During a recent discussion with an aspiring author, who’d met with repeated rejection from publishers and agents, I suggested that he explore the self-publishing route. I told him how well it’s worked for me and for many of the authors I know — the majority of the writers I’m friendly with are self-published — but the idea was firmly rejected because he believed that independent authorship wasn’t where “the real money” was.
It would have been easy to name several indie authors who are making an enviable living off their book sales, but I decided to dive down the rabbit hole of trad-pub author finances instead. Not like I had anything better to do that day…
What follows is the result of some quick-and-dirty research and number crunching, so take what you’re about to read with a generous grain of salt. I checked multiple sources, which of course all had slightly different data to report, and went with what seemed to be the most common figures or, failing that, an average of the averages, so I wouldn’t regard any of these numbers as authoritative.
Also, I’m not great at math. I became a writer to avoid math.
However, in my defense, the numbers support something career authors and all-around good guys James A. Moore and Christopher Golden said once during one of their roaming author coffeehouses: a tiny, tiny percentage of trad-pubbed authors make a living solely off their book sales — maybe three percent of such authors, with an emphasis on the “maybe.”
Suffice it to say, traditional publishing is not necessarily where the “real money” is.
One important caveat before I get into it: the overall point of this analysis is not to deter anyone from pursuing traditional publishing. This is strictly an examination of the earnings potential, so aspiring authors can pursue that path with their eyes open and expectations reasonable.
First, let’s start with the advance, which is typical when selling a novel to a major publisher. The average advance from a big publishing house is $10,000, which is a nice chunk of change, right?
Except that chunk is going to get smaller if you have an agent — which, if you’re getting a five-figure advance, is likely. An agent’s cut is typically 15 percent, so right off the bat your advance just shrank to $8,500.
After Uncle Sam takes his cut, which would be 10 percent on $10,000, your advance is now down to $7,650 — and I say that assuming the taxes are collected on the advance alone. If that amount pushes your overall income into a higher bracket, say goodbye to a larger piece of the advance.
But hey, $7,650 is still a pretty sweet payday — and the good news is, that money is all yours to keep. The advance is essentially the publisher paying you in anticipation of recouping that money through future book sales (more on that later), and if your book happens to tank? Not your problem anymore; the publisher took a chance on you and it didn’t pay off for them, but they’re not going to ask you for their money back.
Of course, the chances of the publisher asking you to write another book for them would be slim to none, but one hurdle at a time, yes?
The bad news (part one) is that you’re not necessarily getting that entire advance in one payment. Many publishers dole it out in phases as you meet certain milestones, like signing your contract and turning in your finished manuscript, so dismiss the idea that you can give up your day job and live off your advance while you finish your book.
The bad news (part two): the advance will be the only money you see for a while. Royalties — your cut of the book sales — don’t kick in until the advance has been “earned out,” meaning that the advance has been recouped by the publisher through sales.
(Told you I’d get back to that.)
How long does it take a book to earn its advance back? Nine months on average — less if your book really takes off, but if you’re not a runaway success right out of the gate, it might take a year or more before you start seeing royalties.
Now let’s talk about royalties, shall we? This is when you start making the big bucks, right?
Short answer: probably not.
Royalties are a percentage of the sales as determined by three main factors: the book’s retail price, how many copies have been sold, and format. Here’s the basic breakdown:
- Hardcover books: 10 percent of the retail price for the first 5,000 copies sold, 12.5 percent of the retail price for the next 5,000 copies sold, 15 percent of the retail price for every copy sold after the first 10,000
- Paperback (trade or mass market) books: 8 percent of the retail price for the first 150,000 copies sold, 10 percent of the retail price for every copy sold after the first 150,000
- Ebooks: 25 percent of the net selling price
Quick aside: in the above examples, “retail price” assumes that the books are being sold at full cover price. Publishers are increasingly basing royalties not on the full listed retail price (“list royalties”) but on how much the book actually sold for (“net royalties”), so if your book goes on sale or ends up in the bargain bin, your royalties adjust accordingly.
The average retail prices for hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, and ebook formats are, respectively, $25.99, $15.99, $8.99, and $12.99. Using those figures, the first tier of royalty payments for each format you’d receive, again respectively, are $2.59, $1.28, $.72, and $3.25 (assuming the ebook sells at full price).
That sounds like it could add up — and it could, if you happen to be wildly successful. To be fair, you could indeed be that one in a million author who hits it big, but you’re more likely to be an average author, so we’re going to base your income off your averageness.
And how many books does an average author sell? The range is 3,000 on the low end to 10,000 on the high end, and it’s important to note that that is over the course of the book’s lifetime — not weekly, not monthly, not annually, but from the day it drops to the day its publisher decides it’s not worth printing anymore.
