Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing: #7… I Have To Sell Books Quickly

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.

 Some History

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.

First:

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.

Second:

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.

Third:

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.

 Some Math

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.

Summary:

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.

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80 Responses to Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing: #7… I Have To Sell Books Quickly

  1. Jim Johnson says:

    Great information as always, Dean. Makes me wonder just how many indie writers actually have either a business plan or a 5-10 year plan in mind. The handful of writer boards I frequent almost never talk about business plans or long-term goals. They’re more down in the weeds on the little things, not the bigger picture or the long game.

    Thanks so much for providing another perspective.

  2. Hugh Howey says:

    Best. Advice. Ever.

    Inspirational by being reasonable. Thanks for this, Dean.

  3. Great post, Dean. I, of course, would like to sell a lot of each of my books, which so far hasn’t happened. Fortunately, enough of them have that I have quit the day job (last year, in fact) In May, my new release of Exodus: Empires at War: Book 6 sold 3,720 ecopies on Amazon. My first book out the gate, The Deep Dark Well, sold 90 copies in the same month, at $2.00 profit per book. Not really great sales, but the book has been out since December 2011, and went over 5,000 total copies in May. It consistently sells 50 to a 100 copies a month, which is a hundred or two in my pocket. Not enough to pay any major bills, the new releases cover that, but enough to have some meals out and a couple of movies. The shelf life of that book is infinite. Of course I’ve got some book that haven’t sold that well. In the same time period as TDDW my vampire book, The Hunger, has sold only 300 copies. It only has a few reviews, really good ones, but only a few. But it sits on that electronic bookshelf forever, just waiting to break out.

    • dwsmith says:

      Why I keep using the word “average” Doug. You take all your books and see what your “average sale per title” is and that gets you your income. Congrats on the one hitting. The key is having enough books out, as you said.

  4. Kathy Rowe says:

    As an Indie author of 12 and counting books, I can fully agree that it takes TIME to build your presence in the publishing community. My first book won an award, but that didn’t bump sales any. My fourth book, however, hit #1 on Smashwords. And another book hit #4 on Amazon. It’s all about careful marketing, (and I’m not talking about spending $$$ on it) and WRITING more books. The more you have out there, the more chances folks will discover you. And make sure you put the time and effort into creating the best book you can- pay for professional editing, covers, and if you can’t master it, formatting. Putting your best foot forward will go a long way in creating your following. Trad publishing may resemble a fish in a frying pan while Indie publishing is a slow-cooker. Being a good Indie author takes time.

    • dwsmith says:

      Got that spot on, Kathy. Thanks! (I like the fish frying, but honestly, traditional publishing is like a fruit area of a supermarket. Something spoils and it’s tossed in the dumpster after a few days. Indie books are non-perishable and live in another place, where customers can find them at any time.)

  5. Thanks for this, and every post on your two Sacred Cow series. As someone starting down the road of making a rest-of-my-life career as a genre writer, the posts are invaluable.

    And I wake up every day extremely excited about this publishing world where it’s possible to produce at my own speed, with nobody holding me back.

    Currently waiting for my wife’s alpha read of book 2 of my first fantasy series. Gotta love the wife’s honest feedback. If I give her enough time, she’ll be done today.

    Thanks again Dean!

  6. Great Post. Informative and inspirational. Thanks!

  7. Ron Estrada says:

    Dean, this is one of those posts that make me scream “I can do this!” Of course, it’s early in my workday (I’m an engineer) and I’m still awake. My goal, now that I’m 47, is more one of early retirement than a lifelong career as a writer. Yes, I can write 5 pages a day. No problem. But there is some plotting and research to be done, too. No excuses, just working out the detail on your blog here. So I plot future book for an hour per night and write present book for an hour. And then there’s editing. I suppose it’s the age-old question of quality vs. quantity. Write fast or write good well. I suppose we each have figure out that formula on our own. Thanks for the great encouragement.

    • dwsmith says:

      Ron, follow Heinlein’s Rules and you’ll be fine. And always ask yourself this one question. Does the back of my brain know what it’s doing, the part of my brain that has been absorbing stories since I was sitting on my parents laps, or does that English teacher in the 8th grade who never wrote a creative word know story better, which is the front part of the brain. You actually understand brain function and where art comes from in our brains and you will never do anything again but fix mistakes and have something copyedited and get it out. But it takes a deep level of understanding how the brain works to really get past that. Heinlein’s Business Rules help.

