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All About The Money? Wanted: Your Opinions On Author Earnings

All about the money? Wanted: Your opinions on author earnings

Image: The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg

Image: The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg

It’s been hard not to notice how the publishing industry’s attention has been focussed on the always-thorny topic of author earnings lately. With lots of different issues, facts and figures at play here, picking apart the various strands and finding out what exactly it means for self-publishers is not easy.

Which is why we want to know about what’s going on for you.

The background

In 2005, the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society reported around 40% of writers earned their income from writing alone.

Fast forward nine years, add in the rise of self-publishing, major developments in ebooks and a decline in print, and basically, a whole new set of rules for publishing no matter which route you take, and a new report (What are Words Worth Now?) from ALCS shows just 11% of the 2,500 authors surveyed earned their income from writing alone.


How did we get here and the battle for digital

Admittedly, this is not the happiest news. As we see it, at the heart of this lies a real disconnect between how much authors can earn through digital sales when publishing traditionally. A (well articulated and necessary) comment from UK Society of Authors chief executive Nicola Solomon says it straight:

“Publisher profits are holding up and, broadly, so are total book sales if you include ebooks but authors are receiving less per book and less overall due mainly to the fact that they are only paid a small percentage of publishers' net receipts on ebooks and because large advances have gone except for a handful of celebrity authors.”

Stateside, it’s the ongoing dispute between Hachette and Amazon that’s getting most attention, with authors caught in the crossfire between two publishing power-players, as  the book world grapples with working out what digital is worth. Wherever you stand on the dispute, it’s hard to deny, as hinted at by Authors Guild Vice Chair Richard Russo that “…they’ve [trade publishers] not treated us fairly with regard to e-book revenues, and they know it. That needs to change”.


The Other Side(s) of the Story

In all this pessimistic money-talk, self-publishing has barely mentioned been mentioned, though in the ALCS report,  25% were self-publishers and ALCS found them to be typically recouping their costs (a mean investment of £2,470, a median investment of £500), plus making an ROI of 40%.

And, of those self-publishers surveyed, some 86% who self-published said they would do it again.

We know we have many members who struggled within trade publishing, only to find substantial commercial and creative success with self-publishing, as well as those who have moved on from the first book, 40% return territory, to full-time authorship.

[And — side note – we also know that authors make their commercial decisions in a creative context that is very different to corporate trade publishing, something Orna is going to be exploring in depth in her new monthly opinion column, next month.]

In the meantime, as we try to find a clearer picture, we want your comments, your experiences and your views on the money question, below.

Easy Tweet:

Is it all about the money? @IndieAuthorAlli wants your views on the sticky subject of #author earnings – bit.ly/1zG8cak 



This Post Has 24 Comments
  1. I set out to write something another might read. Money never entered my head. I moved back to the UK and my sales have risen in the past year. The money I earn has enabled me to move in writing circles I never dreamed of while living in Cyprus. I still love to write to entertain but now the money appeals a tad more.

  2. From the ALLi Facebook page:

    Are words like liters or gallons? Do you pay more for a book with more words? Or do you pay for a certain quality of words and storytelling? I am looking at the prices on the books on my bookshelves. I see no correlation between word count and price.

    Book prices are always dynamic. All publishers work with price. Sometimes because technology makes it cheaper, and sometimes because of sales–price usually can go down with copies printed. But for e-books, the copy does not add to costs. Yet, the cost in publishing is not really the material cost, but the personnel and overhead. There was an interesting book published over ten years ago titled Publishing for Profit by Thomas Woll. This was basically for starting up a small publisher. He wrote that each employee the company has needs to be supported by about $150,000 in net sales. If you have two editors, an office staff, and a sales rep, then you need to bring in $600,000 a year. And this is the advantage of a publisher that can solicit MS from a pool of authors rather than hang to write each one. With pressure of falling book prices, ebooks are a way to support sales.

    Now, are we selling digital files and paper, or are we selling stories? What is a story worth? Does a story’s worth change with the number of words?

    I am wondering if we are creating the wrong image. I like Guy Kawasaki’s idea of artisanal publishing. We will pay more for a handmade sweater, especially if it is something different. Instead of making and pushing our books as the same as cheap mass-market paperbacks, we changed the image to be something more unique, would that generate a readership that does not minding paying a little more? I think that will depend on the type of book you are doing, but it is an interesting thought.

    1. William, I’m already creating different editions of some of product lines to appeal to people with different levels of engagement with my work.

      For example, I have hand-made, signed, numbered and limited to 100 copies chapbook editions of some of my short stories, with more on the way. These artifacts are for the collectors and completists in my community (whom I love!)… and yep, they sell.

