I wrote a best-selling book – so where’s my money? (2024)

My name is Ian and I am a broke author. What’s more, I don’t quite understand why. Propelled by positive reviews and strong word of mouth, my book, , a memoir about how the rock business drives people mad, has topped the Amazon Music Business chart on five separate occasions. Last month, it went to number one on its Spanish equivalent. One kind critic called it “a shrewd, funny, psychologically perceptive, frank, well-written, jaw-dropping book”. Clearly, Hilary Mantel has nothing on me.

This bounty of good news, however, is undermined by the financial realities of long-form writing. According to a report by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), when adjusted for inflation, the median yearly pay for book writers has fallen by 60 per cent since 2006. Today, the precise figure is just £7.000. Of the 19 per cent of authors who make their living from books, the bestselling 10 per cent account for almost half of all earnings. Given that publishers trouser about 90 per cent of the wholesale price of printed titles – or 75 per cent of audiobooks and Kindle editions – the sums will likely be less than you might imagine even at the higher end of the market.

When trying to write about this dire situation, like Wile E Coyote I ran straight into a brick wall. In response to my request for an interview, the Society of Authors told me via email that they were too “over-stretched” to speak with me. An approach on X to chairperson Joanne Harris, an active presence on social media, bore no fruit, either. Which got me thinking: if the SoA, the trade union for people who write books, and its advocates won’t place themselves on the record on behalf of struggling writers, who will?

I wrote a best-selling book – so where’s my money? (1)

They did send me hard information in the form of the ALCS report, mind, the summation of which included a statement from Chief Executive Nicola Solomon. Describing its findings as “disappointing but not surprising,” Ms Solomon went on to say that “in a year that publishers have boasted record profits [in 2022, British publishing made £6.9 billion], the figure of median earnings… does not even come close to a living wage… [which] means that almost all of the people whose creativity and passion make the industry’s existence possible can only realistically be part of it with other jobs, or when they are supported by others, or through personal wealth. This paints a picture of a writing profession that is inaccessible and unsustainable for too many.”

I suppose I should count myself lucky that Faber & Faber, the publisher of Bodies, commissioned my book for an advance of £17,000 (15 per cent of which went to my literary agent). Yet despite its quiet but ongoing success - my book has sold about 20,000 copies worldwide - a slow and obtuse payment system means I’ve yet to receive a penny in royalties. Publishing houses have lots of authors, whereas authors have only one title that is current at any given time. Sometimes, the feeling of being disposable is so enveloping I wonder if I shouldn’t pitch my next project to Pampers.

“You’ve got to have a reason to write a book,” Dorian Lynskey, a fellow author, tells me. “You’ve got to think it’s really worthwhile. And I know people who have written books, good books that were well received, and they’ve just decided, at the end of it, not to do another one. They’ve gone, ‘Do you know what? It’s just not worth it.’ It’s an achievement to have done a book – it makes you an author, right? That’s a big deal… [But] there are a lot of good books on my shelf that I look at and think, ‘Oh, I wonder why they never did another book?’ And I think it’s probably that.”

This week sees the publication of Lynskey’s latest book, Everything Must Go: The Stories We Tell About The End Of The World. A major piece of work, this heavyweight yet fleet-of-foot look at humankind’s fixation on the end of days, told through the prism of history, religion, literature, popular art, science and more, is as compelling as it is authoritative. In good conscience, I can pay it the highest compliment I know – at the end of each working day, or late in the evening, I looked forward to reading it.

My new book is real and out on 11 April. Preorders make a big difference to authors so if it grabs you please consider getting in early via the links below.https://t.co/AReIeQC975https://t.co/E5O7KB45fBhttps://t.co/fYrr06XsJH pic.twitter.com/sNYdAh6wvN

— Dorian Lynskey (@Dorianlynskey) January 26, 2024

Lynskey itemises the extent of the research undertaken in the name of this grand project. In the two-year journey from farm to table, he read 800 books – some in part, many in whole – viewed dozens of films both mainstream and obscure, watched warmly remembered and long forgotten TV shows, consulted reams of articles, checked his sources and quotes twice over, and, of course, wrote (about 140,000 words, I’d say). The final three months saw him head to the British Library.

