On Labor Day: how writers make money

On Labor Day: how writers make money

I don’t make my living writing.

I have a full time job (a “day job”) as a trainer (I have a different job title, but that’s how most people refer to me…I do a lot of other things, too, including performance improvement and workflow analysis) for a major medical company. That job gives me by far the bulk of my income…and, importantly, good benefits.

I do, though, make money as a writer. It was really exciting a few years ago when I had my first year where, based solely on my writing income, I would have been above the poverty level. 🙂

Quite simply, many people who choose to be professional writers, who do try to make their livings putting words together, would be in that category…below the poverty line.

I know there are people who think it: anybody can tell a story, whether it’s fiction or an anecdote…how do people make money doing it?

There are a few main methods. I thought I’d take this day where, in the United States, we recognize the value of “workers”, to lay them out for you.

One more thing before I do: I think that increasing numbers of people are making money as writers. That’s been due, in large part, to digital distribution (e-books and other e-texts).

When the only real way that novels (for one example) reached mass audiences was by having them printed in “book factories” and distributed to bookstores, it was absolutely dominated by large companies (and, over the years, those have consolidated into a fairly small number). As a former brick-and-mortar bookstore manager, I can tell you: we just didn’t carry independently published books almost at all.

We needed the power of the big companies. Book selling windows are sometimes vanishingly small. If an author was going to appear on local talk radio, it would often make a huge bump in sales…but only for a few days.

We needed a company that could get us a hundred copies with a few days’ notice (we often didn’t know about the appearance until the same week)…and who would buy back the ones we didn’t sell (normally by giving us credit for future purchases…so they needed a broad enough catalog that we’d be confident that we would use that credit).

Now, that’s changed.

Digital distribution means that indies (independent publishers…often just an author) can compete in the same digital “shelf space” as the biggest publishers.

That has seen the rise of what I call “indie-ployement”: people who make a living without traditional structures. I think they contribute to the perceived unemployment rate, even though (and this is a small percentage) they are much happier making a living without a boss.

Taking that into account, and not limiting this to people who make a living at writing, how do writers make money?


That’s the traditional method.

When a writer writes a book, they automatically (in the USA and many other countries) have a “copyright” to it. They can control (within certain limitations) the copying and distribution of that work.

They can license that right to someone else (a publisher), who does the actual selling of the book, and pays the author for each copy or license sold.

The publisher, traditionally, brought several things to the table. They would have employees: an editor, a layout artist, proofreader, and so on. Those would improve the salability of the book, at no additional cost to the author. They would have marketing and distribution. They would handle the legal  parts (including legal challenges in many cases).

So, the author got paid as the book sold, and the publisher took the rest.

It wasn’t right when the book sold in real time, typically.

It might be months afterwards…and for authors with a track record, a large chunk might be paid before. That chunk paid in advance of the actual sales was called, logically enough, an “advance”.

The advance is royalties…it’s not a separate revenue stream.

A popular brand name author could get an advance of tens of thousands (and even more) for a book. They could get the advance before there are a hundred words written down, and could live on it while writing the book.

Once the sales start, the publisher subtracted the advance from the royalties which would have been paid until the advance was paid off…then, royalty checks could start.

That’s one of the biggest things authors losing by going indie: advances. Unless you are a top level author, some of the other tradpub (traditional publishing) benefits have gone down considerably. Many mid-level and new authors say that their publishers aren’t doing much to push the book. Since authors can now do social  media (blogging, Twitter, and so on), some publishers expect them to bear the burden of promotion.

Royalty rates vary considerably, and there is a lot of  argument and debate about it.

For a p-book (paperbook), it might be eight percent of the suggested retail price (the “list price”).

For e-books, it might be 25% of the sales price.

Again, there are many variations: that’s one reason traditional authors have agents representing them…the agents deal with all of those complicated negotiations.

When an author self publishes through platforms like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, the royalty rate may be much higher. KDP pays either 35% or  70%…the latter if you follow certain rules (like not blocking text-to-speech access and being within a specific price range).

That doesn’t only go for novels: Amazon also pays bloggers who distribute through the Kindle store, for  example.

Royalties were for years the primary way writers were paid, but certainly had the disadvantage of being unpredictable.