      I also offer personalized autographed paperback editions of my two novels exclusively through my site.

      Soon, I’ll add some of my music to the site. Individual songs will be pay-what-you-want, but if you want album bundles, you’ll have to pay… and you’ll get higher quality files, lyrics sheets, and little essays about each song.

      You asked, “are we selling digital files and paper, or are we selling stories?”

      Me? I’m asking people to pay for an experience. The basic experience (reading text, listening to a song) is the easiest point of entry, and the least expensive. If you want more… if you want to plumb the depths of a narrative or cultivate a better understanding of the creator of that narrative… it costs more.

      I have a guiding principle: everything I make must build community or add to my bottom line, and the projects that do both take priority. Creating “artisanal” experiences is a big part of that… and you’ll see even more of that from me before the year’s out.

  3. I consider myself a creator, not just an author, because I express myself in creative media other than (and including) prose.

    I’m never at a loss for what to make next.

    So, all other things being equal, I prioritize my creative endeavors according to, among other factors, what will bring the best return both in the short and long terms.

    I do this because, while I would still make things if I couldn’t make any money doing so, I am very much in the business of making things. No entrepreneur (or, if you will, authorpreneur) worth the label would, given the choice, select the project that stands to make less money for similar effort.

    I agree with Dan that the objective of this post is a little muddy, but my “view on the money question” is spelled out in my latest blog post (http://bit.ly/transparency-challenge), which, among other things, urges all indie authors, not just the ones who are doing well, to be more forthcoming about their income.

    I urge you all to read it, and accept the challenge!

  4. Fantastic question. It is about the money to some extent, but only insofar as getting paid for the work I do allows me to devote more time to the writing. It is about the money because to some extent it HAS to be about the money in order for me to be able to write as a career. The ultimate goal, of course, is to quit my day job. That said, if I could sell millions of books and get my stories in the hands of millions of readers, I wouldn’t frankly care how much money I was making as long as I was able to pay the bills and afford a decent living.

    Otherwise, it’s really about the art. Writing for me is an imperative. I’ve been keeping a journal and writing poetry since I was 17; I can’t imagine life without a pen in hand. The greatest joy of self-publishing, for me, has been the slow crawl towards being able to make writing a lifestyle rather than an evening pleasure. This is why I joined ALLi in the first place – so that I could learn more about the business side, which in turn will foster and encourage the artistic side.

  5. Never expected to make money writing, and no, it’s not about the money – as others (eg Dan, Debbie, Jessica) have said, it’s the freedom to write and produce books as I want, a good content in a good product, with originality of cover as well as story for example. I find marketing has been defeating me, and Amazon etc sales are not profitable of course … so am trying to pre-market harder with this next novel. Also to get people to buy off our website.

    I will probably never make money from my books as I’m not writing to a popular genre, it’s more lite lit really. So I accept that.

    Royalties for trade published have of course gone down: my father in law’s books used to gain reasonable royalties (medical textbooks and academic stuff) – now both royalties are less and they are going out of date! Husband’s books also have dropped their royalties …

    What is sad is that writing continues to be,largely,something which you need an income from elsewhere to sustain. Sigh: it is of its nature thus both sacrificial and selfless (even though we do it because we have something we want to say!)

  6. For me, it isn’t all about the money but more about reaching the readers as much as I can. And like Debbie, the freedom of writing what I want to, when I want to and publishing ebooks when I want to and not having to wait for publishers to say so. The fact that I get paid, not a lot at the moment, is a bonus.

  7. Ten years ago when I first started writing I wrote because I was driven to do so, but always wanted to be published writer and the money didn’t come into it. After having more than twenty books published traditionally I was still making a loss from my writing and could only write full time because I retired early from teaching.
    Then another writer pointed me towards KDP– that was two years ago – and my priorities changed again. In 2012 I made a profit and had to pay tax on my writing for the first time and last year I made more than I did as a full-time teacher.
    Now I am as interested in the money as I am in gaining more readers. I like being a well-paid writer and able to buy whatever I want and help my family financially if they need it. I am proudly driving a brand-new car which I bought for myself from my writing. I love the fact that I have a core readership of many thousands who pounce on every new title and I love the fact that I can leave a substantial legacy of royalties to my children and grandchildren – which is something which would never have happened with traditional publishing. As far as I can see my e books and POD books will live for longer than I do.
    Writing is wonderful but being paid well for it is even better.

  8. Having established that we all rather like the idea of earning money from our books, perhaps the more interesting question is why?
    Is it simply to fuel our creative journeys, as William suggests, or is it more to do with the “professional author” status it bestows on us?

