Are authors rich

What do you earn with a book?

What do authors actually earn with a book? This question is asked a lot and of course the answer has to be: It depends. Because the fee depends on whether it is a non-fiction book, a novel or a children's book. And it depends on how you publish the book, whether with a small publisher, a large publisher or self-publishing. And it depends on how many books are sold. Nevertheless, there is an answer to this question, because there are quite "normal" fees for authors.

Fees for novels (paperback)

As a rule, an author receives 5% of the net retail price for a novel that is published in paperback. The gross sales price can be seen on the price tag of a book. This is due when the book goes over the counter. If you deduct the 7% VAT, which is usual in Germany for a book, you get the net retail price. In concrete terms, this means that if a paperback is sold in the store for € 9.99, the net retail price is € 9.33. For every copy sold, the author * receives a 5% fee - in this case 46 cents.

However, this does not yet clarify how much the author ultimately earns. Because in the publishing contract only the percentage participation is mentioned. Only when an author knows how many copies of their book have been sold does they know their fee. As long as the book is available in bookshops, the author will send you an invoice once or twice a year with the sales figures for the previous year and the corresponding fee. When the contract is signed, neither the publisher nor the author know how many copies will be sold and how much fee will be due for them.

But here, too, there are average figures that give a first impression. If 1,000 copies of the new book by a rather unknown author are sold, that's not great, but not entirely bad either. If 3,000 of them are sold, you can be completely satisfied. If 5,000 copies are sold, the book is a success. If more than 10,000 of these are sold, it is a great success and the word "bestseller" may come up in connection with this book.

With a respectable success of 3,000 copies sold, the fee for the author is therefore € 1,380. A successfully sold book with 5,000 copies costs € 2,300, and a near-order book with 10,000 copies sold costs € 4,600.

If a book becomes a highly regarded bestseller, several 10,000 or even several 100,000 copies will be sold over the counter and the fee will be correspondingly higher.

Hourly wages for writing

A fee of € 4,600 is only partially meaningful if you don't count how much time was spent on writing the book. Of course, this is very individual - and yet, here too there are average values ​​that at least give an idea of ​​what the hourly wages of book authors look like.

For an example calculation, I am assuming that it takes an author four hours to create a standard page of text. Four hours because I consider not only the writing, but also planning, research, writing, and revising. Of course this is only a theoretical value. Some write 300 pages of novels in a month, others take ten years. The value used is based on my own experience and the times that I know from colleagues or well-known writers.

A typical novel has about 300 standard pages. With four hours per side, there are around 1,200 hours of working time. With a profit of € 4,600 you get an hourly wage of almost € 4. Gross, of course. Of course, as with all other professions, taxes and insurance must be paid from this. So the fee is well below the minimum wage.

But don't forget that the above figure of € 4,600 applies to just one title. Constantly writing authors often have several books up and running. Few of them manage more than one book a year. So you need ten reasonably well-running books in ten years to get a fee of € 50,000. That in turn is spread over several years - so still not enough to be able to make a living from it.

Hardcover, non-fiction, and children's books fees

The above fees are typically paid for paperbacks. For books that appear as hardcover, there is sometimes 8 to 10% of the net retail price. Even for non-fiction books, fees are not infrequently 7 to 10% of the net retail price. Especially with non-fiction books it becomes clear how much the sales success depends on the size of the target group. It is easier to sell 100,000 pieces of an exciting thriller than a guide for test drivers.

Even with children's books, the target group is significantly smaller than with a crime novel. Children's books are mostly offered for certain age groups. It is not uncommon for a picture book to be written for 3 to 5 year olds. It takes several mega-bestsellers to sell 100,000 copies. The fees for children's books are similar to other books: 5% for paperbacks and a little more for hard covers.

E-book fees

In the case of e-books, some of the production costs are eliminated. For example, they do not have to be printed or driven across the country by truck. The publishers' calculations look correspondingly different. The publishers pass on part of the saved costs to the readers of the e-books: the selling price of an e-book is usually lower than that of the printed edition. Another part of the saved costs goes to the authors: The fees for e-books are often between 15 and 25% of the net selling price of the publishers.

Sounds good - but you shouldn't forget that, depending on the target group, the number of e-books sold is significantly lower than the number of print books sold. It is not uncommon for publishers to sell only a fraction of the electronic versions of what is sold over the counter in printed form.

But there are exceptions here, too. Some book titles only appear as e-books and achieve a very large number of sales here. It is not uncommon for these to be quick-to-read novels for a very young target group. Replenishment for this target group is not only provided by a few publishers with their offshoots that have concentrated entirely on e-books, but also by many self-publishers.

