“Maybe that literary success can buy you some meals.”
The message was from my Airbnb host after I’d asked for a partial refund when the fridge stopped working during my recent trip. I’d lost several days of meals for the dog and several fancy leftovers of my own. I thought it seemed reasonable to ask for him to cover the cost of the lost food, especially since he refused to have someone come out and look at the nonfunctioning fridge.
His response was unexpected. Rude. And also so severely misinformed that I thought it was about time to talk about how novelists get paid. Because, spoiler alert: I had to take a substantial pay cut in order to pursue this career. It is vastly less financially stable than anything else I’ve ever done. And it’s starting to piss me off that people are giving me this weird rich-person treatment when I’ve actually traded stability for a thing I love.
So let’s get into it.
First, let’s talk payment structures…
There are three main ways authors get paid. First, there’s fixed-fee work. This is when an author gets a set amount of money for writing a book (or other project). This is often the case with work for hire/IP – when a publisher (or streaming service, etc.) hires a writer to write a book based on their idea, world, or existing universe (like Jurassic Park or the Marvel Universe). In many of those cases, the author gets one fixed amount for writing and editing the book. That’s it. That’s all she wrote. Doesn’t matter how well or badly the book does; the author gets that number – no more, no less.
The second type of payment is an advance. You’ll mostly see these on original books (books that the author came up with and wrote themselves), though sometimes work-for-hire will do advances and royalties (more on this in a second). Advances are an amount of money given to the writer (in theory) before the book comes out. The idea is that the writer can support themselves while writing, editing, marketing, and waiting for the book release (which typically takes two years from purchase to publication) with this advance on their royalties. There are some projects that don’t get advances at all. But for those that do, I’ve seen everything from $5,000 to hundreds of thousands. On average, in my circles, I’d say I usually see people getting between $20,000 and $50,000 for a single book.
Finally, books that get advances also typically have royalties. The numbers here vary, but for brevity’s sake let’s say the author makes about 10% of the book list price (on paperback it’s typically less, on ebook and audiobook more; here’s a calculator if you want to run some example numbers yourself).
Now, royalties typically pay out twice per year and only after you have “earned out” your advance. Which means you have to earn enough royalties to cover your advance before you see another cent. So the very earliest an author would see a dime of royalties would be about six months after the book publishes (and most won’t see anything that soon).
Okay, so whether you are writing for hire and getting a fixed sum or selling an original book and collecting an advance, publishing pays on its own weird little timelines.
The best-case scenario is typically two payments: one when you sign your contract for the book (typically half of the total) and one either when you deliver the final manuscript (after edits) or when the book publishes.
From there, it gets worse. Up to five payments can be typical now in the industry and despite it being called an “advance” some publishers are now paying parts of those payments even after publication. The payment milestones in that case may be: on signing the contract, on delivering the edited manuscript, on publication, six or twelve months after publication, etc.
Agent commission and taxes and healthcare oh my
Now, keep in mind that these speculative numbers are before agent/agency commission (typically 15% on domestic sales and 20% for foreign book sales, though they can run higher in some cases) and before taxes – which (if you are in the States) are higher than employee taxes because you are now a freelancer.
As a freelancer, you’re also in charge of your own healthcare, among other expenses that employers sometimes cover or partly cover, so keep in mind that making $30k as a freelancer is not the same value as making $30k as an employee.
So, what do novelists actually make?
Alright, so let’s talk examples.
I’ll start with a small press and small advance example:
Let’s say Novelist X gets a deal with a small press and they give her a $5,000 advance split into two payments. Let’s also say they’re on a slightly faster timeline (because small presses tend to be more nimble!), so her book comes out 1.5 years from when they buy it.
Payment #1 on contract signing is $2,500 minus $375 agent commission and another $600ish she sets aside for taxes (this is not tax advice; please consult your tax pro for real numbers for your individual situation). That leaves her with $1,525. Eight months later, she delivers the final manuscript and gets the second payment. Another $1,525 left at the end for her. Which means that year from writing her novel, she will make $3,050.
Ten months later, her book comes out and six months after that is the first time she *might* get royalties. Which means year #2 her income from the book will be $0. Maybe year #3 things will take off, but for those first years, she 100% has to supplement somehow. A spouse’s income. Parental support. Full-time jobs. Savings. Something.
Okay, so that’s clearly not going to pay the bills. But let’s talk about a pretty average scenario with a big press:
Novelist Y lands a deal with one of the big cahoonas of the US publishing industry and gets the pretty standard (from what I’m seeing behind the scenes) offer of $25,000 advance for their book.
