The Minimum Wage Author

Most authors earn less than legal minimum wage writing books. Most do so for their entire writing careers. (U.S. Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. A full time person working 40 hours per week would earn an annual revenue of $15,000 at that rate.)

In fact, they work for free for a long time before getting paid and once they do get paid, the amount earned almost never makes up for the long hours of volunteer work which preceded it.

When I hear from an aspiring author and learn they spent ten years and thousands of hours working on a particular manuscript, my quick calculations indicate they will probably end up earning about $1.00 per hour for their effort, which was minimum wage in 1967.

One of the great mysteries of book writing is its potential to live in the financial extremes for an author. While it could be the aforementioned “dollar an hour” project, you could also earn substantially more if the book sells well.

If you want to be a professional writer, you should start with projects where you might be paid $50 for few hours of work.  At least $15/hour is a start.

But don’t think if you work 500 hours on a book you deserve a $7,500 advance. A first book advance might be less than that (it also might be more). There is no correlation to how much you are paid for a book and the hours invested writing it. If it were, quicker writers would be paid less than slower writers.

In general, articles and short-form projects are a great way to begin the process of getting paid for writing. It also helps exercise your writing “muscles” so you can write quicker and better.

If you want to be a professional writer, you will eventually need to create on a deadline and if you are not relatively quick, you will need to give up some sleep and other distractions in order to hit the deadline. Most authors have a “day job” and relationships to maintain, so while they can immerse themselves in their craft here and there, other responsibilities are always tugging at them.

You can still work on a book for ten years, but over the decade you also wrote hundreds of other things, both short and long, plus have a couple other incomplete books on your hard drive. If the book was the only thing you wrote in ten years, it indicates you are probably not a commercially viable author.

The 5,000 hours you worked on your book over the last ten years will yield far less than minimum wage, maybe less than the 1967 amount.

Of course, this is not fair, but few things in life are, especially in a competitive performance profession like writing.

Once an author achieves a certain status, they can slow down, take their time and write, knowing it will result in a big payday.  But usually those authors are under intense deadline and performance pressure.

The good news is you wrote a best-selling book, now do it again, and again.  Like any performance career field, everyone is one or two bad performances (or book releases) away from a major career decline.

And no fair citing the one exception where someone worked for 30 years and finally sold the only thing they ever wrote for a million dollars.  Or the person who scribbled the text of a children’s book on a napkin at lunch and made a career from it.

After all, most big winners in a lottery end up messing up their lives because winning was easy. Lasting success takes work.

An image comes to mind of an open audition for a nationally televised talent show. Aspiring talent lines up down the hall, out the door, and around the block waiting for a chance. If you are not highly talented, courageous and ready to compete, you will give up long before the line moves enough to give you a chance to audition.

Same with writing books. Take a deep breath, set your jaw and be ready to work hard and compete for a long time. If you are fortunate enough to make a good living at it, most likely you will have great appreciation for the success, since you worked so long for so little money.


21 Responses to The Minimum Wage Author

  1. Brennan S. McPherson March 13, 2018 at 3:19 am #

    Extremely true! I like that: competitive performance profession.

  2. Diana Derringer March 13, 2018 at 5:01 am #

    Financial rewards may be small at times, but the joy of writing makes up for it.

  3. Shirlee Abbott March 13, 2018 at 5:10 am #

    It’s not the dollars per hour I value. The wealth of wisdom is beyond measurement.

  4. Loretta Eidson March 13, 2018 at 5:27 am #

    I love the challenge of writing and the feeling of a completed work done well verses whatever the pay might be. Of course, I’d like to be paid, but that’s not why I write. Good article, Dan. Thank you.

  5. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser March 13, 2018 at 6:58 am #

    If you have to ask you can’t afford it.

  6. Carol Ashby March 13, 2018 at 7:32 am #

    For me, writing is both a ministry and a business The best payout is found in the emails and reviews that reveal how what we write serves God by encouraging someone’s faith. There are no royalty statements or hourly wage calculations for that, and the value doesn’t rise and fall with the stock market.

    • Ruth Douthitt March 13, 2018 at 8:34 am #

      Exactly how I feel, Carol! If I did this for the money, I would have quit years ago. But I write with a higher calling. It’s nice to sell books and make money, I won’t lie, but the emails, comments, and reviews from my readers means so much more.

  7. Norma Brumbaugh March 13, 2018 at 8:33 am #

    It’s interesting how these blogs take us to our own past history. …. I was excited. I’d published my first book and was jazzed about it and picturing many more books in my future. I was at a memorial service where a veteran writer was also present. I’d heard her speak at a women’s event a few years prior, talking about her subject. I introduced myself and we chatted awhile. I asked if she was still writing books. Nope. She had stopped writing and said she didn’t miss it. She mentioned the constant deadlines, and the coming up with novel ideas (she wrote ‘how to’ books for entertaining etc.). Of course, she was entering the sunset years and that may have had something to do with it. I saw the other side of writing through her comments, with a more realistic view.

