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Don’t Quit Your Day Job – Traditional Publishing by the Numbers

7 February 2013

From Amazing Stories:

If you’ve ever considered becoming a writer, surely you’ve heard the old expression, “Don’t quit your day job.” But what can you really expect as far as income is concerned? Let’s first explore traditional publishing.  When it comes to trying to determine advances for debut fantasy and science fiction novels Tobias Buckell is the best source I’ve come across, and his data seems to stand the test of time. His first author survey contained data from 78 authors and his second one included 108.  He concluded that for debut authors you can expect:

  • For fantasy a median advance was $5,000 with an average of $6,494
  • For science fiction the median advance was $5,000 with an average of $7,000
  • 58% sold with an agent and 42% without. Agented advances had a median of $6,000 (average of $7,500) and unagented came in at $3,500 (average of $4,051)

Now considering that most books don’t earn out their advance (only 30% according to the New York Times and 20% according to agent Kristen Nelson who blogs on PubRants) this means the advance is the only money that an author will ever see.

. . . .

A typical schedule would like like this:

  • Jan 1, 2013 – Contract is signed, first book is submitted to editors  ($5,801 signing bonus)
  • Jun 1, 2013 – Edits to book #1 are accepted ($1,934 acceptance payment)
  • Dec 31, 2013 – Book #1 is published ($1,934 publishing payment)
  • Jan 1, 2014 – Book #2 is due for submission
  • Jun 1, 2014 – Edits for book #2 are accepted ($1,934 acceptance payment)
  • Dec 31, 2014 – Book #2 is published ($1,934 publishing payment)
  • Jan 1, 2015 – Book #3 is due for submission
  • Jun 1, 2015 – Edits for book #3 are accepted ($1,934 acceptance payment)
  • Dec 31, 2015 – Book #3 is published  ($1,934 publishing payment)

So this means that the author receives:

  • $9,669 in 2013
  • $3,868 in 2014
  • $3,868 in 2015

Considering that they probably spent at least six months, and probably more like a year, in 2012 writing the first book that means an average of $4,351 a year or $363 a month.  It is imperative that the author meets their deadline for the books that were signed. Most contracts have provisions that require the author to pay back the signing bonus if they don’t meet their schedule.

. . . .

Another possibility would be for the publisher to choose to do mass market paperbacks.  In this scenario they probably expect to sell twice as many copies but at a price of $7.99 for both the ebook and the print book.  So that would yield:

  • Print: 60,000 x 8.0% (royalty) x $7.99 list price = $38,352
  • Ebook: 15,000 x 25% (royalty) x $7.99 list price X 70% (net) = $20,974
  • Total income = $59,326 total income with $45,889 after agent fees and self-employment tax which is $11,472 spread over 4 years

Link to the rest at Amazing Stories and thanks to James for the tip.


26 Comments to “Don’t Quit Your Day Job – Traditional Publishing by the Numbers”

  1. And the Big Six can’t figure out why writers are self-publishing? [rolls eyes] I made more than that last year, and I’m a nobody, niche writer.

  2. That’s about as much as you might realistically make with a self-published book. Of course, since you’re not writing on someone else’s schedule, you can release four, five, six books in the time you might otherwise be waiting on the first one.

    • I’m going to do a similar article on self-published. I’ve not run the numbers for that piece yet, but my past experience shows that self-published does better…assuming…you are comparing apples to apples which means you are looking at self-published books that COULD be signed as opposed to looking at “all” self-publishing books. Books that aren’t “god enough” are filtered out in traditional but are published in self which brings down the average. To be honest, I don’t care about those books – only those that COULD go either way.

  3. Yes, it is a difficult choice. Fortunately, there exists a plethora of information available to struggling authors intent upon making an informed decision.

    My personal favorite is THE LITTLE RED HEN, by Golden Books.

  4. I made one thousand dollars last month on Amazon with one self-published book. I have an agent who wants to start submitting, but reading posts like this makes me leary. What can a publisher possibly offer me that I can’t do myself?

    • What can an agent offer you?

    • So I’ve done both and I’m a huge proponent of self. But there is absolutely no doubt that traditional was a good move for me. I significantly increased my fan base, made more money (mainly due to a lot of foreign sales). But this being said, I’m a higher earner than most of my traditional peers. The breakdown goes like this.

      * If you are going to be a hug bestseller – you’d be better off with traditional.

      * If you are a high mid-list with a lot of foreign sales potential – you’d be better off with traditional.

      * If you are sold mid-list or a high mid-list with little chance of foreign – you’d be better off with self.

      * If you are a very modest seller you’ll be MUCH better off with self.

      At least that’s how I see it.

      • Great points and analysis, Michael. I’m a solid or high mid-lister, but I don’t believe my fiction protagonist and his tales will “play” as well in foreign markets: The stories (current and coming) are too linked to domestic U.S. settings, events, and issues. So I calculate that I’m much better off self-pubbing. As you point out, though, other writers’ mileage may vary, and hybrid may make sense.

  5. Michael Sullivan’s piece is a real eye-opener. And eyes do need to be opened, because Trad Publishers continue to spread empty fantasies of fame and fortune to writers in order to retain their grip on them, and under lopsided contractual terms that always favor the house.

    Michael’s most disturbing point is that even a traditionally published author of a “national bestseller” may be just squeaking by, financially, unless he also publishes a host of other books to generate a cumulative income stream. For example, a few years ago, author Lynn Viehl told the ugly truth about the pathetic financial return from her “top 20 New York Times” bestseller TWILIGHT FALL. I provide links to hers and similar stories here:


    The simple facts are that an author’s barriers to entry into publishing are infinitely lower, his royalties are many times better, and his odds of break-out success (even with a single novel) are infinitely higher, if he self-publishes. On all this, I speak from happy personal experience.

