How Much Money Can You Earn as a Romance Author?
So you want to be a romance author. Not just a romance author, but a romance author who makes money. Well, I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first?
Let’s start with the good news. The good news is that the romance genre is far and away the best-selling genre out there and the potential to earn money writing romance is pretty high.
The bad news is that making money as an author might be one of the hardest ways to make money. I’m just going to say right now—there is no easy way to do this. It takes time, work, money, blood, sweat, tears, and more blood. There are literally a million other easier and faster ways to earn money than becoming an author.
Every time I see someone saying they need money fast and maybe they’ll publish a book, I cringe. Hard. This is not the way, my friend.
However, if you’re truly looking to make a career as an author and are willing to put in the hard work and effort it takes, then you can make money as a romance author. Just remember—this is a long game. Sometimes a very long one, but the biggest factor to success is perseverance. That might sound cheesy, but it’s true. If you stick with it and give it your all, then there’s no telling what you can do. Imagine earning a living from your passion? The dream is within your reach, my friend.
And just so you know, I know what I’m talking about—I’m making money as a romance author. No, we’re not going to delve into my personal finances, but I’m here to tell you that it is possible.
In this article we’ll talk about:
- The potential earnings in the romance genre
- The differences between traditional, self-, and hybrid publishing
- How to be a successful romance author
Romance by the Numbers
Let’s start out with some stats related to the romance genre and the kind of money involved:
- The romance and erotica genres earn about 1.44 billion a year (compared to the next highest genres which are crime/thriller (728.2 million), religious and inspirational ($720 million, science fiction and fantasy ($590.2 million), and horror ($79.6 million).
- E. L. James, author of 50 Shades of Grey, earned $95 million in one year.
- Prolific romance icon Danielle Steel’s net worth is $390 million
- A study showed the median income for romance writers was $5,828 in 2009 and increased to $10,100 in 2014.
- The same study showed that in 2014, 31% of romance authors earned more than the median income of women in the US of $39,000 compared to 22% of surveyed authors in 2009.
- Of those surveyed authors, 9% reported an income of more than $100,000 in 2009, which went up to 17% in 2014
- In another survey, self-published authors across all genres were the only group to see an increase from 2013 to 2017
- The same survey showed that self-published romance authors’ median income in 2017 was $10,050, which was almost five times higher than the next highest genre
I mean… those numbers look pretty good. Especially when you consider how much higher the overall potential is compared to the next genre. But I think it’s important to note that the surveys included authors who were actively publishing. I bring this up because, with publishing, you’re only going to get out what you put in. But we’ll talk a bit more about that later.
And while it can be tempting to say to yourself, “I’m going to write romance even though I don’t like or read romance” simply because it’s the highest earning genre, maybe save yourself the trouble and just… don’t.
If you don’t like or read romance, readers are going to see through that pretty quickly. Stick to what you’re good at. Because, while romance might have higher income earning potential, it isn’t any easier than any other genre, and you still have to put in the work to succeed.
Traditional vs. Self-Publishing vs. Hybrid Publishing
So, if you’re looking at the money-making stage, you probably know there are a few paths to publishing. There’s traditional, which means submitting to agents and publishers with the hopes that they’ll publish your book for you, taking on all the risk and lots of the rewards. There’s self-publishing, which means you are your own publisher, taking on all the risks and the rewards. And then there’s a hybrid, where you’re doing a little of both.
Let’s look at all of these in terms of earning potential, investment requirements, and accessibility.
The biggest advantage of going the traditional route is the potential for an advance. That is, a publisher pays you for your book up front. Advances can range from pretty much nothing to millions of dollars, depending on a thousand and one factors. There is literally no way for anyone to estimate what kind of advance you might earn.
However, for first-time authors, advances typically run under $10K, paid out over two to three years with your agent taking 15% of that. So it’s not a ton. If you earn out your advance, then you’ll be paid in royalties at about 6–10% for print sales and 20–25% for ebook and audio sales.
Keep in mind that it’s really only the large and medium publishers that pay advances, with many, many smaller pubs only paying in royalties—these publishers often pay closer to 40% for ebooks though.
However, if you have a traditional publisher, they’re also footing the bills for your expenses like cover art, editing, distribution, and marketing.*
*Depending on who you ask, many people will be quick to tell you that, even if you have a traditional publisher, a lot of the marketing will still fall on you. And in some cases, this is true, but that’s not a given, either. If you’re a lead title at a big five, then you’re probably good. If you’re a mid-lister at that same big publisher, they might not be making as big a splash about your book as you’d like. Anyway. Like with all things in publishing… it depends.
Here’s the thing about traditional publishing: you don’t choose it, it chooses you. And publishing is not a meritocracy. Not even a little bit. You can be the most talented writer to ever walk the earth and still never land a book deal. Getting “picked” by traditional publishing (especially when we’re talking the upper echelons where you see those nice six- and seven-figure deals) is a combination of timing, privilege, the moon phases, and a whole crapload of luck. The only thing you control is your writing. Once you’ve done that, you can query agents and publishers to the best of your ability and then… it’s completely and totally out of your control.
