Myths ignore facts. Myths are often beliefs built from fear or past actions.
In this series, and in the previous series of Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing, I call the myths that control writers “Sacred Cows.”
Writers hold onto myths like lifelines that are keeping them from drowning in a raging river of information. Sometimes sane people in the normal world will follow a publishing myth that makes no sense at all because it has something to do with the publishing business. And they follow the myth without thought.
So this new series is an attempt to help the new world of indie publishing with the growing list of myths that plague it.
The Myth: I HAVE TO SELL A LOT OF COPIES VERY QUICKLY OR MY BOOK IS A FAILURE.
Of course, this shows no understanding of property and long-term return on investment. But most writers wouldn’t know that, so they get trapped in this thinking all the time.
And when expectations of sales do not match actual sales, writers often quit writing, or make really silly decisions like lowering prices for no good business or promotion reason. When decisions are made out of panic that a book isn’t selling up to some made-up expectation, then nothing but problems arise.
Interestingly enough, this myth is based solidly out of the way traditional publishers think. And for a bunch of indie writers who pride themselves in thinking and acting differently, following traditional publishing thinking in this makes me shake my head in wonder.
For the last thirty or so years, traditional publishers tracked the success or failure quickly of a book, not on how many sold at first, but on books shipped. And if a book didn’t ship up to expectations (meaning orders placed ahead of the book’s ship date didn’t match a made-up number on a profit-and-loss sheet), then the book was deemed a failure and quickly dropped out of print.
And the author would have an awful time selling more books under that author name.
Bestseller lists for traditional publishers relied on a combination of books shipped and books sold in certain stores in a week-long period. So if that book didn’t sell quickly and in large numbers, the book didn’t make a bestseller list.
With very few exceptions, traditional publishers for thirty or more years considered books to be like produce at a grocery store. There was limited shelf space, so if a book didn’t sell, it was destroyed and the covers returned for credit, or if it was a hardback, the entire book was shipped back to the publisher for credit.
For the longest time, returns under 50% were considered good sales and returns over 50% in a short period of time, the book was a failure.
So here comes indie publishing, with the ability to think long term, unlike traditional publishers. Indie publishers can plan sales on a book for a ten-year or twenty-year plan.
Traditional publishers flat can’t do that with the quarterly demand of profits for their corporate masters. They must churn the profit, kill books that don’t sell quickly, and move on to the next book.
This chapter I hope will give a few indie publishers a different perspective on sales. But that myth that has come from traditional publishers (that books must sell a lot and very quickly) is a very, very deep and a hard myth to crack for most.
First Traditional Publishing
In this world at the moment, if you sold a genre book to a traditional publisher and got a $4,000 advance, you would be expected to sell about 3,000 copies in six months total before it vanished and dropped into the weed-filled garden (see last post) of electronic book sales just dripping along.
3,000 initial sales. That’s after returns and I assume you are smart enough if you are reading this to not have an agent taking a piece of that $4,000.
Let’s make one more assumption: None of your sales are to high discount stores. (Otherwise you will get a lot less than this.)
So you would get 6% of the $7.99 cover price per sale for the mass market paper. Or about 48 cents per sale for paper.
For electronic sales you would get 25% of net. Publisher puts it up at $7.99 electronic. That’s about $1.40 per sale. ($7.99 x 70% x 25%)
Half of the 3,000 copies to be successful for this book are electronic sales, half are paper sales.
Paper: 1,500 sales x $.48 = $720
Electronic 1,500 sales x $1.40 = $2,100
Your book earned out $2,820 of the $4,000 advance.
The $4,000 is all the money you will ever see on that genre book.
Let me be generous and say it took only three years from the moment you wrote the book to the book becoming a wilted piece of produce to the publisher. (Chances are it took closer to four years, but let’s go with three.)
