Questions from My Mom – Episode 2

In the last episode, mom’s questions touched mostly on the writing side of things, such as how long it takes and word count.

This time, we’re going to look at the business side (because being an author is being a business).

Let’s kick things off with royalties.

Now, if you’re not sure what royalties are, the simplest explanation I can give you is they’re a pay rate based on sales. They’re usually paid out twice a year.

And mom wonders:
How much does a publisher pay you?
Me: On average, ten percent.

She is appalled by that low rate, but it’s true (Toldja they SUCK!). I’ll break it down for you like I did for her.

From a traditional publisher, an author will typically see:

10% of the retail price for the first 5000 sold
12.5% for the next 5,000 copies sold
15% for all further copies sold

8% of retail price on the first 150,000 copies sold
10% thereafter

25% of retail price
50% if you’re lucky

Most publishers used to put out a trade paperback first before any other editions. Of course, since we’re in the digital age, things have changed to be ebook editions first, simply because there’s less risk of losing a lot of money (particularly on debut authors).

For the example, I’m going to be using a paperback with a retail price of $9.99 (very common), and I’m going to ignore the taxes and returns/discounts/etc because that’s just too complicated.

(Look, Dad! I’m doing more math!)

Now, let’s pretend this paperback grossed 100,000 copies in the first six months.

$9.99 x 100,000 = $999,000
and your 8% of that $999,000 is: $79,920

‘Not bad,’ you think.

Aha! You’re forgetting something. Those big house publishers usually require you to have a literary agent before they’ll even look at your manuscript. And that lit agent needs a payday too, so they get 10-20% of your 8%.

15% of that $79,920 you have is $11,988 (hey, for the advice and encouragement a lit agent can give you, it’s totally worth it).

After you’ve paid your agent, you’ve made a cozy $67,932 (many people don’t make that in a year, and you’ve done it in six months). *high five*

It’s still a decent payday. And you have just 50,000 more copies to sell before you get that 2% promotion.

If you go the self-publishing route, it can be the other way around. In other words, you’d pay the self-publishing service the $79,920 (because there’s no lit agent involved, but you still have to pay for production), and you get to keep the remaining $919,080.

Major difference.

(Note: Publishing through Amazon gets you 70% royalties, so it’d be more like $699,300)


There is something about that traditional publisher we haven’t covered yet, and it brings up mom’s next question:
Are they going to pay you an advance?
Me: Uhhh….

Advances are basically loans based on projected sales for the first year, and loans are things you have to pay back.

Let’s use the example above, but add in an advance of, say, $10,000 (which is pretty normal for a first-time author). Before you can see any royalties, that advance must be paid back, and the publishing house makes the money back through the sales of your book.

So that $67,932 is actually more like $57,932. 

There’s no such thing as advances in self-publishing.

And, while self-publishing is great, there are some significant drawbacks to it. Like I said in the last episode, going through a traditional publisher covers expenses that you’d have to pay out of your own pocket if you did it yourself. We’re talking costs like: editing, formatting, cover design, marketing, and other business costs.

That $10,000 you saved by not having an advance could come out of your pocket as those expenses. And, what’s worse is, since you won’t have the reach those big house publishers do, you might not make the sales you need to cover those costs.

That’s pretty much it for authors’ paydays. If you think of a question that you’d like answered, don’t hesitate to ask.

With love and light,



According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,  writers and authors clear on average $61,000 annually in the US (2017). But their stats are based on all writers, not just novelists. We’re talking technical writers, copywriters, journalists, screenwriters, etc.

In 2017, my home state of North Dakota, which has scant 190 writers (most of which located in Bismarck and Fargo), the annual median pay is $48,000 (it’s more than Montana’s $40,000).

Compared to New York State’s 7100 writers and an annual median of $85,600.

Or California’s 8000 writers and $96,120 income.



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