Graduated fees for promising books

If the publisher believes in the sales success of a book, the author offers you a graduation of the fee. This means that the percentage of the author increases with the number of copies sold. The specific graduation is then precisely numbered in the publishing contract - here is an example:

  • 5% up to 20,000 copies sold
  • 6% to 50,000 copies sold
  • 7% if more than 50,001 copies are sold

Many successful authors receive such or similar graduations, as we know not least from the legal dispute between the author duo Volker Klüpfel and Michael Kobr.

The advance for books

Publishers usually pay advances. Usually the advance payment is paid out over several stages, for example

  • 25% upon conclusion of the contract
  • 25% upon delivery of the manuscript
  • 50% when the book is published

The advance payment is a real advance payment: the percentage from the sale of the book is offset. This means that the 5% share for the author in the sale of the book is collected by the publisher until it has the advance payment back in it. Only then does the author get another share of the sale.

Usually, an author does not have to return the advance payment, even if the book does not go as well as hoped. If the publisher sells less than expected, they end up paying more. The advance payment is like a bet on the sales success of the book. The advances from the publishers are correspondingly: If a publisher calculates that he can land a great commercial success with the manuscript, the advances are significantly higher.

Smaller publishers offer unknown authors a few 1,000 euros as an advance payment, usually less than 5,000 euros. Medium-sized or large publishers can pay € 4,000 to € 7,000. If a publisher expects a book to be a great success, the advance payment can be a medium five-digit number. Only very successful authors can hope for even more.

The agent's share

In recent years it has become more and more common for authors to be represented by literary agencies. If things go well, an agency builds up “their” author, discusses new projects with me and ensures that they can sign good contracts with well-known publishers.

Since agencies are well networked and have personal contacts with the publishers, their chances of accommodating a manuscript are much better. They also know the market well enough to know when to negotiate better terms. In return, they receive between 15 and 20% of everything an author earns with their book.

Example advance payment: If an author receives an advance payment of 5,000 euros for a manuscript, 750 € of this goes to the agency (with 15% participation) and the rest to the author. The corresponding share of the percentage share in the sale of the book also goes to the agency.

What do micro-publishers pay?

The above fees are usually paid by large, medium and small publishers. Small publishers, by that I mean publishers with 10 employees or more. And of course there are still a lot of publishers that are much smaller, the very small ones. Many of them have found a niche in which they can exist well. Often these are very small niches, regardless of whether they are regional publishers who only publish in and for a certain region, or publishers who specialize in very narrow subject areas. The calculation for small publishers is often tighter. They only publish a small number of books per year and this increases their risk that one or more of the books will not sell as well as expected and that they will be in the red.

Accordingly, the fees of the smallest publishers are often below the fees of others. The advances are also lower: many cannot pay an advance or only a few hundred euros.

But maybe the publisher will compensate for this with increased commitment to its books or with more personal support. Since you don't earn a golden nose with books anyway, personal addressing is an important argument for many authors.

What do you earn with self-publishing?

Self-published books are like publishing books: the more successful, the more. If you bring out a printed book on your own, the merit often depends on the size of the book. Because the printing costs add significantly to the production costs and the thicker the book, the more expensive it is to produce. Since a hardcover is often too expensive to produce, most self-publishers opt for a paperback. But few people are willing to pay more than 10 or 12 euros for a paperback by a rather unknown author. With a very thin book you can earn maybe 1 to 2 euros per copy if you want to stay in the usual price range. With thick books, earnings quickly drop to 60 or 70 cents or less.

The calculation for picture books is also difficult. Because the printing costs for color printed book pages are significantly higher than the price for black and white printed pages. If you also opt for a hardcover, you have to set a very high selling price in order to earn something. But experience has shown that as an unknown author, it is difficult to sell such high-priced books.

You don't have that problem with e-books. But here again a price war is raging. In contrast to the publishers, many self-publishers bring out e-books for € 3.99 and less. The earnings per copy sold quickly drops to € 1 and less.

The sales figures for self-published books are often lower than for books by publishers. Consider yourself lucky if you sell 1,000 copies. Only a few self-publishers achieve significantly better sales figures.

You should take into account that with self-publishing you have to do a lot more than just write. If I have a publishing company on board, I don't have to worry about anything. If I publish my book myself, nobody can talk me into it - but I also have to do everything myself: editing, book covers, typesetting, marketing. Either I develop into a specialist in everything to do with books and do everything exceptionally well, or I have to hire experts - and hope that the expenses do not exceed the income. So I have to invest a lot (either time to learn it myself or money to hire someone) to find out if it all pays off.

Matthias Matting from has collected the best and most up-to-date figures on the earnings of self-publishers. According to his current self-publishing survey, half of all participants in his survey earn less than € 30 a month and only around 10 percent earn € 2,000 a month or more. Read here: The earning potential in self-publishing.

