At nearly every school visit, some bold student raises his hand and asks with a smirk, “How much money do you make?”
This makes teachers and librarians wish they could do the kind of magic that makes students disappear. It’s no problem. Really. I’m ready for ‘em.
No, I don’t share my annual income. The way I was raised, talking about money is akin to talking about sex. You feel like you’re either showing off or apologizing.
“What a great question!” I say brightly. “Let’s talk about how authors get paid.”
And so I discuss advances and royalties. Advances are up-front money authors get against projected future earnings when the book goes on sale. In the old days, it was supposed to keep food on the table until the book could be published, which can take a year.
Advances vary considerably, depending on whether or not you have an agent and what your past sales track record is. If you are a debut author, it will be higher if several publishers are interested in the book at one time (we call that an auction.) Which is awesome for authors.
Advances are ostensibly based on how much the book is expected to generate in royalties in the first year. The publisher that gives huge advances on books that tank will not be in business very long.
Advances vary from nothing to the million dollar deals you hear about for best-selling authors. For most authors, it’s going to be in five figures, if they get one at all. Generally, the advance is paid in two or three installments—say half on signing and half when the book is done and edited and approved. Or one third on signing, one third on completion, and one third on publication.
The fun begins when I discuss royalties. Royalties are monies authors get for each book sold. I say to the students, “Let’s say you buy a hardcover book for $18. How much of that do you think the author gets?”
And they throw out guesses. $5? $8? $12?
Nope, I say. Typically, a YA author gets 10 to 121/2% of cover price. In other words, $1.80 to $2 on an $18 book.
Let’s talk about paperbacks. Say the paperback is $8.99, the author gets only 6-8% of that. So 54c to 72c per book sold.
Ebooks? The royalty on ebooks is kind of fluid right now. Most publishers pay 25% of net. Many authors think it should be more.
An author who receives an advance doesn’t get any more money until the book “earns out.” Once those $1.80s add up to the advance, the author receives a royalty check on additional books sold. So if an author receives $15,000 as an advance, then she has to sell more than 8000 $18 books before earning out.
Even after that, publishers generally hold onto some of the royalties in case a book store returns some of the books they “bought.”
Royalties tend to be higher for “adult” books. But it’s still only a tiny percentage of the cover price of a book. Or the publisher’s net, depending on the book contract.
Sometimes there’s a math whiz in the audience who asks, calculator in hand, “How many books have you sold?” But even without doing the math, it’s clear to everyone that an author has to sell a lot of books in order to make a living as a writer. This is why many if not most authors have day jobs.
Me, I’ve been very fortunate. I HAVE sold a lot of books, and for the past three years I’ve able to write full time (it helps to be married to someone with insurance.) And I absolutely love what I do. So I’m not complaining. Just trying to be straight with you here.
One girl came up to me after my last school visit, a look of shocked pity on her face.
“You mentioned that agents get 15% of what you make,” she said.
“So that means that you get even LESS than $1.80,” she said.