How much does the average author earn publishing their book?

A common question I see on Facebook or in writing groups from newbie authors is,

“How much can I expect to earn publishing my book?”

This is a pretty easy question to answer, but it might discourage you.

Further, the way that some authors overcome this discouragement is fascinating – almost to the point of willful insanity.

If you’re hoping to find an agent and go traditional, the typical advances right now are between $5000 and $10000, and most don’t earn out, which means, that’s all you’ll get (plus, an agent will take 15% of that). Let’s say the average is $8000. Not bad, but not so great either for all the work you’ve put into writing a book. But, you get $8000 plus you don’t need to pay for cover design, editing and marketing (at least that’s what most authors assume, which is a mistake). So it can appear to be a good deal.

At least you’ll make some money.

how much do authors earn

And if you want to go traditional, go for it. It’ll take longer and you’ll have less control, but at least you’ll put out a quality book and you won’t have to pay for it out of pocket. However, again, most books fail – and traditional publishers are not great at book marketing. They aren’t nimble enough to do the things necessary to cut ahead of the hundreds of thousands of other books out there. They can’t reach potential readers directly, and if you’re only getting an $8K advance, they aren’t going to be spending much money on advertising or marketing. That’s what I’ve heard from several agents: “Unless you’re getting a deal over $100K, which means they are seriously invested in your book, you’ll probably do better to self-publish.”

Self-publishing has its benefits: more control, more agility and speed. You can focus on writing and publishing, instead of waiting around to hear if somebody wants to publish you.

But it also has its risks: you need to have a well designed book, a nice looking website, and you need to set up a marketing funnel. You need to know who your readers are and how to reach them. Luckily, it’s never been easier, so if you’re willing to learn and spend some money, you can give your book every chance at success. That said, the average author spends $2000 to $5000 to publish their books, and few authors earn any money. (Books get cheaper to publish the more you learn. Publishing doesn’t cost me anything, because I format, edit and design myself… but your first book will probably cost money, because it involves setting up everything).

You can spend much less if you want to, but it’s hard to get quality work done on the cheap. However, it’s also possible to have a smash hit with a mediocre cover. Not easy, but it happens, so if you don’t have money to publish, and you’re getting rejected by agents and publishers, do the best you can and put it out there.

How much does the average INDIE author earn publishing their book?

This question is more interesting.

I was trying to answer with some hard facts, and came across a fascinating article by Chris Mcmullen called:

How Many Books Does an Indie Author Sell?

I agree with the figures Chris has heard, generally under 250, and probably under 100 (ever).

But that’s average.

Most sources will tell you the average is skewed by a handful of indie authors selling tens of thousands of books.

But Chris goes into a fascinating discussion of what it means to be “average.”

Because, if you compare yourself to the crap other authors are putting out, and recognize that your book is better looking, better written, and you are more serious than those other authors, you can expect greater success.

Chris says (Quote)

To me, it’s not useful to average ALL self-published books.

Include all self-published books if you wish to pat yourself on the back for beating that number, or if you wish to discourage authors from self-publishing.

If I wish to set a good benchmark to aim for, there are many books that I would exclude from the list:

  • Many book ideas, unfortunately, have very little potential no matter how well they are carried out. There are just some topics that some people don’t want to read. Do you really wish to compare yourself to a genealogy intended for family members, for example? It’s not just genealogy. There are many kinds of books that are popular to write, but can’t be expected to have much audience. (At least the genealogies may sell to family members.)
  • How about those ‘authors’—if you can call them that—who view writing as a get-rich-quick-with-little-effort scheme, publishing pamphlets. Is this a realistic comparison?
  • Even many ‘real’ writers have published experiments, such as short stories and novellas, putting little effort into the book, hoping to learn something from the sales (or probable lack thereof). Surely, this shouldn’t be factored into setting a benchmark.
  • Then there are books with major issues with the storyline, plot, characterization, spelling, punctuation, grammar, flow, writing style, formatting, etc.—I’m thinking of those so drastic as to greatly deter sales.
  • Suppose that you have a fantastic cover. Should you compare your book to those whose covers convey the wrong genre? It seems like other books that clearly signify the content would provide better expectations.
  • Similarly, if you have some great marketing plans or prior marketing experience, should you compare yourself to all the newbie authors who do virtually no marketing, or whose marketing makes very little impact?
  • Are you a committed author, planning to create several quality books? Then don’t look at the one-book wonders (i.e. an author only wrote a single book) for your basis.
  • We can come up with other books that you might wish to remove from the ‘average.’

