Monthly archives for February, 2011

The New World of Publishing: Accounting

Warning: This will be a general post designed to help regular folk understand some real basics in indie publishing accounting, so publishing experts and accountants, please give  me a break. This is very, very general. Thanks!

Also, this is a long one. Sorry.

The term “Margin” is thrown around in so many ways, by so many people in publishing these days, I figured it was time to try to make sense out of the word and other basic accounting issues. In fiction publishing, that is. I’m not getting into stock margins or buying covered calls on margin or anything along those lines. This is about fiction publishing and accounting and profit margins and how to figure them.

Yup, lost about five hundred readers right there.

Here we go. There really will be a point in this for indie publishers, so ride with me.

Traditional Publishing Accounting and Margins

Starting from the top and working down.

Publishers and lines of books

Publishers (for the company or for an imprint) tend to like to make around a 4% margin of profit after all costs. More, they get happy, less, they get grumpy. And every company is different and some have different numbers, but most range in that area, so that is just a basic center number for conversation sake.

An imprint’s profit margin is figured (basically) by total gross receipts minus all expenses, including office overhead and salaries and costs of production and shipping. So ideally the company stays afloat and pays all bills and makes 4% of the total gross receipts. (Yes, I know, very simplified, but live with it.)

A Book

A single book is figured on the same formula as basically the entire line. (And it’s a giant guessing game. More on that later.) After a book goes through its life, the publisher looks at the total gross receipts for the book, take away all costs, including a percentage of the overhead and salaries, to get to a desired  4% net profit or profit margin. Some books are far, far more successful than that, most books are not, and many books lose money “on paper” for the company. About a zillion factors involved in the final per-book calculation that then gets fed into the overall calculation of the imprint.

Bestsellers have a far higher profit margin because of the set costs such as staff and overhead are factored over a lot more books than a 5,000 copy print run of a small book. But bestsellers also have more upfront costs and thus are a higher gamble for the publisher. Many lines make money by having a couple bestsellers that carry all the small authors and first-time authors who are losing the company money. Midlist authors are often the ones that can sell consistently at a 4% profit margin and don’t add or drain anything from the company.


All distributors tend to try to work at a 5-10% profit margin where possible. Closer to 5% most of the time after all costs. Distributors are basically any company from Ingrams and Baker & Taylor to Amazon Kindle or Smashwords.  All distributors, although the electronic and online paper sales have combined distributor and bookstore in many areas. But ultimately they are distributors. (For the publicly traded ones, you can read their year-end reports to see the thousand factors that are taken into account. Again, I said I am being very simple here.)


Bookstores like to get as high a discount as possible from publishers. Often a bookstore will pay ahead and order a certain number of copies because that savings in shipping and a few percent higher in discount can make all the difference on staying alive. Bookstores get books from 32% to 55% discount. Their overhead in buildings, employees, utilities and such make it critical that they do enough in sales to cover the costs.

For decades new bookstores have been helped by the return system and the smart owners used the system perfectly. If a book didn’t sell quickly, they returned the cover or the book for a full refund and credit against another book they were ordering and the publisher and author took the hit for the store not selling the book. So new bookstores didn’t get caught often with dead inventory. (You want to see a store with dead inventory, go into any Borders this week. Take a look at the books that didn’t sell in December.)

Barnes & Noble had a great last year, with some decent profits. Amazon, as a bookstore, also had a good year. Most bookstores, the small independents, didn’t do so well even with the no-risk inventory and considered it a good year if they paid all their overhead and salaries without borrowing money.


I typed that and started laughing. There are a few authors working with traditional publishers who actually think in these terms. Very few. But most writers don’t know enough about business to even know how to figure their own profit and loss on a book project, or even work a profit margin, let alone consider themselves an actual business. They should, but almost none do, which hurts all the rest of us.

I know for a fact that if a writer actually did do the profit and loss structure of a project, including overhead and time and so on, they would fire their agent in a heart beat. Spending 15% of all gross income on an employee is the most outlandish cost in any business model I have ever run across. But we’ve been down that road in other posts.

Let me just say that it is very possible for a writer to run a simple profit and loss on a project and also on a full year of writing.  (Again I am laughing because I have such a low opinion of writers and their business knowledge. Sorry.)

Indie Publishing

Here is where things get confusing around the word “margin” to writers who want to be indie publishers, meaning publish their own work, or join a group working to publish their own works.

Margins for Indie Publishers

Very few indie publishers, because they are writers, have set themselves up in any kind of business structure. Or treat indie publishing as an actual publishing company. I have a hunch, as time goes on, we’ll see more and more that do. The ones that survive at least. An indie publisher is a publisher, just as any company in New York is a publisher. Same rules apply. And same basic accounting can and should be run.

An indie publisher needs to know costs and keep sharp track of them. Time spent, cost of production, cost of covers and proofing and so on. But more importantly, time spent by the writer on the creation of the project and time spent on the publication of the project should both be assigned amounts. Base costs. What is your time worth writing and indie publishing?

All those facts and figures are needed to figure out any real profit margin for an indie publisher.

For years I have done a profit and loss and figured profit margins for myself in my writing. I calculated that including everything, my time, my mortgage, my expenses, I needed to make $500 per day of work to cover everything. (Reverse calculation is $500 per day is 5,000 words per day times 10 cents per word.) For me, to make it simple, I use the $500 per day to cover my time and all my costs. And I figure ten hours in a day.

So figure your own. Add up all your expenses for a month, figure out how much your time is worth, and take the total from your money brought in (after the outlandish 15% agent fee) and that’s your profit margin for your writing. Or loss.

So using my way of calculating, which is very simple, a 30 day month has a base cost of $15,000. I subtract $15,000 from my income and get my profit or loss for the month. Then I also do a calculation for six months and for a year. Some years I have made a nice profit. And remember, my time is also worked into that $500 per day. So when my writing business makes a profit, it’s money earned above my hourly time wage.

