other book-related activities, such as speaking fees, book reviewing, etc. This was self-reported information, meaning mega bestselling authors were likely to not partake.
It’s incredibly important to note that this survey did not account for race, gender, or sexuality. Pay gaps with regards to race, gender, and sexuality are widespread in publishing, just as with pretty much every other industry. A few summers back, the #PublishingPaidMe movement on social media launched, which was a way for BIPOC creators to demonstrate how little they made (and continue to make) for their writing in comparison to white creators. It even led to a public Google Doc of authors adding in their advance numbers.
Publishers Weekly wrote an article on the movement, even asking editors to respond (they all declined). In it, they noted:
N.K. Jemisin, a bestselling science fiction author, revealed she had been paid $40,000 for each book in her 2010–2011 Inheritance trilogy; $25,000 for each entry in her 2012 Dreamblood duology; and $25,000 for each book of the 2015–2017 Broken Earth trilogy. Jemisin’s numbers struck some as a particularly galling example of a writer whose sales and acclaim seem out of sync with her paycheck. (She was nominated for Hugo Awards—arguably the top literary honor for science fiction in the U.S.—in 2010 and 2011. She won Hugos in 2016, 2017, and 2018, becoming the first African American woman to win the award.)
One of the top science fiction writers only made $245,000 in advances for eight books. Mike Pence got a seven-figure deal with Simon & Schuster for two books. And he’s likely not even writing his own book.
Plus, even if you get a great advance, it’s still broken down into multiple payments…meaning you likely won’t see all of the money for years.
All of this further reveals the structural inequities in publishing, as well as how the industry perpetuates gatekeeping. The industry expects individuals to be able to:
Financially support themselves and potentially their families as they write, as if writing a book is not a full-time job (not to mention have the time to write in the first place)
Afford and obtain a literary agent
Be able to live off meager advances, split up into multiple checks over the course of multiple years
Yeah…that’s not great. But a publisher’s job is to help sell the books, right? So they must be out-earning those advances!
So optimistic! And wrong yet again! We’ve shared many posts on flaws in the industry before (see a whole Instagram Guide to them here, and check out prior newsletter issues) so won’t go into a ton of detail, but think about it this way: From the start, when they offer an author an advance, a publisher has predetermined how much they believe a book is “worth.” That advance number is what they believe they will make back in book sales. That number not only is what they offer to an author, but also what shapes all of their marketing, publicity, and sales efforts.
You can imagine the difference in campaigns for a book that they believe is worth a $5,000 advance to a book worth a $500,000 advance and how that shapes awareness and sales. (Y’all remember those Sally Rooney bucket hats?)
In determining that number upfront, a number that is not only based on how “popular” an author is, but also their understandings of trends and “what sells”—two concepts far too often rooted in white supremacist values—publishers reinforce and uphold problematic cycles of who and what get published. Gatekeeping at its finest.
Wow, okay. What can we do to create change?
Honestly, the biggest thing is sharing these conversations so they become public knowledge and editors/publishers can’t decline to comment.
Follow your favorite authors and budding writers on social media
If they have a newsletter or blog, engage with them there, too
Purchase and/or check out their books, to show demand
Amplify #PublishingPaidMe posts across social media
Subscribe to Publishers Weekly's free newsletter to see how advances vary and to stay informed
Here’s a round-up of all the sources we included above:
And on another note…
In our recent survey (which you still have three days to take for the chance to win a $25 Bookshop gift card), readers told us they want to know more about what we’re reading.
Fiona is battling her ✨ Covid✨ with the following books:
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
Thinking with Type
Last Night at the Telegraph Club
Olivia spent the last week of March and first week of April devouring:
The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina
Get A Life, Chloe Brown
I Kissed Shara Wheeler
Four Treasures of the Sky
More to come on all these soon, but just know that if you haven’t read Heartbroke and Godshot by the time the next newsletter issue comes out, Olivia can no longer be your friend.