How Much Do Authors Make? An Overview and Tips for Self-Publishers

If you’re an author, hopefully, you’re writing because you love it – because you’re passionate about a subject and have something to say! However, impressive authors can also make a lot of money. One of the most searched phrases online is “how much do authors make?” And the answer is: that depends! Becoming an author – whether self-published or traditionally published – is far from a get-rich-quick idea. Nonetheless, it can be financially rewarding, in addition to personally fulfilling. 

Keep reading to learn more about how much authors can make and self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. 

How much does an author really make?

Remember how we mentioned the answer to the question “How much do authors make?” will vary? That’s because an author’s income stream depends on several variables, such as:

  • Royalty rate earned per book sale
  • Up-front advance offered (applies to traditionally published only)
  • Effort of book marketing
  • Size of interested audience
  • How many books are published per year
  • How many books are currently available
  • How many books are actually sold consistently

Potential income streams for various authors

  • Extremely high financial success: These would be authors who become almost a household name – think of Stephen King or JK Rowling. You should know that it’s unlikely and difficult to achieve this level of success. 
  • High financial success: Many modern authors can make a great living that affords them a very comfortable life. This is typical of series authors or people who produce several books (not one book alone). 
  • Medium financial success: It’s becoming quite common for people who have written books to make liveable wages from their earnings. They may be self-publishing or involved in the “indie” publishing side of things. As this world expands, many authors are experiencing moderate financial success in publishing. 
  • Low financial success: Unfortunately, some of the best authors produce great work but don’t make any money in their lifetime (for example H.P. Lovecraft). It is possible to write great books that aren’t recognized and don’t lead to financial success. 

Self publishing vs traditional publishing earnings

There are several differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing (which we detail here), and the income available is a big one. 

To get published traditionally is a lot more competitive. Historically, publishing houses only took on books that they were confident they could sell – and they were happy to reward authors with advances. Now, with the expansion of self-publishing options such as Amazon Self-Publishing, authors can reach their audience and keep more of their royalties – but they need to take on more of the effort and cost of promotion. 

Self publishing earnings

In the world of self-publishing, the general consensus is that pretty much anyone can have their book published, but they need to be willing to put in the energy and invest the costs to promote their book to an audience. 

As far as earnings go, you need to know that your book simply will not sell without good editing and cover design. You also need to sell your book for less than a traditional publisher would. On the other hand, after those initial costs, you get to keep all of the royalties. Here’s an example: 

Let’s say you have a great paperback and you’ve done a nice job of editing and having an excellent cover produced. You sell your paperback at $15 per copy. Costs of printing can be anywhere from $1.50 to $4.50 depending on what you print and with whom, but for this example let’s say you’ve chosen on-demand printing and therefore earn $4.50 per book. By selling 11,250 paperbacks you’ll get $50,625. Remember your initial costs of editing and design? Let’s say you spent $3,000 on those. Your profit would be $47,625. You can also add ebook options that allow for even larger royalties and fewer production costs. 

According to extensive research, self-published authors continue to make up a larger piece of the pie as far as book purchases go. For example, Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited paid out over a quarter of a billion dollars to indie authors in 2019, apart from regular sales. This is great news for indie authors because the simple truth is that self-publishing allows authors to keep much more of their earnings than traditional publishing. However, that fact must be weighed against realistic expectations about the audience that can be reached. 

Traditional publishing earnings

Traditional book publishing has been considered the holy grail of authorship for a long time. Many people have a dream of pitching their manuscript and having it accepted by a large publishing house, and seeing shiny copies of their work in the nearest bookstore. Unfortunately, though reliable figures vary, a lot of research shows that only about 2% of work sent to a publisher will ever be published. If you beat those odds and are able to work with a publisher, here’s what you might expect. 

Many people get advances in the $5,000 – 10,000 range. Then, publishing companies tend to pay a percentage of the list price as royalties, commonly around 10%. You also need to earn back your advance before you can earn additional royalties. In some cases, the advance money is all that is earned via book sales, so that’s all the money an author ever sees. 

As an example, let’s say your publisher sells your book for $20. That’s generally reasonable though perhaps a bit steep for some people. Amazon currently offers 60% royalties for print books, so consider the wholesale price for this book at $12.  You can expect to receive 10% of that, or $1.20. In this example, you’d have to sell 4,167 print books just to recoup a $5,000 royalty. If you’re being paid purely on list price your earnings would be a bit higher ($2.00). 

5 Tips to make more money as a Self-Publisher 

You can see how self-publishing can yield a much higher return. However, it’s essential to note that those earnings do not just happen! A thoughtful and intentional plan should be put in place before choosing to self-publish. Review these tactics before you move forward. 

1. Choose between self-publishing or traditional publishing

Make sure you’re really educated on the differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Self-publishing offers a lot more flexibility and freedom, but you are responsible for up-front costs, and it’s harder to reach your audience. With traditional publishing, you’ll get the full backing of a substantial company that can market for you – but your chances of getting to that stage are much lower. Learn more about the basics of self-publishing to get a better understanding. 

2. Write to your market

Who will read your book? Answer this before you start writing. You need to be able to capitalize on what’s “hot” in the market and in your industry. Look at categories that you enjoy writing in and see what’s selling well. Many people use self-publishing as a way to boost their expertise and influence in business arenas. If you have people who pay attention to your brand, then you already have an audience for your book. 

3. Write & publish series

If your goal is to “make it” as an author, creating a series is the fastest way to get there. That’s because one customer is more likely to make multiple purchases. If you have a great first book, readers will buy the second book, and so on. These readers are also more likely to leave reviews and participate in online forums, gaining more attention for your books. Note: this strategy only works if you can write a really compelling first story! 

4.  Build an email list

As with any venture, you need a way to communicate with interested parties. Social media is great, but email is important because you will own the data. Email lists are great for finding beta readers, obtaining launch team members, and generating excitement for launch day. 

5. Sell on your own author website

Many people think Amazon is the only way to get your books in front of customers, but that’s just not true. Creating your own website takes a little effort, but doing so comes with a lot of advantages. You’ll have complete control over your format, increased access to your customer data, and 100% of the profits. 

The real question: How much can YOU make as an author? 

What an author earns – whether via self-publishing or traditional publishing – is going to vary wildly. Hopefully, this article gave you a few insights and some ideas around numbers that real authors are looking at. However, if you’re considering authoring a book, you need to ask yourself which type of publishing is right for you and what strategies you’re willing to commit to in order for your book to achieve success. To get really smart on the topic, take a few minutes and browse our resources on printing.

At Print Bind Ship, we offer a way for authors and entrepreneurs to send their books to customers without ever even addressing a package. We provide 3PL services specializing in book printing and can manage the entire process from start to finish – so you can spend more time writing!