The Reality of Being an Author

Antique writing desk with red feather quill pen and oil lampWith the revolution of e-readers and self-publishing becoming accessible to everyone, the landscape of the writing profession is constantly being reshaped. The trade has become more author-friendly in recent years, however, a lot of people are going into the business blind and with completely distorted expectations. I’m hoping that I can use some of my experiences to open people’s eyes in order to help them decide to dedicate themselves to the written word for the right reasons. My goal is to address the most common myths about being an author. The truth, after all, shall set you free.

Published a book? Don’t quit your day job.

The biggest myth I’ve heard from aspiring authors is that they want to be able to support themselves with their royalties. Sometimes I laugh before I can stop myself when I hear that because only the very top 3% of all authors out there are able to support themselves solely by publishing books. The real money is in selling the rights to your books to movie production companies, which is, at best, a bloodsport. Don’t count on it.

When you buy a book, do you know where the money goes? The author is the last finger in the pot. If the book was released by a publisher, then the book sales have to first repay the cost of producing the book, followed by the literary agent getting their cut (if there is one), then the government gets their taxes, etc. The author makes anywhere between 5% and 15% of the total cost of the book, and the 15% figure is not that common. Sometimes publishers offer an advance if they really think your book has potential but what most people don’t know is your book has to sell that amount before you can begin making more money. If it doesn’t, then the advance is all you get.

Even NY Times Bestsellers are not getting rich.

This is the most enlightening piece of information I’ve seen in a long time. An author who had a book on the coveted Bestsellers list posted a blog telling the truth about how little money comes to the author. The book in question debuted on the list at number 19 with an initial print run of 88.9k and and an initial ship of 69k. Here is a scan of her first royalty earnings for this book (she posted it on her blog so it’s public information):


To quote her breakdown directly:

To give you a condensed version of what all those figures mean, for the sale period of July through November 30, 2008, my publisher reports sales of 64,925 books, for which my royalties were $40,484.00. I didn’t get credit for all those sales, as 21,140 book credits were held back as a reserve against possible future returns, for which they subtracted $13,512.69 (these are not lost sales; I’m simply not given credit for them until the publisher decides to release them, which takes anywhere from one to three years.)

My net earnings on this statement was $27,721.31, which was deducted from my advance. My actual earnings from this statement was $0.

My advance for Twilight Fall was $50,000.00, a third of which I did not get paid until the book physically hit the shelf — this is now a common practice by publishers, to withhold a portion of the advance until date of publication. Of that $50K, my agent received $7,500.00 as her 15% (which she earns, believe me) the goverment received roughly $15,000.00, and $1594.27 went to cover my expenses (office supplies, blog giveaways, shipping, promotion, etc.) After expenses and everyone else was paid, I netted about $26K of my $50K advance for this book, which is believe it or not very good — most authors are lucky if they can make 10% profit on any book. This should also shut up everyone who says all bestselling authors make millions — most of us don’t.*

And that, my aspiring authors, is how a Bestseller makes $0 on her first royalties statement even though her book was a top 20. I posted this information simply because I don’t want to see aspiring authors hinging their success on being on that coveted list. Yes, it is prestigious, but $26k for years of work is not going to support you and your family. Therefore, keep working your day job.

As a self-published author, for example, I make $4.00 per book sold on Amazon. That particular book retails for $22.84, which ends up as me receiving 17.5% of the retail cost, if I’ve done my math right. That is much higher of a cut than author going through a traditional publishing house. In order to make $100.00, I have to sell 25 books, which grosses $571.00. So basically, in order to make $100.00, I have to move $571.00 worth of merchandise. That’s not as easy as it sounds because there are thousands of published authors each year competing for roughly 20% of the American population who are regular readers. Being an author and trying to make any money is basically a bloodsport and you will be lucky to break even on your investment. Indeed, publishing a book is a risky investment because you are sinking money into editors, cover designers, marketing packages, and so forth. Selling the product is the only way to recoup the investment.

