I buy quite a lot of literature, mostly of academic nature. One thing I have noticed is that books by American authors always tend to be more explicit and contain more examples, regarding whatever subject.

Now, I have heard a rumor that American authors get paid by the word/page; hence the massive size of the books. Is this true?

  • Well, Charles Dickens was... Which is why his works are "As the scrawny boy with a marvelous black hat with a small dog sitting on top of it ran slyly past the overweight men, an unexpected and curious thing happened: the master of the orphanage peered at his toiling boys and exclaimed pompously, "No work today!"". :) (Disclaimer: He didn't actually write that.) – Mateen Ulhaq Oct 17 '11 at 23:18
  • @MateenUlhaq, his writing is actually quite excellent: "The parish authorities inquired with dignity of the workhouse authorities, whether there was no female then domiciled in 'the house' who was in a situation to impart to Oliver Twist, the consolation and nourishment of which he stood in need." – Wildcard Oct 24 '17 at 3:53

Writers being paid 'by the word' is kind of a misnomer. Many writers are paid more for longer pieces - reflecting the author's investment - but writers are never paid to pad or extend their work.

The confusion seems to be mostly relevant to journalism, where word count is important because space in a magazine or newspaper is literally limited. When an author is told she will make $250 on a 1,000 word article, one might say that she's being paid 25¢ per word, but she won't make an extra $25 for turning in a 1,100 word article. In fact, her piece could even be rejected if she misses the word count. See How Freelance Journalism Pays for more details. (Incidentally, this confusion is responsible for the myth that Dickens was paid by the word.)

When it comes to books (including tech books), authors are paid with a royalty system. It works like this:

  1. An author pitches a book to a publisher.
  2. The publisher and author agree on an advance payment to the author that will ensure the book will be completed. The amount of the advance is related to the time and investment required on the author's part, and the expected return once the book hits shelves.
  3. The book is published (hopefully).
  4. For every book sold, call a (small) portion of the sale price a 'royalty'. Initially, these royalties go to the publisher to refund the advance paid to the author in step 2.
  5. Once the advance has been paid back, the author herself receives any remaining royalties for the life of her contract with the publisher.

It should be obvious that this system yields better books than any kind of pay-for-quantity system. I would be hard-pressed to believe that authors have ever been paid for the quantity of their writing, except in the sense described above. To hear more about the royalty system in use today, here are some articles by recent tech book authors:

(All of this stuff applies equally well to non-tech books, too. If you're interested in the nitty-gritty, a conversation about self-publishing between Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler - who recently turned down a $500,000 advance - makes for pretty fun reading.)

  • 2
    Woh, what an answer! – Anders Oct 18 '11 at 17:22
  • I'm glad this got accepted instead of mine – DForck42 Oct 18 '11 at 18:23
  • I thought nobody else would answer this question. – Anders Oct 19 '11 at 11:02

I honeslty don't know if this has any one answer, because I'm sure different publishing houses and different authors with different contracts get paid differently. From what I recall back in the day authors were probably paid by the page (or whatever quantity) because there was a push for quantity, not quality. Now-a-days I believe authors get paid depending on how well the book sells.


Publishers believe that a minimum page count is required for a marketable book, but some subjects cannot cover the 200+ page minimums. These books gets padded with material that is easy to produce such as analyses of works of art and unnecessary detailed review of other works on the subject.

There is another problem. If you are an academic, chances are you are producing very little new knowledge. A new theory or any other important contribution to science is considered a great work for any academic but it is actually rare that such a work is produced. So, academics spend a lot of time on analysis, material that is easy to produce and requires no creativity. Some academics write many books on a subject that could be easily covered in a single book. It's a question of page quota but also production. That is why the quality of books by academics is dropping every year.

Aristotle would cover a subject fully in 40,000 or 60,000 words of dense meaning and only write a single book on the subject. The modern academic produces far less important work and tends to produce multiple book on a subject of limited depth and importance. There are techniques to do that sort of thing, and everybody is using them. The same applies to white papers and everything else in the academic world. These days, the production cost is very low and practically everyone writes books, so quality has naturally deteriorated. The reader will rarely find a good book on the subject and that's how it will be in the future.

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