Being an Author: Expectations vs. Reality

Tirzah Price

Senior Contributing Editor

Most of Tirzah Price's life decisions have been motivated by a desire to read as many books as humanly possible. Tirzah holds an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and has worked as an independent bookseller and librarian. She’s also the author of the Jane Austen Murder Mysteries, published by HarperTeen, and Bibliologist at TBR: Tailored Book Recommendations. Follow her on Twitter @TirzahPrice.

You’ve sold your first book! Congratulations! Being a published author is an exciting dream come true for so many people, and it’s an accomplishment to be proud of. The process from aspiring writer with a notebook full of ideas and a lengthy Word document to published author with finished book in hand can be arduous, and it’s often full of surprises and maybe a few complications. While publishing a book can be a passion project for authors, for the publishing industry, it’s a business. And in business, there are certain situations that may seem like a given when looking in on the outside…but nothing is truly guaranteed.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to be an author, then read on for some expectations to be busted (sorry!) and perhaps even for a few surprises as we pull the veil back on what it’s really like to be an author. Just like being a librarian, there’s more to it than people realize. Before we dive in, I would like to note that I am speaking from the experience of traditional publishing, and I cannot speak to independent publishing! The two experiences may see some overlap, but they’re very different!

You Can Quit Your Day Job

There’s a reason why “Don’t quit your day job!” is a refrain often heard among writers. While a publisher’s initial offer on a book (called an advance) can be anywhere from a few thousand dollars to six (and very occasionally seven) figures, you shouldn’t rush to quite your day job, even if your initial offer is equal to or even more than your annual salary. First of all, you have to subtract your agent’s 15% commission (they deserve much more, so no one I know has ever complained about their agent getting their due). Next, you’ll have to pay taxes on it! Depending on where you are and your personal situation, this can be at a rate as high as 30%. And if that number is starting to look a little less flashy and bit more modest, then I hate to break it to you, but you’re not going to get it all in a lump sum. Publishers pay out advances anywhere from halves to quarters. Usually, you get a certain amount on signing, and then an amount upon delivery and acceptance of the final edited manuscript, and/or even another percentage upon publication.

So, for the sake of simplicity, let’s say that you sold your first book for $75,000. This might be on the high end for a debut novel in certain markets, but it’s pretty nice! When you sign the contract, which stipulates you’ll be paid in thirds, your agent gets 15% of every check you get from your publisher, making your total amount now $63,750. Still not bad. Because you’re paid in thirds, your first check, due upon signing, is $25,000. Subtract your agent’s commission, and you have $18,750. Subtract 30% for taxes (remember you’re paying taxes at a higher rate because your publisher won’t be withholding them for you) and you’re left with $13,125. Which is still a nice chunk of change, to be sure! But three payments of $13,125 adds up to a little under $40,000, which is a little more than half your original sum of $75,000. And keep in mind that you won’t get a second payment until you finish revisions (which can take months), and you won’t get a third payment until your book is published (which could take months if not a year more after that). If your book is delayed in any way, your payment is delayed.

This is why we say don’t quit your day job…and if you do see authors who are full-time writers, it’s more than likely they’re supplementing their income in other ways, whether it’s teaching, freelance writing, or something else!

You’ll Make Money on Your Book Past the Advance

Let’s extend the scenario I proposed above, where you get $75,000 for your debut novel. That’s an advance, and it’s called such because it’s paid out to authors in advance of their book sales. You aren’t ever asked to give back that money unless you break your contract, but your book must earn back its advance before you start making royalties on your book. This is called “earning out” and it’s a big deal because as authors, we are never guaranteed to earn out. You also only earn back your advance at the rate of your royalty percentage, so each book sale isn’t $15–30 toward your advance…it’s more like $2–4 toward the advance. It could take months or years, or it could never happen! This is more likely the higher the advance.

Again, this is why we don’t quit our day jobs before the book comes out!

