Sunday, November 18, 2018

How many books to be a full time novelist?

A dream for many writers is to be able to make a full-time living at writing novels. Sometimes, beginning writers igore an important principle: A FT earning will not come from one book. It will come from many books. But how many, exactly?

This sort of ranking (for a pen name book of mine today) won't do it, I'm afraid.

Here’s the conclusion that those far smarter than Lou Cadle have reached before me: to be a full-time writer, write hard, and fast, and accumulate many titles. I’ll first focus on indie (or self-published) authors because the figures are easier to interpret for me, and I’ll explain what this might mean for trade-published writers later on.

Fact: The top sixteen (in earnings at Amazon) indie writers as of a few months ago had this many books for sale: 119, 61, 6, 51, 15, 78, 21, 28, 64, 167, 12, 70, 15, 59, 31, and 78. (The higher numbers probably include omnibus editions of series, and a few titles in each case may be short stories or novellas, but for the most part, those are numbers of novels.) The median is therefore 46 book titles. The person with 119 titles for sale was bumping up against earning eight figures per year, while the rest earn a million per year (and some have been doing so for six or seven years in a row). That’s US dollars.

Most writers would be thrilled with a bare six figures! And the good news is that several hundred people do earn that much, 80% of them indie writers. (There’s a whole lesson to be given to readers on how little trade-published writers earn from each book of theirs you buy, and it’d likely shock you. I'll link a couple of articles below.)

This information above, on the numbers of books the top earners have for sale, is echoed by a smaller survey about the qualities/habits of 100K writers by Written Word Media, in which their surveyed writers making that much or more answered that they have an average of 33 books out. 46 books is the median for the millionaire authors, and 33 is the median number for the hundred-thousandaire author in that smaller sample.

But is 33 books a guarantee of a six figure income? Well, no. 33 awful books with amateur-looking covers is not much better than having 3 ugly-looking books. (Though I doubt anyone would still be awful at writing after putting out 33 novels, as practice usually improves our skills.) Let’s then find someone else who charted median number of books against income for a larger sample.

Amelia Smith re-crunched the raw data from a 2015 Author Earnings report to find where spikes occurred in book numbers vs. earnings. At 6 books, there’s an income spike. At 16 books, there’s another income spike. But what she found is that even at 40 books for sale, the median income over all authors was only $48,000 in 2015. Not awful, but in the US, not great either because after your expenses (ads, formatting, covers, proofreading), and after the 15% the federal government takes for Social Security, and then federal and state taxes on the rest, you’ll be darned lucky to keep $30,000 of that in your carpal-tunnel-y hands, and you probably can’t afford health insurance. In a two-income household without kids, or where an author is old enough to have a mortgage paid off and is able to draw on savings in case of a bad few months, that’s certainly enough to justify staying full time. But it’s hardly “retire to an island paradise” money.

“But what about that guy back up in the top-16 list with only 6 books out?” you ask. “Can’t that be me?” That’s AG Riddle, and if you can be him, more power to you. But you won’t be. Sorry to be blunt, but expecting to be the second amazing exception that bucks this trend of mo-books-mo-money--and doing so while starting six years after Riddle started, when indie writing was much less populated and therefore less competitive--is setting yourself up for future disappointment. Pay attention to the median, and work hard to reach the median.

You don’t need a breakout book or series to be full time. Though you do probably need several series. Stand-alones just don’t sell like series, which is sad for me, because I’d rather write stand-alone books, but there you have it. Literary books won’t do it either (there was one exception to this a few years ago in indie, but that person isn't still earning at that level today). It has to be genre books, in popular genres, because it’s genre readers who buy most of the books in this world. Whinge and rail at this reality all you want, but wishing won’t change the appetites of voracious readers willing to spend their hard-earned money on books. Their vote is what counts.

The idea of not needing a breakout book is something it’s worth delving into deeper. Let’s look at some figures.

Summary: if you have a whole bunch of books hanging out at a ranking of #100,000 or thereabouts on Amazon, and one newer series doing a bit better, and one 99-cent sale book every few months doing well for a week or two, you’re in the ballpark of making a bare living with 25 books. To dig deeper, here are some recent numbers of sales that results in X ranking (though it’s more complicated than this, this gets us close enough to being able to run the figures.)

If you’re selling 4,000 copies of a book per day at Amazon US (the biggest vendor and territory for most authors, so we’ll focus there), the book is ranked about #50 at

If you are selling 40 copies of a book per day, the book is ranked about #800 in the store.

If you are selling 2 copies of a book per day, the book is at #50,000 in store.

If you sell 1 copy of a book per day, or actually 35 per month, your book will be at #100,000 in store.