  8. Troy Lambert says:

    My favorite line from this post is one I preach all the time: hoping to get lucky is not a business plan.

  9. AstroNerdBoy says:

    Thanks for the advice. I know I’d quickly fall into the trap of lack of quick sales as being a sign of failure on my part. Further, I really do need to make that 5-10 year plan for myself and writing.

  10. I love math. It seems to me that most of these myths you’re writing about must have been started and propagated by people who don’t own calculators. As soon as you bring the numbers in, it all makes sense…

    Thanks so much for doing this, Dean. Your blog is my second stop every morning, right after the coffee pot. When the rest of the world is freaking out, your non-insane approach always gets me motivated.

  11. Great article and of inspiration to an aspiring novelist myself who is struggling with many of the points and myths you discussed. Thanks!

  12. Ferran says:

    Couple of things:

    * “[…]until you can get the copyright reverted at 35 years.”

    Why 35? It was my understandig that traditional publishing was doing the entire life of the copyright, these days

    * On those 900 copies being equivalent to the 3000 that traditional publishing sells…
    It’s the equivalent in _money_. I don’t think people really think of those as equivalent. It’s not the same exposure, not the same “approval”. There’s a bias towards approval instead of money. Rory Miller’s “monkey brain” [*]. And those 3000 sales in bulk are a bigger “approval” shot than the measly “maintenance dose” of that single daily sale (not even quite!). Unprofessional? Human.

    Take care.

    [*] For those who’re new to the idea, Rory Miller does a “common language” explanation of the different sides of a person’s mind. He calls it the lizard, the monkey and the human. The first one is pure survival, the second is social and the third is what we think we’re doing right now. This exchange itself looks rational, but there’s a good share of “community”, which makes it, kinda, monkey brain. Fights about amazon vs. traditional pubilshers are in a good share, “monkey-ish”, taking sides and joining a group…

    • dwsmith says:

      Ferran, the 35 years is a copyright provision. Learn copyright. (Copyright Handbook from NoLo Press and no, Kris and I do not get a kickback for always mentioning that book.)

      This is a business. Business runs on income. There is “exposure” and then there are true readers. If a writer is looking for approval beyond making a nice living with doing what they love, sadly they need to go into another job. One of the great things we all love about writing is that we can write anywhere and no one recognizes us ever. If a writer writes for ego, oh, oh… that’s doomed in a very short run.

  13. Hello! I just wanted to ask you where cost of doing business comes in. I realize that you can technically do everything in self-publishing yourself, but I think there’s a lot of people in the same boat as I am in that I am neither a perfect editor or a talented cover artist. Any suggestions on how to put out a professional product without making too much of a dent in the bottom line?

    • dwsmith says:

      Renee, cost of doing business is a critical cost. Your time being the biggest cost. Actual set costs such as art and proofing are required. Books must be copyedited/proofed. Often you can trade for that, or find someone local at a newspaper or a high school to help for a decent fee. It usually runs by the page. But early on, except for copyediting/proofing (You don’t need editing) try to learn to do everything yourself. Better for learning and better for costs. But this is a business, so there will be some costs up front.

  14. Lauren says:

    Dean,

    Been following your blog a while, I was wondering how this same math would apply to publishing children’s books. They usually have lower word counts. I write everything from picture books to middle grade.

    How many chapter books / MG books would you need to sell in a month to eventually get the same $40k salary? Let’s say chapter book 10k words and under, MG, around 20-50k words.

    • dwsmith says:

      Oh, wow, Lauren, not a clue. I just never get over into that area and wouldn’t know, but you could sure just substitute numbers once you get some sales numbers. Sorry, I’m no help on that area.

    • Lauren, I’m going through this myself. Just use Dean’s math, only use CreateSpace’s publication cost calculator first. Choose your trim size and figure your page count, and then you can see what each one would bring you. Middle grade e-books (not counting the 99 cent ones) seem to run about $2.99-5.99. Multiply until you get an annual salary of $40K.

      Two other things come into the mix for kids’ books, I think. First, while YA is going strong in e-books, middle grade is just starting. I think that will change over the next few years, but in the meantime, both MG and chapter books are strongest in print. Second, if you’re talking picture books (and maybe chapter books, too), look into doing tablet and phone apps for them. The apps that match a book, or can stand alone, are quite the thing to keep kids occupied now! My 2-y-o granddaughter can find her own stuff on my daughter’s iPad, and they’re just starting to get apps based on books for her.

      And Dean, thanks so much for the long view of this!

