In traditional publishing, you’re paid royalties – a percentage of net sales. In a paperback, that may be 8%. Digital is more like 25%.
Note I said NET. So you don’t just get 8% of cover price. You get 8% of what they sold it for MINUS expenses. Did they give the bookstore a 40% discount? Guess what happens to your royalty. Oh, did they have “expenses”? Guess what happens to your royalty. And don’t EVEN mention returns! Traditional publishing accounting is anything but transparent!
Larger imprints pay an advance – literally an “advance on royalties.” They estimate what they think you’re going to earn on royalties, and they pay it up front. These days the average advance is generally $5000-10,000.
What? That sounds like a lot! Yes, sort of, but you don’t get it all at once. It’s generally broken into three payments: on signing the contract, on acceptance of the final manuscript, and on publication. Those phases could be a year apart!!
$5000 / 3 = $1,666
Did you have an agent help you get this deal? Knock 15% off of each of those payments. Now you’re down to $1,416.
You won’t earn more on that book until the accounting I described earlier says you’ve earned more than the advance you were paid. The vast majority of books do not earn out their advance, so the advance is all the writer ever sees on that book.
If you have multiple books, you may have some payments overlapping, but seriously – that’s nowhere near a living wage or minimum wage. Also, traditional publishing doesn’t want writers publishing multiple books a year. Their standard in one book per year, and if you sign a crappy contract, their contract will prevent you from publishing anything else, even in other genres, even through self publishing.