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Introduction

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?

Overview

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

Gross Income

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.

Income DistributionPercentile: Here’s a percentile breakdown showing the same data in another way.

2016 Novelist Income Percentile - GraphIn other words, ten percent of all respondents earned $200 or less last year. Before taxes and expenses.

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.

2016 Income: Agented vs. 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!

2016 Income: Full-Time vs. Part-Time

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…

  1. It is possible to make a really good living as a novelist…but most of us don’t.
  2. It is possible to make a million or more as a novelist, with or without an agent…but again, most of us don’t.
  3. 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’s the link to the next part.

 

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

Comments

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
deborahblakehps
Feb. 15th, 2017 09:30 pm (UTC)
Since you usually publish your own numbers anyway, I'd be interested to see where you fall in this and your regular yearly report. You kow, after you finish the book.
jimhines
Feb. 16th, 2017 01:10 am (UTC)
2016 was my best year so far, putting me at about the 75th percentile.

I may do an individual earnings post too, but I think the larger data set is likely to be a lot more helpful.
rachelmanija
Feb. 15th, 2017 09:35 pm (UTC)
Very interesting. Thank you for doing this!

Are you going to do any breakdowns of self-published, traditionally published, and both? I would find that quite interesting.

Also, something that came up for me which I hope didn't get eaten when I answered the survey, and which I know is relevant for others as well, was the confusion over whether a standalone self-published novelette or novella counts as a short story or a novel. My income (which I also tried to explain and which hopefully made sense) is significantly different from each depending on how those are categorized. Those are often a major or the main source of a self-published writer's income, which is not likely to be true for a traditionally published author's stories of the same length.
jimhines
Feb. 16th, 2017 01:09 am (UTC)
"Are you going to do any breakdowns of self-published, traditionally published, and both?"

I am indeed :-)

And yeah, the question about shorter fiction wasn't as clear as it should have been. Definitely something I need to think about and reword when and if I do this again.

Thanks!
rachelmanija
Feb. 16th, 2017 01:19 am (UTC)
I would do separate categories for under novel-length fiction published in magazines, the same self-published as standalones for purchase, and the same traditionally published in stores like Amazon for purchase.

I think those are the three main categories, and they're extremely different in terms of income. I don't know anyone who earns a living solely off of sub-novel-length magazine fiction, but it's a mainstay in certain genres of self-publishing.
ms_cataclysm
Feb. 16th, 2017 09:56 am (UTC)
Hi Jim,

I have posted a link to the European survey on incomes below so you can compare and contrast:

http://www.societyofauthors.org/News/News/2016/October-2016/New-EC-study

It's taken from the Society of Authors website. Usually they do their own UK survey and analysis each year but I suspect that it's in the Members' area.

jimhines
Feb. 16th, 2017 03:28 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I think when I get done, I'll try to post a link to other related sites and resources. This would be a good one to include.
bluegerl
Feb. 16th, 2017 04:09 pm (UTC)
Now THAT is a sensible way of getting one to elever la plume! And one bears in mind that that really horrible book FSoG upped the 'author' into the billionaire file.. it means we CAN DO IT. YES WE CAN...to quote a recent crier.

ThANK you for this ... truly truly informative, and helpful.
The self-published ones will also be truly informative. I might get my two books off their dusty shelves and get to editing and setting out properly.

Gosh. thanks truly...

nonnycat
Feb. 19th, 2017 10:33 pm (UTC)
Jim,

Sorry this is late. I wanted to wait until the series was fully posted (and mistakenly thought it was a "trilogy" of posts; oops!). There's a comment you made that I wanted to address:

"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."

First, I think that your conclusion is mostly correct, especially for people in the SFF field. I co-admin a popular romance writer's community that's won a few awards in its 10+ year lifespan. This still wigs me out sometimes, because I joined in January 2005, two months after it was created. The community is Romance Divas, if you're curious. :)

Every year around January or February, somebody on the board posts anonymous polls for income in the previous year; one each for indie, small press, and traditional publisher. I've been on hiatus for a few months because of, well, RL issues and stress. Can't imagine why I'd be stressed... But, I remember last year's results pretty well because I had to look them up a few times for people asking questions about what was possible to make with indie publishing.

I'm going to use rough numbers because I'm not digging into the forum to try to find the post again. For indie, about 100 people replied to the poll. About half of those made $50k+ in 2015. Half of that 50 made $100k+. Several de-anoned to answer questions, and as they were some of our more active regulars, I remembered them when they posted elsewhere.

(I promise I'm going somewhere with this!)

There was another thread elsewhere about quitting the day job. A surprising-to-me number of those authors making $100k+ said they still worked a day job at least part time. The most common reasons were:

1) They actually liked their job and didn't want to quit.

2) They felt they would not get nearly enough socialization if they quit and wrote at home.

3) Their husbands (as romance writers are primarily female, so is our member base) like the money from their writing but don't really respect their writing time. If they quit the day job, they'd be expected to step into full time stay at home mom and hubby pleaser role, and they wouldn't have the time.

3a) This is especially true for those who have awesome jobs that don't care if they write during less busy periods.

4) They are aware of how quick the market can change and worry that as soon as they quit the day job, their sub-genre would no longer be popular, and they'd have to scramble. Since this actually happens, it's not an unreasonable concern.

5) Their employer has really, really, really good insurance benefits, and they have a sick/disabled husband or child. (Edit: Or they themselves have a medical condition that requires extremely expensive medication or other treatment. Fr.ex, my ex is on a med that costs $1200 per dose, and getting state insurance to cover it when they got fired and were working a crap job while trying to find a better one was a royal PITA.)

6) They know themselves and that if they didn't have a day job schedule to plan around, they'd spend most of the day watching YouTube and playing video games instead of writing.

7) Forgot this one! They have kids, and the combined money from their writing, their day job, and, when applicable, a husband or partner's job allows them to put a lot more aside for college funds so the kids don't get stuck with student loans.

7a) If there are no kids, or the kids are grown and self-sufficient, that also allows them to invest more money into a retirement fund, to invest more heavily in general, and to take greater risks in investments, like playing the stock market.

So, those are the most common reasons I've seen for making that kind of money while still keeping a day job, whether it be PT or FT. I'd say at least half of the folks making $100k+ on the indie polls have commented that they keep their day job for at least one, sometimes more, of the above reasons.

I mostly mention this as added info, since I know there's an assumption if you make it "big" then of course you're going to quit and write full time. It's just not quite that simple once you factor in the real world. ;)

Edited at 2017-02-19 10:43 pm (UTC)
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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