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How much money can you make from publishing a book?

As an aspiring author, you might be wondering how much money you can potentially earn from writing and publishing a book. If you’re a business person, you might well be considering whether your book will make a return on investment (ROI).  So, if you’re considering whether your manuscript might net you an income, we’ll give you the honest truth about book earnings.

Not much to millions

The first thing to note is when publishing a book, your earnings can vary from not much at all to millions. A commonly cited example is that Harry Potter made J. K. Rowling an estimated $7.7 billion

However, a 2019 University of Glasgow survey gives a more accurate reflection of the state of affairs:

  • The top 10% of authors account for 70% of the revenue
  • Only 13.7% of authors list “writing” as their sole source of income
  • A professional author’s average income was £81,000 per year
  • The average author’s income was £10,497 per year 
  • On average, author incomes are dropping, decreasing from £18,013 in 2006

As such, making millions as a published author is the exception and certainly not the rule. However, there is certainly potential to supplement your income or business with book sales.

Traditional publishing vs. self-publishing

The second thing to consider is whether the author has a traditional publishing deal or is self-publishing. With the former, traditional publishers pay authors 5% to 10% in “royalty payments”, which means that authors only take a small percentage of each copy sold. And it doesn’t take a mathematician to calculate that you need to make a lot of sales to earn a lot of money if you’re only getting 5% on each book. Some publishers pay an “advance”, i.e. a sum of money for the author to write the book. This may be £5k–15k or more. However, the book might never sell enough copies to earn more than the advance. With self-publishing, the results vary from making a loss to making tens of thousands. Some authors sell hardly any copies and don’t cover what they’ve spent on editing, design, and other professional services. Others earn enough to make a living from book sales. Some studies estimate that the average self-publishing author makes £500 to £1,000 per book. However, this doesn’t factor in how well-written the book was, whether the author paid for professional editing or design, and how good their marketing was (if they did any marketing at all).

Either way, it’s vital to invest time, effort, and potentially money to ensure that your book is high-quality, professional, and discoverable to readers. Making little to no investment of these things into your book is likely to reflect in poor sales.

Does a bestseller make millions?

Another thing that aspiring authors sometimes consider is whether bestseller status will improve their earnings. The problem is that “bestseller” can mean various things: a national bestseller, a global bestseller, a New York Times bestseller, an Amazon main category bestseller, or an Amazon subcategory bestseller. And the metrics for these are different. For example:

  • A global or national bestseller is the number of books sold over a certain time period.
  • A New York Times bestseller is the number of books sold by specific retailers in a week.
  • An Amazon bestseller is how many books are sold per day in that category.

The range of earnings from an Amazon subcategory bestseller to a global bestseller could be anything from nothing to millions. On Amazon, a bestseller in a small subcategory could have sold three copies in a day, making the author less than a cup of coffee, while a global bestseller may make the author a household name.

It’s not just about the book

The final thing to consider is that publishing a book isn’t necessarily a big earner on its own. Savvy authors make money from the things they sell around their book i.e. the upsell. For example, J. K. Rowling created a whole universe, making money from films, merchandise, and experiences like the Harry Potter Studio Tour, not just from book sales. Likewise, business-minded nonfiction authors can make money from upselling courses, coaching, consultancy, and so on. For example, one nonfiction author we know made £500 from sales of their Amazon bestseller but £25k from consultancy work off the back of it, and the book launched his next business venture, which will possibly earn him millions. 

And this is the crux of it: for most nonfiction authors, money from book sales is nice pocket change. The golden ticket is what you do with that book. It’s the doors it opens. It’s the people who choose to work with you because of it. It’s the stage-speaking opportunities that present themselves as a result of it. It’s the business you can build, grow, and take to the next level. 

The lowdown

Ultimately, how much you can make from a book varies from minus money to millions, and it depends on many factors. If your primary motivation is to make money from book sales alone, there are probably quicker and easier ways to achieve that end than writing a book. But you can make magic in what you create around that book and the opportunities it can lead to.

Finally, there are many non-monetary benefits to publishing a book, such as building your industry credibility, helping or inspiring people, leaving a legacy, exercising your creativity, opening new doors, starting conversations, and changing the world.

If you’re thinking of publishing a book as a first-time author or business owner, you’re in the right place. You can get in touch with our expert team about your book idea today.