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How much could a first time author expect to make from writing and selling a book?

Updated on September 30, 2013

Writers are often disappointed to discover how little their first book will generate via the traditional publisher route. Additionally a publisher may take three months to do the business and another three to six months before the book is finally published.

The approx. cost / revenue splits are;-

  • Production cost – 10% to 12%
  • Bookstore margin – 30% to 40%
  • Distribution cost – 12% to 15%
  • Publisher margin – 25% to 35%
  • Author - 10% or thereabouts, perhaps up to 15%.

Authors will more likely be paid any ongoing royalties either quarterly or twice a year after deductions for returns.

A Piece of the Pie

..a Drax production..
..a Drax production.. | Source

The Advance

Normally the author receives a payment before the book is printed, this is called the author's advance, if this is a first book and you do not have a portfolio of magazine publications, solid self publishing sales, or literary prizes or awards or famous relatives (literary or otherwise) then your advance will be small. However if your first book is accepted then this is a very positive step. (if you are content to work for a small piece of the pie)

How Much Might the Advance be ?

You could be talking in the range of hundreds to several thousands of dollars to tens of thousands or millions depending on a number of factors,

  • your public profile
  • your connections or family profile
  • the genre your book is written in
  • the size of the book
  • forward plans, for example more in the series
  • an analysis of your web profile
  • sales in other areas, for example music or film

Many publishers calculate the advance on a formula related to the size of the run, for example;-

Print Run Comparisons

Reality Check

Note: it is worth remembering that the run for the first book in the Harry Potter series was 500 copies, this is why they are worth around £20,000 pounds sterling each.

Applying the same formula makes 100% of the total royalty $400

A More Realistic Expectation

Taking the average price of $10.14, a first print run of 5,000 to 7,500 and a 75% Advance the new author could expect to receive $3,000 to $5,000.

When Will I Get It ?

The Advance is unlikely to be paid as one amount, often it is split into 3,

  • 1/3 upon signing (there will normally be a contract and it is important to have your professional legal advisor look at the terms and conditions).
  • 1/3 upon delivery of the final manuscript
  • 1/3 upon completion of all editorial work by the publisher (this can often take months) and/or not until the book hits the shelves which would be months more.

Again depending on the terms of contract you may find that the publisher will retain a % of the advance to cover returns, at least for the first 12 or 18 months or more.

An Example

Lynn Viehl posted this example from a few years ago, her book Twilight Fall was published in July 2008 it reached the New York Times bestsellers list in its first week on sale.

Twilight Fall

  • initial print run 88.5K
  • ship of 73K.
  • remaining in warehouse at July 15.5k
  • cover price 7.99
  • sale period Jul-Nov 2008 units sold 64,925
  • Royalties $40,484
  • held back for future returns $13,512
  • net earning this period $27,721.31
  • amount received Nil due to advance

% Royalty
a cover price of 7.99 with a royalty .6392 per unit = 8%

Initial advance $50,000
to Agent 15% $7,500
to taxes $15,000
to expenses approx $1,500
Net of the advance to author approx $26,000

Read Lynn Viehl's full article here

What About Agents?

Many of the major publishing houses will not not accept work directly from authors but rather only via literary agents. The deal with your agent will be subject to a contract and part of your Advance will no doubt go to them. The Agent will normally receive 15% of your revenue from the publisher for the publication and other derivative rights associated with it, again this is the subject of a detailed contract.

The right Agent is worth her or his weight in gold and you will find it is not a matter of selecting the Agent but rather the reverse, Agents are like racehorse trainers, they do not want donkeys in the stable. All writers are donkeys (in commercial book selling terms.. do not take it personally) until proven otherwise. ;-)

Margins Associated with Self Publishing Hardcopy

Under the self publishing model the margins are a little different;-

  • Production cost – 20% to 30% (for low volume POD*)
  • Bookstore margin – 30% to 40%
  • Distribution cost – 15% to 20%
  • Author - 35% or thereabouts

(POD = print on demand)

When publishing a book yourself you must be realistic about building in costs;-

  • cover art design - the book will benefit from a professional design
  • editorial services - a professional freelance editor is essential
  • typeset & formatting charges - the book must be error free & visually attractive

Social Media Impact


Now with sites like 'Hubpages', Google+, Facebook and various social media sites together with your own web presence you must be able to demonstrate to any prospective publisher that you are active in your marketplace. The crucial measurement here is that you have readers (fans) calling for more more... You must not pay the publisher, Self publishing is a very acceptable alternative route.


