"Aren't Writers Rich?" Talking Bucks

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I am often asked how much money I make. Seriously, I am. This may occur in a private conversation with (or email query from) a fledgling author, or it may occur at a reading I’m giving at a library or bookstore in front of a hundred people. Do strangers ask those of you who are teachers, doctors, receptionists or fire fighters how much money you make? I didn’t think so. 

Maybe it has to do with being a “public figure” in a society where our celebrities’ lives are fair game. Often, though, I think it has to do with the questioner’s longing to be able to quit his or her day job and write full-time. That’s a longing I understand and looking at the question from that angle makes me want to help. 

Toward that end, I’m going to share a little about this misconception that novelists are rich. This topic is so complicated and multi-faceted, that I’ll only be scratching the surface. Feel free to ask questions and I’ll do my best to answer, but I have to tell you that finding meaningful statistics on what authors earn (ie, what publisher’s pay) is extremely difficult.

My friend, mystery writer Margaret Maron, responds to the “How much money do you make?” question by saying she makes about the same as a teacher. I think that’s a fair answer, and generous of her to offer it. What I usually say is that I am fortunate to be able to support myself as a writer in North Carolina; living in the Washington DC area was much tougher. I dare say that Margaret and I are doing better than the vast majority of writers, however, and we’ve been at it forever and a day.  

Let’s look at the romance genre for a minute. I choose romance because it consistently outsells all other fiction categories and because I do have some stats on what romance authors are paid, thanks to Brenda Hiatt, who has been collecting this information for several years.

It’s impossible to sum up all of Brenda’s information here, but if you check out the link, you’ll see that advances range from zero to $200,000. (This last figure definitely skews the results and most likely went to one or two very lucky and talented authors; the median advance for that particular publisher is $17,500.)  Category romances, such as the Harlequins and Silhouettes you see in the supermarket, average an advance of about $4,000 with an earn out of $12,000.The stand-alone books (ie not category and often called “women’s fiction”) may or may not earn more. Science Fiction author Tobias Buckell has collected similar information for Sci-Fi and Fantasy writers, by the way, and found the median advance for a first time novelist is $5000. 

What do I mean by “earn out?” Generally speaking, an author receives an advance. Let’s say that a particular  author receives an advance of $10,000. She also receives royalties against that advance, meaning that she will not see any more money until her royalties have moved beyond the amount of the advance. A typical royalty rate for a $7 paperback is 8%, so she’ll receive .56 per book sold (which is different than books shipped. It’s not unusual for a full 50% of the books a publisher ships to be returned to the publisher after they’ve languished too long on the bookstore shelves.) If the publisher shipped 50,000 books and 25,000 of them are sold, the author has earned out $14,000 and will receive (eventually. . . sigh. We are paid twice a year) a royalty check for $4,000. If 35,000 books are returned (it happens), the author has been “overpaid” by $1600 in her advance. She will not have to repay this money to the publisher, however.  

Therefore, the author, in this very simplistic example, is now ten thousand dollars richer, correct? Not so fast. Most likely she has an agent, who receives 15% off the top. So the check our author receives is for $8,500. She must then sock away a chunk of that for the taxman, of course, along with the fifteen percent she needs to pay social security, since she’s self employed. (although it’s tempting, I am not even going to mention the cost of health insurance for the self-employed.) 

There are exceptions, and we certainly hear about them. Charles Frazier received an advance of $8 million after the success of Cold Mountain. And we hear of first-time authors receiving million dollar advances when a publishing house thinks it’s discovered the next JK Rowling, but the odds of that happening are about as good as winning the lottery.

I hope this helps clarify some of your questions about “what authors make.” The bottom line is, if writing is your passion, then please keep at it, but do so with your eyes open, your focus on your craft. . . and your day job front and center.  


  1. brenda on September 7, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    None of my comments are getting through I guess-I just got another error…sorry–by the way, my salary is posted on Internet.

  2. brenda on September 7, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    I noticed that none of my comments about my students/your books/the titles they came up with have posted…all but one time or two, I am getting an error. Do not think I am not reading the BLOG, I just cannot do the letters-my eyes are old with cataracts…sorry. I take off my glasses and my contacts and get up close, and they are still wrong…I know you have no choice in this.

  3. Diane Chamberlain on September 7, 2008 at 10:31 pm

    Ugh, I’m sorry to hear that! (both about the public salary and the comments). We’re trying to deal with the 100+ pieces of spam the blog was getting per day, but I sure don’t want to lose any of my readers’ comments. If anyone else has had this problem with their comment not showing up, please email me at diane@dianechamberlain.com so I can see how extensive the problem is. Thanks for hanging in there!

  4. Margo on September 8, 2008 at 11:27 am

    I’ll try my comment again Diane…I’ve been asked how much I make with my art…some are fellow artists who are curious as to what I charge & I’m happy to give my price list…but as far as people wanting to know what I make in a year with my paintings I refrain from giving that info out…my 1st experience came from a sister-in-law who flat out asked me ‘how much money did you make last year with your art?’…of course I tried to hide my shocked expression and came up with a quik answer that I really don’t discuss my income with anyone but am always happy to quote a price to anyone interested in a commission (-:
    Another shock was when a fellow artist asked me ‘how much are you making each year and do you spend it or put it in savings?’…geeeezzzz, why would he care?
    Diane, you are nice to share info with aspiring writers who have honest questions but as far as those who just want to know what you make I certainly feel some things should remain private!~

  5. Diane Chamberlain on September 8, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    Looks like we’ve got the comment section of the blog working again (fingers tightly crossed), so have at it! Your comments should go straight through without having to input a code. Yay!
    Margo, sounds like you handle the questions well. Maybe it has to do with being in a creative field–people think it’s really a “hobby” and are curious that money can be made doing something you love.

  6. Joann on September 8, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    I think it’s really generous of you to 1. share the info and 2. find a way to explain it so well. I also think people in general don’t know how much the author must spend to market themselves, blogs, newsletters, equipment, postage etc. etc.

  7. Margo on September 8, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    I don’t know Diane…I’ve even been asked how much money I make in my day job which I never give out.
    Maybe I’m just too much of a private person but I never give out this kind of personal info. I know that others are very comfortable telling how much money they make in a year and if they are fine with it that’s all that matters I quess, but it’s also a question I would never ask of anyone.

  8. Diane Chamberlain on September 8, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    Jo, you’re so right. In addition to the usual office expenses, the author has to budget for his or her own marketing. Many authors say they put their entire advance into marketing with the idea that they’re building their career. That can only work if they have other income, of course. And the jury’s out on what type of marketing works, especially when it comes from the author instead of the publisher.

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