Thursday, 3 June 2010


Radiohead - Twisted Words 3Image by thismanslife via Flickr
I started the week posting about writing so I'll end the week doing the same.Goodbye traffic.

When I first started writing books, the Dunning-Kruger effect in full force, I was firmly of the view that my undeniable skill would make me millions. After all, Dan Brown and JK Rowling and all that lot make millions, don't they? The big sexy numbers are here.

A little further down the path, I have come to recognise that this view of writing being the road to limitless wealth is not only highly unlikely, it is insane. Most writers don't make very much money at all. In fact, I'd be better off writing for UAE quality newspaper The National as a freelance than I would be writing books.

Here's the maths.

The vast majority of books will not sell more than 5,000 copies, while a 5,000 copy sale would make you a bestseller in Canada. 98% of books published sell less than 500 copies, by the way. And there are something like 500,000 books published in a given year. A bestseller in Australia is 10,000 books.

But that's just too depressing. As a rule of thumb, let's say 35,000 copies is a reasonable bestselling success. And we'll assume the royalty rate is 8%, which is also a reasonable number.

So, 8% royalty on 35,000 sales. AT £7.99, that's £22,372. Sound neat? If you have written (and you likely will have) a 100,000 word novel, that pays you a cool 19p per word. It would have been 22p a word, but you gotta give your agent 15%.

NUJ (National Union of Journalists to you) freelance rates for a smaller consumer magazine are 37p a word. The National, famously a good freelance gig, coughs up 55p a word for freelances .

Using the same assumptions, if your book sold a smashing 100,000 copies, like Miranda Dickinson's Fairy Tale of New York did, at the book's RRP of £6.99, you be looking at a nice cheque from the publisher for £55,920. Pretty cool for a few months' work, no? Now pay your agent and the taxman and you're looking at something nearer £30,000.

You'd still be looking at having earned less than writing for The National: 46p a word once the agent's been fed.

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Phillipa said...

That's payment per word in the finished mss. For every one word that is left standing in my current 90,000 word mss two or three have had to die. I can't do maths, so you do it ... either I learn to write more efficiently or accept that the reward for having ones book published is not purely financial. I haven't quite worked out what the non financial reward is yet. I'll get back to you on that ...

Robb said...

Ah, the pay per word depression. I'm with Phi - I've written at least 300,000 words to create a 100,000 word novel. But that's part of the process.

If we really want to depress ourselves, let's look at it per hour. Do I even have any idea how many hours total were put into writing, editing, thinking, plotting, rewriting, revising, learning how to write a proper query, writing and sending queries? Then once an agent is landed, there's more rewrites and edits and meetings and planning. Then if a publisher is found, more edits and rewrites, and meetings, and book launches and readings, and marketing and all that. I've worked (part time, off and on) for 5 years on one book, which includes months at a time when I didn't touch it.

But if one took this on as a full-time job, spent 40 hours a week at it, and cranked out a novel from idea to completed, sold manuscript in one year, that would work out to about 10 pounds/hour. Of course, the paychecks don't come until year 2, in several installments. And quite likely, as in my case, they never come.

And there's the expense of paper, printer ink, research, postage, cigarettes and alcohol.

Duffy said...

Your maths are not complete. Writers have a magical pie. That pie has many many slices. When you publish a book in Country A, you then get to license again in Country B, C, D etc. More revenue, different models. Then there's the audiobook license, the kindle license, etc. The Big One is the film and TV rights. Sell those and IIRC the standard deal is 100/300. That is, you get 100K (USD) for the initial option and 300K if they decide to use it. If not, you get the rights back in 5 years and you can sell them again.

Also, many writers have multiple concurrent streams not just one book. They write books, articles, screenplays etc.

It is very difficult and demanding work to be sure but moreso if you're single threaded.

alexander... said...

Duffy, I'm not saying you can't make a living as a writer, I've done that and then some with magazine projects in the past.

My point was that writing books, when you dice it at a rate per word, don't pay as much as freelancing for magazines/newspapers 99.99999% of the time.

And I include film deals in that percentage. Because 99.9999% of people wot rites buks never even get a sniff at a hint of a wink at a film deal!

ThirdCat said...

I once did a rough calculation for the hourly rate I've earned for my first novel. Tellingly, my brain refuses to remember the number I came up with.

KJ said...

Are you coming up with excuses again for being lazy to write a book?

Write it anyway. It may not make you money, or famous, but imagine how many people you would have helped by providing that spare book to kill that ugly fat roach with when there's no Bygon nearby

alexander... said...

Kinan, sadly I am 75,000 words into my third book and going strong.

I've written a quarter of a million words to get here!

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