Show Me the Money! The Financial Realities of Traditional Publishing

During a recent discussion with an aspiring author, who’d met with repeated rejection from publishers and agents, I suggested that he explore the self-publishing route. I told him how well it’s worked for me and for many of the authors I know — the majority of the writers I’m friendly with are self-published — but the idea was firmly rejected because he believed that independent authorship wasn’t where “the real money” was.

It would have been easy to name several indie authors who are making an enviable living off their book sales, but I decided to dive down the rabbit hole of trad-pub author finances instead. Not like I had anything better to do that day…

What follows is the result of some quick-and-dirty research and number crunching, so take what you’re about to read with a generous grain of salt. I checked multiple sources, which of course all had slightly different data to report, and went with what seemed to be the most common figures or, failing that, an average of the averages, so I wouldn’t regard any of these numbers as authoritative.

Also, I’m not great at math. I became a writer to avoid math.

However, in my defense, the numbers support something career authors and all-around good guys James A. Moore and Christopher Golden said once during one of their roaming author coffeehouses: a tiny, tiny percentage of trad-pubbed authors make a living solely off their book sales — maybe three percent of such authors, with an emphasis on the “maybe.”

Suffice it to say, traditional publishing is not necessarily where the “real money” is.

One important caveat before I get into it: the overall point of this analysis is not to deter anyone from pursuing traditional publishing. This is strictly an examination of the earnings potential, so aspiring authors can pursue that path with their eyes open and expectations reasonable.

First, let’s start with the advance, which is typical when selling a novel to a major publisher. The average advance from a big publishing house is $10,000, which is a nice chunk of change, right?

Except that chunk is going to get smaller if you have an agent — which, if you’re getting a five-figure advance, is likely. An agent’s cut is typically 15 percent, so right off the bat your advance just shrank to $8,500.

After Uncle Sam takes his cut, which would be 10 percent on $10,000, your advance is now down to $7,650 — and I say that assuming the taxes are collected on the advance alone. If that amount pushes your overall income into a higher bracket, say goodbye to a larger piece of the advance.

But hey, $7,650 is still a pretty sweet payday — and the good news is, that money is all yours to keep. The advance is essentially the publisher paying you in anticipation of recouping that money through future book sales (more on that later), and if your book happens to tank? Not your problem anymore; the publisher took a chance on you and it didn’t pay off for them, but they’re not going to ask you for their money back.

Of course, the chances of the publisher asking you to write another book for them would be slim to none, but one hurdle at a time, yes?

The bad news (part one) is that you’re not necessarily getting that entire advance in one payment. Many publishers dole it out in phases as you meet certain milestones, like signing your contract and turning in your finished manuscript, so dismiss the idea that you can give up your day job and live off your advance while you finish your book.

The bad news (part two): the advance will be the only money you see for a while. Royalties — your cut of the book sales — don’t kick in until the advance has been “earned out,” meaning that the advance has been recouped by the publisher through sales.

(Told you I’d get back to that.)

How long does it take a book to earn its advance back? Nine months on average — less if your book really takes off, but if you’re not a runaway success right out of the gate, it might take a year or more before you start seeing royalties.

Now let’s talk about royalties, shall we? This is when you start making the big bucks, right?

Short answer: probably not.

Royalties are a percentage of the sales as determined by three main factors: the book’s retail price, how many copies have been sold, and format. Here’s the basic breakdown:

  • Hardcover books: 10 percent of the retail price for the first 5,000 copies sold, 12.5 percent of the retail price for the next 5,000 copies sold, 15 percent of the retail price for every copy sold after the first 10,000
  • Paperback (trade or mass market) books: 8 percent of the retail price for the first 150,000 copies sold, 10 percent of the retail price for every copy sold after the first 150,000
  • Ebooks: 25 percent of the net selling price

Quick aside: in the above examples, “retail price” assumes that the books are being sold at full cover price. Publishers are increasingly basing royalties not on the full listed retail price (“list royalties”) but on how much the book actually sold for (“net royalties”), so if your book goes on sale or ends up in the bargain bin, your royalties adjust accordingly.

The average retail prices for hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, and ebook formats are, respectively, $25.99, $15.99, $8.99, and $12.99. Using those figures, the first tier of royalty payments for each format you’d receive, again respectively, are $2.59, $1.28, $.72, and $3.25 (assuming the ebook sells at full price).

That sounds like it could add up — and it could, if you happen to be wildly successful. To be fair, you could indeed be that one in a million author who hits it big, but you’re more likely to be an average author, so we’re going to base your income off your averageness.