  8. Jaime March 13, 2018 at 8:34 am #

    People wonder why I still have a day job when I am a writer. After all, I have had numerous things published for pay.
    Yes. And I’ve made tens of dollars at it, too. 😉

    Excellent post!

  9. Ruth Douthitt March 13, 2018 at 8:38 am #

    I completely agree with this post. I attend conferences where successful writers tell us to write, write, write! I work hard to self-publish 3 books a year. I am blessed in that I have a full time job that allows me to accomplish this. Successful Indie authors have told me to do my best to get a book out a month, but there’s no way I can do that. Maybe some day?? Who knows. But those of us who haven’t “made it” (signed with a popular agent and are contracted with a big trad publisher) must write and publish as much as we can to keep our name and books out there. Hard work pays off. If this writing journey were easy, everybody would not only do it, but stick with it.

    • Carol Ashby March 13, 2018 at 9:41 am #

      One a month? That boggles my mind. Even working full time, I can’t imagine turning out a quality product, full polished and something I’d be proud to offer to God, in that time frame. I can work on my writing and other author-related things more than eight hours a day (thanks to my old day job with its excellent retirement), but I find it takes me five to 7 months to write a 100Kish-word historical novel that is polished to a sheen that I’m proud to put my name on and that embodies the best I can offer. That time also includes research for the novels and writing for my history site and business-related activities, but still…

      I think you’re wise to publish few and better works than the “successful” ones tell you to do!

      • Ruth Douthitt March 13, 2018 at 11:43 am #

        I know! I just can’t imagine writing that fast, getting it edited, revising, and then publishing a book a month.

        3 a year was stressful enough for me last year. I had 2 book release parties, too. That costs money, let alone time.

        After I left one indie author panel (where they told us to write a book a month) one lady asked me if I had read any of their books. “No,” I told her. “I have.” She gave me a look like she had just eaten a slice of lemon.

        I take it the quality didn’t match the quantity. To me, quality is more important.

        • Carol Ashby March 13, 2018 at 12:25 pm #

          Perhaps that reveals skipping beta readers and critique partners, not revising and tightening many times in response to your own partial edits and the input of others, and not doing a final careful edit. A one-month time frame would make those steps impossible. I totally agree that quality is the most important thing, and that takes time and the efforts of more than one person.

  10. Joey Rudder March 13, 2018 at 12:02 pm #

    “Take a deep breath, set your jaw and be ready to work hard and compete for a long time.”

    Words to write by. Thank you, Dan.

  11. Pearl Allard March 13, 2018 at 12:10 pm #

    Reminds me of that line from Dumb & Dumber when Jim Carrey’s character asks the girl what are the chances a girl like her would date a guy like him. She’s all, “One in a million,” and he’s ecstatic. “So you’re saying there’s a chance!” Pretty much sums up the writing life, eh? But hey, if 95% quit, our chances just increased, right? 😉

    • LK Simonds March 16, 2018 at 9:15 am #

      That’s funny! Love it!

  12. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D March 13, 2018 at 1:16 pm #

    Thanks for the information, Dan. I won’t quit my day job yet, as they say….but then, as an adjunct faculty member, the $1.00 per hour sounds pretty good!

  13. Michele March 13, 2018 at 4:47 pm #

    Thank you for your articles that always steer my thinking toward the realistic view of writing and publication. It makes for clearer goal setting and remaining focused on improving my writing.

  14. Linda Riggs Mayfield March 14, 2018 at 12:18 am #

    Blunt truth, Dan. I’m in the rotation of a few writers of a newspaper history column and also an officer on the board of the historical society. When the man who wrote the column for decades died, the paper asked the society to take it on. We who write it don’t get paid, but we get a nice bio and even develop a readership following. One article I wrote about a Victorian resort hotel and its mineral spring cures here in IL, for which nothing remains now but a historical marker in a state park, has made the rounds of reposts on social three times since I wrote it in 2012 generating lively discussions each time. The second time around, a man in FL contacted me to add to the story, the third time a woman contacted me to dispute a detail. Fun! It would be nice to get paid, but getting published has other perks, too.

  15. Martha Whiteman Rogers March 14, 2018 at 8:10 am #

    If I was in this business for the money, I’d probably never write another book, but I love writing and creating people who live in a world created by me. Thanks for such a realistic view of what to expect.

  16. Jodie Guerrero April 19, 2018 at 3:31 am #

    Wow!! What an awesome article and a wake-up call for most authors, anywhere in the world. I’ve learnt a lot from speaking to another bio author that I met via 60 Minutes and also via reading your articles, Dan. Thank you for contributing so much to the world of writing. It’s all fascinating and educational. Many aspirational writers don’t understand that the ‘love of people’ is @ the root of publishing, educating and creating a writing masterpiece. Money is nice, but shouldn’t be the root of the reason for creating a piece your passionate about.
    Reading your blogs with joy, Dan.

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