The following is an excerpt from my e-booklet Write That Nonfiction Book Already: A Practical Guide for Writing a Successful Book, from Conception to Publication.
I want to share with you some honest information about my book earnings over the last several years. I offer this not to brag, but to show you what’s possible. Many authors make less than I do on books, and that’s just because of a bunch of factors, from subject matter to genre to platform to weird twists of fate. Many authors make way more than I do. In any case, the more information we all have about that unspeakable thing known as “the book advance,” the better off we all are in terms of making choices for ourselves.
Keep in mind a bunch of caveats, including the fact that my agent gets 15 percent of all this, and roughly another third or so goes to taxes. And if you’re an author without a day job, you have to pay for your own health insurance, retirement, and other benefits. All of that said, here’s a year-by-year breakdown of my book income as an author of pop culture histories published by Big Five houses in recent years:
2015: $35,000 (delivery of the manuscript for Seinfeldia)
You get paid in chunks for a nonfiction book: one chunk on signing the contract, one for delivering the manuscript, one on hardcover publication, and then sometimes one on paperback publication. I was paid in thirds in this case: signing, delivery, hardcover.
2016: $83,000 (publication of Seinfeldia, sale of Polish rights to a book I co-wrote called Sexy Feminism, signing a deal for Sex and the City and Us, and sale of calendar rights to Seinfeldia)
The Polish rights were just $500, but better than nothing! And these calendars became a nice little passive income stream. They’re desk calendars that give you trivia every day, gleaned from my books.
2017: $94,000 (earning-out bonus for Seinfeldia, royalties for Seinfeldia, calendar royalties for Seinfeldia)
My agent negotiated a contract stipulation that I’d get a $50,000 bonus against future royalties if I “earned out” — that is, if I made back my advance based on the cut of every book sale that I get. (This is usually 10 to 15 percent, varying by contract and by hardcover versus paperback.) It’s rare to earn out, so this is often a little perk that’s easy for publishers to throw in as an enticement and not end up using. I got lucky on this one. I received my next $50,000 in royalties in that one big bonus check. In general, after you earn out, you start earning royalties at that 10 to 15 percent rate as long as books are still selling. They come in batches twice a year.
2018: $106,600 (delivery of the manuscript for Sex and the City and Us, calendar royalties for Seinfeldia, royalties for Seinfeldia, calendar rights for Seinfeldia, publication of Sex and the City and Us, calendar rights for Sex and the City and Us)
This was a good year and I have the tax bill to prove it. You can see from this run of figures how much things can vary from year to year. And no, it doesn’t always follow an endless trajectory upwards, but things do clearly build on one another.