The Truth About Author Incomes

The more I visit with literacy gatekeepers, readers, and new children’s book writers, the more I hear the assumption that authors are wealthy.  In reality, after spending years honing their craft, often accumulating student loans for advanced degrees along the way, authors rarely make a living from the sale of their books—creations that can require full-time hours for months or years before publication. Writing is both an art and a profession that requires expertise, financial sacrifice, a touch of magic, and a leap of faith. We don’t like to talk about the money side of authorship. It’s more fun to talk about the magic of creation and craft. But our silence perpetuates misconceptions, so let’s pull back the curtain, shall we?

The Financial Reality of Trade Picture Book Incomes (In the simplest terms)

The average picture book advance is $1,000-$8,000 for authors (pre-agent-commission and pre-tax), varying greatly by publishing experience and sales records, and by the size of the publisher. Extreme outliers earn from zero advance to a six-digit (extremely rare) advance. Picture book illustrators often earn a higher advance than the author, but they generally earn the same royalty percentages. Rather than a lump sum, most advances for picture books are divided into halves or thirds and paid at specified stages of the two-to-four-year editing and production process. (EDITED: In 2020, many publishers are dividing the advance into four parts, spreading it out even more.) The final portion of an advance often arrives on publication or up to a year later. That’s a long time to wait for a small chunk of money.

Once a book is published and on shelves, the author won’t see a penny of royalties until her advance “earns out.” Put another way, no royalties are paid until enough copies of the book are sold that the author’s contracted royalty earnings exceed the amount already paid as advance. The higher the advance, the longer it takes for a book to earn out. It can take years for an author to see royalties, assuming the book doesn’t go out of print first. If it does go out of print, the book and all potential royalties are essentially dead.

A royalty is a negotiated percentage of sales that is paid to the author twice per year after the advance earns out. Yep. Twice. Per. Year! Novelists may earn up to 10% royalty, but picture book authors earn an average 3%-6% on either the net or retail sale price of each book (depending on the publisher contract). For an $18 hardcover picture book, the author earns between ~30¢-~$1 per copy sold. If the book is sold at a discount, the math changes. And that’s pre-tax.

Just for grins, let’s pretend that Debut Picture Book Author A’s advance has earned out. After her agent’s well-deserved 15% commission, the author is due a sample 50¢ royalty per sold copy. If my math is correct, she would need to sell 120,000 copies PER YEAR to eek out a $60,000 gross annual income (rare!). After taxes, that pie-in-the-sky annual fantasy income drops to ~$40k—$45k net income (depending on tax bracket). And friends, we haven’t even considered the author’s operating expenses, promotional expenses, research expenses, and living expenses (you know, rent, food, health insurance, chocolate). I think it’s a fair assumption that most picture books or novels rarely generate sales of 120,000 copies in their lifetime. Realistically, an average book’s sales are a tiny fraction of that number. The goal, then, is to produce many commercially successful books that each earns an advance and long-term royalties. As if any author can predict a book’s success!

An aside: Publishers usually gift 10-20 copies of the book to the author who often doles them out to family members, meaningful sources, and as promotional giveaways. Beyond those author copies, she must buy her own books, which, depending on the publisher’s contract, may or may not count toward her overall book sales. Let me repeat, authors must buy their own books!

I have frequently heard that the average children’s book author earns an average of $10,000 per year, which aligns with what author Hannah Holt shares here. Legendary author Philip Pullman, along with other UK authors, rang the alarm bell for The Guardian in 2018 about the damaging effects of low author incomes on the “diversity and quality of literary culture in the UK.” It’s a universal problem, of course. Among the concerns about low author incomes— overall sustainability, and the resulting loss of diverse voices. That’s a topic for another day. Even full-time authors have no guarantee that their current work-in-progress will be acquired unless it was contracted in advance (rare with picture books).

Here’s the skinny: Publishers pay for a product, not for an author’s time. The months or years an author invests in a book before it is acquired is on their own dime. Once published, the author’s individual promotional and marketing efforts are also on their own time and dime. Meanwhile, bills arrive like clockwork. Since book sales rarely generate a living wage, authors must survive on alternative income streams.

Authors Earn their Living in Other Ways

Most authors either hold day jobs, have the financial support of a spouse or partner, or cobble together freelance writing, editing, teaching, speaking gigs, and/or school visits for their primary income. For more info about average school visit honorariums, which vary by region and by author experience, check out this great survey by Michelle Cusolito and Jeanette Bradley. When unforeseen circumstances like an economic downturn occur, full-time authors can find themselves in a financial crisis. [EDITED TO ADD: Case in point—this author is working contract jobs, teaching, and editing, to make up for school visit income eviscerated by COVID school closings.]

Here’s Where it Gets Awkward——Authors are Often Asked to Donate their time, expertise, or books

Every children’s author I know has a Texas-sized heart. We adore young readers and the educators who nurture them, and we know that our works and our presence can make a difference. When a crisis hits, or voices are under attack, watch how children’s authors rally to help. But most people don’t know how financially fragile a writer’s life can be.