Margins with Self Publishing an EBook

Under the self publishing model the margins are dramatically different;-

  • EBook portal margin (Amazon) – 30%
  • Distribution cost – 0%
  • Author - 70%

When publishing an EBook yourself you can engage outside experts on a simple fee basis, these costs will be one time only and can be clearly identified, plus it is increasingly becoming an open market with authors buying in expert services according to their requirement/budgets.

Depending upon the nature of the publication you will have;-

  • Production cost - a fixed fee with the cost depending on formats etc
  • cover art design
  • conversion charges - the book must render correctly in mainstream devices

Again as with any publication the author must do real work in promotion and marketing.

EBooks & Legacy - Joe Konrath a MUST Read

The best ongoing discussion on legacy publishing and Ebooks is by Joe Konrath (IMHO)

Joe Konrath


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.. if you voted 'NO' - or 'It Needs More Work' I would be very grateful if you could offer a suggestion on how to improve it.


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    • Drax profile image

      des donnelly 4 years ago from NYC....

      Hi Miguel... the k is pretty universal after a number meaning thousand and Stg is the abbreviation for sterling, this was to avoid confusion where the £ symbol may not render but you do have a good point so I must change it... Thanks for the comment !

    • profile image

      Miguel 4 years ago

      be careful with acronyms: what does '20kStg' mean?

    • Drax profile image

      des donnelly 5 years ago from NYC....

      @writeframeofmind.. thanks for the comment, nonetheless you only have to pay taxes if you cannot afford decent advice from tax attorneys and know how to structure your finances internationally...

    • profile image

      Chris Ferguson 5 years ago

      And also consider the fact that you have to pay and configure up taxes on what you bring in on profit and what you bring outside on profit (Example: Printing costs, paper, etc) And whether the money comes from here in the U.S or overseas such as England, Germany, Austraila Don't get brainwashed that just because you can make a lot of money from writing doesn't mean that you still have to pay taxes.

    • Drax profile image

      des donnelly 6 years ago from NYC....

      @Sonita... that's easy, you cannot trust anyone !!

      This may sound harsh but it is all capitalism and the buyer of your output wants to make the most money they can, hence the terms are in their favour not yours.

      It may be good to consider an agent depending on the subject matter but they need to be a good match for the segment of the market you are targeting, you need to research about contracts, you need to be familiar with copyright and different kinds of rights... e.g. EBooks rights, film rights, foreign rights.

      Always Always before you sign you should have a lawyer look at the contract terms because it is all about the best terms.

    • profile image

      sonita gantt 6 years ago

      How do you know who to tust, when looking or sharing your book too find the best that knows you are the number one best seller or could be if!had that bach up.

    • Drax profile image

      des donnelly 8 years ago from NYC....

      Hey Treasure... thanks for the comment, I'm in the process of setting up my own little publishing house, we should talk in due course :-)

    • treasuresyw profile image

      treasuresyw 8 years ago from Savannah, GA

      Thank you for such detail. It definitely helps. What I want is to continue to self publish with promotion of a traditional publisher! That would be hot!!! Peace

    • Drax profile image

      des donnelly 8 years ago from NYC....

      @triplet... that's great that it was of benefit.. thank you

    • triplet profile image

      triplet 8 years ago

      Very interesting and informative, also gave me some interesting leads

    • Drax profile image

      des donnelly 8 years ago from NYC....

      thanks Petra, because of the change in technology and distribution the whole area of book publishing is undergoing significant change. Traditionally authors got the least % and I think it is long past time for this to change.

    • Petra Vlah profile image

      Petra Vlah 8 years ago from Los Angeles

      Very interesting and informative hub. The more we know, the better. Thank you