There is something deceptive about success stories. You hear a story of someone else’s success, and it is sometimes hard not to assume that you can do the same.
Author success stories are no exception. For Mormons, Stephanie Meyer is the most recent example. She is just like so many LDS authors — a suburban housewife with kids who writes in her spare time. I’m sure she has a Church calling, worries about how well her kids are doing in school and probably finds inspiration in the people she knows. In fact, her life is just like that of half the women in my ward.
It comes down to sales. Authors usually earn royalties (in general from 5% to 15% of the cover price) on the number of copies sold. Normally that works out to anything from $0.50 to $2 or more a copy. Now to earn the median US income for a family of 4 (about $60,000 a year), an author’s books need to sell 40,000 to 120,000 copies, depending on price and royalties.
Of course, the average book published by a large New York publisher is fortunate to sell 5,000 copies during its life (not per year, like the number needed to make the median income). But for most books that life means large sales in the first few months, declining rapidly at first, and then slowly later in its life. Books that break that lifecycle, and see an increase in sales later in life, are often successes to some extent.
The same is true in the LDS market, but the quantities are smaller — 2,000 copies might be a good selling title. But the lifecycle is similar, if shorter.
All this means is that for an author to make a living at writing, successful strategies are few and
few between. Since sales naturally decline, authors must regularly write new books. The problem with surviving on royalties is that the number of books necessary is often more than most authors can write! Even after years of writing many books a year, most authors still don’t earn enough in royalties to really survive.
There are, of course, alternate strategies. Academic authors generally write more for improving their curricula vitarum, than for royalties, and they gain financially by gaining an academic position. Experts on a subject can write books to improve their reputations. The reputation then helps them get speaking engagements, consulting arrangements, and other money-earning opportunities.
There are other strategies, also. Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired magazine, talks about some of them in his article and forthcoming book, Free. [Although, I think the alternate strategies for fiction are weaker than those for non-fiction.]
In the end, authors who wish to earn a living from their writing should probably think carefully about the strategy they choose to use. Authors need to actually do the math and make sure the strategy used will actually work — that it can actually provide an income.
But, perhaps more importantly, authors should also decide whether or not (or to what extent) they are writing for financial reasons. There are other motivations for writing. [I hope to get to those reasons later.]