For argument’s sake, let’s assume you’re on the high end of that scale, which means 10,000 hardcover copies sold will earn you $29,200, 10,000 paperbacks will earn you $20,000, and 10,000 ebooks will earn you $32,500.
Reminder: these figures do not factor in your advance, your agent’s fee, or taxes. A $10,000 advance alone chops these numbers down by one-third to one-half.
In any event, don’t count on this money as steady income like a weekly paycheck. Depending on the publisher and the contract you’ve signed, you would get your money at best on a quarterly basis, at worst annually.
Of course, an author’s book sales are a mix of hardcovers, paperbacks, and ebooks. It was tough to pin down solid figures, but as best as I could determine, 81 percent of all book sales are print and 19 percent are ebooks — and I know this seems counterintuitive to many indie authors who derive most of their income through ebooks sales (I know I do), but print still dominates the marketplace overall.
So, if we apply those numbers to an individual author and their 10,000 copies, a single novel would earn over its lifetime $46,027 — which is the gross income. That drops to $36,027 after the advance is taken out, $30,623 after the agent’s commission is taken out, and $27,561 once taxes are taken out.
I couldn’t find hard data on what an average book’s “lifetime” is, but I found several sources that indicated a typical novel sells 250 copies in its first year — and that average apparently factors in authors ranging from self-published nobodies up to mega-bestselling authors like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling.
That means if you want to reach that 10,000-book benchmark, your book would have to consistently sell at least 250 copies a year for 40 years — and for the sake of this example, we’ll assume that your book doesn’t see a drop-off in sales after its first year (which, in real life, it would).
And so, after your advance pays out in the months after the novel’s release, your annual royalty earnings come out to — drumroll please…
As I said earlier, I’m not looking to dissuade anyone from traditional publishing, but if that’s your goal, money probably shouldn’t be your primary motivation. The trad-pub route comes with its own benefits, including the possibility of becoming the Next Big Thing, but getting picked up by one of the Big Five publishers is by no means a guarantee of mega-success, or even a reliable revenue stream that would allow you to ditch your day job and become a full-time author.
My first novel series was space opera. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s a sub-category of science fiction that can be described as a blend of space warfare, epic good vs. evil tropes, and adventure tossed with a little romance. Think Star Wars.
The books feature a telepathic healer and an interplanetary intelligence agent. There’s a good bit of survival fiction in my stories, which I’m comfortable writing about from my own experiences camping, climbing and such. There are some complicated medical scenes, which I’m comfortable writing about based on my own training as a medic. But there’s also a good bit of military action, which I’m much less comfortable writing about since I’ve never served.
Every fiction writer ventures into unfamiliar territory. It’s the nature of the beast. But if we use constructs that will feel familiar to the reader in some way, we owe it to them to be authentic wherever we can. Getting your military scenes right, even if you’re writing about an imaginary, intergalactic military, requires a few things. Here are my top three tips:
In my books, the dogfights may be with spaceships, but people on Earth are still quite familiar with the concept of a dogfight, so it’s important to make the reading experience feel authentic. I played flight simulator videos, researched World War II aviation, and got sucked down the internet rabbit hole learning about current US naval fighter jet technology.
All Earth based military organizations have hierarchical structures. Representing that in some way felt important to me, so I did some research there too.
Of course, things will be different in your futuristic military. I felt free to take some liberties with mine. That’s some of the fun of it. But our goal is not to pull readers out of the story with something that feels too far-fetched within the context of the world we’ve created. Researching those things that feel familiar to readers, and presenting them authentically in our storytelling helps.
Follow Your Own Rules
If you write fantasy, you get to use magic. If you write futuristic science fiction, you get to invent technology. Yes, I’ve rewritten a few rules of physics. My characters can communicate across the galaxy instantaneously. But the key is to follow your own rules. Whether they relate to how the ships fly, or to environments of the planets you’ve created, be consistent. Readers will notice if you aren’t.
Get Beta Feedback from Experts
Because I’ve never served in the military, I felt it was important to get feedback from a reader who did. He understood this was science fiction, and knew his job wasn’t to critique my use of advanced stealth technology. Rather, I needed him to tell me that in the heat of battle my soldiers’ behavior felt authentic. I asked him specifically to evaluate the culture and characters I’d created. I asked if anything pulled him out of the story. His feedback was constructive, relevant, and helped me deliver a much better final draft.
Where there are battles, even in space, there’s often a military involved. With research, effective feedback, and consistency in your world building, you can give readers an exciting, authentic experience.
When I came out as demisexual (someone who can’t feel sexual attraction without a deep emotional connection) four years ago, it did not go well. I was told that I wasn’t what I thought I was and given evidence why, as if another person could know anyone better than they know themselves. This person was a dear friend of mine; I had known them for over 13 years. I thought they were right. It made me feel like I was wrong, as if there were something inherently incorrect in how I viewed myself. It also made me keep quiet about the fact that I didn’t feel like a man or a woman, but something in between.
