The Writing Odds Are Not in Your Favor

Most authors who write books do not make a living at it. That is, their income from the books they write is not enough for them to have a place to live, pay utilities, and eat. Most authors either have some other job, such as teaching, that pays the bills, or they have a spouse who is a “patron of the arts” as it were.

There are about four hundred thousand books published each year. About half of those are self-published, which means they sell practically nothing – perhaps a couple dozen copies if the author is lucky, purchased by their mothers and a few friends whose arms could be twisted hard enough. Of those published by major publishers, the average sales run is on the order of perhaps three to five thousand copies over the two years it might be considered to be “in print.” Of those 200,000 books published by actual publishers, less than one percent can be classified as best sellers. A book is considered a best seller if it sells five thousand copies in a week. Compare that to a network television show in last place in the ratings that is about to be cancelled. Such a show on one of the five networks will typically be viewed by over a million people each week. Comparing the audience for a book—even a best seller—and for one of the worst television series on the air is very depressing. The seven Harry Potter novels have sold around 400 million copies around the world since 1998. Compare that to the number of people who watched a popular television show over those same years. Or the number of people who watched the movie versions of the Harry Potter books. And the Harry Potter franchise is something unique. Bottom line: far more people watch television or movies than read even the highest selling books. Let alone ordinary books.

Therefore, if you become an author expecting to become rich you’re likely to be disappointed. J.K. Rowling is the only author to have ever become a billionaire off her writing. The number of authors who have become millionaires off their books is less than a couple hundred. In fact, simply hoping to make a modest living as an author is probably a bigger fantasy than any Harry Potter novel. Most authors make less than five thousand dollars a year. They supplement their book earnings by teaching, being journalists, or from some other profession. For instance, the science fiction author Clifford D. Simak, who published more than twenty-five novels, several short story collections, and won numerous awards for his work, remained a working journalist until he retired. He had to.

I have published four books over the last year and a half. My income from those books was technically enough for me to live on—if I mostly ate ramen noodles. My life has therefore become a fantasy fulfilled. I have become, at least for a year and a half, that rare creature: a “successful” author.

Being a successful author in that sense is like becoming a successful athlete: it is both improbable and precarious. The number of people who play high school or college athletics, versus those who go on to make a career of it is rather small. But the odds are actually better that your high school student will become a Dodger than that he or she will have even one book published, let alone become a “successful” author.

According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) these are your odds of becoming a professional athlete: in men’s basketball, about three percent of high school seniors playing interscholastic basketball will go on to play men’s basketball at an NCAA member institution. Of those who do so, about 1.2 percent will wind up being drafted by the NBA. Thus, of the high school seniors playing basketball right now, about 0.03 percent will become professional basketball players in the NBA.

About 0.08 percent of high school seniors currently playing football will wind up as professional football players with the NFL.

About 0.45 percent of high school senior baseball players will wind up as professional ball players with an MBA team.

Out of 4000 manuscripts submitted to an average publisher, only 10 will be published. Therefore, the odds of someone who writes a book seeing it published and for sale at the local Barnes and Nobel are about the same as the odds a high school senior basketball player has of making it to the NBA. However, an athlete who makes it into the NBA will be able to make a living at it (at least until he gets injured or becomes too old). Just getting a book published, remember, doesn’t mean you’ll make a living at writing.

Of that tiny percentage of all authors who get a book published, only about one percent of them will make enough to live on. The odds of an author then having a best seller, let alone becoming the next J.K. Rowling, is probably worse than the odds you have of the winning lottery ticket this week.

I’m rather glad I didn’t know all these percentages going into this profession. I kind of wish I didn’t know them now.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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