The Financial Ecosystem of the Writer

A while ago on the Facebook group The Beekeeper’s Apprentices, a discussion rose up about the ethics of buying second-hand books.  Not old, out-of-print books, merely used books by active writers who are trying to make a living off their writing.

The discussion in some ways runs parallel to another question I am sometimes asked: which format of book gives an author the most financial support—hardback, paper, e-, or audio?

However, in both cases, my answer is more or less the same: you buy whichever you prefer.  But since that’s not exactly a reply, here’s more detail.

The formats are complicated and vary wildly depending on contracts, number of books sold, and for all I know the phase of the moon:

Hardbacks—10% on the first 5000 copies, 12.5% on the next 5000, 15% of all over that (with tweaks on regular or deep discounts to the retailers)

Trade paperbacks—7.5% (except for promotional, book fair, book clubs…)

Audio—10% of physical CDs, 25% of digital audio


And so on, for many paragraphs in the contract.  But basically?  Don’t worry about it.  Buy what you like.

As for used books, that depends.  Most of us writers would agree that if your money is tight and that’s the only way you’ll get that book on your shelf, then bless you for indulging your 75¢ on my book.

What matters more to a lot of us is the question, are you buying that pre-read novel from an Indie bookseller, or maybe a charity shop?  Great!  If, however, you’re buying it—or indeed, buying any book—from a huge conglomerate that undercuts the community efforts of Indies… well, you might want to think about whether the hidden cost is worth the savings.

Hence the title of this piece, about the ecology of the financial landscape.  Yes, I absolutely depend on people buying my books.  That people like you have done so keeps me from having to live in my car and use the wifi leaking out of the local Starbucks.  But I’ve been writing for a long time, and I sell a lot of books.  That means there are a lot of peripheral readings of my words that don’t contribute directly to my bank account, but have considerable indirect benefit.  Someone who falls in love with Mary Russell because of the recommended shelf in the library, or a used-book cart in front of the bookshop, or a neighbor’s Little Free Library is someone who is in love with Mary Russell.  They might not have risked $15 for a crisp new paperback by an author they knew nothing about, but once they’ve met the characters, they may well want to fill in the gaps and even, when they’re feeling flush, pick up the new hardback.  That person is also someone who wants to tell her friends how much fun she’s having with the stories, or who asks for the next hardback for her birthday… and there are your book sales.

Where the question becomes more relevant is when it involves new authors.  If you find a new writer you really adore, someone you’d like to see writing thirty years from now, order their books from your local bookshop—and while you’re there, tell the bookseller how great that author is, and suggest that they might like to add them to their shelves.  Pre-order the author’s next one—publishing houses really notice pre-order numbers.  And if you spot their older books in a second-hand shop, buy those—and give them to friends.  Maybe they’ll fall in love, too, and order the next one.

A healthy financial ecology benefits us all.


Posted in ,


  1. Mary Garrett on October 12, 2021 at 9:07 pm

    Also, ask your library to order the books, again especially useful for new writers. They already order Mary Russell books in quantity. <3

    • Laurie King on October 12, 2021 at 10:17 pm

      Yes, we love libraries!

    • TheMadLibrarian on October 25, 2021 at 5:03 pm

      I tend to give new writers a chance when they appear on our library’s order list, if they fit into the budget and appear to be something our patrons would like. If they are shelf sitters, well at least I gave them a chance.

    • Kim on February 11, 2022 at 6:11 pm

      Yes! I do this all the time if I listen to something on Libby

  2. Margaret Laing on October 12, 2021 at 9:30 pm

    Thank you! As for the other sort of ecology, paperbacks can be read to destruction. I discovered that anew as I started my re-reading of the whole Mary Russell series and the early ones, which are paperbacks, are truly battered. My birthday is Nov. 25. Thank you for help with my list!

    • Laurie King on October 12, 2021 at 10:18 pm

      I always love doing a signing, when someone brings a well-loved book, sometimes held together by rubber bands, for my signature. Which I do, but gingerly!

  3. Judith on October 12, 2021 at 9:35 pm

    Thank you! I was just musing about this a few days ago! I usually can’t wait for your books and buy them in hardback, but trade paper suits my shelves better. I am not an Amazon book buyer, but do rejoice when I get a good used book deal. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to replace Beekeeper’s Apprentice–I never seem to learn that even the best-seeming individuals may not warrant my faith in them. But I know I’ve gotten a lot of folks hooked on your books!!

