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That Thing You Want to Know....

So, there are two things that seem infinitely important to writers, and which always come up in conversation.

1) What are the latest trends?


2) How much money do writers make, anyway?

Next week, I'll be in NYC doing editor rounds, and I'll come back from the trip and tell you all about the books coming down the pipeline, what editors tell me they're full up on, and what they're dying to see more of. (I'll be tweeting my trip, so feel free to FOLLOW ME.)

So, since I'll be talking about trends soon, I thought I'd talk about something else here.


The first thing anyone wants to know is: How much does a person make being an author?  If you have ever sold a book, you know that perfectly nice strangers will ask you this as if it's subject to public disclosure, or its totally different than you turning around and saying, "and how much did you make last year?" To which, of course, they'd look disgusted.

Maybe it's the idea that everyone thinks you're the next JK ROWLING and FORBES magazine will report your income anyway? Whatever the reason, be prepared: You will get asked this question. By your mother, your boss, your best friends, and that guy sitting in the bus seat next to you.

So here's the deal: Chances are, you won't get rich. Chances are, you won't even quit your day job.

If you write MG or YA, and you sell to a smaller, independent press--but one who still distributes nationally and has most books stocked in B&N and Borders-- your advance will probably be in the $2,000-$5,000 range.

If you sell a book to one of the big six publishers, and it's a single book deal, and it's something deemed more quiet or literary, you may see $7,500-$10,000. if it has a bigger commercial hook, but still seems a little risky, you may get $15,000.

These are all very round, very raw numbers, and in no way does that mean that if you have a quiet book and random house offers you're oging to see $7,500-10K. You could see more, you could see less. We're just playing with some numbers here of some pretty customary, run of the mill deals.

Now, here's the thing-- advances of these size will generally mean your book will have little to no publicity budget. If you get a $10K advance and it's from a big six, it's likely that your book will be sent to the usual reviewers and put in the catalog, and they may have ARCs on display at the trade fairs or events, but they aren't going to throw money into a PR campaign. Your book will quietly float or sink on its own merit and your ability to publicize it yourself.

Remember, also, that the payout of your book is in either two or three payments. Generally, it's one of these two structures:

1/2 on signing the contract
1/2 on completing revisions (aka, Delivery & Acceptance).


1/3 on signing
1/3 on D&A
1/3 on publication.

So, what I'm telling you is: If your book sells to a large publisher, you may still never see a check for over $5,000 all at once, and then your agent does want her 15%, so now your check is down to $4,250, and you have to pay taxes so you'll tuck away at least a grand, and now you've got $3,000 to play with. But you'll need a web designer ($500+) and web hosting ($6-15 a month), and maybe bookmarks or business cards or swag for giveaways.

But here's the thing-- people don't buy scratch tickets becuase they want to win two dollars. They buy them because they want to win $20,000. And everyone wants to dream of a six figure deal, of an auction, of a pre-empt.

Books do regularly sell for over $100,000, and it seems as if a week does not go by without at least one YA book that sold for over $500,000.

So let's look at those numbers, shall we?

A six figure book deal, for a trilogy, would be say, $35K per book x 3 books = $105K.

Your first payment, you get 1/3 of EACH book on signing, so your first check would be $35K - 15% = 29,750. Save a third for taxes, and you have $20,000.

This is the biggest check you will ever see for your book deal (unless you get huge royalty checks later...) because every other check will be 1/3 of a single book payment (like when one D&As, or one pubs), and after your agent's commission? You'll see $9,000.

Yes, you got a six figure deal, but every check after the first one is $9Kish. If you don't have a day job? That's living expenses for a few months, tops, if you have kids or a mortgage.

So maybe that six figure deal isn't enough-- you want a MAJOR deal-- $500K.

$501,000 / 3 books = $167,000 per book.

Your first payment, you get 1/3 of EACH book on signing, so your first check would be $167K. Your agent takes her cut and sends you a cool $141,000. This is going to put you in a big tax bracket, which means you need to put away AT LEAST 1/3 of that-- so you're left with $93K. 
6-9 months later, the book will D&A, and you'll see another $55K payment, less 15%, so you'll see $47,000. Put away $17Kish for taxes, and you've got $30K to play with. 

So in your first year after signing, your bank account will probably net around $120,000.

Not bad, right? And the nice thing is? If your pub paid $500K, you can bet your book deal they are going to publicize your book like crazy. They want their money back.  

We all dream of this kind of a boon. $120K is probably 'quit your day job' kind of money, and isn't that what we all want? if you do quit, though, you'll need health insurance, a retirement account, etc. 

And guess what? Your second year out, you'll just see two payments-- $55K when book 1 pubs, and $55k when book 2 D&As, minus your agent's commission, which means the second year, you're only netting  $93,000, minus a third for taxes, puts you just over 60K. Same deal on year 3, when Book 2 pubs and book 3 D&As.

