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Publishing Reality: Most NY Times Best Selling Authors Have Day Jobs

I talk to so many aspiring authors and it concerns me that some think that their book will be the key Publishing Reality: Most NY Times Best Selling Authors Have Day Jobsto retirement or a ticket to financial freedom. I hate to deliver bad news, but the fact is that a very small percentage of authors actually make a living from a single book.

Consider the financials involved. If you go with a traditional publisher, you’ll be lucky to earn $1.25 per book sold (yep, really!). If you sell 10,000 books in a year (which is a very high number and not a likely reality for most new authors), you’d earn $12,500. Not bad, but not exactly enough to live on. You also have to deduct any book advance that you received so if the publisher paid you $7,500, your net at the end of the year would be $5,000.

The numbers are better with self-publishing. Let’s say you earn $4 per book sold and sell 10,000 books. You’d earn $40,000, which ain’t bad. Of course you have to deduct your expenses for book production and promotion. Let’s say you spent $10,000, which means your net would be $30,000. Still not enough to retire on.

And I must repeat: the odds of a new author selling 10k copies in a year are pretty darn low. Sadly, the statistics for self-published authors are dim at less than 200 copies sold, total. (It takes a heck of a lot of marketing to sell books.)

The moral of the story: Very few people earn a living from books. Of course there are authors who hit the Big Time: Stephen King, James Patterson, John Grisham, Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks. And recently we’ve heard buzz from some self-published authors who have kicked some indie butt: John Locke, Amanda Hocking, and JA Konrath. But there aren’t many success stories like this. Only a lucky few hit the literary lotto.

What does that mean to your publishing future? It shouldn’t change a thing if you’re passionate about what you’re doing.

And there’s another benefit here that many people miss. Your book is a ticket to bigger and better opportunities. It can open doors to help you land speaking engagements. Readers will want to invest in your consulting services or coaching programs. A book can get you media attention, impress prospects, build an audience for your services, and can lead to opportunities you haven’t even imagined for yourself!

Just don’t count on it for your retirement portfolio and instead use it to build your empire. The rewards can still be tremendous.

14 Responses to Publishing Reality: Most NY Times Best Selling Authors Have Day Jobs

  1. Meta Brown says:


    I’d like to hear more about NYT bestselling authors and their day jobs. Who are they, what do they do?

    • Hi Meta, My point is that many authors from the best seller lists are not full-time authors. Take a look at the list at any give time, especially for non-fiction, and you’ll find business owners, speakers, kids (!), teachers, doctors, and people with a wide variety of jobs.

  2. Bill says:

    Non-fiction, yes. But can you list some NYT best selling fiction authors and their day jobs? I’m curious.

    • The NY Times Best Sellers fiction list show a lot of well-known authors, who all started out with just one book, and one commercial success CAN lead to continued appearances on the list. But remember they all started somewhere. I remember reading that James Rollins was a veterinarian for a number of years while his books began hitting the best sellers lists. After several hits, he finally gave up his practice. For the lesser known authors on the list, many have jobs. A quick scan of the current NY Times Best Seller List shows:

      Tatiana de Rosnay – Journalist
      Abraham Verghese – Professor at Stanford/doctor
      Randy Alcorn – Minister

      I could keep going, but I don’t have time. You can do the research too! The point is that authors need to make it BEFORE they quit their day jobs–and that’s not an easy thing to do. Read Stephen King’s “On Writing” for a better perspective on what it takes to truly reach success.

  3. Helen says:

    This is why I’m currently becoming a librarian – I might as well have a second job I love while I’m working towards getting published.

    When you really think about it, though, self-publishing numbers aren’t actually that high. Selling 10,000 self-published copies of a book is super rare, isn’t it?

    I’d honestly rather stick with traditional publishing, and not just for financial reasons.

    • Helen, It is indeed rare for an author to sell 10,000 copies, whether traditionally published or not! However, it’s not impossible or as difficult as say, winning the lottery! What is most important is that authors build a platform and an audience for their books to ensure they reach those big sales numbers. Best of luck to you!

  4. Scott Biddle says:

    Depending on which self-publishing model you choose to follow, these days “selling” 10,000 books might involve giving away 5,000 or more eBooks. The Amazon/Kindle model seems to focus on such an approach.

  5. T. says:

    I’m in my 30’s and haven’t worked for a few years due to health issues but need to get back to work now soon. I do have 2 university degrees, but basically hate anything to do with them. I do want to write and have time for that as much as I can….but I’m also extremely realistic. So, I want job security and stability with good job prospects and stable income. My old profession pays a lot, but I don’t think I can cope re-entering it again. So, I’m considering a (cheap) one year certificate program maybe…but I have no idea what because the only thing I want to do is write . I know I need stale income and stability in order to comfortably live and feel secure, so I’m wondering what to pursue…like bookkeeping ? accounting certificate? something in computers or administration? I have zero idea since none of that is my passion…I just want that security. Suggestions? I’m in my 30’s and have not a lot of money to devote to a program,but hoping for something…also I live in Ontario Canada so…anyway, help, i need a life coach 🙂

    • Oh goodness, Tara! There are a lot of writers out there who DO make a full-time living doing what they love. Have you considered freelance writing? There are some good books out there on how to go about this career choice. You would be self-employed, but it can be a fun and interesting career choice. I don’t have any experience with certificate-type programs, though a life coach is a great idea. I highly recommend Jenifer Novak Landers at Best of luck!

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  8. I’m 22 (in November at least). And I just realized how much I love writing. I knew I liked it but I had no idea I loved it until I spent 30 days writing as therapy after a nasty break up. So often I do have dreams of writing that first knock out book and turning into my own version of Hank Moody with a Charlie Runkle and a Karen to add flavor to my life. Then again, realistically speaking I always had the notion that this was unlikely to happen and that the ”life of a creative” was not one I could live comfortably on especially since I’m still a student studying CIMA which is completely different from the artsy side of me in every aspect. Up until now I can safely say I was dead convinced that somehow writing would give me that life I imagined and somehow management accounting would be a hobby except I had no idea how that would work because I knew I needed to be able to afford spending days on end finding inspiration so I decided that the writing would suffice.

    My point… I needed the reality check. I needed to know the same people I dream of being didn’t just wish on a star and boom there it was… they had to work hard and spend probably years breaking their backs for the writing to suffice.

    Thank you so much. Now I can regroup my thoughts and dreams.

    Namaste 🙂

    • Oh wow, don’t give up on your dreams–just PLAN for them. Most writers do have to make money elsewhere for the time being (though you could also pursue a career in freelance writing). It does take time and effort to build an author platform and sell enough books to make a living, but the journey there is half the fun! Best wishes to you!

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