You Have a Say in Your Cover

If I had a nickel for every time someone complained about a book’s cover and blamed the author, I would probably have the equivalent of my own first book’s advance! This is more commonly known among book people, but in case you didn’t know — authors have very little to absolutely no say in their book covers whatsoever. Go ahead and extend that to anything to do with the book’s marketing really, and that would still be accurate. Some authors might be able to get wording in their contracts that state they get consultation rights or approval, and some authors might be asked by their editor what they think might be the best representation of their book on the cover, but more often than not we get a fun email with “COVER” in the subject heading, and we have to pray for the best as we download the file.

What if the cover is terrible, or we don’t like it? First, we’re encouraged to be considerate in our evaluations, understanding that the design and marketing team are experts when it comes to creating book covers that sell. Can we live with it? If the answer is no, and there’s a specific reason why the cover isn’t good for the book, you can try to push back and ask for a different one…but you won’t always be successful. The publisher has ultimate say, and prolonged work on the cover or a complete redesign will cost your publisher money they might not be willing to spend.

Your Publisher Will Do _______ to Support Your Book

One of the biggest false expectations that I’ve seen among new authors whose books have yet to be released is that a publisher will do a lot to promote your book. And look, it isn’t an unreasonable expectation that your publisher will want to recoup their investment and advertise your book! But, there’s a reason why marketing and publicity coverage is never guaranteed in your book contract — it’s because publishers need and want the ability to change things up, chase trends, or spend their marketing money in a way that benefits the company, not a single book or author. And sometimes, that results in what feels like an unfair division of marketing and publicity efforts.

The reality is that marketing and publicity budgets are set months if not a year before your book comes out, and those departments have multiple books to promote. How much money your release is budgeted depends on a lot of things, including current market, your advance (bigger advances tend to get more publicity and marketing, go figure), past sales record, and a myriad of other considerations. So not every book is going to get the publisher sponsored preorder campaign and swag, and you’re not going to be sent to every national conference or find your book included in a major print ad. Good authors try to cultivate a relationship with their publicity and marketing folks to understand what efforts are being made and how they can support them, but for better or worse, nothing is guaranteed. More often than not, many fun things like swag and preorder captains are author-sponsored.

Bookstores Will Carry Your Book

I have to say, there is no better feeling in the world than walking into a bookstore and seeing your book on the shelf. It’s a rush. The exact opposite of this feeling is walking into a bookstore and discovering that the store doesn’t stock your book. (Not “Sorry, it’s sold out,” but “Sorry, we don’t carry it.”) It’s a bummer, but in the case of indie bookstores, it’s understandable. Even the largest indie bookstores have limited shelf space, and they can’t carry every book. Every bookstore has their own criteria for what they stock, and sometimes it comes down to booksellers’ personal reading tastes and what they know they can sell in their store.

And sadly, you can’t even guarantee that Barnes & Noble will stock your book. While they do sell an extensive selection online, even their big stores have limited shelf space. I once went to three Barnes & Nobles across three states in a single day, looking for release that was only two weeks old, before concluding they didn’t carry it in any store, and confirming that hunch by checking stock online. Sometimes that happens, and it stinks when it does! If you’re local to a store, usually the booksellers will carry it if you introduce yourself and make that connections, but sadly authors have no control over bookstores carrying their book on a larger scale.

You’ll Go on Book Tour

It’s hard to not look at social media posts of authors hopping across the country (pre-COVID times!) attending various bookstore events and festivals and think, “One day, that’ll be me!” I’m sorry to disappoint, but only a small percentage of authors get to go on tours funded by their publishers. That’s a part of the whole discussion about marketing and budgets and whatnot! When you see authors doing events, I think you’d be surprised to learn how many of those are set up by the author themself, and/or even paid for by the author. I’ve yet to go to an event or travel on my publisher’s dime, but I’ve coordinated a lot of local signings and offered to drive 2+ hours to a Barnes & Noble excited to host me. I pay for this pleasure, but you best believe I claim the mileage as a business expense on my taxes!

