What does “sustainable income” mean for authors?

This is a question that has been puzzling me for some time (and I understand that I am not the only one). I started to look into it but couldn’t find an exact answer – so I put the following together for the purposes of discussion.

Link here for a printable PDF. Feedback welcome, in any of the usual places starting with @jonno on Twitter or by emailing jon at this address.


A burning question for many prospective authors is – what is a valid, sustainable level of income, and how does that translate into the output of authorship, i.e. the books themselves? Answering this question requires certain assumptions to be made:

  • First, that authors – people who make money from writing books – need to eat. We have choices in this – of course, we could leave authorship to the domain of the independently wealthy, which would make for quite a limited group. But, it is assumed, that is not the preferred route.
  • Similarly, if there will be books in the future, printed or electronic, it will have to have been worth the authors’ time. Which leads to the second assumption, that people will continue to be prepared to pay for ‘content’ – including books. Writing is a trade, so any other way lies madness.
  • Third, that there will be a need for supporting services, an evolving industry of providers will emerge. Today’s publishers retain an inexplicable level of authority, which is fine for those who succeed. But new services are emerging around self-publishing, coming from traditional houses and elsewhere.

With these assumptions in mind, read on. First question – are we talking writing books as a full-time career?

Full-time vs part-time models of authorship

Authorship can only follow one of three models: full time, part time or hobbyist. Outside the bestseller lists, a good question is exactly how many established authors would qualify as ‘full-time’. Very few, is probably the answer (for reasons which will quickly become apparent).

A spectrum of part-time authorship exists, from people who have written a book in their spare time or to “tell their story” – these one-off authors had little intention at the start to write books as a career. Equally we have struggling writers, who need to supplement the income from their passion with ancillary work. The stereotype is working in a restaurant, but good money can be made from writing; indeed, numerous writers see books as simply one format they can work with.

Meanwhile we have the hobbyists – people who feel the need to scratch the creative itch by writing a book. Nowt wrong with that but the impetus to make money may be less than the desire to write. Or indeed, a subset of such writers may spend money to get a few hundred books published specifically for family and friends – somewhat disparagingly labelled as vanity publishing.

Suffice to say this piece is more targeted at people who are considering the first or second option – that is, who need to see a return on their investment of time and resources.

How much does an author need to earn?

A starting point is to think about what might constitute a “minimum necessary” salary for an author. Considering the full time model first, this could again divide into two – whether writing is an over-riding passion which trumps all other money-making opportunities, or whether it is simply an option – attractive, maybe – to be weighed up.

Let’s consider first the author doing it because they are driven to do so, in which case they will be prepared to compromise on salary. By how much? The minimum wage is £6.19 per hour. So, let’s say working 40 hour weeks as a writer with 5 weeks’ holiday plus 12 bank holidays – that’s 223 working days, or £11,000 per year, or (after tax) about £800/month. It may not be enough to pay all the bills, but that’s what the maths says.

In the second example, we might consider writing as an alternative to other professions which require a certain intellectual bent. it is not unreasonable for a new author to aim at earning – what shall we say – £25,000 per year – which is, roughly speaking, what a teacher could earn as a starting salary? After tax, that equates to £1,600 per month.

So, while the sky may be the limit, we can see £11,000 as an absolute minimum for someone that has bills to pay, or £25,000 to meet more reasonable expectations. So, how does that translate into book sales?

Using a publisher vs self-publishing – the financials

To state the obvious, the publishing world has transformed over the past five year. Not just in terms of the different methods available, but also the way they are perceived. Until quite recently, self-publishing was seen as a euphemism for vanity publishing, with all the baggage that contains. These days, it’s an acceptable alternative to publisher deals, and many established authors are following that route.

Looking at the traditional publishing model first, an author royalty equates to between 5% and 15% of net sales, depending on the type of book and the leverage the author can exert. Meanwhile, a printed book can cost between £5 and £15, depending on format. Going for the lowest-end of paperbacks, 5% of £5 is 25 pence, so to achieve £11,000 would require 44,000 sales: that’s a lot of books.

