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As a beginning writer, I need to have a broad view of the financial side of writing. How much to expect and how different types of publishing affect benefits.

There are no threads I am aware of that deal exclusively with the revenues one can expect from their writings. Yes, we are most likely not going to get rich writing, but some of us dream of making a living at it.

If you need to know from where your next meal is coming, you better have a pretty specific idea and not some tentative nebulously vague noncommittal platitude about earnings.

Obviously these numbers vary enormously, here the focus if beginning writers (first time writers, or early career writers (under 5 books published)), non-fiction books, genre and mainstream.

  • How much can you expect from writing a novel?
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    It's unclear what numbers you're asking for, or indeed what your question is. Can you please clarify what numbers you want? All situations are different and there's no single type of income stream for writers. – Goodbye Stack Exchange Aug 6 '15 at 3:52
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    Also, please don't complain about the closure of one question in the body of another question. If you think my closure of your previous question was unwarranted, you can either comment there or open a thread in meta. – Goodbye Stack Exchange Aug 6 '15 at 3:54
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    This seems like a poll question, asking different authors for their subjective opinions and their personal experiences. Although I agree wholeheartedly that it's important to get some transparency into the financials of a writing career, I don't think a Stack Overflow Q&A question is the right format for that. – Standback Aug 6 '15 at 5:45
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    What type of writing? Niche? Mainstream fiction? Well-researched nonfiction (e.g. histories)? Collections of shorter works? Sequels to books that sold well? Poorly? First-time author? Paper, e-book, both? – Monica Cellio Aug 6 '15 at 14:28
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    Per comments I am putting this on hold temporarily. Please focus and clarify the question so we can reopen. "What numbers can writers expect" is way too broad and subjective, but if you provide more context this could be a good question. Remember, we're a focused Q&A site, not a discussion board. – Monica Cellio Aug 6 '15 at 20:00
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It's very difficult to have hard answers for questions like this because there are way too many variables. "Traditional" publishing is not a monolith - there's a lot of difference between publishing with the Big 5 and publishing with a small e-publisher, and a lot of difference between publishing with a reputable, established e-publisher and a fly-by-night startup.

There are also confidentiality issues - many publisher contracts include terms about neither side sharing details of the contracts. And of course there are personal privacy issues - talking about money is socially questionable in many circles - frustrating for those trying to find hard numbers, but true nonetheless.

Finally, there are challenges related to comparing apples to oranges. How do we ever know if a manuscript that was self-published was as good as, the same as, or better than a manuscript from an established publisher? And is there value in comparing the profits from a weak MS to the profits from a strong MS? What about different genres? Most self-publishing sales come from e-books, and some genres do much better than others in e-book format.

There are probably other variables I'm not thinking of, too.

That said, I'll share what numbers I can. (These numbers are for the life of the books thus far, so they range from about 5 years down to 1 year. The bulk of the sales is generally in the first year, for me). I think the relevant figures I have come from self-publishing in a genre where I had no name, publishing with small-but-reputable publishers, self-publishing in a genre where I'd built a name (via the small publishers) and Big 5 publishing in a genre where I had no name.

So... self-publishing in a genre where I had no name - probably cost me about $1K, for editing, formatting, cover art, and advertising. I made about $100 in sales, if that. Net loss $900.

Publishing with small but reputable publishers - costs me nothing but time, royalties are usually in the $5K - $10K range, for novel-length books. Net profit $5K - $10K (some outliers on either side, and all numbers still growing with backlist sales, but... this is a good range).

Self-publishing in the same genre - cost me about $1K for editing, formatting, cover art, advertising. Royalties are about $5K (fewer overall sales, but higher % per sale), for a net profit of about $4K.

Big-5 Publishing - I've just started doing this, so I don't have sales numbers yet. Cost me nothing but time. Advances (for what they consider a first time author, in a genre not known for generous advances) were about the average for what I'd expect for total sales from my small-publisher books. Remains to be seen if advance earns out or if I see royalties on top of it.

Other people will have different numbers, obviously. But if you're looking for accuracy, try to get as close to the source as possible. There's a lot of misinformation out there.

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  • Thanks, these are the type of numbers I was looking for. Better apple and oranges than to think that an orange is a type of shellfish. Also, I have seen many posts from hopefully naïve posters who think they can make a fortune writing. This was part of the reason for my post, a realistic estimate of potential writing revenues. – Reed -SE is a Fish on Dry Land Aug 6 '15 at 3:20
  • What time period are these numbers for? Yearly? Something else? – Faheem Mitha Aug 6 '15 at 8:17
  • They're since the books were published, so ranging from 1-5 years. But the bulk of the sales came in the first year. – Kate S. Aug 6 '15 at 11:00
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Check out Author Earnings.

There are lots of debates about the collection, meaning, and significance of the data, but there's plenty of data.

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  • Thank you @ Dale Hartley Emery for this site and @Standback for "2014 Digital Book World and Writer's Digest Author Survey" and "Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Business Rusch essays". I was not aware of those, I am not very internet savvy and the SE is the only writers' resource site I regularly use. – Reed -SE is a Fish on Dry Land Aug 7 '15 at 19:03
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This Anwer was originally part of "I am an unestablished author with a decent book. Should I publish online, or try to find a 'real' publisher?", then was asked as a Q and was shut down till re- editing it as a Q and A.

