When I first heard the term ‘book royalty,’ I couldn’t help but imagine the top of the top, cream of the crop, elite book wearing a little paper crown to suggest its royal status.
My eight-year-old brain had a more fun definition of book royalties than the reality.
As someone who has wanted to write and publish books since I was five, the definition and what it entails became very important and equally stressful.
Book royalties are the percentage of revenue an author receives for their book sales. When dealing with any publisher, be it the Big Five, an indie name, or even yourself, there is an agreed upon percentage the author gets for rights to publish their book.
In traditional publishing, this typically ranges from 5% to 25%. Publishers decide how much to pay you in royalties based on factors like your advance payment, popularity, past publications, and genre.
Self-publishing royalty rates can be as high as 80% (or 100% if you're somehow managing to create and distribute the books yourself).
If you're thinking, "Wow, what an insanely wide range of percentages"—yeah. Publishing is incredibly customizable, including the amount of money you make from it.
For books, royalty rates are the percentage paid to the author per book sold. Royalty rates also apply to self-publishing, as you typically need third-party services to get your book out there.
Here is a list of typical royalty rates for traditional and self-publishing by format:
These percentages may be a bit higher or lower depending on the publisher, agent, and book release. For example, the royalty rates for a mass-market paperback will be different than the royalty rate for a trade paperback.
There are usually negotiations for royalty rates and other forms of payment, and every publisher is different. Do lots of research before entering a publishing contract. There might be a better way to sell your book depending on your goals.
Traditional publishers are picky, but they will buy what they think will sell. Self-publishing has fewer barriers to entry, but the financial burden falls solely on the author. You also miss out on an advance if you self-publish, which is also a topic of consideration.
What's the difference between book royalties and an advance?
An advance is a lump sum paid upfront from the publisher to the author for the rights to publish their book. The amount of an advance has a very wide range, mostly depending on the author's popularity. A royalty is the percentage of sales the author may receive after publication.
After book sales "earn" out the advance, the author will usually begin to receive royalty payments, which can be as low as 5%. The majority of traditionally published authors never reach this point, so the advance payment is the only income they recieve from their book.
In some cases, the author can pay back their advance to the publisher in order to earn royalties faster.
If you're thinking that sounds like a scam, oh boy, that's because it is!
Another way the traditional publishing industry is twisting the knife in authors is by splitting up the advance—instead of receiving it in total upfront, many publishers are opting to pay out advances over the course of two years.
Unless you're already a famous author with many successful publications, odds are traditional publishing will not come close to paying your rent.
It's also worth noting that not all publishers offer an advance. In that situation, it's typical to see higher royalty rates that begin paying out relatively soon after publication.
There are more ways that authors lose than ways that they win—be vigilant in research and negotiations to avoid losing more money than you make.
The highest book royalty rates come from self-publishing, with a typical range of 35 - 80%. If you're publishing traditionally, research, a good team, and a publisher that loves the book is all well and good, but how and where do you find the best rates? This is admittedly harder to answer, and what works for one will not work for all.
Save for self-publishing, getting the best rates through a publisher is part luck, part timing, and all research. Finding the best agents and the best publishers for your work and genre is a good start, but never a guarantee.
It also depends on how many books you can actually sell. The hard truth is that, sometimes, a book just isn’t good. Sometimes the marketing fails. Sometimes you write for a trend that falls out of popularity by the time your book is available in stores. Whatever the reason, royalty rates mean nothing if you aren’t selling your book. 100% of $0 is still $0.
There’s a lot of back and forth with the ongoing war between traditional and indie/self-publishing. Though both have a lot to offer, both have shortcomings, and at the end of the day we just want to be paid for the work we do.
Traditional publishing might see the potential and be able to market and sell your book without you paying a dime. After all, they are the ones to lose money if a book fails, so they hardly risk it.
This is where your typical rates come in.
Indie publishing (small publishers) might care more about the author and have a more niche eye, so selling specific, targeted genres is easier now than ever. Your rates may increase depending on the publisher or potential.
There are a lot of companies that promise services with the self publishing process, but it looks like self publishing, especially through KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) gives the most trusted royalty rates at 35% to 70%, depending. In theory, this is the best for royalty rates.
The world of publishing is always changing, and with it, the royalty rates change. While the traditional industry is shaving author income year by year, indie and self-publishing are becoming more appealing by putting the power back in the artists' hands.
Overall, we hope to see a big change in the industry that helps artists receive fair compensation for their work. Smaller presses and self-publishing not only offers a way for writers to manage publishing and sales themselves, but they provide competition for bigger publishers. With competition comes fairness. Hopefully.
If it’s any comfort, I don’t think we’d have better luck if my eight-year-old definition of book royalties was the real deal…but it would look cooler.