Show Me the Money–What's the Skinny on Author Earnings?

Via Flickr Creative commons, courtesy of Tax Credits.

Via Flickr Creative commons, courtesy of Tax Credits.

My degree is in Political Science with an emphasis on Political Economy. To earn this degree, I had to study a lot of statistics *UGH* and to be blunt? I agree with Mark Twain, “There are lies, damn lies and statistics.” Surveys and statistics are a science: number of participants, number of questions, phrasing of the questions, nature of the sample group, geography, etc.

Yada, yada, yada.

But somewhere in the numbers is some truth, which is why I asked one of our WANA instructors, Jami Gold, to do this guest post for me (and yes, she will be presenting at WANACon).

Sure we love to write, but I assume all of us are asking the BIG questions: Is there MONEY in writing? How do we make a GOOD living as writers? Money seems to be the taboo and we don’t want to talk about it. Too gauche. But most of us would like to be paid for what we do, so time to dig into the uncomfortable stuff.

Image via Demi-Brooke Flickr Creative Commons

Image via Demi-Brooke Flickr Creative Commons

I’m going to add a caveat that will support what Jami is about to say. I want to approach this as respectfully as possible. But, if I hadn’t seen so much of these attitudes/behaviors, I wouldn’t bother mentioning them at all.

Many writers want to skip steps. It’s human nature to believe we are the exception. Been there, done that, myself. But? 99% of the time? We aren’t the exception at all. There are NO guarantees to any business, but there are some core principles that, when we ignore them? It’s a heck of a lot harder to succeed.

I travel to many, many conferences. I’ve written over 800 blogs and three books regarding blogging, social media, editing, covers, etc. and I’ve gotten to where I simply no longer argue. I’ve met writers who flat out refused to do social media, who refused to learn how to blog, who cut corners on cover design and interior design or who believed Aunt Lulu who taught English back in the 80s counted as an acceptable “editor.”

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

I’ve blogged since 2008 how important it is to have a platform, yet to this day, I get e-mails from writers who have a book coming out in a month and they want to know how to build a platform in time to promote *head desk*. I’ve argued with writers about using monikers, book spam, automation, outsourcing social media, force-adding people to Facebook groups, how hiring an SEO “gurus” will not improve sales, to keep writing and stop non-stop promoting ONE book, and on and on….and *sigh* on.

Every time I blog about three-act structure, POV or the importance of studying craft, there will always be commenters who point out exceptions and that they don’t want to be bound by “formulas.” I’ve painstakingly edited for writers who then turned around and ignored everything I recommended they change to improve the book (reader experience). Later, they had no idea why sales were dismal.

Hmmm, looks legit.

Hmmm, looks legit.

can tell you that the authors who treat writing as a business and who seek education and mentoring are making a heck of a lot more than $1000 a year. I’ve seen it. I’ve witnessed many writers who were willing to do all it took to make a good living writing and boy they are. Hugh Howey, Teresa Ragan, H.P. Mallory, and Saffina Deforges (three of these four I know personally and all fabulous). I have many more examples but this post is long enough.

I mention these author examples because these folks didn’t begin with a long traditional backlist or NYT Best-Selling Author in front of their names. In fact, Saffina used WANA methods to skyrocket from the bottom of the pile to selling 40,000 books in one month alone. She and her writing partner broke numerous records with their work.

So, I hope you guys will see that all of these writers are doing the very things Jami is about to discuss. Due to the nature of my job and what I see daily, I feel this is a far more accurate analysis.

Going to let Jami take it from here….

Original image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of Casey Konstantin

Original image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of Casey Konstantin

The publishing world has been abuzz with the results of the 2014 Digital Book World (DBW) and Writer’s Digest Author Survey. Headlines scream “Most authors make less than $1000 a year.”  Numbers taken out of context claim that 80% of the 9000+ respondents earn $1000 or less.

Eh. Yes and no.

Yes, the DBW/Writer’s Digest survey polled 9,210 or so writers. However, don’t let that big number impress you so much that you assume this survey data is uber-accurate. More than 65% of those respondents are “aspiring” and haven’t published anything yet.

