Show me your money

I asked, and you did.

Had this been Sweden, I needn’t have asked. Most information about what anyone earns, or any fortune they tell the tax authorities about, is available for anyone to see.

But I’ve been thinking about this for years, and finally plucked up the courage to ask authors what they earn and how well they feel they can live off their book earnings. And if it costs them money, too. Because just like I pay to blog, increasingly I’ve been feeling that some authors are forking out – a fair bit of – money to help their books along.

The survey was not perfect. It was my first ever. But I asked what I wanted to know, and that was annual income (yes, I know there is no such thing, and it fluctuates, widely), primarily from sales (including advances and royalties) of books, but also any other kind of income like PLR, prize money, fees for talks, film rights, etc.

Then there’s the possibility that the author has a(nother) paid job, or that they have partners who support them, or perhaps they are the main breadwinner and need to keep other family members in the style to which they have become accustomed. Can they even live off their book earnings? Are they thinking of giving up writing because of the money?

For people who actually understand that most authors don’t earn millions, it could still come as a surprise that not everyone has a real, liveable on kind of annual salary. Or that you are paid this year, but will have to wait another few years for the next lot of money to come your way.

Who did I ask? Well, everyone (children’s authors) that I was able to contact either by email or via facebook. People I ‘know’ and who mostly know me, or of me. That was close to 200. I had 83 replies. A big thank you to all! I know who some of them were, because they wrote and told me that they’d filled in the survey, but I don’t know who the individual results belong to. The Resident IT Consultant sat by his computer and watched in amazement as the answers piled in. But he doesn’t know who I contacted.

Someone suggested that I might know the kind of writer who is better off than average. I’m not sure, because some really don’t earn very much from their writing. And how do you decide what is an OK income? Is it the same as you or more, or are you dissatisfied with what you have?

26 men and 57 women, with a fairly even distribution of how long they’ve been writing. Around a quarter each for less than five years, between five and ten years, 10-20, and over 20 years. 53 of them are the main breadwinner, including two on less than £1000 a year. I’m guessing those two have other jobs. If I’m being sexist about this and assume that all the men are the main breadwinner, that leaves 27 women who are as well, on whatever money they earn.

27 people say the money is definitely not enough to live on, and 27 are considering giving up writing. I wonder if they are the same 27?

‘But how much money do they earn?’ I hear you ask. Well, nine make less than £1000 and twelve between £1K and £5K. 24 authors earned from £5K to £15K, and another 19 £15K to £30K. Eleven lucky ones made £30K to £75K, while nine earned over £75K. (So had JKR been part of this, that’s presumably where she would have been.) As more than one person pointed out, their income varies crazily from one year to the next. One writer said she had been in each category at some time or other. Another mentioned the nightmare of paying tax, based on such unevenly timed earnings.

The Resident IT Consultant played around with the figures a bit, and assuming the range is between £500 and £85,ooo, then the median income is £7K for those who have been published for less than five years. Authors with more than 10 years behind them had a median income of £18K, while those in the middle made £13K. But if the highest earners are considerably wealthier than this assumption, that would obviously change.

I’m half wishing I’d had one more, much higher income option, but I felt that over £75K was an indication of quite an acceptable income, one which many would be very satisfied with, and that excessive success needn’t be measured here. (Although I’m naturally very pleased for anyone so excessive!) All nine who earned over £75K felt they lived comfortably, and so did some of the writers above £15K. This must vary with how many are dependent on their income; whether someone is single or has ten children and as many dogs.

For other income, 37 have partners who earn, and three work full time at something else, and nine do part time non-book work. Only a handful  employ someone else, such as a PA or their own publicist. And along the same lines, 45 people send out up to five review copies of their book themselves, and 17 send out up to 20 copies, while three send out more.

A lot of writers have won awards, whether major (19) or more local (45) book awards. The estimated median income for major (Carnegie, Costa/Whitbread, Guardian, Smarties, etc) award winners is £23K, compared with £15K for others. Does that mean you make more money having won an award, or does award winning ‘qualities’ mean you are likely to sell more books anyway?