So all you need to do to compute what it would take for you, personally, to be making a living wage is 1) determine what a living gross wage (before expenses and taxes) would be for you, 2) accurately guess where your books will rank in their first month, first year, and thereafter, 3) price your books so that your royalty gets you the wage you determined in the first step (tho you cannot price higher than $4.99 because most readers won’t pay over $5 or an ebook), and 4) write that many books.

I multiplied this out for a Twitter writing friend and came up with “25 books priced mostly at $3.99 should get you to $50K income, assuming you run an ad campaign four times a year + drop a price of a first in series to .99 for the ad + put out a new series of three or four every year that will be ranked higher than #100,000 that first year + sell one book per day per back list title on average.” That would earn you $50,000/year gross.  This is not only possible, it’s achievable with some work and organizational skills, and it’s not uncommon. At Author Central, I recently could see 6,000 writers (including non-fiction, fiction, trade, and indie writers) are making over $50,000/year at Amazon US alone. This is great news. Hundreds of thousands try, but more than 6,000 do it. Long odds…but not impossible ones to beat.

Aha, wait. “4) Write that many books?” I slid right past that #4, but there’s the real trick. Write 25 books, most of them in series, keep writing 3-4 per year, and you have a good shot at making a living wage as an indie. Do you have 25 books written yet? Then why are you hanging out reading this blog post? Get to it! Set a word count quota that is slightly challenging, set a daily time, and hit your quota nearly every day. That’s how it gets done.

Sources and some less-organized rambling: A good deal of the most reliable source material for the above comes from Author Earnings, which (if you’ve never heard of it) was a project done by two best-selling indie authors as a free service to the community. Trade publishing, in one of its smartest moves of the past decade, hired the number-cruncher of AE away from the project, but the old reports are still online, and there is a wealth of information in them. It costs a bundle of money for the computer time to crunch the numbers the spider retrieved (you can read more there on spiders gathering data from web pages, or Google it), so many, many thanks to Data Guy and Hugh Howey for their long service and kind donation to the writers’ community.

The difference between what they found in 2014 and what they and others have found in 2018 is negligible. The biggest difference is this year more indie writers (self-published writers) are making a million dollars per year than ever before--over 30 of them. (And no, yours truly is definitely not one of them! Nor do I wish to be, but that would be another blog post.)

For more reading and handy charts which show graphically what I summarized above: -- various reports
and a big thank you to the community of indie writers who openly share sales figures, costs, and much else. Trade publishing works hard to hide such figures, but indies are open about it and happy to explain how to dig the information out and share it.
Trade-published authors and making a tiny percent of their book’s price is addressed here:

For those of you in the trade publishing world, this is sort of applicable as well, except you’re earning less per paperback by far than indie writers are per typical ebook, so you have to have higher rankings/sell more books from your backlist/have more books in your backlist for this to hold true, and that’s nearly impossible to do because you can’t lower your prices for sales at will to attract new readers the way that indies can. In general, all the trade published writers I personally know of similar skill, experience, and numbers of books are earning far less than their indie equivalents. Their sales are mostly paperback, the trade paperback writer gets perhaps 50 cents of every paperback sale and paperbacks go out of print.

If you chart trade-published ebooks over months, you can see they don’t stick in ranking as self-published books do. (Data Guy pointed that out in his RWA presentation a couple years back, if any of you went to that.) That might be a matter of pricing, or it might be that indies continue to promote their books years after the publication date (while trade publishers forget about their midlist books after 3 months). So it’s hard for a midlist trade-published author to have titles stick at #100,000. I can find you books that were made into a big Hollywood film 5-7 years ago that are now ranked lower than the ones I released 4.5 years ago at Amazon. Mind-boggling.

Therefore most trade-published authors with 25 books in their back list will have to do what they’ve always done to find more income--also write articles, teach courses here and there, edit on the side, ghostwrite on the side, do other work-for-hire, have a spouse earning a nice living and providing (in the US) health insurance, and/or keep their day job. And if you have a day job, writing 25 books is likely to take you 20 years. It sucks, I know, for I've been there.

For indies in many genres, audio books of existing titles can earn as well as another new ebook title--so instead of 25 books, you might only need 15 moderately selling ebooks and that many in audio. Paperbacks, while probably the main income source for a trade-published author are, for indie authors, unlikely to be a meaningful source of income.

And a final caution to midlist indies or those hoping to be that: you can’t afford to take a half a year or even a summer off to travel or write poetry or hang out at writer conferences. Top trade writers can and do, but you can’t. You need to keep putting out three or more books per year, most in your core subgenre.