Indie publishers have to do the same thing in some way or another. They have to figure all costs, including time, and then keep track of all income over a year and determine a profit or loss for the business. If your business is not earning at least a 4% profit margin, you are doing something wrong. (Maybe your pricing structure is off, which I will talk about in a moment. Or your expenses are too high, or you don’t have enough product out to actually carry the expense costs.)

Notice: It would be wise to get an accountant to help you set up your books to start with, especially if you plan on growing your indie publishing business as the years go by.

By the Story or Book: An Example

Notice I know pretty close how much time I spent when I put up a challenge story. (I am used to keeping track.)

My $500 per day is figured on 10 hours of work, or $50.00 per hour. Remember, that includes all my overhead including my share of our mortgage and so on. So if a challenge story takes six hours, it needs to make me $300 over the life of the story to break even. And more to give me a profit margin.

So let’s do a Profit and Loss Calculation on a simple challenge story to see if the work I am putting in is worth my time. And when can I expect a profit.

Story Costs: $300.00 total. (All overhead and employee hours worked into that number. No cover or proofing costs.)

Projected electronic sales: (5 sales total across all sites in one month for each state of the story.)

Selling the story as a single story for 99 cents.  $1.75 per month for five sales (net income after each site fees).

$2.99 5-story Collection: 1/5th of $10.00 or $2.00 per month allocated to the story.

$4.99 Larger 10-story collection 1/10th of $17.50 or $1.75 per month.

Total income $5.50 per month for the story. Or $66.00 per year. Projected profit in under 5 years.

Of course, I would need to track the story sales. But that calculation seems pretty reasonable in most publishing business structures.

(For a publisher doing a profit and loss in Traditional Publishing, a book is bought, but expenses have already been spent on the book before the author is offered a contract. Book comes out in two plus years, book might hit profit status in just under four years after first money is spent.) So under five years seems pretty reasonable to me, especially since after that five year period, in theory, the story will continue to sell and just increase my profit margin.

So that’s a profit margin and figuring a profit and loss for a story in indie publishing. Few indie publishers do that simple math.


I hate to go back into this area, but indie writers need to start thinking about pricing of books like a real publisher.

So here we go:

Electronic Pricing

99 cents at 35% = $.35

$1.99 at 35% = $.70

$2.99 at 70% = $2.10

$3.99 at 70% = $2.80

$4.99 at 70% = $3.50

You have to sell ten times the number of copies at 99 cents then you do at $4.99 to earn exactly the same amount of money.

So doing a simple profit and loss calculation on a novel that took 100 hours to write, the cost I would have into the book would be $500 x 10 days (at 10 hours per day) or  $5,000.00.

To make a profit selling the book at 99 cents, I would need to sell 14,285 copies.

If I priced the novel at $4.99, I would be in profit status at 1,429 sales.

If I managed to sell one per day total over all sites (30 average per month) the book would be profitable to me in under four years. Nice. And that’s assuming nothing went bigger. Having a $3.50 gross profit margin per copy sold helps me hit an overall book profit much sooner than a gross profit margin per book sale of 35 cents.

POD Publishings

Here where it gets really, really tricky for indie publishers. They want to keep the price of their book as low as possible. Duh, every traditional publisher wants the same thing. But unlike electronic publishing, you have more choices and more factors with POD publishing.

I hate the idea of short discounting bookstores. Short discounting is only offering a 20% discount on your book. That simply cuts off all sales for your book to bookstores and even special order counters. Bookstores will not order books with that low a discount. It really is that simple. Bookstores barely make it when they get full returns and 40% discount. They won’t bother with 20% (or short) discount.

So using a standard discount and CreateSpace’s nifty calculator and Pro Plan, here are some numbers. (Lightening Source is fine as well, just don’t short discount even though they offer it.)

Details of the Book: A standard 6 x 9 inch trim, 300 page book.

$12.99 cover price gets you a $1.14 gross profit per book in expanded (special orders from stores you don’t ship to) and $3.34 through Amazon and you can buy them for about $4 per book for direct sales to bookstores at 40% discount, so you make about $3.70 or so direct sale to bookstores. Those numbers are your gross profit margins per sale depending on how and where the book sells.

Now bump the price to a more logical $15.99 trade paper price. You know, about what traditional publishers charge for that size book. The expanded distribution jumps to a gross profit margin of $1.94 and the Amazon sale gross profit jumps to $5.14. And you make almost $6.00 per book on direct sales to bookstores.

So setting price is a cost calculation for a business to figure out depending on costs of the book, the amount of time and number of sales calculated to return the costs in a set amount of time.

A dirty secret: New York does the same guessing game, granted with more practice, but the same game. I’m not going to tell you which way to go, but doing the math for your costs will help you set a price which will eventually allow a profit margin in a decent amount of time.

Act Like A Business

I just shake my head at writers who set low prices for their books because of some unknown thing they heard on a blog post like this one. Or because another author used that price and it sounded right. Or because “everyone on the Kindle Boards is doing it.”

If you are jumping into being a publisher seriously, start acting like one. Track your costs to produce a product. And set a cost figure on your writing time. And your time to do covers and so on. And any other real costs. And if your computer lasts two years and you write four novels in two years, then each book needs to carry one quarter of the cost of the computer. And so on.

Get a real expense number, a real cost of producing a product. Then set your book price keeping that number in mind.

If you are planning for your book to hit a home run to make your money back, you aren’t being very real. I plan for everything I put up to bounce along the bottom, selling a minimum number of copies per month. Then I take my costs and work out at each price point how many copies I will need to sell to return my investment and start making me a profit in a decent amount of time.

I like to make a profit. I like to know when I will make a profit, and how many books have sold and so on.

Just like any publisher, I am setting up cash streams from older books repaying my costs to pay the costs of my overhead and the investment costs for new books.

It’s called business.

If you like the idea of this, but don’t understand it, it would be worth your money to hire an accountant to help you set up the systems for your business. It might be the best expense you will ever spend on your indie publishing business.

And you can expense that accountant’s bill out over all your books for a year.


