Can Indian authors afford to pursue writing as a full time career?

DSC_0104Not a single media interview passes, without me being asked if I am planning to take up writing as a full time career. This morning I was asked the same question again. And my answer, as always, was an emphatic “NEVER. Till the time I can manage both, and till the time my organisation continues to support my dual career, I will not get into a position where I will have to choose one over the other.”

The interviewer would not stop at that. “There have been authors who have quit their lucrative jobs and taken up writing, full time. Why not you?” 

In seven years (as an author), I have perfected the response to this. “Well, they might have an extremely strong/personal rationale for that. For me writing is fun. The day I quit my job and take up writing full time, writing will become just another job. A commercial necessity. That might just stifle the passion for writing that I have today. I just don’t want to kill the fun element in it. I am happy the way it is for me now – no dependence on writing for my living. That I make money out of it, is a big plus…. But only that… a big plus.” And this answer comes straight from my heart. Always. For I believe in every word of it.

This brings me to a related question. That of affordability.  Can Indian authors afford to pursue writing as a full time career?

A misconception that exists in the eyes of the general reading population is that authors make truckloads of money. Few days back I was at one of the IIM’s talking about books. I asked the students there what they thought about how much money authors made for every book they wrote. I got very diverse answers. One said 5 Lakhs. Another hand went up – 30% of MRP. Someone from the far corner of the room – 10 Lakhs.

The session was a revelation to me. Made me realize how little people know about the trade. A profession which is seen as intellectually glamorous is often the most misunderstood when it comes to the commerce involved.

To understand how much normal authors make, it is very important to understand the sources of income for any author. By and large, an author has the following seven heads of revenue:

1)    Royalty & Advance

2)    Translation rights

3)    Overseas rights

4)    Film rights

5)    Merchandising opportunities

6)    Speaking assignments

7)    Newspaper columns

Royalty and Advance :

If one is not among the top 10 authors in the country, one has to count himself lucky if he gets a royalty percentage, which is in double digits. Debut authors get between 5-7.5% of MRP for a paper back. This goes up depending on who the publisher is and how successful the authors previous books have been, not to mention his ability to negotiate deals with publishers. Debut authors, often are so happy that some publisher agreed to publish them, that they accept any royalty that the publisher throws at them. I know of an extremely successful author who has written six books and is still at 7.5% royalty (but the 7.5% was because that author was good at heart and didn’t negotiate).  At 7.5%, an author gets Rs15 for every book sold (at an MRP of Rs 200). For a Rs 100 book, the Royalty is Rs 7.5 a book. 

Royalties above 12.5% are very rare, a few successful ones even manage to get upto 20% as Royalty. But those are the ones who sell upwards of 75000 copies per book. Very small community indeed. Royalty percentage for bulk of the authors is in the 7.5% – 10% band.

Do the math.  Hundreds of books come out every year. While the few successful ones go on to sell over a hundred thousand, the number of books which cross 20000 unit sales can be counted on ones fingertips. Books by Indian authors are considered very successful even if they cross the 20000 mark. And almost all these books are in the Rs 100-300 price point.

For a minute assume that there is an author, who becomes successful and his book manages to break the 20000 sales barrier. Here’s the royalty that he will make at various price points.

Royalty Grid at different MRP and different Royalty percentages

MRP :Rs 100 MRP :Rs 140 MRP :Rs 200 MRP:Rs 250
Novice : 5% Royalty 100000 140000 200000 250000
Average : 7.5% 150000 210000 (most likely band) 300000 375000
Pushy : 10% 200000 280000 400000 500000
Lucky : 12.5% 250000 350000 500000 625000

Important to point out a few things:

  •  A book takes about a year to write and bring out. An author might have the ability to write it quickly, but a good publisher has a calendar. He would normally take 5-6 months from the time one submits his manuscript to bring out the book. So the amount in the table above is likely to be the royalty any author would make in a year.
  • All the royalties mentioned above are assuming that regular discounts are given to retailers. If there is a special promotion run wherein the publisher offers higher than normal discounts, a big chunk of the royalty also goes out. Lower royalty at high discount sales is built into the contract.
  • most publishers pay royalties twice a year, post TDS (10%). Even if one get the highest royalty percentage, and prices the book high, the 625K might be down to 550K by the time it hits the author.