The other thing about traditional publishing is that it still favors very specific demographics. If you’re an author with a marginalized identity, then your chances of getting a book deal and a big advance are even lower.
A recent survey from the Ripped Bodice (one of the most famous indie romance book stores) showed that in 2020, of every 100 books published by the leading romance publishers, only 12 were written by Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) authors. There were surveyed publishers on that list who posted 0% of their books were written by BIPOC authors. ZERO! And that 12% is only as high as it is due to one publisher—if you were to take that one out, the number would be only 8.3%. Seriously, yikes.
Enter self-publishing. We’ll talk about its accessibility in a moment, but first let’s talk about earning potential. You saw the numbers up above—the possibilities for earning lots of money are there. Again, the breadth of income is vast. There are self-published authors making zero dollars (or less) and there are authors easily pulling in seven-figure incomes. Where you fall on that spectrum is going to depend on a wide variety of factors which we’ll talk about in the next section.
If you’re going to self-publish, then you’re going to need to think like a publisher. That means investing in some costs. Here’s a quick high-level list of things you might need to invest in:
- Cover design: This can range from about $200-$1500 depending on your designer, but averages around $300-$400 per book.
- Editing: There are several types of editing available, from development, to line and copy editing, to proofreading. What you need will depend on your experience, knowledge, and comfort level. Read this article to get a sense of the different kinds. Editing can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars.
- Website: A website isn’t a requirement, but it’s hard to run a business (that’s what you’re doing when you self-publish, by the way) without one. So budget in design ($500-$1500) and hosting and domain costs (a few hundred per year).
- Newsletter hosting: Another thing that I guess you don't have to have, but honestly, if you’re taking this seriously, then you need it. Sorry. (Free to a few hundred per year, depending on the size of your list.)
- Design program: Something to create graphics for social media posts and ads. You can do something like Canva (free to about $150 per year) or Photoshop (about $20/month). You can also try free options like Photopea or GIMP.
- Stock photos: Again, to make graphics and ads, you’ll need images that are either royalty free (which can be very limiting in its selection) or allow for advertising use. Sites like Deposit Photos, Adobe Stock, and Period Images are popular. (Free to a few hundred per year.) If you’re searching for free stock images, look for CC0 licenses.
- Personal assistant: Certainly not something you need right away, but as you get busier and busier, you might need some help. There is a LOT to do when you’re self-publishing ($200-$500/month).
- Advertising and marketing: Most self-publishers advertise their books through either Amazon (AMS) Ads, Facebook ads, or Bookbub ads. They all have their advantages and drawbacks. The one thing they have in common is they cost money, and the sky is truly the limit here. In theory, the more you spend, the more you sell. (Though it’s not always that simple.) You can also invest in all kinds of other marketing efforts, from book tours to contests to newsletter builders and more.
- Other things: There are extras like Book Funnel, which can be used to distribute ARCs and set up newsletter swaps. Or Story Origin, which functions the same. You might need to pay for ARC services through Hidden Gems or Book Sirens when you’re first starting out and don’t have a big audience yet. Other costs can include things like registering copyrights, influencer costs, postage and printing, email hosting, art commissions, cell phone charges… you name it.
As you can see, if you’re going all in on this, there is a lot of money you can spend.
I’m not saying you have to do all of these things; plenty of people indie publish on a shoestring, and that works for them. This is a good time to sit down and think about your goals and what you want out of your self-publishing efforts.
Which leads me to the accessibility of self-publishing. While it’s true that anyone can put up their book on Amazon, the reality is that to be successful at self-publishing, you need two things: money and time. The list of things you need to do is truly endless. And that doesn’t even count actually writing your books. The harsh truth is that, while anyone can technically do it, there is still a barrier to entry for self-publishing that many people have no desire, nor can they afford, to take on.
Having said that, there are also no gatekeepers, and many authors who have been shut out of traditional publishing have found their audiences in the fields of indie publishing. Which is one of the best things about it.
There is nothing stopping you from finding your romance audience who wants to read about Black heroines, trans characters, or disabled protagonists. All are groups that trade publishers have traditionally ignored and underrepresented. Because it’s true that literally anyone can self-publish a book as long as you have a computer and a little bit of know-how.
I won’t go into detail on this one because it’s pretty obvious, I think. Take half-ish of everything above and combine them. To be clear, we’re talking about authors who both have books that are both self-published and traditionally published. (There’s also a thing called a hybrid publisher, which is something else entirely, and you can read about that here.)
Though it is interesting to note that, on average, hybrid authors are the highest earners amongst authors in general and are responsible for the highest growth in income in the genre over the past decade. So, do with that information what you will.
How to Succeed in Romance
Hahaha, this is a really cute question. I mean, if anyone held the true answer to this, they’d be a millionaire.
The truth is, there are thousands of paths to success as a romance author. Literally every successful romance author has a different story about how they made this whole publishing thing work for them.