At the time, I didn’t know the terms non-binary or demisexual existed, let alone what they really meant. I didn’t have anything or anyone to tell me about them. There were no books back then that featured someone like me. I took care to avoid writing about characters who were me. I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t trans. I had never had body dysphoria. Clearly, I didn’t belong at the queer club. In the end, I did come out. I found myself, it just took another two years. And in the process I terminated a friendship. It’s a wound that still hurts. It doesn’t really stop hurting; you just meet other people and remind yourself that you matter. That your story matters.
Queer characters are in everything I’ve written. My espionage series features a gay Russian spy and a bisexual American spy, working together to take down a secret organization that has managed to penetrate the KGB, set in 1965. It’s not a romance, because I wanted to give queer men the ability to see themselves in action adventure. I want them to kick butt just like the straight boys do, better than even. I have two projects out on sub, one a YA horror lead by a pansexual boy, and a NA low fantasy/post apoc lead by an asexual and aromantic girl. Today, I’m finally plucking up the courage to do the one thing I never thought I would: write an Own Voices novel.
This new project is a YA low fantasy set in the Ozarks. It’s a blend of folk magic and horror in the working poor setting. It’s a story about first loves and family and the lengths we go to save them. Last summer, in watching Sagas of Sundry Dread, I realized it was something more: its the story of two genderqueer punks who fall in love. It’s Riley, who is non-binary (someone who identifies as neither male or female) but doesn’t know it yet, and Chase, who is demisexual and thinks gender concepts are bullshit altogether. As I began to outline it, I grew excited in a way I had not in a very long time. I’m drafting it now, and I think this might be the book. The landing an agent book. And its because I took the leap to make it queer that I think makes it so, makes it more than just a folk magic horror story.
It has not been an easy story to write. Riley is not an exact copy of me; far from it. But there are lines which she is told about how she presents herself that are word for word what I was told growing up. The difference is, Riley will have Chase, who for all of his flaws and mental health issues, loves Riley wholly and completely. It’s Chase who pushes her to be herself, however that means she/they presents. Doing it under the guise of punk subculture gave me a lot of room to play with presentation. Chase wears makeup and nail polish. He dyes his hair a lot; helps Riley cut and dye hers. Chase has 99 problems but toxic masculinity ain’t one.
Ace spectrum, of all areas of the LGBTQIA, needs rep that isn’t just characters who are asexual to the point of being cold, aloof, and uncaring. There needs to be diversity across the board. Like gender, asexuality is a spectrum. All gender and sexuality is a spectrum and we should stop pretending like this is some modern concept invented by millennials. It’s not. Gender binary is a modern principal; gender as a spectrum is the concept of old that we’ve tried to bury with the nuclear family–the need to simply make children which cropped up from world wars one and two.
We especially need these stories to be told in YA, where so much of the literary landscape is whirlwind romances. Ace spectrum still happens, even in your teen years. But how can teens know what they’re feeling is real and not a mental health condition (it was part of the DSM as a mental illness as late as 2013) if they don’t see themselves represented? We need more stories about these gentle, slower romances, especially where one character is ace spec and another is not. This way, teens can learn how to navigate these waters from both sides.
Riley’s story will take time to make it out into the world. This year I’ll have to get the draft done; if I’m very lucky it will be agent-ready by next summer. But I will keep at it and I won’t give up until I’ve sold it and given it every opportunity to get in the hands of as many readers as I can. Because asexuality is part of the queer community, as is being non-binary, and I want teenagers to know it. I want them to read this story about love and sacrifice and see that you are not broken, and you are loved. That being who you are does not make you somehow undateable. Riley and Chase’s story is epic, and yours is too.
My name is Jeremy Flagg and I’m a superhero author. In 2015 I received a publishing contract and launched my first superhero novel. While I wish I could discuss the wealth and the fame that came immediately after, the reception was less than warm. It was cold, like glacial cold. For the following year I saw low sales, non-existent page reads, and nearly called an end to the series. While sales would eventually increase, the first year netted me almost no income from my writing.
It’s three years later and I am relaunching my series. To help give focus and provide a roadmap for other authors, I plan on documenting the process. These numbers are rough approximations (I’m not the best at tracking my expenses.)
There you have it folks, with my portion of the contract at 40%, my first year I made a grand total of $66.88. The book launched at $3.99. The first month I only saw an income of $23.76 based on 12 eBook sales, 9 physical books, and 2201 page reads. While the launch month was indeed the biggest month of profit, it hardly warranted celebration. This number however, does not show my personal hand sales (it would be in the dozens.)
When I started marketing, I had no followers, no fans, and no connections to the author community. Thankfully because of my day job, I have income to jump start this endeavor. What I quickly learned, throwing money at the problem did not always result in a positive return.
