My friend, a fellow writer, was getting her driver’s license renewed. The person processing her application asked her what line of work she was in.
“I write children’s books,” she said.
“Oh, there’s a ton of money in that,” the DPS officer said.
My friend’s eyebrows shot up so high they practically hit the ceiling.
You Mean Children’s Book Authors Aren’t Rich?
If you are a writer for children, experienced authors will often give you this advice:
Don’t do it for the money.
If you are new to children’s writing, or just starting to explore it, this may come as a surprise to you.
What about Jeff Kinney, you ask, the creator of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series? What about Rick Riordon and his Percy Jackson books? And how about Suzanne Collins, of Hunger Games fame?
What about J. K. Rowling, who has a net worth of $1 billion dollars??
Exactly what kind of numbers are we talking about, then?
Walk into the children’s section of a bookstore, or a library—even if you lived to 150 years old, there is no way you could read all the books. Every year, enough children’s books to fill a football field are published.
Surely most of these authors are at least making a decent living from their books?
Let’s look at some numbers.
Expected Income for First-Time Authors
The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) describes a typical compensation package for an author of a children’s book. This example pertains largely to picture books, which on average run about 32 pages.
Keep in mind that for picture books, the money paid by the publisher is split between the author and the illustrator (unless they are one and the same).
How Much of an Advance are Authors Paid?
For this example, we’ll use a situation where the author receives an advance from the publisher. (Some publishers, especially the smaller ones, do not give advances).
Typical advance: $6,000 – $12,000
Author/Illustrator split: $2,700/$3,300 – $5,400/$6,600
After the advance, authors can then earn royalties, which are often set at around 3.5% – 6% of the book’s sale price. (This figure reflects the fact that royalties, which are typically 7% – 10%, are also split with the illustrator). No royalties are earned until enough books have sold to cover the advance.
This is what is referred to as “earning out” your advance.
The Bottom Line
Generally, most picture books sell around 5,000 to 10,000 copies in hardcover form, and few are made into paperback. Most will also go out of print within about two years.
Easy readers have similar compensation packages, but royalties are not split on novels. So in this case, an author could receive an advance of $5,000 to $8,000 with 7% to 10% royalties.
Let’s use an example of a typical 32-page picture book. The book is assigned an advance of $8,000, which is split 45%/55% with the illustrator, leaving the author with $3,600.
Let’s say the book is listed at a retail price of $17.99, and the author is given royalties of 4%.
Book price ($17.00) x royalty (4%) = $0.72.
Yep, you saw that right. She will earn less than a dollar a book.
And if the author has an agent, part of that money (about 15%) goes to the agent, leaving the author with $0.61 per book.
Which means more than 11,000 books have to be sold before the author can even begin earning royalties.
Which means she probably won’t.
Financial Numbers for Other Children’s Book Genres
Literary agent Jennfer Laughren provided some ballpark figures for other types of children’s books in a blog post she wrote in 2015. Here are her estimates of advances for different levels of children’s books:
- Chapter Books: $5,000 – $12,000
- Middle Grade Novels: $8,000 – $20,000
- Young Adult (YA): $12,000 – $30,000
These are numbers she came up with from her own experience with her author clients, so they were not scientifically compiled. But Ms. Laughren has been in the children’s book business for awhile and is a total pro, so you can be assured these are solid numbers.
As you can see, these numbers are pretty discouraging if you are hoping your children’s writing is going to be your ticket to quitting your day job and sipping margaritas at the beach instead.
And yet thousands of books are published each year. Thousands more are written and never even published. Someone is writing all these books.
Are they all just chasing a pipe dream?
For the Love of Writing
“Write because you love writing,” is a common refrain among seasoned writers. “If you are writing for the money, you are doing it for the wrong reason.”
The numbers don’t lie. The truth is, writing for children typically doesn’t provide enough income for authors to sustain a comfortable, or really even a bare-bones, living.
But if you do keep at it, and focus on improving your craft and writing stories that children want to read, and their parents want them to read, and eventually land a book deal, I’m guessing every single published author will tell you it’s worth it.
Getting your book out into the world and touching children’s lives in some way, whether it makes them laugh, or think, or connect with your story or characters in some way, really is priceless.
Does This Mean You Need to Accept a Life of Low Wages?
While it is extremely difficult to achieve enough success through book sales alone to become a full-time children’s book author, it doesn’t mean you have to give up on your dream entirely.
At least I don’t think so.
There are those who successfully support themselves as children’s book authors. But that doesn’t mean their only source of income is through their books.
There are other ways to earn income related to your work as an author.
Here are some examples:
- School visits
- Providing editing and critiquing services
- Teaching writing classes
- Ghostwriting services
- Opening a publishing business
Because you want to make a living as a children’s book author, the first step is selling your books.
As a first step, let’s explore some of the best ways to market your books and increase your sales.