Copyright 2011 Dean Wesley Smith


Okay, I admit it, I had issues at first with putting in a tip jar in the Magic Bakery. It was one of the “I have it made, why do I need to support my writing with tips.” A minor myth, sure, but still one that took me a few days and some talk with Kris to get past. And also, why put a tip jar in when I’m just trying to help people. But I figured I needed to get past that as well, so here it is.

And I also needed to start treating these chapters as part of my writing business instead of just a hobby.

And  speaking of the Magic Bakery, this chapter is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Thanks, Dean

The New World of Publishing: Time

Boy, discussion about “time” seems to be coming up a lot lately, especially in the context of writing and indie publishing. So let me take a hard look at the two routes only through the lens of “time.”

So why spend the time to talk about time now?

It was a week where I got hit with a number of factors concerning time.

I made some basic projections on speed and income in the last two posts in this column and had a number of people take me to task because there isn’t enough data to make projections, even though I was only using information from this very moment and saying “what if it holds?” Time seemed to be the issue and my use of it.

And then in the last few days Amanda Hocking made the USA Today bestseller list, while being excluded from the New York Times list. And of course, if you don’t understand bestseller lists, they are based on extremely flawed data that always has a time element in it. Usually one week. A bestseller is based on the old produce model and basically says a book sells more than other books in a certain time period in the places the list decides to look during that certain time period.

And speaking of time, I have shouted here a great deal about how indie publishers need to ignore the “book as event” or “book as produce” models, but yet few do, thus all the stupidity about self-promotion. Just let a story or book grow over time. Write more, but alas, my voice is shouting into a bad windstorm full of sand. Self-promotion seems to be the ugly curse of indie publishing. Sad, since the time used to promote a book will rob us all of books those authors might have written if not wasting the time on trying to push a few extra sales to come faster.

And then time ran into me this week as well as I worked to cut down one activity so that I would have more time to devote to indie publishing and working with WMG to get stories and novels up. I spent 15 hours a week playing on eBay as a hobby and now I want that time, so I am now shutting that hobby down completely.

And then on a major bestselling writer’s list, a number of writers were talking about how they didn’t have the time due to deadlines to learn how to do indie publishing, even though most, not all, thought it important.

So after all that, I figured the world was telling me  it was time to talk about time.

Day Job and the Writer

Even professional writers are faced with deadlines and lack of time. All of us.

No writer, beginner or long-term professional, has enough time to write. Period.

I find it funny when a beginning writer whines at me that they have little time because they have a real job and I don’t. Yeah, and the heavens just open up and drop money on me. I work just like the rest of you. I just work at my writing. And see the last post on speed to understand that I also work a lot of hours, which is why I am considered fast.

Actually, the reason I am successful is because I work harder than anyone I have ever met. I don’t know what a vacation is, never took one. I work seven days per week, month after month, usually upwards of twelve hours a day. I watch all of five or six hours of television a week, and I play poker four hours a week. That’s it besides eating and sleeping. And I don’t expect others to do the same. Honest. But it does make me laugh when someone with a forty-hour-per-week job complains to me that they don’t have enough time to write.

Of course, I don’t laugh out loud. I just nod sagely, knowing full well that person will never make it because they can’t get around their own excuses for not writing. I had three jobs when I started getting serious about writing. Go ahead, whine. I dare you.

I got so tired of the whining by young professionals that Kris and I decided to prove it to a bunch of writers at our master classes how writing really works. For the two weeks of the class, we kept them in actual class, not writing,  just over 40 hours per week. We also forced them to write and hit deadlines. And to read the other writer’s work. They all produced almost 60,000 words of fiction each in two weeks. And it wasn’t until the end of every master class that I stood in front of them and showed them that they had produced 60,000 words of fiction in two weeks, while reading, while working (attending class) basically a forty-hour-a-week job.

In other words, we took the excuse away from them. Some master class grads told me later that was one of the more eye-opening moments of the entire class. For some of them it didn’t sink in at all.

But basically, no matter your situation, there is never enough time to write as much as we all want to write. It is standard for all of us. And, to be honest, I’ve never learned to live with it. Most writers don’t. We all talk about it and complain about the lack of time and the push of deadlines. Nature of the beast called a writer.

Okay, got that out of the way. Now onto other details of time.

Traditional Publishing and the Writer

When a writer submits a finished story or novel to a traditional publisher, they have a number of tasks to do. They must print out the story, do a cover letter, do a SASE, and then find a market and address the envelope and get to the post office. And then they must keep track of the submissions and file the rejections and do the process again for the next market. Some of that is cut with electronic submissions, but not all.

This submission process takes time. One saving grace was that the time was spread out over sometimes years as the rejections trickled back in. Market research, bookkeeping, addressing envelopes, paying for postage, and so on and so on. It all took time. And some money.  I got paid $235 dollars for a story once after 30 rejections and did the math to see if I had lost money. Cost of envelopes, cost of postage. I did not figure in cost of time or gas to the post office. But there was a lot of time spent keeping that story in the mail thirty times. I ended up making over a hundred bucks. Honestly surprised me. I thought I would have lost money, but if I would have figured my time for all the submissions, I’m sure I would have been way under minimum wage per hour on that story.

But this submission time was part of the process, so we all just accepted it and worked it in. Complained, sure, but it was an accepted part of the process. And the cash outlay was also part of the process. It was normal and expected. It still is in many ways. Even electronic submissions take time and bookkeeping and so on. Remember that.

Indie Publishing and the Writer

Indie publishers seem to be complaining a lot about lost time, and how much time it takes to get a story up electronically. The indie publisher has to do a cover, which includes finding the photo or the art, then format the manuscript, and then launch it on Kindle and Pubit and Smashwords, among others. And oh, yeah, put it up on their web site, announce it on Facebook and Twitter, and then push it somehow with tagging and all that. All takes time.

But, if you are doing it right and focusing on writing the next story, it’s time spent ONLY ONCE.

See where I am going with this? In the old traditional publishing, you had to constantly come back to a story when it was rejected and spend time on that story again to get it back in the mail. And you had to constantly spend money on the story to keep it out there.

