Home » Royalties, The Business of Writing » The Financial Reality of a Genre Novelist

The Financial Reality of a Genre Novelist

1 February 2013

From Galleycat:

If you have dreams of selling your science fiction, fantasy or horror novel and getting filthy rich, you need to adjust your expectations. We’ve collected three testimonials from genre writers below to help aspiring writers to maintain realistic expectations.

. . . .

Horror novelist Brian Keene gave a speech at Towson University’s Borderlands Boot Camprecently, laying out some frank statistics for aspiring genre novelists. Here is an excerpt:

The average advance these days, for a genre fiction novel, ranges between $2,500 and $10,000. That’s right. The novel you spent a year working on only earns you between $2,500 to $10,000 at first. When the book is published a year later, that advance will have long been spent. And you probably won’t see a royalty check until another year AFTER your book has been published (provided enough copies have sold to earn out your advance). So it will actually be two years from that advance check before you get paid again.

Link to the rest at Galleycat and thanks to Julia for the tip.

Royalties, The Business of Writing

22 Comments to “The Financial Reality of a Genre Novelist”

  1. These sound like good reasons not to go with a traditional publisher. They take too much for what little they offer. On the writer’s end of things, the business model just doesn’t seem to work out for a lot of writers.

    Also, since the ebook revolution is still in its infancy, writers are going to have to work in other fields until the market becomes strong enough for more writers and readers to support each other. It will get better. It’s just going to take time. And when that time comes, I don’t think people are going to be clamoring to get published by traditional publishers. After all, book stores are still closing…

    • That’s the way I take it.

      That bottom-end genre advance — $2,500 — equals the author’s net revenue (at 70% of retail) on 716 copies of a $4.99 ebook. A book that sells 716 copies is a stone disaster for a trade publisher. My own books are, at the moment, selling like coldcakes; even so, I have a more than reasonable expectation of selling at least 716 books in the time it would take a publisher to accept my submission, negotiate a contract, and schedule, edit, design, and publish the book. That’s about a three-year process on average — and then, after all that tsoris, the book is out of print a couple of months later. The self-published ebook can go on selling indefinitely.

      So all I need to do is have a book sell an average of 20 copies a month, and I’ll be doing better than I would by selling the same book to a trade publisher for a $2,500 advance. I earn more per copy; I have earned more in total at any given point in time; and on top of that, the book is out there, available to the public, generating word of mouth, for three years, where it would be unpublished and unknown if a trade publisher were handling it.

      So far, my books aren’t averaging 20 copies a month; but so far, I only have two titles out there, released four months apart, and have done approximately zero promotion. The release of the second book gave a fillip to sales of the first; I can expect a similar fillip from each succeeding book. My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that I’ll cross the threshold of 20 copies per month per title at about the fifth title, if nothing else changes. That won’t pay my bills, but then, I would never pay my bills by writing for $2,500 advances.

      • I read through those posts, and do you know what’s freaky? I made more self-publishing in 2012 than a traditionally-published Hugo-winning writer did.

        If that’s not proof that publishing has changed, than nothing is.

      • Math can be your friend. For several decades math has been the writer’s enemy. The math of advances and royalty games and multiple foxes arguing over ever-thinner chicken carcasses, leaving worried shreds of flesh for the starving farmer – who actually raised the chickens which sustain all. No more.

    • Semi-traditionally, an author either had some charming day job to keep them in garret and gob, or a spouse or other enabler who let them sit and write until they “broke through.” For people like that – who can wait for the big payday, if it ever comes – this model is fine. Aspirational, even. That is one Hell of a brass ring in the far distance.

      But now, when the distance requires a telescope if not a tachyonic observational device to spy across, and can perhaps be bridged as easily by traveling through the wormhole of indiepub success as by negotiating the River Mnemosyne in some ancient flat-bottomed pole-boat, the true lack of appeal of the thing finally becomes clear.

      Any economist will tell you that money now is ALWAYS better than money later, ith obvious caveats and limitations. (The concept of the Time Value of Money is one of the Dismal Science’s most important gifts to the human race and in some small way helps to make up for the many curses it has likewise bestowed. Sort of the Hope in the Pandora’s Box they opened.) If indiepub offers me the same time value for a book as tradpub does, I’d literally be throwing money away not to indiepub now and get money starting in 60 days. The trick is, tradpub does have that brass ring, which is more than my indiepub’s long tail is worth.

      Or is it?

