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How Publishers Really Pay You

Updated on February 14, 2013

Will getting published make me rich?

Many writers believe they will become rich once a publisher agrees to publish their work. I once thought this, too, since my first advance was so incredible--roughly twice my yearly teacher salary for a two-book contract.

Ten published novels later ...

Um, well, hmm.

I still have my day job, a first mortgage, a second mortgage, car payments, credit card bills, college bills, and some more bills I didn’t have before I had a contract. I need socks, T-shirts, and new glasses. I haven’t had a vacation in years. We’ve added a dog. I’m publishing Kindle titles so I can afford to put shoes on my youngest son’s feet, which are growing exponentially. I am writing for HubPages.

Do not think I am ungrateful. I’m doing what I love to do. That first advance helped my wife and me get into our first house, put braces (twice) on one son, and paid off quite a few nagging bills. Oh, and I bought a massive television … that had to be repaired twice.

Reality check

For those who still think published writers lead glamorous, carefree lives, here are some facts about how the average publisher really pays you:

1) The payment for your first contract will probably amaze you. You will count the zeros several times. You will dream. You will make lists of “cool stuff to buy.” You will want to quit your job. Do not quit your job, especially if your job provides you with health care.

2) Unless you amaze the world with your first novel(s), the advance for your second contract (should you be fortunate enough to get one) may be as low as 8-10% of your first advance. This will also amaze you. You will still count the zeros several times. You will still dream, but it won’t be in color. You will make a list of “stuff we need.” It’s a good thing you didn’t quit your job.

3) You will wonder why the advance for your second contract is not nearly as high as your first. You will gently ask your publisher why. Your publisher will say something like, “Well, in this economy, we can’t afford to give you more than the market will bear.” This is a true statement. While e-book sales are rising, sales of books with real pages aren’t. According to The New York Times, mass-market paperback sales have declined 14% since 2008, and according to the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, overall print book sales declined 3% from 2010 to 2011.

4) Royalties will not make you royalty. The average writer gets paid royalties only twice a year, say in June and in December, provided sales of his or her books the previous six to twelve months have paid off his or her advances. If sales have been slow or stagnant, a writer earns no royalties and actually gets a statement that shows how much he or she “owes” the publisher. This will depress you.

5) Standard “rates of return” are not that lucrative. You may receive 12-15% of the retail price of a hardcover book and only 6-9% of the retail price of a paperback.

A possible scenario

Let’s say you get an advance of $50,000. Yes! Whoo! Party! I get to tell my boss to—

Calm down now. Look back at #1 above. You need that job.

Let’s say your hardcover book sells for $20. You “receive” roughly, say, $2.50 per sale (at 12.5%). You would have to sell 20,000 hardcover books to earn your advance back. Say you only sell 10,000. You still “owe” the publisher $25,000. What now?

Let's say your contract stipulates that your book come out in paperback about a year later. The paperback retails for about $7, so you get 56 cents per sale at 8%. At 8% of retail per sale, you must sell around 45,000 paperbacks to pay back the remaining $25,000. Thus, even if you have sold 55,000 hardcover books and paperbacks, you still haven’t earned a single penny in royalties, even after two years.

None of this takes into account your agent, should you be lucky to get and hold onto one, who takes 15% of everything you make, and that includes advances and royalties.

That first royalty check

I know that most published writers don’t lead glamorous lives because I'm one of them. As soon as I received my first royalty check, all two digits of it, my older son said, “I need new basketball shoes.”

I had to add a twenty to the royalty check to get him his shoes.

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    • viveresperando profile image

      viveresperando 4 years ago from A Place Where Nothing Is Real

      Thank you for all your incite. Great information to know.

    • multiculturalsoul profile image
      Author

      JJ Murray 4 years ago from Roanoke, Virginia

      One final update: The editor approved the "hostage" manuscript in early December and released payment just in time for the holidays. I could have done without all the stress, though. :~)

    • multiculturalsoul profile image
      Author

      JJ Murray 4 years ago from Roanoke, Virginia

      An update on the "hostage" manuscript: It was originally due to the publisher in early August. The editor will "get to it hopefully" by the middle of December. There's money tied to this acceptance, so our holidays won't be as fun.

    • multiculturalsoul profile image
      Author

      JJ Murray 4 years ago from Roanoke, Virginia

      I have had several works held hostage ... including right now. I met all the deadlines, but the editor is "swamped" and won't be able to get to it until October, then November, now December ... Evidently, deadlines are only for the writers.

    • profile image

      Holly Worton 4 years ago

      Many thanks for this! I've just come across this article and I'm sharing it online. Plus, once you sign a contract, they publisher will hold your work hostage. They'll forget about it after a while, not promote it, not release it as an ebook, let it go out of print...and yet not revert the rights back to you so you can do something productive with it. I have heard too many horror stories.

    • multiculturalsoul profile image
      Author

      JJ Murray 4 years ago from Roanoke, Virginia

      I received that first exceptional advance in 2000, when, I suppose, publishers had more money. I had to fight and scratch for four years to get my next contract, and it was only a one-book deal. In the interim, I self-published a sequel and essentially broke even. Since then, I have had several two-book contracts, and I'm finishing a three-book contract this fall. If I add up all the contracts after the first one, the amount is still less than that first one.

    • Duchessoflilac1 profile image

      Rebecka Vigus 4 years ago from Johns Island, SC

      Gee, and self-publishing sure doesn't pay the bills. And people really get advances from publishers????