How Much Do Writers Earn?

It’s no secret that Australian writers today struggle to make ends meet. According to a study published last year by Macquarie University, most Australian authors make only $13,000 a year from their writing, earning at least as much from other writing-related activities—such as teaching and editing—as they do from their books.

Much of the public commentary around this report was what a disgracefully low figure it was. But anecdotally, the reaction from most writers I spoke to about it—online and in person— was along the lines of, Wow! I’d be ecstatic if I earned that much from my writing.

There is very little transparency around author incomes. Though the relationship between talent and commercial success is tenuous, there is still a sense that admitting to making no money is like advertising your own failure as an artist. Those who are making money are probably reluctant to brag about it, out of solidarity for their much poorer counterparts.

Three years ago, devastated by a paltry royalties cheque from my novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, I wrote a post called On (Not) Making a Living from Writing in which I fessed up to my meagre earnings, which looked a little something like this:tumblr_inline_mudz5iY0wu1qk6oj7

In the two years since I published these figures I’ve earned substantially less than $7,320 from my writing. I experimented with self-publishing my third novel The Ark, which was—financially speaking—an unmitigated disaster, selling a total of 300 copies in the two years since it came out. (A lot of the hype around self-publishing focuses on the fact that you get to keep a much higher percentage of your royalties. But 80% of diddly squat is…well, you do the maths).

Last year, I had a change in my fortunes when US publisher Sourcebooks published Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, under the new title Whiskey and Charlie. The reason for the title change is best encapsulated by this image:

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 3.29.26 PM

Sourcebooks ordered an initial print run of 12,000 copies – ten times what I sold in Australia, which I was ecstatic about. Then, Whiskey and Charlie was selected by Target USA as one of their monthly book club picks. They ordered 30,000 copies of my book. I asked my publisher if they had accidentally written an extra zero on the order. Nope. THIRTY THOUSAND COPIES. 

 I just crunched the numbers for my tax return, and as you can see, it looks quite different to my 2013 chart. I earned over $20,000 in total, which is probably more than all my other years of writing put together. Party on, Wayne, party on, Garth!

meta-chartOn the domestic front, sales of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot are still ticking over (probably just enough to cover my chocolate for the year, not kidding). Like most of the writers in the Macquarie study, I supplemented my writing income by doing other writing-related activities:

Professional Services refers to activities like social media consulting and grant assessing.

Public speaking includes workshops, lectures, chairing at festivals, library talks & school talks.

Two thirds of my income came from my US sales. But my royalties take about a thousand years (9 months) to arrive from America. So my earnings in this financial year is for book sales in the previous financial year; (that is, the first two months after publication).

A few other factoids about this income:

Retail Price & Royalties

  • US royalties are 7.5%, compared to 10% in Australia
  • The RRP is $15, compared to $25 in Australia
  • Therefore for each book sold at full price, I earn $1.125 (compared to $2.50 in Australia)

Discounts

  • Royalty rates for books sold to Target and other discount department stores are only 3.75% = 56 cents per book

E-Books

  • E-books, have higher royalties but a much lower RRP

Rights

  • 20% of all my US royalties goes to my Australian publisher, Fremantle Press, who sold the rights on my behalf (because I don’t have an agent). I am super happy for them to have this money, and be able to take a chance on publishing another early career writer.

I’m not in this game for the money. I share these details about my income because I think honest conversations about what writers earn are useful. If you are making a lot more money than this, fantastic! If you are making a lot less: rest assured, you are not alone. When I feel down about this I remind myself that the value of creating art cannot be measured in dollars. Sometimes this thought helps, other times, not so much! Interested to hear your thoughts on this!

20 thoughts on “How Much Do Writers Earn?

  1. Thanks for providing the financial details. Good example of writers’ different avenues (or lack of) these days for building a career.

  2. Thank you for this, Annabel. It’s a stark reminder that art still is very much produced for art’s sake. Only a minority of writers and artists make enough from their art to live on.

    I recently tried reading a James Patterson novel (I’m not saying his novels are ‘art’). It was predictable, and worse, badly written to the point it didn’t communicate a sense of what the characters were going through – the prose would not admit me into the lives of the characters or the story. And the attempts to inject suspense were quite lame, I thought. I despair that this kind of work is lapped up by the public.

    1. I despair as well, Steve! When you think that popular fiction used to be works like Great Expectations. I’ve never attempted a Patterson but I’ve heard terrible things. ‘There’s no accounting for taste’ as my mum always says.

  3. Thanks for this Annabel…it makes an aspiring writer feel so much more amongst it all – income-wise. And thank you for the tips on other methods of earning income and how to publish – I had not thought of all those options before! I might get your book before too long! It looks good.

    1. I’m so glad it was useful to you. I wish I had known such things when I started out. I had wildly unrealistic expectations about how much money I could expect to make. And, yes, it’s useful to think of other income streams, based on your writing skills if possible.

  4. Amongst other things, the difference in the wake of your US sales shows the comparative size of the markets. The Australian market for literary fiction is so very small, and it’s never going to be significantly bigger.
    If we want that market to survive and thrive, it’s going to take government support – for individual authors, and for marketing, translating and exporting – but we have to make the case more convincingly than we have up to now. Frankly, I do not think they are going to give a hoot about a petition signed mostly by authors….

  5. Re comment about “trying a James Patterson,” I write and enjoy crime fiction, which gets lumped in with Pattersonesqe writers. But there are so many good crime novelists whose work lies somewhere between genre and literary. I’d cite Walter Moseley in the USA, Giles Blunt in Canada, and Peter Temple in Australia. And I hope they all make “a decent income” from their books.

    1. It is frustrating when all books of a certain genre get tarred with the same brush as the very worst examples! Though it’s not my genre, I know there are a lot of quality crime writers out there.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing so openly! It’s interesting to see the facts and figures (I’m a numbers girl!). I just read Whiskey & Charlie and very much enjoyed it. Many parts mirrored my life currently (my son was in an accident recently and suffered a brain injury – bleeding/swelling- no coma thank God!) and my husband, who is adopted, recently found his long-lost family (Mike, in a sense!). So a lot of pieces of your novel rang true! I also really enjoyed your writing style and found it very easy to read! I look forward to reading more of your work. 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comments Tammy. It must have been strange to read a book which included two very significant (and emotionally challenging) events in your family’s life. I hope your son is well and your husband adjusting as well as can be expected to his long-lost family. Hope to hear from you again.

  7. Annabel, this is so fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing and being so open about this. I’m speaking to writing students about expectations tomorrow and I will be sending them straight to this post for the best and most realistic idea of how – and how much – good contemporary writers earn in Australia.

    cheers
    Charlotte

    1. There seems a lovely symmetry to the fact that when I last spoke to students I shared your words (from the Stella speech) and now you’re sharing mine with your students! Glad you found it useful.

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