The Economics of Writing Novels

Two statistics explain the economics of writing novels. The first is that it typically takes 2,000 hours to write a novel and the second is that only 1% of novels get published. Let’s examine these. First, 2,000 hours is how much someone works at a fulltime job in a year (40 hours per week times 50 weeks). This seems a little high to me. I can come up with a reasonable draft of a novel, if I spend 2 hours writing per day for a year. That makes 700 hours. Add editing and I can come up with 1,000 hours. Because 1,000 hours seems more realistic than 2,000, I’m going to say an author puts in the same amount of effort writing a novel as someone working a fulltime job for 6 months.

Anne Lamott said only 1% of novels get published in a talk she gave 15 years ago. Admittedly, this was before the boom in self-publishing so she must have been talking about novels accepted by big publishing houses. I’ll assume that most authors who make money still have to go through big publishers so I will use this statistic in my discussion. But is this number reasonable?

The first step in getting a deal with a big publisher is finding a literary agent. I asked an agent what portion of submitted manuscripts she agreed to represent. She told me 1 in 5,000. In the past I’ve typically queried roughly 100 literary agents for each of my books. If this is common, the chance of having their book accepted by an agent would be 1 in 50. Add a factor of 2 for whether an agent can sell the book and you get Anne Lamott’s 1%.

Here’s what being an unknown novelist is like. Imagine you get a job at Burger Planet. You go to work each day but don’t take home a paycheck. At the end of 6 months, your boss gives you a pair of dice. If you roll 9 boxcars in a row, your boss will pay you sometime in the next decade. But it’s worse than that. Novelists often have to hire editors to polish their manuscripts. The fee is usually 2 cents per word so for a 50,000-word novel (which is pretty short), this would cost $1,000. So our imaginary burger worker is not only unlikely to get paid but he has to buy his own grill. I’ve read a publisher’s advance on a novel is typically $5,000 (if they even give advances any more). So minus the $1,000 for editing, a novelist has a 1% chance of making $4,000 for 1,000 hours of effort. That is, he earns $4 per hour, less than minimum wage. What about the money our author earns on book sales? Sadly, most books never make back their advance. But it’s worse than that. Several articles advise authors to spend their advance on marketing. Now our fictional food worker has to spend his salary buying ads for the burger shack, too. Welcome to the glamorous world of writing!

What should we do about this? I don’t know. But if we care about books, shouldn’t we pay the people who create them for their effort?

7 thoughts on “The Economics of Writing Novels”

  1. Sad but true. Even when an author gets picked up by a trad publisher, that author must also market and self-promote or run the risk of getting dropped and black-balled by the trad publisher. I personally know one author who signed with one of the Big Five. The trad publisher let the manuscript sit for a couple of years before relinquishing it back to the author unpublished. She did however get a free book cover design and and small advance.

    1. So to end this on a positive note, Jon, ask yourself: Do you enjoy writing? If yes, then keep on truckin’ on, my friend. In this way, success is defined as doing what you enjoy. Right? 🙂

  2. Great post about some hard truths. I think except for some rare prolific genre writers in areas like romance, novel writing is not profitable. Writing has largely become a hobby.

    If you like works by an unknown author, besides buying his or her books, you can help by posting reviews and telling your friends. The author will greatly appreciate it.

    1. Specifically post reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Gain a loyal following on Goodreads, and motivated Goodreads authors can help “book bomb” (ie, buy and review your book during a coordinated window) Amazon for you during your book launch campaign.

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