Money Talk (in publishing & in general)

Hello! I hope this finds you well. This post will cover the taboo topic of money – in fact, I’ll go on at length towards the bottom.

But first, let’s start with some fun updates.


My deepest gratitude goes out to everyone who bought a copy of Rosa’s Song or borrowed the book from the library. It’s so heartwarming to see all the photos on social media and to hear from readers.

I love how this reader photographed the book in her cozy reading nook. Thank you, @onemused!

And to those who’ve left a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads, I’m super appreciative! It’s quite terrifying to put a book out in the world with your name on it, so positive word of mouth (including online reviews) is one of the best ways you can help and encourage writers! So thank you!!

Lady Gaga looks really classy here.


In case you missed them, here are the replay videos of my recent virtual events:

Los Angeles Public Library

Children’s Book World

I really enjoyed both chats and I share different writing/publishing tips in each. Thanks to the interviewers & audience members for great questions!


A quick note about the phenomenal audiobook for Rosa’s Song. The narrator is Cherie B. Tay, a very talented voice actress. Her reading is so clear and so soothing! She has the perfect voice for bedtime stories.

It was very cool to be involved in the audiobook process (a first for me!). This is how it happened: a producer from my publisher’s in-house audiobook dept reached out to me last year, to get my general thoughts about background music, audition reels of various actors, etc. I really appreciated how the music samples were each slightly different, and how music truly enhances the storytelling experience. It was super fun to listen to the final production, and I loved being a small part of the behind-the-scenes process.


Due to various supply chain issues (ugh, the pandemic!!), some readers reported that they received damaged copies of Rosa’s Song. If that’s you, please email me at with your mailing address and a photo of the damage. My publisher sent me a limited number of replacement copies, so I’d be happy to replace your damaged copies free-of-charge. But please do let me know by the end of September 2022, before the replacement copies run out!


Sora’s Seashells will be released on May 9, 2023, and it’s available for pre-order now — yippee! Here’s a first look at the luminous cover:

I think watercolors are my favorite medium. Gorgeous!

If you’ve been a subscriber to my website for a while, you know that the release of this book was delayed for about a year. If you pre-order the book and email me a photo of your receipt (, I’ll provide exclusive bonus content straight to your inbox — you’ll find out the reason for the delay, why you see two illustrators’ names on the book cover, and some early sketches/imagery with behind-the-scenes info. I’ll also show you what the first proofs looked like (they were quite different from review copies for my other books). You’ll get several pages of exclusive insider info containing a close-up look at the bookmaking process!

I’m SO thrilled about Sora’s Seashells! The story is about a girl who learns to appreciate and stand up for her unique name, thanks to her grandmother. The manuscript placed in a contest with the Society of Children’s Books Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI), before being acquired by Candlewick Press for publication. I really love the way the book is turning out, thanks to my editor Kate, book designer Jackie, the entire team at Candlewick, and of course, the immensely talented illustrators, Ji-Hyuk Kim and Stella Lim.


I’ve saved the money talk for last because I plan to go on for a while. I encourage you to skip this part if you find money talk to be distasteful or boring.

So why am I addressing this taboo topic of money? Because a question I receive VERY frequently from readers is: “How much do writers make?” During a school visit, a third grader even asked me, “How many copies have you sold?” (That kid should definitely go into business or finance!)

A lot of folks seem to think that if a writer has a traditionally-published book or two that does well, then they must be living large…right?! This is far from the case, and since finances in the world of publishing are usually shrouded in a (very thick) cloud of mystery, I’m here to dispel some of that. I’ll also address finances in general later.

My ultimate point is: writing books has to be a labor of love, because if you don’t love it, there are many aspects of writing/publishing that will bring you down (this includes the finances and all the rejections). Most of my fellow book creators are primarily in this industry for the love of telling stories, rather than for the goal of becoming rich and famous. Sure, we all hope that our books will succeed and find lots of readers, but the journey is so full of ups and downs that if you don’t have love and passion to carry you forward, you won’t last very long. My personal goal is to make writing a lifelong endeavor, and any financial rewards are just a really nice bonus for something I absolutely love to do and would be doing anyway, regardless of the remuneration.

Okay, with the main point out of the way, let’s address some basics. In traditional publishing (as opposed to self-publishing, which I don’t know much about), this is how the finances work from an author’s standpoint. When an author gets a traditional book deal, that deal comes with an advance. This is kind of like a bet that the publisher places on you: in some instances, the publishing house puts together an internal document called a P&L — the “profit and loss statement”—which is a projection of how many copies your book is anticipated to sell across all channels (schools, libraries, bookstores, online retailers, specialty stores, direct to consumers, international markets, etc.), and then the advance is based on this sales estimate. An advance is basically a pre-payment of estimated future earnings.

So say, for example, that the publisher anticipates your book will sell 10,000 copies total (which is actually a decent number, given that most books don’t sell more than 5,000 copies!) based on the sales history of similar books and other factors. Authors usually make 10 – 12 % of the retail price of the book (but picture book authors make half of that percentage (around 5 – 6%) because the illustrator gets the other half – which is why it’s awesome if you’re both the author AND illustrator!). So if a book retails for $18, the author makes about $2 per book, and the total gross proceeds (without deducting the publisher’s sizeable expenses) will be about $180,000, and 10% of that is $18,000, which would be the author’s total estimated proceeds. BUT REMEMBER! In the case of picture books, there are two creators: the author AND the illustrator, so divide the numbers in half — end result: the author may get a $9,000 advance. (If you’re an author-illustrator, you get a higher advance since you’re the sole creator.) If the actual earnings exceed the advance, then you earn royalties, which is what everyone wants!