Do you want to compare your sales to those books? If not, you might also wish to exclude these from the ‘average.

(End Quote)

On the one hand, it’s absolutely true: if you want to be successful and sell more than average (100 copies or so), then you need to do everything much better than everyone else is. Or more specifically, you need to choose other successful books who will be your nearest competition, books that are doing well, and you need to do everything better than they are doing them.

That’s actually a really smart practice for producing your book and building an author platform.

The main drawback, I think, is that every author thinks they are doing everything better than everyone else.

Chris continues: “If you remove all those books from the ‘average,’ I believe that you’ll find that the average indie author makes MUCH more than $1000.”

Here’s where things get questionable. Chris has basically redefined the meaning of average to only include successful indie authors.

It’s like saying, “the average successful indie author makes much more than $1000.” And that’s absolutely true.
I would actually say that selling a thousand books is the test of indie success – because even if you have a huge network of friends and family, you probably can’t sell 1000 copies unless you’re doing enough right to sell to some strangers too.

But how many indie authors sell a thousand copies, ever?

My original guess was less than 10%. But it’s actually far less.

This isn’t actually that hard to figure out.

As of right now (4.19.2016), there are 4,572,429 books in the Kindle store.

If you get above a ten thousand rank and stay there, you’ll sell about 10 copies a day.

Sources differ, but based on all the books I have in the Kindle store, I like to think of it this way:



Higher than 100,000 = 1 sale a day.

Higher than 10,000 = 10 sales a day.

Higher than 1,000 = 100 sales a day.

Higher than 100 = 1000 sales a day.

*If you’re in Kindle Unlimited, you might earn more than that though. My books were in the top 10000 this month, I sold about 600 copies (15 a day), and my earnings showed $623.91 – but I actually got paid over $1400 – because of all the “page reads” from people in KU. That’s not bad, considering I published my first fiction 3 months ago.

To reach a thousand books, we’d need to stay around the 10,000 mark for three months. That’s really not easy to do. Or we could get above the 100 mark for one day (though not necessarily I think, rank is funny and hard to predict).

Let’s pretend that there are 10,000 books in the top 10,000 (I’m not exactly sure that’s how Amazon works, but it’s a good estimate).

So out of 4,572, 492 books, 10,000 of them are doing OK.

If we throw away all the junk, you’ll need your book to out perform the other books ranked in the top 10000, so you become one of the top 10000 books.

(Incidentally, I’m not saying all those other books are junk – they could be amazing books, whose authors just don’t know how to keep them visible).

So what percent is that?

.01% would be 45724.92

10,000 is roughly 25% of that.

So, could we say that .0025% of authors are successful (sell at least 1000 copies).

Except, we can’t.

Because there aren’t really 4,572,492 authors.

There are that many books.

But some authors publish 20 or more books. I’m going to guess (completely randomly,) that the average number of titles published per authors is 4.

This is arbitrarily chosen but probably not far off.

That means we can divide the percentage even further:


But wait, we’re not done!

We should also remember that, probably as many as half of those books don’t actually stay in the top 10000 for three months. It’s more usual to do a book launch, boost your rank for a few days, and then disappear. If you sell 20 or 30 copies in one day, you should break into the top 10000, but you’ll only have made around $50. (And you probably spent more than that on your book launch).

Also, the top 10000 include all the Kindle books making any money, both traditional and self-published.

According to Author Earnings, less than 45% of those author-earnings are going to traditionally published authors – the rest go to indie and small presses. BUT, keep in mind, indie authors are earning 70% of the profit, while traditionally published authors are making more like 10%.

