This question is a common one. Especially for people new to writing and wondering if there's any real money in it. Unfortunately, to truly answer this question, there are all kinds of other issues that come into play that agents can't speak to, such as, what is your standard of living? How much do you really need to earn to support yourself or your family?
But there is some basic information we can provide to help people understand how money works in the industry. First, publishers do typically pay authors an advance in exchange for the publishing rights to their book. This amount can vary widely, but is typically based on the publisher's estimate of how many copies they could sell of your book in the first 9-12 months of publication. Obviously, the more reason they have to believe they will sell a lot of copies, the higher this number will be.
This advance amount is typically broken up into two, and sometimes as many as four, payments. You get a percentage on signing the agreement, and then a percentage on the publisher's acceptance of the manuscript for your book. If the advance is broken up into additional payments, typically at higher dollar levels, then a third payment would be made on the publication of your book, and a fourth anywhere between 6-12 months following the publication of your book. So even if you were to be offered a significant amount of money for your book, it's likely you would be paid that money over the course of 1-3 years. After that and assuming your book sells really well, any additional royalty amounts are paid by the publishers on a quarterly or semi-annual basis.
In short, even if you're a successful author, you need to have good cash flow and money management skills.
But there are other ways to supplement income besides authoring your own books. Many of our clients also speak, write for other people, provide proposal coaching, write for news outlets, offer workshops and consulting services, or have developed a significant enough blog following to earn income from advertising and the sale of resources off their website.
In short, there is a small percentage of people who are successful enough to truly earn a living simply by authoring their own books. But there are ample opportunities to make a living as a writer if you're willing to look for those opportunities, practice your craft in multiple ways and work hard.
Have a question you want us to consider for our Ask An Agent series? Submit your question here.