How much is a writer worth?

I know that it’s not polite to talk about money but what the heck. I like numbers. And I’ve got Chinese blood. While I hate to play into stereotypes, the truth is, most of us Chinese Americans are pretty blunt about monetary figures. (When I first introduced my soon-to-be-husband to my grandmother, the first thing she wanted to know was: “How much money does he make?”)

So let’s talk about money, because I know you want to know about it. And it’s a question I often get asked by aspiring authors: “How much can I expect to get for my first book?”

First, let’s dispose of the “first book” question. Because the answer on that one is, it’s a total crap shoot. First book advances are completely unpredictable and involve a lot of hocus pocus, because no one really knows the potential of a first-time author. Some first books get a pitiful advance of a thousand dollars. Then there’s Elizabeth Kostova who earned a two million dollar payday for her first book, THE HISTORIAN. Which, incidentally, turned into a very good investment for her publisher, as the book will almost certainly recoup that astronomical advance. Obviously the range for first-book advances is all over the board, and depends on factors as diverse as who your agent is, whether you’ve got a compelling personal history, whether you’re a hot looking stud…

And, oh yeah, whether you’ve written a really good book.

But once we move out of first-book territory and on to authors who have a track record, then the book deals get to be a little more predictable. It’s no secret that publishing is a business, and the goal is to make money. Or at the very least, to break even. If you follow the announced deals in PUBLISHERS WEEKLY or the online website PUBLISHERS MARKETPLACE, you’ll start to get an inkling of what multi-published authors are getting. But you can also guess, knowing typical royalty rates, what an author is probably worth in real dollars. With major publishers, hardcover royalties tend to run around 12 – 15% and paperback royalties tend to be around 6- 10% of cover price. So a writer who’s sold 25,000 hardcover copies has earned $75,000 in royalties in hardcover sales alone, and his next book deal should certainly reflect that. His next advance should be, at a bare minimum, $75,000. (And we’re not even talking about paperback earnings yet, which will be on top of that.) More likely, the next advance will take into account continued growth, and will probably reach well into six figures.

But once you get into the stratosphere of NYT-bestselling authors, the numbers may no longer be anchored to real sales figures, but may soar much much higher. From my own observations of the business, authors who consistently place in the bottom third of the NYT list (Positions # 11 – 15) are worth at least a million dollars a book, North American rights. We’re talking combined hard/soft deals here, since most publishers now retain paperback rights. If you consistently place #6-10, your deals go even higher, into multi-million dollar range. Once your books consistently place in the top third, the deals become wildly unpredictable, because now we’re talking Harry Potter and Dan Brown territory. Eight-figure book deals are not out of the question.

Occasionally, you’ll hear about a deal that makes you wonder what the publisher was smoking. I’m thinking of a multi-published author who recently landed a three-book, high-seven-figure deal despite never having landed, not even once, on the NYT hardcover list. (If you’re wondering what “high-seven-figures means”, here’s a guideline to the secret code of deal announcements: “seven-figure deal” = a million bucks. “multi-million dollar deal” means 2-3 million dollars. “Substantial seven-figure deal” means 4-5 million dollars. “High-seven-figure deal” means anything from six to nine million dollars.”) Did that deal, signed with an author who’d never hit the hardcover list, make monetary sense? Not one whit. And the truth is, if that author’s next book doesn’t sell like gangbusters, someone in that publishing house has a lot to answer for when the profit/loss numbers are tallied. But clearly they had great faith in the author’s future, and were willing to roll the dice.

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