Guest Blog: The Financial Realities of Genre Fiction

It isn't all free champagne-lunches, sports cars, and million dollar advances. In today's guestblog, the lovely chaps from authoright look at the realities of money in genre fiction. 

There have been a few articles floating around recently regarding the ever-growing popularity of genre fiction. It can be tempting as a writer to try to emulate the success of genre writers who reel off title after title; who wouldn’t aspire to be the next Stephen King, John Grisham or Sue Grafton. With the brands that authors such as these have created for themselves, it seems as though genre fiction might be the most profitable. There is certainly a logic behind this; mainstream fiction is harder to categorise and as such can be harder to market, while literary fiction has a smaller, critical readership, so success in these realms tends to be limited to well-established authors. For new (and particularly self published) authors, genre fiction represents a more level playing field in that its fans tend to be more willing to give unknown authors a chance. This probably goes some way to explaining why, as Literary Agent Laurie McLean says, “most of the success stories in self published fiction are authors who write genre fiction.” However the fact that it might be easier to get people to read unknown genre fiction than other types doesn't necessarily make it a recipe for financial success.

A great article from the GalleyCat blog collected some testimonials from authors regarding their financial experiences of writing genre fiction. The first of these accounts comes from traditionally published horror novelist Brian Keene who explains that “the average advance these days, for a genre fiction novel, ranges between $2,500 and $10,000 [about £1,500 to £6,000]” and because of the length of the publishing process, he suggests that it could be up to two years after the initial advance that you see another cheque. Fantasy author Mark Lawrence lays out the economics of his own books in even more specific terms:

“Amazon ran a promotion on Prince of Thorns before Christmas and I was very glad to get it. For a day they offered the eBook at $1.99 and put it on their daily deals. Excitement! The book charged up the charts and became #1 best seller in fantasy [...] I get 25% on eBook sales. But it’s 25% of what the publisher gets, and on books selling for less than $2.99 the publisher gets 35% of the sale price rather than 70%. So I got 25% of 35% of $1.99... which is 17 cents. [...] Once I’ve paid 15% to my agent and 20% tax I’ll pocket just under 12 cents a copy or make $120 on the thousand copies sold.”
Ouch. This sort of example – aside from being a reality check for anyone looking to make a career out of writing – serves as vindication for the idea that self-publishing can be more profitable, provided you sell plenty of copies. E L James, as we all know, is said to be making several hundred thousand a week. But she’s the exception that proves the rule in this case. A self published author won’t benefit from some of the promotional revenues open to big publishers, however, and it is this kind of advantage that helped Mark Lawrence reach the top of the best-seller chart. In short, a published author might have a better chance to sell more copies, while a self published author will typically sell fewer but get more money for each copy sold. The novelist Jim Hines points to an issue that effects both traditional and self published authors: royalty cheques. The money you earn from selling your books arrives in monthly or quarterly installments and the amount can vary wildly. The unpredictability of royalty-based income means authors, especially those with no alternative income, have to budget carefully – you could get $1000 one month and $70 the next. And in self publishing, you could find yourself only being paid twice a year.

Even some of the more successful authors of both genre and other forms of fiction can struggle to make ends meet. To have a mega hit always requires a stroke of luck at some stage, but don't be deterred; you should use this knowledge to stop worrying about what sort of book will make you the most money and just stick with what you're good at, writing what feels true to you. Don't chase the market; if you play to your strengths then the market should chase you!

To read more on what Literary Agent Laurie McLean has to say on successful genre fiction, see the interview with her at


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