“Of course, what you can’t do is try and work out your hourly rate financially,” he tells me. “That would just be mad because that’s not why I’m doing it. It’s up to you how many hours you spend. You can write a worse version of any book much quicker, right? So if you’re thinking about your hourly rate, the better the book is then the lower [that amount] will be. So it doesn’t really make sense… As long as I can get along, can live, I try not to think too much about the financial side of it. Because I’m aware that it’s not very highly paid.”

Writing Bodies, my own process went like this. Notwithstanding the odd piece of freelance work, for 18 months, five days a week, I wrote from 10am until six pm, followed by a nightshift of between four and six hours after my partner had gone to bed. Each Saturday – sobbing gently, banging my head against the desk – I would review my week’s work. Sundays were a day of rest. Like a fool, of course, I did work out my rate of pay. I wrote my book for £2.50 an hour.

Being an author, though, is worth the candle in all but a financial sense. The gig comes with a singular freedom to say what you want to say, in precisely the way you want to say it. Its exhilarating highs and plummeting lows are the equivalent, I imagine, to those experienced by committed gamblers (another activity from which you might lose your home). Until the printing presses roll, your work-in-progress is both a demon that never sleeps and a companion that will bring out the best of you. When the writing is at last done, and done well, the feeling of satisfaction is immense.

I wrote a best-selling book – so where’s my money? (2)

Beyond the luxurious creativity, however, the world outside is getting colder. One author with a significant catalogue featuring a number of bona fide bestsellers tells me that things have become “much more difficult” since the publication of her first novel almost 25 years ago. “I never expected I would be a veteran author and still be periodically broke,” she tells me. “When I started out… you could, and I did, get a six-figure book deal based on a few chapters and a synopsis. So you could actually use the advance for what it’s meant for, which is living until you’ve finished your book.”

Not any more. Today, overwhelmingly, the eye-catching description “six-figure book deal” has been reduced by one, and in many cases two, zeroes. Your job-lot of cash won’t be delivered in a wheelbarrow, either. Traditionally, publishing advances are paid in three equal instalments: the first after signing a contract, the second upon the book’s completion, and the third on or around publication day. Getting in the game requires a written proposal featuring a sample chapter, a breakdown of the book’s contents, and a summation of the overall idea. The format runs to about 10,000 words of unpaid labour.

On an individual level, a commission is a gamble for both writers and publishers alike. Ninety percent of titles sell fewer than 2,000 copies, while much less than one percent are bought by more than 100,000 readers. The numbers are stacked against the author in another way, too. For us, a book is a singular obsession – a baby, even – whereas for the industry in general, it’s merely a small part of a mass production line. British publishing’s recent record-breaking revenues were achieved by stacking ’em high. On the day the mass market edition of Bodies went on sale – featuring an 8,000-word bonus chapter that I wrote for free – Faber & Faber issued eight other books.

I wrote a best-selling book – so where’s my money? (3)

In an industry that would not exist without us, the reality of profitable authors living on the bones of their backsides is surely unsustainable. These circ*mstances have created a kind of classless society in which talented people from a variety of backgrounds are facing exactly the same headaches. As the novelist Rupert Thomson recently put it in an interview with the Telegraph: “The creative classes are part of the precariat now. We’re paid the absolute minimum.”

I’m not suggesting the problem is easily solved – despite the arduous straits in which most titles were created, the sight of groaning shelves in good bookshops is a wonder to behold – or that even the most obscure writers are owed a living. But in a blossoming market, somehow we’ve swallowed a pay cut. And it wasn’t as if the pay was all that great in the first place.

