How You Get Paid Writing Children’s Books or: Math is Fun!

By Naseem Hrab


One question I rarely get asked is how you get paid when you write and/or illustrate children’s books. I know people have a lot of questions regarding how much they might get paid, but how does the payment process work? It can definitely be confusing for those of us who nearly failed grade 11 math. (Look at me now, Mrs. Sidorevski!)

There’s nothing I love more than oversimplifying math I don’t quite get by using words I don’t quite understand, so let’s dive in! (Very slowly and without breaking eye contact, of course.)

The two most important phrases we need to understand are “royalties” and “advance against royalties.”

Children’s book publishers typically pay creators via royalties, not flat fees. The royalty rate is the amount you will earn every time your book is sold and it is calculated as a percentage of sales. Your contract will list different royalty rates for the potential formats of your work: hardcover, paperback, ebooks, book club editions, etc. You’ll probably find that royalty rates are somewhat standard among different publishers and it is possible that a publisher will offer you a sliding scale where your royalty rate increases ever-so-slightly as the number of books sold reaches certain thresholds.

Your contract will also include terms regarding when you will get paid. When a publisher contracts a book from you, they will typically pay you an advance against royalties (aka an advance). That is, the publisher will “advance” you a payment that will be earned back after your book releases. The advance is based on many factors: the size of the publisher; how many copies of your book the publisher thinks they can sell; your sales history; the other costs involved with producing the book; where your work fits in the market; and much more. The advance can be paid as a lump sum, or in installments at different publishing milestones including “upon signing the contract”, “on first manuscript delivery”, and “on delivery of final manuscript”, etc.

Still with me? The advance is paid years before the book is available for sale. This is wildest part of all! For example, for one of my forthcoming books, I was paid my advance as a lump sum in 2017 and I won’t be paid any additional money until well after the book’s on-sale date in May 2020 (if at all—let that reality sink in). As copies of the book start selling, I will start chipping away at my advance, book sale by book sale. If the book sells enough copies, I could eventually earn back my advance. If I earn back my advance and the book continues to sell, I’ll (finally and hopefully) start to receive more money (aka royalties). There’s always a possibility that I may not earn out my advance. If you don’t earn out your advance, the publisher will not ask you to pay it back.

How will you know how the sales are going? Well, you’ll receive royalty statements from your publisher in accordance with their payment schedule. The statement will let you know how the sales are tracking; how much you have left to earn out on your advance; and a few details about the sales of your books.

Who knew money-talk could be so much fun? If I had known in grade 11, I would have tried harder, Mrs. Sidorevski. While this isn’t the jazziest of columns I’ve ever written, I hope it’s been an informative ride!

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Naseem Hrab is the author of the picture books Ira Crumb Makes a Pretty Good Friend and Ira Crumb Feels the Feelings, illustrated by Josh Holinaty. Her comedy writing has appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Rumpus. Sometimes Naseem likes to get up on a stage and tell true stories. She loves improv and coffee ice cream.

She worked as a librarian for a time and currently works in children's publishing.