Work hard. Harder than you ever imagined you could. Anyone who thinks it is easy to write four novels per year for long enough to have a back list of 25 books has, I’d wager, never done that.

Before, in your comments (moderated, btw), you point out any exceptions and say “but what about so-and-so?” Yes. I know there are rare exceptions. It slays me when people bring up Harper Lee to refute my point because guys, Harper Lee’s book was published in 19GD64. Once in every 75 years? Would your bank float you a loan based on that business plan: “I plan to have the luck only one book in the past 75 years has had!”? Remember, the median income for people with 40 books is $48,000. That also means half of authors with 40 or fewer books don’t earn that much. If you want to look at exceptions so hard, look there, on the bad-news side of things. Otherwise, you’re like a working-poor person taking the last $100 they had set aside for their kids’ shoes and blowing it on lottery tickets, clinging to a wild hope and studiously ignoring the odds printed on the back of the lottery ticket. Look at the median, set that as your goal, and work your tail off to hit it.

It is possible. It is. But it's unlikely to come quickly. 25 books. Write today.

Best of luck to you all.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

What qualities do you need to be a successful novelist?

I was asked to explain how to be a fulltime writer and thought I'd start with my take (after 30 years of knowing many of us) on who a fulltime writer is likely to be, focusing on their personality and behaviors. This is only my take, one person's opinion as of November 2018. Your experience may well have led you to another opinion.

While there are other pleasures to be had in writing a novel--knowing you did your best, finishing a book (no small feat), and having a critical writer pal say it’s your best yet--most writers have a dream of doing this for a living. For the purposes of this article, "success" means a full-time income for indies, and something a bit less than that for trade-published authors.

I have noticed a few things about the people who make it--and this applies whether I’m talking about people who get a trade contract for a few books (the lower royalties make it harder to be a full-time trade-published author), or people who run their own publishing businesses and make six figures a year as indie novelists.
  • They are hard workers. If they have a day job, they get up early to write or come home and write after supper dishes are done. They get up on Saturday, play with their kids, mow the yard, clean the house, and then when others might collapse to watch sports on TV, they roll up their sleeves, shut the door to their office, and write. If they are FT indie writers, they often work seven days per week, splitting their work hours between their writer role and their publisher role.
  • They are organized in their business lives. Most of the full-time writers I know not only outline their novels, they outline their entire lives! (Perhaps Monday-Saturday, 9-2 is for writing, Friday afternoons are for detailed examination of the best-seller list in their subgenre, Saturday is promotion and catch-up-on-admin day, and Sunday mornings are for networking with other writers) The successful ones who do not outline their novels, by the way, seem to write in a genre that has a distinct formula, which they use over and over and have no doubt internalized. So there’s an outline there--but it’s in the writer’s mind, not on paper.
  • By a nose, the plurality are morning writers. A smaller number are afternoon writers. Only a minority of pro writers I know fit the movie stereotype of the writer up in the wee hours. But any writing habit seems to work so long as it is a solid habit, pursued regularly.
  • Similarly, some can crank out 10,000 words a day. I write at about 1500 words per hour when it’s flowing, I know full-time writers who write at 500 words per hour and still others who can dictate at 3,000 words per hour. So there’s some flexibility on this per hour production rate. If you’re a slower writer in first draft, don’t despair. You may need to write more hours, but perhaps a slower rate gives you a cleaner first draft so you can still write more than one book per year.
  • The successful writers almost all write sober. The stereotype of the author boozing his way through a work day is a movie myth, not a reality. Some do drink or smoke pot when the work day is done; some don’t. But all the writers I know treat writing as a job, and you don’t go into your job in a big-city office or elementary school classroom drunk at 8 a.m., do you? (I hope not!)
  • They understand accounting. They may hire an accountant or business manager if they make enough money to afford offloading that burden, but even then they understand the topic well enough to supervise and make sure it is being done right. They learn to read contract language. They are like any savvy business owner in this. If they didn’t know these skills going in to their successful years as writers, they study the skills and come up to speed on them.
  • They hit deadlines and they answer emails in a timely manner.
  • They daydream very little about wildly higher levels of success. If that’s a goal for them, they work for it, rather than interrupt their precious work time to have fantasies about it. (Also, by the time they’ve made it to fulltime status, they have learned that the realities are not very close to the dreams anyway.)
  • They keep trying when faced with obstacles and disappointments, knowing them to be inevitable. And they keep trying when faced with the high of a success, knowing that to be temporary. They plod along, chin down, and try not to let either good or bad news yank them away from their goals and schedules. They don’t have time for “writer’s block” or artistic angsting. They write if they are in the mood, and they write if they are not in the mood.
  • Do successful writers have an “artistic temperament?” I’m not even sure there is such a thing. I hope they listen to people well in real life, for it’s in understanding and appreciating other people that we learn much of what makes our characters good and believable. But I don’t believe writers have more brain chemicals that allow them to see or smell better than non-writers, and I’ve never seen scientific studies to suggest this is so. I suspect without being able to cite data that the average successful writer is reasonably intelligent, but one hardly has to be a record-holding genius to be a good writer or a hardworking writer.
  • They do, however, have a personality characteristic we might call “stubbornness.” One has to be stubborn to put up with the years of rejection and failure writers live with and keep on at it. I have long suspected this is the most important quality.
  • Are full-time writers creative? By definition, yes, but then so are a lot of people. I know people who are creators of beautiful flower gardens and original quilt designs and abstract watercolor paintings as well. Novel-writing is merely another craft, not a superior one to those others, and you really needn’t be so impressed with this one expression of creativity if you don’t have it, nor feel overly proud if this is how you express your creativity. Fulltime writers don’t seem to me to have any excess dose of creativity. Yes, they have hundreds of ideas for books, but getting ideas is also a matter of craft that they’ve improved by practicing it.

