Note: the figures I’m going to run through here aren’t ‘accurate’. They are an approximation to present an example only.
At most, an e-book probably sells in the current (romance) market for approximately $8 or less. The longer the work, the higher the price, naturally.
35% royalties from an $8 provides $2.80. Note: this is on an $8 book. Some books sell for less.
If the UK author doesn’t currently have an ITIN (US tax code) then the publisher will take a 30% tax (withholding) from that $2.80. That leaves $1.96.
The exchange rate means the UK writer loses approximately half, so $2 becomes £1. If you’ve sorted out your US tax code, then you may get £1.40 but oh… you might get paid by US cheque… Excuse me, ‘check’. That will mean bank charges may sometimes be larger than the cheque is worth and, therefore, not worth cashing. If you’re lucky, the publisher may be good enough to pay you quarterly to help with this, as bank charges are usually ‘per cheque’.
So you sell 1000 books. A 1000 books would be ‘fantastic’. The chances are the writer will sell far less per title. Many print books never sell 500 copies. 200-500 for an e-book is not unrealistic. I’ve known writers who have sold lower than 200 copies with a single title. I have had a couple of titles which did poorly — if no one buys them, no one buys them regardless of whether they are any good, and sometimes the why is impossible to predict. Could be the cover. Might be the title. Perhaps the blurb’s not enticing. Maybe the reader never spots the book because of poor placement.
But let’s return to numbers and run with that nicely rounded and mythical figure of 1000 books. That equates to £1000, maybe £1,400, but it’s taken a year, maybe eighteen months, even longer — perhaps three, four or five years — to sell those 1000 copies and that’s if the writer is with a large publisher and is selling well. If it’s a smaller publisher and a title where you may only sell 200 copies, then a book that took you six months to write, three months to edit, hours to promote, may make the author £200 or £250. And oh, wait. Is the author a UK taxpayer? If the writer earns more from writing or from their day job than their personal tax-free allowance, they must declare all additional income and you’ll lose just over a quarter on what’s left in UK tax. Though note, the UK/US has a tax agreement, so you only need to pay tax in one country.
Now, if you’re a UK writer writing for a UK publisher (or a US one writing in the US), and you earn these figures, hooray, because you won’t lose out on the exchange rate and can skip that part of the loss, but for UK writers, the US is a market to consider because they have a greater population, meaning greater number of readers. And even equating that possible £1000 earned to £2000, it’s still not a fantastic hourly rate compared to working in an office, and sometimes publishing comes with that ‘office’ feeling — there’s associated paperwork and people in charge of your work you need to negotiate with. Which isn’t me voting for office work over a writing life. If you’re a real writer, it’s compulsive. A part of your life you simply cannot pass up.
To rephrase, most writers also work part time if not full time, or cannot work because of other reasons. Someone once remarked to me they assumed writers sometimes chose certain genres for the money, but when one weighs up commitment vs the hourly rate as it works out, trust me, there’s a reason it’s often said that writers write for love over money.