  9. I make books for the money like I drive for the gasoline. However, without fuel, there is so far I can go. Money, like writing, is part and parcel of publishing. To say you are not interested in money is like saying you are not interested in words.

    I think it is good to differentiate publishing from writing. You can write all you want. You can fill up hard drives full of the stuff. You certainly do not have to give up your job to write. If you want to publish, and I assume to sell books, then you are in it for the money. It is called a career. Without money, you don’t have a career. The idea of not working for money is very aristocratic–it is very noble of people with gobs of money to be indifferent about it, even while living off the power it affords them. The idea that artist should view money as something beneath them has been used against artist to exploit them for a very long time. It is time for this insidious idea to fade away.

    Now, if you are independently wealthy, you can certainly have publishing as a hobby as long as it does not exceed your means.

    1. “To say you are not interested in money is like saying you are not interested in words.”

      Would you care to explain this extraordinary statement, William? I cannot see any correlation.

      If a publisher ever comes to me with an offer they think I won’t be able to refuse, I won’t be interested in the money (seriously!), but I might be interested in some kind of deal that would furnish me with complete artistic freedom, a marketing dept at my beck & call, cover & title approval and someone to take over social networking for me. It would also be nice if they could send someone round to tidy my desk.

      But money? In exchange for artistic freedom?… Not all of us are so easily bought. When my traditional publisher insisted I re-write my 4th novel I withdrew the manuscript because I knew it was fine as it was (and my indie sales proved I was right.) The next day I got an email asking me to pay back my not inconsiderable advance, which I did.

      It most definitely is not about the money. For me – and many other writers – it’s all about the *words*.

  10. Interesting comment Simon:

    I will check out your website, which I imagine… is http://www.readersintheknow.com. Authors who set up Money as a goal are not committng a sin against their artistic code of values. Publishing is a business. Writing is a function of the Business, as is Editing, and Marketing. Promotions are a function. If an author doesn’t Plan to Succeed, he/she is Planning to Fail.



    1. Thanks warren, and yes, that is indeed the link. Launched it about six weeks ago to a select group of authors and publishers and am now on the verge of starting to make a lot of noise about it, so come and take a look, sign up for the free trial which runs until August 31st and let me know what you think.

  11. It’s definitely not about the money, but the irony is, since I went indie I’ve earned more than I’ve ever earned in my life. (I’ve been an actress, freelance journalist and teacher.)

    My best year as a traditionally published author earned me £12k. My best year as an indie author earned me 3 times that.

    I’m not interested in returning to traditionally publishing because there’s no way they could make it worth my while financially. In addition I’d have to tolerate covers & marketing campaigns I might not like. I would have to conform to an editor’s expectations (and failure to do that is why I parted company with my last publisher). I would have to give away the lion’s share of my income to a publisher who might or might not commission my next novel (and whether they did might have far too much to do with the literary criteria of Tesco.)

    I started writing fiction because I had something to say that I wanted to share. When I went indie I discovered a lot of people want to read the sort of books I like to write. What a surprise! I’d been told my books “didn’t fit any genre” and I was therefore “hard to market”.

    My advice to anyone who has something to say in book form is, “Go indie, but don’t expect to make money.” And to anyone who asked me, “How can I make money from my writing?” I’d say, “God knows, but I’d definitely go indie. Then at least most of what you earn goes into your account and not a publisher’s.”

  12. Like Joanna above, I was earning much more in the IT industry, although I had months within the first year of publication, when much to my surprise, my royalties were actually enough to live on. And it was this unexpected realisation that last year led me to turn my back on a 30 year career in IT marketing, move to Cornwall and see if I could make it as an author.

    However, several months into my second book, frustrated with the tools available for promoting my first book, I decided to take a minor detour from this new writerly path in order to build and launch what I perceived to be a much needed web portal for readers, authors and publishers called Readers in the Know.

    – Stay with me here, because this seemingly shameless plug is not unrelated to the original topic. The reason I believe such a portal is needed is because whatever our initial motivation for writing, be it creative expression, a desire to invite total strangers into our heads, cathartic release or the freedom to explore new ideas, most of us do still need to make money from it. But this is easier said than done, since having cast our literary needles into the giant Amazonian haystack, we all desperately need to find clever new ways to shine spotlights on them.

    Of course, to elaborate any further would indeed turn this comment into a shameless plug, so suffice to say, once this new venture allows me to return to my second novel, I will gladly do so and perhaps, with the help of Readers in the Know, I and thousands of fellow authors like me, will now find it easier to make a decent living from our endeavours.