  15. Hey Dean,

    Love this series. However, I’d love a bit of encouragement. I’ve put out 70 titles. Short stories, collections, non-fiction, and novels. Last month (May), I sold just shy of 25 copies total across all platforms. I’m everywhere with paperbacks to boot.

    I’ve been serious about this for about a year and a half but I’ve had my work out there for 3 years now.

    It’s just getting discouraging having that much work out and seeing such a paucity of sales. I’m trying to think long term as you suggest, but it’s hard to extrapolate out when two thirds to 80% of my titles sell nothing per month.

    Hard to see a bright future of making a living at this in 5 to 10 years with these results. How’d you get through the lean times?

    Thanks for your guidance and wisdom.

    • dwsmith says:

      Jason,

      You might want to be looking for what’s wrong with that many titles and those kind of sales. First off, are you putting your books in the right place. Get a friend to look at that. Are your covers branded to each other and to the genre clearly, and do they look professional? That’s a key. Are your blurbs sales blurbs, meaning very little plot and no passive verbs (is, was, has) in the blurb?

      Do you have all your titles on every site that you can?

      The key now is that we are in a new world where indie books must sit right beside traditional books and other indie books. There are so many places we can slip up. The biggest being is just putting our books on the wrong shelves. The second is doing covers that don’t sell a book. It might fit the book, but does it sell the book? Third is having boring blurbs.

      And a huge factor is making sure you have a publisher name and are acting like a publisher, not a self-published author. Have a publisher web site.

      As for getting through the lean times, just work on becoming a better storyteller and keep enjoying the writing. The rest will fall into place in time if you have the details in place.

    • Jason, I’m not selling well, either. Part of what we’re dealing with that Dean would have trouble seeing is discoverability in this new world. But keep at it. Others are in very much the same boat. Best of luck!!

      • dwsmith says:

        Kris did a long series of posts about discoverability, and trust me, doing a blog for writers doesn’t help a lick with readers. Especially readers who think I only write Star Trek or Men in Black or Spider-Man. He’s that media writer, he doesn’t do original books of any value. I have pen names who no one knows doing a ton better than this name. A ton. Read Kris’s posts on discoverability.

        • Thanks, Dean. I consumed Kris’s series in just a few days a couple months back. Tons of great info there. My point was just that building a living from the ground floor is a different challenge than where you are at, with so much writing over the last thirty years, and such a huge backlist.

          • dwsmith says:

            Wow, I wish I had a backlist. I have some older short stories, but those don’t sell well, as is typical of short stories. And my original novels are all under pen names, still wrapped up in traditional publishing. So I started into this indie publishing with ZERO novels in backlist. And only one novel written (Dead Money) that I could put up.

            Kris, on the other hand, had thirty, maybe more, in backlist novels. But I only had short stories. I’m starting in the exact same place everyone else. And I didn’t start writing novels I could put out under this name until last August. Of course, I’ve written ten novels since then, so that’s helping. But I know everyone thinks I have started way out ahead, but I only really started last August other than some short stories.

      • I think you’re also mis-signaling genre.

        Tribute has a stunningly beautiful cover and elegant typography. But what it signals to me is a southern belle romance, especially with the formal hairstyle, the flowers, and the type.

        I get zero sense of Irish or paranormal, though, which is a pity because it’s a really, really beautiful cover.

        Though you’ve kept a series feel with the typography, none of the other covers in that series signal Celtic or paranormal to me, either.

        This is one of the classic problems of a cover fit: the people drawn to the cover will be looking for a description of a different book. The people who want the book you wrote may not be drawn in by the cover.

        The cover is your pitch even before someone reads the description.

    • Jason Blacker says:

      Thanks Dean for the help.

      Thanks also JR. I’ll just keep on, and hope the future is brighter. In the meantime I’ll have fun with the work itself.

    • Jason, your covers don’t signal genre or tone particularly well and your typography isn’t helping. Some of the fonts you use work fine on a print cover but are unreadable at thumbnail sizes.

      This article may help:
      http://www.thebookdesigner.com/2014/06/book-cover-success-and-failure-explained/

      If you haven’t read through ALL the cover design critiques (several years’ worth), they may help too.
      http://www.thebookdesigner.com/2014/05/e-book-cover-design-awards-april-2014/

      The blurbs could also be stronger. (I read three.)

  16. Thank you so much for this, Dean. It’s jarring my brain in a way it needs to be jarred. Thank you. (And thanks Hugh for the link!)

