I used to think that people who wrote books made lots of money--and, of course, some do. (Stephen King, Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling, Jo Nesbø, James Patterson--these and lots of other popular writers do indeed rake it in.) Throughout my boyhood I remember believing that my grandfather (G. Edwin Osborn) and his son (my uncle Ronald Osborn) were both wealthy because they wrote books.
But the books they wrote were not exactly chart-toppers. They were religious titles, aimed, generally, at small audiences--and small audiences they got. My grandfather wrote The Glory of Christian Worship, A Faith to Live By and some other titles. (I just checked: Some are available, used, on Amazon.) My uncle wrote The Spirit of American Christianity, Folly of God: The Rise of Christian Preaching, and others (these, too, are on Amazon for very few pesos).
Anyway, throughout childhood I was so impressed that my close relatives had written books! (I'm still impressed with them, by the way--not merely for the books but for the fantastic human beings they both were.) And, as I said, I was positive that they were rich and famous. Which, of course, they weren't--except in very limited spheres.
The first books I wrote were really manuals for teachers--and I still rack up a few bucks every year for them, even though they were published in the late 70s and 80s. Hell, in early February I got a royalty check for one of those books from the early 80s: $11.70 (for six months' sales). Don't think I'll be moving to the Hamptons on that.
In 1997, I published a YA biography of Jack London (called, cleverly, Jack London: A Biography) with Scholastic Press (the same as J. K. Rowling! the only thing we have in common). That book actually did very well (thousands of dollars), but now it's out of print, and I don't get squat.
During the mid-1990s I also published two books with the University of Oklahoma Press--a full-meal-deal annotated edition of The Call of the Wild and a paperback edition of the same book with fewer pictures, fewer notes and annotations They both did okay, too--but the hardcover is out of print (you can get copies on Amazon--they ain't cheap: I saw one for $497.10--though some are much more inexpensive), and the paperback is still in print, but most people don't even know it exists because it's not in bookstores. You have to order it. I just got my annual royalty statement for that publication today (Thurs.), a statement that occasioned this post, actually.
|My Wild edition|
Total income from that book last year: $1.79.
I've been self-publishing on Kindle Direct the last couple of years and am doing all right there. (I started doing so because I'm getting too old to wait around a few years to see if a traditional publisher will nibble on a manuscript.) At the end of each month I get a nice little check (never more than $200) from them--but, still, not exactly Hamptons-level bread, is it?
I would guess that the vast majority of writers can't make a living by writing--and so they teach, or live with Mom and Dad, or marry someone with money, or they played and won the lottery, or they rob 7-11's on weekends or cook meth in the basement. Who knows?
All I know is that I don't write for the money. I write because it's fun. And because I can't imagine not doing it. And I should say: It's a good thing I don't write for the money--because I sure haven't made very much!