And on that fourth year, when book 3 publishes, you see just one payment-- $55K, minus agent commission, so $47,000. Minus taxes, so you make $30Kish unless you've sold another book deal.

So here's how it looks at the end of the day, if you get a seemingly ENORMOUS  $501,000 book deal:

Year of book deal: $120K net
Year 2: 60K net
Year 3: 60K net
Year 4: 30k net.

It's good money, but with no stability, no health insurance, and no benefits.

Okay, so I'm not saying this to be debbie downer. Just to really break it down and look at it, and help you understand that even if you get that huge deal, and everyone thinks you're rich, you may not be.

You  may just be making a good living doing what you love. And THAT is the point, right? That we're all doing what we love.

And lastly, you're an optimist. I know you're an optimist because you're a published author (or trying really hard to be one)and if you can see these numbers and try to make a go of it anyway, you MUST be optimistic. Which means your book is going to be one of those that rises above, that sells like hotcakes, and makes you as famous as Stephenie Meyer.

Plus, duh, you'll get a movie deal.



( 46 comments — Leave a comment )
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May. 4th, 2011 05:24 pm (UTC)
Wow. Very informative, Mandy. Thanks the break down!
May. 4th, 2011 05:27 pm (UTC)
And by "Thanks the break down" I mean "Thanks FOR the break down!" ;)
May. 4th, 2011 05:28 pm (UTC)
Forget the Movie Deal!
I'm getting a BBC/HBO cooperative series.
May. 4th, 2011 05:32 pm (UTC)
Awesome post!

I plan on keeping my day job (I like what I do!) plus the benefits are incredible, but I would like to be able to go to part-time at some point, so I can write part-time and have the best of both worlds!

(And those major deal numbers, yeah, that first advance would pay off my house and the rest would be gravy! *dreams*) LOL

Becky Wallace
May. 4th, 2011 05:39 pm (UTC)
Awesome post! Thank you!
May. 4th, 2011 05:57 pm (UTC)
yeah theres no money in books, unless hollywoood wants to rip off your book, in to a flim.
May. 4th, 2011 06:00 pm (UTC)

*goes off to write scene that everyone will beg to see as a movie*

More spaceships!

That was very informative, thank you, Mandy!

May. 4th, 2011 06:05 pm (UTC)
I love this so much. I'm tired of feeling like a failure because I have a day job. Thanks for breaking it down, Mandy!
Dawn Frederick
May. 4th, 2011 06:41 pm (UTC)
Another reminder about those advances. . .
And let's talk about taxes....imagine not preparing according for that 1st huge payment - and then owing 30% of in taxes at the end of the year.

For ANY advance, put 30% in the bank, or pay Uncle Sam at least 20% of that portion when the check is cashed.
May. 4th, 2011 06:48 pm (UTC)
Thank You
this was very informative, and the reason why I strive to find the best day job ever along with pursuing the dream of publication.
May. 4th, 2011 06:51 pm (UTC)
Great post! Really sobering, and it answers a lot of the questions I have had about writing and advances/payments. Thank you!
May. 4th, 2011 06:55 pm (UTC)
Great breakdown. Thanks! Never seen those numbers before. Now instead of writing, I'm going to stick to applying for amazing race! :)
May. 4th, 2011 07:08 pm (UTC)
I'm bookmarking this
I know first-hand about how little you actually get to put in the bank, though no one ever believes me. Now I can just link to this post! Thanks. :)
May. 4th, 2011 08:01 pm (UTC)
One thing to remember is that an author makes money not with one book or even a three book deal, but with many many books over their career that add up to nice, steady royalty checks. I heard one author say that you need about nine books steadily selling to make enough to live on. And if you're a picture book author, the more books and notoriety you rack up, the more schools want you and the more you can charge. With this, you can feasibly quit your day job.

Also true--the no health care issue is a huge problem.

May. 4th, 2011 08:10 pm (UTC)
Yes, that's an excellent point--one that could be a whole blog post on its own. I was focusing more on the initial advance becuase that's what everyone dreams of and talks about-- that fat check they dream of cashing after the book sells.... but it is SO true that a longer career is the only real way to find stability and true success.
(no subject) - pamm - May. 4th, 2011 08:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 4th, 2011 08:15 pm (UTC)
A Reminder to Diversify
This post is a great reminder that every writer needs to think of various income streams. Whether its teaching seminars, publishing e-books, selling ads on a high-traffic web site, or selling articles to magazines and web sites, several income streams are critical. In addition, I write for several business web sites, and along the way I learn a lot about marketing and web site writing that I apply to my own writing career.
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( 46 comments — Leave a comment )
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