  17. Jessica says:

    Hi Dean,

    My question for you is: you say that average of 5 pages/day. You’re talking a first draft of an 80K-word book in 2 months, right? Not the finalized edited version…or…are you? Because I mean, I already write 3 pages/day & could see myself upping it to 5 pgs/day. I find it’s the editing process that takes more time.

    So if you write 6 first drafts in a year, then what suggestions do you have to help with increasing the speed of the editing process? (I.e. – before I send it to my editor for developmental edits)?

    Thanks very much!

    • dwsmith says:

      Jessica, you really, really need Heinlein’s Business Rules. Especially #3. And other people do copyedits. You hire or trade for that done. Follow my Writing in Public Blog. I finish a book and it goes to copyediting and into Smith’s Monthly and then into print. And my question to you is this? How do you know your editing is not hurting your books, taking your voice out, dumbing down your originality, making your books just like everyone else’s? Answer: You don’t, but I can tell you it probably is. Do a write draft, then fix mistakes, then give it to a trusted first reader, fix the mistakes they find, and release to a copyeditor. That process will not slow you down at all.

  18. Dean, this might be the best Sacred Cows post yet!! I’ll be re-reading this one several times and doing my own math, much like I’ve done with my production schedule through 2019, based on your advice. THANK YOU! Others have called your advice “sane”, and I’ll add that it’s a kindness to have a reality check from a long-time pro. Have a great week!

  19. Martin Edic says:

    Dean, I think this is really important advice, especially for beginning novelists. I have several non-fiction books that have been in print for years and those little checks add up over time. So I had come to the same logical conclusion with my novels.
    I’d like to return the favor with a quick WordPress tip for your site (and the sites of any other writers who see this!). In your Dashboard go to Settings> Permalinks and change the setting from Default (your current setting) to Post Name. This will add the title of every post on the blog to the end of its URL rather than /?p+13083, which is what it says now on this page. This makes it much easier to find your stuff on search engines. It’s not a gimmick, just best practices.
    Now back to my 800 words a day…

  20. Lee McAulay says:

    Another post destined to become one of my favourites from your Sacred Cows series!
    If I’d started a medical degree course, for example, at the same time as I began self-publishing, I’d be about to graduate just about now. Would that make me a competent surgeon? Um, no – not even a competent GP.
    Viewed in this light, it doesn’t seem right to expect that I’d be able to challenge the world-class writers I hold in high esteem without oodles more time and effort and focus.
    Thanks for the continual reminders that everything is EARNED through hard work and practice.

    • dwsmith says:

      Spot on, Lee. I went through seven years of college to become an attorney which I did not want to be and luckily stopped a few months ahead of actually doing the bar. But I was writing and I looked at those seven years and all the money and time I had spent to try to just start to be something I didn’t want to be, and asked myself, “Why can’t I put that same focus on my writing, and that same push, and that same money, to do something I want to do?” And that question changed everything for me, including being patient.

  21. Oh man, I am the worst offender at #6! I wish I could break myself of that. :-( Right now I’m checking sales rankings multiple times a day after a new release, and I know it’s not actually helping.

  22. Vera Soroka says:

    I’m a long ways from making any sales per month. I know I just started in February and they are novellas and two short stories. I ‘ve had a few sales but I know I have to focus on more writing. I hope my novels will make a difference and maybe I will start to see monthly sales. As of now there is nothing.
    Great post!

  23. Martin Lake says:

    Words fail me – and they don’t often. This is a brilliant article: such sound advice and really encouraging.

    I can vouch for the importance of having a number of books available. I’ve been self-published for three years and now have six novels and three collections of short stories. My sales have grown slowly but surely over this period. It’s a cumulative long-term process I guess.

    I really admire the long perspective that you encourage in this article.

    Martin Lake

  24. Deborah Smith says:

    Great advice, except for the misunderstanding of how traditional publishers price books and manage their backlist, which–depending on the publisher–is not as you expect.

    Still, caveat aside, great advice. Few authors make a living. Most believe they are going to get rich quick. Those who actually prosper are the ones who stay for the long run.

    Backlist can be an author’s retirement goldmine. Assuming, of course, that the author has not mismanaged it. (That’s whether trad or self-pubbed, either way.)

    • dwsmith says:

      Deborah, there are two romance companies that are not mismanaging backlist, and the young adult imprints know how to do backlist. But no other company I know about, other than with a few major titles, even bother with backlist other than to get it up and forget it. They don’t have the time, energy, or manpower to deal with it.

