How to make money from your novel

Let’s imagine you’ve written your novel. You’ve got an agent and/or publisher. The world is your oyster and you’ve got dollar signs lighting up your eyes. You know that a book is a commodity, that sales mean (at least some) money – but where does the money come from? And how else could your book make you money, beyond just flogging copies of it out of the boot of your car?

photo: Gladstone’s Library

The first thing to say is that most authors are not millionaires. So before you start shopping for your luxury yacht, a touch of realism:

Writing doesn’t pay well. Sorry. (If you don’t believe me, check out this info from the Society of Authors.)

Fiction pays slightly better than, say, poetry, but there’s still a lot of disparity within the form, and how much your novel makes will depend on a number of factors, including but not limited to: the genre, whether it’s standalone or part of a series, your publisher, their vision for the book, who reads it and happens to promote it online, whether bookshops get behind it, whether it wins or is shortlisted for any prizes, whether it gets picked up for film or TV (more on that later), your own part in promoting it, and of course, absolute luck.

That said, with fiction, it is technically possible to make a living solely from the books you write. It just isn’t easy.

I’m not saying this to put you off trying (please please don’t let me put you off trying), but just to be honest. (I write an annual blog post about all the various ways I’ve made a living in the previous year, of which the actual writing is only a part.)

But, if you were to make a living solely or even partly from the books, where might that money come from?

Grants & Prizes

Believe it or not, it is actually possible to get money for a book before it’s published, or even before you’ve finished writing it. Highly competitive, yes, but possible.

Generally, this comes in two forms: prizes (a kind of ‘well done, you’re amazing’ for part of the book you’ve already written) and grants (a kind of ‘well done, you’re amazing, here’s some money to write / finish the book’). Different prizes and grants have different stipulations for entry. Some require you to be unpublished. Others require you to have written & published at least two full-length books. Some want you to have finished the book, but not have a publisher (often with these, the prize includes publication and/or agent representation). Some only need to see the first few thousand words.

So where do you find out about them?

A couple of years ago, I put together a twitter thread of resources for writers, which includes places you can look for things like prizes & grants – as well as for residencies.

Residencies are another way to fund the writing of your novel. They don’t all pay, but if you can get one that does, it can be a way to make your book pay even while you’re writing it.

A kitchen table, with a cactus, a lit candle, a notebook and pen, and a mug of coffee

Advance & Royalties

This is the main way most authors get paid for their work, and is the money which comes from books actually being sold in bookshops / online, and is split into two (related) sections: advances and royalties.

Royalties are perhaps easier to understand, so let’s start there.

For every book that’s sold, the author gets a cut. It isn’t usually a big cut, though the percentage you get as a writer will depend on your contract, and whether you have an agent, and whether you’re self-published or published through a traditional publisher. For a traditionally published writer, this tends to be around 10-15%, depending on the edition / number of copies sold.

Self-published writers tend to take a bigger cut, but you also have to do more of the work, and you have to become an expert in multiple areas of the publishing industry. You also don’t get to see any of the money until after copies of the book have been sold. In other words, if you’re self-published, you won’t get an advance.

An advance is one of the big differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing. It’s basically a down-payment on royalties, made to you by the publisher and agreed when you sign the contract. Advances can range from £100 into the hundreds of thousands (though that’s rare), and depend on how much the publisher thinks they can make from your book. What’s its market potential? How many copies will it sell? Will it sell abroad (more on this later)?

Usually, an advance is paid in 3 or 4 chunks: on signing the contract; on delivery of the finished manuscript; on publication (sometimes split into hardback and paperback publication). Then, any royalties the book makes go towards paying off that advance.

Let’s say you get a £5000 advance. Your book costs £10 and you earn 10% royalties – so £1 per book. For the first 5000 copies, you won’t get any extra money, because you’ve already had it in your advance. Once that advance is ‘paid off’, you’ll start seeing royalty cheques. So if your book sells 6000 copies, you’ll be due £1000 in royalties. NB: If your book only sells 4000 copies, you won’t have to pay that extra £1000 back to the publisher. The advance is yours.

Foreign Rights

Books don’t just sell in the UK. If your book is translated into another language (or if it’s picked up by an American publisher as well), then you’ll get money for that, too. How you get this money depends on your contract, and what your advance is for.