      Ask E.L. James. Ask Hugh Howey. Does their brass ring now need ore from indiepub to refine anyway? Winning the top prize in tradpub is worth more than winning it in indiepub. But winning it in indiepub is more and more likely to get you both. The bottom is the bottom. The midlist is better and better for indiepub all the time. The top is accessible from indiepub as easily if not more easily than from tradpub and once you reach it tradpub will beat a path to your door.

      What is their advantage?

      • Great post.

        And especially loved this part:

        “But now, when the distance requires a telescope if not a tachyonic observational device to spy across, and can perhaps be bridged as easily by traveling through the wormhole of indiepub success as by negotiating the River Mnemosyne in some ancient flat-bottomed pole-boat, the true lack of appeal of the thing finally becomes clear.”


  2. So, from what I can see, this is how it works:

    If you publish with a traditional publisher: The publisher gets the bulk of the money.

    If you publish indie: you get the bulk of the money.

    Whatever money there is. Not every book will make money, but if it does, this is how it’s divided. That means, if you want to earn a living wage, you have a much better chance of doing that if a Publisher isn’t taking the bulk of the money.

    • I suspect Mr. Simon and most other indiepublishers would rather have 15% of a million dollars than 70% of ten thousand. I know I would.

      However, the thing is, it’s less and less likely that the former will happen and more and more likely the latter will. At some point the curves cross. 🙂

      • Marc – actually indies make more money if they don’t got trad. even if they are bestsellers.

        There is very little value the publishers add other than getting a book into bookstores. Which actually can canabalize e-book sales.

        Also – bookstores are dying, and the e-book is forever. Giving up e-book rights and royalties for print is extremely short sighted. You are handing bags and bags of money over to a publisher for the life of the book.

        Which is why many bestselling authors are starting to go indie.

        • Oh, no argument. The point was that if tradpub significantly increases the odds that I’ll make a LOT more sales, the lower royalty is worth it. The other point was that this is becoming less and less likely. 🙂

          • That’s the thing. I would indeed rather have 15% of a million dollars; but where is the million dollars? Precious few trade-published books have a gross sale that large; even fewer of those that are published without heavy PR, fanfare, and (most important) co-op money to shove them in customers’ faces. If all a publisher is going to do is print a few thousand paperbacks and list them in its catalogue for the chain buyers to pick up or (more probably) ignore, well, that service is not worth 55% of retail.

  3. If you read the monthly sales threads over at the Kindleboards Writers Cafe forum, you’ll see quite a few writers who are making more than what is given to new writers who publish traditionally.

    Most writers never will make a living at it. Most never have in any system. But the chances of making a living, even a good one, are far better now self-publishing than they are going the traditional route. Especially for those who take both craft and business seriously and who work hard at both.

  4. How do you define genre fiction? Is it everything that’s not lit fiction? If so, that’s a lot more genres and sub-genres than horror and sci-fi and fantasy.

    • Oh, don’t you start.


      (There have been several arguments about this lately. However for purposes of THIS discussion your definition is a good one.)

  5. The best part about these articles is that they continue to reinforce the fact that I absolutely made the right choice regarding my writing career.

  6. One thing I found very interesting — which I haven’t seen commented on — was the link to Brian Keene’s speech at Borderland’s Boot Camp. Keene mentions there is a non-financial cost in being a writer:

    Also be mindful of the toll full-time writing can have on your relationships. I spend my time alone and spend my alone time writing. Writing is a solitary act, and it makes for a solitary existence. Hell, I should know. Writing is the reason I’m alone. …

    And all it cost me was everything else. Let me tell you some of the costs, so that you can avoid them in your own career.

    Writing cost me two marriages. At least, that’s what I tell myself. In truth, it was really me.


    • Yikes. You have to know when to close the laptop. He obviously didn’t.

      • Agreed. I think you can have a steady career and not ruin the rest of your life. In fact, I’d like to have a writing career for the purpose of having a life. I am having no trouble wrapping it into everything else, but I set limits.

        But as an indie, I’m constantly making money from things I’ve written in the past combined with newer projects. I haven’t been in it long enough to see a huge buildup, but I definitely have seen a steady increase. There will be a point where I think the profits will be self-perpetuating.

    • Wait, I just reread the last line again, which rendered this post moot. 🙂

  7. Jim Hines has actually indie published an OOP novel (in a different genre) and some shorts. As far as I recall, he wasn’t all that happy about his sales at the time.

    No idea about Keene and Lawrence.

  8. Is it too late to say I substitute reality and replace it with my own? Because I’d rather not have to go that route with my fiction, just saying. I’ll take the very, very little money I’m making from my one ebook compared to that. It just seems so time-wasting and stressful.

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