The DBW/Writer’s Digest Survey Results

According to The Guardian, the remaining respondents broke down to “18% self-published, 8% traditionally-published and 6% saying they were pursuing hybrid careers.” Okay, so that leaves around 3000 respondents who have been published in some way, shape, or form.

But wait, a full 20% of both the self-published and the traditionally published respondents said they’ve made $0. Ditto with 5% of the hybrid authors. And yes, that means literally zero dollars, as the next income band goes from $1 to $999.

I find that result odd. Does that mean zero income from book sales? Or zero income after expenses?

I don’t know, but it does make me suspect the question wordi
ng and/or the respondent base was a bit hinky. Maybe those authors are planning on self-publishing, or maybe they have a traditionally published book that hasn’t been released yet. Or maybe the DBW/Writer’s Digest respondent base doesn’t reflect professional published authors.

Many have criticized the survey because it was run by Writer’s Digest, who’s been known to recommend vanity publishers to those interested in self-publishing. If the respondents were from the vanity publishing arena, then yes, I could see their income being zero (or negative).

Brenda Hiatt’s Survey Results

Anyone who has studied the industry knows that one book alone isn’t going to cut it. Professional authors, those that treat their writing as a career, focus on building a backlist. If we have 3-6 books out, it doesn’t take much income from each to break $1000.

A look at Brenda Hiatt’s amazing site “Show Me the Money” lists the advance, royalty rates, and earn out for various romance and YA traditional publishers. The vast majority of earn out amounts on her site are over $1000, so even if an author publishes only one book a year, they’d still beat that DBW figure. And Brenda’s gathered data from almost 2700 traditionally published titles.

Now, that’s not to say her respondents are rolling in the dough. The average advance or earn out probably works out to around $10K, with some as low as $200.

My point is that I don’t quite trust DBW’s results. But I’m not going to pay nearly $300 for the full report to analyze how the heck they came up with their numbers. The results strike me as “link bait” in their attempt to sell copies of their report.

Beverley Kendall’s Survey Results

We all know some self-published books are crap. I’ve seen them. I’ve talked to their authors. And they plain don’t care. They’re in it for the quick buck, or they believe they’re geniuses who don’t need editing.

That’s why I was far more interested in the results of Beverley Kendall’s survey of self-published/hybrid authors. Some self-publishers obtain professional-level editing and covers, and that group should be more comparable to traditionally published authors. Beverley asked the questions that really matter rather than lumping all self-published authors together.

She analyzed results from her 822 self-published respondents, and 65% of her respondents had no previous traditional or epublishing deals to improve their name recognition. Keep that in mind for these results. (And I highly recommend checking out her 29 page, free report of her analysis at the link above. Fantastic information!)

Original image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of dfbphotos

Original image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of dfbphotos

How Off-Base Is the DBW Survey?

First thing I note (page 4), 48.05% earned over $10,000 in 2013. Even with no traditional publishing name recognition, 46.04% of self-published-only authors earned over $10K. Hmm, that’s quite different from the 5% for self-published-only authors earning those numbers in the DBW report.

The second thing I note (page 10) is that backlist really matters. While 80% of respondents with 1-3 books for sale make $10K or less, that figure drops quickly with additional books. About 50% of respondents make more than $10K when they have 4-7 self-published books available, and 20% make more than $50K. At 12-20 books available, over 50% of respondents are making 50K or more, and 30% are over $100K.

How Much Does Professionalism Matter?

Now let’s look at those numbers for professional, self-published authors—that is, those who use a professional editor and cover artist (page 13). Of those who didn’t use a professional editor (Beverley’s definition: “with a publishing background”), 40.23% earned more than $10K. In contrast, of those who did use a professional editor, 50.82% earned more than $10K.

Similarly, of those who didn’t use a professional cover artist (her definition: “graphic artist or professional designer”), 39.21% earned more than 10K. In contrast, of those who did use a professional cover artist, 52.55% earned more than $10K.

In short, professionalism matters. And the percentage differences between professional editing and professional cover design aren’t much, so they both seem to be important. However, a professional cover has a slight edge over editing if you’re dealing with limited funds.

Image via Bill_Owen Flickr Creative Commons

Image via Bill_Owen Flickr Creative Commons

Is Beverley Kendall’s Survey the Anomaly?

