Income per copy
How much do writers earn? In general, authors published by the traditional publishers we know and love – Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster – earn 10% of the cover price of a printed book. That percentage may go up to 12.5% and even higher if an author sells many tens of thousands of books. It may also be as low as 8.5% – contracts have been trending downwards in recent years.
Many people are shocked to learn of this low percentage. But a perverse formula has always applied to publishing, as in other arts, where the people who have the least to do with creating a work – retailers – make the most money from it – 55%. The people who have the most to do with it – authors – make the least – 10%. The remaining 35% goes to the publisher, to meet the costs of printing, warehousing, distribution, a sales team, editing, designing, marketing and management.
A $14.95 paperback, whether bought from a local bookstore or online, will typically earn its author $1.49. The e-book equivalent usually earns an author 33% of net income, and a $4.99 e-format version of the same book would typically deliver $1.20. Many readers mistakenly believe that authors make far more money from print books than electronic because of the relative costs. As you can see, the income is often not that different. All it takes is a discounted print promotion and you are earning the same from a print as from an ebook.
‘Indie’ authors who create their own imprints to reach markets where they can’t or don’t wish to involve traditional publishers can earn more per copy. $4.90 from that same $14.95 paperback and $3.70 on a $4.99 e-book. From those higher per-copy figures, however, must be subtracted many of the costs that traditional publishers carry – editing, design, distribution and marketing being the main ones. Some of the heftier bills must be paid up-front, so that an indie author is typically minus $2,000 – $3,000 come launch day. It is also the case that an ‘Indie’ author must set up and manage a webside, social media pages, newletter and online promotions, all of which cost time and money.
Typical sales figures
Income-per-copy is only one, albeit important, element of the financial equation. And clearly, we are in a low-margin, high-volume business here. Another obvious element is – how many copies can you expect to sell?
In the English speaking world, a traditional publisher based in USA would regard as “solid” sales of around 20,000 copies, in UK 10,000, in Australia, 5,000. If your publisher is based in one of these territories, publication in the others is by no means assured, so you can’t automatically aggregate those figures.
Best case scenario, your book sells 20,000 copies in USA. With a 40:60 mix of print: e-books, you’re looking at an income of around $32k.
That $32k won’t necessarily come all at once. You may have received an advance of, say, $20k, with the other $12k appearing in six-monthly instalments over a period of several years. If you have a literary agent, deduct 15% from those figures.
If you are self-publishing, without a network of booksellers stocking your work it’s much more likely that you’ll sell only a few thousand copies of a new book in the first few months. Let’s say you do really well and move 2,000 copies in paperback and 3,000 copies in e-book. That’s around $21k gross, or $18k after set-up costs. And most start-up authors, by the way, sell far fewer copies than these.
Hopefully, you will sell more copies of the book as you continue to promote it online. But like a traditional publisher’s royalties, the income from any one title usually slumps after a few months of the launch date unless you are willing to market it relentlessly.
How long to write?
I am sometimes asked how long it takes me to write a book. This is fiendishly hard to calculate. The actual time spend tapping away at a screen typically occurs over the course of a year – in my case. For some authors it takes several years. Chances are we will have been mulling over our work, off and on, for a while before. And during the course of writing, a book is typically all-consuming – even when I am sitting in the garden having a cup of tea, I may well be absorbed in the world of the book. Not very mindful, but a choice to be made.
Is $20k – $30k a good return for a year’s work? At the upper end, a $30k income equates to pay rate of $3.12 an hour, for a full time worker, or let’s say around $6.00 an hour if you worked at the book half of the week for a full year. Here in Australia, shelf packers at Target earn around $20 an hour. So, no this is not a great return. In fact it’s a shocker.
Over 1,000,000 copies sold!
That’s probably enough of a snapshot to give you an idea of the financial realities of being a writer. There are very many other aspects I could cover, but you get the gist.
Just one qualifier. You sometimes see a promotional line about the numbers of a book sold. Multiplying that juicy number of, say, one million by $1.49 or, for that matter, $4.90, you may think the author has hit the jackpot.
Alas, this calculation is almost certainly flawed. E-books have made possible drastic discounting. Unlike a printed book, an electronic file can be made available for almost nothing. And many publishers, both traditional and independent, do so much of this that the practice has become normalised.
On a 99c promotional offer, an author will make anywhere from 10c – 35c per book. And one million multiplied by 10c is a very different calculation. A cautionary note about jumping to conclusions when you see lavish sales figures bandied about.
Given all these factos, how you can help your favourite authors?
- Post an Amazon review
- Share the love on social media
- Subscribe to their newsletter – as approved senders
- Order their books from the local library
- Promote yourself to ambassador – tell others and open doors if you are able
- Buy their books at regular prices
- Pre-order when you can
- Tell your local book/gift store manager
- Buy their books as gifts for friends