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How much money does an author make: de-constructing my writing income

I’ve rarely seen an industry with more rampant misinformation than the publishing industry. On one hand, every author claims to be a “National Bestseller” and on the other, every major publisher will tell you that barely a handful of books sell more than 2,000 copies/year. Even if you manage to get accurate book sales numbers, few understand how that translates to income and advances. People read isolated case studies in the media and harbor dreams of quitting everything to write the one book that will change the world and make them millions–a scenario that seldom unfolds as planned.

Where-in lies the truth?

Since I’ve never aspired to be a full-time writer, here I de-construct my writing income with full objectivity so any aspiring writer can decide whether to go full throttle for a book or not.  To note, I think the below is a good benchmark for a writer with average talent. I’ve never done an MFA or a creative writing course. I wasn’t a writing prodigy as a child. I’d only attempted one short story before my first novel—and our college magazine rejected it (incidentally that may’ve been the only story ever rejected in the history of the magazine since the editors barely cobbled together enough stories to publish a literary magazine once a year—it was engineering college, after all!). Net, I’m sure you can do better if you put yourself to it. So here goes:

First things first, how does a novelist make money?

A writer has four major sources of income:

  1. Advance against royalties

    The guaranteed payment a publisher pays you for the right to publish your book. It is typically paid in three phases—1/3rd on signing a book contract, the next 1/3rd on sending in the final edited manuscript, and the final 1/3rd when the novel is published.

  2. Royalties

    Your per book payment on publication after the publisher has made up the advance. Typically 7.5-10% of retail price on paperback, 10-15% of hardcover. Important: In order to get a US deal, you’ll need a literary agent who typically charges a 15% commission on both advance and royalties.

  3. Film Contract

    A combination of option fees in the beginning so the filmmaker has the “option” of making your book into a movie and later, if the filmmaker decides to make a film, you get a payment of 2-4% of the film’s production costs.

  4. Speaking Fees, Guest lectures, magazines columns etc.

    If you hit the bestseller lists, many such opportunities come your way. How much you make from them depends on your hustle.

So how much money have I made so far?

First, my publication history…

Publication Date Publisher Territories Copies Sold Market Verdict
Keep off the Grass 2008 HarperCollins India Only 80,000 Significant Bestseller
Johnny Gone Down 2010 HarperCollins India Only 60,000 Bestseller
but fell short of market expectations
The Yoga of Max’s Discontent
(published in India as The Seeker)
India: 2015; US: 2016 Penguin RandomHouse India, US India: 30,000 in year 1.

US: 10,000 in 2 months

India: Above Average but not blockbuster.

US: Too early to predict but off to a solid start.

Now, the money…

Advance* Royalties* Film Contract Speaking Fees etc. Total
Keep off the Grass $2K $16K $10K** $28K
Johnny Gone Down $12K $150K** $162K
The Yoga of Max’s Discontent
(published in India as The Seeker)
$85K TBD TBD TBD $85K
Total: $99K $16K $160K 0 $275K

*Net payment received by me=85% of offer. Excludes literary agent commission=15%.

**Keep off the Grass was optioned and later dropped by Ben Rekhi, an Indian-American director. Johnny Gone Down was optioned by an international film-maker.

Net, I’ve made $275K in the last seven years of writing. This is just revenue and not profit since I haven’t subtracted expenses from traveling for book tours, taxes (a little complicated since I’ve written while living in India, Singapore and the US), marketing etc.—I’ll write a separate post on those. Is that good or too little? Only you can decide. As I said, my only goal here is to give you a peek inside a profession shrouded in unnecessary mystery.

Bonus: Click here to learn the exact techniques that got me three book deals with Penguin Random House and two Hollywood movie options in 5 years.

Some universal observations on the above

  • US advances are much higher than Indian advances. Coming off Keep off the Grass’ success, Harper’s $12K (Rs. 6 lakhs) advance for Johnny Gone Down was very high for the Indian market but pales in comparison to the $90K(+$10K for India) advance I received for The Yoga of Max’s Discontent as a debut novelist in the US.
  • Movie deals can be extremely lucrative for a novelist especially if you get an international deal. Johnny Gone Down was originally optioned by a German filmmaker who was trying to make a Hollywood movie from the novel for the last 4 years. The above are just option fees since the film hasn’t entered pre-production yet so more fees will accrue if/when the film enters pre-production stage. I’d highly recommend getting an entertainment lawyer involved if you get approached by a film-maker or a production house instead of jumping in excitement and signing the first offer you get. Movie contracts are very, very layered.
  • I’ve refused all speaking engagements, newspaper columns etc. thus far mainly because I’ve been single-mindedly focused on becoming a better novelist. Again and again, I’ve seen authors distracted by the false hype surrounding a writer and consequently, their writing starts to develop a shallow sameness. One day, maybe I’ll stand on a podium and share my miniscule knowledge about the world so this column might show better figures!
  • I’m a firm believer there’s karma in the above. I wrote Johnny Gone Down during one of the darkest phases of my life when my mother was dying, my relationships were collapsing, and I’d made some terrible career decisions. The novel was written with a lot of blood and heart since the writing helped me make sense of my choices. Yet book sales fell way short of expectations. But with the movie deal, I perhaps made what I deserved from the novel. That’s why I’ve been largely indifferent to the weekly sales of The Seeker in India. I’ve given the novel everything and more AND then some more. Somewhere the universe will give the book its due.
  • Finally, a more accurate picture for an aspiring full-time writer would be the revenue/year for writing. So here goes the split:
    Full-Time Spent* Revenue Revenue/Year
    Keep off the Grass 4 Months $32K $84K
    Johnny Gone Down 6 Months $162K $324K
    The Yoga of Max’s Discontent/The Seeker 18 Months $85k $57K**

*Full Time, includes writing, pitching, and editing time. I’ve actualized the time taken on each novel to a regular 8-hour workday. In reality, Keep off the Grass was written part-time after work (average=3 hrs/day including weekends) over one year. Johnny was a mix of part and full-time. The Seeker was heavily full-time.

** I’m hoping this goes up as the US version of the book is off to a really great start.

The $324K/year question: why don’t I become a full-time writer?

A logical question: if I could write a book like Johnny Gone Down every year, why do I continue to pursue my corporate career? There are obvious practical reasons. The muse doesn’t follow a yearly schedule. Sitting for a year at home writing doesn’t guarantee I’ll produce a quality novel. And perhaps what’s worked for me so far is that I’ve pursued whatever interested me since I’ve had no financial goals for my writing at all. For instance, if I had submitted to market pressure after Keep off the Grass’s success, I’d probably have written a contemporary corporate satire rather than a dark thriller like Johnny. The bigger reason though is that I don’t think writing is my true dharma. Instead, my dharma is to push and challenge myself each day and explore my deepest depths through tough, uncomfortable choices in work, life, spirituality, everything, and then express what I’ve learnt through my writing. Extraordinary writing, I hope therefore, will become the effect of an extraordinary life rather than the cause of it!

Bonus: Click here to learn the exact techniques that got me three book deals with Penguin Random House and two Hollywood movie options in 5 years.