How Much Do Bestselling Authors Make Per Book?
So you want to talk money.
Best-case scenario money.
I get it. Talking about what could be if one of your books became a major hit, turned you into a household name, and made it possible for you to buy your mom a beach house… that’s a fun conversation.
I’m all in.
Quick warning: I may have to drop a few reminders about how tough the publishing journey is. But I’ll keep it to a minimum because you know that. Today, we’re here to dream and learn what it looks like when an author’s wildest dreams come true.
- What counts as a bestseller
- How author earnings work in both traditional and self-publishing
- What kind of royalties you can expect to make
- What factors influence your earnings and how to make the most of them
- How much money some of the biggest bestselling authors earn
First, a little clarity.
What Does It Mean to Be a Bestselling Author?
Folks tend to throw this phrase around a lot, but what does it actually mean? Do you have to be on the New York Times Best Sellers list in order to be considered a bestselling author? Or is your book a bestseller once it’s sold a certain number of copies?
Honestly, there are a lot of ways to earn the title of bestselling author.
You can call your book a bestseller if landed on the New York Times list. That list is determined by a set of criteria specific to the Times and sales numbers for specific retailers. Other publications also have bestseller lists, like the Washington Post and Publisher’s Weekly.
Plus, Amazon ranks their bestselling books in individual genres, subgenres, and sub-categories of subgenres. This gives authors—especially self-published authors—a better shot at earning some bestseller clout.
Anyone who lands on one of these lists gets to call themselves a bestselling author. It’s much harder to get on the New York Times list than, say, Amazon’s. But you get to fling the title around either way.
But what does that mean in actual dollars and cents? How much money does a bestselling author make?
There’s no quick answer to that. Fortunately, the long answer is fairly interesting.
Understanding Book Publishing Earnings
Before you can even estimate how much a bestselling author makes for every book sold, you need a solid grasp of how authors get paid.
Heads-up: there will be math. But we’ll tackle it together.
How Do Authors Earn Money From Book Sales?
Both traditionally published and self-published authors receive payment in the form of royalties. A royalty is a percentage of every sale after the cost of production.
Now, traditionally published authors usually receive an advance payment. But this isn’t additional income; it’s just royalties paid—you guessed it—in advance. More on that in a minute.
Let’s talk about how much a successful author can expect to rake in from royalties.
What Are Royalties and How Do They Work?
Royalties work pretty much the same whether you self-publish or work with a traditional publisher.
In both cases, the publisher or publishing platform (like Amazon) subtracts the cost of producing each book from the retail price. They then distribute a fraction of the remaining amount to the author.
Let’s say your novel retails for $15.99 and it costs $4.00 per book to produce. The publisher would subtract the cost from the retail price to get $11.99, and your royalty would be a predetermined percentage of that amount.
And exactly how big would that percentage be?
It depends on how you publish your book.
Royalties in Traditional Publishing
If your book is traditionally published, your agent will negotiate royalty rates with the publisher. Most traditionally published authors receive royalties in the 8-12% range for print copies of their book. It can go as low as 5% or even as high as 15% if, for example, you happen to be a bestselling author.
A traditional publisher will also give you different royalties for different formats. You might earn a little less for every trade paperback sold. For an e-book, you might get more, as the publisher both risks and spends less to produce a digital product.
Some agreements even allow for a royalty increase after a certain number of books sold. You might start at 10% for the first 5,000 copies, then get bumped up to a 12% royalty after that.
But what kind of royalties can a bestselling author expect to get?
I know this answer is getting old, but it really does depend. That said, an author with a highly marketable novel and a bestselling track record is in the best position to score a 15% royalty.
So let’s go back to that novel of yours that brings in $11.99 after production costs. If you’re a super successful author earning 15% royalties, you’re looking at around $1.80 a book.
Don’t like that number? Here’s another option:
Royalties in Self-Publishing
Unlike traditionally published authors, self-published authors can’t negotiate higher royalties as they become more successful. But I don’t know of a single self-published author who cares; they already earn way more for every book sold than they would with a traditional publisher.
