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The Salary of a Mystery Novelist

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Making crime pay is the main job of mystery writers. Not only do they craft stories of mystery, intrigue and escalating suspense, they get paid for doing so. Sometimes, though, the biggest mystery seems to be figuring out how much they get paid. The answer to that question can be as complex as a Sherlock Holmes novella.

How Mystery Novelists Get Paid

Mystery novelists do not get a paycheck for writing books; they do most of their work before ever receiving a dime. Upon completing a book, a mystery writer will send query letters to publishers and agents to drum up interest in their work. If the author already has an agent, then the agent will try to find an interested publisher. Once a publisher agrees to publish and market the book, it will work out terms with the author, and if needed the book agent. Book contracts usually fall into two categories, one that gives a lump sum to the author or one that gives a percentage of the proceeds to the author. First-time authors typically pick the lump sum because this gives them an immediate payoff, albeit small. Payments can start at $3,000. If the book sells and becomes a hit, the author may be entitled to more if there is a second printing of the book. For percentage payments, the author gets a percentage after printing, marketing and distribution costs are taken out.

Average Income for a Mystery Writer

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, writers brought home an average of $55,420 in 2010. In the same year, the lowest paid writer earned less than $28,610 and the highest over $109,440. While their figures do not identify what genre these writers are in, a recent "Forbes" article identified the top selling authors, and it looks as if crime does pay. At the very top of the list was James Patterson, who writes crime mysteries. He has made over $70 million, which is not typical at all, but shows that mysteries can pay off. Other top mystery writers making the list were Dean Koontz, Janet Evanovich and Ken Follett. These writers make a portion of their money by selling the rights from their books to movie studios.


Self-publishing is changing the writing world, perhaps for the better. No longer do writers need to schlep their novels from publishing house to publishing house in the hopes of finding a deal. With nothing more than a laptop, Internet connection and some publishing software, they can create an e-book in the comfort of home. After creating the e-book, writers can choose to sell the books on self-created blogs or Internet powerhouses such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Selling an e-book directly to the public puts more money in the writer’s pocket. Amazon and other retailers do collect fees for featuring a book, e-delivery and e-publishing when required. Self-published books are usually priced less than traditional books because the printing and material fees are not part of the price. Amazon promises authors a 70 percent royalty rate, which does not include the cost of e-delivery. E-delivery runs around 15 cents per megabyte. Megabytes denote the size of the book when downloaded. The author’s income depends on the book’s pricing and book sales. A book priced at $9.99 that sells 1,000 units a month could possibly net the author $6,993 after Amazon’s fees are paid.

Additional Information for Aspiring Writers

If mystery writing is your chosen profession, becoming a member of the Mystery Writers of America organization can help you in your writing career. The website features articles and services geared directly to the mystery novelist. You may also want to find a good agent. Although you can find a publisher on your own, some publishing houses will only talk to agents. Having an agent can give you more time to write, which will ultimately make you more money. Book agents work on commission and receive a percentage of book royalties. As with publishing houses, writers also sign contracts with agents that detail how much they will be paid from book profits. Joining a writing organization gives you access to potential agents who may be interested in your work.


Adele Burney started her writing career in 2009 when she was a featured writer in "Membership Matters," the magazine for Junior League. She is a finance manager who brings more than 10 years of accounting and finance experience to her online articles. Burney has a degree in organizational communications and a Master of Business Administration from Rollins College.

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