November 6th, 2009 by LViehl
More on The Reality of a Times Bestseller

Back in April when I posted and discussed the royalty statement for Twilight Fall, my top twenty New York Times mass market bestseller, I promised I would post the next royalty statement that came in for the book. That arrived this week, so today I’d like to take a look at that and share some thoughts on how the book performed in the eleven months since the initial release.

First, the actual statement, which you can view here.

As before, the only thing I’ve blanked out is Penguin Group’s address. This statement represents the sale period from November 30, 2008 through May 31, 2009. It was issued on August 18, 2009 and I received it on November 2, 2009.

On the statement my publisher reports sales of 7,550 copies and returns of 10,812 copies. The publisher released credits of 21,140 copies or $13,512.69 from reserves held against returns, but at the same time reserved credits against another 13,790 copies or $8,814.57, which reduces the credit adjustment to 7,350 copies or $4698.12.

Total sales for the novel now stand at 89,142 copies, minus returns of 27,479, for net sales of 61,663 copies. My credited earnings from this statement was $2,434.38 with no money due; it will probably take another six months to a year for the novel to earn out the last of my $50,000.00 advance.

So how much money have I made from my Times bestseller? Depending on the type of sale, I gross 6-8% of the cover price of $7.99. After paying taxes, commission to my agent and covering my expenses, my net profit on the book currently stands at $24,517.36, which is actually pretty good since on average I generally net about 30-40% of my advance. Unless something triggers an unexpected spike in my sales, I don’t expect to see any additional profit from this book coming in for at least another year or two.

One thing I didn’t mention in the last post is whether or not my sell-through, advance, and royalties are typical of an author with a top twenty Times mass market bestseller. Very few authors offer up their numbers, and even when they do they either go the anonymous survey route and/or don’t post statements, and publishers rarely give us any information at all, so it’s difficult to know. But based on my estimation of comparitive print run sizes, placement, distribution and a couple of other factors, I’d say no; my numbers overall probably run lower than most of the other authors on the list (of course if any other Times bestseller authors out there want to post their royalty statements, we’d all love to see the real numbers so we can establish a range.)

Speaking of comparisons, the publisher’s portion of sales on this book has grossed them around $453,839.68. I don’t have any hard figures on the publisher’s net, so I can’t give you the bottom line there. If I had to make a guess, I’d say they probably netted around $250K on this one.

What I’m taking away from this statement: returns were about what I expected; booksellers have been keeping these books on the shelves due to steady sales, and that helps.

My export sales are up, and they’re now constituting about 10% of my total sales, which is great. I’ve been reaching out to overseas readers for a couple of years now via blog promotion and I’m seeing a growing return on that investment. I’d love to see some foreign rights sales so that more of my readers could have the books in their native language, but unfortunately that doesn’t happen very often, and I can’t do anything about it because it’s all decided and handled by the publisher.

My income per book always reminds me of how tough it is to make at living at this gig, especially for writers who only produce one book per year. If I did the same, and my one book performed as well as TF, and my family of four were solely dependent on my income, my net would be only around $2500.00 over the income level considered to be the U.S. poverty threshhold (based on 2008 figures.) Yep, we’d almost qualify for foodstamps.

I finished this novel’s series in January of this year with the seventh book, which debuted eight spots lower than TF on the Times extended list. I’ve since moved on to writing a spin-off series, the first book of which is Shadowlight, which debuted at #17 on the Times list, two spots higher than TF. Shadowlight is now my bestselling novel to date.

What it boils down to is that you never know. I won’t find out for another six months how well Shadowlight initially performed or if TF will earn out in the next six months, which keeps me from obsessing over my sales. Either the books sell or they don’t; I have zero control over whether or not they appear on any list. My focus has to be on the writing (and Carrie did an excellent post this week to celebrate her series anniversary and to discuss excellent reasons to focus on the work; check it out when you have a chance.)

The overall response to the last statement I posted in April was quite positive and supportive, especially here at Genreality. A few places elsewhere, not so much. Several times since April I considered forgetting all about this follow-up post because I knew if I did it I’d be painting another great big target on myself, and no one wants to volunteer for that kind of duty. But I did promise my writer friends and you guys that I would do this, and I keep my promises. So I will duck and dodge one more time.

