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The Writer’s Odds

by bdietrich on March 4, 2013

Thriller author James Patterson made $94 million in 2012, according to Forbes. He’s one of 145,900 American “writers and authors” counted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a quarter of them part-time, two-thirds of them self-employed, and with median earnings of $55,420. (“Median” means half earned more than that, and half less, I believe.)

I looked this up for a couple talks I’m giving this week. People are often interested in a writer’s odds of success.

Pollsters report more than 80 percent of Americans would like to be author, and in 2011 statisticians counted 329,259 books published in the United States, and 2.2 million books published in the world. Google estimates 130 million books have been published in human history.

With electronic self-publishing, it’s become easier than ever to be “an author.” And harder than ever to get attention to your work.

Most successful authors have some combination of talent, persistence, and luck. The persistence stories are always encouraging. And daunting.

Mystery writer Janet Evanovich pulled in $33 million last year, but wrote for ten years before getting published. She labored first in the romance field before hitting it big with bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.

Stephen King’s first big novel, Carrie, was rejected 30 times. He tossed it in the wastebasket but his wife fished it out. He earned $39 million in 2012.

John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, was rejected 12 times, and he unsuccessfully tried to sell copies from the trunk of his car. He earned $26 million last year.

Judy Blume, who has sold 80 million books, got nothing but rejections for two straight years.

Steve Berry, 10 million books, collected 85 rejections over 12 years before breaking through.

Rex Pickett’s Sideways was rejected 16 times and received an advance of $5,000 before being picked up for a film.

J.K. Rowling, the first author billionaire, had Harry Potter rejected by a dozen British publishing houses and reportedly got into print, for a £1,500 advance, only after the eight-year-old daughter of a publisher pleaded for it.

Dan Brown’s three novels before The Da Vinci Code all had printings of less than 10,000 copies.

Other rejection counts: Gone With the Wind, 38 times, Dune, 20 times, A Wrinkle in Time, 29 times, Lord of the Flies, 20 times, Kon Tiki, 20 times, Watership Down, 17 times, Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, 18 times, Chicken Soup for the Soul, 33 times, James Joyce’s The Dubliners, 22 times, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, more than 100 times, MASH, 21 times.

C.S. Lewis got 800 rejections, and Western writer Louis L’Amour 200. Even The Diary of Anne Frank got numerous rejections.

I’ve been luckier, although my novel Hadrian’s Wall was ejected by just about everybody, including the house that eventually published it, HarperCollins. Different agent, different editor. You need the right person on the right day.

As instructive as all this is, the odds of any author making it big remain very long, rejected or not. Nielson Bookscan reported in 2004 that of 1.2 million books tracked, only 25,000 – barely more than 2 percent – sold more than 5,000 copies.

In 2006, Publisher’s Weekly said the average book sells less than 500 copies.

All you can do is write and try. And write and try. Most of the famous authors above did just that, for years and years.

Or, explore other kinds of writing. The government counts 58,500 reporters, with a median income of $36,000, 127,200 editors, median income of $51,470, 61,900 broadcast announcers, median $27,000, 320,000 public relations, $57,550, and 49,500 technical writers, $63,280.

And yes, half of them have that half-finished novel in their desk drawer. May the blessings of James Patterson be upon them.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Meme March 9, 2013 at 9:10 am

With 80 million people in the US wanting to be an author and only 145,900 actually with a foot in the door, the odds of success are miniscule. That’s enough to put an end to anyone’s enthusiasm. Ugh.


Olive November 23, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Well, anyone can WANT to become an author. You think about it: how many people do you know that have even finished a first draft? I’d bet the percentage of people that go from WANT to DO cuts it down until it’s in the singular digits.


RachelB. March 9, 2013 at 7:16 pm

I, for one, am glad that success comes hard in publishing. If it were too easy and anyone could be successful, the success would be less sweet. No one can guarantee success in any industry unless one is born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth. However, writing is one of the few playing fields left that is truly level because it’s based on talent, drive, and determination. So be it!


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