Though nobody would ask a lawyer, a plumber, an educator, or a doctor, to provide services for free, authors are frequently asked to prepare and donate presentations, often with the promise of book sales as remuneration. Or they are asked to donate quantities of books. There is no malice or insult intended. The requesters simply don’t know how the book world works, from the author’s side of the shelf. When it comes to presentations, an author earning 50¢ per book would need sales of 2,000 copies to replace a conservative $1,000 honorarium—pre-tax. Even if the pro bono event sold those 2,000 copies (highly unlikely!), the author wouldn’t see their royalties for up to a year, assuming their advance had earned out. Requests for the donation of books are equally unrealistic since, as mentioned earlier, authors must buy their own books.

It’s painful for authors to turn down requests, but there’s only so much we can give, when time and resources are so limited.

Publishing is a Nonsensical Career Choice, but…

We children’s authors are called to this vocation because we know the power of literacy to reflect, inspire, and transform young readers. We endure the financial sacrifices that authorship entails because we know that empathy and change begin in the space where hearts and minds meet creativity.  Hope can always be found in books that provide windows and mirrors. We authors are hopeful creators of those windows and mirrors. As professionals, it’s important that we occasionally pull back the curtain so that others can better understand our fragile work.

If you are a budding author, don’t despair. Write with passion. Share a piece of your soul with the world. Lose yourself in the stories you craft. But don’t expect your book sales to support you.

If you are a gatekeeper or literacy champion, please know that we authors and illustrators admire and respect you. The difference you make today will shape students for years to come. You deserve to be paid for your time and efforts. We thank you for understanding that we do, too.

EDITED 8/25/21—We are now 18 months into a pandemic and the school visit landscape has changed. Check out this Publisher’s Weekly article by Joanne O’Sullivan about the state of author visits.

Schools and libraries, if you need help funding an author visit, click here for tips and potential resources.


Contact me with questions or comments or check out my page dedicated to school visit presentations and writing workshops.

Need help paying for an author visit? Click here for a list of grants and other fundraising ideas.

Donna Janell Bowman is a central Texas speaker, writing coach, and author of award-winning books for young readers, including Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter; Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler; and King of the Tightrope: When The Great Blondin Ruled Niagara, illustrated by Adam Gustavson. Donna has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults and enjoys connecting with readers and writers of all ages.

20 Responses to “The Truth About Author Incomes”

  1. muse4kids

    My pleasure, Laura. Information is always helpful.

  2. Faygie

    Thanks for this column. I particularly loved this line “Writing for children is a financially-nonsensical career choice.” You absolutely nailed it. Thanks!

    • muse4kids

      Thank you! This business is CRAZY, but none of us can stomach the thought of NOT writing, right?
      Carry on and help to inform readers and gatekeepers.

  3. Nancy Furstinger

    Thanks, Donna Janell Bowman, for writing this insightful post! I’m reposting on my FB page (tagged you). I can’t tell you how many schools want FREE events (and I’m not talking about low-income regions). I’ve explained all the reasons why this is unfair to us hard-working writers and either get paid or bumped. I already do pro-bono book festivals, library readings, and bookstore events, plus I’m a steady volunteer @ my SPCA…can’t live on air!

    • muse4kids

      Oh, Nancy, I hear ya! We all do pro-bono work to promote books that pay us pennies. It’s important that we debunk financial myths so that readers and gatekeepers are more informed and empathetic.

  4. Kathy Cannon Wiechman

    Well put. What does it say about us who struggle day in and day out to reach readers, while our pockets remain empty? The world needs us, and we do what we must.

    • muse4kids

      Indeed, Kathy! Our value is definitely not reflected in our monetary compensation. What does it say about us? That we are starving artists, I suppose.

    • muse4kids

      Those not in publishing are always surprised.

      Thanks, Ruth!

  5. Pat Wahler

    The advance mentioned is far beyond what a small publisher pays, assuming the small publisher pays anything at all.

  6. Eileen Heyes

    Thank you for this excellent, utterly clear explanation! Especially this: “Nobody would ask a lawyer, a plumber, an accountant, or other professional to provide a service for free, yet authors are frequently asked to prepare and donate presentations, sometimes with the assumption that book sales should suffice as remuneration for time and travel.”

    Beyond the matter of fair compensation, we need to be respected as professionals — like that lawyer, plumber, or accountant that you would NEVER ask to work for free just “to get their name out there.”

  7. brian donnell james

    I appreciated reading this, thank you so much. I am a award winning poet who is now getting offers for my projects and your information is right on point!

  8. Harshita

    Thank you for this information. So much hard work goes into writing, and the ROI is in the satisfaction that our work has reached the world; unfortunately, there aren’t monetary returns, which often bursts my writing bubble.

  9. Joseph Donnison

    $1,000 – $8,000 is exceptionally low (very, very low) for a professional children’s book illustrator advance. A professional children’s book artist is usually expected to complete a 32 page children’s book with 20’ish illustrations in 3 months (10-14 weeks) give or take. This rate of $1-8K would put monthly compensation at $333- $2,666/ month which is simply unlivable. A professional illustrator should expect an advance compensation for a 32 page picture book to be in the neighborhood of $12,000- $15,000 MINIMUM, with rates MUCH higher for well known illustrators. Also, royalties once advance is completed should be in the 2-5% range.

    • muse4kids

      Note that this post is specifically about author incomes, but I do know of many publishers that low-ball illustrators, too. There’s such a wide range of publisher budgets.

  10. Eldes

    Just a note: illustrator is the AUTHOR of images of a book — the writer is AUTHOR of text 🙂