Deb: A Writer's Income – A Hard Look at the Facts

Source: Hugh Howey, “The 7K Report,”

Recently, I read an Associated Press story about how changes in health care laws have given workers a new sense of freedom, a way out of jobs they’ve stuck with primarily because they feared losing insurance benefits.
Two American workers were held up as examples of this phenomenon. Both plan to leave their day jobs in order to write. One is a 50-year-old IT guy who has spent his free time on a team that’s scripting a start-up web-based comedy series. The other is a 62-year-old nurse who, after quitting her job, plans to move to the West Coast and promote her self-published book by blogging, doing radio interviews, and speaking to groups.
Both writers are pleased that they’ll be able to replace the health insurance provided by their employers with plans priced at $400 to $650 per month. And I agree that’s a good thing. Where I worry is that they may be misinformed about the income they’ll earn as full-time writers.
Let me say first off that I’m all about pursuing your passions. One of the nicest things my son ever said to me was how much he admired me for doing what I truly love­­—making writing my career—even though I could make a lot more money doing something I truly hate.
Still,  no one wants their dream to turn to a nightmare. And one of the fastest ways for that to happen is to count on your dream for paying the bills, only to find that it can’t and it won’t.
After my first novel came out from a big publisher, my editor gave me this advice: Don’t quit your day job. She didn’t mean this as a reflection on my work—the book was doing fine—but rather as a cautionary note. At the time, the average author was making $5000 a year.
I was only a year from retiring; my hope was that I could live on my pension (an admittedly sweet deal that allowed me to retire after twenty years of teaching with full benefits, including medical coverage) and fulfill my dream of writing books. But a couple of royalty statements convinced me that my editor was right: It’s not easy to make a living off book sales.
When there’s a large gap between the life you’re living and the creative passion you hope to fulfill, it’s easy to get caught up in “if onlies.” If only I didn’t have this job, I could write a blog. Do radio interviews. Speak to groups. If only I did those things, which everyone says writers must do to sell books, I’d see a dramatic increase in sales, enough that I could live off the proceeds.
It really doesn’t happen like that.
Live your dream. Live your passion. But if that’s writing books, realize that very few published authors earn a living wage from the proceeds of book sales alone. I’ve never seen a statistic, but given the number of published authors (rising by the minute) and the challenges inherent in both kinds of publishing, indie and traditional, I’d ballpark it at maybe 2 percent.
Passion is among the very best reasons for writing books. But rarely do passion and profit intersect as fully as we wish. Most authors, regardless of how they’re published, either keep their day jobs or supplement their income from book sales with freelancing, pensions, investments, and the link.
At the risk of coming off as a dream-killer, I offer these considerations before you quit your day job:

·         Study the facts. Don’t Google “writer salaries”—what you’ll find are the easiest of writer salaries to report, those whose day jobs (technical writers, grant writers, journalists on payroll) involve writing. Instead, check out Hugh Howey’s recent author earnings reportthe Guardian’s 2012 report on the earnings of “DIY” authors; NYT bestselling author Lynn Viehl’sreport on income from her book sales; and Chad Harbach’s recent book MFA vs. NYC—particularly the essays that describe how quickly authors burn through their six-figure advances. Among the interesting stats: only 800 authors earn $10,000 per year on the sales of their genre Kindle titles; half of self-published authors earn less than $500 from sales of their books; proceeds from sales from an NYT bestseller will nudge your family income above poverty level, but not by much.
·         Beware the echo chambers where writers talk up how they saw jumps in sales figures from doing this, that, and the other thing. It’s true that regardless of how you publish, you’ll have to work to promote your books. But promotion will not necessarily yield a significant, sustainable jump in sales. Promotion is mostly about the long haul, the slow building of your fan base and brand. To think that extra time for promotion will launch your slow-moving self-published title into the sort of sales that will allow you to quit your day job isn’t all that different from planning your retirement around winning a lottery—it could happen, but it’s not likely.
·         Recognize that few authors live on the proceeds from book sales alone. Most of us freelance, teach, do paid events, and the like in order to make ends meet. To live our dream, a lot of us forsake what was standard fare from our paycheck days: eating out, shopping, travel. I know published authors who choose to be homeless and who live without running water so they can afford to write.
·         Create a viable business plan based on conservative sales estimates. Consider the underlying economic principle of supply and demand. An estimated three thousand new books are published every day in the US. With e-publishing, few if any will ever go out of print. Awash in choices, what exactly will compel readers to buy your book from among the thousands and thousands of truly fine books flooding the market? Yours is brilliant. Unique. Okay. But a more brilliant, more unique title may well come out. Then what? Make sure you’re ready to launch your Plan B if sales don’t spool out as you’d hoped.
·         Delightful though it may be (there’s no work I prefer to writing), authoring is a tough way to make a living. And that’s if, like most authors, you’ll spin out several books in your lifetime. For a single book to be your ticket to financial freedom is extremely unlikely.
·         More time ≠ more productivity ≠ more sales—not in the direct proportions you’d expect, anyhow. Ask any author who has quit her day job to write.

Co-founder of 49 Writers, Deb
 has authored more
than a dozen books. Her most recent work includes Cold
, a novel now available for pre-order as part of the Alaska Literary
Series by the University of Alaska Press, and No
, a novel for young readers, co-authored with Gail Giles, a 2014
release from Running Fox Books.
Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska,
and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. This post first ran at

Would you like to write a guest
post relevant to Alaska’s literary community? Email 49writers (at) or
debvanasse (at)

1 thought on “Deb: A Writer's Income – A Hard Look at the Facts”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Thanks for this and for your and Dana's recent workshop for 49 Writers. It is true that most authors don't make a lot of money, and some don't make any. I hope my book sales will pay for author expenses like promo bookmarks, webmaster, etc. in the future. And maybe I'll make a net profit one day. But I'm not expecting that right away. My first royalty statement was for $49.46. 🙂

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