    • The TWILIGHT FALL points out another big problem with traditional – Return Reserves and high returns. I actually have a piece coming out this Sunday (02/8/2013) at Amazing Stories that goes into more detail about this. It should be worth the read.

  6. “$9,669 in 2013”

    I make more delivering our local paper twice weekly as a part-time job. 0_o

  7. I wonder if posts like this are part of the appeal of self publishing. Sure, plenty of people make less with self pubbing but if it’s guaranteed that you can’t support yourself as a traditionally published writer, then does it make more sense to take the risk? I don’t know.

    Write faster, write faster, write faster.

    • I challenge the belief that “plenty of people make less with self pubbing.” If you, as a writer, face endless rejections from traditional publishers and thus never get into print in the first place, you earn exactly $0.00 (and perhaps go backward due to the expenses along the way). However, every self-pubbed author I know has sold at least SOME number of books — which is better than NOTHING.

      So, I would argue that many, many more writers are making much more money by self-publishing. Those who self-publish also earn far greater royalties per sale than they would if they had to share them with a publisher and agent. And they keep earning royalties forever, because they don’t have a publisher deciding at some point to take their book “out of print.”

      I have only to look at my own 1099s from this past year to know that, for me, self-publishing was a financial bonanza and, in fact, financial salvation.

    • I know more self-published authors that earn a living wage than I do traditionally published ones. I’ve been published both ways so know quite a few people from both pools so I think I have a pretty good sampling from both.

  8. FWIW, I’ve earned the $6k “average advance” from my self-published book in half a year. And I’ve barely registered on the best-selling radar (reached Top 100 in Epic Fantasy for a day) – in fact, I’d describe my sales as comparably meagre.

    Why _anyone_ is still trying to publish traditionally is more and more of a mystery.

    • I’ve done both (successfully) and for me it was without question ‘the right move’ Will I do everything traditional from here on out? I doubt it. I’m actually itching to “go hybrid” but I won’t do it and risk my income – each project has to be evaluated on its own.

      Here are some points.

      * I self-published 5 books from April 2009 – Aug 2011 and sold 70,000 copies. I traditionally published 3 books staring in Nov 2011 and in the first year sold about 180,000 English copies

      * As self-published I got 3 very minor overseas sales, as traditional I got 14 very lucrative (and counting) contracts which has been twice as much as my six-figure US advance.

      * As traditional people can get my books in the library

      * As traditional I’ve been topping the audio book charts in Epic fantasy, as self it would have been very expensive and time consuming to make an audio version.

      * When I talk to readers on forums as a “Traditionally published author” the response is “wow, a ‘real author’ posted, I feel honored. When I did the EXACT same kind of post as self-published people would complain about “pushy self-published trash”

      These are just some of the reasons why traditional it was good in MY case. I’m not saying it is good for everyone…in fact there are many of my traditional published author friends that I’m trying to coax into self because they are getting such crappy deals in traditional.

      It’s not one or the other…you need to be smart and consider all options, and realize that what was good at one time may not be at another.

      • * As traditional I’ve been topping the audio book charts in Epic fantasy, as self it would have been very expensive and time consuming to make an audio version.

        Don’t count on this — Audible.com has a program in place to match readers and authors. M.C.A. Hogarth (of #SpaceMarine fame) has been getting her short stories up this way. One option is to go halvsies on the result — half to the reader, half to the author. Audible has that set up to be a simple switch-flip.

        For longer works, more readers are going to want up-front pay instead, of course.

        It does tie one into the Amazon ranks more, too, as I believe Audible is owned by Amazon now. That may factor into things for an individual author.

        But for a short-story author? Audiobooks can be amazingly affordable.

        • I would second ABeth’s statement on the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX.com). I engaged a terrific narrator via ACX at a very reasonable price. My first audiobook has been out since mid-December and the second is finished and now going through Audible’s QA process. It should be on sale soon on Amazon, Audible.com and iTunes. The process was neither difficult nor expensive (relatively speaking), and as aBeth pointed out, your costs are zero if you’re willing to do royalty share with the narrator.

          I know my friend, Robert Bidinotto, had done an audiobook via ACX, and I’m sure others here have as well. The biggest challenge for an Indie (IMO), is not getting the audiobook produced, but marketing it. There are differences between marketing ebooks and audiobooks that I’m still trying to get my arms around.

          • Yes, I had very happy results via ACX.com. The process was simple — it has to be, since they’re dealing with novices. I was able to find a great narrator and work out a royalty-sharing arrangement. And selling on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes covers a lot of the market for audiobooks.

            I’ll second what R.E. says about audiobook marketing challenges. It’s a different animal than ebooks. Before I took the plunge into producing an a-book, I worried that I wouldn’t sell a dozen copies. I’ve remained stumped about how best to promote it, and how to find lots of audiobook reviewers. I’ve promoted it on my own blogs and social media sites, but I’ve had to rely heavily on Audible’s own marketing.

            The results have happily surprised me. Without informing me in advance, they ran my book in a special one-day sales promotion not long ago, and nearly 500 copies sold. As a result, the a-book’s visibility remains decent in the spy and thriller categories on Audible, and sales continue at a modest but steady pace.

            I’d say that audiobooks are an option to consider, but only if your ebooks are selling well. Sales are likely to be only a fraction of what you sell as ebook or print editions.

  9. Good article, lays out the number in a very compelling way. Although, I think 25% royalty for an e-book is high.

    Perhaps it was best that the article took such an objective tone, but I want to add that a very important point here is this:

    The reason you can’t make a living wage writing for Traditional Publishers is that the Big Publishers are taking all the money.

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