How Much Money Do You Make When You Write A Book?

Let’s take a second to chat about how the book bid-ness works, at least for us. Sometimes we get hilarious and adorable comments like this: “Holy cow, your book was a New York Times bestseller! Congrats! You must be rich!!” …

… and it makes us realize that other than fleetingly mentioning how the whole book deal thing works in this blogiversary video (around 17:10 near the end), we haven’t really talked about it at all. So since folks have been requesting more behind the scenes details on the subject (even from as early as September of last year when we did the Q&A video below) this post is well overdue. Let’s dive in and over-share, shall we? Spoiler alert: Donald Trump, we’re not. But that’s ok. We’re cheap-os and we know it (please sing that to the tune of “we’re sexy and we know it” out loud in whatever room/office/subway car you’re currently inhabiting).

As we mentioned in the video, this book thing has always been for the fun and the amazement of seeing our names in print. It has never been about money, which is a good thing since that’s not usually what comes a-rollin’ in when you’re a first time author (well, not unless you’re Lena Dunham apparently).

The way that a book usually works is that the author gets a fee for all of the work that they do before the book comes out. This is called an advance. In our case, being first time authors, it was a modest advance. Someone like Stephen King might be able to buy a yacht with his. Ours… no yacht. Actually, if you break our advance down across the time over the past two years that we’ve spent outlining the book, writing the proposal, pitching the book, writing the manuscript, revising the manuscript, doing projects for the book, shooting the book, and editing the book we probably made around five dollars an hour while working on it (we didn’t keep a time log or anything, but that’s our best guess). So yeah, John probably earned more per hour at his high school library job of shelving books than he did writing one (especially since he’s splitting that $5 wage with me – ha!).

But you won’t see us complaining. It’s an amazing opportunity (one we’d almost be happy to have done for free – just don’t tell our publisher) so that’s why we said “holycowyes!” to a book. If you’re a first time author like us, we actually wouldn’t recommend writing a book for the money (you’d probably be really let down if you were just in it for the dough). Instead, I’d recommend doing it for the experience and the thrill of seeing your words in a bookstore and your book on your mom’s coffee table… that’s a pretty freaking awesome moment.

The way it works, at least how it worked for us, is that first you get that modest advance (paid out in smaller installments throughout the book-writing process) and then a few years later after the book is out in print (it typically takes around 2-3 years for it to go from concept to being printed) you get into the “book royalty” area. We’ve been told that many authors only earn their advance but never “make it” to receiving royalties, since it necessitates selling enough books for the author to hit their royalty point. See, the publisher actually doesn’t pay us a penny until their book sales earn back all of the advance they paid us plus money they spent on the illustrator, the photographer, etc. So it’s not until they earn all of that book-making money back that we’ll start receiving royalties (which are also pretty modest since we’re first timers).

We’re nowhere close to hitting that royalty point. Maybe in a year or two we’ll get there. Maybe sooner. And maybe never. But assuming our publisher eventually makes all that money back, they’ll start issuing our little royalty checks twice a year. Once we hit that point we’ll make around a dollar or two per book (royalties are a very small percentage of the heavily discounted price that a bookstore pays per book, which is usually around half of the book’s cover price – and it can vary by vendor). But as of today, we haven’t seen a book check since the last installment of our advance came a year ago.

So we thought that was an interesting tidbit to share. We never really knew how it worked, so learning that an author doesn’t get paid when the book comes out or with the sale of each book was enlightening to us. And a year ago if we saw someone get on the NY Times bestseller list, even for just a week, we’d probably assume they no longer use toilet paper and prefer to use hundy dolla bills to wipe their bestselling author buns. It’s so not like that around here. We use gold bars. Just kidding. Those would be cold.

We also always assumed authors got paid when they toured – even just a little bit to offset the work they’re unable to do while on the road (our tour stretches over four months) but that isn’t the case, at least for us it’s not. But they cover the travel expenses and dude, we’ve had the opportunity to meet so many of you! And I’ve achieved my lifelong goal of getting to sign ceramic animals! And that, my friends, is the beauty of book-writing. Plus, you know what they say: Mo money, mo problems ceramic animals and then your husband wants to kill you.

Another reason we thought this post would be helpful is that we don’t want to embark on any big projects without explaining that we’re paying for them in the same way that we’ve always paid for things (the old penny-saving-over-time method that we know and love). Our book agent actually said it’s somewhat rare for a first time author to make more money on the back end of a book than on the front end (meaning that your modest advance is usually the most any first time author will see from a book) so we’ve known that from day one, which is really nice when it comes to setting expectations and all that good stuff.