We don’t see advertising much in books, and that is a really heated topic. I do think we’ll see that eventually…not necessarily in the middle of a book, but I think a real model that would succeed in the market is possible. You could agree to see an ad in the beginning and end of the book, and in exchange, get the book for a discount (or possibly for free). I think many people would do that…read a very popular book and  save a couple of dollars, in exchange for an ad while not actually in the reading experience.

The place where we see it is online, on blogs and other websites.

It may be an obvious ad.

There’s a particular blog that has very good content writing about e-books and e-book reading devices.

When I see their stories in my morning

Flipboard (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

read, the ad appears as a graphic, and that often throws me. I think the story is about what the ad is showing me..I have to focus on the text to see what  it really covers.

It may be much more subtle.

One form of that, and an important one, is being an Amazon Associate.

If you buy something by clicking a link on a site and that person is an Amazon Associate, Amazon pays that person an advertising fee.

The author makes, commonly, both a royalty in that case (because you bought the book) and an advertising fee.

That advertising fee may not be much…fifteen percent or much, much less.

However, another way it works is that if the customer buys something else after following a link from the author’s page (say, a lawn mower or a box of cereal), the author may also get a cut of that sale…and that can be much bigger than the sale of an individual e-book (since the price is so different).

Some people seem to philosophically dislike advertising. I find it a reasonable option, as long as it’s an option. I don’t  mind being valued by a company for what I might  purchase…and being paid (perhaps in a discount) to consider their products.

I choose not to have paid overt ads in this blog…I think my readers prefer that (although I’ve never polled them on that…perhaps I will). I could probably make quite a bit more money that way, and if I really needed the money, I’d have to re-examine that. This is, in some ways, a personality blog, though. People read it partially because of what I think and feel, and advertising necessarily presents  someone else’s viewpoints, which could muddy the waters.

WordPress may show you ads in some cases, but I’m not part  of that.


For non-fiction writers, this has long been a way to make money. This doesn’t mean that an author signing books at your local bookstore is paid for that (that’s not usually the case). It’s more likely to be an author lecturing or doing a Q&A. That could be at a convention, or historically, at colleges. One particular author reportedly could do 300 college appearances in a year…at at least several hundreds per appearance. Obviously,  it’s harder to write while you are doing all that traveling…but you could do alternate years, for example.

Licensing other adaptations and merchandising

Very different from royalties for books is selling the rights for a TV show or a movie. That can certainly be a big payday for a brand name author. Authors may maintain the licensing rights when using a tradpub, or it could be a deal with the tradpub.

It’s also possible to make some money through things like T-shirts, games, and posters. Not as an author, but George Lucas famously kept the merchandising rights for Star Wars. As I remember the story, the studio didn’t think that was going to be a big deal…and neither did Lucas, who said that the vision was likely going to be selling T-shirts at a science fiction convention in ten years. 😉

Estates do very well, in some cases, licensing a deceased author’s works for new books.

A new revenue stream is

Kindle Worlds (at AmazonSmile: support a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

It’s not easy to get in there, but the basic idea is that a rightsholder licenses a “property” to Amazon. Amazon makes it part of Kindle Worlds. Anybody can write a book in that universe, without getting permission first (but following certain guidelines). Amazon gets a cut, the author of the new work gets a cut, and the rightsholder gets a cut.

I think

Dale R. Cozort’s Amazon Author Central page (at AmazonSmile*)

Snapshot would make a great Kindle World…but getting them to do it would be a challenge.

Crowdfunding and donations

This is a very direct way to support an author.

Crowdfunding typically means that you are supporting a specific project. Individuals pledge money, perhaps to enable the publication of a specific book. In exchange, they may get certain benefits, like a signed copy or e-mails which only go to supporters.

Donations are often just general support. Authors may have a Paypal link on a website: you just give them money, and  they use it how they choose. You don’t get a specific benefit. That may sound odd, but it’s a way to say “I like what you are doing and I’d like you to be able to do more of it” without controlling (and thereby possibly altering the behavior of) the author.


