I’ve done this peek behind the business curtain thing a couple of times before because fans seem to enjoy it, hopefully it helps other writers, and it’s fun to delve into your royalties and see how your various books are shaking out against each other. I’ve talked about this on WriterDojo too in our business episodes.
Okay, first off a quick primer on how traditionally published authors get paid. First we sign a contract for a book, and part of that we are given an Advance Against Royalties. This is a payment up front to the author. The author doesn’t get any more money until after the advance “earns out”.
To make the math easy, say you sign a contract for a book, and are given a $10,000 advance (heh, good luck with that newbs! 😀 ) and for each book you sell you get a percentage of the cover price, to make this easy we will say you make $1 a book. The first 10,000 copies you sell, you won’t get anymore money because that’s earning out the advance. Then after that, for each book you sell you would get paid a royalty of $1. So if you sold 15,000 copies in the first royalty period, you’d get another $5k.
Most publishers pay royalties twice a year or quarterly, and there is a delay between when the book comes out, and when you start getting paid for it in order to give the book stores a chance to return what copies they don’t sell. This is called Remaindering, and what they keep is your Sell Through percentage.
So if a publisher does a big mega push of an author to launch a career and the bookstores get swindled into buying millions of copies, but only thousands sell, after desperately trying to get rid of them (i.e. the 70% off super discount hardcover bin) they return the rest to the publisher. Those are remaindered and the author will have a terrible sell through rate. (my rate is actually extremely good on most of my titles, thank goodness).
That means there’s a delay of when you turn the book in, to when it comes out, and then a full royalty period after that, before you may or may not get paid again. This is why advances matter.
After the delay, then if the book has earned out, you start getting royalties. Sadly many books never earn out. There just aren’t enough books sold, and that author never collects royalties. If that happens your career is usually toast with that publisher unless they’ve invested in you for some other reason.
This is the advantage of smaller advances. It’s easier to be a winner on their books, and you’re getting paid based on sales either way. However, if you get offered one of those rare mega huge advances, take that unicorn money and run!
My first advances were fairly small when I was a newb, but they’ve grown over time so that now they’re pretty dang good, but my publisher feels confident doing that because they’ve got a history of how I actually sell and I’ve got a track record. Even then I’ve managed to earn out almost every one of my Baen books in the first royalty period, which means I start collecting royalties the year after it comes out.
For me there’s usually the royalty spike of whatever the new hotness book is which most recently earned out. Sales tend to spike at first, and then taper off. The books that have tapered off from that spike, but which are still selling are actually how you make your living. Not the advances and spikes. The key to actually quitting your day job and making it as a full time author is all your old books which are still selling and earning royalties. This is called your Back List.
You can hope for a giant super hit book which will get made into a movie, but that doesn’t happen for 99.9% of us. You can hope for that, and its nice when it happens, but realistically most of us who do this for a living are able to do so because we consistently produce and have lots of old books that are still selling.
This is for my last royalty check I received in December. The one before that SUCKED because it was the one covering the opening period of Covid lockdowns, when most of the book stores in America were closed. Sure, there was still online, eBook, and audiobook sales, but if you are actually carried in stores that’s a big chunk of income which nut kicked all of us. This last statement was getting back closer to normal. Thank goodness.
I’m not going to cite any actual dollar values. I’m going to keep this vague as to overall amounts. I’ll just say that I’m not a mega super star with an HBO show. Those guys make millions. But I’m no scrub (unlike most of the bossy authors online who dispense writing/business commandments) I make very successful doctor/lawyer money, and have for about the last 8 years. My last royalty check would have bought our first fixer upper starter house outright (or paid for the current Yard Moose Mountain Driveway of Death).
The most recent new release on this statement was Destroyer of Worlds, which had a good sized advance but earned out immediately. That one book, by itself, was 31% of my total royalties for the period. That’s the new book spike I was telling you about. (not bad considering it came out in September 2020 and 2020 sucked ass).
Now here’s where it gets interesting. Whenever you release a new book in a continuing series, it also causes people to once again pay attention of the previous books in the series. Son of the Black Sword jumped a bit to come in at a whopping 12% and House of Assassins at 9%. So the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior series made up over half my royalties for that 6 month period at 51%(!).