Brenda Hiatt’s “Show Me the Money” page surveys self-published authors too. For 2012, her respondents averaged 10 titles each (that backlist mentioned above) and averaged $137K. The median, which discounts outliers better, was still $51K.

Those figures match Beverley’s 2013 results for authors with similarly large backlists. So I think it’s safe to say that for those authors who approach self-publishing as a career (build a backlist, use professional editors and cover artists, etc.), making more than $1K a year is the norm.

All that said, it’s also important to keep an eye on craft and not just think about backlist. In Beverley Kendall’s report, almost 40% of authors with 60+ self-published releases(!) make less than $10K because they’re skipping professional editing or book covers in their single-minded focus on release numbers.

Lessons Learned: How to Maximize Chances for Success

Beverley Kendall’s report is a gold mine for those on either path. Her results show what works for maximizing income, but many of the tips are also no-cost ways we can reach more readers:

  • Write a series
  • Make a series-related short story, novella, or the first novel free
  • Include excerpts of other stories, especially at the back of the freebie
  • Price novel-length books in the $2.99-$4.99 sweet spot
  • Build a backlist of quality stories
  • Don’t expect success overnight—think in years

On Beverley’s Facebook page, she shared a few more survey tidbits. This one is very enlightening on what it takes to make more money:

“Of authors who earned over $50,000 in 2013

95.93% have 4 or more books up for sale
93.91 % have been self-publishing for more than 1 (one) year.”

Remember those years I mentioned? Time and backlist, everyone, time and
backlist. *smile*

On this post and this post, Beverley illuminates the value of series and freebies:

  • For authors over $50K:
    • 96.93% of their bestselling books were part of a series
    • 68% offered one or more books in the series as a freebie
  • For authors over $500K:
    • 100% of their bestselling books were part of a series
    • 88.24% offered one or more books in the series as a freebie
  • For authors between $0-$10K:
    • 25.60% have not written a series
    • 32.53% offered one or more books in their series free
    • 41.87% do not offer a freebie from their series

However, not every author should offer a freebie. This is where a long-term strategy comes into play. We can lose money and potential readers if we don’t have other stories available, as shown by this post:

“After downloading and reading a free digital book by an author, 88.54% of readers have gone on to purchase other books by that author.”

Only a few of her insights on how to maximize our chances for success apply more to authors willing to invest or write to the market:

  • Use professional-level editing and book covers
    • Beverley notes one reason why those from a traditional publishing background make more money: “22.69% MORE authors who were originally traditionally published had their books edited by someone with a publishing background than authors who had never been published before.”
  • Choose the “right” category/genre (note: this often involves chasing trends(*), so your mileage may vary)
    • * New Adult Romance: 43.48% earned more than $50K
    • Mystery/Thriller: 30.77% earned more than $50K
    • * Erotic Romance: 28.57% earned more than 50K
    • SciFi/Fantasy: 19.15% earned more than $50K
    • Non-fiction: 10.34% earned more than $50K

Finally, after I pestered her for more insights, Beverley did another analysis for what the statistics would be when an author did everything “right.” Of the 121 respondents who:

  • Have been self-publishing for more than 1 year
  • Wrote a series
  • Put one or more of their books free
  • Have 4 or more self-published books available
  • Price their work between $2.99-$7.99
  • Acquire professional editing and book covers

The stats revealed that 81.82% earn over $10K and 57.04% earn more than $50K. Click through to this link to see the full breakdown.

Beverley’s report is invaluable for showing what works. Lumping all self-published authors together (the serious and the non-serious) dilutes the lessons we can learn from those doing it with a plan for success. As Beverley said in her follow-up post:

“So does it matter really if 80% of self-published authors don’t make more than $1000 in a year if you intend to emulate the 20% who are doing it right and making a very comfortable living doing it?”

And now I’m burnt on numbers for a while, but I hope this has been educational and enlightening. *reassembles brain*



COOL CONTEST. So, WANACon is this coming weekend. PajamaCon is FREE (Thursday Evening) and gives you a chance to make sure your computer is set up properly if you choose to join us for the conference. If not? Still a fun time and a chance to learn. SIGN UP for WANACon HERE. Also, AGENT PITCHES are available. You can SIGN UP HERE.