      And both of the romance companies are using a way of dealing with backlist that screws writers completely. They are selling backlist on promotions at high discount, thus making sure they make some and the authors make nothing from the back list because of the high discount clauses in the contracts. Smart for the publisher, death to the authors. But most romance authors haven’t picked up on this trick yet. When they do, we will all hear the screaming. (grin)

      So not sure what you are talking about exactly on a caveat about my comment on backlist in traditional publishing. 9 out of 10 books in traditional are left to mold in backlist and trickle a few sales here and there. And that’s what the authors see.

      • Irene Vartanoff says:

        Actually, a lot of romance writers have caught on, and you might be surprised to know how many are setting sights on indie publishing in various flavors.

        At the last romance writers conference I attended, I was shocked to see editors from the major world publisher of romance sitting idle during the editor/agent appointments to which authors flock. This is totally new. Writers I know are still involved in a lawsuit trying to get a fair deal on certain reprints. I don’t know if this major company will change its tune–and its contracts–anytime soon, but it’s clear to me that many romance writers are not waiting for the ocean liner of romance to make a slow turn.

        • dwsmith says:

          Agree, Irene. Romance writers tend to be out front on this in many ways, which is normal. They’ve been out in front in business for years now.

  25. Thanks for this Dean. It’s tough enough sometimes warding off the demons that come with the day-to-day struggle of just making ends meet, let alone dealing with the added indie-writer angst over low sales, especially when the goal is to supplement (or supplant) the income of the “regular job.” Your Sacred Cows series goes a long way to put facts in the mix, and that lifeline of rationality is, in itself, an inspiration.

  26. Anna D Allen says:

    Hey Dean,
    First time reading your blog, and this really helped me to realize I’m doing things somewhat right. I make about $400 a year on one 99 cent title, which is so much better than I ever expected. I have a few other titles that don’t really sell [a couple a year for each], and I am hard at work writing in the same genre as the 99 cent book.

    Something you said in response to a comment: “Are your blurbs sales blurbs, meaning very little plot and no passive verbs (is, was, has) in the blurb?” It made we wonder if this is the problem with one of my non-selling titles.

    Blurb [and here’s where I show my lack of knowledge] — I always thought this was some short quote pasted on the cover, “Best book ever — Some Famous Author.” But now I’m thinking it’s all that stuff in the write up telling what this book is about. Assuming that is the case… “very little plot” meaning you’re not supposed to reveal too much, right? I think that could be my problem– I revealed too much. So, I should probably go back and change the write-up.

    • dwsmith says:

      Anna, what appears on the cover is a “tag line.” Imagine you asking a friend what a movie is like. Instead of them telling you “It’s a slam-bang-action movie, lots of fun, they say, “Well, before the credits, you see two characters standing and then suddenly one is shot and then and then and then and then…” And your eyes glaze over and you run away.

      Tell someone why they should buy your book, not the plot of your book. When you find yourself saying …and then this happened and then this and then this… You are in boring plot, not telling a reader why to buy your book and read the plot. But alas, this is hard to learn for writers who think their plots are what is important to a buyer.

  27. Edward Smith says:

    Wonderful advice, I am not sure I have ever seen it spelled out as thoroughly as that. I coach authors how to get exposure in the media in order to get plugs and thereby sales for their book. One of the first questions I ask new clients is what their goals are. Surprisingly few authors can tell you their goals without thinking about it for several days. And this is after they published the book. So your findings that most authors have not “done the math” does not surprise me. The good news is as you point out, if you take a longer term view, it can work out very nicely. OK, thanks again for your great analysis. Edward Smith.

  28. Judy Goodwin says:

    Great post. I think I’m more on the ten year plan due to time constraints in my life, but that’s okay. I keep writing, keep putting work out, and that’s about it. I also know that in trying to develop two names at once I’m prolonging things, but I like to write for two very different markets, so again, it’s just a slow steady increase.

    Books #3 and #4 in the works, and I’ll be putting together an anthology of short stories soon.

  29. Stefon Mears says:

    Great article, Dean. It reminds me of when I first started looking into indie publishing. There were so many blogs with so much advice, most of which came down to “$.99 price point!” “The power of free!” Yadda yadda yadda. These people always pushed the idea of moving as many copies as you could now! Not tomorrow! Now!

    Then I happened on your blog, and you were talking about the long run. Finally, someone who was saying something that made sense to me. This isn’t a business for people in a hurry. And it’s kind of funny to me that anyone is. I mean, before indie publishing was a viable option, patience was mandatory in this business for anyone who wanted to stay sane.

