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. The final portion of an advance often arrives as the book lands on store shelves. 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 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 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 future sales.

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). There’s no way to predict future sales, but we do know that a well-crafted and meaningful book takes an exceptional amount of time, energy, and skill.

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, they have the financial support of a spouse or partner, or they 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 hits, and the publishing industry is affected, or the author’s freelance income sources disappear (hello, pandemic!),  full-time authors find themselves in financial crisis.

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 anyway. 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 words. But don’t quit your day job.

If you are a gatekeeper or literacy champion, I hope this article has been enlightening. Feel free to contact me with feedback or concerns.

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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.

Funding an Author Visit—There’s Money Available!

I LOVE speaking at schools and leading writing workshops. By now, I’ve visited enough campuses to see a wide disparity in demographics. I’ve been to inner city elementary schools with metal detectors and bars on the windows, and I’ve been to schools with sparkling courtyard gardens and laptops for every child. Whether a school is wealthy or economically-disadvantaged, every student deserves a strong foundation of literacy. If you’re reading this, you already know that reading is the foundation for education and citizenship, and it is a gateway to empathic connections. You know that writing is not only an art and a way to share ideas and use imagination, but a critical communication tool. As the printed word increasingly competes with large and small screens, the intrinsic and pragmatic value of an author visit increases exponentially. Meeting a “real live” author allows students to peek behind the wizard’s curtain—to humanize the process of story creation (fiction and nonfiction), and to glimpse at the creative potential of curiosity. Many authors, like me, incorporate concrete curriculum connections to support classroom instruction.

But how do you pay for an author visit when budgets at the school and district level are squeezed? Hopefully, the below list will help.

Grassroots Fundraising:
Find a creative way to raise the money. Get the students involved so that they feel invested.
Car washes
Product sales
Coin campaigns (Think of the bonus math connection!)
Carnivals
A $2 donation from every student
Corporate Event Sponsors—You know the drill.

Grants (Where a Texas organization is mentioned, insert your own equivalent):
* Check your state and local arts commissions, such as the Texas Commission on the Arts and organizations within specific communities like Impact Austin.
* National Endowment of the Arts
* Search your state’s library association. For example, The Texas Library Association sponsors grants for public libraries & disaster relief.
* The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
* Search Grant Watch by state (ie: Texas Grant Watch), and other cooperative sites that help educators find grants, like GetEdFunding and Grants for Teachers, and ProLiteracyScholasticJunior Library Guild, etc. There are many more out there!
* Check out regional writing organizations that offer grants for schools
* Adoptaclassroom.org $1,000 grants.
* Crayola Creative Leadership Grants—$2500 plus products
* The Writer’s League of Texas’ Project Wise facilitates one-hour author visits at no cost to participating Austin-area schools, and is funded by the City of Austin Cultural Arts Division.
SCBWI’s Amber Brown Grant, and the Maureen Hayes Author/Illustrator Grant by ALSC and ALA, funded by Simon and Schuster.
* The Texas Book Festival has grants available through their Reading Rock Stars Program (and they provide a book for each child)
* The remarkable nonprofit organization First Book (They also provide a book for each child.)
* Check corporate philanthropy options like Dell Computers, HEB, TargetWells Fargo, Exxon/Mobil, Walmart, Dollar General, Barnes & Noble, etc.
* Donors Choose
* Voya Unsung Heroes by Scholarship America—Each year, they give $2,000 to 50 schools to support education
* Innovative Reading Grant from AASL, sponsored by Capstone
 * Worlds of Words grants —$1,000 for literacy communities to explore the use of global literature and world languages to build intercultural understanding
* The Maureen Hayes Author/Illustrator Award from AASL and funded by Simon & Shuster—$4,000 school visit grant
* Be aware that some large corporations reward employee volunteers by making a donation in the employee’s name. One of my school visits was paid for by a company on behalf of an employee volunteer.
*If, after all your efforts, you’re still short on budget, ask your preferred author if they will discount their honorarium. Authors are flexible.

Do you need free books to upgrade your library collection? Check out these options:
National Education Association
The Laura Bush Foundation
The Library of Congress Surplus Book Program

For information about my school visits and writing workshops, email donna@donnajanellbowman.com


Click here to learn the truth about author incomes.

If you would like information about my school presentations and writing workshops, contact me here. 

Click here to learn more about author incomes

Think School Visits Only Help the Students? Think Again!

Hello, friends!