Since my goal is to see you guys succeed, I am offering three BIG prizes for WANACon Attendees. Grand Prize is The Book/Brand Combo. I will personally consult to either assist in plotting a new book or fixing one that doesn’t work. I will also consult you personally on your brand and give you a plan for SEO, content, everything. Book Prize is I work with you to plot or fix a book. Branding Prize is I personally consult you on your brand, teach you about SEO and lay out a plan.

EVERYONE who attends automatically gets ten entries. Encourage a friend to sign up and you earn 25 additional entries and the friend who signs up gets 15. Just make sure to tell us who referred you. WANA is committed to helping you realize your dream.

Author Jami Gold

Author Jami Gold

After discovering a chemical compound that makes chocolate even more awesome, Jami Gold moved to Arizona and decided to become a writer, where she could put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fortunately, her muse, an arrogant male who delights in making her sound as insane as possible, rewards her with unique and rich story ideas.

Fueled by chocolate, she writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy tales that range from dark to humorous, but one thing remains the same: Normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

Find Jami at her blogTwitterFacebookPinterestLinkedIn, and Goodreads.


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  1. Great insights here!

    1. Thanks! I hope the details help show what really works. 🙂

      1. It does.

        Permit me to share this post with you:

  2. Wow, that is a lot of information. Thank you for sharing this. Writing and blogging means putting in the hours. I wish everyone understood that.

    1. LOL! Tell me about it. My brain hurt trying to make all of that make sense for the post. 🙂

  3. But I don’t like writing in series 🙁 My stories don’t come out that way.

    1. The key is to KEEP writing. Write more than one book. Too many authors stop and just beat the heck out of promoting one work and there is no money in that and a lot of gray hair.

      1. Oh, I can do that 🙂 Though my current project is a bitchy one, doesn’t want to cooperate. Then again, aren’t they always like that at some point? 😀

      2. Btw Kristen, gotta say, I’ve spent this entire day fighting to write and after reading one post on your blog I feel encouraged and inspired. Thank you for existing and keeping the writing juices running 😉

      3. I found this advice to be the most helpful. I’ve been pushing it at a friend of mine who had a very successful publishing experience, but I’m concerned that if she doesn’t put something else out soon her sales could plateau at the very least. Both and sister and I have turned out 1-book ideas into 3-book ideas with possible companions esp. considering we may be pursuing the self-publishing route.

    2. Gry, there are a lot of different ways of doing series too. Series do NOT have to involve the same characters. They could be loosely connected by having the same setting, the same major theme, the secondary characters getting their own book, how different characters tackle a similar premise, etc.

      The series I’m working on is set in the same “paranormal” world but the characters change each time. I just saw another “series” this past weekend where the author had taken a novel and serialized it into 6 novella-length stories. She published each for $0.99 or the whole story together for $3.99. There’s no limit to the types of series we can offer. 🙂

      1. Great suggestions 🙂 No limits indeed. I actually started thinking if my new project might work better as a mini series (three SHORT books) because the world is pretty interesting, and I think it might.
        Particularly if there’s going to be some light-hearted spots in there. I think there’s more room for that in a trilogy.

        1. Yay! Very cool. 🙂

  4. Great article! Thanks for sharing. I have already accepted my starving artist fate. “Sigh” O.k. I might be a bit dramatic, but that’s what makes me a great writer. Ha!

    1. Nah. I don’t see it that way. 😉 If we’re professional about the craft and cover, we WILL eventually have a backlist, and those sales will start to add up.

  5. Thank you so much for adding some sanity to this discussion! These are the details casual writers should find out before they rush to publish and get disappointed.

    1. Exactly! We don’t want false expectations, but we also don’t want to miss the advice of HOW we can improve our chances. 🙂

  6. Wonderful points. I love this breakdown and comparison. I always say: “What yardstick you’re using.” I want to use Beverley’s yardstick. Thank you Kristen and Jamie for this insight. I had no idea and although I use the bigger yardstick to measure success, it still looks so far away.

    1. I have a total girl-crush on Beverley for doing all this work. LOL! She’s my hero for bringing these lessons to the foreground.