If you think about this bullet-point list, it’s the same list of qualities you might find for a successful ________ (name a profession). A professor, for instance. A human resources professional. Any business owner, certainly, like the dapper fellow who lives down my lane and fixes appliances. A full-time parent who homeschools so well that his/her kids end up winning full-ride scholarships to top accredited schools has these qualities. A good tax assessor. A popular small-town insurance agent. All are probably hard-working, creative, dogged, and so on.

Oh, but those aren’t sexy-sounding jobs, are they? Writing has this strange mystique about it, one that is at best inaccurate and at worst harmful to people who think they want to be a writer without understanding the least part of what being a writer truly is.People end up thinking suffering or booze or some other ludicrous thing is what it takes, and that's just not so.

I’m not sure where the job picked up this romantic aura. Any successful writer could debunk the myth. Writing is work, some of it fun (ahhh, first drafts when the words are flowing are the best!), but some of it as dull as any office job. There’s no glamour to sitting around all morning in your pajamas or undershorts that need a good washing and typing while your posture gets worse and your wrists start to ache.

In short, success at writing novels requires organization, stability, commitment, stubbornness, and hard work.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Whose advice should the new writer take?

For National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, in November), I always blog about writing itself, the craft and the business. This year, I’m speaking to other writers about business, about possible roads to success and fulltiming it. My apologies if this bores my fans!

And I'm not going to pussyfoot around what I think. I'm telling it as I see it, and I'm too seasoned (er, old) to bother with prettying up the truth.

Now onto post 1.

"Whose advice should I listen to?" asks the new writer.

There is a good deal of conflicting advice out there for the new writer, or the writer who has put one book out on Amazon and realizes that wasn’t quite enough effort to have a best-seller. They'll often see two other writers disagreeing about some point on a forum or on social media, and they ask, “Which one is right? I hear so many different things!”
Let’s focus in on this question: “Who should I listen to about promotions, sales, and gaining readers?” The short answer is, check out the person’s book rankings on While there are other nations and other vendors, it is that likely sells most copies of a writer’s books.

  • Does this expert have more than one book out? The more books the better. 
  • What are their books’ rankings? Look at their best ranking, which would likely be in paperback for trade-published authors and ebook for self-published author (though audio book rankings can be illuminating as well). If someone with a novel ranking of worse than 1,000,000 is giving you business advice, they probably do not have a clue what they are talking about. If they are giving you writing craft advice, they may know, for sometimes a book ranking doesn’t fairly reflect the quality of the content. But bad rankings of recent books almost certainly mean their business knowledge is poor. 
  • How long have they been at it? Is their first book published two months ago? Or are their only books published in 2005-2009? Good heavens, that’s like a different era in the book-selling business! Things have changed drastically since then.  
Admittedly, it’s not possible to see everything about an author by doing these checks. I, for instance, have an invisible 25 years under different names before Lou Cadle was me, so you can’t find that to assess my history. Furthermore, I have a writing acquaintance who appears to be doing quite well--earning in the high hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. But actually, she is three other pen names in that genre too and is earning millions. The level of her expertise is hidden from view unless you know her pens.