Most authors who contacted me privately wanted to give their best year. That’s understandable, because it looks better that way. But it would also indicate that writers on average earn more than they really do. We want authors to make good money, but for any kind of sympathy the real state of affairs needs to be made public.

And those awards that authors get invited to attend? 15 respondents have paid for travel and accommodation themselves, with six paying more than £100 in one year. It’s worth remembering that many awards are more honour than income. Might generate more sales, and thereby higher earnings, but not necessarily.

So there you have it. Things could be worse, but they could certainly be better too. Let’s hope it’s not your favourite author who hangs up their laptop because they quite like feeding their children, or heating their homes. Sometimes even both.

24 responses to “Show me your money

  1. It would be interesting to see this done annually and see whether the data changes…

  2. Thanks for doing that survey and posting your results and thoughts. Hard dose of reality for anyone who still thinks most (children’s) writers (and I’m betting illustrators) have the easy life. Everyone always says “Oh, you’ll be the next JK Rowling!”. She’s is a rarity in terms of extreme financial success in children’s books. I’d be happy if we all earned enough on a regular basis, after taxes, to have a home and support ourselves and our families. 🙂

  3. 27 wanting to give up is sad, from a sample of 83.
    I have a feeling that, as only 12 have other work, this is a sample of the more financially successful too, which makes it even more sad! Thank you for doing this, I have always thought it a shame that so little information about income is available to beginning writers – it comes as an unpleasant shock too often.

    • I’m hoping they are not really wanting to/thinking of giving up. More that it’s the kind of hopeless reaction we all have to something or other at times.
      But it is definitely why I feel super guilty whenever someone privately sends me a book. I look at the postage paid and think ‘he/she could have fed their children for that.’
      Or if I meet someone out and we have something to drink; who is the poorest and who should pay, or shall I insist on going Dutch? Someone once shared a taxi with me, and said she’d pay because for her it was tax deductible.
      Just all drop by my house when you’re ‘in town’ and I’ll put the kettle on. Even make some toast.

  4. Thank you for doing this! If I had time, I’d convert to graphic format. If I feel like a skive later I still might. (Actually, if you email me the spreadsheet, I will do so…) Personally, I think writing the type of book that wins awards means you have the skills to sell more books, rather than awards bring money, but that’s just a suspicion. I wonder if it’s worth asking, next time, how many (in ranges) books people have published? It would be interesting to know if the high earners mostly have a lot of books out or one or two really successful ones.

  5. Yes, thank you, Bookwitch. And I agree with Stroppy, how many books an author has published would be a good gauge.

  6. Next time (which could be sooner than anyone is hoping for) I shall ask what I should ask about. Number of books is at least as relevant as number of years.
    Anne, will speak to the IT boss about that! (He’s out for some ‘peanuts’ right now.)

  7. Thanks for this, Bookwitch – all very interesting. I agree with Stroppy that numbers of books sold would be interesting to know, too. We usually only hear of the exceptional sales figures, not the normal day-to-day sales for most writers trying to earn a living from their work. But this information is great as it helps debunk the myth that all writers are somehow rich enough to be able to spend their days dreaming or ‘scribbling’. 🙂

  8. It would also be really interesting to know what percentage of the authors have agents. Does having an agent result in more earnings or less? I’d love to do this kind of survey for children’s book illustrators. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Another factor to consider is that an author with a full-time day job may earn less because he/she simply has less time to promote and write his/her books. So it cuts both ways: one earns less and so needs a day job, but also, one has a day job, so one earns less from writing. There are some things that don’t really work unless you give them your full attention.

  10. Kay, I didn’t suggest asking number of books sold – I suggested asking for number of books published. I have no idea of sales figures for most of my books, but do know roughly how many I’ve published. Number sold is asking too much of the questionees, except for those who’ve only published one or two books and maybe just have to look at one royalty statement to find out. Also, number sold is not very useful info as we have no control over sales, but we do have control over how many books we write!

  11. Ah – sorry, Stroppy, my misunderstanding! I’ll pay more attention next time 🙂 I had thought published authors would get some idea of how many of their books had sold, especially when (if) the advance earned out and it went into royalties. I’d want to know so I could see which were most successful.