  7. Reblogged this on lmatblog Lynn Matheson Author and commented:
    Good information

  8. This was a very enlightening post. Thanks to both of you for taking the time to really dig in to what those statistics in the surveys really mean.

    1. You’re welcome! Yes, there are so many lessons we can learn if we can see past the headlines. 🙂

  9. Thanks for having me here, Kristen! 🙂

    You forgot to mention the BEST part about Thursday’s FREE PajamaCon — you’ll be presenting a free mini-workshop! 😉

    Everyone, Kristen will be presenting a mini-workshop of Branding for Writers at 6:30pm Eastern (New York) time this Thursday. Come to as early at 6pm Eastern on Thursday to connect with others (literally with your microphone and figuratively with socializing).

    Your prizes are awesome! Good luck to everyone!

    (*psst* And I’ll be presenting during WANACon on Twitter for Introverts. 🙂 )

    1. I have this on my calendar!

  10. Kristen,

    This is, for me, the most helpful article this month. I’m getting ready to jump into the publishing sphere and was curious to know more updated sales predictions, especially with the changes in the market. A friend of mine is self-published and makes approx. 17k a year from one book and I was wondering how realistic that goal would be.

    Do you feel that fantasy is or isn’t a trendy genre right now? Just curious to know your thoughts. I write comedic fantasy primarily. Just trying to set some realistic expectations.

    1. Hi Kylie,

      Fantasy is a strong genre. Being genre rather than literary automatically means that fantasy tends to do better in ebook than print than overall averages would imply. Hugh Howey’s report on author earnings ( shouldn’t be used for forecasting sales trends, but it does have a clear breakdown of ebook vs. print sales at Amazon for genre.

      As far as I know, fantasy isn’t particularly trendy or not. It’s simply a solid, established genre. The last set of bullet points includes scifi/fantasy and says that 19.15% make more than $50K, so it’s certainly not as trendy as New Adult. 🙂 But that also means your sales won’t go through an overdose dip either.

      I’d recommend downloading Beverley’s full report ( and see if you can pick up other fantasy-specific tidbits. 🙂 Good luck and let me know if you have any other questions!

      1. Thank you very much. This is extremely helpful! Both my sister and I write in this genre, and we were wanting to know more updated stats. I will share this with her. Again, very helpful!

  11. Jami and Kristen; So there is hope after all. It almost sounds like you are saying base my protagonist in the adult romance genre, in such a way that she can appear in many stories, both short and long. Are you saying to wait until I have multiple offerings? Thank you, Silent

    1. Hi Silent,

      Adult romance series usually don’t have the same hero/heroine pair as the main characters over multiple books. Usually, the series would involve “connected” stories. The secondary characters of book 1 might be the main characters of book 2, the main characters of book 2 might be members of the same club/office/etc. as the characters of book 1, the books might be set in the same setting (think “Fantasy Island” 😉 ) or world.

      Check out Tessa Dare’s historical romance series for ideas of connected series. I was pretty sure she had a blog post somewhere on the different types of series, but my Google-foo failed me this morning. LOL!

      Let me know if you still have questions! 🙂

  12. Oh…and the professional editing and professional cover, too.

    • Shelly T on February 17, 2014 at 12:21 pm
    • Reply

    Great article! Thank you for sharing this valuable information.

    1. You’re welcome! I hope it’s helpful for you. 🙂

  13. To Jami: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for showing us what’s valuable and taking the rest out with the trash.

    1. LOL! You’re quite welcome. 🙂

    • rich mulholland on February 17, 2014 at 12:27 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks Kristen!! this is the third time I saw Hugh Howey mentioned in my reading, so I bought one of his books on Amazon!
    When the Universe shows me 3 or more times it is telling me, time to Act!!
    Rich Mulholland

    1. I have his books on my to-buy list too. First I need to get through some of my to-be-read pile though. LOL!

  14. Thank you for sharing all that information.

    1. You’re welcome! I hope it helps. 🙂

  15. This is one of the most useful blogs I’ve read in a while now. Thanks.

    1. Aww, thanks! I hope the information helps. 🙂

  16. Great insight and research as always 🙂

    1. Yeah, my brain definitely hurt trying to make sure I was presenting the information in a way that would make sense. LOL!