And remember, you won’t get that book back. It will continue to trickle sales in electronic form (because the publisher won’t care anymore, the book is just out there, so the garden for that book is not being tended). And at 25% of net, you might as well just forget that book until you can get the copyright reverted at 35 years.
Indie Publisher Math
I’m going to make a major assumptions here. I am going to assume that you have a paper edition of your book and you have your book available in all the different major online bookstores direct so you are getting paid monthly.
So in electronic editions, you price your novel at $6.99. (Below what your traditional publisher would have priced it.) So you will be making approximately $4.90 per sale
In paper you price your book so that in the extended distribution you get at least $2.00 per sale.
You put your book up in all electronic venues (Kindle, B&N, iBooks, Kobo, GooglePlay, Smashwords, and so on) your book sells 20 copies the first month total across all sites.
And 5 copies in paper the first month.
So in one month your income is $108.00. ($98.00 electronic plus $10 paper.) And you are thinking your book is a failure after the first month.
I am going to be making another assumption. I am going to assume that as time goes on, every year or two, you tend your garden. (See Chapter Six.)
So over the next few months, your book sales grow slightly, but then they come down some toward the end of the first year, so that you are averaging over the entire first year of the book being in print the 25 sales per month.
So in that first year you made ($108.00 x 12) $1,296.00
In the same three years at that rate, without you doing much but some minor tending of the garden, you will have made $3,888.00.
Almost exactly in the same amount of time, the same amount of money you would have made in traditional publishing.
Only difference is that you still have the book and it’s still earning for you into the future, where with traditional you don’t own it anymore and won’t for a very long time.
25 copies sold per month. Average.
At that level, it’s a book that many indie publishers would think is a complete failure.
I won’t even go into the million things you could do to help the sales of that book, such as writing more books, writing more books in the same world, learning how to do better covers and switch the cover out in a couple of years, and so on.
Yeah, a success selling it to traditional publishing for $4,000 dollars, but a failure at 25 copies sales per month?
And that’s this myth.
Look at the difference in sales numbers.
The traditional publisher managed to shove out 3,000 copies of the book, half electronic, half paper (after returns), and still didn’t come close to earning you back your $4,000 advance.
You ended up with almost the same amount of money by selling 720 electronic copies total in three years and 180 copies in paper in three years.
But you will, even at that pace, eventually sell the 1,500 copies of the electronic books in just over six years and the full 1,500 copies of the paper in around twenty or so years assuming your paper sales do not increase over time.
And when you end up with that amount of sales on the book, you will have made on that book ($4.90 x 1,500) $7,350 electronic and $3,000 paper.
Over $10,000 total and you will still own and can be selling the book into the future.
So Why Do Indie Publishers Hold Onto this Myth?
Basically, we all want our books to sell well, have a lot of fans, and hope that it gets read everywhere. That’s just common sense.
But the problem arises when a book doesn’t sell as well as “expected” and the indie publisher starts making bad decisions about the book.
So what is “expected?”
I like the average of 25 sales per month over all platforms. I like that expectation, and it allows me to have great fun when something jumps with more sales. And after a year or so, if book isn’t selling to that “expected” average, it’s time to tend the garden.
That’s my expectation. But I know a ton of indie writers who would think that expectation far, far too low.
The statement those indie writers say to me is this: “I want to make a living with my writing within five years. I can’t do that with sales like that.”
Sadly, I just laugh when someone says that to me, and I really shouldn’t. As I said before, this is a tough myth to crack.
Making a living… More Math
Start with the amount needed to make a living. Let’s just use a nice round number like $40,000 gross income. Low, but not too low. You pick your own number.
You know that every novel you are going to put up will have an average income of about $1,296 per year selling 25 copies total per month across all platforms, including paper. (Average means some books will sell more, some less, but average over all your titles.)
So take $40,000.00 and divide by $1,296.00 and you get the number 30. Thirty novels to be making $40,000 per year in five years.
5 years into 30 novels means you need to write 6 novels per year. One every-other-month.
