Thursday, July 5, 2012

The road to writing riches

A few years ago when I was teaching a freelance writing class at a local community college, a man came up to me during break. With a little grin on his face and speaking softly as if he were looking for insider information, he asked, "So, can you really make a lot of money doing this?"

Seeing articles like this one about an author who got a million-dollar deal for a diet book might lead some people to think that being an author is the road to riches. Uh, no, not really. Not even close. Actually, that isn't reality for about 99.9 percent of authors. I really don't know why the big publishers give advances like that. Are they really that scared that another publishing house is going to publish the book and make millions? Really?

In reality, a big publisher might pay the typical author an advance around $15,000 to $20,000, and if you're with a small publisher, it's around $3,000 to $5,000, so we are not getting rich. In fact, we're not even paying the bills unless we have a second job. "Advance" is short for "advance on royalties," so you have to "earn out" your advance before you ever see another penny of royalties. In other words, if you get a $5,000 advance, and you are getting a 10% royalty on the wholesale price of a $20 book, you will earn $1 on every book, which is 10% of wholesale, assuming wholesale is 50%. (Yes, this means the bookstore makes more money on the book than the author, but we already knew life wasn't fair.) That means that after 5,000 books are sold, you are now out of debt to the publisher -- your book has earned the $5,000 that they paid you before publication -- and now they will start sending you royalty checks twice a year on the books that are sold.

And how many copies do most books sell? That is pretty much impossible to answer, even with a ballpark figure. A first-time author's novel sells around 5,000 copies, but could sell tens of thousands. When it comes to non-fiction, you can't provide any type of meaningful number because it varies wildly by genre -- and yeah, diet books tend to sell very well, along with books telling people how to get rich or find the secret of success. But some non-fiction books sell a thousand copies while other sell more than a hundred thousand or even a million. But you can see that unless a book sells at least 20,000 copies a year, you are not even above poverty level without a day job.

So, why do people write books? Because we love to write, and we love to share our knowledge or our stories with readers. I've been writing ever since I was a young girl. It is just something that I have to do, along with eating and breathing. If you're a writer, you understand this. But if you're not a writer, maybe there is something else that you absolutely love to do, and you would do it every day, even if no one paid you -- like playing the piano or drawing.

Although we may not be rolling in the dough, writers are enjoying a rich life. We may very well complain about the lack of financial riches, but at least we are doing something we really love.

1 comment:

  1. GREAT article. I have family members who think I'm going to pay off the farm with my writing. I can never stop laughing at them, and they don't get it. "They why do you write?" they ask. Ah, if they only understood...