      1. I think it did. If I had to sum it all up, I’d say effort pays off

        1. Exactly. 🙂

    • Tamara LeBlanc on February 17, 2014 at 12:52 pm
    • Reply

    My two FAVORITE bloggers on the same page!?!?! I’m THRILLED and as always, amazed by the great info I’m privy to when I link onto either of your pages.
    This is no exception. This entire post is chock full of wisdom.
    Thank you so much, both of you, for always offering relevant content writers can rely on to help them better their craft and learn more about the industry.
    Have a great day!

    1. Aww, thanks Tamara! *blush*

  17. This is awesome advice and information. As a reader of two of your books, I vouch for the effectiveness of your advice. 🙂 My first book is in the hands of an editor. I’m at the point now of learning marketing, writing a marketing plan, and finding the cover designer. I’m excited about writing the next book already. I’m in this for the long haul. 🙂

    1. And I think that’s the real message here: Be in this for the long haul as far as backlist and professionalism if you expect to turn it into a money-making career. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

      1. Thanks for the article, Jami. 🙂

  18. I love reading your articles. Thank you so much. Awesome information and advice. I’ve published with a publisher but the sales have been so low I believe even if I sold the minimum amount it would be more than what I’ve made through the publisher. I’m thinking seriously of changing my focus and self-publishing and am learning via your posts.

    1. For me, a real eye-opener were the numbers reported on Brenda Hiatt’s page ( It certainly seems like most of the smaller/epublishers simply can’t deliver sales, so we have to keep that in mind when deciding on the right path for our goals.

  19. Ahhhh this is amazing and makes me feel so happy 🙂 Great advice.

    1. Yay! I hope it helps. 🙂

  20. Another brilliant article Kristen, packed full of useful info and tips!

    1. I’m glad you found my guest post worthwhile. 🙂 I hope it helps!

  21. Hi Kristen, I take your advice, as well as a few other subject matter experts advice, very seriously. I’m trying to do all the right things, the right way, and I am not rushing to some fantasy finish line that I don’t deserve. I realize that any real success that I might achieve will take years in the making, and I don’t mind as long as I believe that time will come. Some of us do listen, learn and apply. Keep giving us great things to learn from.

    1. I hear you. I can be patient as long as I know my time will come. 🙂

  22. Great points, both Jami and Kristen! Perseverance and patience seem to be the most necessary ingredients in a writing career. I have made mistakes over the years. When I first tried blogging, I became overwhelmed and gave up for a while. This time, I’m in it for the long haul. I initially used a pen name because I was writing romance and everyone I knew who wrote romance seemed to use a pen name (*head desk*). Lesson learned on both fronts.

    Yes, I’ve made mistakes and missteps and lost my momentum on a few occasions, but I now feel blessed to part of online writing communities like WANA Tribe and the ROW80 writing challenge where everyone is so supportive. My main priority right now is to be the best writer I can be and write a story that wows readers. And that takes time.

    It takes years to build a writing career. Thanks for the great advice!

    1. Thanks, Denise! Yes, we’ll all make mistakes, but a supportive community to help us through the learning curve can make it better. 🙂

      1. Kristen deserves some of the credit. She convinced me that my journey would be easier without a pen name, and I have to say that so far, I agree. I’m definitely enjoying the journey more now.

        Have a great week, Jami!

        1. Yay! I’m happy to hear that. 🙂

          And I hope you have a great week too!

  23. I loved this post and shared it. Thank you for taking the time to read those tedious reports and break it down for the rest of us. 🙂

    1. LOL! Would you believe that I *loved* going through Beverley’s report?

      I’m not a numbers person at all, but it’s just so rare to get hard data that we can actively learn from that my excitement carried me through all the “Ack! Math!” horror. 🙂

      1. LOL. I can believe it! Reading this post makes me want to read the original report too. And having a background in Science, I thought I reached my quota for stats in my undergrad!

        1. Beverley’s report is only 29 pages and filled with graphs, so it’s not too overwhelming. LOL!

  24. Thanks so much for this post! I’ve only been writing for a couple of years but am slowly building my backlist. Maybe sometime soon, I’ll move from the publishers to self-pubbing. It’s reassuring to know that when I do make the transition, I have a decent chance of making a living.