How Much Do Novelists Earn?

By Indeed Editorial Team

March 2, 2021

Before becoming a novelist, it's important to consider the pay you'll receive in this profession. This figure can vary based on several factors, including how novelists publish their work and the details of any contract they signed. This article outlines the benefits of traditional publishing versus those of self-publishing and ways to increase your earnings as an author.

How much novelists make on average

The national average salary for a novelist is $49,046 per year. This figure can vary from $15,080 to $127,816 per year, depending on experience, the writing subject matter, contract terms and book sales. Regarding book sales, as with many business owners, a novelist's salary can fluctuate depending on the amount of product sold. The more books a novelist sells, the greater their salary will be.

It's also important to distinguish the difference between a novelist and other writing professions such as freelance writers. This is because the salaries for each writing profession will vary based on several factors, such as what their specific career or contract entails.

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Self-publishing versus traditional publishing

Whether a novelist is self-published or follows the traditional publishing route—through the use of a publishing company for distribution—is one of the main reasons for a novelist's salary fluctuation. Though self-publishing has become more popular among novelists, it's important to weigh the differences between these two publishing routes. The better you understand self-publishing and traditional publishing, the easier it will be to determine what your salary may look like in this profession, given your preferred publishing route.

Traditional publishing

Traditional publishing involves getting a book deal, an agent and eventually, a contract with an established publisher. Publishing companies make it much easier for authors to distribute their work further to bookstores, supermarkets and online sellers. They handle the details related to sales, invoicing, royalties and marketing. With the publisher taking care of all the business aspects, the writer is free to continue writing and making edits as needed. While the process can be slow, a publishing company provides a team of professionals at your disposal, from editors and cover designers to marketers and sales teams.

Contracts

As a traditionally published novelist, you may sign an agency contract. This can help you decide if the publishing company is right for you. Some points to look for in a contract include commission, or percentage of sales the company would receive from your work, rights reversion clauses (applicable if the book goes out of print—this is less common now that books are often published electronically) or clauses for non-compete, audio rights and worldwide publishing rights.

Benefits

Traditional publishing is desirable to some authors because of the lack of up-front costs and the potential for a cash advance against future royalties. While you may have to forgo creative control of your work, a well-known publishing house provides an avenue for your name and your work to become well-known and reviewed by more prestigious book reviewers, increasing the likelihood of your work being nominated for literary awards like the Newbery, Pulitzer or the Booker.

Earnings

Working with a well-known publishing house can provide widespread exposure of your work, increasing the chances of becoming a famous A-list author. The more famous you become as an established writer, the more books you will sell, which can increase your earning potential. With more recognition, traditionally published authors may have their books turned into films, which can increase their salary substantially.

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Self-publishing

Self-published novelists are writers who publish their work without the use of a traditional publishing company. Though this route may be more hands-on, it also poses several benefits for novelists regarding earnings and otherwise.

Benefits

As a self-published novelist, you keep full control over your content, from editorial style to cover design and title. As an independent publisher, you're responsible for all aspects of publishing your book, meaning you can hire freelancers to edit, illustrate and design your book and all the final choices are yours to make.

While creative freedom requires a startup budget, self-publishing your work means you can hire a printing company and introduce it to the market more quickly than if you went through a publishing house. Though it's more difficult to get self-published books into bookstores, a large share of the book market now lives primarily online. This can help your work spread far and wide within a very short amount of time. Additionally, when you upload your books to an online seller, the work is available for purchase within hours and you receive your revenue faster than with traditional publishing methods. Though you may or may not win literary prizes, you're empowered to make your own decisions and choose what methods of publication are best for you.

Earnings

As with a traditionally published novelist, your earning potential as a self-published novelist is on a case-by-case basis. Self-published novelists must pay out of pocket for potential printing costs and marketing fees, which can affect their overall earnings. In addition, they only receive royalties when they sell their books. This means that what a self-published novelist earns is based on the percentage of a book's sale. The more books you sell, the greater your earnings will be. Additionally, you may even find an obscure niche that will appeal to a specific reader and capitalize by cornering that niche. 

It's also important to note that self-publishing does not guarantee sales. Therefore, you might have little to no earnings as a self-published novelist.

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How to increase pay as a novelist

There are several ways for novelists to increase their earning potential. Here are some methods for earning additional income as a novelist:

  • Widen your audience. Use marketing techniques such as blogging and social media, offering your novel as a free digital download for a limited amount of time and partnering with influencers or other authors to promote your work. This will increase your number of readers and result in more book sales.

  • Get good reviews. When you first publish your book, consider offering your book for free to those who will provide an honest review after they've read it. Good reviews can be a driving force that encourages others to read your book, which can increase your salary.

  • Accept film contracts. This option appeals to some authors who don't mind forgoing some creative freedom as the book is adapted into a manuscript. Depending on the contract and the film's success, this can substantially increase a novelist's income.

  • Grant interviews. If you're a budding author, a local magazine or newspaper may compensate you for your time if you agree to sit for an interview.

  • Give lectures. As a real novelist, local colleges, libraries or literary organizations may pay you to speak at their classes or gatherings. Speeches, lectures and interviews can also increase your popularity and result in higher book sales.

  • Keep writing. More books will earn you more money from sales, provided the books you're publishing are quality reading. Consider writing a series. The obvious next step for a reader when they finish reading a book is to purchase the next book in the series. Retaining your audience is a great way to continuously increase your salary as a novelist.

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