Sunday, November 18, 2018

How many books to be a full time novelist? Business for writers

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.

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