See, when you publish your own book, your royalties come from your publishing platform, like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) or Apple Books. The percentage you receive depends on the format, platform, and several other factors.
But even with all those variables, you can pretty much count on self-publishing royalties ranging from about 35-70%.
You know that traditionally published novel that earns you $1.80 per book sold? You’d make $4.20-8.39 per book as a self-published author.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean your odds of getting filthy rich are higher if you self-publish. Several factors influence your income potential whichever route you take. We’ll get into all that in a moment.
First, let’s get some clarity on the other form of author earnings.
What Are Advance Payments and How Do They Work?
In traditional publishing, authors usually receive an advance when they close a book deal.
An advance is a one-time, upfront payment against future royalties. First time authors often get an advance somewhere in the range of $5,000-10,000. It can be less. In rare cases, it might be more.
On the other hand, an author who consistently writes bestsellers can probably expect a significantly larger advance. Some advances can reach six or seven figures.
Whatever the number, this is not an additional payment. At least, it’s not supposed to be.
Let’s say you got a $5,000 advance on your novel. If you’re earning $1.80 per book, it’s going to take 2,778 books to earn out that advance. That means you won’t start earning royalty checks until you sell book number 2,779.
Now, suppose you never sell enough books to earn out your advance. You won’t have to give it back, so it’s kind of like extra money. But it’s not the type of “extra money” any writer wants.
Best Case Scenario for Traditional Publishing Earnings
I promised to explain not just how much money a bestselling author stands to make, but also how they manage to thrive in the publishing industry. (Aside from writing an outstanding novel, of course.)
To do that, I need to shed some light on the traditional publishing process. The process itself reveals all kinds of tricks and secrets, like how to set yourself up for higher earnings and why most published authors have to find additional sources of income. (I know. I don’t like it any more than you do.)
Here’s a quick rundown of the journey between your finished manuscript and your first advance.
How Does Traditional Publishing Work?
Most likely, you’ll start your publishing journey by sending query letters to literary agents. Once you find one who loves your manuscript and wants to work with you, they’ll start shopping your novel around to publishers.
Once they find a publisher for your book, they’ll start negotiations. Those negotiations will include your royalties and advance, as well as other long-term financial considerations like film and merchandising rights.
Your literary agent takes a percentage of your earnings as payment for getting you a publishing deal. It can vary, but most agents charge 15%. So when you get that $5,000 advance, be aware that you’ll have to set aside $750 for your agent.
Now you’re down to $4,250, but that’s still not your take home pay. You have to pay taxes, too.
Now, it is possible to find a publisher on your own. You can check out this article for more details on how to do that.
However, even if you do that, you’ll probably want to find an agent to handle negotiations. If you found your publisher yourself, you might be able to hire an agent for a flat fee and avoid paying a commission on future royalties.
However you handle it, it’s an expense you should plan for. It’s almost always worth it.
How Can Literary Agents Help Maximize Author Earnings?
A good literary agent can help you earn way more on book sales both now and long into the future.
For one thing, they’ll give you feedback on your manuscript that’s based on their literary and industry insight. This is someone who doesn’t just know great writing; they know what sells. With their guidance, you have a better shot at landing a solid book deal, maybe even with a major publisher.
A literary agent is also likely to have better knowledge of the publishing industry as a whole. They’ll know which publisher is perfect for your novel and what to say to get them jazzed about your book’s potential.
As you already know, your agent’s negotiation skills can mean the difference between a lucrative writing career and balancing three different side hustles.
And as you build that lucrative career, your agent will be there to offer marketing guidance, provide tips for building a platform, and connect you with their industry contacts.
Make the most of these benefits, and the commission you pay to your agent will be money well spent.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up like one of the folks we’ll be discussing next.
Examples of Successful Traditionally Published Authors and Their Earnings
William Shakespeare is the best selling fiction author of all time, having sold an estimated 2-4 billion copies of only 42 books.
