As my Facebook friends will know I have been invited to give a talk to the Men’s Breakfast Club in the village where I live. It’s not a big deal, just 20 or 30 men from the village who get together once a month to eat bacon rolls, drink tea, gossip and listen to a guest speaker. I was asked because there was a small piece about me and my writing in the last edition of
our parish magazine. I’ve been given a free choice of topic, but a suggestion was made that I talk about the difficulties of being a writer in the 1st century. Wow, quite a wide ranging topic, I thought. Plenty of scope for something to say there. And there is.
One of the most frequent questions I get asked is “How many books have you sold?” This is, of course, code for “are you making any money?” A fair question but I’m not about to get my bank statements or tax returns out for public scrutiny. So I did a bit of research on the subject (yes – I do research) and what I found was quite an eye opener.
Firstly the American perspective.
The USA is the biggest market for writers and probably has more writers per head of population than any other country on Earth. So how much money do American authors make?
I found an article on Forbes, the on line version of Forbes magazine, dated 12th September 2013 that suggested that the
mid-point of earnings for self-published author is less than £2,500 (they give everything in $ so my conversions are rough estimates). But 20% of all self-published authors make no money at all. Only 1.8% make more than £50,000.
In the conventional world, where a publisher is used, earnings of between £2,500 and £5,000 may be expected, but 8.8% of authors may expect earnings of above £50,000. Because this is conventional publishing all the authors will sell a few books so there are no authors that earn nothing at all.
So how does this compare with the UK market. Well Sara Sheridan, herself an author, writing in the Huffington Post suggests that you need to sell about 33,000 books a year just to make the average UK wage of £26,500. That is because the author only gets about 10% of the sale price of a paperback book. That’s about 80p for a paperback that sells for £7.99.
She goes on to say that according to 2005 figures (the latest available in 2013 when she was writing her article)
the average earnings per author were about £28,340. But of course that average is heavily skewed by the earnings of the highest paid authors, eg J K Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Bernard Cornwell etc. The top 10% of all authors make a
whopping 50% of all authors’ earnings from book sales. The mid-point earnings for all authors is about £12,300. If you translate that into an hourly rate, based on 242 working days a year at 8 hours a day, it works out at £6.35. The
statutory minimum wage for an adult is £6.50 an hour.
It’s even worse if you’re a female author. They only earn about 77% of what the male authors earn because male authors seem to be more popular. That’s purely down to total book sales, not to poorer contractual terms.
This has an impact on the credibility of authors. Imagine the following conversation:
“What does she do for a living?”
“Well, she says she’s an author but I know for a fact she works on the deli counter at Tesco.”
Of course she works on the deli counter at Tesco. If she didn’t she’d starve to death. She then goes home at night and spends another 8 hours writing a book which may or may not be published. But because she works on the deli counter at Tesco she is denied any credibility as an author. More than half the authors currently working in the UK earn less than minimum wage for their writing. That doesn’t mean that they’re bad writers or that their books aren’t good. It doesn’t even mean that their books don’t sell. It just means that it’s a crowded market place and its quite hard to make money.
Well, everyone knows the big money is in film and TV rights. Er, No.
Sara Sheridan again. In 1999 an ‘option’ was taken for one of her books to be made into a film. She was paid just £3,000 for it. When Random House awarded bonuses of £3,000 to their staff for the phenomenal sales produced by 50 Shades Of Grey the author was awarded ….. nothing.
So how many books do you have to sell to make the Top 100 list? This is from the Guardian list for 2013:
1. My Autobiography by Sir Alex Ferguson - 647,153
2. The Inferno by Dan Brown - 626,250 (Why? it was awful)
3. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn - 607,359
No book below 3rd place sold more than 500,000 copies and no book below 13th place sold more than 250,000 copies. So what about the bottom end of the scale?