Indie publishers only have one small amount of time spent and then it’s finished. Period. (Unless some new market opens up and you want to get it published on the new market.)

Indie publishers spend far less time getting their story into readers hands than a writer working the traditional system. Far less time and money.

Time and Novels

I’ll try to distract the questions about the extra time it takes to get a novel up. Sure, with a novel you want it proofed. Might cost you to hire a proofer or have a friend read it. Time to key in corrections. Covers, maybe POD formatting. But on the traditional side, not counting the submission time and energy, you have to go over the novel in the copyedit stage and in the page proof stage, and over the years I’ve had books where I spent full days on just fixing bad copyedits.

Putting a novel into print indie publishing takes fantastically less “author” time than traditional publishing. Not even on the same scale.

Time From Finish Writing to First Purchase

The difference between indie publishing and traditional publishing in this area shouldn’t even be compared.

I talked about it in a previous chapter, but a book indie published can be in reader’s hands under a month after the author finishes it, maybe faster. Maybe even just days. I finish a short story in my challenge and you all can read it within twenty-four hours or less. It appears in B&N and Amazon within a few days, within minutes on Smashwords, and within a week or two on Sony, iPad, Kobo, and the others.

For traditional publishing, even if you pull a miracle and get the book through everything and sold within a year after finishing, it will take the publisher another year plus to get the book into print. And magazines can have a lead time of six months easy.

How much money in sales can the indie publisher make in that same two plus years of time? If your name is Amanda Hocking, don’t even ask.

And the number is still not a small amount for the rest of us.

Time and Traditional Publishing Changes

Okay, you all know I am not a doom and gloomer who thinks traditional publishing will collapse on December 21st, 2012. Or whatever.

I do, however, think that traditional publishing is changing and changing drastically.

I do think that over the next three years many stores will go down, many distributors will go bankrupt, and many publishers will be out of business.

So, in the last discussion on the “speed” chapter, I was taken to task about not having any information to make projections on electronic publishing into the future. I’m going to go out onto that same limb again here.  I have no real numbers, no real projections. Nothing. I am just watching the same news articles and discussions as the rest of you.

But even though I do not believe traditional publishing will end, in the turmoil that is coming I do believe some publishers will go down. But I don’t know which ones.

Which publishers survive and which don’t will depend on a series of changing factors, including bookstore collapses and more importantly distribution system collapses. And which publishers can move fast enough to electronic based sales in their accounting systems. And which publishers are not on an edge and which have bad cash flow situations, and so on and so on.

So here is the question I keep asking myself:

How safe do I feel mailing a book I spent a lot of time on into that traditional system right now?

Especially knowing that it might be up to three years out before that book sees print?

What will publishing look like three years out?

I don’t have a clue, to be honest. Traditional publishing will still be going strong, but I have a hunch the face of it will have changed dramatically.

Second question: Do I want a novel I spent a lot of time and energy and expense writing and getting out there to be trapped in a bankruptcy?

For those of you who don’t know, the bankruptcy clause in writer’s publishing contract is not valid, and when your publisher drops into bankruptcy, your book is an asset of the company and is treated like one and can be sold off to anyone for any purpose and you have no say over anything. Sure, the court must abide by the letter of your contract, sort of. But trust me, you don’t want a book in such a mess. It will be years before you see it again. (I am being general, okay. Not giving legal advice of any sort here. Just a warning for writers to think about.)


Every writer I know, professional or beginner, complains about not having enough time to write. Those who make the time are the successful ones, the rest aren’t worth any of our time to try to help. This is the same for both traditional and indie publishing.

Traditional publishing submission process takes a lot of time and sometimes costs money, and the time is spread out over the length of the submission process until the story or novel sells.

Indie publishing takes time and maybe a little money, but the time is all lumped up front and then, until something changes in markets, no other time is required to be spent. The story or book is just slowly finding readers and making money.

Note: In my experience, it takes me less time to indie publish a short story than it does to look up a market, get the manuscript ready, do a cover letter, do stamps and SASE, and go to the post office to mail it. Once.

Time between a reader getting your book in indie publishing and a reader getting your book in traditional publishing can be years. Clear win indie publishing.

Traditional publishing is in waves of change, and many companies are going to be going down, while others come in to take their place. In the two to three years it takes to get a finished book to market, the market may change completely. It might not. No one knows. But having a book trapped in a corporate bankruptcy is just a nightmare to be avoided if possible.

Does this sound like I’m suggesting that writers go more and more indie publishing?

When it comes down to just looking at things through the lens of time, the answer is yes. Completely.

But there are other factors to look at as well. But since this post was about time, the answer is very, very clear.

And now it’s time for me to go write some fiction.

Bye for now.

New World of Publishing: Speed

Truth: The slow writers in this new world of publishing are going to have trouble. Far more trouble than they had with traditional publishing only. We are in a new golden age of fiction. The first golden age was the pulp age. Speed of writing was celebrated in that time and it will be this time around as well.

Okay, say it: I have no fear. Or better yet, I’m as dumb as they come for bringing up the subject of speed of writing. Speed of writing is the third rail in publishing, but in the discussion of the new world of publishing, it has to be talked about. So here I go.

Personal Information First

I am not a fast typist, which most people think as fast writing. As many of you have watched in my accounts of writing my challenge stories, I tend to average around one page, 250 words, in about 15 minutes. I tend to write for about an hour before my mind shuts down and I have to walk around and take a break and then come back. I am not yet a touch typist, but slowly my two finger method has worked over to using four fingers. Using all ten fingers to type will never happen in my lifetime.

When I say “fast writer” I don’t mean fast typist. I hope everyone is clear on that. I am a slow typist, yet a fast writer.

I’ll explain how that can be. Stay with me.

Now Some Evil Math

250 words is about one manuscript page if you have your margins correct, and font size large enough for an editor to read, and double-spaced your page. You know, professional manuscript format. (Most of you don’t know that, I have learned, but you assume you do.)