As I sit in my dining room on this cold and rainy Saturday, I am reflecting on the thirty-four schools that I have visited since mid-September. Yes, thirty four! Tomorrow, I leave for a full week of school visits in Houston, and more schools are on my calendar after that, so the number is rising. I owe so much to the Texas Bluebonnet Award nomination, and the nomination to other state award lists, too. They are lovely accolades for Step Right Up, but the award nods have also provided these glorious opportunities to talk to young readers. Special thanks to Texas Library Association!


I have been honored by each school invitation and humbled by the dedication I have witnessed in the real rockstars—librarians, administrators, and educators. If you are among those noble professions, thank you!

Truth be known, the flurry of 2018-19 school visits has changed me in profound ways.

Every school visit gifts me with new perspectives on the unique challenges for schools in wildly varying economic and demographic environments. I have presented in wealthy schools, where every brand-name-wearing second-grader has a smart phone in their designer backpack, and a laptop provided for them. And I have presented in schools that have bars on the windows, metal detectors, and hand-me-down-wearing third-graders who worried that my presentation clicker was a taser. (There’s only one way an 8-year-old could make that assumption.)

Some kids have challenges. Some kids are challenging. But every kid deserves the best that we can offer. When I stand before them, I feel the responsibility deeply. We all know that books can offer windows and mirrors for young readers. And, for those readers who haven’t yet fallen in love with books, meeting a real author who failed many times before any success—one who is as flawed and human as everybody else— can be enlightening. And, as some studies suggest, author visits inspire kids to read and write more. 
During this Bluebonnet season with Step Right Up, while I share my personal connection to Doc and Jim’s story, and as I share my writing, research, and revision process, the kindness theme takes center stage. I offer a bit about Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, too, which is all about Honest Abe’s big mistake—political mudslinging that almost cost him his life—and how the lesson he learned from the resulting duel taught him to be a better man. It’s a story about learning from our mistakes and about the power of words. It’s a story about character—kissing cousin to kindness.

Authors often subconsciously gravitate toward stories with particular social issues. I didn’t set out to be a kindness author, but I’m awfully grateful these days that I have two books that offer a bit of light when darkness creeps into our internal or external worlds. During these exceptionally divisive and volatile times, I think it’s important that adults offer EVERY child a sense of hope, a sense of potential, a promise that, though we don’t always have a choice about where we live or the stuff we own, we all have a choice about HOW we treat others. As authors, we have a responsibility to every one of these kids and to the adults who dedicate their careers to nurturing and educating them.

Perusing an 1859 newspaper. Research can be cool!
4th grade writing workshop.

I watch kids’ faces during my presentations and in my writing workshops, looking for content that especially connects. It isn’t always obvious at first. In the moments before and after my presentations, there are kids who want to chat. Sometimes, they share something funny or random. Sometimes, they want to share something that’s weighing on their young hearts. Often, stories are whispered into my ear about a dying grandmother, a cousin who hit his dog with a shoe, an uncle in prison, a school bully. Sometimes, they tell me that they want to be an author, too. (Cue the confetti!)

It is a special honor when I witness the seemingly-least-likely kid in the room find a spark of magic in their own imaginings. I see it in the wide eyes, hands in the air in response to a question, the random hug by the child who thanks me for writing a book about kindness. I saw it last week when a third grade boy stopped me in the hall of his school and said, “I’m writing a story about you today.” He was that kid, y’all. You know the one—the kid often thought of as a problem. He gets it, this kindness thing. And, maybe, just maybe, he gets the reading and writing thing a little bit more today, too. If I transferred a little word wonder to him, well, my work here is done. And I am a better person for it.

 

If you are a library or education rock star, thank you, thank you, thank you for all you do to inspire, nurture, and educate OUR kids ! What would we do without you?

If you are an author or illustrator colleague, keep sharing your passion for young readers and the books that can inspire them. What we do matters!

For more information about my presentations and writing workshops, click here  or contact me. I would be happy to travel to anywhere in the United States and beyond. If I’m not quite what you’re looking for, please reach out to another author about visiting your school or library. We’re all in it for the kids.

Everything You Want to Know About School Visits

My fellow NARRATIVE ARChaeology authors and I put together a series of articles about school visits. Below are direct links.

Click here for Why Invite a Non-Fiction Author to Speak at Your School

Click here for Getting the Most Out of Your School Visit

Click here for The Truth About What Authors Earn

Click here for How to Pay for a Visiting Author. Also, see this Cynsations blog post about more available grants to pay for author visits. And, for Texas, also consider Title V grants. After all, the writing process should be the core of all author programs.

Read more about ways to pay for author visits on the Booking Biz blog here.

 

NARRATIVE ARChaeology is a group of nonfiction writers who specialize in nonfiction author visits.  Visit the NARRATIVE ARChaeology site here!