When you sign with a publisher, there are two main types of contract: UKCW (UK & Commonwealth, excluding Canada), and World.

If you have a UKCW contract, the publisher can publish & distribute your book in the UK, and in places like Australia & New Zealand, as well as certain English Language bookshops abroad. But they can’t sell the rights for it to be translated. Those rights remain with you – which is where a good agency comes in handy, as the agent (usually a dedicated foreign rights team within the agency that your own agent is part of) will try to sell those rights off individually to foreign publishers. Each time your rights are sold, you get a new advance. For example, you might get a US advance, a German advance, and a Japanese advance, which means you get a new publisher in each of those countries, and a new advance / royalty agreement.

If you have a World contract with your publisher, then the publisher handles all of this instead of the agent. There’s still a new advance each time, but it doesn’t come to you directly. Instead, it goes towards paying off that initial advance the publisher paid you. Think of it like this: the publisher has already paid you a load of money, so they need to make that back before they can pay you any more.

The plus side to this, is that you (or your agent) can demand a bigger advance from the publisher for World rights. The down side is that you only get that payment once – until, as with royalties, you ‘earn out’ (i.e. you earn enough to cover that initial publisher’s advance).

new year writing resolutions: Katie Hale

PLR / ALCS

Royalties aren’t the only way to make money from people reading your book. After all, not every book is bought. Some are borrowed.

Ever wondered about the difference between pirating a copy of a book online, or borrowing it from the library? Well, when you borrow from the library, you’re not only supporting an excellent community-focused service. You’re also paying the author – and at no cost to you. Let’s just stop and think for a moment about how great that is. You get to read a book without paying a penny for it, and the person who wrote it is still getting paid. Wow.

This money comes to the author via PLR (Public Lending Rights). PLR is administered by the British Library, with funding from the Deparment of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. Once your book is published, you can register with them as an author, and then individually register your books. Then, once a year, you should receive a small payment, based on how many times your book has been borrowed from the library.

Another annual payment comes from ALCS (Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society).

I’ll be honest, I understand where this money comes from a lot less. The payment is for ‘secondary rights’ – so, when a school photocopies a textbook, or when libraries outside the UK (and not covered by PLR) lend copies of your book. The important thing for this post, though, is that it’s a source of income for your book. Like with PLR, you have to register your books, and then you get a nice little payment once or twice a year, depending on how much you’re owed.

You have to pay for membership of ALCS – but lifetime membership costs just £36 at the time of writing, and you can easily make that back. Or, if you’re a member of the Society of Authors (which I recommend for all writers), then you get your ALCS membership included.

My writing life - Katie Hale

Prizes (again)

Prizes don’t just happen before the book is published. They also happen afterwards. Think of things like the Booker Prize, the Women’s Prize, the Costa Awards. These are a few of the big ones, but there will also be a host of other prizes your book might be eligible for – prizes that are specific to your genre or location.

Prizes usually come with an actual prize, as the name suggests: money, which the winner (and sometimes shortlisted writers) are awarded as a congratulations on their excellent novel.

But this isn’t the only way a prize can earn you money – because prizes also affect sales.

If your book wins the Costa, it’s likely to get pushed closer to the front of the shop. It’ll be on the table near the door in Waterstones, so people see it as soon as they come in. It might be in the window, calling to people in the street. It’ll be on this bookshop e-news, or that recommended reading list. Online booksellers might push it to their front page, or further up their algorithms. If enough people buy it, it might make it onto a bestseller list, which pushes it up these algorithms even more.

More sales = more royalties, which either goes further to paying off your advance, or, once that’s done, means more money in your bank account.

If you’re a traditionally published writer, your publisher will usually submit your book to these on your behalf – though if there are regional / local / particular prizes you happen to know about, you can always mention them to your publisher and request to be submitted.

Self-published books tend not to be eligible for a lot of these prizes – though there are also prizes which are solely for self-published books. The best way to find out about these tends to be sitting down one evening with a glass of wine and google, and making a list for yourself.

A desk covered in bits of manuscript, with shelves of notebooks above

Adaptations

So many writers have that dream: our book is picked up by a big Hollywood producer, it becomes a box office hit, and we make our millions. Extra money, for a book we’ve already written and shelved.

Easy, right?

Not exactly.