That’s the bad news. The better news is that there are tons of resources out there to help you fumble your way through all this a little less blindly, and the even better news is that a lot of it is free or costs very little. As with anything, though, there are plenty of pricey courses out there that might help you fast track things. Where you want to go with that is up to you.
Most of what I’m saying below pertains to self-publishing, as that’s really where you have control over these factors. If your path is traditional publishing, then I’ll talk briefly about that in a minute.
Here are a few things to get you started on the way to becoming a successful romance author:
- Study the market—specifically what sub-genre of romance you’re interested in. If your goal is to make money, you need to consider what audience exists for your stories and write with that market in mind. Will you focus on contemporary or fantasy? Steamy or low heat? YA or adult? This all leads into my next point.
- Establish your brand. Ew, I can already hear some of you rolling your eyes. Sorry, but you’re a business and a strong business has a strong brand. Think about who you are as a writer and what you want to be known for in your books. My personal tagline is “author of glitter fantasy and angsty kissing scenes.” I think that gives you an idea of who I am as an author.
- Research, research, research. Please, I’m begging you not to write a book and throw it up on Amazon without doing some research on your market, keywords, advertising, marketing, cover design, etc. That way, only madness lies.
- Speaking of cover design. Stop thinking about your covers as your own personal form of artistic expression. They are selling tools. They need to convey your genre to the reader and should look like the other covers in your genre. Save your expression for your book.
- Learn about the tools out there from Facebook ads to newsletters to Book Funnel. These things are your friends and will be key to your success. This goes back to research. Don’t go into this without a background.
- Having said all that, here are some of my favorite resources to get you started:
- 20Booksto50K Facebook Group: this group is a treasure trove of free knowledge filled with authors who are making it happen
- They even have a newbie support group if you’re feeling overwhelmed
- The book series including Romance Your Goals, Romance Your Plan, and Romance Your Brand by Zoe York is a great guide to building a strong foundation for your author career
- 7 Figure Fiction by T. Taylor: an amazing resource on how to write romance that will appeal to readers
- Mark Dawson’s Self Publishing Formula: offers a wide variety of courses from getting started to mastering author advertising
- Rebecca Hamilton’s Marketing and Self-Publishing Strategy for Authors: while this Facebook group is a jumping-off point to sell her courses (again there’s a big variety here, including personalized mentorships), she also posts plenty of free advice and help
If you’re hoping to go the traditional publishing route, here are some things to keep in mind as you pursue that path:
- Consider your goals. Do you want a big publisher and big advance and want to see your book on the shelves of Barnes and Noble? Then you’ll need to find an agent first. Big publishers (pretty much) only accept submissions from reputable agents. This means you need to learn how to write a banging query letter because you, my friend, are about to enter the trenches with literally thousands of others where only a few will rise to the top. Here are some resources to check out:
- The Query Shark: gives amazing advice on what makes for successful query letters
- Query Tracker: a listing of pretty much any agent worth their salt and what genres they represent. Free for the basic service, but well worth the $25 a year for the premium version
- Manuscript Wishlist: a place to find wishlists for many agents (warning that it’s not always the most up to date, though, so check their websites, too)
- Agency websites: the best place to find the most up-to-date wishlists and submission instructions
- Publishers Marketplace: This costs about $25 a month, so it’s pricey, but here is where you’ll find who is selling what and for how much to help you decide who to query.
- If you decide that you don’t care as much about a big advance and distribution, then you can start searching for publishers who accept unagented submissions. These will be smaller publishers, but they can be great places to get your books published. Be sure to get references and ask around, especially if the publisher is very new.
- And whatever you do, under no circumstances, should you pay a publisher to publish your book. That’s known as a vanity publisher and it’s a predatory practice where this so-called publisher will happily take your thousands of dollars, “publish” your book in that you might get a few printed copies and that’ll be it. All you get is a lighter wallet and a print job you could have gone to Staples to get done.
- If you plan to go the query/agent/publisher route, be sure that:
- Your manuscript is complete—only established writers sell on proposal in fiction
- That it’s been edited to the very best of your ability and shines as the best version it can be. Some people will pay a professional editor at this stage, and you can do that if you have the money, but it’s not necessary
- You research any agents or publishers you submit to thoroughly—there are a lot of people posing as both out there when they have no credentials
- You pay attention to word counts for your genre—it’s very hard to get your 250K epic fantasy published when you’re a debut author
- If you decide to go with a newer agent (new agents can have advantages like a smaller client list so they have more time for you and a certain enthusiasm that comes with being new), make sure they’re working with a reputable agency that has sales and good mentorship. Be very wary of people starting their own agencies with no agency experience. Being an author or editor is not the same as agenting experience.
If earning money from your writing is your goal, I hope you can see now that it is possible but requires a lot of hard work, knowledge, and effort to do so. You need to be passionate about this, because, as I said at the very outset, there are much easier ways to earn money than becoming an author. If after reading all of that, you’re still in the “heck yes, that’s what I want” camp, then congratulations, you’re about to join the very best group of authors out there. (I’m not biased at all.)
For more about writing romance, check out our resources in DabbleU where we publish new articles every week about the craft and business of publishing.
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