98. Zog by Julia Donaldson - 104,835
99. Revenge by Martina Cole - 104,497
100. 11th Hour by James Patterson - 104,375
So, to make the top 100 you have to sell more than 104,000 copies of your book. That’s a tall order without a major publishing house behind you. According to Sara Sheridan the average first novel sells about 1,000 copies. So imagine how many copies the self-published authors sells. More on that subject later.
It’s actually quite staggering that the bestselling books in the UK barely sell more than half a million copies. Of
course they are read by more than half a million people because they are borrowed from libraries and passed around from hand to hand, but it still means that less than 1% of the UK population will have bought the bestselling book.
Even allowing for the fact that you may not be interested in Sir Alex Ferguson that doesn’t account for the sales of the other books at the top of the list.
And this is where the difficulties of being an author in the 21st century start to be felt. To make money you have to have a publisher. Not one of the major publishing houses, and only a hand full of the second tier publishers, accept submissions direct from the author. The second tier publishers tend towards the specialist genres: sci-fi, fantasy, erotic etc. To get at a
publisher the author has to be either very lucky with a second tier publishing house, or they have to have a literary agent.
According to author and blogger Nathan Bransford literary agents receive over 15,000 query letters for new books per year. That’s basically a letter that says ‘Here’s my book, can you get it published for me?’. If an agent receives a query letter then it usually means that it’s the author’s first attempt to get a book published by conventional means.
How many of these books actually get published? Writers Type supports the suggestion that 15,000 books are submitted to literary agents every year and then goes on to say that an agent will forward perhaps a couple of dozen to publishers for consideration. Of these maybe 15 or 16 will end up as published books.
Once published, of course, it’s a different story. The author now has a track record. The publisher will often give the author an advance to allow them to eat while they write their next book. But they have to be one of the 200 or so authors out of that 15,000 that get a publishing deal.
Are those 200 or so the best of the new writers? Maybe, but quite possibly not. Both agents and publishers tend to go with the market. If you were writing children’s fantasy stories at around the same time as J K Rowling was publishing the Harry Potter books then you might well have got a publishing deal. Ditto if you were writing erotica-for-women when E L James was having her success with 50 Shades Of Grey. But if you weren’t then you were taking part in a lottery.
Very few agents take risks by forwarding stories of a type that aren’t making it in the best sellers lists. The market is
currently bursting at the seams with authors writing Jack Reacher clones. Once a year or so one of the major publishers will take a chance with something new simply because it stands out from the crowd, but it will be a calculated risk, not a
wild headed gamble.
I mentioned self-publishing earlier in my article. It’s also known as vanity publishing for fairly obvious reasons. Before the internet came along an author that wanted to self-publish paid a printer to produce a few hundred copies of their book then they went round the local book shops trying to persuade reluctant book sellers to sell a few copies for them. Since the internet, however, things have got much easier and less expensive. Sites like Amazon, Lulu and Troubador allow budding authors to upload their books and then the site takes a commission on sales. Do they sell? Well, you saw the figures for self-published authors. 20% never make any money and over 50% make less than £2,500 a year.
Why isn’t self-publishing more successful? It’s all down to marketing. Publishers spend huge amounts of money promoting both writers and their books. But once the self-published author has badgered friends and family into buying their book (they usually expect to get a copy for free) then it’s pretty hard to get their book in front of a wider audience without spending quite a lot of money on marketing and also having the know-how to do it. If you’re only going to earn a couple of grand out of the book anyway then the marketing costs become prohibitive. That becomes a vicious circle of cost vs earnings so most self-published authors never sell more than a few copies.
So what does the self-published novelist do? They write blogs like this one in the hope that people become interested enough in their writing to actually go and buy a copy of their book. Does it work? I’ll tell you when I see the next sales figures for my own books.
What you have just read took me over three hours to research and two hours to write and for that I will receive no financial reward. In fact I'm out of pocket because I have to pay for the upkeep of this website. It will have taken you less than ten minutes to read it. I hope you enjoyed your free entertainment.