So please, CHECK the book pages at Amazon of the writers who are giving you advice before you decide whether or not to take that advice. I’ll post in a few weeks about a more in-depth analysis of author book pages to help you learn even more about a book’s success, so stay tuned for that.

best seller lists--a great resource when hunting for advice

Things not to be impressed by on anyone’s book pages:
  • Awards you’ve never heard of. These are quite possibly their own or cronies’ and total BS, and if real, so what? Nobody else knows of those awards, so they carry no weight. They spent $100 to compete with only 100 other books and won in that tiny group? Readers aren’t impressed and you should not be either
  • The first ten glowing reviews. These are quite possibly by friends and family, and certainly so if they are not “verified sale” reviews. Ignore them. Savvy readers do.
  • A Kirkus review. Authors or publishers buy those. (They are expensive and sell no books, so to those in the know this only shouts “not a great business manager.”)
I listen to others who have succeeded far beyond what I have, though sometimes I choose not to do what they have done because it sounds like an unbearable sort of work to me. I don’t listen to people with rankings a million worse than my books. My best advice to you is: also listen to the successful. (Ignore me personally, if you like--I’m not all that successful!--but listen to the ranked leaders of your genre and publication method, self- or trade. Follow their social media. Read their blogs.)

Many factors may have combined to result in someone hitting the best-seller list in their genre, including a dose of luck. Some writers can't tell you exactly why they are highly ranked. Some guess but guess wrong.

I’ve discovered over the past five years that there are, nonetheless, some nearly absolute truths backed up by good data. For instance, blog tours don’t sell books. Even interviews in large papers don’t sell but a few books. A national TV show host mentioning a book may not even sell more than five or ten books! (Oprah was the exception, of course.) Reader reviews don’t sell many books--90% of book buyers never glance at them beyond noting the average rating, and I can’t even see them on my Kindle Fire so how could my buying be influenced by them? When reviews do help, it’s usually because the person buying knows the person reviewing, as happens with the “friends” system at Goodreads.

Why we know these things now is that these days, a lot of indie writers came not from a literature background (where such “truths” like “book signings are necessary and helpful” have the force of a religious myth about elephants and turtle eggs) but from a business background (where figures matter, not myths). Therefore, they know how to track the effect of various promotion methods. They have enough books and pen names they can try different experiments. (Get forty ARC reviews with one pen versus get no ARC reviews for another pen in the same genre, for instance, and compare the results.) With same-day reporting by Amazon immediately showing them what a promotion effort gained them, they have the business of writing sussed as it has never been sussed before. And nearly all of them share what they learn with anyone wise enough to listen.
When they do offer up their expertise, someone else with a single book ranking of #2,480,175 will pop up and yell that they are wrong. And so the new writer asks, “So who do I listen to?” Listen to the one who is selling books. Really, it’s that simple. 
Also, remember the smart consumer warning, “If it sounds too good to be true, it is.” I’ve seen ridiculous things in this category said on Twitter, occasionally by someone with the blue check mark of a verified account, which lends weight it shouldn’t to anyone with the capacity for critical thinking, for merely proving to Twitter you are who you say you are doesn’t mean you’re anyone worth listening to. For instance: “You don’t have to write every day to succeed. Just write when you want to.” Said by someone whose newest book was ranked #189,000 at Amazon after only a few weeks of being out (that’s not impressive and means an income of less than $100 per month on that book.)

If you’re busy (and who isn’t?) or distracting yourself with wastes of time like social media and/or TV (and who isn’t, me included?), that sort advice comes as a great relief. “Oh, good! It’s easy to make it as a writer! I can just dabble with writing and mosey along when I feel inspired, and I’ll be the next Stephen King!” (Stephen King still writes five hours a day, every day, by the way, even when he doesn’t particularly feel like it.) Of course sometimes emergencies in life will intervene with a regular writing schedule, even happy emergencies like a newborn in the house. But if you want professional status as a novelist one day, you’re going to need to keep professional, serious business hours now to get there, as King tells you in his how-to book on writing.

Or don’t believe his advice on that. You can pay attention to Mr. $100/month income over there instead, and you’ll likely achieve what he has. If $100/month is your top income goal, the dream you are striving for, great! Now you have the advice you need to reach it.

I am always happy to give away my expertise (much of it not actually mine but that of better-selling writers) for free. It’s how I was brought up, by my folks, with a spirit of volunteerism in all of one’s communities. And it’s how I came up as a writer, with many kind people willing to explain how things actually worked to me.

In a sense, it’s better for me if you listen to someone with books ranked 2,000,000, for you’ll likely never be competing with me for readers. But I like new writers, is the truth, and I’d hate to see them lose a chance to win at this difficult game by listening to the wrong advice. So when they fall for vanity publishers or terrible business advice by people who can't sell their own books, and especially when they pay for that bad advice, I feel terrible for them.

Listen to business advice by the winners, not by the losers. It won’t eliminate conflicting advice, but it will cut down on the nonsense you hear. I have, and it worked for me.