    • Laurie King on October 12, 2021 at 10:20 pm

      You’re quite welcome to buy up any used copies of Beekeeper you find, and gift them to those naughty friends….

  4. Lise Atkinson on October 13, 2021 at 2:39 am

    I sometimes get my books from a site in the U.K. called world of books they are books saved from land fill sites and recycling centres

  5. Kathy harig on October 13, 2021 at 9:16 am

    Thanks from all of us indie booksellers. Kathy Harig, Mysterylovescompany

  6. Lori on October 13, 2021 at 10:34 am

    I buy your books in hardback because I usually cant wait, but I use the library a lot and they get all your books. I purchase a lot of used books at the library book sales, thinking the money goes back into the library system to buy more new books. Thanks for your clarification about buying used books. I feel like Im making a good choice when I buy used books.

  7. Nancy Knepel on October 13, 2021 at 4:02 pm

    While I was working, I bought books like a person possessed, even though I was a librarian. Now as a retiree with a fixed income, I borrow from the library…haven’t bought a book in years. I am still asked by friends constantly “what should I read next?” and I tailor my answer not only to their interests, but also to their economic situation regarding the source of the book. Intrusive? Little bit. But supporting authors goes hand in hand with encouraging reading. Write on!

  8. Shanti on October 13, 2021 at 8:47 pm

    I buy new books as ebooks so I’m gratified that this gives you the bigger profit but I also support our Lifeline free phone counselling service who hold big book fairs – will happily fill my boot with older books for a good cause

  9. Dayna on October 14, 2021 at 7:17 am

    Thanks for explaining how it works. These days I mostly borrow books from the library in hardback and digital form. The few new books I buy are those of favorite authors—Ms. King, for one. Because I follow these authors on social media, I feel connected to the new book and want to read it as soon as it is available. When I buy used (usually for a book club read) I try to buy from an independent bookseller.

  10. Mike Lee on October 29, 2021 at 9:02 am

    During the covid pandemic I have been using an e-book service offered by a local library. If I start to enjoy a book (having perhaps read a quarter or so of the book) and realise there is the potential of an ongoing enjoyable read (and potential rereads) I purchase an e-copy of the book…this way I really only collect novels I’m not going to discard part way through reading. I’m pleased to read in your blog that the author of a book receives around 25% of the purchase price (in e-format)…though also do appreciate that books are often priced a lot lower in this format.
    Case in point ‘ The Beekeeper’s Apprentice’…I like the older ‘Holmes’ character you have created – also good descriptions of the ‘South Downs’ area of England – I lived in and around Eastbourne from the early 60’s until 2000.

  11. Laurie King on November 4, 2021 at 1:40 pm

    Glad to hear you feel I got the Downs area right–and yes, aren’t libraries a life-saver?

  12. Chris Lichon on November 11, 2021 at 10:45 pm

    I find second-hand books often introduce me to a new author, one I might not take a full-priced gamble on. Then, much like narcotics, once I have a taste for the author I may buy new books in paperback, hardcover AND in e-book versions, so it’s always readily available.

  13. Bill Evans on February 15, 2022 at 2:54 pm

    Fell in love with Mary Russell (and YOU) in the first chapter of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. i have always been a fiend for Sherlock Holmes books and that’s how I found you at my local library. Have also bought some books that the library did not have or when there was 23 people ahead of me for their 3 copies! If I buy paperbacks, they always get paid forward to a friend or donated back to the Friends of the Library for their sales that support the library! Read books! It’s entertaining, informative and fun!

  14. Anne M. Robertson on February 23, 2022 at 2:41 am

    Librarians love books! Keep them coming. I keep buying them despite being a professional Librarian with access to everything at work anyway.

  15. Carol Elizabeth Nicholson on June 3, 2022 at 9:59 am

    Hello, Laurie,

    You are so great!

    Wanted to ask if you would consider doing some consults at Book Passage this coming August. I have a writing buddy coming to BPMWC for the first time this year–she lives in Chicago, and is getting ready to settle down into writing about Arthur Conan Doyle’s interest/activities in spiritualism

Leave a Comment