I know how important writer dreams are — sometimes they’re the only thing that keep us going — but I think they also have to be tempered by facing reality. To me, sharing an uncomfortable truth is better than perpetuating a myth. I know Publishing will never rise up to meet our expectations, but fiction belongs on the page, not in what we tell each other. Otherwise we risk becoming characters uttering lines of dialogue instead of working writers helping each other make good decisions.

So there you have it. If you’d like to share the info, please do; a link back to this post in return would be appreciated. If you’d like to express any gratitude, you can buy one of my books (or if my work doesn’t appeal to you, buy a book written by one of my blogmates. They’re all very talented folks.) And if you have any questions about the statement, let me know in comments.

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138 comments to “More on The Reality of a Times Bestseller”

  1. Karen Cioffi
     · November 10th, 2009 at 2:32 pm · Link

    You’re brave. Thanks for sharing – it’s very interesting! I’ll be happy to post it on my blog either this month or in December – with a link back, of course .

  2. The Writing Runner
     · November 10th, 2009 at 4:49 pm · Link

    I think it’s terrific that you’re being so open with this information. If more authors were willing to share this sort of thing, I think it would be a great deal of help to every aspiring and even established author out there!

    – TWR

  3. Anonymous
     · November 11th, 2009 at 9:45 am · Link

    I would love to get your insights about which factors constitute a “bad first contract.” Information about what’s “bad” is really tough to come by – because people tend not to share this information, either.

  4. Tori
     · November 11th, 2009 at 6:44 pm · Link

    As others have said…thank you so much for sharing this information with us and I am sorry that you’ve gotten heat for doing so. I don’t understand why people would do that when you are such an awesome person Lynn!

    These numbers help me understand what I am up against and why so many writers have to write 3-4 books a year just to keep their heads above water. Thankfully I love to write and this doesn’t stop me from wanting it.

    I hope you know how much of an inspiration you are for me Lynn. I have kept writing and not given up- because of your advice and everything you say on your blog. It’s very uplifting. Maybe someday I’ll be able to be published and have fans that love me as much as yours love you!

    Please continue writing because I will continue to buy your books. One of my favorites so far is Evermore, although that might change when I read Shadowlight!

  5. April L. Hamiton
     · November 12th, 2009 at 10:18 am · Link

    Lynn -
    Thanks *very* much for sharing both this, and the previous post on Reality of a Times Bestseller. I’ve reprinted this post on (with credit to you, link back to this post & Genreality home page, link back to this page for comments).

    This is some pretty shocking stuff, since most aspiring authors assume anyone with a book on the NYT Bestseller list is getting rich. If getting a mainstream publishing contract to begin with is the brass ring, seeing your book on that list is Valhalla. But it seems the truth is, no one but the rock stars of the fiction world (e.g., Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephen King—in other words, those who’ve become cultural phenomena the world over) is actually making a living at writing, even if they’ve had multiple NYT bestsellers.

    I’m a big advocate of self-pub, which is often maligned by aspiring writers on the basis that one can never make a living off a self-published book (the way one presumably *can* with a mainstream book). I’ve always maintained that only about 5% of all mainstream fiction authors earn enough to support themselves and their families (and that the 5% is comprised entirely of household names), and your posts support that assertion.

    Your brave candor reinforces the belief I’ve held all along: if you’re going to write fiction and try to get published (or self-publish), it has to be about your passion for the work first and foremost. If you’re doing it in hopes of getting rich, or even just in hopes of supporting yourself and your family, you’re almost certainly doomed to fail.

    But there’s also something comforting in knowing that *most* authors, NYT bestselling or not, must keep a day job or depend upon a spouse/partner’s income or health benefits. It reminds me that we’re all of us in this together, and not so very different from one another.

  6. Susan P
     · November 12th, 2009 at 2:15 pm · Link


    Thank you for posting all this. I just published my first novel with a small regional press, and people ask me about royalties and advance and I just have to giggle. Small presses don’t pay advances. And whatever royalties I’ve accrued actually went to pay the registration fee at a regional trade show where I signed books. About the only thing I envy is that your contract with a big house allows you to reach far more readers. And finding readers is fun.

    Keep fighting the good fight. We’re all behind you.