Now that series is really interesting, because none of those book spike as high as something like a Monster Hunter novel. Much like the main character, Ashok Vadal, that series is a slow burn. Lower opening spike, much larger tail, overall slow but continual growth. I’m told this isn’t weird with epic fantasy series though, because so many fans have been burned by lazy unprofessional writers turning in great opening books and then never finishing, that buyers hold off until the series is finished, or it looks like it is likely to get finished.
Son of the Black Sword moved past Grimnoir two years back to become my #2 overall series. And it did that with 2 books against Grimnoir’s complete trilogy of 3.
Then there is my Monster Hunter series, which is the one that actually pays the bills. This one is always interesting to watch, because the backlist is large and remarkably consistent. Every single MHI book still sells well, and more importantly, every time I release a new one, I see a corresponding bump in all the earlier ones.
So this statement was a non-MHI period, but even then MH titles make up 33%. I already know when I get the royalty statement with Bloodlines on it, I’ll see a significant jump. MHI is the opposite of Forgotten Warrior, in that it gets a BIG spike for a new release, narrower tail. That’s because the hard core MHI fans tend to buy as soon as it comes out.
Now behold the power of backlist.
Monster Hunter International, which came out 12 years ago(!) is still 5% of my royalty income. It’s been a consistent seller for over a decade. Now, 5% doesn’t sound like a ton, but by itself its enough to buy a decent used car or pay several mortgage payments.
Monster Hunter Vendetta, 5%. Monster Hunter Alpha, 4%, Monster Hunter Legion, 2%. Monster Hunter Nemesis, 4%. Monster Hunter Siege, 4%. That stuff adds up. These numbers vary period to period, but if you’ve got a reliably continuing series with a good fan base, you can make several thousand bucks per book, every six months, for YEARS.
The bigger the back list, the more of these you have, the easier it is to meet your needs. That’s why authors need to be good AND prolific. New book in the series, causes all those old ones to refresh and get a bump.
Plus, there’s the MH spin off stuff, with the memoirs. Each of those is only at 1 or 2%, but keep in mind that’s my HALF. So if it was the full value they’d be in the same range as the others, though I’ve found that the overall spike on collaborative books isn’t as high as on my solo stuff. I suppose that’s just market hesitancy. Beats me. Monster Hunter Guardian is still pretty new, and it’s at 6%. Except again, that collaboration, so that’s just my percentage, not the overall total of sales.
Up next is my Grimnoir, which has now fallen to the #3 spot in all time sales as Forgotten Warrior surged ahead. Those are at 9% for the trilogy. Which sounds sad in comparison until you realize that the last of those 3 came out in August 2013! That’s almost 9 years since I’ve done anything in that universe. I’ve been collecting money off of work I did a decade ago. I’ve got another trilogy planned, and when that eventually starts I imagine it’ll cause another bump for Grimnoir.
4th this time are the two Target Rich Environment collections. TRE1 is at 1% and 2 is at 3%. Being short story collections, that’s pretty awesome actually. It’s enough to buy a nice sniper rifle. 🙂
Last on this royalty are the Dead Six novels with Mike Kupari, at 2% for the trilogy. Which again, ain’t bad when you realize that’s just my half, and the last book came out 6 years ago.
So there you go guys. New books are awesome, but backlist is how you pay the bills. When you’ve got a couple books in backlist, if you make a little money for each that’s nice, but you can’t live off it. But if you’re making a little money for each, but you’ve got 23 items, that adds up fast. And honestly, but the time you’ve got a couple dozen items, you’ve probably built up enough of a fan base that it’s not a little money each, it’s several thousand bucks each. And then you are styling.
Gun Runner will show up next, followed by Monster Hunter Bloodlines. GR I’m not sure how it did because it came out in February of everybody panic and freak out and shut down the world. Though that had gotten better by the time Bloodlines came out, when I had the weirdest pandemic, post-apocalyptical book tour in September.
The moral of this story is work. Work your ass off. Produce. Keep trying to get better. Keep growing that fan base. I self published my first book in 2007, had my first Baen publication in 2009, and have continually worked and tried to improve that whole time. This business it is not easy to be successful, but it is super easy to fail. Don’t get jealous of others who are doing better than you, instead observe them and see what you can learn from them, if anything.
And have fun. That’s the most important thing. If you’re having fun writing it then the readers will have fun reading it.