And how many books does an average author sell? The range is 3,000 on the low end to 10,000 on the high end, and it’s important to note that that is over the course of the book’s lifetime — not weekly, not monthly, not annually, but from the day it drops to the day its publisher decides it’s not worth printing anymore.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume you’re on the high end of that scale, which means 10,000 hardcover copies sold will earn you $29,200, 10,000 paperbacks will earn you $20,000, and 10,000 ebooks will earn you $32,500.

Reminder: these figures do not factor in your advance, your agent’s fee, or taxes. A $10,000 advance alone chops these numbers down by one-third to one-half.

In any event, don’t count on this money as steady income like a weekly paycheck. Depending on the publisher and the contract you’ve signed, you would get your money at best on a quarterly basis, at worst annually.

Of course, an author’s book sales are a mix of hardcovers, paperbacks, and ebooks. It was tough to pin down solid figures, but as best as I could determine, 81 percent of all book sales are print and 19 percent are ebooks — and I know this seems counterintuitive to many indie authors who derive most of their income through ebooks sales (I know I do), but print still dominates the marketplace overall.

So, if we apply those numbers to an individual author and their 10,000 copies, a single novel would earn over its lifetime $46,027 — which is the gross income. That drops to $36,027 after the advance is taken out, $30,623 after the agent’s commission is taken out, and $27,561 once taxes are taken out.

I couldn’t find hard data on what an average book’s “lifetime” is, but I found several sources that indicated a typical novel sells 250 copies in its first year — and that average apparently factors in authors ranging from self-published nobodies up to mega-bestselling authors like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling.

That means if you want to reach that 10,000-book benchmark, your book would have to consistently sell at least 250 copies a year for 40 years — and for the sake of this example, we’ll assume that your book doesn’t see a drop-off in sales after its first year (which, in real life, it would).

And so, after your advance pays out in the months after the novel’s release, your annual royalty earnings come out to — drumroll please…

$889.06.

“Real money.”

As I said earlier, I’m not looking to dissuade anyone from traditional publishing, but if that’s your goal, money probably shouldn’t be your primary motivation. The trad-pub route comes with its own benefits, including the possibility of becoming the Next Big Thing, but getting picked up by one of the Big Five publishers is by no means a guarantee of mega-success, or even a reliable revenue stream that would allow you to ditch your day job and become a full-time author.

To NaNo or Not to NaNo…

November 1st is just around the corner. Writers, you know what that means! NaNoWriMo. If you are unfamiliar with this caffeine driven, slightly manic event, it’s an annual internet based project that invites writers to create 50K words of a novel during the month of November. If you’re thinking about writing a book, this event can help you kick start the process. Having participated in the past, I have some thoughts to share about NaNo.

What are the pros?

You’ll enjoy community support.

For the month of November, we’re all in this together. It’s fun and energizing to know that writers across the world are participating in the event. NaNo is its own writer support group. Local branches schedule community writing times in libraries and coffee shops. There are online forums and writing challenges. Words of daily encouragement appear in your inbox. It’s helpful to have the momentum of a group behind you as you embark on writing a novel.

You can kick-start a project.

While 50k words doesn’t really hit the appropriate count for most adult genres, it still a huge chunk of content. If you’ve got an idea you want to flesh out, start writing. At 50K words, you’ll have a good portion of the plot worked out by the time November ends.

You’ll create a strong habit life.

In order to hit the word count by the end of the month, you’ll have to create an aggressive daily writing habit. The arithmetic is clear, even for us artsy types. To win NaNo, you’ll have to write over 1600 words per day – more if you want to take a day off during the week. On some writing days, hitting 500 words feels like a daunting task. NaNo will push you out of your comfort zone, and force you into a higher word-count habit.

What are the cons?

It’s really stressful.

In my experience, this is the only real con of participating, but it’s a big one. I’m productive as a writer because I schedule enough hours of daily writing time into my calendar. Whether I hit 500 words or 2000 on a particular day, for me, it’s about creating the time not requiring myself to reach a number. NaNo definitely pushed me, but it also made me anxious. It didn’t mesh well with the habit life I work with, and the content I produced required much more editing than my usual first draft work. So, all in all, I don’t think I really saved any time in terms of overall productivity.

And don’t forget…

Likely, you haven’t finished the novel at the end of the month, but at least you’re on your way. That’s great. Keep on it. If you did finish something, step away from the project before you do anything with it. It’s going to need work, so give yourself a little distance. When you come back to it with fresh eyes, you’ll be able to edit and get it into better shape. Whatever content you create during NaNo is truly a first draft, and it may even be rougher than your usual work because you’ve rushed your process.

If you’re thinking about participating in NaNoWriMo, go for it. At the very least, you’ll learn which habits work for you and which don’t, you’ll come out with some content, which hopefully can be molded into usable content, and you’ll develop a community of writer friends that will last far longer than the month of November. You may only want to participate once, or you may decide that the stress is worth the results and enter year after year. Good luck!