Out on the campaign trail, authors can at least earn a few quid from personal appearances. I was once paid £150 for a booking at a festival in Devon, five hours from my home in London, at which I was interviewed in front of eight people, two of whom bought my book. (Prior to Philip Pullman kicking off on behalf of fellow authors, such happenings paid nothing at all.) Fourteen spectators caught my act in Glasgow, six in Manchester. The joy of speaking to 200 people in North Yorkshire was soured considerably when I learnt that a mix up with a local supplier meant that the book tent didn’t have Bodies in stock.

Despite describing the current climate as “brutal”, the bestselling author doesn’t hesitate to answer my question of whether she would have chosen this path had she known at the start what she’s since learned. “Yes,” she says, “but I might have gotten some kind of qualification so I could do [another] job as a back-up. But there’s nothing I want to do other than write novels, no matter how sh*t it can be. But because we would all do it anyway, that’s how the industry gets away with operating as it does.”

We were meant to have been there for 2 hours. After an hour of nobody in the store we told the store manager that we were going back to our hotel and that we would be in the bar, and if anyone came to get a book signed to send them there to us. Nobody came. https://t.co/qPDkxeJ7IE

— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) December 6, 2022

“You don’t expect it to be financially transformative,” Dorian Lynskey tells me. “You just want to be able to write another one. You need either the reviews or the sales, preferably both, and that is of course where the pre-release anxiety comes in. You’re thinking, ‘Will enough people care so that this book doesn’t disappear?’ Because a huge number of books, maybe most books, essentially do just disappear. They don’t get reviewed, they don’t get many sales, they don’t get talked about.”

Then again, you just never know. Authors understand that the prospect of catching a wave no one saw coming is distant but real. Who could have predicted that books such as Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach To Punctuation, by Lynne Truss, or Naomi Klein’s alter-globalisation manifesto No Logo would become international bestsellers? Conversely, in spare rooms up and across the country, wannabe literary sensations are busy hacking out knockoffs of Richard Osman’s blockbusting The Thursday Murder Club. It pleases me to report that these people are wasting their time. Believing readers will tire of vague approximations of this formula, publishing houses have already turned their attentions elsewhere.

“If you’re an author who is writing just to sell books, then it might work,” Lynskey says. “But you might also feel a bit cheap. And if it doesn’t work, well, what was the point of that?”

This, I think, is the bulls-eye. If one is determined to embark on such a maddeningly joyful enterprise, the least you can do is write a book of which you can be truly proud. Don’t waste your energy second-guessing a readership that might not care anyway. And don’t expect to be paid very much.

Nestled quietly among Everything Must Go’s many shards of piercing wisdom is a moment of truth I might just remember for the rest of my life. It concerns a dystopian novel in which the last living human being on earth sits down in Rome to begin the long and taxing process of composing a story he believes worth telling. “Even the last man must assume a reader somewhere, someday,” writes Dorian Lynskey.

Everything Must Go: The Stories We Tell About The End Of The World, by Dorian Lynskey, is published by Picador

I wrote a best-selling book – so where’s my money? (2024)


How much money does a best-selling author make on one book? ›

How much do book authors make per book when traditionally published? Usually 5–20% royalties for print books, and 25-35% for eBooks. Self-published authors make more per book, usually 40-70%, but a higher percentage of less books sold means less money made.

How do you get paid for a book I wrote? ›

Self-published authors generally make 30–70% royalties per sale from day one. Where can I publish my book and make money? Kindle Direct Publishing is one of the most affordable self-publishing platforms for both printed and digital books, ensuring you a fixed rate of 60% of the royalties per sale.

How many books to sell to make $100,000? ›

To make $100.000 / year, you have to sell 50.000 books, which equals to 50.000/12 = 4.667 books per month. After the first year, you'll have 12 books published. To make $100k with those 12 books, you'd need to sell 348 copies of each book each month.