If you get a deal with a small press (especially one where you had to also pay for a package of services) I think your chances of success go down even more, because they aren’t usually great at design or marketing (the two most important parts of publishing, besides the actual writing).

Chris says it’s useless to think this way unless you wish to discourage authors from self-publishing, but I don’t think it’s helpful to avoid educating authors when they ask a serious question, like “how much can I expect to earn.”

Because the danger, is that every author assumes their book will be successful – that they are in the %.000625. They assume every other author is just crazy or doesn’t care enough or work hard enough. But the truth is, there are millions of authors with heartfelt certainty that their books will be or should be successful, and they just can’t get anybody to take a look at it.

And remember, there isn’t this huge range between making some money and making less money.

Sure, you could be in the top 100,000, and sell a copy a day, but you’d have to do it for three years before you sold a thousand copies. If you have one book, you’ll probably be working for four years (writing, publishing) and you’ll probably spend more than $1000 publishing, so even after you reach 1000 copies you’re probably not earning money.

Only the top 10000 books, the %.000625, are making money.

Is it discouraging? I hope so. Not that I want you to give up.

But I do want you to grow up.

Because I want you to get into the top 10000. It’s an exciting, fun place to be.

For me, I needed to build a big marketing funnel and website and mailing list, and I’ve only got one book that consistently stays above 10,000 (the others are around 20000). But I have friends who are in the top 500, and others who are in the top 100, selling thousands of copies a day. And these two friends, they didn’t build the marketing funnel I did…. they just published their books and did their best.

They were writing in extremely popular genres, and their books took off.

Which leads me to another point:

The success or failure of your book depends on the genre and the available pool of readers who are looking for something just like your book.

Some genres sell better than others.

Romance, thriller, adult coloring books and children’s books, science fiction and fantasy – those can sell really well.

If you wrote a book but are not sure which category you fit in, or say something like “my book doesn’t really fit in any genre” you might have a problem. And even if that’s the case, you want to figure out the closest match, so you know what readers you need to be appealing to. Otherwise, you’ll be doing shotgun marketing, which is to blast your book out to everybody and hope it reaches the right person (it almost never will).

For example, when I wrote Shearwater, a young adult mermaid romance set in Ireland, I targeted people who liked young adult books, mermaids, and Ireland. When my offer got in front of them, it felt tailor made and was more likely to get their interest I do that for all my books.

However, I’ve since learned that there aren’t that many readers who like mermaid books. So on the one hand, it was easier to be noticed among the competition, but on the other hand, the pool of readership was much smaller. I also realized my book isn’t like most mermaid books, it’s more like a dark fantasy. So A) typical mermaid readers might not enjoy my book, which means I’m targeting the wrong people and B) the readers who really might like my book need to be approached in a different way – because I’m excluding them from my targeting, and even if they see my book they might assume it’s not for them.

You can fix your targeting by using the formula, “Readers who love x, y and z will love this theme, genre, keyword.”

For example, “Readers who loved Twilight and Hunger Games but are looking for something darker, with more magic will love this star crossed romance about preventing the mermaid apocalypse.” (That’s not a great example, but you get the idea). Use words that attract the right readers. You can pull words your readers actually use from your reviews and put them in this section. (Hat tip to Bryan Cohen for the advice).

I have another book that’s a time travel dystopia… it has creatures that are kind of like zombies, but aren’t zombies…. so I didn’t use that word. Which was a mistake, because I started getting reviews from people who liked zombie books. They’re close enough to zombies that readers who like zombies might like my book. However, I found out today a reader was avoiding that book, because she doesn’t like zombies.

It’s tricky, but you need to experiment with choosing the right words that define your ideal readership.

Once your book gets up in the sales ranking, it’s a combination of your cover, the description, and the reviews that will either keep the book selling, or things will dry up and you’ll start sinking again.

Nothing about your book matters until someone can see it.

Not the cover, not the title, not the genre or story or topic.