  7. Mike Dennis
     · November 12th, 2009 at 5:45 pm · Link

    Great post, Lynn. Your candor is refreshing, to say nothing of admirable!

    But are you saying that, in the TV show “Sex And The City”, when Carrie Bradshaw received an advance of $25,000 for the rights to her book in France, and when the publisher’s launch party for her book was held in a trendy midtown Manhattan spot (rented for the night) with about 400 in attendance, flowing liquor, and life-sized cutouts of her and the book cover–are you saying that…that…it was all IMPROBABLE? Good God! Lynn! Say it ain’t so!

  8. Jan
     · November 13th, 2009 at 8:44 am · Link

    Greetings! My partner owns and runs a Small Press. Thankfully he has a good day job to fund his “noble pursuit.” Design, printing, and promotion costs aren’t cheap. Thankfully he does his own editing and layout. His authors get a little better than the industry standard; this is one hundred percent more than he gets. Book people are a wonderful lot – readers, writers and, yes, publishers. BEST!/ jan

  9. Matt Forbeck
     · November 13th, 2009 at 10:04 am · Link

    Thanks for this excellent post, Lynn. I’ve had a dozen novels published with three more on the way, and I’ve cut all my own deals, so I just love seeing details like this.

  10. Kay Cassidy
     · November 14th, 2009 at 2:00 pm · Link

    Lovely post, Lynn. I think it’s wonderful when authors are willing to share information. Knowledge is power, especially in this ever-changing industry, so it’s good to be able to put things in perspective. (And congrats on Shadowlight’s debut at #17!)

  11. suzanne
     · November 16th, 2009 at 5:56 pm · Link

    Thank you for enlightening me! My husbands debut nove has justbeen accepted by the first agent he aproached and she is now forwarding it to two big publishers- I stupidly thought we would be financially fine if it gets published. How foolish was I!!!!

  12. Ictus75
     · November 17th, 2009 at 11:33 am · Link

    Thanks for sharing this. As a writer, I still don’t understand why we receive such a small pay check when the publisher reaps big profits. Yes, they take the chance, put up the money, and promote the book, but they would have nothing to sell if we didn’t write the book. Because of that, I’m self publishing my next book. I figure that I only need to sell 10% of what I would through a publisher to make more money than I would receive from them. With the internet and a modest fan base I think this is possible.

  13. Lisa Wojna
     · November 17th, 2009 at 1:44 pm · Link

    Thank you so much for your very enlightening post.

  14. RB
     · November 18th, 2009 at 5:28 pm · Link

    Thanks for this excellent post, it is very enlightening. Can you shed some light on why you prefer working with an established publisher, rather than self-publishing? For some of us amateurs that could be very helpful information.

  15. Data
     · November 18th, 2009 at 10:54 pm · Link

    Her assessment of what the publisher makes is grossly inaccurate.

    On this book the P+L would look something like this:

    Gross sales at RRP: $450k

    Margin to retailer at 60% discount: $270k

    Author advance: $50k

    Print costs at 50c per book: $30k

    Distribution and sales at 10% of net rcpt: $27k

    In house overhead at 15% appx: $40k

    Returns at 20% of net receipts $36k

    Total ($3k)

    Not unusual.

    One in ten books makes a profit.

  16. Janice Carlson
     · November 19th, 2009 at 10:27 am · Link

    Thanks SO MUCH for your honesty! I came to these same conclusions 10 years ago when I left the book world, after having had 15 novels published under my penname Ashland Price. (My last book sold over 120,000 copies – but, of course, I saw precious little of the earnings on that!) Since then I’ve made much better money at 9-to-5 and working part-time as a psychic medium. I’m definitely happier and more appreciated now.

  17. Ilana
     · November 20th, 2009 at 9:03 pm · Link

    Thanks for this great post.

    I had a nonfiction book published by a division of Penguin several years ago and even as a Published Author, I never really understood how royalties, returns etc. work. That book never earned back its advance so I never got a royalty statement — it’s nice to see what one looks like ! :-)

    It is terrific and very helpful that you’re willing to share this.