  13. If it was all about the money, I would still be a highly paid IT consultant 🙂 So it’s definitely not, and I changed my life to do this full-time, downsizing, getting rid of debt etc … so creative expression and freedom is always #1

    But I am also very keen to prove that you can be a creative earning really good money … so I am driven to create books that people want to buy and read. I’m saving my niche spiritual travel memoir for when I can afford that time!

    I just did my tax return and my business earned more than double the average income for the UK – which I’m pleased about. Income from book sales alone accounted for more than half that, and were 2.5x the reported average earnings for authors, according to that awful survey. I have a business plan that will bring my income back to what I used to earn by 2017. If I can do that, and write books I love for readers who love them too – I will be a very happy author!

    (PS. I was a business consultant for 13 years and have run my own businesses for 10+ years, as well as failing at 3 other start up ventures. I have learned a lot!)

  14. I love to write, and the advent of self-publishing has made it possible for me to make money from my books, instead of spending fruitless years trying to break into traditional publishing. Do I want to be able to quit my day job and only do the job I love, writing? Absolutely. So in that case, the money is important. Very important.

  15. No, it’s not all about the money for me – in fact it’s not really about the money at all, but about having the freedom to write what I want to write, and to share it with readers. This is true whether I’m writing non-fiction self-help books, sharing my specialist knowledge and experience and putting it out in the public domain where it might help others, or whether I’m having fun making up stories that I think others will enjoy (and the reviews indicate that those who find it really do enjoy them.)

    Like Jane Davis, I’m in the fortunate position of having paid off my mortgage after working very hard in demanding jobs for nearly three decades. My priority now is to do what I really want to do with my life: write books. If the only option was to give them all away for free and get no money at all, I’d still do it, because it’s what I want to do. I’m driven by the need to express myself and to share the results.

    The money that I receive, which, if you worked it out in terms of £ per hour of labour would be earnings of homeopathic strength, is just a bonus as far as I’m concerned.

    If I ever made lots of money from my writing, I’d be ploughing it back into more time and resources to help me write more (plus I’ve written one ebook whose entire proceeds are earmarked for a charity relevant to the book – it’s for diabetes research, and the book’s a memoir about type 1 diabetes in my family).

    As far as I’m concerned, the main pressure point on my writing is that old chestnut of time’s winged chariot – running out of life before I’ve written all I want to write, and no amount of money would buy any author release from that issue!

  16. Ultimately, like it or not, it is ‘all about the money’, because that’s the only quantifiable element in the transaction. Your passionate response to a book is opposed by someone else’s ‘Yuk, what a lot of cobblers.’

  17. I’m not 100% sure what the question is asking. The title wants to know if it’s all about the money but the body of teh piece seems to want to know what I think about the money aspect.

    I’m probably not alone in thinking the latter question is ersatz given that for me, no, it’s not all about the money. Rather, it’s not about the money. At all. which makes me wonder whether, far from seeking breadth of opinion, thewording of this piece is simply contributing to a background noise whispering “money, money, money, if it’s not about the money the conversation’s not for you”. And yes, I know, snappy titles and all, but we’re writers first and foremost, so a little exactitude may be part of what it’s about.

    Anyway, that’s got my grouchiness out of the way which means I can talk about the question in, I hope, non-grouchy terms. I find it saddening that the Amazon-Hachette pram wars have intensified the impression in the media that authors care first and foremost about money, that the business of books is all about the business and not really about the books.
    The questin of art and earnings is, of course, one of the oldest there is, and I’mnot belittling its importance. I just wish that more writers saw it from readerside as it were. And from the point of view of readers. I get the impression that when we hear “readers will be impoverished” in these deates, what we’re actually hearing is a projection of the speaker’;s “I will be impoverished.” Do they really mean the same thing? I guess it depends on the reader and what and why they read. For me as a reader, if all authors stopped being paid tomorrow, would my reading life be impoverished? I find it impossible to find any evidence of an even partial “yes” to that. Of course, that’s just my taste. On the one hand there are already enough books I am desperate to read to see me through my remaining forty something years. On the other, the books I love are those born from a passion that bursts out of the page, words that flow like pent up magma through the cracks of every spare second of a writer’s life.

    We hear a lot about how if writers weren’t paid, writing would beome the preserve of the monied. Is that true? Not for the writing I love. Give me street art over what’s in the academies any day. And give me zines over a booker winner the same. of course, there are other readers with other tastes and they may be affected differently, in which case we need to hear from them.