If nobody’s seeing it, it doesn’t matter. And once you drop below 100000, you’re selling less than a copy a day. Unless YOU are driving traffic, by talking about your book, blogging, doing publicity or advertising, unless you are doing that, all the time, you’re invisible.

And that’s the problem – there are hundreds of thousands of authors out there doing the same things, competing for the same space and attention.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to reject the vast majority of authors as “out of average”, when theirs is the more common publishing experience.

I don’t think it’s fair for a group of successful indie authors – the %.000625 – to define the “average experience”, when the truth is a teeny tiny minority of authors is making any money, and for the vast majority of authors, publishing is an expensive hobby.

However, I’ll concede here that success isn’t always quick: most authors publish, are excited, aren’t happy with their sales, and over the course of several years learn enough about book design and marketing to improve. Publishing your first book might be, as it was for me, the first step in a long-term education into the publishing industry… and that’s FINE.

It is true that many authors who stick with it for several years, and keep publishing (especially if they can get up to 10 books), find that all their hard work suddenly takes off and they make it big. But it’s also true that some authors keep writing, and keep publishing, and have 30 or 40 books out there that nobody is buying.

And that’s really sad. Because they’ve put a lot of effort into their writing. It’s usually because of the covers, or the description, or a lack of natural traffic, or the fact that they’re still writing books they want to write without considering what readers enjoy.

Books that are successful, always and without exception, are popular. There is a huge number of readers who enjoy a certain type of book.

If you want to make money publishing – and you should want to, because all that means is people like your book (and you don’t want to publish something nobody likes, do you?) – then you need to know your market, and you need a book that will satisfy them, and you need to present it in a way that lets them know that, and you need to get it in front of them.

So to answer the question, “how much can I expect to earn as an author?” my immediate response is NOTHING.

There is no average, there is only the exception.

If this is your first book, and you have no platform, no traffic, no relationships with other authors, you’re basically asking “how can I win the lottery?”

And you’re heading towards a rude awakening.

And you might say, “Yeah but ignore all those other authors who aren’t successful, I want to be a successful author.”

And that’s great – if you’re willing to do the work, reach your readers directly, position yourself and your books well, write multiple books, and stick with it with tireless enthusiasm and limitless self-confidence for a few years, losing money all the time.

Of course, you don’t have to do all of that. You can build an author platform quickly, before you launch your first book, and make your first book earn money right away.

Next week, I’ll tell you how you can get into the .000625  percent much, much faster.

PS) You might like this article, “How much is your writing worth (AKA are self-publishing authors ruining the literature?)”

PPS) Is my math, logic or understanding of the industry wrong? It could be – if so please leave a comment. Or do you object to my pessimism – is it better to tell all authors that they can make money even though reality is against them? Obviously I’d never tell an author not to publish, but I do want to help them make informed choices and give them a real chance at success.

I’d love to hear your experiences – how many books have you published and how long did it take you before you started earning money?


About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me
  • Jason Clearwater

    What about all of the authors publishing on platforms other than Kindle Unlimited? Over dozens of platforms, small sales over time could add up significantly.

  • V. R. Cardoso

    Great article! A must for every beginner, no doubt. I do have question about your math. When you say there are less authors than books you divide your probability of success by 4 (your guesstimate of the average number of books per author), but shouldn’t you multiply?

    • Hmmmm I don’t think so.

      Top 100 books = 25 authors x4 books each.
      So 100 divided by 4 = 25 authors.

      But I’m getting worse at even basic math, so who knows.

  • Thia Licona

    Hahaha! Your articles have inspired me to write a post in the line of? “My seller failure? My greatest success! Go figure it!”

  • Excellent, honest look at an important topic.

    My books are in a small field, improving reading skills. I didn’t choose the genre; I am writing about something I am interested in sharing. But my first book (which I eventually unpublished) got into the top 100,000 for a while and then dropped to nothing.

    My second book though has ranked between 20,000 and 10,000 consistently now for the past 18 months. If I was to guess why it is doing better, I would say a large part has to do with a better cover and title.