 

NESWC Presenter – M.D. Cooper

New England Speculative Writers Conference Presentation

Creating a Flagship Universe

April 13, 2019 | Portland Maine

What is a flagship series and why is it important? Does your book contain a world waiting to be expanded into a series? A flagship series helps to define an author and bring readers back release after release. New York Times Best Selling Author M.D. Cooper explains how his Aeon 14 universe has hooked readers, and shaped his career. He will talk about how to deelop a series, leaving strands open to continue weaving into the next series, and what the benefits are to you, your readers and your bottom line.

Reaching your Market Through Advertising

Discovery is the number one problem for authors once they’ve published. The reality of investing money to make money can be terrifying and feel like a lost cause. With so many ad platforms available to authors, where do you begin? How do you build traction and how do you make the most of your advertising dollars? New York Times Best Selling Author M.D. Cooper literally wrote the book on Facebook ads and will share tips and tricks on how to spend your money wisely for maximum exposure and return.

Michael Cooper is the creator of Aeon 14, a vast science fiction universe containing over seventy-five books written by seven different authors. These books describe a future history for humanity, one where we must learn to live with the other species in the galaxy: the AIs we created. In the far future, we’ll face many challenges, and today’s solution will always be tomorrow’s problem. But in Aeon 14, humanity and AIs strive to improve their lot and the universe at large. There is war, and strife, and pain, but there is also beauty, love, and a drive to explore and see what lies beyond the horizon.

With over half a million books sold or borrowed, Aeon 14 is a significant presence on the science fiction landscape, one that creator Michael Cooper will continue to expand, bringing more authors and characters into the fold and to life as the stories of the valiant heroes that make up Aeon 14 increase in scope and volume.

In addition to creating Aeon 14, Michael also has a passion for marketing and advertising, and teaches classes on how to get your book in front of more readers and get them to buy.

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The Final Summons – Available for Pre-Order

The New England Speculative Writers are proud to announce that Pre-Ordering is now available for our debut anthology, The Final Summons. This collection features fourteen amazing stories by New England authors. We are also excited to announce that USA Today Best Selling Author, Craig Martelle has written our foreword. Currently pre-ordering is available for Kobo, Barnes & Nobel and iTunes. Pre-Ordering for Amazon will go live on November 7th. For more information visit: http://www.thefinalsummons.com.

About the Book

Galactic omens. Apocalyptic wastelands. 14 mind-bending stories of future worlds and dark fantasy on the brink of oblivion.

Fate is never written in the stars. From embattled lunar colonies to inter-dimensional courtrooms and the murky alleyways of Victorian London, there’s no telling when or where the day of reckoning will arrive. Do you dare test the limits of your reality and answer the final summons?

With stories encompassing planet-wide apocalypse to intimate tales of heart-wrenching sacrifice, join assassins and improbable saviors as they battle for survival and strike deals with the devil. From the visionary New England Speculative Writers comes an unforgettable exploration of the gathering darkness at the edges of the great unknown.

The Final Summons is a sci-fi and fantasy anthology showcasing 14 brilliant speculative fiction writers. If you like multifaceted characters, mind-bending concepts, and uncharted new worlds, then you’ll love this provocative short-story collection.

Buy The Final Summons to journey to the edge of oblivion today!

Look Inside
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It’s Official We’re One

The New England Speculative Writers has officially survived its first year. We’ve been so busy we almost forgot our inception on July 2nd, in 2017. It’s hard to believe a year (14 months, but who’s counting) ago we decided to put together a group for New England’s Fantasy & Sci-Fi author community. It has been a wild ride since we started, so why not spend a blog post recapping the fun? In one year we have:

  • Changed our name from Massachusetts Science Fiction & Fantasy Authors to the New England Speculative Writers.
  • Reaching 150+ members (almost 200) between the website and the Facebook group.
  • Had weekly posts from New England area authors on a variety of topics being read by nearly 10,000 individuals.
  • Hosted a cover contest.
  • Successfully held our first anthology open call.
  • Announced a networking conference.
  • Put together a Science Fiction and Fantasy preview book delivered to individuals signing up for our mailing list.

The brain child of Jeremy Flagg and Cristina Alden was dreamt up, created with a dash of this and that and heavy splashes of ideals, goals, dreams, wishes, and sprinkled with a little fairy dust for luck. Then it was carefully and lovingly incubated until it hatched and was shared with the world. Now, with an awesome collection of authors collaborating and exchanging ideas and information it has taken on a life of its own.

This has been the warm-up year as we test the waters. There are plenty of ideas that have been shelved, some just waiting for the right time. It’s been a great first year, but it’s not going to be the best.