The Golden Ticket: How much money can you make from publishing a book?

by Ameesha Smith-Green

As an aspiring author, you might be wondering how much money you can potentially earn from writing a book. In fact, if we had a pound for every time a soon-to-be author asked us this question, we’d be rich! Whether you’re thinking about the income from selling a moderate amount of copies or publishing a bestseller, there’s no harm in asking.

How long is a piece of string?

With publishing, earnings can vary from not much at all (i.e. don’t give up your day job) to literally millions or billions. For example, Harry Potter made J. K. Rowling an estimated $7.7 billion. However, a University of Glasgow survey found that:

  • The top 10% of authors account for 70% of the revenue
  • Only 13.7% of authors list writing as their sole source of income
  • Professional authors’ average income was £81,000 per year
  • Average author incomes were a mere £10,497 per year in 2018
  • Author incomes are dropping, down from £18,013 in 2006

As such, making a lot of money as a traditionally published author is the exception and certainly not the rule.

Traditional publishing

It’s worth bearing in mind that traditional publishers give authors 5% to 10% in royalty payments, so authors may only earn a small amount from each copy sold, meaning they need to sell a lot to make a lot. Some authors will receive an “advance”, i.e. a sum of money to write the book, and this deal may be £5k–10k or more. However, the author might never make enough from sales to earn more than the advance. It largely depends on how big the publisher is and how many copies the book sells.

Self-publishing

With self-publishing, the results vary from a loss to thousands. Some authors sell hardly any copies and don’t make back the money they’ve spent on editing, design, etc. Others make tens of thousands. Most self-publishing authors don’t make much from their books. Some studies estimate £500 to £1000 per book, so if your primary motivation for self-publishing a book is to earn money, then you might be sorely disappointed. It’s worth noting that it’s very difficult to get a self-published book into physical stores, which can impact sales, so you really need to understand how and where to market your book online.

Bestsellers

A common question is whether a bestseller status improves an author’s earnings. The problem is “bestseller” can mean various things: a national bestseller, a global bestseller, a New York Times bestseller, an Amazon main category bestseller, an Amazon subcategory bestseller. For example:

  • A global or national bestseller is the number of books sold over a certain time period.
  • A New York Times bestselleris the number of books sold by specific retailers in a week.
  • An Amazon bestseller is how many books are sold per day in that category.

The range of earnings from an Amazon subcategory bestseller to a global bestseller could be anything from not much to millions. On Amazon, a bestseller in a small subcategory could have sold six copies in a day, making the author less than a tenner, while a global bestseller may make millions.

It’s not just about the book

It’s also worth considering that publishing a book isn’t necessarily the big earner on its own. Savvy authors make money from the things they sell around their book. For example, J. K. Rowling created a whole universe and makes money from films, merchandise, and experiences like the Harry Potter Studio Tour. Likewise, nonfiction authors can make money from upselling to courses, coaching, talks, and so on. For example, one nonfiction author made £500 from sales of their Amazon bestseller, but £25k from consultancy work off the back of it.

The golden ticket?

Ultimately, how much you can make from a book varies from minus money to millions and depends on many factors. It’s often about what you create around the book, such as upselling opportunities or merchandise. For self-published books, it’s also vital to invest time, effort, and potentially money to ensure that readers find your book.

Overall, if your primary motivation is to make money, there are probably quicker and easier ways than writing a book. However, there are many non-monetary benefits to it, such as building your industry credibility, helping or inspiring people, leaving a legacy, exercising your creativity, opening new doors, starting conversations, changing the world, and more. Earning money from your writing is just a nice side effect.

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