I CAN’T DO THAT! (I hear the screams…)
Wow, that’s sad you are stuck in that myth as well. Don’t you folks watch my Writing in Public blog every day?
So to the math…
250 words is one manuscript page for this discussion.
A novel is 80,000 words long for this discussion.
80,000 words divided by 250 words is 320 pages for the novel.
You have 60 days in two months. So to do around 320 pages in two months, you must average around 5 pages per day.
Most writers I know do about 4 pages in an hour, so that means you need to spend generously 1.5 hours per day writing to be making a living with your writing in five years.
And then, if you kept writing, the amount of money you make would just keep going up every year.
So your books sell horribly by your expected standards. You only sell 25 copies in a month of your most recent novel.
Write six books a year and you’ll be making a nice living even with your books selling horribly.
Unless, of course, you let the thinking from traditional publishing into the picture and start making bad decisions or get depressed and stop writing. Then you won’t make a living in writing in five years. You’ll just be bitter and sad and will have lost a dream, all because you let this myth get into your head.
Sadly, I’ve watched that with a bunch of indie writers around me already.
Quick Side Note on Investing
For those of you who understand investing, and want to think of your books as an investment instead of inventory, I did an entire lecture in the lecture series on thinking of writing as an investment.
Publishing As A Long Game
When I got serious about my writing finally and found Heinlein’s Rules in 1982 and really started writing and learning, I hoped to be making a living with my writing in ten years.
And I purposely kept my expenses on the bottom. I drove an old used car and worked only as much as I needed to work my day jobs so that I had more time to write. As it turned out, it took me about five years, but even then I was adding to my early writing income with editing and publishing gigs.
I was lucky to make it in five years and I knew it. I’m not counting the seven years before that where I was lost in the rewriting myths. But if you count from my first sale, it’s twelve years.
Indie writers who are in a hurry make bad decisions. Publishing on both sides of this fence is a long game.
Suggestions to Help With this Myth
1… Always be focused on writing the next book.
2… Do what you can to promote when you release a book, but watch your time. Writing the next book is far more important in the long run.
3… Have a five or ten year plan and then work your writing schedule into it. If you really can’t spend an hour a day at your writing, (baring major life events) than maybe you should not be thinking about making a living. Nothing at all wrong with writing being your love, not your living.
4… Keep learning how to become a better storyteller. Writing more entertaining books tends to bring more sales.
5… Do all the standard stuff to help your sales, such as having a publisher name and a publisher web site as well as an author web site. Do a newsletter and some social media, but again watch your time.
6… Only look at your numbers every month and no more often. Then don’t worry about book sales numbers, just write down how much each title (book) has earned you each month.
7… Do not change anything about a book, the cover, the blurbs, nothing. Only allow yourself to change something at the year anniversary of the book being published. And if it is selling at the base level you hope to have, leave the book alone and look at it in another year.
8… Make sure you are staying abreast of all changes and keep your books in as many markets as you can directly.
9… When life knocks you down, which it will do almost every year, climb back on and just keep going. Five year or ten year plan will have many failures and missed months along the way. Adjust as you go and don’t quit.
10… Focus on writing the next book.
The key with this myth is to ignore what is coming at you from other writers about speed of sales. And move away from traditional publishing produce thinking that if your book doesn’t sell quickly it will spoil.
Make your five-year business plan and set your expectations.
If you have only one book up, selling 25 copies per month is unrealistic. Don’t expect it. And hoping to be lucky is not a business plan.
But if you have a bunch of novels out and you are in the second year, selling 25 copies average across your titles is realistic. It might not happen, but it is worth aiming for.
Plus, if you also write short stories, they can help. Collections sell pretty well. Not as well as novels, but they can help in the total income.
Stop looking at sales numbers and hoping for huge sales numbers.
Plan for five or ten years out and focus on the writing the next book.
And have fun.