A while back I talked about potential 'side jobs' that I am interested in possibly pursuing. One of my long time aspirations is to write a book of some sort. How much money do people usually make by selling a book to a publisher?
There is no single useful answer on how much money authors make. There is wide variation and disparity in author incomes and they are very top heavy. The income of authors is very low for the bottom 90% and but much higher for the top 1%. At the top end people like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling are millionaires and make gobs of money. At the bottom end a large number of people write books and are never published and never make a cent. Among successfully published authors there is a large % of people who make a fairly meager income from their writing. With most authors making little and a handful making a large amount, looking at an average isn't going to tell us a lot. This kind of income distribution is also similar to what you see for musicians and actors.
The BLS has information on earnings for authors, writers and editors. But most of the people they measure are doing things other than writing books. There are a lot of writers who write for TV shows or write freelance for magazines or various things like that.
How Authors get Paid
Basically authors usually get an 'advance' when they sign a contract to publish a book. The publisher will write a check to the author up front. It seems common that the advance will be paid 50% on signing of contract and 50% on delivery of finished manuscript. This advance is up front money that the author gets to keep. Then authors generally also get a royalty on the sales of the book. So they might get 5-10% of the gross or net price of each book. So if they sell a paper back for $7 and they get 5% of it then that is 35¢ per copy. However they don't start seeing this money until it exceeds the amount of the advance that they already got. So if you got a $5000 advance and were getting 35¢ in royalties you would not get royalties until over 14,286 copies had been sold (14286 x .35 = 5000). The terms of the contract will vary.
Each type of book is also going to be different. You might get a higher % royalty or a higher advance for something like a technical book compared to a romance novel.
If you aren't published then you don't make anything. To get an idea of what you can make as an author it makes a bit more sense to look at how much they get paid for a typical author advance.
What authors get for Advances
I also found a survey of authors that found that the median amount for an authors advance on their first novel was $5,000. Later novels fetch higher advances generally since the author has a proven track record at that point.
Author John Scalzi talks about his income from writing in this article on his website. He wrote 4 books total over that time period. One of the books was Old Mans War which I read myself and liked. His writing income per year was as follows:
As you can see he was writing for 6 years before his income started to be significant. The first few years the income was from a book Agent To The Stars that he published for free to the web and got donations from. His first book sold to a publisher was sold in 2003. His earnings in 2003 and 2005 was mostly advances on 3 books he wrote and selling the rights for a hardcover of Agent to the Stars to a publisher. As you can see by 2006 Scalzi was making a decent wage but that was only after he'd been at it for 7 years and had 3 books bought.
More than One option to make money
I'm looking specifically at what people make by selling a book to a publisher. However this isn't the only way to make money off a book. Scalzi published his first book himself to the internet and got donations from readers. Self publishing is also becoming easier and more effective nowadays.
Bottom Line: Incomes vary greatly for book authors. A first time author can expect to make around $5,000 for the sale of their first published book.