Odds on Becoming a Successful Author

Here’s a column with some cheery news. The odds of one of us making enough to live off the income from our original books are 380 to 1.

That figure comes from Greg Slominski, who is trying to market his novel, Princess and The Bean, which appears to be self-published. Being an engineer, he worked the numbers based on 195,000 books in 2004 and 5% of authors who make a living off their books alone. Read the column for more details.

Despite my inexperience in publishing, I don’t trust those numbers.

Were 195,000 books really published last year? Industry researcher R.R. Bowker is supposed to be the source for that number. Their site lists a preliminary 182,000. I know that may not be the most current, but the number does includes every book published. For fiction only, 25,184 are counted. Literature, 4,671. How many of the 195k are reprints, new editions, coloring books, textbooks, or workbook companions?


The 5% figure comes from publicist Rick Frishman. He says it isn’t a hard percentage; just one to get people thinking. Ok, but how many published authors want to make a living off their books, by which I do not mean living exclusively but significantly so? What is the percentage of those who succeed in relation to all who try? More like 15%?

Many books are written by teachers, scholars, executives, and ministry leaders. Most literature seems to be written by professors, which I think is a good system; but far too often for my taste, I hear that the author of a Christian book has a ministry on the same topic or is a pastor. Where are the regular guys? Where are the artists?

Maybe they are the ones outside that 5%.

About the author

Jeff Grim

Jeff Grim has been a reader all of his life. He has had a particular interest in military history, any war at any time. His fascination with military history has brought him to an interest in historical fiction where the history comes alive with fictitious heroes and villains. Recently, Jeff has become interested in historical mysteries set in various time periods.

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1 Comment

  • You are right on target questioning the “successful career” author. Patti and I did likewise. The 1 to 380 or whatever the odds, are only meaningful depending on your expectations. The odds are better if you do not expect to make a successful career out of writing. But I’d love to see some real profit and loss information, some W-2s and such, to better understand what a 1st time writer can reasonably expect. If we could couple the factors that made some successful and others run aground, aspiring writers and investors in publishing would have real information to go on.

    The research I’ve done has uncovered no reliable odds or returns on investment. This information needs to be quantifiable and available for individuals to make informed decisions about their probability of success as either writers or investors in the world of publishing. The lack of reliable information is a challenge not only for individuals who might use the information before launching into the field, but also investors considering risking capital in a publishing endeavor.

    From an author’s perspective, many individuals contribute to the world of writing. Some may be quite happy expending years of effort and loosing their savings in a long shot. However, the stark reality is there are countless ways to loose a small fortune, and pursuing a writing career is among them. Not everyone needs their time and effort to generate a living wage. But the majority of folks need to earn enough money to pay their mortgages, save for retirement, etc.

    Greg Slominski

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