Your Friends and Family Will Be So Excited to Buy Your Book

I think many if not most authors do find their family and friends supportive and enthusiastic purchasers of their books…but when you become an author it’s rather shocking to discover just how many people in your life expect that you’ll just give them a free signed copy! For one, authors don’t have an unlimited amount of free copies of their own book to give away (more on that below). For another, we’ve got advances to earn back! While authors can choose how they distribute their author copies, I am personally rather guarded of my copies unless I am supporting a cause or the person is close enough to me to warrant this (so far, that’s extended to my mother and my spouse). I always recommend that authors figure out a way to sell signed stock through an indie bookstore because trust me, you will inevitably be asked for a free signed copy by someone you definitely feel doesn’t deserve it, and it’s easy to refer them to a local store and promise to sign it if they buy there.

You’ll Get Free Books and Swag

This is somewhat true, but also, we are not necessarily influencers just because we write books and I’d hazard a guess that most of us get the occasional free perk and are not swimming in free stuff. Many times some authors get fun book mail, usually as marketing efforts to support another author’s book, but this isn’t nearly as common as social media would make it out to be. The proliferation of digital ARCs means that yes, you’ll likely be able to score some free ARCs but not every ARC you want. You might even get some ARCs from writer friends or publishers. But don’t expect a mountain of freebies. And as far as your own copies of your book? You get a set amount, usually 20–50, which is stipulated in your contract. After that, you have to buy them from your publisher just like everyone else (although you can usually score a wholesaler’s discount). Occasionally you might get some bookish swag from venues that host you or your publisher, but you have to be invited to said venues first, and again, it’s not a guarantee from your publisher.

So far, the only free things I’ve scored by virtue of being an author are my author copies (which I’d argue are a part of my payment for writing the book as they were contractually guaranteed and not exactly “free” bonuses), one ARC that I asked my publicist for because the author and I were going to sit on a panel together, and one time a B&N store manager gave me a free Starbucks drink when I came into sign stock (bless her). I do get a fair number of ARCs but honestly, it’s hard to parse whether or not that’s because I write books, or because I write about books here. Anything else is possible, but I think authors are more likely to score free stuff if they’re able to in part leverage their reader audience to increase their social media audience, and have very nice Instagram pages that are curated and pretty and attract a social media following, which is often different from a following of dedicated readers. But we aren’t all influencers scoring free stuff, nor do most of us aspire to that!

You’ll Be Able to Sell Another Book Easily

So you’ve sold a book! You have an agent, an editor, a foot in the door…it should be smooth sailing from here on out, right? Not exactly.

While it’s definitely true that having sold a book might make it easier to sell another, it’s not a guarantee. Sometimes your next project doesn’t appeal to your editor, so they pass on it. Sometimes they make you wait until your first book’s sales are in so they can make a business decision about acquiring a new book from you, which can feel shitty because the first six months of sales are such an incredibly short view of a book’s lifespan. Sometimes your editor leaves the house and you have to go find a new editor and/or a new publisher for your next work. This doesn’t just happen after your debut sells…it can happen at literally any time your career, no matter how good your sales track record is. (With the exception of like, James Patterson or Stephen King. I’m sure they could sneeze a story and someone would want to publish it.) Rejection isn’t just for aspiring authors, it comes to us at any time during the process!

You’ll Understand Publishing After Publishing One, or Two, or Five, or Ten Books

Publishing is a business, and there’s so much that goes on behind the scenes that the author isn’t necessarily privy to. Different editors and different houses all have their own way of doing things. Markets change, trends change, readerships change. Just because you did something one way doesn’t mean it’ll work like that again. You’ll find this is true of writing, but also of publishing. The best trait an author can have is flexibility, because you will be asked to roll with the punches — and you need to be able to do so in order to not lose your mind!

Don’t get me wrong — being a published author is still a very cool gig. I wouldn’t trade it for anything! But I say “nothing is guaranteed” so much because I think when aspiring writers come to this business with certain expectations, it’s a recipe for disappointment and bitterness, and disappointed, bitter writers are more likely to quit. I’m grateful that I had the good fortune to walk into this venture with my eyes wide open, and with great friends who helped and supported and sometimes commiserated with me along the way. I know enough to expect the unexpected, but remember that my experience is just my own — it can vary for everyone!