Let’s say they get pretty good terms and get that advance in two payments. That first year, they get payment #1 upon signing and payment #2 when they deliver the final manuscript. That’s two payments of $12,500 minus $1875 in agent commission and let’s say about $3000 held back for taxes. Which means each payment is actually about $7,625 in their pocket.
This book is more likely to be on publishing’s normal timeline, which means after those first two payments, Novelist Y can expect to wait at least a year and a half before seeing any royalties. That’s if the book does well.
Like Novelist X, Novelist Y will also need to supplement their income in some way. They have to sell enough foreign rights to the book (which often comes with another advance), film rights, etc. They have to get paid for speaking engagements or other novel-adjacent work. They have to sell a whole-ass other book perhaps. Or they have to juggle a day job, have a supportive spouse, or otherwise find a non-book way of filling in the gap.
Finally, let’s talk about the unicorns: the authors who get the coveted (much rarer) six-figure advance. Let’s say Author Z gets $100,000 for their advance, paid out in two payments. That’s $50k per payment, minus $7500 agent commission and maybe $12,500 taxes, leaving them about $30k per payment. Again, this will be over a year or two and they won’t see royalties until at least six months after publication.
So even with what is seen as a “big advance,” this person isn’t living high on the hog. They’re probably living pretty frugally and likely supplementing their income in some way during those first years.
Do I personally make a living as a novelist?
Alright, so let’s stop talking in generalities.
In the last two years, I’ve sold four books. The Empress, which was IP/work-for-hire in collaboration with Netflix and my publisher. The Wicked Unseen, my original work, which just came out (go grab a copy so six months from now I can pay my rent, ha). We Are the Beasts, another original, coming in 2024. And a project I can’t talk about yet (but I am excited as hell to share with you soon!), sold to a smaller press.
In 2022, I got all my payments for The Empress (fixed bid, no royalties to come), both my advance payments for The Wicked Unseen, and one half of my advance for We Are the Beasts. That total was $67.5k before agent commission and taxes. Which means, yes, in 2022, I made enough from my books to fund my life. Which is rad (though keep in mind I had to write three books and ended up in physiotherapy for my poor neck to do it).
In 2023, there’s another $17.5k I can count on – before taxes and agent commission. Which means in 2023, at the rates I’m getting, I have to sell at least one more book to even have a prayer of covering my expenses as a novelist this year (which is why I still talk about client work! I can’t quit my day job!).
The earliest that I’ll see royalties for The Wicked Unseen is 2024. The earliest for We Are the Beasts will be 2025. And secret project won’t be giving me royalties until at least 2026. Which means this year and beyond are all completely up in the air.
So, here’s the thing…
So, this is where I want to land: I am going to keep writing books. I decided years ago that I missed it. I love telling stories and I want to keep telling them.
My point is this: many people can’t. The system I’ve described above is one that keeps a lot of people out. People who need to work full-time jobs and don’t have the bandwidth to write books in their free time. People in poverty working multiple jobs. Anyone disabled or mentally ill who doesn’t have the spoons for this bullshit. Authors who are typically already marginalized and who have a harder time breaking in and get lower advances when they do.
So I’m writing this because I’m annoyed that people are treating me like a cash cow. I’m also writing it because I’ve meant to for awhile, because you can’t fix a fucked-up system if there’s no transparency.
At the end of the day, I’m fine. I’m fortunate to have built other reliable income sources. I’ve got rad tech clients who pay well and on time. I’ve been saving like a fiend for years. And I live a pretty frugal life when I’m not splurging in Paris for a long weekend. But just because I’m somehow making it work doesn’t mean the system actually works. And it most definitely doesn’t mean authors are wealthy.
Are there some? Of course. Nobody’s arguing that Neil Gaiman or Stephen King or that TERF lady are struggling.
But the rest of us? Including you, dear reader: we’re struggling. There are great books not getting published because marginalized authors can’t work on them for such little financial consideration. There are incredible voices being shut out in so many ways, including via these finances. Authors are struggling to get by. Readers are missing out on rad books. The only ones winning are the publishing stakeholders.
And frankly, it is unethical as hell every time a publisher reports record profits.
So, fuck you, my dear Airbnb host. No I cannot afford to lose $50 of food because of my so-called literary success.
And a bigger fuck you to the publishing industry. And an even bigger one to capitalism.
Eat the fucking rich.
And stop assuming artists are the rich, please and thank you.