Tuesday, November 20, 2012

How Much does a Novelist Really Make?

Before really delving into this, one needs to think about why you would write a novel in the first place.

Do you horseback ride? How much do you get paid for that? Do you ride a bike? How much do you get paid for that? Play an instrument? Read? Go to restaurants?

You get the idea. You should not be in this primarily, or secondarily, for the money. Sure you might get lucky and get paid to read books, or write restaurant reviews. But, what are the odds? You really won’t get paid to write.

It has been said, ad nauseam, that writing novels (or fiction in general) is a labor of love, not economics. You get it, you say. You still want to know how much the average novelist makes.

Very, very, little. No benefits and other costs add up.  Your average “midlist” novelist, who has not been picked up by a large publisher makes $4,000 per book—before expenses!  Note I said midlist also. Midlist means you have some name recognition. Per book can be spread out over multiple years. You will make in the hundreds with your first book at a tiny press. If you are lucky. It may only be in the tens or twenties. With the economies of books these days double digits is not all bad.

Your first book is both a labor of love and a learning experience. Second books are applying the learning and proving you really love the work. Third book you are telling the world you are serious about this. If you are serious about making this into a career, remember the 10,000 hour rule. The corollary for career in writing is don’t get excited until you sold your first 10,000 books—in one year.

You will see some other averages out there, such as U.S. department of statistics on authors. That includes ALL authors, including salaried authors (e.g. full time employees of Time Magazine). That average is $10,000 per year. Remember, this is the average that includes authors who get paychecks and includes the Stephen Kings of the world! Those making a comfortable living are rare and they put out multiple books per year, for tens of years.

So you want to be a writer? Tell me why—and don’t quit your day job!


  1. You're right, writers don't make very much money selling books. Nor do most musicians make very much money selling CDs. But your aperture is awfully narrow for anyone who is considering "being a writer", because it doesn't take into account all the sources of income that a writer must pursue to make a decent living.

    Most writers teach. It comes with the territory. They make peanuts teaching, but it is another source.

    Some fiction writers tour. Pam Houston, who had a hit novel almost 20 years ago with "Cowboys Are My Weakness", made over 90 appearances this year. One unusual appearance paid $7000.

    Many writers are also editors, which can pay $500 for a novel-length manuscript. One of those a month can buy a few bags of groceries.

    Novelists that stomach Hollywood can make money as story editors, if not screenwriters for film, TV, video.

    And finally there is writing for business. Freelance copywriters can command anywhere from $200 to $500 an hour, depending on their pedigree. I made a good living for awhile as a freelance scriptwriter for corporate satellite TV. We had fun and produced some really goofy shows with some great comic actors. And the corporate video business is doing better than ever - and so are the writers.

    Novelists with a specialty in a particular content area - fishing, horses, chess, cloud computing, you name it - can, with some gumption, position themselves as experts and make good money selling their opinion.

    My publisher, HarperDavis, signs authors that they believe will make good "public figures", because if a publisher is going to sell books without paid media, the authors better get out there and sell themselves.

    There's no question that 99.9% of novelists are not going to make a living writing novels and selling books. Very few ever have. But there's no reason why writing can't be your day job. It's been mine, in some shape or form, for 35 years. The writing might consist of PowerPoint slides, web pages, brochures. It may consist of a mix of headlines, subheads, copy blocks, bullets. But it's still writing and it still demands creativity, and you would be surprised how much the corporate world will pay for a little creativity. An experienced agency copywriter in a major metro can make over six figures easily and if the work doesn't kill him he can write and publish novels.

    Maybe if he's lucky and I mean really really lucky, a novel will catch on, there will be film options, he'll become a public figure and spend half the year on speaking tours and the other half teaching at low residency MFA programs while the world eagerly awaits the next novel.

    That's my plan, anyway. I'm not even 60 yet so I've got plenty of time. Throw Social Security in there and I'll have it made!

  2. Jeb,
    First, I hope it is clear to all writers that I am not being negative, nor trying to turn them away. I do respond a bit like some who are cited on Pink Ribbon Fatigue for breast cancer. The overwhelming upbeat attitude and optimism is wearing after a time. This is not negative, nor cynical. It is "let's have a dose of reality mixed in with that PR campaign." Writing support groups and programs focus so much on the positive that occasionally the curious future author finds it hard to get an honest answer.

    Absolutely most writers need to supplement their income--AND CAN. That is part of my point in the original blog (or I should say I HOPE that was perceived as part of my point!). My main point is "don't plan on making your money writing novels." That still holds.

    I would argue that teaching is NOT writing. You might help land the teaching job due to your writing, but you are not earning money "writing fiction."

    Now, I suppose one could argue that copywriting, or PowerPoint slides, are fiction . Certainly the investors of HP are starting to realize that vis-à-vis the Compaq acquisition! (But, I digress.)

    There are a number of writers of fiction who have careers that revolve around writing in general, but revolve around writing and writing are two different things.

    I encourage people to write, but it has to come from passion. It has to be for the right reasons.

    By the way, I would seriously disagree with you that "most writers are teachers." Getting a job teaching, certainly in an MFA program, is not easy. Budgets keep getting slashed. There are calls for programs of all sorts that receive government funding, including loans, to show the average pay 1 and 5 years after graduation and ability to get a job. MFA programs would not fare well by that criteria. Nor would, psychology BAs, or philosophy degrees.

    Maybe one can put it another way. Few novelists make a living writing their own work. Most try to focus their "day job" in ways that revolve around writing and some succeed. Frank Herbert (ala Dune fame) also stuck with his day job until after the third of the series came out (if my feeble memory serves).

    I would love to hear and read some examples of "non-hit" novelists whose writing led to the ability to be considered an expert on something.

    Pam Houston is an interesting example of a HIT novelist. She TEACHES at the graduate level. She has won a lot of prizes. She has had hit novels. Her SUCCESS as a writer is what has led to further success. Her success as a novelist led to contacts that she would not have had otherwise. What does the mid-list, no hit novelist do? Whatever it takes! But, whatever it takes is not always writing your own novel.


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