Most people’s e-mails to me, and some of the questions in the comments sections are longer than 250 words. I’ve seen some people do 250 words in tweets in under five minutes.

250 Words = 1 Manuscript Page.

A standard novel for the sake of this discussion is 90,000 words long. So divide 90,000 words by 250 words and you get 360 manuscript pages.

So if a person spent 15 minutes per day and wrote 250 words, that person would finish a novel in one year.

Now, if that person spent 1/2 hour per day on writing and created 500 words per day, they would finish 2 novels per year and be considered prolific by many people.

Write 1,000 words per day, or about an hour, and in 270 days you would have finished three novels. And that means you would only have to do that five days a week to write three novels per year.  In other words, it doesn’t take many hours to be considered prolific.

That is why I am considered prolific. I don’t type faster with my little four-finger typing, I just write more hours than most.

(Yeah, yeah, I know, simplistic, but mostly right.)

I am considered a fast writer because I spend more hours writing. Nothing more.

The Myths of Writing Faster.

I did an entire chapter and had other areas of discussion about this in Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. You can find the speed chapter here. (Be kind when you read it. That chapter was the very first in that series. I was just getting my feet under me.)

But the short version of the myth is that back around 1890s a series of articles started this silly myth by claiming that the slow “literary” writers could only be read by the rich and the fast pulp writers were for the great unwashed. (Remember at that time class systems in both Great Britain and the States was very distinct and clear.) The literary writers were published in expensive hardbacks, the fast pulp writers were published in ten cent magazines.

If a book was thick and hard to read, it was literature. Easy, fun, and a great story and it was pulp. A pure class division to make the rich feel better about themselves.

Then because professors didn’t want to grade more papers than necessary, and always considered themselves part of the elite, the university systems picked up on the slow is better, and then some genres of publishing picked it up because they became too small and it was a good way to slow down publishing of some authors.

So the myth became solid by the middle of the last century that writing slow equals writing well and writing quickly equals writing poorly. (Forget how any thought to how the human brain works in creative mode. We won’t go there.) The writers who could spend more than fifteen minutes per day were punished for their drive and work ethic. And writers who were fast (meaning worked more hours) began hiding the fact and not talking about it in public and writing under many pen names we still see on the stands today. You know pen names like Max Brand, Kenneth Robinson, Elizabeth Peters, Barbara Michaels, and so many others. (No, not telling you my pen names, so don’t ask.)

Some History: The Pulp Writers.

The men and women who wrote for the pulps and slicks from before 1900 up until 1958 were hard-working writers who would spend long hours pounding out stories on manual typewriters and getting paid a penny a word. And many of these writers became fantastically rich doing so.

A writer by the name of Frederick Faust (aka Max Brand and many other names) was the richest  and one of the most popular writers of his time, and one year alone in the 1940s had over twenty movies made from his books and stories. He wasn’t a fast typist at all. But he was consistent year-in-and-year-out. Rumor and story has it that he wrote every morning, producing his set word count, sometimes upwards of 5,000 words per day. He ended up writing over 500 books and died as a war correspondent in WWII at the age of 52 from an injury received at the front lines. If he hadn’t been killed in the war, there was no telling how many more books he would have written.

Most of the mid-level pulp writers were no faster than I am at typing. However, they worked a lot of hours. And at a penny a word, they could make $10.00 per hour, a fantastic wage back in the Depression when bread was 10 cents, a car $300 and a house under $2,000.

Speed: In Traditional Publishing

Okay, let me first try to break this down into categories of fiction writers by speed and income.

One book every few years.

The only way these writers made a living at their fiction writing was write bestsellers. Most fiction writers at that speed teach full time or work other jobs. Writing is often a hobby. (Nothing wrong at all with that, but for this discussion, I’m talking about making a living with your fiction.)

If a new writer only wrote one book every two years, they had little if any chance of breaking in under the most recent traditional publishing. I’m sure it happened, but I sure wouldn’t want to bet on those odds. Far too many things go wrong in traditional publishing for me to ever put all my hopes and dreams on one book.

One book a year.

These writers, mostly in small genres such as science fiction or horror or literature couldn’t make a living either. The small genres just didn’t pay enough. So again, the only way writers doing only one book a year could make a living in traditional publishing was have some decent bestsellers. Again, not something I would want to depend on to make my house payment.

Two books per year writers.

Now we are getting into a level that English professors think is too fast, and for some smaller genres such as science fiction, it is. But the writer, considered prolific in some circles, has a much better chance of making a living. At two books per year, a writer could make a decent living on $30,000 plus advances, which were not uncommon up until the last few years. Add in the extra overseas sales and movie options and two books per year could make a writer a decent living, and still can, if nothing goes seriously south. In fact, many, many midlist writers work at this pace and do just fine.

Four books per year writers.

For the most part, writers in this category of three or four books per year write a number of series, usually in different genres. Advances can safely range more, from $15,000 to $25,000 per book and still make the author a nice living. (Remember, for those of you with twisting stomachs at that pace because the myth is in deep, that’s about one hour per day average of writing to make upwards of a hundred grand per year. Even if you are a major rewriter, you can write one hour and rewrite seven hours and still hit that pace. Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m degrading art here. So yell at me later.)

Five books per year and up.

Those of us who manage to spend enough hours (1.25 hours per day average and up) actually typing original fiction have a freedom not found in most writer’s careers. We can take jobs for small amounts, turn down offers, and turn down contracts. We can take advances ranging from $10,000 and up depending on the project and still make six figures every year without too much problem. And that pace allows for books and entire series to go very, very ugly and not force the writer back to a day job.

So, in summary in traditional publishing, it was possible to make a nice living from two books per year and up. But those of us who wrote more than “normal” always hid our speed, usually hidden behind many pen names. And we never talked about it at all in public. That was traditional publishing from the mid-1950s until now.

And remember, in traditional publishing, two books a year is considered prolific and you will have that word added to your name as a new first name if you write two books per year regularly.


Now, in electronic publishing, is when things get ugly for the slow writer. Especially the slow writer trying to break into this business now, in 2011.