    I have an associated website, but I’ve determined that the website is not sending many buyers to Amazon. Instead it’s the book sales that seems to be sending people to the website.

    Although the book is moderately successful, I haven’t really done any marketing — partly because I still don’t understand how to do this, and partly because I just don’t feel comfortable with social and email marketing.

    • Having a book stay that high for so long is pretty great. It won’t earn a lot of money but it isn’t easy to do… you just need 10 more books like it and you’ll be making a living. 🙂

  • Graham Spence

    Good dose of reality. Good ways to deal with it.

  • Great analysis.

    I published my first fiction book about month ago as an experiment. I did it with no list or real marketing effort beforehand, and I can second that Derek is right. You will make next to nothing unless you’ve put in the work to build a list, etc. before you publish.

    It’s been a great learning experience for me though, and that’s all I really wanted on this first go. Now I now what to do, and definitely what not to do, when I put out my next book.

    • It’s really hard to learn – you’re lucky you put one out as practice, most authors publish their first book, and it’s their baby/passion project. You’ve got to be able to distance yourself from it.

  • Jenetta

    Hey Derek… a good discussion might be what steps, specifically, to take to keep your book in the 10,000’s or above.

    • Sure, I wish I could. 🙂 I have one book that stays in the top 10,000 and three in the top 20,000… all of them have good covers and 20 to 150 reviews, so the difference is genre/subject and sales copy.

      • Jenetta

        Ok.. then here is a better question.

        What are some specific steps we can take to continue to drive sales our self (beyond being lucky enough to get a book bub). It might be nice to brainstorm a list of “lesser known” strategies.

        • That feels like a planted question. 🙂
          “Well, I’m glad you asked that… in a couple days I’ll be posting some specific steps on exactly how to do that!”
          Maybe I’ll turn it into a giant list post.

          • Jenetta

            **whispers** “Thanks for the 100 bucks” 😉

  • A. M. Offenwanger

    Actually – I find this encouraging. It’s telling me that I’ve got so few sales not because I’m a loser, but because I’m average. It’s to be expected. So I can stop getting down on myself and instead focus on what it would take to rise above the average.

    • That’s great to hear. Absolutely, you’re not a loser. 🙂 It’s really hard to stay visible. Just focus on getting your books in front of more readers, it’s a numbers game.

  • John Murphy

    This is a great relief to read. I published a military sci-fi little over a year ago with a hybrid-publisher. The sales for the first few months did reasonably well, and another “free week” got more copies out there. But over the past year I’ve seen roughly 500-600 copies sold. When my sales tapered off to next to nothing last summer, I got frustrated and stopped writing anything, regrouping, and rethinking my life and my ambitions as an author. So, your article has helped put things in perspective. Since then, I’ve been re-reading a few favorite books on writing, “Writing Fiction for Dummies” by Randy Ingermanson, Peter Economy, (et. al.) which is what I recommend for anyone just starting out or trying to improve their second novel. I think it encapsulates very well the essentials that will truly help your writing. Also, since that time, I’ve been reading a lot of competing sci-fi and have discovered that there are a number of authors who write by the seat of the pants (i.e., no observable structure, method, or style) that wind up with high rankings and ratings. It boggles my mind that they use such little craft and sell so well. I suspect that readers (as was true of myself before ‘reading on writing’) have no sense of structure or technique behind the curtain. I observed that a key, I think, to their success is having several books in a series using the same characters. I think this is akin to the phenomenon of recent years of binge watching episodic TV. When I spot an author with several books in a series, I start with the first, then keep buying the next and the next without hesitation, even though the price starts out at $2.99 for the first, then goes up to as high as $14.99 for the next several. I just want to stick with an author and story line that satisfies. This has changed my motivation from “I want to be a best-selling author and get a movie made… and I want it NOW” (as in “The Martian”), to, what I think, as authors, we claim is our outward motivation, that being motivated by writing a damn good novel, and maybe a dozen. It’s been a six year journey/ordeal, but I believe it’s a motivation that will result in a greater sense of self-satisfaction, even if they never sell all that well. But still… there is always hope for a movie or a TV series :o)

    • Usually, whatever style your write in is fine as long as you can keep readers reading. Pantsers sometimes create really dramatic scenes and cliffhangers, but when you get to the end you’re like “what just happened?” You get the experience, not the story. And some plotters have a good story but the scenes just don’t hook and catch attention… you need a bit of both. 600 sales is pretty great actually, but yeah to be successful you probably need more books, and more control.