Of course the publishing model is more complicated than that. Special contractual terms for discounted sales, licensing, foreign editions, returns all add to the difficulty of allocating a single figure. The best anyone can say is that the figure will be plus-or-minus a certain percentage (25%?), the probability of which goes up with the success of the release.

There’s also the question of an advance, which once again comes in two kinds. The first, reserved for celebrities and literary big hitters, is the kind which may never be expected to be paid back. When Wayne Rooney receives an advance of – well, whatever it was – it wasn’t on the basis that he would sell that many books, more that the publisher wanted to be seen to have him in their catalogue. The second kind of advance is, notionally, a repayable loan at zero-percent interest, paid to cover the bills of an author while writing. The downside is that the first few royalty statements will earn the author nothing.

The self-publishing model requires different maths. Start-up costs are zero (nominally, if you already have a computer), and the royalty model flips around – for example, Amazon and Apple iBooks charge 30%(?) of cover price for each sale. So, if you’re charging £5 for a book, you will see £3.50 of it, which suddenly makes lower sales figures matter less. Back at the minimum wage for example, you’d need to sell just over 3,000 books in a year – if you did all the work yourself, that is.

What work is there? Copy editors can handle about ten pages per hour, at rates about £25/hr. So that 80,000 word novel, at 300 words per page, would require 27 hours’ work (or £675). Then layout. If you’re going for an e-book, there’s very little to do to simply keep up with the major publishers – a “free” tool such as Sigil (the developer accepts donations) is all you need. For print, quotes for layout run at about £300 for a book of this length, and £275 for a cover. You may have artwork, which will add to the costs.

So overall, you’re talking about £1,250 minimum to get your book into a fit state for delivery. You could do these things yourself (though proofing your own work is never advised), or ask favours from friends and family – but seasoned people will do the job faster, with less aggro. A more realistic figure for self-publishing, then, is that you would need to sell a further 350 copies of each book to cover its costs. That’s £3,400 in total.

Quantifying time and resource

While that still looks like a big number, these figures don’t have to be achieved with a single volume. There is no lower time limit on a book, beyond an absolute minimum of 10 days, which is about how fast a human completely in the zone can bash a typewriter keyboard.

More realistically and to follow Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ advice, a reasonable writer should be able to churn out at least 1,000 words per day on average. It could be more – but on some days, it may be less, plus there is all that pesky research, structuring and characterisation/angle to be worked out, interviews to be done, places to visit.

All the same, with a target length of 80,000 words (again, there’s no rule here), that makes 80 days’ effort, or 4 months. Which, in principle, leaves the rest of the year for another two books. If following the traditional publishing model, this still means each book needs to sell 15,000 copies just to achieve minimum wage – which is still a bit of a choker when starting out, though not infeasible.

For self-publishers, the situation becomes even more viable. If you were able to write only two books in a single year, selling “just” 2,000 copies of each would start to pay the bills. Which is a good starting point and sounds achievable, though it may still be beyond the reach of many would-be authors.

What of the part-time model?

All of the above has assumed the full-time model, of course. Many authors work part time, with writing supplementing their ‘day job’, or vice versa. Indeed, while it may only be feasible to write 1,000 words per day, their actual writing doesn’t need to take that long in hours, minutes and seconds. And indeed, the required ancillary tasks may not fill the rest of the day.

The part-time model reduces financial risk and enables books to exist where it simply would not have been possible otherwise. To reference Stephen King again, he pointed an aspiring Neil Gaiman towards writing a page a day – to paraphrase, by the end of the year you look up and you have a book. Spending an hour or two every day for a year may sound onerous, but equally, it is a good test of whether it was sufficiently important in the first place.

Equally, the model guards against the lead times of actually seeing a payment. A book is highly unlikely to deliver a return from Day 1. The traditional publishing model pays royalties only every 6 months, and advances are becoming harder to come by so relying on book income alone is a high risk strategy.

