How Publishers Really Pay You
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.
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.
Print book sales statistics
- Adult fiction ebooks outsold hardcovers in 2011: survey| Reuters
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Electronic books more than doubled in popularity in 2011, with ebooks outselling hardcover books in adult fiction for the first time, according to a survey released on Wednesday.Net
- Mass-Market Paperbacks Sales in Decline - NYTimes.com
The mass-market paperback, the cheap, pocket-size reading material of beaches and airports, is in decline as e-books proliferate and cost-conscious readers rein in their impulse purchases.