I’m going to publish my book on my own!

Good luck with that. While many authors who have previously been published by bigger houses are now moving toward publishing themselves, it is very hard work. Self-publishing means not only will you write the book but you’ll edit it, design the cover, format the manuscript for the printers and/or e-readers, calculate the retail price, marketing, advertising, physically getting the book into bookstores, etc. It’s enough to make your head spin and because self-publishing is not quite “legitimate” yet, bookstores are not so willing to shelve self-published books. Be prepared to meet with resistance, especially if you are a completely unknown author. Come prepared with a professional media package about your book. More important than that, make sure that your book is the best piece of written material that you can produce and make sure the manuscript is perfectly formatted. If you’re going to swim with the sharks, they better not smell fear on you.

A plus side to self-publishing is that you are going to get a slightly bigger piece of the profit pie because you’re not paying an agent or a publishing house. You will, however, not see a profit for a while if you’re paying editors, cover designers, promotional materials, etc. I have published three books and I’m still trying to get my marketing footing.

Do your research because there are a lot of print on demand places. Some are good. Some are scams. The biggest scam out there that I know of is Publish America. Run away screaming from them. I started on Lulu, which was always good for me, but I will be changing companies with my next book. It seems that Amazon is sort of forcing authors to publish on their company, CreateSpace, because Amazon is tacking on an extra long shipping period (6 weeks?!) for other print on demand companies. I refuse to make my readers wait that long for a book, so Amazon has basically forced my hand. CreateSpace is your best bet as well. They don’t charge so much for books and the quality of their books have vastly improved since the company was launched.

Don’t expect family support.

This is something that doesn’t happen to every author but it happens to enough of us, yet nobody really talks about it. It’s like the dirty little secret of the author world. Most people in your inner circle, including friends and family, are probably not going to read your books. Again, it doesn’t apply to everyone, but I have noticed a pattern of the people closest to the author thinking it’s great that they published a book but actually taking the time to read it? Meh. In my case, I can count people in my inner circle who have read my books on one hand. You will find that people closest to you approach your publication with a sense of entitlement, as if they are owed free books simply for knowing you. The part they don’t understand is that there is no such thing as a free book. The author always pays for it in one way or another. Many of the people who get free books don’t even bother to read them either. So if you think your biggest fans are living under your own roof or your closest friends, think again. They will support you by being proud of you and telling other people that you’re an author but they are not so likely to read a book you wrote. For any writer, we do want the approval of people close to us and it stings that they’re more interested in knowing the author than reading the book, but it’s just the nature of the beast. Accept it and concentrate on the people who do read your body of work.

If not for money or glory, then what?

That’s a question only you can answer. I find that the happiest of authors are not rich or famous. They write because they truly love the craft and they are rewarded by feedback from their readers, whether they have 5 readers or 5 million readers. You really have to love the process of writing and the solitary life of it for months and years on end. The true test of publishing good material is to let it sit for a few months and then read it again. Do you like reading your own books? Then you’ve done something good. Real success as an author means being perfectly happy to be absorbed in your writing, to have the discipline, to know your characters as people if you’re in fiction, and to be joyful and grateful for any book you sell. You have to be willing to put yourself out there by going to bookstores and selling your book as something they want. That means you have to sell yourself, so to speak. It’s not as easy as writing a book, publishing it and being done with it. Writing the book is half the battle. If you are okay with all of those things, you will be fine!


2 responses to “The Reality of Being an Author”

  1. Cynthia says:

    Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes! She speaks the truth, people!

  2. Nellie says:

    My book was published through a publisher. I figured out that assuming the first print run sells out, I will have made 70 cents an hour for the time I spent writing the book. That doesn’t factor in the other expenses involved on my end or the time I’ve had to put in promoting the book. Oh, yeah, I’m doing it for the love of it. 🙂

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