The first two items I purchased to market was a wire service and a blog tour package. The wire service resulted in absolutely no visibility, no coverage, and no promotion. I was able to track which news services picked up my release and I could count on one hand the number of mentions and they were in wildly inappropriate categories (Washington Post Online Business Section?) The blog tour was the next purchase. It not only resulted in no income, but required an uncanny amount of time to fill out questionnaires about mind numbing topics such as my favorite ice cream. Who cares? Who were these blogs? They were nobodies. Waste of money and time and no sales to speak of. I also found the people in charge to be rude, underhanded, and incredibly scammy (this was from an extremely reputable blog tour company as well.)
The rest of the promotional services netted me almost no return. While it didn’t make sense then, it tells me that there is something wrong with the book at this point. Primarily, I believe being in a niche genre reduces the broad appeal, couple this with a cover not depicting the interior and a blurb that confuses the genre, I can understand why there were minimal sales as a result.
Marketing Tactics Prior to Launch
I am roughly two months from when I hope to launch. As of the time I’m writing this, I am waiting to hear back from my cover artist as to when the work will be available. Currently this is the only thing holding up my releases, however it is providing me valuable time to do some behind the scenes work in anticipation of my release.
Newsletter Swaps: I am currently collaborating with authors who I think my books will jive with. I am placing about six authors per newsletter to build up a healthy IOU for my release. I am doing this with authors I’ve connected with within my genre, superhero author groups, and science fiction authors. My goal is to have somewhere in the 15 – 20 newsletters willing to promote my book upon relaunch.
Amazon Giveaway: I am hosting a variety of Amazon Giveaways and requiring entrants to follow my author page. While this tactic has worked extremely well for me in the past, Amazon has drastically changed how they are done. I used two extremely well selling superhero authors (within the top 10 of my category) and was only able to land 67 entries. At this time, I am not currently sure if those who Follow me from a failed giveaway will receive the new release alert. I am currently changing tactics and trying graphic novels with the same tone to see if that will generate more interest.
Mailinglist Building: I’ve resisted building my list for a while. I currently have 2,200 subscribers and have an average open rate of 35% with an additional 10% on campaign resends and a click rate ranging between 4-11%. I have joined six BookFunnel promotions for the month of June including SFF BookBonanza, a Superhero Author Sponsored, NESW Sponsored, and three broader science fiction promotions. I am also participating in a Listbuilder with a fellow superhero author that nets around 6,000 subscribes (about 600 of them will be retained after vetting and scrubbing the list harshly.) My goal is to reach 3,000 subscribers and maintain my open and click rate leading up to my launch.
Costs to Date
Now that I am relaunching I have to start from scratch, which is terrifying, but affords me a new world of opportunities. The first priority is to give my series a fresh edit (not a line edit, but make sure items align to the later novels in the series.) I also need to create new book covers. Thankfully I am a graphic designer by trade so once I have the artwork I can create the jackets and later, the advertisements, for free.
Line Edit: $0
BookFunnel: $12.50 per month
Mailerlite: $25 per month
Amazon Giveaways: $20
Craig Martelle’s Successful Launch Strategies eBook: $4.99
Points to Ponder & Explore
I am currently exploring the options in front of me for my release. Unlike before I will be doing a rapid release of all the books in the series. This will undoubtedly help with my overall sales. I want to include AMS and Facebook ads into this mix as well as select mail blast promotions. The big question hanging over my head is revolving around pre-order. If I offer a 30 day pre-order, I will have access to Kindle Countdown deals. I will also have time to either migrate my reviews or have my fans post new reviews. However, I don’t want an extended pre-order buying into launch day sales and counting down the clock to the inevitable “cliff” books see on Amazon.
Currently I do know that I will be launching the first book of my series at $.99 for maximum exposure and I will be enrolling into Kindle Unlimited to take advantage of page reads. The question will be if I do a pre-order, will I have it at $3.99 and then drop it for the “true” launch or have at $.99 from the get go?
Time & Energy
Currently the majority of my time is being spent editing my books. I have nearly finished the first book. I’m finding that I am not wasting too much time beyond my typical social media habits and writing a new novel. I feel the next stage may require more time as I want to create a few custom graphics to use as teasers leading up to the book. I am discussing graphics and release strategies with my artist and so far things are going extremely well.
I know we don’t talk about energy a lot when it comes to launches, but it is indeed stressful. There is a cloud hanging over my my head and I feel as if there is a lot riding on this to “get it right.” I am stressed with the possibility it may flounder. There is a bit of an emotional toll. Thankfully I have a strong support network and I’m actually doing this release at the same time fellow superhero author Trish Heinrich is doing her relaunch. This is making it much more bearable, however, there is the lingering worry. I know I can make more than $67.00 my first month. But can I make my real goal of $1,000.00 the first month? That’s the big question.