These following numbers are broadly inaccurate; they are here to get a general idea. Some SE members strongly disagree of mentioning numbers without sources, others disagree with the numbers.

Please tell me if in your research, or as a published author, my estimates are not consistent with your experience

  • To the first, I say that I am not going to chew your food for you. Do some research, you will find some numbers, also you will find much more detail than what is presented here, this is just a basic introduction.
  • To the second, please give us your numbers, there are not enough quantitative data especially from personal experience.

Cold Coins for your Soul...

The crux of the matter is money vs. fame, here we speak dough.

  • 1) You have a problem manuscript

It is badly written, plots go nowhere, it is boring, not commercial… Trad. publishers won’t be interested; you won’t make much, if any, by self-publishing anyways.

  • 2) You have an average manuscript

It shows potential; there are some issues with it.

This is the grey area where traditional vs. self publishing comes into play the most.

A publisher will improve it and you get the recognition of a mid list “professional” author, but you don’t make much, and would need many more books like that to contemplate going really going full-time professional.

It is much harder to self edit to improve the book; the end product may be inferior. However, with self publishing, you will most likely make much more money, but won’t get the recognition. With a fan base, you can become professional much sooner. in this case, trad. vs. self is a decision that can be a trade between some fame or some cash.

  • 3) You have a great manuscript

The trad. houses will distribute it to markets you can’t reach on your own; this way reaches the most readers. You will make money even from puny royalties. This could be the beginning of a “partnership” with that publisher. it will give you a "name".

You will reach fewer people by self-publishing , but have some “fame” from the number of sales; you will make lots more money.

  • Ka-Ching!…

This is broadly inaccurate, full of estimates and suppositions and is here to get a general idea.

KindleDirect at 70% royalties book sold at 3 or 4 (£, $, or €). vs. let’s say 6%-8% royalties from a publisher, book sold at 7 (£, $, or €).

Yes, Stephen King may get 15% or more, but we are talking about beginning writers, and ignoring advance payments which will be deducted from the royalties anyways.

Yes it is a subjective judgment call and some sell books the same price, however I believe this is the average, 7 for paperbacks novels and 3 or 4 for e-books.

(Although there are differences between £, $, or €, having bough books in all the countries concerned most paperbacks are about 7 (£,$, or €), so i'll use no currency as in this case £,$, or € are interchangable, for sales, if not for ultimate profits.)

So, with a printed book price ot 7, trad. royalties of 6% are 7*.06=.42 and royalties of 8% are 7*.08=.56, and per book sold, let’s average this to 50 cents per book sold.

With e-books sold at 3-4, KDP are 3*.7=2.1, or 4*.7=2.8 per book sold, lets average that to 2.5 per books sold.

For the numbers to match traditional publishers need to be able to sell 5 times more books.

(Though some other estimations i did resulted in closer to 4 times more sales for the same revenue.)

Though they sell more, the data between printed and e-book sales in Amazon suggest that it is more like twice, though that includes e-books sales from trad. publishers. (It would be great if someone could find relevent numbers for the industy, even if aproximative estimated numbers.)

Anyways, for illustrative purposes, the nuts and bolts of making money from writing.

  • @ 500 books sold, trade=250, KDP=1250
  • @ 2500 books sold, trade=1250, KDP=6250
  • @ 5000 books sold, trade=2500, KDP=12500
  • @ 25000 books sold, trade=12500, KDP=62500
  • @ 50000 books sold, trade=25000, KDP=125000

Well, let’s not dream bigger. The conclusion is that the difference in profits becomes more and more important, mentally if not mathematically, as there are more books sold.

However, let’s keep in mind some generalities…

  • First time authors who self publish have typical runs in the low hundreds, if that. So, a few of hundred bucks for all that work is the financial result.
  • Most trad. published first time authors never get any royalties because the royalties are less than the typical 2500 or 5000 advance they are given.(Well, at least according to the creative accounting traditional publishers seem to excel at...)
  • Many midlist authors sell no more than about 20000 books, so they only do marginally well and need multiple book deals and a backlist of published books to earn a living from writings.

I am not sure when the term bestseller starts to be applicable, but I would consider 50k book sales to be it.


@Kate Sherwood commented in I am an unestablished author with a decent book. Should I publish online, or try to find a 'real' publisher?

And with the edits, you're adding more numbers that don't really jibe with my experience. Your estimate for an advance, even for a new author, is really low.

I know mid career authors often get 20-25k advances and that some talented prospects, well represented by an agent, may get 10K. However, I read, in writing books, that in the US first timers used to get a standard 5000 advance, but that it is now more often 2500 due to market pressure. In Europe, I personally know first time authors who where given 5000 euros advances, and where not paid royalties for a couple of years after that.

I arrived to these numbers by various researches, as a beginner I needed to get a concrete idea of the financial realities of publishing. Some of my numbers may be wrong but I believe that they will be helpful to aspiring writers trying to figure the money side of things

This text is a base, a platform from which interested readers can then hunt down the specific numbers. I didn’t pull the numbers out from my hat, they can be found. Yet, my numbers may be obsolete for today’s market; they are here to give a general idea to those who are clueless. I wrote what I would like to have read early on. Specifics, even if inaccurate, can give a broad sense of the financial realities behind writings.

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