I remember finishing my first book and wondering what I would do for insurance... how would I let my boss down easily... because surely it would be sold within the year and I would be able to quit my day job. I had long debates with myself about how large an advance I would get and how many books a year could make up for my salary (I was thinking maybe 2).
Man was I clueless!
I've seen some pretty good agent blogs on the matter and I think I am finally getting a feel for how it works. A few REALLY LUCKY people, and an even FEWER really TALENTED people make a FORTUNE. They do this by writing something timed so perfectly with what SEVERAL publishing houses think is the next big thing (the timing piece is where luck comes in) that the books go to AUCTION and they get six figure advances for their first books, or they sell MOVIE RIGHTS (this is when JK Rowling really started to get rich, though her American contract did pretty well, as authors go—she made very little for her first 3 in the UK).
The rest of us schmucks just better hope we have a back-up income until we've spent years proving ourselves to have a nice, reliable sales record. After twenty or so books, I figure maybe the trickle of royalties (provided not very many go out of print) will about make me comfortable selling 3 books a year (which is all I think I could write well, and THEN only with no day job). Of course I need that proven sales record so my advances keep going up, too...
But what does THAT mean in dollars and cents (or Euros or Pounds)?
The harder for US to sell to THEM, the better the money. Best bet? THRILLERS or MAIN STREAM. Thrillers take 6 of 10 best seller spots at any given time (with James Patterson hogging three of those). That makes them the surest money for publishers, which makes them the best money for AUTHORS—if you can nail it. WRITING a thriller is a lot harder than it sounds. For the publisher to put the thriller label on it, it has to be a total page-turner, and lets face it. We'd ALL write a page turner if we could! Don't we ALL aspire to a book nobody can put down? I think if you can actually SELL a book AS A THRILLER (and they believe you instead of changing the label to suspense) you can probably get $50K minimum. But I think it is far more common to have them say, 'naw, this is suspense' and put you at closer to to 10K-30K range.
Now a book that takes you a year or two to write only earning $10K is a REALLY depressing idea... but that money is the ADVANCE. It is what they feel pretty sure they will earn. You sell more than the books needed to pay out that advance (known as selling through), you can earn more... the money can trickle in for as long as it's in print. It just only trickles in at maybe $2 a book for a fat hard back, or 70 cents a book for a paperback... (so you need to keep selling yourself)
Seems like this $10K-30K is sort of standard fare for books that go to hard cover print (unless you can get a lot of buzz going—win a contest, get a couple houses excited at once). In every genre, there are much bigger money makers—YA seems promising right now. People are buying it from the stores, so publishers are paying for them at better rates than a lot of adult stuff.
TRADE—these are the genre books that go straight to paperback—this is the gig I've got going... they can be closer to $5K a book or less (they CAN be more, but not typically for debut unless you've written a really bang-up book before getting the deal*), and it depends on the size of the publisher. The UP side of this is they are part of systems that nearly always sell through. Romance and mystery readers are the type of people who read a book every day, so you can imagine why they turn to these less expensive books, rather than buy $30 hard covers all the time.
* And I am noting—this is one of the only ways FICTION seems to give deals to an author before the book is written. An expert with some skill can sell non-fiction before it's done if they have a fabulous platform, but in fiction, these serials that are part of trade paperbacks seem to be the only way it happens that you don't have to finish the book first--at least for debut.
So I apologize if I've burst any bubbles... but chances are you should have a back up plan until you have one of these wacky, unpredictable events happen...
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons