I've heard that there are 2 ways to get paid:

  1. The writer will get (for example) 3 cents per word. Then, even if the book is a huge hit, the writer wouldn't get any more money.

  2. The writer will get some sort of percentage, like 10% of book sales. So if the book only sold 10 copies, then you would be at a disadvantage; the more books sold the more money the author gets.

If your book wasn't a good book, you would choose the 1st option, but if it'd be popular, then you'd choose the 2nd method.

Those were all the payment methods I heard from friend. Are they right?

  • 1
    Publishers usually request books to be written, it is comparatively rare that publishers buy finished works. The author then gets an advance to allow him to live while he writes that book. Later he receives a percentage of every book sold, the height of which has to be negotiated and will depend in part on previous sales. It can lie between 0% and around 15%. Academic authors often receive no payment at all, publishing is part of their job. Payment by word is common in magazine and newspaper publishing, not in books.
    – user5645
    Commented Mar 21, 2015 at 7:45
  • wait. if an academic author gets no pay at all, does that mean he gets no money from writing that book? Even it it was really popular?? That doesn't seem right. And can you explain 'buying finished works'?
    – Superman
    Commented Mar 21, 2015 at 17:02
  • @what So... if I write a book and then try to get a publisher to publish it, that's going to be difficult? I was under the impression that's how the whole publishing business works. I've never heard that the publisher tells the author what to write. Commented Mar 21, 2015 at 18:51
  • @TommyMyron Getting published by a traditional publisher in any fashion is extremely difficult. With that said (and with all due respect to what) writing a book after first receiving an advance is (in my experience) common only in non-fiction or for well-established fiction authors. Non-established fiction writers will need to write their book first and then try to beat the odds. Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 1:49
  • @ChrisSunami The majority of published books – both fiction and non-fiction – are requested books. Even for newcomers it is quite common that publishers like what they send in and then request another book. It is rare that a finished work by a newcomer will get published as a first publication. It is much more common that this first novel will get published later, after an author has proven successful with other, requested work, and after that first novel has been heavily revised (as requested by the publisher).
    – user5645
    Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 9:06

2 Answers 2


Those are basically two of the most common options, yes. Below are the ones that I know:

  • Fee: This is typical for articles, short stories and poems submitted to magazines (when there is payment offered). You get either a one-time flat fee or a per-word fee for first publication rights in that periodical.

  • Contract Writing: This is typical for large franchised series, technical writing, ghostwriting and targeted non-fiction. You are paid a one-time fee for all publication rights, and you write what you are told to write.

  • Royalties and advance: This is standard for legitimate traditional publishers of fiction and prestige non-fiction. The author is paid an advance (typically small, unless the author is extremely well-known) based on the publisher's estimate of how many copies they will eventually sell. The author is also paid a certain amount per book sold (10% is relatively typical, although that must be split in the case of multiple authors or an author/illustrator combo) --this is known as royalties. However, no royalties are paid until the initial advance has been entirely covered. In some cases the advance must be paid back if the royalties never cover it.

  • POD (Print on Demand) - This is a new method of publishing made possible by modern technology. The book is only printed, one copy at a time, in the case that someone wants to purchase it, and the author is paid a percentage of the cover price (usually comparable to a royalty), with the remainder going to the printer. This is most often used by self-publishing authors (but sometimes used by traditional publishers for their backlists). Books printed this way will rarely be carried in traditional bookstores, regardless of merit (because there is no margin left for the middleman). They do not sell themselves, so an author looking to make money through POD must be a relentless self-promoter.

  • eBook - Another new high-tech publishing method, the eBook is delivered digitally to a device, and never printed. Most people go through a supplier such as Amazon, although it is possible to do this alone. The author gets a larger percentage of the cover price, but readers are typically willing to pay much less for these. eBooks are often assumed to be lower quality because the investment in getting them published is so much lower than with other methods.

  • Self-Publishing - In legitimate self-publishing, the author takes on all the jobs of the publisher, including typesetting, layout, cover design, proofreading, publicity, marketing and sales. The author keeps all profits from sales of book, minus the initial printing costs. This is typically a good route for those who are using the books as a sideline to a business such as motivational speaking, or who are excellent at sales. Self-published books tend to garner little respect because they haven't been through the vetting process of a traditional publisher, and because the production values are often low. (A well-done self-published book, however, will not be easily identified as one.)