Increasing the chances of success – targeting and self-promotion

The final reality check is that nothing is guaranteed, in authorship or anywhere else. While the baseline figure of selling 3,400 self-published copies of one or more books may appear feasible, the fact is that many self-published books fail to sell even a tenth of that number. And meanwhile, following the traditional publishing model requires stamina, not least to cope with frequent rejection.

We can all learn a good lesson from publishers – that they are only prepared to publish what they believe will sell. The same discipline should apply when self-publishing, in that prospective authors owe it to themselves to have a clear view on the saleability of what they are writing. This includes the topic – while books do follow fashion, it remains easier to target an under-exploited niche with a ready, affluent audience.

Much of marketing is not rocket science, but it does require people to do things that feel terribly discourteous. Such as asking people whether they would like to buy something (and if not, why not). Most people don’t like selling, and creative people more than most. But it stands to reason that a self-published book will remain in its carton unless somebody (if not the author) is actively looking to shift it elsewhere.

Which brings to the other reason to use a publisher – marketing. Publishers may feel like a hard nut to crack but once they have signed a contract they will act in their interests to make sure it achieves its objectives. However, non-bestseller authors who are already active on social networks, who have their own web sites and author pages on Amazon, might quite rightly ask what the publisher can add.

Conclusion – start from a realistic base

Over time, successful authors should be able to develop an income stream which can tide over the lean periods and enable more writing to happen. The financials are most difficult at the start of the process – when a prospective author needs to fund their existence for the months researching, writing and then waiting for the first payments to come through.

Most of the calculations here were based on the minimum wage, rather than the equivalent-wage scenario. To achieve the latter, an author would require 100,000 sales in a year. To put this into perspective, Nick Hornby’s About A Boy has sold 800,000 books, which is only eight times more. Bluntly, while you don’t need to reach the top 100 bestseller list, you do need a bestseller to break even.

In other words, authorship is not for the faint hearted and anyone that starts writing a book for commercial reasons needs to understand just how difficult this can be. Through simple economics, which are faced by the biggest publishers as much as the one-man-bands, the cards are stacked against authors who are outside the elite.

This doesn’t make it impossible to break through. Success begets success – not only will a publisher want to back a horse with ‘form’, so will readers. While the old adage does apply, “We all have a book inside us – and for some, it is better kept that way,” a successful book doesn’t have to be a work of creative genius, but merely pique the interest and make someone turn each page to the end.

Ultimately, people who really want to write will get on and do so. From the figures, the best advice whatever model is chosen is “don’t give up the day job” at least until another revenue stream starts to kick in. Becoming an author is fraught with risks – most important is to be realistic about marketability, and to recognise that everything comes at a cost, even if it isn’t paid for. That being said, nothing is stopping anyone putting pen to paper.


Referenced with thanks:

http://from.io/UtRWo6                  What is the typical royalty rate for an author on book sales? – askville.amazon.com

http://from.io/V8C7Hc  How Much Should You Write Every Day? – Write to Done

http://from.io/W7zct4  SfEP suggested minimum freelance rates – Society for Editors and Proofreaders

http://from.io/13EP0Jo                  FAQs: Using copy-editors and proofreaders – Society for Editors and Proofreaders

http://from.io/Ya5iuv    The top 100 bestselling books of all time – Guardian

http://from.io/ZYKWzG Stop the press: half of self-published authors earn less than $500 – Guardian

http://from.io/U1V4bI   John Scalzi’s Utterly Useless Writing Advice – whatever.scalzi.com

http://from.io/V5NtrJ    And You Thought a Royalty Involved a Crown – editorialass.blogspot.co.uk

http://from.io/V5Nzj5    Publishing Money Myths | Frost Light – jeanienefrost.com

http://from.io/S4PiGJ    How Much Money Does An Author Make? – KalebNation.com

What does “sustainable income” mean for authors?

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