Who should be able to make a living as an author?

Who should be able to make a living as an author?

No question, the publishing game/industry/market has changed remarkably in the past ten years. The Kindle was first released November 19, 2007. That really shook up manufacturing and distribution, and that was giant.

Prior to e-books, manufacturing a book was a very expensive proposition. I’m a former brick-and-mortar bookstore manager…the demand for a book is very inconsistent and hard to predict. I might need twenty copies of a book one week, and then none for three months…and then ten again. For me to sell hardbacks in a store, you had to be able to produce them very quickly and get them to me.

That’s one of the main reasons we couldn’t take a book “on contingency” (paying nothing for it unless it sold). When the rare author would walk in with a self-published book and want me to put a couple in the window, I’d always ask: “If I need ten of these three days from now, could you get them for me?” The answer was always “no” back then…they had paid to have a certain number printed, and that’s pretty much all they had.

The other thing big publishers could do was buy back books if we overstocked…they would guarantee us we could sell copies we bought, or they’d give us a refund (or more often, future purchase credit). I remember l overestimated the demand for a local celebrity’s book when that celebrity was going to be on a talk show. We overbought by…oh, at least ten, and that’s a lot for a hardback. The publisher took them back and gave us credit.

The rise of e-books eliminates the need for book factories. It eliminates the stock issue.

Naturally, with that big a change, the value of authors is going to be judged differently. What it takes to sell a book changes, with a change in the sales cycle and even in merchandising costs.

It would be a great surprise if everybody who had been able to make a living as an author under the old system could make a living as an author under the new system.

That’s exactly the sort of anecdote told in this

The Guardian article by Danuta Kean

It talks about

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

a successful author who has gone back to the day job to make ends meet.

Now, that happens a lot, and for various reasons.

It’s the rare author who sells even a thousand copies of one book: to be able to continue to sell enough copies to make a living, and to do it on multiple titles, is a very remote possibility.

The article postulates that it is because of celebrities writing (or having ghostwitten) books, sucking up all the “advances”. An advance is money that a publisher pays the author prior to publication. The author then hypothetically pays back the advance through royalties…if an advance is $10,000, the first $10,000 of royalties generated from sales of the book goes to the publisher, not the author.

What happens if the book doesn’t sell enough to generate the $10,000 loan?

Well, one would think the author would have to pay it back…and while that’s rare, that has happened.

Now, I do understand why publishers might publish a higher percentage of books from non-author celebrities (movie stars, YouTubers, chefs, and so on). They are lower risk: there is an audience there already. As the market is becoming more competitive, tradpubs (traditional publishers) may become more risk adverse.

However, lest we think this is a problem for authors, I would bet that there are many more people making a living as authors than there were ten years ago…I would think hundreds more just in the USA.


Independently publishing, often doing it themselves through Amazon’s publishing platforms.

Even though I have a full-time job, I have made enough money in a year as an author that if that was all the money I was making, I wouldn’t have been below the poverty level. 🙂 That was a few years back, though.

Back in 2011, I wrote about John Locke becoming the first independently-published Kindle Direct Publishing to sell a million “copies” (licenses) through Amazon:

John Locke becomes the first KDP author in the Kindle Million Club

While I don’t have the evidence, I’d be very surprised if many more people aren’t making their livings as authors than was the case before the release of the Kindle.

So, while it’s certainly possible that some people who were professional authors before e-books have to find other means of making money now, I think others will be able to quit their day jobs. 🙂

This affects very few people, of course…there aren’t a lot of professional authors of books.

Still, it’s interesting. Some authors will supplement their royalties with other revenue streams…when a book gets licensed for movies or TV, for example, or making personal appearances, or blogging with advertising or subscription fees. Others will simply have to find other work…

What do you think? What other changes will come for authors in the future? Will the tradpublishing route will make sense for anyone? What’s different for a brand name author versus a mid-level or beginning author? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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* 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.


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