HOWEVER, there are a number of other factors that play into the calculation of the advance. Are you a debut author with no track record (in which case the number could be much smaller since the publisher is taking a big risk with you)? Or are you an established author with a strong fanbase? Are you a celebrity with lots of social media followers? Is your publisher one of the Big 5 houses (Penguin Random House, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, MacMillan), a midsize publisher, or a small publisher without deep pockets? (Note that if Penguin Random House is allowed to acquire S&S, then the Big 5 will be whittled down to the Big 4. This article gives a glimpse inside the publishing industry — “just 35 percent of books the company publishes are profitable,” with only 4% of titles accounting for 60% of the company’s profits!). Was your manuscript sold at auction (meaning that multiple publishing houses wanted it, therefore ratcheting up the advance)?

While I can’t go into specifics about my book deals due to confidentiality clauses, I want to be as transparent as possible for readers and aspiring authors who are reading this. Depending on the factors listed above and others, the advance for picture book authors can generally range anywhere between $2k to $30k for one manuscript (note that illustrators usually get a higher advance because their part is so much more labor-intensive, and as mentioned before, if you’re an author-illustrator, awesome). The number could actually be less for a micropublisher (I know of an author who received just a few hundred dollars), and the number could be much higher (in the six figures or beyond) if your book is a hot property that sells at auction or you’re a bestselling author/celebrity/etc. with a book deal with one of the Big 5 publishers.

The more books an author has out on the market, the more potential there will be to earn royalties. Or if your book is a perennial bestseller (like any picture books by Dr. Seuss, Goodnight Moon, etc.), your bestselling book will earn massive royalties all on its own. (To repeat: royalties are what you earn after you earn out the advance — royalties are a great source of passive income!)

Also, the beauty of being a creator of books is that a story can be adapted for other forms of media, such as theater or film. I’m truly grateful to have learned first-hand that having your book optioned by one of the major Hollywood studios will hit your earnings number out of the park, because that option figure will (usually) be much larger than your book advance. (It still feels like a miracle!) That’s why everyone at writers’ conferences gets starry-eyed when they hear of a Hollywood deal. Important side note: I’ve heard of authors who get option deals with individual producers or small production companies, where the payout is quite tiny. But if you’re fortunate enough to get a deal with a major studio, it can be life-changing, especially if your book is one of the lucky few that eventually gets “greenlit” to be made into a movie or TV series.

(In case you don’t know what an “option” is, in Hollywood speak, that’s when a studio/production company/producer pays you $ to have the exclusive option of purchasing your IP (intellectual property, meaning your book) to adapt into a film/TV series, etc. The option usually lasts for a year or two, and if the option is “exercised,” then you get paid a purchase price, which is higher than the option fee. So much $ changes hands in Hollywood!)

In terms of actual numbers for options, I recently attended a virtual SCBWI conference where a speaker said that the number can range between $5k (or less if acquired by independent producers or small production companies) to $150k (or much more for hot properties acquired by major studios). A reality check: only a small percentage of books acquired by film studios actually make it to the big screen — meaning only few of those options actually get “exercised.” The costs are enormous and studios have lots of potential projects in the pipeline! That said, if your book does get made into a movie, the proceeds are jaw-dropping: there are contractual provisions that dictate how much an author will get when a film earns X amount at the box office, and the number escalates in direct proportion to the box office. It’s fun to dream, but I’m a skeptic by nature, so I don’t really think about this stuff that much.

Now this brings me to the advice I want to give to aspiring authors: if you land a traditional publishing deal (which is quite a feat in and of itself!), please be smart with your finances. I’ve heard of far too many writers who quit (or prepare to quit) their day jobs after just one book deal! Unless you’ve landed a high-six or seven-figure book deal, or have some other source of income, think long and hard.

I’ve always been a giant nerd regarding personal finance because I grew up in a family that struggled and I never want to experience financial hardship again. I like to live and give abundantly. I’ve followed finance blogs for many years and continually read lots of personal finance books — not because I feel like I should, but because I genuinely love learning about the topic.

Sherwin approves of my reading choices.

I highly recommend Sam Dogen’s book, Buy This, Not That as well as his hugely successful blog, Financial Samurai, which I’ve been following for years. Sam’s book and blog contain awesome advice, and also cool illustrations by Colleen Kong-Savage (that’s right – the talented illustrator of The Turtle Ship!). Colleen sent me a hard copy of Buy This, Not That, with thoughtful inscriptions from both her and Sam. I’d already pre-ordered and devoured the e-book on my Kindle, but I’m overjoyed to display an autographed hard copy on my shelves!

You can see a few of Colleen’s original images from The Turtle Ship on my walls, as well as in the book Buy This, Not That. Hooray, Colleen!

Sam also wrote a recent blog post that goes into great, informative detail about the financial aspects of both traditional and self-publishing (since he’s experienced both).

Okay, whew! That concludes the money talk, but if anyone’s interested, I can write another money segment for the future — juggling a day job with a creative side hustle or anything else you want to know!

I’ll end with a very fond farewell to Jean-Jacques Sempé, one of my favorite illustrators who recently passed away. He conveyed so much humor, charm, and warmth through his artwork. May he rest in peace. Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Sempé! 

A book of illustrations I purchased at the Galerie Martine Gossieaux in Paris many years ago. You can read about Sempé in my prior blog post and experience his artwork via this video from my wonderful friend Claude.

I’ll be back in a few months with more updates. Feel free to contact me if you have any suggestions for topics. Enjoy the last remaining days of summer!