  • Vanity Press - Vanity presses exploit naive authors by masquerading as legitimate publishers. They are a form of self-publishing, but they make their profit from overcharging the author for the services that a legitimate publisher does for free. A vanity press is one that makes money even if no books are ever sold. It is extremely difficult to make any money through vanity publishing because of the high up-front fees.

  • Academic Writing - As @what mentioned, academic publications rarely pay directly for writing, but the publishing pays indirectly in terms of helping academics get and secure teaching positions and other benefits. (Academics can make a great deal of money, however, if they edit or contribute to a popular textbook.)

  • Cooperative Publishing - This is basically a form of self-publishing, where a cooperative collective of authors (see this example) publishes an anthology work, and then takes on the task of sales. This is more a way to get into print than to make money, since the per-author proceeds are quite low.

In my experience, even what are considered successful authors rarely make enough just from publishing to survive on. A "very successful" book might generate $10,000 for its author, which sounds like a lot, but not if the book took 5 years to write. Even very well-respected authors can often have more prestige than money. Many authors supplement their income through doing paid speaking engagements. A large number are professors of English (if they have their MFA degree), or teach at writing institutes. Others do contract writing to subsidize the writing they really care about.

EDIT: As of 2024, a lot of things have changed

  • Self-publishing/POD - Self-publishing is basically all POD now (which drastically lowers the minimum financial investment), and the costs have come down to the point that it's possible to place POD books in bookstores if you have distribution. Ingram Spark, which does both POD and distribution, is probably the best route to that. Your margins will be low, however.
  • eBooks - A lot of the stigma around eBooks has gone away--there are an increasing number of people who read eBooks exclusively.
  • Hybrid - Hybrid publishing is a new model where you subsidize the publication of your work. Although in theory it's the best of both worlds between self-publishing and trad-publishing, in practice many so-called "hybrid" publishers are really vanity presses trying to rehabilitate their image.
  • I think you're blurring a lot of different ideas in together - like, POD and ebooks don't really have anything to do with how authors get paid - they're methods of book production, but not unique in terms of payment. (ie. if a publishing contract gives the author 20% of cover price, that's 20% of the cover price regardless of whether the publisher orders a print one or uses POD)
    – Kate S.
    Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 1:52
  • @KateSherwood I see your point, but if you're looking to get paid from writing, pursuing POD or eBook publishing are options to consider, assuming you understand the downsides. And if your publisher uses POD, it will be a very different experience for you as the writer than if they do a real print run, Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 2:00
  • It is rare for POD books to be sold in bookstores, but it happens. The writer gets a much smaller royalty because the middle-man has to get a cut, and POD books are usually non-returnable. One of my POD books sells a few copies per year in a bookstore.
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 14:02
  • @Jay - True, I'll edit to be less absolute. Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 14:54
  • 3
    @ThomasMyron -- You'll get an advance first. Then nothing until the advance is paid off --which it might never be. If you do outsell your advance, then a check every six months. Commented May 20, 2017 at 2:21

What kind of book? I have most experience with novels... I think things are a bit different for non-fiction, but I can't say for sure.

For novels...

Authors don't get paid per word. That applies to some short story markets, and, I think to non-fiction articles, but not novels.

For novels, authors are paid royalties based on sales. This can be either net sales, in which case the percentage is generally higher, or cover price, in which case the percentage is generally lower. So, for example, a publisher might pay 50% of net sales, but that means that for a $5 e-book, the publisher would only receive $3.50, and the author would get $1.75. Or the publisher might pay 15% of cover price, so if the book had a $10 cover price the author would get $1.50 per book sold.

There are also advances that come into play. When a publisher buys a book, they give the author an advance on royalties, which is essentially an advance payment of royalties that will hopefully be received down the line. So the author might get a $10K advance (often divided into 1/3 payments for when the contract is signed, the MS is received, and the book is released), and won't receive any royalties on that title until the advance is paid off.

  • a 70 page book, story
    – Superman
    Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 20:51

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