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Forget about making money. Here’s what it takes to write a book

Bob Pisani, CNBC
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

Thinking of writing a book? You might want to reconsider.

On Monday, a federal judge blocked Penguin Random House’s proposed purchase of Simon & Schuster, agreeing with the Justice Department that joining the two giant publishing houses would lessen competition for top-selling books.

As an author, I agree with this, except that there are startlingly few top-selling books.

Most authors would be better off working at a McDonald’s.

Hey, I wrote a book!

I just published a book: ”Shut Up and Keep Talking: Lessons on Life and Investing from the Floor of the New York Stock Exchange.” It’s is a summary of what I’ve learned about financial markets while working at CNBC and on the NYSE floor for the past 25 years. 

My publisher, Harriman House, was thoroughly professional and a delight to work with.

This is the part where authors like to say, “It was a labor of love.”

Here’s the truth: It took two years of my life, working every single weekend, and one or two nights a week.

Every weekend. For two years. A labor of love? I love the product, and I’m glad I wrote the book.

 But getting there was brutal.

Writing a book? Forget about making money

Dreaming of six-figure advances for that masterpiece you have in your head? Forget about it.

If you want an idea of how ridiculous the book publishing industry is, look no further than the proposed Penguin Random House-Simon & Schuster merger. The Justice Department is attempting to block the merger, arguing that the combined entity would diminish competition among the biggest houses and push down advances for authors. A federal judge has agreed and blocked the deal from going through. Penguin Random House has said it would appeal.

Many interesting statistics have emerged from the trial. The good news: Book sales were strong during the pandemic. That’s understandable, considering so many people stayed at home.

The bad news: Only a tiny fraction of books make most of the money.

The New York Times reported that during their testimony, Penguin Random House executives said that just 35% of the books the company publishes are profitable, and just 4% account for 60% of those profits.

In 2021, fewer than 1% of the 3.2 million titles that BookScan tracked sold more than 5,000 copies, according to the Times.

Fewer than 1% sold more than 5,000 copies. 

A typical author is practically living in poverty

Dreaming of six-figure advances for your book? Forget about it. A typical author is practically living in poverty.

A 2018 survey of 5,067 authors conducted by the Authors Guild found that the median income of the authors surveyed had fallen to $6,080 in 2017. That’s down about 50% from 2007, when a joint Authors Guild/PEN survey reported $12,850 in median income (note: I am a member of the Authors Guild).

That is the median income. Earnings from book income alone was a paltry $3,100, indicating that authors were supplementing their incomes through speaking engagements, book reviewing, or teaching. 

No surprise, many authors supplement their income doing other things. Just 57% of published authors derive all of their income from writing-related work. Those who consider themselves full-time authors earned a median income of $20,300, “well below the federal poverty line for a family of three or more,” the survey noted.  

Is anyone making money? As in most things in life, the top 10% appear to be making what little money there is: They reported a median income of $305,000, but again this will include other income sources related to being an author. The top 10% of self-published authors made half that: $154,000.

Why has writing books become such a tough business?

What happened?

The Authors Guild report notes the explosive growth of alternative ways for consumers to spend their time (video and streaming). They also note that Amazon now controls 72% of the online book market in the U.S. 

Also, self-publishing happened: More than one million books were published in the U.S. in 2017 (up from 300,000 in 2009). Two-thirds of those books are self-published, according to a Bowker report cited by the Authors Guild. Self-published authors sell generally sell far fewer books and receive far lower royalties.

What can be done? How about more readers?

You can talk all you want about the lousy publishing business, but what would really help the book business is if people read more and bought more books.

Unfortunately, they’re not doing that. 

A Gallup poll conducted in December of last year found that Americans read an average of 12.6 books during the past year, a smaller number than Gallup has measured in any prior survey dating back to 1990.  The sobering conclusion: “Reading appears to be in decline as a favorite way for Americans to spend their free time.” 

That’s not a surprise. The competition for eyeballs has never been more intense. In 1990, there was no internet. There was no streaming. There were no podcasting.

Now, any fool with an iPhone can start a podcast or become a TikTok star. The media landscape has not splintered: It’s shattered.

And yet, books still get published

Which brings me back to my starting point: What kind of fool would write a book today?

I’m one. 

Here’s my message to would-be authors: You have to really want it. You have to really believe you have something to say. You have to believe it so strongly that you can feel the desire coming out of your skin.

You have to be willing to sacrifice the majority of your free time. And you have to forget the two things you’ll probably want: fame and fortune.

No, in most cases you’ll have to be happy that you were determined to say something and that you had the mental stamina and fortitude to get the damn book over the finish line. That is an accomplishment that you can feel proud of.

And that may be the ultimate reason books still get written: Regardless of how many books you sell or how much you get paid, there is still prestige associated with writing a book.

I’ve been at CNBC 32 years, so I’m well-known in a very small part of the world — the stock market. 

More fame? No. More money? It’s negligible. But the book has increased my visibility and the level of my prestige. I’ve been invited to more conferences and a lot of podcasts.

 And that makes a lot of the sacrifice worthwhile.

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