  18. Dale Sherman
     · November 20th, 2009 at 11:40 pm · Link

    Very good article, Lynn, and I’ve linked to it from my Facebook and My Space pages for others to read as well. I’m a published author with eight books and the most common question I get from people is “Why are you still working 9-to-5?” I usually reply “Because I like to eat on a regular basis.”

    Most writers I know work at least part-time just to make ends meet, yet people get this idea that it’s a way to end up with the mansion and sitting in a deck-chair out on the beach ten months out of the year. Little do they realize that most of us aren’t so much in it for the money, but because we have a need to tell stories.

    Of course, I certainly wouldn’t turn up my nose to a bigger payout the next time I send in a manuscript!

  19. Hellen
     · November 21st, 2009 at 4:23 pm · Link

    Congradulations !!thanks very much for sharing all this information. For me it is sad after working so hard writing the book, I’m getting nothing maybe it is better when you have an agent? I can not afford to have the second one published.

  20. Elise Logan
     · November 21st, 2009 at 8:33 pm · Link

    I think it’s brave and awesome of you to put this out there. I appreciate you sharing the info with us.

  21. Ellen Hopkins
     · November 21st, 2009 at 8:41 pm · Link

    I think the term many are missing here is “mass market”. (And the 6-8% royalties on a $7.99 book.) I write young adult fiction, one book per year. I have published six novels now, and all have gone to Top Ten NY Times bestsellers, including my latest, which debuted at #1. I am agented, publish with Simon & Schuster, and I am now living much more comfortably than I was when the first novel published five years ago. I write novels for a living, my husband just retired (at age 50), and we are eating well. Would I still be writing if this weren’t the case? Absolutely. But that is the case, and I’m very happy publishing with a major house, taking my 10-12% royalties (my books, even in paper, have a higher cover price, too). The dream isn’t dead.

  22. Kimberly Pauley
     · November 21st, 2009 at 10:14 pm · Link

    I’ve made a challenge to my fellow authors: If 4 more will post figures for one of their book, I’ll post mine as well, in keeping with the spirit of this post. Please feel free to pass it on.

    For the record, I’m a YA author and my debut novel came out in August 2008

  23. virginia willis
     · November 21st, 2009 at 11:59 pm · Link

    THANK YOU. I am a cookbook author of Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking. I’ve sold about 40K and still find it to be a very confusing black hold. I find your openness completely refreshing and most welcome. I try to share what I can with other potential cookbook authors and thank you so much for your perspective, as well. Best VA

  24. Heather
     · November 22nd, 2009 at 11:41 am · Link

    Bravo to you for putting it out there! Aspiring authors like myself need to know what to really expect. Everyone sees how great Twilight is doing and thinks maybe they should write a novel. The reality is not everyone makes millions off their books, or even hundreds of thousands. I’m at the stage where my agent just started sending my manuscript out and people keep asking me if I’m a millionaire yet. It’s hard to explain to them that advances aren’t that big unless your Stephen King, and you have to earn it back! Thank you for helping ground people.

  25. Kimberly Pauley
     · November 22nd, 2009 at 4:40 pm · Link

    Hey, I’ve posted up mine as well (basically the first year + one month) of my debut novel. Saundra Mitchell, another YA author, has done the same.

  26. Launa McNeilly
     · November 23rd, 2009 at 1:31 am · Link

    I am a first time published author that went the joint publishing route. Not sure that was wise but what did I know? I have sold some books since it came out in August ’09 but not nearly as many I fear as I would have if I had dealt with a traditional publisher. My book is POD and the only ones who see it are those that either type in the title of the book or someone who typed in the wrong title and saw it by mistake. Not good odds for making any money. I’m listed online everywhere but like I said, if you aren’t looking for it then you probably aren’t going to see it. I did get the book into one Barnes and Noble store by asking them. It is stocked with a few but I’m thrilled with that. I have a second book that is in my agent’s hands and she is supposed to be contacting the big boys because there is no money for another joint contract.

    I was optimistic when I first started but have since landed quite firmly on solid ground. It won’t stop me from trying and it won’t stifle the hope I have but it has thickened my skin and lowered my expectations. Which isn’t a bad thing. I write because I love it and I have so many stories to tell. Someday, I hope to add that it provides a decent living but for now it is enough to keep me at my keyboard. Best of luck to you all. Launa McNeilly, Lies, In a Season of Tribulation.

