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I have been considering writing as a fiction novelist. However, the impression of difficulty in making a reasonable living as a fiction author is quite pervasive. So much so, that I am constantly held back by a mental check that says, "with so little free time, you should spend it doing things that have a potential to generate enough income to say goodbye to the day job."

However, I love creating worlds, crafting stories, making things the way I want them. So I keep getting drawn back into contemplating it.

I have done research online about author income, but much of it lumps together fiction with non-fiction, merchandising income, movie rights, and more. Those things are nice, but merchandising and movie rights are only available usually after decades of effort and many entries on the bestseller lists.

So what I'm asking, after all, that background is simple:

  1. What would the median expected book sales (royalties and advances) income be per year for a mid-level author, after two years, who published 1-2 novels per year? Would it be a firmly upper middle class (e.g. $100k plus), or much less?
  2. Is there a difference in book sales income potential for self-publishing vs. legacy publishing? In other words, all else being equal, are one's odds greater of making a reasonable living as a legacy published fiction author, or a self-published author? Yes, I know that the chances of getting picked up by a legacy publisher are long, but for this question, I am assuming that one is found and published though the legacy publisher with the same level of marketing and advances as a mid-tier writer.

Thank you!

  • Is $100K "upper-middle class"? I thought that $35K-$50K would match that description better. Hmm... – Kai Maxfield Feb 14 '16 at 6:03
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    It depends on where you live. In New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, D.C., etc $100k is a minimum to be able to afford rent and food. Rent for a one bedroom apartment, not down in the projects, where I live is a minimum of $800 per month. – Darkstar Feb 14 '16 at 12:51
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    Of course, being the sole breadwinner for a large family makes $35-$50k even more of a non-starter – Darkstar Feb 14 '16 at 12:52
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The range is enormous, but the average income for published authors is spectacularly low—around $500 a year. No missing zero. Five hundred.

The tiny minority who hit the bestseller lists will do quite well. Many novels sell movie rights. Most are never made into movies, but if you are lucky enough to see your book turned into a major movie, of course you will do very well by it.

Being able to self-publish has increased the percentage royalties the author can earn (70% versus under 10% with traditional publishing), but the competition is enormous (over three million books on Kindle), and the competition stays in print forever.

Still, the odds are better than a lottery!

  • Wow, no wonder most of the writers I see out there are either retired, independently wealthy already, or have someone else supporting them. Sounds like there are better odds of becoming a YouTube star than a self sufficient author. – Darkstar Feb 11 '16 at 17:41
  • You need to sell about 10,000 books a year to minimally make ends meet, and you're still on your country's version of Medicaid and Food Stamps. I personally believe this can't be done with self publishing (with the RARE exception). There are some genres (grocery story romance) where you sell mostly on the front end. However, if you want to quit your day job, and not hitting the jackpot, grind it out through library sales. This takes years, but I feel is worth it. Still hoping for the big one! – Stu W Feb 11 '16 at 21:41
  • @Duncan, I'm not really surprised about your 500 dollar figure; would you happen to know what a median income or moderately higher income for an author is like? – Kai Maxfield Feb 14 '16 at 5:56
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    @Kai—the sky's the limit. JK Rowling is a billionaire, or close to it. (Factor that into the $500 average...) Stephen King's worth is estimated at $400m. If you have a $2.99 book on Kindle, and your Amazon rank is consistently about 100,000 (meaning you're in the top 3% of Kindle authors), you're making around $600/year, which beats the average for writers! A ranking of 1,000 corresponds to roughly $82,000/year. If your book is ranked a stratospheric 100, you're making about $730,000 a year. In real life, most books don't stay in one position for that long. – Duncan McKenzie Feb 15 '16 at 13:50
  • Here's an interesting snapshot of the earnings of British writers, which is very low, and falling! theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/08/… – Duncan McKenzie Feb 15 '16 at 13:57

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