Mary Higgins Clark was paid a $64 million advance for a five-book deal. The average advance for a first novel, however, is generally between $5,000 to $15,000. Most novelists, including published ones, don’t make a living writing. They supplement with other work, often as teachers of writing, speakers, editors, or non-fiction writers. Others write on the side and earn most of their money in another profession.
In Do You Need A Publisher (Part 1), I talked about the factors that might affect whether you pursue a traditional publishing deal or publish your work yourself. Those factors include:
- a desire for prestige and recognition, which I talked about last week
- a desire to earn money
- a desire for control over your work
- a desire to run a business, and
- what type of book you’re writing
You can make money no matter how you publish, but here are some differences in what you're likely to earn and how it may affect your career:
The Big 5 Publishers
The authors who make the most money up front are the household names, such as Mary Higgins Clark, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King. Most authors in this league have been writing and selling novels for decades, but sometimes a debut novel will be bought for a six or seven figure advance. The Big 5 are the publishers that can pay these types of advances. An advance means the author is paid before the book is published. If the book earns enough in royalties to repay the advance, the author is then paid royalties as well. The upsides of this type of deal are obvious. Before the book goes to press, you have a good chunk of money in your pocket.
On the downside, the need for the book to earn back the advance is a lot of pressure. If it doesn't happen, that may tank the chances of a contract for later books. More significant for most new writers is that the odds against landing a deal with a large publisher are near zero. First, you’ll need to spend time and effort trying to find a literary agent to represent you before the Big 5 will consider your work. Second, even through literary agents, the Big 5 most often enter contracts with established authors.
Given the potential large payoff, though, if you think your book will fit one of these publishers, don’t be dissuaded by the odds. Not only is there a shot at a large advance and the publicity and marketing that comes with it, much of what you do to pursue your goal will help you if you later decide to try another route. For instance, crafting a compelling query letter to agents can also help you write queries to publishers or write marketing copy if you self-publish.
Small and medium-sized publishers
Small to medium-sized publishers usually offer advances between a few thousand dollars and $45,000, though some very small presses may offer no advance. The financial upsides include possible up front money and the fact that the publisher pays the publishing costs, such as cover art and editing. The publisher also may help market and publicize the book, and most bookstores are more willing to carry a traditionally-published book than a self-published one.
The downsides include that the author has limited or no control over many factors that affect a book’s sales, such as the quality of cover art, editorial services, marketing copy, where and when the book is advertised, and the price. Also, the size of the advance usually matches the marketing budget. A $5,000 marketing budget won't go very far, and you'll likely have lost control of your work and rights that might help you earn more money.
One of my income streams is from the audiobook editions of the first three books in my Awakening series. I did a royalty-share deal with the producer/narrators, and the books were already written, so creating the audiobooks was a no brainer. If you sign a contract granting those rights to a publisher, though, you no longer have that option, and the publisher may not be obligated to produce audiobooks. Finally, royalties from a publisher range from 10-25% of the purchase price, while when you self-publish, your royalties range from 30-70% of the book's price.
Publishers that charge the author/vanity presses
If the fee is reasonable and you'd rather spend money than invest time in publishing your own work, you might be the lucky one-in-a-million author able to earn money by paying a company to publish. You need to consider, though, how much you're paying compared to how many books you're likely to sell, keeping in mind that these types of companies, no matter what they say about marketing or publicity, rarely do much to sell your book. Publishers that pay the author an advance and hope to earn it back and then some through book sales have an incentive to see that your book sells. Companies you pay do not. They are making money off of you.
For that reason, in my view, it's a very long shot that you'll make money paying a company to publish your work. You're also risking paying for services that will be inferior to what you could have contracted for yourself. The only time I suggest these types of companies is if:
(a) the fee is not that much more than you would spend if you found the services you need yourself;
(b) you get a referral from someone whose books are selling well and who is earning more than she or he spent;
(c) the person who referred you is selling the same type of book you wrote; and
(d) that author’s books are well-edited (no typos, good story arc) and have professional-looking covers that fit the books' genre.
Some authors earn an excellent living by publishing multiple books themselves, by self-publishing and later being picked up by traditional publishers (as happened with The Martian), or by some combination of the two. A few authors that appear to have done quite well self-publishing include Hugh Howey, J.F. Penn, and Melissa Foster. Others earn enough to write full-time or have a decent side stream of income. Others, usually those who publish only one or two books and devote little time or money to marketing, spend more on self-publishing than they earn.
On the upside, as noted, indies earn a much larger share of royalties, particularly on ebooks, than do traditionally-published authors. That means you can generally price your books lower to gain readers while earning the same amount in royalties or more per book than traditional authors do. Indies also retain all their rights and have control over the covers, marketing, editing, etc.
The downside of indie publishing is that the indie must pay the publication costs, which range anywhere from zero (as all aspects can be handled by the author) to a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. In addition, if you plan to market your book through paid advertising, you pay for that as well.
The Short Version
To pull this all together, the Big 5 offer the biggest potential for large advances and stellar advertising and marketing, indie/self-publishing offers great potential earnings if you’re in it for the long haul, and the likely financial rewards of publishing with small/medium publishers vary widely depending upon the advance offered and the publisher’s marketing budget. If you publish with a small or medium-sized publisher or you self-publish, a lot of your success will depend on how much time, effort, and sometimes money you are personally willing to invest. As for publishers who charge you, there may be some authors out there who made money that way, but in my opinion, it’s a buyer-beware proposition.
Stay tuned for posts on the other factors that go into choosing a publishing path.
Until then, best wishes for a productive, peaceful week.