There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the fabulous lifestyle of the working novelist. Everyone knows once you write a book, the money starts rolling in, right? There’s champagne and movie deals and hanging out with J. K. Rowling and Stephen King and Rick Castle.
Or maybe you’ve heard the opposite extreme, how all novelists are living on water and Ramen, making more money from scrounging couch cushions than we do from the books we’ve poured our blood and souls into.
For nine years, I’ve been doing an annual blog post about my writing income. I know a few other authors who’ve done the same. The main idea is to put the data out there to help build a more realistic picture of life as a working writer.
Those few data points are better than none, but this year, I wanted to go bigger. For roughly six weeks, I collected data from novelists who had at least one book published prior to 12/31/2016. Thank you to everyone who participated, and everyone who spread the word.
Are you read to start going through the results?
There were a total of 386 responses. Five of these were duplicates and were removed, leaving data from 381 individual novelists.
The survey asked questions about the number of novels published, how they were published (large publisher/small press/self-pub), income and expenses, genre, whether or not they used an agent, which country the novelist was in, and more.
As we go through the numbers, please keep in mind:
- This is not a truly random or representative sample. I have no way of reaching all the working novelists in the world, and not everyone who heard about the survey chose to participate. That said, I think 381 is pretty darn good.
- Correlation is not causation. The numbers might show that novelists with an agent make more/less money than novelists without. This doesn’t necessarily mean that having or not having an agent causes you to make more/less money.
- I am not a professional statistician. I’ll do my best, but if you see mistakes, please say something so I can correct them.
I know, I know. Enough with the disclaimers. Let’s get on with the yummy, yummy data!
Let’s start by looking at how much our authors made in 2016 before taxes or expenses. The total ranged from a few dollars to almost five million. Eight novelists made more than a million dollars (before taxes) in 2016.
- I admit, I was a little surprised by this, and wondered if maybe people were exaggerating or hit an extra zero. Fortunately, the survey also asked for an identifier (name or other) and an email address for anyone who wanted to be informed of the survey results. Looking at who was reporting these numbers, I believe they’re accurate.
Average Income: $114,124
Median Income: $17,000
(I think the median is more useful than the average, here. The average is pulled up significantly by those very successful outliers.)
Distribution: As you might have predicted, the distribution is weighted heavily toward the left side of the graph. I removed one far-right outlier for this graph.
Twenty percent made $825 or less. Thirty percent were $3393 or below, and so on.
If you earned at least $296,000, you were in the 90th percentile. And if your writing brought in $1,418,000 or more, you are officially the 1% among novelists.
Gross Income for Different Categories
Let’s play with those numbers a bit more. What happens if we separate agented and unagented authors, full-time vs. part-time, and so on?
Agent vs. Unagented: Of our 381 respondents, 151 were represented by an agent, and 230 were unagented. There’s a significant difference in these two groups, but be careful about drawing too many conclusions here. Does having an agent mean you make more money? Or does making more money mean you’re more likely to want an agent? Or maybe it’s both or neither.
Median income for authors with an agent was $42,000. For authors without an agent, the median was $7000.
Looking at the eight authors who made a million or more, five were represented by agents and three were unagented.
Full Time vs. Part Time: We see a similar pattern here. Disclaimer: the question on the survey asked if writing was “your primary, full-time job” during 2016. I probably could have worded that one a little better, as it’s possible we had writers working 40 hours/week on books and also working full-time elsewhere. But in general, I think the data here are pretty accurate and reliable.
Median income was $3050 for part time writers, and $66,000 for full-timers. Also, all eight of our $1,000,000+ novelists were full-timers.
Does this mean quitting the day job will magically increase your writing income by 22x? NO! Bad reader! Back to logic and statistics class for you!
Anecdotally, I started trying to write full-time at the end of 2015. 2016 saw an increase of about 10-15% in my overall income. But much of that came from a deal I signed before going full time. What does that mean? Heck if I know…
Conclusions So Far…
- It is possible to make a really good living as a novelist…but most of us don’t.
- It is possible to make a million or more as a novelist, with or without an agent…but again, most of us don’t.
- About 80% of novelists make less than $100,000 a year. Half of us make $17,000 or less.
And remember, these numbers are all before taxes or expenses!
In Our Next Episode:
I’ve got a lot more I want to do with the data, but it’s going to take a fair amount of time. (I’m also overdue on a novel deadline, so that has to be my priority.) I’ll continue to post results in sections, which should hopefully make it easier to digest. I’m planning to put the whole thing together and publish it as a big old report when I’m done as well.
I’ll also be sharing the anonymized raw data so other folks can play with it.
I hope this is helpful. If there’s anything in particular you’d like me to look into, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best!
ETA: Here are the links to the next parts.
- Part 2: The Large/Small/Indie Breakdown
- Part 3: Number of Books Published in 2016
- Part 4: Impact of Marketing and Promotion
- Part 5: Miscellaneous Data