What Does An Author Make? Pt. 1

In an attempt to clear up some wild misconceptions, I want to do a short series of posts about what authors really make per book sold. You heard me. I’m talking MONEY.


Today, I’m going to focus on PAPERBACKS.

There are many (so, so many you guys) variables that can change this number, but I’m going to do my best to give you a quick rundown using averages and info shared with me by various friends in the industry as well as my own experience.

Firstly, understand that most authors get paid on a percentage of NET income made per book(see: profits after expenses), not just cover price. (Though, there are some publishers who pay a percentage of cover price or GROSS income, and they are very lucky. This tends to land at about the 7-10% mark, so between .70 and $1 per $10 book. This is actually pretty rare because publishers want to make sure they have their costs covered BEFORE they have to hand money to an author, which is fair enough.)

One of the biggest variables is print method.

If you are self-publishing and making your book POD through a company like Createspace, the printing costs depend on the page count. Under 300 print pages usually lands right around $5 per copy to produce, and there are a few upfront fees for distribution and such, but for the sake of ease, let’s say total production costs are $5.

If you did all the work yourself and didn’t have to pay a cover artist, editor, or formatter, well, ok. *cringes* Ok. If you then sell that book for $10 online, after fees you clear between $3-4 on a print book. Good for you. Average annual sales on POD books can vary wildly, but as a conservative estimate, expect to sell between 30 and 80 copies in a year. (Unless you are a big name indie author with a huge fan base or some sort of marketing wizard. But for starters, this is a fair estimate.)

So in one year, a POD author starting out might clear in the ballpark of $200 total on print books.

If you are with a small press who uses POD, you might get 40-50% of that, so you’d make somewhere around $2.50 a copy or around $125 a year. (Keep in mind small presses tend to make vastly more on e-books, so I’m not saying don’t go small press, just know that they *should* make up the $ in other formats.)

For a mid-sized publishing house (which I classify as a publisher not Big5, but who uses traditional print runs and distributes to stores) those numbers change quite a bit.

For a print book, if the house does a small run (i.e. less than 1K copies) printing costs still run around $4 per book. If they set the price (again right under 300 pages) at $10 retail price, know that any stores they sell that book to get a HUGE discount. 50-55% off list price is what they pay a publisher for a book. So in reality, the publisher only MAKES $1 a copy right there. From that $1 the distributor takes a cut, and what is left is about .50 cents. Of that, the author again can expect 30-40%. So you make right around .20 cents per print book sold.

However, there is a higher chance that you will sell several hundred copies in a year with a mid-size house. You can reasonably expect, with say a 900 copy print run, to sell about 400-500 copies. HOWEVER, beware returns. For every copy a store doesn’t sell and returns to the publisher, they charge a .35 fee, plus you don’t get paid for that book, its either destroyed or goes back into your inventory. Either way, lots of returns can easily deplete any sales when you are only making .20 a copy to begin with.

That sounds very bleak, but there is a second thing that can happen. You could get a very high print run of over 1K copies.

*Note: publishers use a combination of pre-orders and industry ‘buzz’ to determine which books get higher print runs.*

Once they start printing in batches of over 1K copies, the production cost of each book drops to right around $1 per copy to print. At this point, even with the retail discounts and distributors cuts, the publisher stands to make closer to $4 a copy and the author makes 30-40% of THAT, or right around $1.20 per copy sold.

For Big 5 authors, those numbers very again. Most Big 5 authors get an advance against royalties, so just know that the authors make NO OTHER money until the publisher has recouped that payment, only then will royalties begin to be paid. I’m told that 9 out of 10 authors never earn out that advance (if it’s a good advance, in the tens of thousands of dollars). So not getting an advance isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that even if your book never earns out, you still get to keep the whole thing. Of course, it might make publishers think twice about publishing your next book, but hey. That’s another article.

So the average first-time author print run varies again, based on pre-orders and industry buzz, as well as the amount of money that publisher plans to drop in advertising. Basically,

Advertising Budget + Pre-orders + Author Advance = Initial Print Run

So say you fall on the lower end of that and you get a 10K copy print run (WOOHOO). The per-copy print price is right around .50. They sell the books for $10 minus retailer discount so they make around $5. They don’t (usually) pay a secondary distributor since they tend to do all that in-house, but they often hold a reserve against returns, which means they hold back some money until the returns have come through and been paid out. However, rather than an author making 40-50% like with a mid-size press, they land right around 10% on average.

So the author in this scenario makes around .50 per copy sold.

BUT, keep in mind that with 10K copies on the shelf, plus the marketing budget the publisher is putting into it, the average sales can be pretty high (again, taking the average here, which is about 50% of a print run. Some titles do MUCH better, others much worse). So if you are making 10% royalties, and sell 5K copies in a year, you’ve made right around $2,500.00.

(also keep in mind that many contracts contain a sliding scale royalty where authors makes X% on the first 5K copies, then it gradually increases as the sales numbers go up.)

So that’s the breakdown. For most authors, print sales aren’t a huge cash cow. Of course, there are those fantastic books that hit just right and, whatever type of publishing the author choose, they end up doing better than anyone could ever predict. However, for the average author, these are pretty good numbers when looking at what to reasonably expect. And the reason you want all this information is, you have to decide what publishing path you want to take. So you NEED to be aware of how each slice of the industry works, so you can make an informed decision. I know people hate sharing financial details, they think it’s crass, but how can an author expect to make a choice when they don’t have all the info? I think it’s also so important that readers and bloggers understand that we aren’t being greedy when we say we can’t afford to send free copies or whatever. It’s simply that, by the time we pay to ship a book, we’ve actively LOST money.

We will (except for self-published authors) get a few free copies (2-5 on average) for our personal use (mine often get sent to reviewers) and any others we pay for usually at the same discount the stores get, so $4-5 a copy plus shipping. Which is why most of the time, selling at author events is where we earn the absolute most on a print book. So if you really want to help an author out, buy from us direct whenever possible!

Stay tuned next week for part 2 where I talk about e-books.


Till next time, read on, my nerds!


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