Yes, some authors actually get paid a salary, just like other employees. Those won’t usually be authors of novels: they’ll be television screenwriters, technical writers, some periodical writers…it needs to be something where there is a clearcut period of time where there will be a demand for the writing. That may be a fairly short job…one TV season, perhaps. This does exist, though: they may even have benefits and paid time off. 🙂

I say those are the primary methods that authors make money. Most authors make very little money. When you “gotta write”, you “gotta write”. I’d write if I wasn’t paid for it (but probably not as much). I’ve always done something creative, and writing works well for me. I’m very grateful to subscribers (a form of royalty) of this blog, and all of the other ways people make this possible. If (“say WHEN” says my Significant Other) 😉 I retire, I expect to write a lot more. I might even make a living writing when I’m retired…but I’m sure I would do it regardless.

Authors should be able to make a writing living, if there is a demand for their product. This gives you some ways that some authors can do that, or at least, can supplement their income.

Enjoy Labor Day!

Join thousands of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

9 Responses to “On Labor Day: how writers make money”

  1. Harold Delk Says:

    Super article; one of the best I’ve read. Very interesting to me as the SO of a writer who has made a very good living putting words on paper (well into 6 figures annually) and who decries the poor quality of some of the “self-published” authors who THINK they are writers. We were chatting about the horribly poorly-written and zero original idea books in the areas of romance and science fiction/fantasy. (How many more books will we have about a billionaire who falls in love with a poor farm girl who is a bondage wannabe?) It is great that anyone can publish a book if they wish, but that unfortunately now includes those whom should really not do so. (For the same reason that I should not become an amateur brain surgeon; I don’t have the skills nor should I try to become an author. Although a good argument could be made that butchering words is far less harmful than butchering brain tissue.) Just because you can string words together does not make you a writer; writing is a craft that requires skill, originality, creativity, diligence, understanding of language, grammar and syntax, and knowing how to skillfully use words to convey ideas, emotions, and the skill to lead a reader where you are trying to get them to go … or not go. My SO also edits for other writers (her forte is mediical and health care) and makes their words come alive iin print, however she is starting with words put down by a professional, skilled writer or a skilled physician who is better at brain surgery or oncology than she or he is at writing for the public. We both agree that there is the rare writer who has the inate raw skill to write a great book without being trained as a writer, but they are few and far between.

  2. Lady Galaxy Says:

    My only complaint about advertising on websites is when the advertising interferes with the use of the site. For the past few days, a national breaking news website has had so many flash ads that it crashes my browser. I used to enjoy some of the Yahoo games, but their flash ads slow down game play to the point that the games become unplayable. I like to listen to my Amazon prime music while browsing. I resent it when an ad or video on a website automatically starts playing and the sound drowns out my music so that my only relief is to leave the page or hit the mute button. I also get annoyed by the ads that cause the page to jump up and down or back and forth causing me to lose my place. I stopped going to a popular comics site because as soon as l’d click on the second comic link, I’d get a pop up ad for a virus protection program despite having disabled popups on my browser. Then, as soon as I’d leave the page, I would get a pop up telling me I’d picked up a virus on the last webpage I’d visited and offering to sell me the same inferior virus protection package on the pop up ad, a program which is inferior to the one I already have. Of course, there was no virus.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      All irritations, certainly.

      Which browser are you using, if you don’t mind sharing? I don’t have most of those issues with Maxthon, which is my browser of choice.

      The new version of Chrome, by the way, is supposed to disable autoplay for websites, so you won’t have that issue with it…I haven’t tested that yet.

      • Lady Galaxy Says:

        I use either Safari or Firefox. Safari stops some content from automatically playing, but others slip through. Firefox used to have pretty good ad blocks, but apparently they’ve been persuaded by advertisers to not do such a good job of blocking ads. Camino did the best job of ad blocking, but it is no longer being updated so it’s not secure.

        Unfortunately, since I have an older OS, I can’t get the most up to date browsers. I’m in the process of upgrading, but I first need to completely save my current HD to a backup HD just in case something goes OOPS in the upgrade process.

  3. Allie Says:

    Hey Bufo – I’m wondering why you give such short shrift to staff writing positions at magazines and newspapers
    (Such short shrift to staff” Say THAT three times fast! lol sorry that was not intentional!)
    Is there a reason this type of writing career is not mentioned here, or has been overlooked, perhaps by mistake?
    If you’re lucky enough to snag such a gig, you go way beyond freelance and you can certainly be looking at a lifetime career. You touch only very briefly on the idea of periodicals – but it is quite within the realm of reason to begin writing careers at magazines and newspapers that are not limited to any kind of “clearcut period of time”.
    I’ve spent an awfully long time pondering options to writing all kinds of different things at all different levels for widely-variable wages and I think staff writer at a periodical is a good goal – difficult, but still achievable for someone looking into writing for a career.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Allie!

