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If you are an aspiring writer who has yet to start writing your first draft of a short story or book, or a beginner who has yet to publish anything under your real name or pseudonym, you must have at least once daydreamed about the day you finally get your book published. Maybe you imagine your book being an instant hit before it even reaches bookstores. Maybe you imagine myriad fans chanting your name as you walk up the stage facing a sea of adoring fans at a fiction book convention, answering questions and giving advice to other young writers. Maybe you see yourself rubbing shoulders with the likes of George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, or Stephen King. Maybe you imagine driving your brand new Porsche, ripe with its new car fragrance, to the driveway of your three-story mansion in a gated community in Beverly Hills; or maybe to a remote cottage in the New England wilderness of New Hampshire where you spend your days writing new award-winning stories in solitude, never having to work in any mundane traditional career. It’s a pleasant dream, but for writers of no renown who’ve yet to publish so much as poem, that’s all it will be.
Of course, that’s not to say it’s impossible, but the number of stories you may have heard about no name writers suddenly achieving critical, commercial, and financial success with their book(s) are chances that are one in a million, perhaps even more. And even if, you manage to publish your book, traditionally or through self-publishing, that does not guarantee it will be a success in any aspect of the word—such is the case of many authors.
With that said, let’s pretend for a minute you’ve never managed to get a book deal with any publisher and decide to self-publish your book. Will be able to quit your day job to pursue writing full-time or not?
How Much Self-Published Authors Make Per Year
It has been mentioned in a previous article that self-published authors have a higher royalty rate (40 – 70%) than authors who are traditionally published (7 – 25%). That seems like a lot, but is not much considering most self-published authors only make less than $1,000 a year. According to a survey done by The Guardian in 2015, a third of self-published authors in the United States make less than $500 a year, as opposed to traditionally published authors that make at least $3,000 – $4,999 annually. Keep in mind that these are all approximations, as gathering precise numbers are near impossible due to differing factors in an individual writers sales, royalty rates, and annual earnings.
You may see videos on YouTube all the time that talk about how a writer’s first book became an instant best-seller or how one can potentially make $4,000 a month with their books. Hell, you may’ve even heard the Cinderella stories of E.L James and Andy Weir that inspired you to begin working on your book right now. But let’s be real, the chances of your first book selling like pancakes after Sunday service are from nil to slim. Most self-published authors normally sell less than 200 copies of their books, less than that depending on how much you price your book. I myself have known two self-published authors while in college and neither of them sold more books than the number of people in their immediate families.
Let’s say, for example, you sell 200 copies of your book at $0.99 to incentivize consumers into buying your book and the royalty rate offered by Amazon is 40%. You would only make $0.40 for every book sold, and since you only sold 200 copies, you will only make about $79.20 in that entire book’s lifetime. Considering the hundreds or even thousands of dollars you may have spent on hiring professional editors, cover artists, or agents, only to make back less than $100, it all seems like a bad investment. This all seems disheartening, I know, but that’s the hard reality of most self-published books.
“It’s almost impossible to make a living off of book sales.”
In his 2017 article written for the online newsletter Medium, Federico Pistono, an Italian entrepreneur, angel investor, researcher, science educator, public speaker, and author of the Amazon best-selling book, Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK: How to Survive the Economic Collapse and Be Happy, puts it more bluntly: “It’s almost impossible to make a living off of book sales.” Concepción de León, a journalist for the New York Times, would also agree; her 2019 article, a survey conducted by the Author’s Guild shows that:
The median [annual] pay for full-time writers was $20,300 in 2017, and that number decreased to $6,080 when part-time writers were considered. The latter figure reflects a 42 percent drop since 2009, when the median was $10,500. These findings are the result of an expansive 2018 study of more than 5,000 published book authors, across genres and including both traditional and self-published writers.(De León, New York Times 2019).
How Income Affects Authors
For an individual living in California, the poverty line is $49,460, over twice the amount a full-time writer can hope to make in a year, much less a part-time writer. That number skyrockets to $67,640 for couples and $103,000 for a family of four. If you’re living alone or with a family of your own and you’re thinking of quitting your job you may hate or not feel fulfilled in to start writing full-time, you’d better stick with that job for your own sake.
It’s widely misunderstood by dreamy-eyed beginning writers that household writers make their living only off the profits of their books. In truth, that in of itself is a fiction. Many of today’s great writers make their money from careers besides writing, such as working as screenwriters, public speakers, university professors and lecturers, psychologists, lawyers, historians, scientists, business owners, et cetera, et cetera. If you ever hear of someone who can make a living off their book sales alone, know that they are the astronomically lucky ones, in the 0.01% of all the world’s writers. That’s not to say that achieving that is impossible, but if you have aspirations of striking it rich as a self-published writer because of the potential high royalty rates, don’t hold your breath.
Rich Authors Are Almost Fictional
Making a feasible living off writing and self-publishing books alone is not realistic, not even for authors who publish books traditionally. Many people on the internet try to perpetuate the lie that you can get rich quick by publishing one or two books by following their tips and tricks and paying $19.99 for their self-help book that goes into more detail and guarantees you success as a self-published author. Don’t fall for this lie. The only way you can see any kind of sizable income as an author, self-published or traditionally published, is to treat writing books as a job, not as something you do on-and-off whenever you feel like it.
But don’t take any of what’s been said as a deterrent for being a self-published author. Try to think of writing as a side gig that both allows you to tell the stories you’ve always wanted to tell and earns you a couple more bucks in your pocket. Money and renown should never be an author’s goal when writing a book. It’s disingenuous and shallow and if that is the reason you want to become a self-published author, then you’d best go into a different career path.
Are you a self-published author? Let us know your experience down in the comments.
This article originally published on GREY Journal.