Consult a website such as Indeed, Glassdoor, and ZipRecruiter, and you can find salary ranges for most industries. However, writers are not salaried employees, so resources like those aren’t reliable for freelance sci-fi writers. So how much does a sci-fi writer make?

A sci-fi author might make a six-figure income, but most cannot support themselves from their earnings. How the book is published, the amount of time and money a writer spends on marketing, and luck account for these differences.

Even though there is no straightforward answer, not all is lost. Writers use various strategies to increase their income, and you can use them once you know what they are. 

Why Sci-Fi Authors Don’t Make Much Money

Science fiction and fantasy books and magazines were once very popular before the advent of television and movies. In fact, writers who could write great stories fast could actually support themselves based on their work alone. 

But once television became more popular, people stopped buying the stories they could watch on TV for free.

Many writers in the genre today make maybe $300 for a short story and up to $5,000 for a novel. While the genre is more popular than in the past, the market suffers for writers because many more writers compete for sales than even 15-20 years ago. 

Yet writers still write in this genre because they love it. They just need to find other jobs to support themselves and their families to do it.

How Authors Get Paid

In traditional publishing, authors typically get paid an advance, which is an amount of money the writer will receive regardless of the book’s sales. When a contract between the author and publisher is signed, the publisher accepts the work with the intention of publishing it. 

The advance is frequently paid in three payments. Once the book is sold, writers begin to earn royalties. Since the writer has already received the payment through the advance, the royalties must equal the advance. After that occurs, writers earn additional royalties. 

Finally, the writer gets to keep the advance if the book doesn’t sell well.

However, not all books get advances. Since publishers are betting the book will sell well, advances are given to books they believe can make them enough money to justify the advance.

Royalty rates vary between publishers and whether the royalty is paid on a book’s retail price or net sales. Typical rates for a hardcover novel are 15%, so a $20 book will net the author $3. Assuming the author received a $30,000 advance, the book needs to sell 10,000 copies before the writer sees additional money.

Self-Publishing Might Be the Future for Science Fiction Writers

The future for science fiction is here, and it is called self-publishing. Science fiction sales in traditional publishing have fallen 50% since 2009. Not to worry, however, because sales of sci-fi books have doubled in the last decade because authors are publishing their own work.

Writers are turning to Smashwords, Amazon, Kindle, and Audible to publish ebooks. In 2018, science fiction accounted for $590.2 million in sales.

The potential to make money is there because self-published writers receive higher royalties. However, they must do much of the work that traditional publishers do, including book design, editing, and marketing. And those expenses come out of the writer’s pocket.

How To Increase Your Writing Income

Follow in the footsteps of successful writers if you want to increase your income. However, you need to invest both time and money to increase your income from your writing.

Don’t Expect Instant Results

A 2017 survey of writers found that most writers making over 100k a year had been writing for a minimum of three years from the date of their first published book. Beginning writers with less than three years of writing experience were not making nearly as much money.

Therefore, don’t be quick to give up. 

Writers with high income made that kind of money three years on average AFTER they published their first book. It takes time to build an audience, so don’t give up quickly.

Independent and Hybrid Publication Brings In the Most Money

According to the same survey, writers whose income topped $100k a year were either indie or hybrid authors. Indie authors publish with smaller independent presses, while hybrid authors are published by independent presses, and they also self-publish their works.

Independent presses are smaller publishing houses usually defined as presses not owned by a major publisher such as Random House. Indie presses can also be defined by their sales or the limited number of books they publish in a year.

Indie presses are essential to the writing ecosystem, as they can take bigger risks on new authors than a major publishing house. In addition, they foster creativity and are willing to publish in new and creative niches. 

Steampunk science fiction is an example of a genre that was born in indie publishing houses.

Hybrid authors also self-publish their works. Often writers use their self-publishing success to land books at indie presses. This is because the writer already has an audience, and an indie press is more willing to take a chance on a writer who has the audience.

Therefore, a hybrid writer has two streams of income, self-publishing and indie press royalties. 

Pay for a Professional Cover and Editor

In the 2017 survey, most financially successful self-published authors spend over $100 on each book cover, but 68% of the 100k writers spent that much, compared to just 44% of emerging authors. 

This is an essential expenditure since the success of a book is greatly influenced by its book cover design. The good news is that financially successful writers do not pay more than $1,000 on a book cover, indicating that a professional cover shouldn’t break the bank. 

Nearly all successful writers also paid for professional editors, compared to half of emerging writers. 

Successful writers understand the importance of having a second set of eyes for editing. The $100k writers invested anywhere from $250 to $1,000 on editing, not the $50 and below emerging authors spent.

Market Yourself

Self-published writers have to market themselves. The $100k writers can eventually pay for someone to help with marketing, but they have to market themselves to get to where they are making that kind of income.

Emerging authors spent most of their time using low-cost marketing techniques, such as social media and book signings. However, writers with higher incomes realize that those techniques do not scale up well, and they use paid marketing, including Facebook and Amazon ads. 

More Time Equals Better Results

If you spend more time writing, you will get better results. 

For example, emerging and $100k writers spend approximately the same amount of time marketing themselves. But $100k writers who spend twice as much time writing create more.

Experienced writers realize that building an audience with one book is not sustainable either. If a reader enjoys a novel, that person is likelier to buy another by the same author, so don’t stop at one novel. 

Go ahead and market it, but devote most of your time to writing so that when your audience grows, they will spend money on your other works.

Bottom Line

Can you make it into the group of highly paid writers? Based on several surveys, approximately 10% of published authors make $80,000 yearly. With hard work, you can perhaps one day quit your day job. The odds for making enough $80k might be 1 in 10, but those odds are much higher than winning the lottery. So keep writing!

Categories: Funding

Ol Adams

Letter Review is currently edited by Ol Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Ol Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. Ol has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.