      No reason it’s not mentioned…because it is. 🙂

      That’s what I meant by “some periodical writers” in my paragraph on salaries:

      “Yes, some authors actually get paid a salary, just like other employees. Those won’t usually be authors of novels: they’ll be television screenwriters, technical writers, some periodical writers…it needs to be something where there is a clearcut period of time where there will be a demand for the writing. That may be a fairly short job…one TV season, perhaps. This does exist, though: they may even have benefits and paid time off.”

      My use of “clearcut period of time” was apparently unclear. By that I meant that there was a continuing demand for it over a significant period…not just a one off that doesn’t have a deadline. You can take as long as you want to write a novel, so people aren’t going to put you on a salary for that, usually. With a periodical or a TV series, there is a deadline…that’s what I intended. I can see how that could be read the opposite way…my apologies for that.

      I got paid monthly to write a feature for a national newsstand periodical at one point…but I think describing it as a salary would be inaccurate. It was on a month by month basis.

      “Short shrift” is, of course, an emotionally charged term which suggests a deliberate slight, which was not my intent or my feeling at the time.

      There were probably two main reasons that option was mentioned less than some others:

      * I figured most people were familiar with the idea of employees and salaries much more than some of the other revenue streams mentioned. The familiar typically needs less explanation than the unfamiliar
      * It was at the end of writing the post. 😉 While I see it in some novels and other writing, I think that you’ll see that “peter out principle” (so to speak…with apologies to Laurence J. Peter) more in lengthy blog posts. I am often running out of time when I’m writing a blog post. It’s a self-imposed deadline, to give my readers a good value…but right now, for example, I was going to be doing something else (for work…I’m hours before going to work, but I want to prep a bit more), but I’ll admit to an emotional response to your comment, so I don’t want to let that sit in my head for the rest of the day. 🙂

      I greatly admire periodical writers, and I think that some people (perhaps including me) do their best writing under deadlines. You probably know I’m a big Doc Savage fan. I’ve always been blown away by Lester Dent (under the pen name of Kenneth Robeson) essentially writing a novel every month for years (and writing outlines for other people to complete when the author was personally on an adventure)…a highly imaginative novel which has had fans now for more than three quarters of a century.

      Certainly, it’s an admirable and reasonable goal to be a staff writer for a periodical….if that’s your plan, go for it! 🙂 Let me know what you get..I’ll be curious. It’s also possible you’ll publish freelance pieces first…that can help with the resume. So can blogging, at this point…someone with an established audience and an ability to deliver regularly can have a leg up on that interview at the magazine/newspaper.

      Hope that explains it…didn’t mean to offend.

  4. Allie Says:

    I did not intend to put undue stress on the phrase “short shrift”! Not at all! I’m sorry you viewed it in a negative way. I did not mean it that way at all; just a phrase that seemed appropriate to me at the time, purely descriptive, and definitely NOT loaded.

    You say… :
    “if that’s your plan, go for it! 🙂 Let me know what you get..I’ll be curious. ”

    I’ve been there and back! Full time, and freelance, any topic, any genre (one good rule for a successful writing career: never turn down a job!) As I’m sure you understand, I’d rather not mention specific titles. But thanks for the good wishes.

    Oh and, goodness, Bufo! I was not in the least bit offended. I think sometimes I use language in a stronger way than I really intend. I better go work on my skills…. 😉

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Allie!

      “Heart to brain: THUD! What’re you doing? You’ll get us all killed! I knew we never should have put you in charge of things…”
      –Larry Niven, writing in ARM

      That’s about me, not you. 🙂 I did react emotionally to what I read in you comment…and I should always, at that point, assume I’m wrong. 😉

      I should have made the assumption that you weren’t using the term “short shrift” the way that I interpreted it. I did even check online dictionaries first, to make sure they gave it the connotation I had for it. Even though it did, that didn’t mean that you intended it that way…as it appears clear that you didn’t.

      So, I apologize.

      I’m glad you’ve been able to do what you love!

  5. Authors Guild: full-time authors income down 30% since 2006 | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] On Labor Day: how writers make money […]

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