If everything works out well for the author, the publisher does his job, the distribution kicks in and the book stores support him, and he does succeed, one is staring at a number of Rs 6.25 lakhs for a book or in other words, 6.25 Lakh a year. If the MRP drops, the royalty correspondingly comes down. 

Wow, 6 lakhs for a book. Before you start celebrating, hold on.  Over 1500 fiction books get published in India every year.  I cant think of more than five books from newcomers and reasonably new authors which sold more than 20000 copies last year in India.  So now drop the expected sales numbers for an author to 10000 units…. see what happens to the royalty. Your best case royalty goes down from 6.25 lakhs to roughly 3 lakhs. (for a Rs 100 MRP book, it is down to Rs 1.25 Lakhs). And mind you, 10000 copies is not a bad number either. Now tell me, will you celebrate? You can figure out for yourself what the odds are for a new author to make a reasonable amount as royalty.

Well, that was the revenue side. Lets look at the expenses one needs to incur as an author. The assumption here is that you are not an established author, but someone trying to become one. Once you are established, the expense dynamics are completely different as the publisher will invest money in you. 

No publisher invests marketing money on a new, unproven author. Once the book starts selling, most of them will come to the party. To be fair to the publisher, the money they make on new authors does not justify any kind of marketing spend. One might argue that it’s the classic case of  a chicken and egg. Without marketing, books won’t sell and if books don’t sell, how will the publisher justify marketing spend. While this can be argued from both sides, as of now, the dice is loaded in the favour of the publisher. So if a new author wants to promote his books he has to spend from his pocket.

The expense list is a long one. It will extend to the extent an author is willing to stretch his pocket. Lets see what are the key spends that one has to incur

  1. Book launches and events : 20K (while you will not even realize this, if you add up everything that goes into this, the spend will exceed 20K)
  2. Social media : If you hire professional help, which I suggest all budding authors should do, you will be down by about 20-25K per month, at the least.
  3. Merchandising : Renting displays and window space at bookshops can set you back by over 50K for a few shops. An author I know rented space at a leading store for 300K and is reaping the benefits.
  4. Travel : in case you travel to multiple cities to launch your book, it will cost significant amount of money. Publishers / Book stores pay for established authors, but not for new/unproven authors.
  5. PR and Media : Depending on whom you hire for doing your PR, it can set you back by anything ranging from 40K – 100K a month. If the publisher does it, an author must count himself lucky.

Its simple math isn’t it. Any author earns (best case) around 6.25 Lakhs, and spends almost all of that in making the book a success. Should one spend, one may ask. I would recommend it, and most authors do it too. It helps if the author ploughs back all the money he makes in the first few books, into promoting them.(you do that when you start a business – you plough back the first few years earnings back into the business… then why not when you embark on your writing career).  If the book clicks, one will recover all that investment back with his subsequent books. IF the book doesn’t click, well at least an author would have had some fun promoting it.

If you scroll up, I had added a few other heads under revenue. None of them count for much if the book is not a mega book.

Second in that list was money from Translation rights. Translation into regional language nets an author  Rs 10-15K per language. And that’s all the money an author will see. If any book sells 10000 copies in English, its unlikely that an author will even get this much.

As far as film rights are concerned, while it sounds glamorous and sexy to talk about, apart from Chetan Bhagat, Ruskin Bond how many popular  books by Indian authors have been made into films? Big numbers get thrown around for film rights, by uninformed media. Most of it is false. Unless the film gets into production, no author sees any money worth talking about. Optioning of film rights can happen, wherein you offer film rights to studios for a fixed period of time, and the rights revert back to the author in case the film does not go on floor in the agreed time. Almost all the Indian books which had been optioned in the last two years have now reverted to the authors. No money here too.

Writing columns is a time consuming job. Newspapers in India normally think they are doing authors a favour by allowing them to pen columns. So if one is not an author in the top 10 list of Indian authors, he can kiss that revenue goodbye too. One benefit of newspaper columns though is that it helps in building the brand of an author and hence might lead to increased sales.

In the final analysis, contrary to what you may like to believe, Royalty and Advances still remain the biggest contributor to an authors revenue. Sadly in most cases, this amount is ridiculously low.  

So does that mean one must not become an author, if one is starting off now. Well, that is definitely not what I mean. By all means write. Give vent to your creative thoughts. Let your imagination take wings…But don’t do that for money.You will surely be disappointed if you do it for money.

