Can Money Still be made in Bookselling?

The last two decades have seen a revolution in how Britain consumes printed media. However, the future of British bookselling remains uncertain.

Rapid market changes have placed pressure on retailers, aspiring authors, and publishing companies. Old restrictions and gatekeepers to publishing have been removed and increasing internal and external pressure has been placed on the demand for literature.

Some have therefore questioned whether the traditional models for writing, publishing, and bookselling are still viable long-term.

One question remains. Can anyone still make any serious money from books?

Can Authors Still make Money?

There is no way to gloss over it. The bookselling market is weighted against the author.

Hopeful, talented authors of every stripe are abundant and the demand for any sort of book is notoriously hard to predict, whether they contain fiction, faction or even articles about wonky cars! This means that most publishers tend to be conservative with creative risks and attach themselves quickly to proven publishing fads that may not even involve literature, such as adult colouring books.

Advances for manuscripts are therefore handed out cautiously. Bonuses are almost never paid to authors by publishing houses alongside royalties, which can be only to the value of one print run. Typical printed media royalties are c.8-12% of the cover price, although this can be negotiated. Authors essentially receive nothing for used or resold books.

Writing should be considered a high risk, astronomically high reward profession. Large sums of money can be earned, but through navigating an unpredictable and often arduous process. A certain British fantasy series about a boy wizard was rejected 12 times before first publication in 1997. It is now worth more than a billion dollars, globally.

This is obviously an exceptional case. However, don't lose hope. Even if the author doesn't succeed to this degree writing can afford you a comfortable wage or welcome supplementary income. Self publishing increasingly offers authors a bigger slice of the profit, as well.

The median income for a published British author is c.£13,000. It should be considered that it is often a part-time job. Most successful "brand name" British writers currently work in young adult or "grip lit" paperback fiction and cater to an international market.

Can Publishers Still make Money?

Partly due to the shrewd business practices detailed above, British publishers are still turning a profit. Corporate publishers often benefit from generous deals that give them up to 35% of the cover price for each book sold while having access to global markets. However, they have also had to deal with major challenges of late.

Authors can now bypass traditional publishing houses altogether for better deals. Publicity is seemingly built, increasingly, on word of mouth rather than corporate advertising. Digital piracy can also eat into profits. The relative decline of the local British library, the growth of used book sales, and problems with the sustainability of high street booksellers have also arguably shrunk once lucrative direct markets.

Subsequently, British book publishing is difficult to enter into without a large initial outlay and the acceptance of a high risk of failure. Despite this, digital publishing may represent a possibility for the savvy investor.

Publishing also remains a relatively lucrative and personally rewarding middle-income career. Roles as editors or marketers are often available within existing major companies. The average salary for a publishing house employee is c.£25,000-30,000, rising higher for executive roles.

Can British Book Retailers Still make Money?

The long-term outlook for British book retailers has been extremely bleak of late.

American internet retailers have effectively stolen their thunder. Monolithic online stores are simply able to sell a better selection of books for cheaper prices at a profit while paying less business tax (as a percentage). A prolonged recession has also severely limited expendable consumer income.

Books have also faced increasing competition for precious consumer leisure time with the growth of digital media. Demand is also unusually low to begin with. Britain records some of the lowest levels of literacy and reading for pleasure in the developed world amongst both children and adults.

The British retail bookselling industry has subsequently contacted from more than 1500 independent stores to c.900 over a decade. Certain chain stores have similarly suffered.

Nevertheless, the independent bookseller is starting to undergo a minor renaissance. Increasingly, customers are willing to pay for the atmosphere and more knowledgeable staff.

Many sellers have reported great success in catering to more affluent neighbourhoods where the independent bookshop is regarded as a pillar of the community. For the right brick and mortar retailers, a healthy profit can still potentially be made through bookselling.