The short answer is: not a lot.
Assume they spend 40 hrs/wk on writing related tasks. (Most don’t. They squeeze it in between day jobs, parenting, etc.)
It takes roughly a day or two to plot, work out characters, etc.
An average novel is 80-90k words. If you type 60 words/min and don’t take any time to think about what you’re typing, that would take about 1500 mins or 25 hrs.
Of course, creativity doesn’t work like that. Let’s be wildly optimistic and allow our writer 2 months. (NaNoWriMo challenges writers to write 50k words during the month of November, and trust me, it is a challenge. So 2 months for almost double that seems fair.)
So now there’s a first draft, and the editing process begins. Most books go through several edits, working down from big issues to tiny spelling and grammar issues. A writer might pay someone several hundred dollars to do this for him. But let’s assume he’s doing it himself.
Each editing cycle takes several days, because he’s looking at the text in more and more minute detail. Let’s say this takes 3 weeks, which would be miraculous.
Now the book needs to be formatted. There are lots of apps that help with this, but it isn’t an automatic process. Again, he’s looking at each line and page break, headers, footers, section breaks, etc. We’ll give him a day for this.
The book, even an e-book, needs a cover. Chances are he’ll pay for a cover, which will run him in the neighbourhood of $300 or more. But if he’s creative in this area too, our writer will take at least half a day to create one, likely much more.
And now he publishes. He’ll spend a couple of hours uploading his e-book to various platforms.
Yay! It’s live! He’ll sell it for an average of $5, depending on the genre and his fame.
To recap: plotting 1 day, writing 8 weeks, editing 3 weeks, formatting 1 day, cover design 1 day, publishing 1/2 day. Total time 58.5 days, about 12 normal work weeks.
Working for minimum wage at a hamburger joint, he’d earn about $7,500 plus benefits for that time investment.
To make that much from book sales, he has to sell over 1,500 books.
But wait. No one knows about his book yet. To sell even one, he has to spend time outflowing to his mailing list, if he has one, and money on advertising.
Better bump that minimum sales quota to at least 2,000.
Let’s not forget, these are very optimistic estimates. Some writers can turn out a book every few months, but most take much longer. And many of the “quick” ones are poorly written, poorly edited, or both.
The above applies to self-published books.
If an author goes the traditional publishing route, his publisher may take over the editing, cover creation, and formatting. But now the writer needs to shop around for an agent, since most publishing houses won’t accept a manuscript that isn’t presented by an agent. The agent will take a chunk of his royalties, an abysmal portion of the book’s selling price to start with.
And the publisher still expects the author to do most of the promotion, which he funds from those paltry royalties.
But if he’s traditionally published, he’ll sell thousands of books and it will all be worth it, right?
If only that were true. Most books sell less than 10 copies. Incredible! I swear the earth trembled as millions of writers around the world gasped when that was recently announced.
So why do writers bang away at their keyboards until their fingers bleed, to earn maybe a couple of bucks?
Well, that’s a question for another post. Stay tuned.