So that’s a fun fact. It’s not a helpful one, though, because he’s had four centuries to rack up sales, and you and I don’t have that kind of time.
But you know who’s killing it in our century?
You knew this one was coming. Stephen King is famously prolific and wildly successful. He has more than 120 published works, has sold more than 350 million copies of his books, and his net worth is estimated to be over $500 million.
Now, how much of his wealth comes from book sales is hard to say, as his work has also inspired films, television shows, and merchandise. But based on the numbers above, he’s averaging about 3 million copies a book. So we can figure he’s pulling in a few million dollars on each one.
It’s not at all surprising to see a romance novelist on a list of bestselling authors. The romance genre is known for being a money-maker, and Danielle Steel is a name familiar even to people who don’t read romance.
She’s sold more than 900 million copies of her 190+ books globally. Her annual income is believed to be more than $20 million, and her net worth is estimated to be $390 million.
Not too shabby.
James Patterson is known for being the actual best selling author of the 2010s, earning more than $700 million over the course of the decade.
Overall, he’s published more than 394 works and sold more than 425 million books. More than 100 of his books were New York Times bestsellers.
I think this kid’s gonna make it.
Just so these absurd numbers don’t skew our sense of what “wildly successful” can mean, let’s talk about Terry McMillan.
She’s published 11 books, sold 15 million copies worldwide, and had four of her books adapted for film. Her estimated net worth is $10 million. Those aren’t James Patterson numbers, but they certainly reflect a financially successful writing career.
Best Case Scenario for Self-Publishing Earnings
Now that you’ve seen what’s possible with a traditionally published book, you’ve got to be wondering what a self-published author can do with those 35%-or-more royalties.
It’s a fair question. In fact, self-published authors are starting to earn more than traditionally published authors on average.
But that doesn’t mean indie publishing is an easier road. Here’s everything you need to know about trying to become a self-published bestselling author.
How Does Self-Publishing Work?
In self-publishing, you either do it all or fund it all. Most likely, it’s a combination of both.
If you choose this path, it’s up to you to:
- Make sure your draft is edited, proofread, fact-checked, and polished to professional standards. (You’ll probably want to hire an editor or two to help with this.)
- Format your book
- Design an eye-catching, genre-appropriate cover or hire a designer to do it
- Create your book’s blurb and online listing
- Develop a book launch strategy and marketing plan
- Build an author platform, including a website and mailing list
- Continue marketing your backlist even as you write new books
This is a huge time investment, even if you can afford to outsource many of these tasks to freelancers. You’re basically signing up to be an entrepreneur. That requires facing a reality that makes a lot of us writers a little squirmy:
The production and marketing of the book is as important as the book itself. At least it is when it comes to racking up those initial book sales. On that note, let’s weigh some pros and cons.
Financial Advantages and Disadvantages of Self-Publishing
Here are a few things you should think about when you consider your potential earnings as a self-published author.
- Your royalties are much higher than they would be with a traditionally published book.
- You have control over the price of your book, though it’s possible to price your book too low or too high. Here’s a guide to find the sweet spot.
- All production decisions are yours, which means you can take more creative—and potentially successful—risks than a traditional publisher might.
- As your book sales go up, you have the power to plug a good portion of those earnings back into advertising.
- It’s difficult to sell a lot of books in self-publishing without investing in editing, cover design, advertising, and more.
- You’re not backed by the marketing power and industry connections of a major publisher.
- Self-publishing is more accessible than ever, which means there’s a lot of competition (with nearly 2 million indie books published annually) to even get on your potential reader’s radar.
So what does it look like when self-published authors make the most of the advantages, overcome the disadvantages, and hit bestseller status?
Let’s take a look.
Examples of Successful Self-Published Authors and Their Earnings
After a certain level of self-publishing success, many indie authors have the opportunity to work with a major publisher.
Some go for it. Others love being entrepreneurs and trust that those mondo royalties are going to do more for them than a big publisher’s marketing budget will.
Either way, it’s fun to watch their self-publishing journeys. Here are a few good ones.