For every book you see adapted into a film, hundreds more haven’t made the cut. Firstly, the right person has to read your book and think it might make a good film. (This is where things like sales and prizes come in handy – the more people read your book, the bigger chance there is that one of them will be someone who makes those kinds of commissioning decisions.)

So, let’s say a producer reads and loves your book. Great! Fanastic! Well done you! Usually what happens is they’ll put in an offer for option rights, usually for a period of 18 months to 2 years. This doen’t mean they’re allowed to make the film. What it means is that, for that length of time, you’re not allowed to sell the film rights to anyone else. This then gives the production company 18-24 months to decide whether they want to make the film or not.

Films are phenomenally expensive to make. Seriously – the amount of money involved in making even a small indie film is mind-boggling. That kind of money takes time to find.

At the end of the option contract period, the production company has a choice. They can:

  • buy the actual film rights, which will be a deal with more money attached to it, often a percentage of the film budget (usually with a floor and ceiling amount), or sometimes a percentage of box office take
  • take out another option contract, giving them another 18-24 months to find the funds (with another payment for you as the author)
  • say thank you but no thank you, and walk away (which means you get the film rights back, and, if someone else is interested, begin the whole process again with somebody else)

It’s worth noting that even a film adaptation doesn’t guarantee the big bucks. Joanne Harris is quoted as saying she only received £5000 for the film version of Chocolat. Though it’s also worth nothing that film isn’t the only adaptation. Your book could also be adapted for TV, theatre, radio, game, comic… The options are as many as there are art forms.

As with prizes, an adaptation can also push up sales of your book, as the title becomes something people recognise. Your publisher might release a film-cover version of your book, for example, and this will push a book which has been out a few years back into bookshops.

I bought some fancy coloured gel pens for editing

Extracts

Sometimes, a magazine will print an extract of a book. Or a radio programme might broadcast a first chapter, or an abridged version. Or a section of your book might appear in somebody else’s book (especially if you’re a poet, for example, who might be featured in an anthology, or if you write non-fiction and your work might be quoted).

Because of UK copyight law, all these things mean you would be owed money. Usually, these come in as requests to your agent and / or publisher, but it’s worth keeping an eye out yourself for opportunities as well.

Talks & Book Tours

This one is cheating slightly, because it isn’t just resting on your laurels and making money from the book you’ve already written. You actually have to do something extra for this. I promise you, though, it’s worth it.

How do readers find out about your book? Unless you’re a household name (if you are, then well done, you – and why are you reading this post?) or have a phenomenal social media following, then you need to find ways of persuading people that they want to buy your book. Some of this is out of your hands (reviews in national papers, marketing by your publisher etc), but some of it is much more small-scale, but can have a much higher impact. I’m talking, of course, about book events.

Speaking & reading at festivals and event series can be a great way of getting the message to readers that they really ought to be reading your book – which can translate to sales & royalties, or PLR payments if people borrow it from the library. But you should also be paid for the event itself, too.

The Society of Authors publishes a list of observed rates for things like talks, readings, panel discussions.

Archive

I’ll be honest – I don’t know masses about this. I don’t know how it works, or at what point it becomes an option. All I know is that, during a tutorial at university once, we were told about the phenomenal possibility of a university wanting to purchase your archive.

I’m assuming you need to have more than just one or two books for this to be a possibility – I think you might need to be the sort of writer who has their works studied and read over and over.

All I know is that we had it drilled into us: DO NOT THROW AWAY YOUR DRAFTS.

I’m assuming, the more comprehensive your archive, the more a university might offer you for it. As I say, this one isn’t really my area of expertise. But that doesn’t stop me having an attic full of manuscripts in plastic boxes, just in case!

Other Related Work

This last one is vague, but I wanted to acknowledge that you never know where a book is going to take you, or what other work might arise from it. You never know who might have read it, what projects they might have which mesh with yours, what opportunities might emerge. If you have a way that people can contact you (even if it’s just a page on your website, directing them to contact your agent), then the possibilities are there.

It pays (often literally) to keep an open mind.


I hope you enjoyed this post, and found it useful! If you did, then, in the spirit of authors earning money, please do support me by buying a copy of my novel, My Name is Monster. It won’t give you any extra income advice, but it will (I hope) be a good read!

Available from all good retailers, but I have a particular fondness for my lovely local indie, who will ship your order anywhere in the world.

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