Where do authors get their money? ›

Self-published authors can earn up to 70% royalties from their books, while most traditionally published authors make 5-18% royalties which they only receive after 'earning out'. That means the books sales have “paid back” their advances and the publishers then start giving them a cut of book sales.

Can one book make you a millionaire? ›

Can writing a book make you a millionaire? Only a very small percentage of novelists become wealthy from just their books. Most have other jobs, such as teaching and freelancing, which supplement their income.

How much do you make if you sell 1 million books? ›

Selling a million copies would earn you a million dollars. Depending on your contract, you may get a book deal advance, which is an advance payment made to authors in traditional publishing. If you don't make enough money to pay back the advance, you're not required to pay the advance back.

What is the average income of an author? ›

The average salary of an author (as of 2024) is $84,670. This does not account for all authors, though since many “write part-time” or make much of their income through other means. To account for this gap, the Authors Guild conducted a massive survey to get detailed financial information from more than 5,000 authors.

Who is the richest author in the world? ›

Edinburgh author J.K. Rowling is believed to be the world's wealthiest author, with a fortune of around $1 billion. It's all a long way from the struggling and skint single mum who started her world-conquering Harry Potter series of novels in a cafe in Scotland's capital.

Is it profitable to write a book? ›

Yes. It takes a solid publishing plan to get your book out to the world. How much money can you make from writing a book? According to recent reports, the median income for authors is around $10,000 to $20,000.

How much can a first-time author make? ›

Self-published authors can earn 40% to 60% royalties for the selling price of a book, while traditionally published authors typically earn 10% to 12% royalties. First-time authors willing to publish traditionally will receive a prepayment. This is usually $10,000 (not so much for first-time authors).

What is considered a successful book? ›

The Definition of Success

For a first-time author, selling a few thousand copies can be considered a success, while for a well-established author, selling hundreds of thousands of copies might be the benchmark.

Can I make 100k as a writer? ›

While most Digital Writers can quickly elevate themselves and start earning $100,000+ per year, it is very, very hard to make more than $250,000 per year without some form of Digital Leverage. This means finding a way to work with more people without selling more of your time.

Do authors make a living? ›

You can make a living as an author, but it might not be what you expect,” Williams said in an exclusive interview with me. “When you start writing, if you plan on landing a publishing advance that will allow you to move to a lake-side cottage and retire from your day job, then you're likely to be disappointed.

Do best selling authors make money? ›

Most traditionally published authors receive royalties in the 8-12% range for print copies of their book. It can go as low as 5% or even as high as 15% if, for example, you happen to be a bestselling author. A traditional publisher will also give you different royalties for different formats.

Do authors get paid monthly? ›

Self-published authors receive royalties on a monthly basis, with a delay of about three months on the sale. eBooks bring in more royalties than print books, so you may find a lot of self-published authors only offer that format.

Who is the number 1 selling author? ›

William Shakespeare is listed as the best-selling fiction author of all time having sold between 2 – 4 billion copies. More impressive still, he did so whilst only releasing 42 different books. Of the best-selling fiction authors by estimated sales, 13.33% had released more than 500 publications.

How much does JK Rowling earn per book? ›

Her earnings for the Harry Potter series are estimated at about $60-$80 million from book sales alone. Let's attempt a ridiculous estimate of per-word earnings based on seven Harry Potter books at about 300 pages each or 80,000 words each: $60000000/7=$8,571,438 for each book, divided by 80,000 words=$107.14 per word.

Who is the richest writer of all time? ›

J.K. Rowling

Edinburgh author J.K. Rowling is believed to be the world's wealthiest author, with a fortune of around $1 billion. It's all a long way from the struggling and skint single mum who started her world-conquering Harry Potter series of novels in a cafe in Scotland's capital.

How many copies of a book do you have to sell to make money? ›

You need to sell almost 10,000 copies to just break even on costs. For a 80,000 word book you'd need to sell almost 60,000 copies to make an average amount of money for the time spent on the book. The increase in royalty rates at $2.99 makes a BIG difference.


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