She’s self-published over 100 novels, sold over 12 million copies, and hit eight-figure revenue figures in 2016.
Marie Force has also spent time on multiple bestseller lists, including the New York Times, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal.
Howey self-published his science-fiction novel Wool in 2011 and sold the film rights to 20th Century Fox in 2012. That’s some quick success for any author, let alone one who’s taking the DIY route.
He also went on to sign a $500,000 distribution deal with Simon and Schuster and has now sold more than 3 million copies of his works.
There’s a good chance you know this name because it’s everywhere, always, all the time. At least right now it is.
Colleen Hoover only bothered to self-publish her first book so her mom could read it on her new Kindle. But after publishing the sequel, the two books picked up glowing reviews and a ton of attention, ultimately landing on The New York Times Best Seller list.
It’s been steady growth since then, culminating in a massive surge in book sales when Hoover began engaging with TikTok’s #BookTok community. She’s now sold more than 20 million books and her forthcoming novels have been acquired by Simon and Schuster.
Lola St. Vil
St. Vil decided to leap into self-publishing after enduring more than a year of unemployment as an actress.
It turned out to be a good call. Her adult contemporary romance and young adult fantasy romance novels have landed her on both The New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. She’s now published more than 50 novels.
Other Factors That Affect Author Earnings
By now, you should have a pretty good sense of how much money bestselling authors stand to make in the absolute best circumstances. You also know what it means to give yourself the best shot at success in both traditional publishing and self-publishing.
But are there any other factors you should keep in mind?
So glad you asked.
Some genres simply sell more books than others. The most profitable genres on Amazon include:
- Romance/Erotica (about $1.44 billion in revenue)
- Crime/Mystery (about $728.2 million)
- Religious/Inspirational (about $720 million)
- Science Fiction/Fantasy (about $590.2 million)
- Horror (about $79.6 million)
Of course, that doesn’t mean you must become a romance novelist or steer clear of literary fiction if you want a lucrative writing career. (Just ask Toni Morrison.)
In fact, you’re more likely to find success writing in a genre you love than attempting to feign interest in one that bores you. Just be aware of the challenges and opportunities that may come with your chosen genre.
Your platform could be anything. Maybe you’ve already built a following of devoted readers through your blog and newsletter. Or perhaps you’re an amateur historian who creates killer TikTok videos and you’ve decided to self-publish a historical fiction novel.
Whatever pre-existing fan base you have, those people will account for a lot of your early book sales. They’ll give you a visibility boost, tell their friends, post reviews, and eagerly await the next book.
On the flipside, your books help you build and expand your platform. This could lead to opportunities like speaking engagements, collaborations, and more. In other words, additional earnings beyond your royalties.
If you want to earn a lot of money from your books—even if you just want to earn enough to cover your living expenses—marketing is key.
Create a website. Start a newsletter. Be a guest on podcasts. Stay active on social media. Set up book signings. Consider paid advertising if you go the self-publishing route.
Just do something. Even if your book is traditionally published, don’t count on the publisher to give your novel the kind of visibility it needs to succeed.
If you want to be a bestselling author, you’ll almost always have to be the one to do the heavy lifting. Starting with this:
Write Your First Bestseller With Dabble
We’ve done a lot of dreaming today in this article. I’d like to leave you with one final suggestion.
Keep dreaming, but focus on your craft above all else.
For one thing, you have to be relentless about building your skills if you hope to get rich at this. But more importantly, you have to enjoy the process if you want to get through it.
Writing is hard. The publishing process is often harder. Sure, Stephen King has a shocking amount of money, but that level of financial success is rare, and even he didn’t get there without a lot of sweat and struggle.
Do your best to fall in love with the work above all else.
If you could use some help crafting your future bestseller, there are loads of resources waiting for you in DabbleU.
You can also make the entire process way easier with the Dabble writing tool. This program has everything you need to plot, draft, and polish a great book, including Story Notes and the famous Plot Grid.
Try it for yourself for free for 14 days. Click this link to get started—no credit card necessary.
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