Same exact factors apply in traditional publishing and electronic publishing.  Exactly. Only things are much, much tighter and hard to get into traditional publishing now as traditional publishers go through all this flux and upheaval.

For a writer to make any kind of decent money at indie-publishing, the author either has to have a lot of products selling at low levels, but regularly, or the author needs to hit it big like Amanda Hocking. And even she has more than one book.

So an author writing only one book every few years would be much better served to never think of indie publishing. The chances of a bestseller are much higher in traditional publishing where there is professional help on everything from editing to packaging to covers to distribution.

But that said, it’s very, very difficult these days for a book to get through the traditional systems, especially if the writer believes in the agent system. So the chance of getting a single book through the system and sold and then made into a bestseller are between slim and a few factors less than slim.

Indie Publishing Facts

It would be rare, if not almost zero chance for a one-book-every-few years-author to make a living at indie publishing. Sure, you have to sell a lot fewer books in indie publishing to make nice money, but that’s still a lot of books for years every month with no support from other products. Not likely to happen would be a generous assessment.

An author with patience and the speed of two books per year can, over time, build up enough inventory to have enough of the reader feedback loops to make enough money indie-publishing. But that’s going to take five plus years at least to reach that ten book list. And even then the sales have to be pretty solid per book.

An author publishing four books per year can get ten books up within 2.5 years and more than likely at that pace, after twenty books or so in five years, be making a pretty fine living from just indie-publishing, even with lower per-book sales.

Those of us who write more than that, and who can also do short stories and collections, don’t even have to have many per-book sales to have it add up to large amounts of money.

More Math

Here is some simple math. I’m going to use round numbers. (Forgive me.)

— Goal: Make $80,000 per year indie-publishing.

— Sales Assumption: Book sells 3 copies per day total across all sites at $4.99 earning the author $3.33 per sale or about $10.00 per day or $3,650.00 per year per book. (If you use $2.99 price, double the numbers of sales. If you use 99 cents per novel sales price, just go read something else because it will never work long term for you.)

So, with my assumption, the magic number is 21 books needed to make close to $80,000 per year on that level of per-book sales.

One Book Per Year: 21 years of writing one book per year until author is making $80,000 per year. (Again, all kinds of assumptions of similar sales and who knows what’s going to be happening in publishing in 21 years. Not a plan I would start on in these turbulent times.)

(Author would need to sell 65 copies per day on the one book to make $80,000 in one year off of one book. Very possible, but not likely. That’s more of a produce-type sales level.)

Two Books Per Year: 10.5 years of writing two books per year until author is making close to $80,000 per year.

(Author would need to sell 33 copies per day on each book to make close to $80,000 in one year off of just two books. Very possible, but again not likely.)

Four Books Per Year: 5.25 years of writing four books per year until author is making close to $80,000 per year.

(Author would need to sell 17 copies per day on each book of four books (across all sites combined, remember) to make $80,000 in one year off of four books. Very possible, and coming a little closer to us normal folks.)


Now it should be clear that midlist authors with a decent backlist of novels and stories can make a fortune very quickly, even at sales lower than 3 sales per book per day. That’s why I laugh when indie authors are saying us old idiots doing traditional publishing just don’t understand indie publishing. Oh, trust me, we all get it and are running at full speed to indie publishing. This is a gold mine to us.

Some midlist authors will have over twenty novels up and selling by this time next year. And uncounted short stories and collections.

Yes, this is a gold mine for fast writers with a backlist. And Kris and I are not the only midlist writers running to this new world. Trust me.

New Writers

Kris, on her site at is doing a series talking about this new world and new writers. Go read it.

For a new writer, without backlist, the writer has to build the publishing list, build the magic bakery inventory. And unless you write one major catchy book and hit a bestseller level of sales, a new writer will take years to get to the goal of having enough inventory to actually make that goal of $80,000 per year. But it took years to make that level in traditional publishing as well.

That’s why the focus has to be on writing new work all the time. Stories will find their readers, but your readers can’t find more of your work unless you write it.

And sure, you can promote the hell out of your first book, but then when someone likes it, what else of yours are they going to buy? Write the next book.

(Also, if you write the next book and focus on becoming a better writer, you might gain readers as well. Again, outside of this topic.)


In the first golden age of fiction, fast writers made a fortune. When you could buy a car for $300 and a house for $2,000, the pulp writers at a penny per word were making $10.00 per hour. Of course they learned to be fast, and many, many of them we are still reading today.

In the traditional publishing world that grew from 1958 until 2008, critics didn’t like fast writers because of the myths, but fans loved them. So many of our top sellers are fast writers, meaning they work a lot of hours. And many have settled into a book a year because they became bestsellers and were forced to slow down. But Nora Roberts, James Patterson, Stephen King, and many others just kept writing at their own natural speeds.

And in those years, those of us who liked to write and thus just wrote more hours and thus wrote more words and books, hid what we were doing for the most part. (I still do, actually.) Many, many major pen names that you would recognize are the prolific writers working behind the scenes. My best year was eleven novels at traditional lengths of 90,000 words. I hope to break that at some point  in the near future.

Now we are in the new world. Those of us who love to just write, who love to tell stories, now can indie publish the stories or books and find them homes and readers, and we don’t have to slow down because of some slow schedule placed on us by a traditional publisher.

We can write and publish as fast as we want.

The rules of speed have vanished.

If you only write one book every few years, keep your focus solidly on traditional publishing.

But if you love to write, love to finish stories, and love to have readers get to your stories quickly after you finish them, indie publishing is for you.

There is no need for those of us who love to write and love to finish a lot of products to even think of slowing down ever again.

Sure, I’ll still sell books to traditional publishers. I won’t need to sell everything in indie publishing. Why? When you consider how many hours I spend at computers writing, a couple books to traditional publishing a year is just advertising that I am getting paid to write. Everyone get that? Those books sold to traditional publishers are just advertising for my indie books and stories.