  27. Ann
     · December 6th, 2009 at 12:08 pm · Link

    Thank you for the candid information. I have not been impressed with the traditional publishing industry and went with a POD publisher this year and my book “A Graceful Death” was published last month. It seems to me that the only way an author can make a substantial sum is by selling movie rights. By the time everyone has taken their cut from book sales the author is left with a pittance.

  28. L. Jagi Lamplighter
     · December 9th, 2009 at 1:41 pm · Link

    Keep in mind that most publishers are struggling now. That means that a great deal of that supposedly huge amount of money is being sucked up by overhead of one kind or another. Some of that overhead is the adverntising and distribution that big houses do for their books.

    As a rule, the friends who I have who are with big houses are making more money than those who are with small publishers.

  29. L. Jagi Lamplighter
     · December 9th, 2009 at 1:42 pm · Link


  30. L. Jagi Lamplighter
     · December 9th, 2009 at 1:43 pm · Link

    Thanks so much for this info. It’s so helpful to new writers…or even established writers to have some idea of what the business side of things are. You are doing a great service!

  31. L. Jagi Lamplighter
     · December 9th, 2009 at 1:44 pm · Link

    Writers are always being asked questions by people. The funniest one I heard was a woman who used to write a humorous collumn on the author biz who said she had been asked, “Well, why don’t you write a best seller?”

    I suppose on could always answer: “Why don’t you win the lottery next time you buy a ticket?” ;-)

  32. L. Jagi Lamplighter
     · December 9th, 2009 at 1:45 pm · Link

    What wonderful news! Bless you and thank you for letting us know!

  33. denise
     · December 9th, 2009 at 9:57 pm · Link

    I read a lot – an average of 4 or 5 books a week – and I pretty much only buy e-books because a) I have a limited amount of bookshelf space, and it’s, well… full; b) I love the sheer convenience of being able to carry 100+ books on my phone, which I already have with me anyways; and c) ebooks are generally cheaper than their hard-copy counter-parts, which means I can buy MOAR BOOKS!

    ummm. yes. I’m totally in favour of more authors self-publishing ebooks.

  34. Meghan Ward
     · January 5th, 2010 at 10:51 pm · Link

    Thanks for the great post! Now I have some dumb questions:
    The returns (10,812) are books that booksellers returned to the publisher? Were they counted as sales on the first statement? What does it meant to release credits (of 21,140 copies) from reserves held against returns? And what are reserved credits against 13,790 copies? Sorry to be so clueless!

  35. L. Jagi Lamplighter
     · January 6th, 2010 at 10:49 am · Link

    I’m sure the author can give a better reply but…

    Returns are books credited as sales and then withdrawn from sales.

    Released credits from money held against returns means that they held a certain amount, say 30,000 against returns. Some returns came in, they deducted them from the amount held aside, then they released the rest of the money to the author.

    Reserved credits against returns is money from sales that is still being held in case some of those “sales” turn into returns during the next statement period.

    Then, on her next royalty statement, that money held against returns will be divided into any lost to real returns and released credits against returns, as shown on this statement.

    Does that make sense?

  36. Angela Verdenius
     · January 12th, 2010 at 8:33 am · Link

    I write for Wings ePress, a great little publisher of ebooks and trade paperbacks. It was great to see what a Times bestseller makes. Like you, people wonder why I don’t make heaps of money (I work as a night nurse)…someone has to pay the vet bills somehow! LOL Thanks Lynn! I feel a lot more positive now!

  37. Mary Jean Kelso
     · January 12th, 2010 at 10:59 am · Link

    Thank you so much for sharing! Those of us who are on the lower end of the royalty food chain appreciate seeingi how the big authors on the NYT list fare! Although I have 14 books out right now, my royalty checks are a pittance compared to this report. And advances are non-existant. However, I am currently with much smaller publishers. But, hey, I am, like a lot of other writers, living out my dream!!

    Thanks for your honesty and information.

    Mary Jean Kelso
    Guardian Angel Publishing
    Wings Press
    Whiskey Creek Press

  38. Sue
     · January 17th, 2010 at 3:50 am · Link

    I really don’t believe that the returns are so little on a book, or movie such as Twilight. Is this for real? I don’t think so. Geeish!


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