    In short, is it all about the money? No. Is it all about the readers? Yes. What do authors really need to do? How about we listen to them rathert than speaking for them, or for ourselves? And on that note… 🙂

  18. I have just done my tax return for the year 2013 – 2014 and made a loss, however, it has been a time to reflect on what I acheived. I released my first two SP ebooks in December 2012, and only released the paperbacks in Summer 2013 when I was fairly sure that all of the glitches had been whittled out. I also released my third SP book in November 2013 and incurred all of the costs for the release of my fourth SP book. This is not a year in which I could have expected to break even, let alone see a profit. At the same time, I reduced my paid work from 2-3 days a week to 1 day a week in December 2013, so my income is now very low indeed. I could not do this at all if I have not paid off my mortgage and if I had dependants, and if my partner was not prepared to sacrifice holidays and meals out. It is only in the last couple of months that I have started to receive a monthly cheque from Amazon of about £200 a month. (I only mention Amazon because payments from all other sources are very irregular). However, it is not a continually improving situation. Like many other authors, my sales have dipped in July. I have a lot of speaking events lined up over the summer, but I generally make a loss at these, in the hope of long-term gains. At the moment I anticipate that my income from writing will be in the region of £1000 this year. I know full well that my website needs a re-design and by the time I have paid professional fees and attended a conference or two, this amount will very quickly be absorbed. So, although I had not realised how low the returns would be, I cannot possibly say it is all about the money. It is my choice to write, just as it was my choice to give up a well-paid and secure job to do so. It’s still a thrill to see my name in print and to know that I will leave what is now quite a substantial body of work behind me. But I do feel very disgruntled when I am asked to speak, giving up my time freely, after having spent an average of 7 hours preparing, the organisers do not advertise that there will be books for sale so people feel as if I am pushing them on them, and am not even offered travelling expenses. Reaction is surprise when I mention this. ‘We had no idea a publisher wasn’t paying you.’ ‘You seem so professional.’ There seems to be a myth that traditionally published authors are paid by their publisher for the time they spend promoting their books, and the myths that continue to circulate are a problem. I think it’s positive that this is being debated, but, as someone who has been watching the comments from members of the public to articles about authors’ earnings, there is not a lot of sympathy.

  19. Thanks for asking! I have been independently publishing my books since 2012, and I’m happy to say that, just this year, it’s beginning to financially pay off. I’m earning a decent chunk of money consistently every month now. While it’s not enough to live on–yet–I imagine if I keep going the way I’m going, it could be. I’m very close to considering quitting the day job and pursuing publishing full time. Because if this is what happens while putting in a part-time effort, a full-time effort will do wonders.

    That said, it’s not the money that motivates me to self-publish. It’s the freedom and the control. I do everything myself. Layout, design, marketing. And I put as much effort into that as the writing. It’s great to be able to release my books exactly how I envision them. And it’s also great to be able to give my books a promo push the minute I see sales sliding. I can’t imagine a better publishing experience to be honest. I’d hate to have to rely on others to get things done that I can do the very instant they come to mind.

  20. Wow, I’m doing much better as a self published author than I did with my five different publishers. I don’t even feel tempted to return to traditional publishing, but if I did, I only need to go look at my royalty statements from that time and see how much money I didn’t make from my books. I’ve made more money selling fewer books than I did with any of those publishers.

    I don’t feel preyed upon by Amazon, Nook, Kobo, or Apple, as a self published author. I feel empowered. 🙂

  21. Publishing is a tough business. Publishing your own work is even harder. Unfortunately, self-publishing has been sold as a get rich scheme, with all the same pander that goes on with these schemes.

    Amazon is also preying on the self publisher. It is using them to push the value of the book down. When you consider most books sell a 1,000 or so copies, low prices for the consumer works against the author. The promise, of course, is millions of sales. That is a lottery ticket. It is not something to build a business on. But Amazon wins this game. How do you make a million dollars? Do you sell a million copies of one book or one copy of a million books. This is how the big internet players make their fortunes–a penny a click is not much, unless you can get a billion clicks. So Amazon makes money on every ebook sold, it does not care if that is one ebook or a million. There is an army of authors working for free, it has a lot of stock from which to gain income.

    Naturally, this business model does not work for individuals. Without control of pricing, self publishers are going to have a harder time making money. If Amazon chooses an arbitrary price regardless of costs and profits to the producer of the work, that is going to any publishers trying to run a business. But they have been successful at recasting a books value as a material value, not the content’s value. ebooks are cheap because they are a digital file, not because it took someone six months to write. Are we selling paper and electrons or stories?

    I hope Hachette prevails. Unfortunately, the conversation is not about business and how to run them, but some meaningless crusade against publishers. Publishers are not the problem. And the success of your book has nothing to do with the success of another book. Self publishers are going to have to learn more about running publishing companies rather than just praying for a lottery ticket.

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