I can’t begin to tell you how many times over the years I wished I was back in the days of pulp writing, when the writers could write what they wanted at the speed they wanted. I hated the restrictions of modern traditional publishing. And I hated hiding that I enjoyed writing and telling stories. I hated the rules and the bars and the restrictions put on my natural desire to just sit and write.

But no more. Writers are free once again. We are free to write at our own pace, write for as many hours as we want to write, and publish what we want. Only each writer now sets their own limits.

This is fantastic for writers.

And even more fantastic for readers.

This really is the dawn of a second golden age of fiction.


Copyright 2011 Dean Wesley Smith


Okay, I admit it, I had issues at first with putting in a tip jar in the Magic Bakery. It was one of the “I have it made, why do I need to support my writing with tips.” A minor myth, sure, but still one that took me a few days and some talk with Kris to get past. And also, why put a tip jar in when I’m just trying to help people. But I figured I needed to get past that as well, so here it is.

And when a bartender gets you a drink quickly, he gets tipped. Right? Well, I get you stories quickly. So I should have a tip jar. (I’m not sure if that makes sense, but anyway, the tip jar is here.)

And  speaking of the Magic Bakery, this chapter is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Thanks, Dean

The New World of Publishing: Cash Flow

Okay, time to talk about that evil subject: Money. And more pointedly, money for fiction writers.

So many fiction writers these days banter around the saying that they can make more money indie publishing their work than selling it into the midlist in traditional publishing. And I’m not disagreeing with that, at least not for some. There are many factors to consider, including length of contracts, amount of advance, ability to do the work of indie publishing yourself. For some, indie publishing is right, for others not so good.

But so many of the discussions about indie publishing vs traditional publishing don’t take into account a very important, and sometimes critical aspect of money for a freelance fiction writer. And that’s timing of the cash flow. In other words: How Much? And When?

And trust me, this is complex and will seem odd to many, especially newer writers. But I will do my best to be clear and let you each decide on the path that is right for each of your books. And when you do decide on a path, you might understand the cash flow of that path.

Money: Traditional Publishing Style

I’m going to use a traditional midlist novel that will earn out around $20,000 total over its entire life. The book will start with a one book, $15,000 advance contract.  I am also going to assume, as 95% of all mid-list writers, there is an agent in the mix and agent sells the book. (Might as well play into the myth all the way.)

March 1, 2011: Book Finished, sent to agent.

May 1, 2011: Agent gets around to talking to you about the book, wants a few touches to help it sell better.

July 1, 2011: Book sent back to Agent. Agent holds book to not push into summer dead time.

September 15, 2011: Book mailed to five editor friends of agent.

December 1, 2011: Editor makes offer.

January 15, 2012: Offer confirmed as all other editors drop out.

April, 15, 2012: Contract negotiated and you sign. Payments split 1/3 sign, 1/3 acceptance, 1/3 publication

July 1, 2012: First signing check arrives for 1/3 of $15,000 minus agency fee. Amount: $4,250.00

Aug 1, 2012: Rewrite finished, book turned in.

December 1, 2012: Acceptance payment arrives. Amount: $4,250.00.

(In this time period the author will have to go over proofs and copyedits, so more author time spent. Also realize that the book has not been published, but the author has received $8,500 before any sales by the publisher.)

September 1,2013: Publication of Book.

December 1, 2013: Publication payment arrives. Amount: $4,250.00.

October 1, 2015: 3rd royalty statement arrives. Book earns out: Amount: $700.00

Each half year for the next two years until October 2017 checks arrive until the total is $5,000 in royalties minus $750 agency fees above advance are paid out.

Book has been out of print for almost a year at this point.

That’s the end of the money on that book. Your contract won’t allow you to get the rights back (IF you negotiated a good reversion clause) for three or four more years. If you screwed up and allowed the publisher to keep the electronic rights or POD rights, even selling only a few copies a year, you won’t see any money ever again on this book besides dinner money every year.

See why us mid-list writers are fast and write across genres and under many names? The pipeline for each book to spit out any money is very long.

Many mid-list writers will look at my example and think that I was being nice on some of those times. I was.

It can take a lot longer, and always does when you have a mortgage payment due. Publishers NEVER honor contracts when it comes to payments. Ever. I can write an entire novel faster than any traditional publisher can cut a check. And put the agent in the middle of things and it just gets worse. Payment can often take an extra three weeks because publishers batch payments to certain agencies, so they hold off paying until they have a large enough batch. And agents can take up to two weeks or more to move the money through and out the door to you. All part of the fun of traditional publishing.

Note: From finished book until first check was one year and four months. No books sold at that point. Total income for the author for book was $17,000 after agency fees over almost seven years. With a good contract, the author will be able to regain control of the book after about ten years. Bad contract the author will never regain control of the book, even though the book is out of print.

One more note: To earn $20,000 for the author and agent, assume the book was a $7.00 mass market paperback. Author got standard 6% plus other standard ebook royalties that added some. Average per sale to the author about 42 cents. Number of readers to earn the $20,000?  About 48,000 sales over the contract time.

Indie Publishing: The Cash Flow

Okay, same book, authors finishes on March 1, 2011. The book is good enough to sell to traditional publisher, good enough to find 48,000 readers.

April 1, 2011: Proofing done, cover done, electronic launched. (Assume cover as good as cover from traditional publisher.)

May 1, 2011: POD launched and electronic distributed to most sites.  Process is finished. Author does a little tagging, announces the book, and goes back to work on the next book.

First small money would arrive to the author in July, 2011.

So, let’s talk about sales. Should I use Hocking’s numbers or Konrath’s sales numbers? We can all hope, but let’s stay mid-list and in reality for most of us.

Since traditional publisher priced the book at $6.99, let’s go to the more standard $4.99 per ebook price and $14.99 trade paper. For both that means the author will make about $3.25 or more per sale. (vs 42 cents per sale traditional) Let’s say after a normal few months of a slow start, the book starts selling about 3 copies per day total across all sites.