As is the case for a lot of other things in our life, we did this for the love. Corny but true. The fact that you guys share photos like this with us? Seriously, it makes our chests all swelly and bursty. Even John’s stony man-heart.

Plus when it came to the actual deals that publishers were offering us, we wanted to choose who we worked with based on things other than the money. For example, a few other publishers wanted to create a big $50 coffee table book with us, and we felt a lot less comfortable with that. So one huuuge reason that we went with our publisher (thereby choosing this deal) was because they “got us” and allowed us to be our dorky selves on every page while slapping an approachable price tag on the thing.

So all of this is just to say that we’re more committed than ever to keeping it real, saving cash whenever we can, and squirreling away extra pennies towards future projects, just like we always have. There’s no Rolls Royce and Beverly-Hills-ish plastic surgery in our future but I fantasize about completely different things anyway. Like Clara’s big girl room. Dude, who’s excited about Clara’s big girl room?! $herdog is beside herself (you know she only uses the third person when she’s really hyped). Last night I was making up rap names for the whole family. Burger could be Potato Skinz. And Clara could be Small Fry. Catchy, right? And I tried to change John’s name from J-Boom to Applebeez or Bloomin’ Onion but he wasn’t having it.

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for explaining how a book deal works. I was wondering about that! I have no ambitions in the direction though! I am a louzy writer!

  2. Rachel says

    Thanks for the insight into the process! I think I speak for most of your readers when I say… we were never really worried about you guys going all Hollywood on us. ;)

    Read my copy cover to cover this weekend with a deck of Post-it note flags! The love and values and personality you guys pour into your projects just oozes out of that binding.

    …and I am TOTALLY with Emma’s comment above re: setting up a rider for your next book tour. “I SAID NO PLASTIC SLIPCOVERS!”

  3. says

    OMG OMG OMG I definitely just spit my drink out when I read “prefer to use hundy dolla bills to wipe their bestselling author buns.” Classic.

    Loved the breakdown too because I was in the boat with you guys – I just thought once you were published you made it big time! :)

  4. says

    Posts like these make me love you guys even more….thanks for keeping it real all the time!

    and THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for letting your fans have a chance at grinning like an idiot in front of you guys!!!!

  5. Kristi says

    Thanks for sharing in classic thuglife style, because I, for one, was very curious about that aspect. I mean, I was pretty sure that you weren’t rolling in it (or wiping with it), but I did wonder how much a big-time book like this would change one’s income. And it is nice to know that you aren’t getting mega-rich…sorry, but I just don’t want that for you :-)

  6. says

    Thanks so much for sharing! I always assumed NYT best sellers got swimming pools of gold coins and parades everywhere they go. :P

    Your book is my favorite design book of all time- so just imagine a mini parade in your honor! :)

  7. says

    The behind the scenes info is so interesting! For most of us it’s so far away it’s not even a line on the horizon (more like the tiny dots that we usually accidentally produce on our favorite pair of jeans while painting)… ha ha! Anyhow, now I’m smarter than before and that’s more than most people can say about their average Tuesday ;-)

  8. says

    See…posts like these are why I love your blog. There are a lot of talented designers/DIYers/home decor bloggers out there, but your openness with the nuts and bolts details of your business is both refreshing and enlightening. I knew that first time authors don’t make much on books, but I never knew WHY. Now I get it. All thanks to you guys. I feel so lucky to have found your blog!

  9. says

    Thank you so much for the insight- i had NO idea that’s how it all worked out! I definitely appreciate that you guys kept it at a reasonable pricepoint!!!

    I didn’t read through all the comments- but did you share how many you’ve sold to date? If that is the rudest question ever- please ignore it! Just wondering with all the cities you’ve been to how many have flown off the shelves so far!

    xo lp

  10. Betty says

    Great post.By the way where is the turquoise and cream pillow next to the stack of paper from? Love it.

  11. says

    Obviously we were all curious about this, but I suspected that you guys weren’t swimming in it Scrooge McDuck-style, since this was your first book.
    I saw Augusten Burroughs speak a few years back and he said, “contrary to popular belief, no one shows up at your door with a van full of cash when you become an NYT best-seller.”…thus crushing all of my pending get-rich-quick schemes.