    • Hi Kay – Some people will have that info, but some books are written for a flat fee so you never see sales figures unless you specifically ask. In addition, if you write for more than one publisher, it can take a while to collate sales figures for those you do get statements for. I think I would have to track down royalty statements for at least eight different publishers. And the figures aren’t going to help unless broken down by book – so you can see which books earn a lot. Not only is that a lot of processing of info, I suspect it’s also against the contractual agreement not to disclose commerically sensitive information.

  12. Thanks, Stroppy, that makes sense.

  13. Thank you for posting this. It’s interesting and informative. Regarding the discussion within the comments, I’d love to know about sales figures. As a new writer, I don’t have a clue about what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ numbers. After the furore over the low sales of ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ before the big JKRowling reveal, I asked my agent and publisher, separately, how many sales a middle-reader (9-12s) paperback would need for it to be considered a ‘success’. My publisher said 5,000 would be good, whereas my agent suggested that it would need more like 15,000/20,000 for a series to be continued. I’m still none the wiser!

  14. Rachel, there is no number that is intrinsically good or bad. It depends on the publisher’s expectations. If they’ve paid an advance of £2k for world rights and they sell 4000 copies, they’d be pleased. If they bought world rights for £20k and sold 4000 copies, they’d be gutted. Equally, if they’d printed 2000 copies and went into mutliple reprints to reach the 4000 copies and sold steadily across a year, they’d be delighted. But if the first print run was 50k copies and they sold 4000 in the first month, then nothing much after that, gutted. So each book has to be assessed on its own merits.

  15. I’d say that depends entirely on the book. I have one title which has sold in the region of 30,000 copies and the publisher thinks that’s pathetic. They are being grouchy, as it was a cheap book to produce – but they were hoping for mass-market sales of over 100,000. I have heard of one book that sold only two copies. That’s clearly not good. My best selling title has sold over a quarter of a million (not all in English) and second best close to 200,000 (in a fair number of languages). The first is a children’s book, the second an adult book. And I’m not rich… Some books sell through outlets such as Book People or The Works and you are lucky to get a couple of pence a copy. A book that sold 5,000 copies in Waterstone’s at £6.99 a copy would make more money than one that sold 50,000 in The Works for 99p (because you will also get a lower royalty rate on heavily discounted copies). It’s a very complicated industry.

  16. We are many innocents who know ‘nothing.’
    I was told my someone who knows ‘a lot’ that a very respected and talented author of award winning books, reviewed in the national press and generally lauded, still only sold 800 hardback copies. He/she will not be buying luxuries on that.

  17. I think it’s quite encouraging that so many authors are earning over 30K even in this harsh climate.

    Next time, it might also be interesting to ask if authors have suffered any major setbacks to their career, such as an agent retiring/dying, or a publisher going into receivership owing them money, or divorce meaning they lose a partner’s income, etc. So much of the creative process relies upon self-belief, and both speed of writing and quality of the work affects earning power, even before you add the final dose of luck that can make a book sell in seriously large numbers.

  18. Thanks for this – very interested and your statistics look bang on for me although I didn’t get sent the survey. I’d be in the less than 5 years category and I’d guess my income, averaged out, would indeed come around the £13k mark at the moment, which I feel quite happy about. (Though of course it would be lovely to be one of the £75k plus earners!!) I do supplement that with non-writing income, as you have to. Interested also in the number of book sales, and what that means – I have no idea whether to be pleased at my sales or not since there seem to be very few comparators and no one ever really says unless it’s part of the book blurb and it’s in the millions!

  19. I’m afraid I felt too depressed by my current/future income to contribute to the survey…even last year was my best ever since going freelance/having children…I wonder if I’m alone in that? I never think about giving up writing the books, but I’m in a constant state of anxiety about the (usually bitty, and always unpredictable) ‘bread-and-butter’ work that is necessary to supplement an income from fiction – certainly at my stage of the game.

  20. Pingback: Pies | Bookwitch

  21. This is really interesting, thank you Bookwitch. Just one slightly picky point. You find a median average by arranging your answers in order of size and then picking the middle one. So even if JKR was in your survey, it wouldn’t actually make any difference to your median averages.

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