Does that sound like a lot? Yes, if you are only looking at one site. Realize there are dozens of outlets. Amazon is the most talked about, but when you count B&N, Smashwords, Kobo, Sony, iPad, and all the smaller stores they supply, plus overseas sales both on Kindle and iPad and Kobo and Sony, suddenly the number of possible outlets can get high. All coming back through those major players. Overstreet goes to libraries and don’t forget your POD sales as well.

So across all those sites I am saying the book will sell 3 copies per day. Total. Earning the author about $10.00 per day or $3,650.00 per year.

And those sales numbers are low enough, it should maintain that number for a lot of years.

Over the same ten-year period of the traditional publishing contract, the indie sales would get the author $36,500.00.

More than double what the author would earn in the same period of the traditional book. And only have to sell about 11,000 books over the ten years to do that, compared to the 40,000 plus the traditional publisher had to sell.

So how does that indie-published money flow?

Well, like anything in publishing, delayed, but compared to traditional publishing, the money comes at light speed and regularly.

Book goes fully listed May 1, 2011.

Sales for May on Kindle will be in your hands August 1. And then monthly after that since they are on a two-month lag. B&N is the same if the author went through Pubit.

Sony, Kobo, Smashwords are all on quarter pay system. They pay one month after the quarter ends. But to get your money from Apple, it will wait it’s few months, then report it to Smashwords or your other gateway to their site, then Smashwords will pay that money a month after the quarter.

So in other words, a sale of your book on Apple might take up to six months to reach you. Again, there is a pipeline to fill. But within six months, the pipeline will be working.

On the traditional method, the author hadn’t even sold the book in six months, let along started to generate any money.


-Both traditional and indie publishing have time lags in the money. Indie publishing, given the same quality book, the same level of cover, is a much shorter time lag. And with indie publishing stores reporting in so many different ways, it takes some work to see how many books in a certain time period a book actually sold.

For example, if an author had a book up and wanted to see how many copies the book sold in January, the author might have to wait until June to get some of those exact numbers.

However, discovering sales is far worse in traditional publishing. There the author is lucky to be able to figure out royalty statements for how many books sold and were held as reserves against return in a six-month period a year after publication. And that’s if the author can get the agent to send the royalty statements.

At least with indie publishing, with a little patience, an indie author can find out how many books sold exactly in any given month.

–Chance of Larger Sales.

If a traditional publisher offers $15,000.00 advance for the book, it is slotted and would take an act of a deity to move it out of that range and its slot on the publisher’s list.

In indie publishing, the readers might find the book and start talking about it and if the book has something special a traditional editor missed, the book’s sales could explode. Notice that selling 1/4 of the numbers made the indie author twice the money. If an indie author actually found the same 40,000 plus readers the traditional publisher found in the example, the author would make $120,000 plus off the same book.

Why can’t that same explosion happen in traditional publishing?

Because a book is slotted and a press run set. Once set, the publisher thinks of the book as something that will spoil, not grow, so after a certain time, even with some growing demand, the publisher will yank the book. I know, makes no sense, but don’t yell at me, it’s part of the produce model of publishing. To traditional publishers, books spoil. (Of course, to some indie publishers stuck in that mindset, they think the same thing. If sales don’t happen fast enough, they think they should pull the book and rewrite it. Too stupid for words. Books do not spoil. Let them find their readers.)

— Indie Publishers Have to Stop Watching Numbers. With this newfound access to sales numbers, there is also a bad trap. It simply takes time for any decent sales to happen. Often beginning writers will never see any decent sales happen. Just because an author puts a book up for readers to find doesn’t mean the book is worth reading or that the book will sell even three copies a month, let alone per day. In my example I used a book that would have sold for a decent amount to traditional publishing and then put the same level of cover on it for indie publishing. If a book wouldn’t sell to traditional publishing because of a bad opening, bad quality, a bad plot, then in indie publishing that same book won’t sell much.

But it will sell some.

Yes, I said that. A few sales are better than no sales. Stop watching sales, leave the book alone, and work on becoming a better storyteller on the next book. In traditional publishing, a beginning author’s book would be getting rejections. At least with indie publishing, a beginning author’s book gets a little trickle of money.

Cash flow for writers is critical, especially those of us who pay our house payments with fiction writing.

This one aspect alone is why so many known mid-list professional writers are going like crazy to get up at least their backlist books in electronic form. I’m one of them.

The idea of having some regular income flowing every month is just a stunner. I’ve been a freelance fiction writer for almost twenty-five years now and trust me, a regular check for my fiction writing just seems alien. And even though I’m starting to see it happen as my indie-published pipeline fills up slowly, I don’t really believe the idea of fiction writers getting regular checks. I am completely used to the traditional time lags and large checks and painfully extracting money out of publishers.

Getting regular money from my fiction is something I’m going to have to get used to.

But I love the idea.


Copyright 2011 Dean Wesley Smith

Okay, I admit it, I had issues at first with putting in a tip jar in the Magic Bakery. It was one of the “I have it made, why do I need to support my writing with tips.” A minor myth, sure, but still one that took me a few days and some talk with Kris to get past. And also, why put a tip jar in when I’m just trying to help people. But I figured I needed to get past that as well, so here it is.

And  speaking of the Magic Bakery, this chapter is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Thanks, Dean

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#21... The Basics of Designing Science Fiction Covers ... Allyson Longueira .... 8 videos... $50.00

#22... The Basics of Designing Mystery, Cozy, or Thriller Covers ... Allyson Longueira .... 8 videos... $50.00

#23... Paying the Price: A Working Writer's Mindset ... Dean Wesley Smith.... 10 videos... $50.00

#24... Writing into the Dark: The Tricks and Methods of Writing Without an Outline... Dean Wesley Smith... 12 videos... $50.00

#25... Reviews: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly... Dean Wesley Smith... 10 videos... $50.00

#26... Organization... Allyson Longueira... 8 videos... $50.00

#27... Confidence... Dean Wesley Smith... 10 videos... $50.00

#28... Stories to Novels... Dean Wesley Smith... 9 videos... $50.00

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