95% of Indian authors can’t live off “only writing income”. Moreover there are easier and better ways to make the same amount of money that any author would make off his writing.

Given this, tell me. Would I ever advise any author to quit his job and take on writing… full time?

I would only say that if one has that urge to quit his job and is desperately waiting for the day one would throw his resignation on his boss’s table and walk out, my advice to that author would be .. WAIT. You need your job to pay your bills. First start writing. Get a couple of bestsellers under your belt. Become a reasonably successful author. And only then think of any such misadventure. Till such time, get up in the morning, go to work, come back home, have dinner and get to your laptop. Type your story furiously till the key board cracks or your manuscript gets ready. And then take it to your publisher and respectfully hand it over to him. If you can negotiate hard for a couple of percentage points. do that. For that’s the best you can do in any case.



All Other Books :

14 replies »

  1. Most of the author who take writing as a full time career not just write books but start “writing” other things as well. For instance they become columnist in the leading newspaper, write featured articles in newpapers, magazines (both digital and media). So, any author can become a full time writer if he plans to write not just books but articles, opinions as well…It can pay you as much as it paying you now. You never know even more… In addition, continue writing stuff that you are writing in the same speed side by side…The dual success is ought to shower you with the money more than you require. However, if you love both i.e. your non writing job as well as your writing then you won’t ever leave your job. in fact, the entire point of quitting then becomes “NA” to you. In other case if you want to quit your job and want to take up it as full time thing then I feel the author should be open to write articles as well and then he will be fine with the money thing…


  2. Well written Ravi Subramanian and captures the view of fiction writers very well. For non-fiction novice writers like me, the sales of books are lesser (as the segment of the readers is smaller) and there are no opportunities on the monetizing options you listed except book sales and speakership assignments. I think it will take some more years to revisit this thought. Good news is – audiences are reading more books and its good for writers to continue on this path


  3. A very good article, particularly with regard to the fees paid by newspaper columns. There are certainly jobs, such as those in academia, where having articles and papers published will increase the chance of book sales, but these jobs are few and far between! Very well written, and a helpful breakdown of how much an author can really expect to make.


  4. Extremely insightful article on a start up author’s P&L. But when compared with other entrepreneurial opportunities, is the P&L really that daunting?.
    The advice on “that urge to quit his job and is desperately waiting for the day one would throw his resignation on his boss’s table and walk out” made for a very welcome and light hearted ending of a serious topic though.


  5. This is an excellent review of what fiction writers have to face in the Indian market. I worked as a marketing executive with India’s leading trade publishers and finally understood how royalty, sales and book promotions work. Indian writers should certainly hold on to their ‘day jobs’ if they want to survive in the writing business. Mr Subramanian also talks about the sheer number of books being published every year in India, meaning, more and more people are writing books today. The competition is only going to get tougher as a whole lot of the younger generation write, paint, photograph, design, and put together digital versions of their books for sale on Amazon. With the creative professions seeing an unprecedented democratic playing field, today’s writers and poets and artists rely on diversified avenues of income.

    Deepti Verman also made an interesting comment. Writing doesn’t have to be restricted to fiction and writing professionals can branch into writing blogs on paid digital websites, magazines and newspapers, they can teach creative writing, and do editing and communications-related work as well. It’s all about keeping your creative juices flowing!


  6. No flash. All facts. Wonderful article Ravi. Thank you for sharing this hard-won information with newbie authors like me. Would you consider writing about options such as self-publishing and publishing on Amazon, etc? You’re that rare breed who combines creative and logical acumen. Look forward to more on the topic from you!


  7. Excellent article, Ravi. You should also write about the “returns” phenomenon which is peculiar to this business. All that goes out of the publisher to the shops don’t count as sales. Shops can, and do, return “unsold” stock. In my experience, the author, especially a budding one needs to first figure out why he/she is writing books in the first place. Think deeply on your motivations. If it’s just to have money flowing in, you need to get real, as Ravi says. If you do it out of passion, and it happens to make money-great!


  8. Certainly a very helpful and informative post. I was never planning to quit, especially because I love my day job but this confirms what I have always suspected – writing does not pay much for a new or reasonably successful author. I believe the maths would be different for authors getting high advances and royalties.

    Liked by 1 person

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