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 the future.
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 if she buys them at discount from the publisher.
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. One of the concerns about low author incomes is 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 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
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. At our core, we are people-pleasers, so we generally donate a certain number of outreach efforts for meaningful causes. When a crisis hits or voices are under attack, watch how children’s authors step up and speak out. Except when it comes to speaking out about our own financial fragility.
Though nobody would ask a lawyer, a plumber, an educator, or other professional to provide services for free, authors are frequently asked to prepare and donate presentations, often with the promise of book sales as remuneration. There is no malice or insult intended. The requesters simply don’t know the financial realities of authorship. An author earning 50¢ per book would need sales of 2,000 copies to replace a $1,000 honorarium. Even if the event did sell that many books (unlikely!), the author wouldn’t see their royalties for up to a year, assuming their advance had earned out. 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.
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.