How Much an Author Makes Off Their Books

This is the fourth of my essays about being an author, brought to you by my Patreon page.

One of the most common questions an author gets is "how can I buy your book to support you best?" It comes from readers who want to know what format (be it ebook, audio, or physical) authors make the most money from, or whether we get paid for secondhand purchases or other such considerations. It's a great question, and we love getting it because it means that reader is taking the time to consider the person behind their favorite books.

The standard answer is "however is most convenient for you" because, let's face it, the difference of a dollar or less coming to us is nothing compared to getting a lifelong fan who is reading our books in whatever format is most comfortable for them. But I have some fans who want to press a little further and make sure they get every penny they can into my hands and, not being one to argue, I thought I'd share the breakdown.

A small caveat—a lot of people will be shocked at how small of a percentage an author makes from the books that are being sold. I'm not going to talk about why this is, or why I'm fairly satisfied with my cut, because I addressed it last year in my post on the Cost of a Good Book. I'm also talking strictly traditionally-published numbers here and not self-published.

Here's the short version ordered from the most monetarily-beneficial to least. This is based on my own experiences, which are pretty much industry standard for the big publishers but may vary depending on prices and contract terms:

  1. purchasing direct from the author
  2. hardcover
  3. audiobook
  4. ebook
  5. borrowing from libraries
  6. trade paperback
  7. mass market paperback
  8. secondhand
  9. piracy

The first thing you'll notice is that list is pretty much in order of how expensive the books are to the readers in first place. No big surprise there. But let's take a closer look at each of these and see what the author is getting paid.

Not every author offers books for sale from their own website. But for those that do, this is by far the best way to support them because it means they'll be acting as their own bookstore and taking that cut on top of their standard payment by way of royalties, whatever those might be. So, say you picked up a copy of Promise of Blood in hardcover from my store. I charge cover price of $24. I purchased the books in bulk from distributor for about $16 each, so I get that difference of $8. I also get my standard 10% royalty of $2.40. Of course, this means I also have to deal with stocking, customer service, packaging, shipping, and all that, but I've decided it's well worth the time and cost. Direct author cut on Promise of Blood in hardcover: $10.40

If an author doesn't sell their books themselves, the best way to support them is buying in hardcover (which, of course, not all authors have). As mentioned above, I make 10% off my hardcovers. But that's 10% off the cover price. Meaning if you get a new copy of Autumn Republic off Amazon for $18, I'm still going to make the full $2.60 off the $26 original price. Hardcover author cut on Promise of Blood: $2.40

Audiobooks are a weird thing because, while my contract says that I make 25% of net (meaning 25% of what my publisher is paid), the number is constantly going up and down depending on whether a reader bought it directly from Audible, or used an Audible credit, or bought it during a sale, or what have you. So all I can really give you is the average I make according to my royalty statement. Audio author cut from Promise of Blood: $2.15

I've put ebooks on the list above trade paperbacks and below audiobooks, but to be honest they could hold a different spot depending on pricing. Like audio, I make 25% of net on ebooks. So, 25% of what my publisher makes which is a number I'm not entirely clear on. It depends on the publisher and their deal with the ebook distributors. I've heard 70% of sale price thrown around as standard. Assuming 70%, that means I make 25% of 70% of whatever you paid for the ebook. If you paid $13, that means I got $2.28. If you got it on sale for $1.99, that means I made $.35. Promise of Blood was on sale for many months for $1.99 in a (successful) attempt to rack up sales before Crimson Campaign came out. That means the average amount of made from Promise of Blood in ebook is much, much lower than books two or three. For sake of simplicity, I'll use the $9.99 price point. Ebook author cut from Promise of Blood: $1.75

Putting library borrows in this spot, or rather any spot at all, is kind of arbitrary and I'm sure people can make a good argument for it being higher or lower. Libraries pay the same as anyone else for physical books, and a very large markup on ebooks and audiobooks, and then they lend them to an unknown number of patrons for free. So why is it here? Does this mean I'd rather someone borrow my books from a library than buy it in trade paperback? No... but I think a library patron's contribution to a writer's income is incredibly important and I have a soft spot for libraries. Every borrow gets my name out there and talked about for free (as far as the patrons are concerned), and still puts some money in my pocket. What's more, every borrow of my books in hardcover makes it more likely they'll have to replace it when it comes out in paperback, and/or they'll buy the hardcovers of the next two books as soon as they're out. Libraries are an author's best friend. Library borrow author cut from Promise of Blood: ?

Trade paperbacks have the same sort of deal as the hardcovers (percent of gross), but with a slightly lower percentage. Probably to account for the larger risk of the larger printings. For me, that means 7.5% of cover price goes into my pocket. Trade paperback author cut from Promise of Blood: $1.20

Same deal with the mass market paperbacks, except that they generally cost half as much as trade and a third as much as hardcovers so they're not making the author much money at all. To do very well in mass market, an author has to depend on very high volume. Now, my books have not been made into mass market and I'm not sure if they ever will, so my number will be an assumption based on an $8 price point and 8% royalty rate. Mass market paperback author cut from Promise of Blood: $.64

I've had a few people ask about secondhand books. An author makes no money off of books you buy from Half Price or the "used" section of Amazon. However, these books have already been sold once, which makes them good and paid for as far as I'm concerned. Sometimes I've made full price off the original sale ($2.40 on a hardcover) and sometimes I've been paid pennies on a bulk sale of remainders. But regardless, they've gone through the right channels. Would I prefer you buy my books new? Certainly. Would I be annoyed that you bought them used? Absolutely not. I love used books. For fiction I almost exclusively buy new, but I get most of my non-fiction from Half Price Books because it lets me try out things that may or may not be useful on the cheap. Secondhand author cut from Promise of Blood: $0

I'm not going to get into the whole piracy debate thing here, because it's kind of tiresome. Some argue that every book pirated is the same as a lost sale, while others argue that pirating helps get the word out and is used most often as a preview for things the person will buy in the future. Like I deal with most issues, I try to walk the middle of the road: I don't go all self-righteous on people who feel the need to pirate for whatever reason, but I absolutely will not condone a pirating of one of my books. If you want one of my books for free then please, please go get it from your local library. That's what they're there for. Piracy author cut of Promise of Blood: $0

All in all, the best "reader cost" to "author paid" ratio seems to be ebooks but, as I said, all these things vary depending on a variety of circumstances that include small clauses in an author's contract that changes how much they get paid depending on different circumstances, like remaindering or books sold internationally. In the end, though, making a living as an author depends largely on volume of sales after you've earned out your advance. I could talk about the way all of that works at greater length, but I think I'm going to save it for a future post.

At the end of the day you should buy books in the format you enjoy the most—but if you do change it up for my benefit, you have my eternal gratitude. And if you want to find out a little more about helping your favorite author, go read what my friend and fellow Orbit author Sam Sykes has to say about reviews and word of mouth.