And what about the bestsellers?

When do we actually speak of bestsellers? How many books must have been sold there? The question is asked often and is difficult to answer - because here, too, the following applies: It depends. The usual bestseller lists in the magazines are only a snapshot. Because they measure the copies sold per week. The book that sold the most that week came in at number 1 on the bestseller lists. Depending on how many books were sold that week - for example, whether the sales figures in the week before Christmas or in the week after Christmas are taken into account - this can be 50,000 or 10,000 copies. If a book stays in the bestseller lists for many weeks, one can assume that a six-figure sales figure has been reached.

In addition, there are many books that never appear in the bestseller lists because they never reach a top position - and a six-digit number has also been sold. These books achieve such high sales figures because they sell well over and over again - the so-called longsellers.

Standard contract for authors

Many publishers base their conditions on the standard contract for the conclusion of publishing contracts. This should help both sides to conclude a fair contract in which nobody is ripped off. The current version is based on a version that was negotiated decades ago between authors' associations and representatives of the publishers. The original version is updated at regular intervals as the book market, like many other industries, is constantly changing.

This model contract primarily describes the rights and obligations of the signatories. Specific fees are not mentioned, each publisher enters its own figures. If you as an author receive a publishing contract, it is worthwhile to compare this point by point with the standard contract. Of course, the places where the publisher deviated from the original are particularly interesting.

The model contract also shows the terms with which I am on the safe side as an author. This is noticeable, for example, in the description of the fee and the advance payment. It makes a difference whether I get “5% of the net store price” or “5% of the net sales”. The net store price is a clearly defined variable: sales price minus 7% VAT. For a paperback for € 9.99, that's € 0.46. The net proceeds, on the other hand, are calculated: The publisher sets a certain margin for sales, printing, marketing, etc. and deducts that from the sales price. With a paperback for € 9.99, the net proceeds can be around € 5. If I get 5% of the net sales, that's 0.25 € in this case. Problem # 1: The net sales are less than the net store price. Problem no. 2: I only find out what net sales the publisher estimates for my book after the book has been sold.

When it comes to the advance payment, you should make sure that it is a "non-repayable" advance payment. Otherwise it can happen that the publisher pays a generous advance payment at the beginning - and three years later demands part of it back because the book did not go as well as expected.

Can you make a living from writing?

Very successful authors get higher advances and higher shares in the sale of their books than the rest of the writing guild. But as I said, these are the exceptions: the more unknown an author, the less room he has to negotiate fees.

Well-known and successful authors make a lot of money writing. Not only does the sale of the books contribute to this, there are often readings, foreign licenses, film rights and / or merchandising products. The bottom line is that they have enough money that they can make a living from writing.

But very few manage to do that.According to Mario Andreotti, only around 2% of all authors in Germany can make a living from the sale of their books (Mario Andreotti: Die Struktur der moderne Literatur. 5th edition, UTB 2014, p. 115). In other places you can also read or hear similar numbers, sometimes it should be 1%, sometimes 3%, but in the end it remains the same: only very few can make a living from writing. Most authors whose books are published make a living doing other jobs.

Perseverance pays off

For many, this is not good news. But in order to be able to pursue your own path as a (perhaps) successful author at some point, you need a realistic assessment.

In the end, you will be particularly successful if you do what you love to do with all your heart at the beginning: writing. If you want to publish later, it is advisable to learn the trade at this stage. This significantly increases the chance of finding readers for your own books later.

Only then should you ask yourself: How does my book bring in as much money as possible? Many dream of landing on bestseller lists with the first book and making a lot of money. It does happen - but it is the exception rather than the rule. If you look at the development of well-known authors, you quickly realize that those who stick with it are particularly successful. Who don't give up after the first book. Who write another book and another and another.

The secret of success: On the one hand, you get better as you write. It is not enough to deal with the theoretical basics of writing. Above all, you have to write a lot: practice, practice, practice. Then you get better over time. This is often the quickest way to develop your own style and create new, surprisingly good works.

On the other hand, humans are creatures of habit. Sure, readers always want to get to know new things. But many really appreciate it when their favorite author keeps getting more and more books to read. For the first book, an author's fan base may still be manageable, but it gradually grows over time. If new readers join the third book, they will also be happy to buy the first and second book. And the readers of the first hour stay tuned and also read the new titles. If you have several books that are doing well in this way, the chance increases that after a few years the fee will grow to a handsome sum that you can seriously reckon with.

Dr. Anette Huesmann is an author, lecturer in creative writing and linguist. She leads workshops on creative writing, writes books and advises (prospective) authors. Here you will find the current writing courses and here you can find out more about their advisory services.
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