  • Cathryn Wellner

    Honestly, Derek, I pay attention to anything you write because you’re honest. Hype bores me. Too many hypers promise the moon but churn out drivel. I’m well aware I’m a good writer and a crap marketer. As I near my 70th birthday, I know my priority, to put the plethora of stories swirling in my brain and files into books. But I also plan to get better at marketing since I actually believe in my work and want more than family and friends to have access to it. I’ve done the traditional route and am very grateful for the good publishers out there. But I’m seeing friends drop like flies, enter the wavering realms of dementia, and grow just plain tired. Time’s of the essence so I’m choosing the self-publishing route. The learning curve is steep (memories of the old video, non-standardized formats), but I’m having the time of my life. And I wish you success in spades (or, better, dollars, pounds, euros).

    • You can do it! Sounds like you have lots of material and content, just keep putting it out. It’ll get easier/faster.

  • Thanks for your comments! Yeah my math is really bad, very rough, but it the basic idea probably holds true. Here’s the interesting thing about money (I’ll write about this soon). I think a lot of artists and writers have some psychological resistance to money stemming from their beliefs about art and creation.

    They’d rather write what they want than “sell out” or “write something they hate.”

    The thing about writing is, you can write something once and make money forever. So it’s not like you’re choosing a regular job over writing something you don’t live. Writing is a skill, and it’s pretty awesome to write anything. Why not write some commercial fiction for awhile, build up a passive income stream. The one thing I’ve been learning this year is that I’m SO much more creative and productive when I don’t need to work for a living/work on other people’s projects.

    Do I need to make millions? No. But I’m pretty desperate to reach 5K or so in completely automated, passive income, because it means I can spend the rest of my life doing what I love without worrrying about the money. But I can only do that by focusing on sales/earning FIRST (most people focus on passion first, but also have to work in a job they don’t love for decades, giving up 80% of their life and having very little left for creativity.

  • Yeah, you should! If you put them on Createspace I think they’ll be on American Amazon? For poetry books – I published something recently about formatting/design that will hugely boost your marketing and visibility:

    • Also – if you have a series that isn’t selling, put the first book on permafree for awhile, reach more readers, get them on your list… then do a flash price sale on the others in the series, get your list to buy them = boost rank, once they’re visible, put the price up again. This will only work if your Amazon page is converting. (Remember price doesn’t matter if your Amazon page converts enough). I checked out your books; the covers can be much better and I think the titles are probably hurting you – it’s not obvious enough yet what the subject/genre is. The covers/titles don’t attract enough for them to read the description and find out whether they’d like to read it. The covers HAVE to bring the right readers to the 2nd stage, reading the sales copy.

  • Sheri McInnis

    Hey Derek! What a helpful post! I’ve been published twice by big NYC houses – but, it’s like you said, that’s no guarantee of success. And in most cases, your advance is all the money you’ll make. I decided to self-publish my third novel and it’s due out in a few weeks. I know I’m behind in terms of promotion, but as authors (indie or otherwise) that part of the job will NEVER end. Even at a big trad publisher, if you don’t sell, promotion dries up within a couple weeks. That’s not a criticism of publishers. It’s just a business reality. We all know it’s expensive to publish and market a book, it doesn’t matter how you’re doing it. As authors, we’ll ALL be writing and promoting our books forever, so think long term. Looooooong term. And keep reading this blog!! Cuz you’ve got some great advice, Derek! Thanks!! And good luck!!

Pin It on Pinterest


Share This

Share this post with your friends!