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Is Book Writing Profitable? 5 Unique Perspectives To Consider

Sarah Rexford

These days, writers hoping to traditionally publish are encouraged to keep their day jobs. The big question is often, is book writing profitable? And it’s a good question. Because you can spend years working towards a dream only to discover there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

That said, when we look at authors like Dean Koontz or John Grisham—authors with net worths in the millions (we’re talking hundred million, minimum)—nobody bats an eye. So yes, publishing books CAN be profitable. However, is this available for everyone who travels the traditional publishing route, or just a few outliers?

Then we look at self-published authors who boast eBook royalties as high as 70%. Forbes even published an article about Amazon paying an author $450,000 per year! So again, self-publishing CAN be profitable. But we also hear stories of starving artists, earning pennies for their hard work. We watch movies featuring writers burning the candle at both ends just to make ends meet.

These dichotomies are tough to balance. Which is it? Can I earn a living from books or not? 

Whether you have written a book, are in the middle of writing a manuscript, or are thinking about writing a book one day, we hope you find the answers you’re looking for in this article. 

Is Book Writing Profitable? The Financial Aspect of Writing a Book

There are many financial aspects that come with writing a book, and your personal involvement depends on two factors:

  • How you choose to publish
  • How much responsibility you take for marketing 

If you choose to traditionally publish your book, the publisher covers the costs, pays you an advance for the privilege of publishing your project, and gives you a percentage of royalties (after you make up your advance in sales).

If you self-publish, you have the autonomy of acting as the publisher, which also means you take on all costs:

  • Editing
  • Layout
  • Cover design
  • Distribution
  • Marketing 
  • Etc.

Self-publishing doesn’t come with an advance, but a higher royalty percentage. As mentioned above, if you publish an eBook you can earn up to 70% of the selling price on Amazon.

The Time Investment 

Writing a book can take anywhere from 90 days to a year (or more). So, is book writing profitable? This question is a normal one to consider.

meme about the length of time it takes to finish writing a book. It's a scene from Jumanji where Robin William's character is asking What year is it?

Much of your time investment depends on:

  • The method you use to write
  • Whether or not you outline/plot your book before writing
  • How much time you dedicate to writing your book every day
  • The levels of editing you decide to do (developmental, copy, line, proofreading, etc.)
  • How many decisions you’re making yourself (cover, title, distribution channels, price point, etc.)

Writing methods are highly individualistic. What works for one writer may not work for another, and this is to be expected. However, when you choose to commit to writing a book, every writer can expect a significant time investment. 

The answer to our main question, is book writing profitable, often depends on quite a few external factors that change for each writing project.

Your time in the chair writing is not the only time you invest. There are multiple contributing factors:

  • The time you think about your book and mentally plan it
  • Time learning the craft of writing
  • Investment in growing your author platform
    • Social media
    • Website
    • Guest blogging 
    • Guest podcasting 
  • Time editing your work 

These are hours you can’t get back. So, is the time investment worth the financial return? That answer is for you to decide. Part of the privilege of writing is the creative aspect-completely separate from any financial gain. 

Royalties: Traditional Publishing 

Is book writing profitable when you traditionally publish? Well to start with, your royalty rates will be much smaller. Publishers award authors an advance for the privilege of publishing their book, so no matter what percentage of royalties you agree to (somewhere around 10% is average), you will make money upfront if your publisher offers an advance (not all do anymore).

If you do receive an advance, you will not make any royalties until you repay your advance from book sales. This means there are both pros and cons to receiving a large advance. Pros, you get paid upfront. Cons, that may be all you get for a while.

If your book sells extremely well due to the publisher’s marketing efforts, you will see more royalties even though the percentage is smaller than a self-published author. You also don’t have to carry the entire marketing burden alone. 

There is no right or wrong way to publish, but before you commit to a method you should carefully consider your:

  • Career goals
  • Ability to financially invest
  • If you need an advance 
  • Marketing expertise

Royalties: Self-Publishing 

On average, you can expect your self-publishing royalties to be significantly higher than royalties earned from traditional publishing. Because you are the author, the editor, marketer, and publisher, you keep most of the profits. 

After all, when you self-publish your book you take on multiple roles, which means you reap the financial benefit of those roles. This said, for royalties to come in, investment must go out. Marketing is crucial when it comes to racking up those sales.

For example, let’s say you self-publish an eBook and choose to earn 70% of the royalties. Despite your high percentage rate, you neglect to market with intentionality or invest in ads. If you choose to invest in a great marketing campaign, you can assume you’ll sell more books (although this is never a guarantee). 

Self-publishing is similar to owning a small business: The more you strategically invest upfront and the better your marketing strategy, the more you can hope to earn later on. 

Additional Tips for Authors

Regardless of whether you traditionally publish or self-publish, your platform is a vital part of bringing profit from your writing. There is a difference in platform that will help grow your income and platform that is strictly based on numbers.

For instance, Twitter (do we have to call it X now?) users often grow their platform via a follow-for-follow. Does this help sell books? Maybe. However, building a strong email list will likely boost your income more reliably. 

Also take note of the importance strong writing plays in selling your books. This may seem obvious, but for today’s writers, the more platform is stressed, the less it seems that great writing is prioritized. 

Great writing keeps readers turning pages, talking about your book, and coming back for more. Never underestimate the power of a well-crafted sentence to draw in your reader and make that next book sale. 

Finally, remember to view publishing as a marathon and not a sprint. Established writers usually take years to solidify themselves in their niche, build a solid fan base, and learn the craft well enough they can keep writing and publishing books their readers love to buy. 

“Overnight successes” are more often the result of many years of hard work put in behind the scenes. Don’t let this timeline discourage you. When you see a new author rise to bestseller status, remember that they probably spent hours, months, and years to reach this moment. 

Becoming a full-time author is much like earning your PhD and getting your first doctoral job. You invest years of time, money, and sleepless nights upfront. Once you earn your doctorate, people recognize you as credible and pay you for what you invested early for your current career. 

The same is often true for writing. It takes time to learn the craft and earn credibility in the industry, but once you have it, it’s more of a maintenance and continual slow growth as you enjoy the benefits. 

What you learn now will impact your future, so don’t miss these moments. Enjoy them, see your path as the journey it is, and as always, keep us updated on your progress! 

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