How authors get paid

Woman's hand holding a pen and working on a calculator, at a desk with financial spreadsheets

Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz in the writing community about an article posted on Medium. It’s a personal account from a published author, about the mistakes she made when she first got a publishing contract.


And these are BIG mistakes—as in, spending her entire $350,000 advance, and ending up broke!


To be honest, reading it made me cringe. After all, how many of us—authors, or any other profession—could really have their life changed by suddenly gaining $350,000? It was hard to read about that giant sum being thrown away on $15 cocktails, shoes, expensive gifts, and more.


What’s worse, the author seems to be blaming everyone else for her misjudgment—everyone from her agent, to her publishing house, to writers with more experience—by lamenting that “nobody told her” she might not get more money in the future.


By blaming everyone else, it shows a distinct lack of accountability. However, despite the fact that I disagree with a lot of what she said, I do understand where she’s coming from…

Sometimes, you don’t know how much you don’t know, until it’s too late.


As a matter of fact, I often find it tempting to blame others for my hefty student loans—saying that college advisors and financial institutions “didn’t tell me” that my debt-to-salary ratio might become a huge burden. Of course, in this case ‘advisors’ may have had some responsibility because of the nature of their job description—but in reality, I’m the one who’s responsible for my own decisions and actions.


So, as an imperfect human myself, and from a point of view of compassion, I can see some benefits to this woman sharing her story, despite the backlash she received.


This sort of financial information for authors—about advances, royalties, and what to expect as a published writer—is ABSOLUTELY available for free online, through a number of different websites, blogs, YouTube videos and more (in fact, I found it difficult to avoid seeing the information when I searched for other writing resources).

However, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to publicize it even more. 
This could certainly be helpful to us aspiring novelists, as well as others who are just curious about how it works to be a published author.


Just as a disclaimer: This is not based on personal experience, as I’m not published yet at the time of this writing. Instead, the information I'm providing below is based on many sources, including writers’ conferences, and online resources from writers who are published.


So without further ado, here are a few facts to know about being traditionally published (rather than self-published) as an author:

  • You write your entire manuscript ahead of time (at least for works of fiction—it can be different for non-fiction), without knowing whether or not someone will accept it for publication after you’re finished.


  • If you do get accepted for publication, you’ll often get a payment known as an ‘advance’. This payment can range from $0 to six figures, depending on the publishing house and their faith in your book’s future sales. Low to mid five-figure advances are common.



  • This advance is typically broken into two or three payments, along the publication calendar. That means your payment can be spread out over 1-3 years, making it difficult to have a livable income from just one book with an average advance.


  • This payment is truly an advance—an advance against royalties. That means, until your book sells enough to pay back your advance, you won’t see another penny.


  • Average royalty rates for traditionally published authors are 10-15% of each book sold.


Does that sound daunting? It can certainly feel that way at times—maybe, in order to make a career as a novelist, you have to be a special kind of crazy…


However, for those of us who just can’t stop ourselves from writing and obsessing over ways to improve our craft, the challenges can’t stop us from trying!


If you’re looking for more detailed information, I recommend this video by author and YouTuber Alexa Donne that explains even more about how payments work for authors.


For my fellow writers out there, good luck! Feel free to reach out on my Facebook page to lament about any obstacles, to celebrate good fortune… or to lend one another some encouraging words along the way!