    Now people want to act as though not having to go through traditional publishers means that everyone is supposed to sell a million books a month or something from day one.

    You know what makes me happy right now? I released the second novel in a series last month and not only did it sell more than ten copies (print and digital), but sales spiked on book one.

    I only have three novels out so far, and they’re part of two different series. (Novel number four is waiting for me to read it through then send it to my beta-readers). Most people would tell me I’m nuts not to focus on one series and build my readership faster.

    But the creative part of me is happier when I let it tell different stories. So I write multiple series and if that slows my discoverability a little, so be it. I’m not in a hurry.

    Well, that’s not entirely true. I’m in a hurry to write my next my next novel. My first attempt at a thriller (Heavens to Betsy! A standalone!). But I’m making myself wait until I finish the Depth class, so in the meantime I’m writing short stories and maybe a novella or two. Oh, and a nonfiction book that occurred to me yesterday and will probably be published tomorrow.

    Ye gods, I love this business!

    • dwsmith says:

      Stefon, yes, I love this business as well. I just finished that Heaven Painted as a Poker Chip novel three days ago, and it’s already at the proofer and will be in print in July in Smith’s Monthly. If I had a traditional editor, I would have been lucky to have gotten a response on the book by September, if that. And that’s if the book was sold and I was just turning it in. Yes, I too love this new world.

  30. Dean,
    First, I’m an old guy–and I mean an OLD guy. I presently have 8 ebooks on Kindle and my goal was to have 20 in the next five years (that is unless I reach room temperature before then.) You’ve inspired me, now I’ll try for 30. My biggest problem is that like most old guys, I know just a little more than zilch about online marketing. I was great at marketing back when we were a paper culture, but I realize that is over. I’m leery of all the people who want to help me market without telling me how much they’re going to charge. Plus, I’m not sure I need their services. Your estimate of five pages a day doesn’t work for me. I have to write at least fifteen because I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and– if I want to average five a day. I know the numbers will eventually work for me if I just keep writing and get a large number of titles out there. I’ll leave it to you and the other number crunchers to find out how much you’re going to make on each book.. Me? I’ll just keep plugging away.

  31. Angela says:

    This was a very encouraging article. I’ve been kind of thinking of my indie novels (I’ve published myself and gone the traditional route) as the little engines that could. They are chugging away in the background, getting almost exactly what you’ve listed below – about 25 sales a month – with very little work. A little blog posting, some tweets, and I sell 2-3 books a day. I’m fine with that. And you’re totally right to just keep adding to that roster.

  32. Mark Coker says:

    Great advice here, Dean. Well done.

  33. Polly says:

    I know I’m a few days late on this… missed the blog for a bit. But OMW. I just this weekend—which was a week AFTER this was posted, but several days before I read it—sat down and did all of this math for myself and came up with exactly the same numbers, timeline and earnings. I did it to affirm that I have a plan that is viable, not just some ideas in my head. It doesn’t get much more motivating than this.

  34. Zahra Brown says:

    I was still going by the 5 sales a month figure you used years ago. I have 24 for sale and barely sell 2 in total a month. I thought this wasn’t right. I was in denial, thinking I just had to be more patient. I started in Feb 2012. I’m going to use the 25 a month per book average as the push I need to regroup and revamp my books. Time to work my backside off to earn more to invest in my books and reach my potential. I’ll be on that blurb course ASAP. Get a professional cover designer, editor and proofreader. Thank you!

    • dwsmith says:

      Zahra, Interesting. Something isn’t right. Are they short stories? Do you have them in as many markets as you can get them in? Do you have a lot of pen names or all under one name? All of that will also make a difference.

      And what genre? Questions like that need to be asked to figure out why that isn’t clicking. And so many more questions, from blurbs to character voice and depth of openings pulling in readers. Pricing also will play a part if your pricing is either too high or too cheap.

      Not sure why, but don’t get discouraged. Keep writing and work on figuring out what is causing that problem. Something that can be fixed, I’ll bet.

  35. Clare O'Beara says:

    Overall I enjoyed the article and the comments were also enlightening. This is pretty much my attitude except that I have been concentrating on Amazon to sell my books. I might look at other vendors – I live in Ireland so we do not have B&N stores.

    I am not sure that six dollars an e-book is correct, as a new author has to try to prise the sales door open and some people state that they never pay above three dollars for an e-book – ignoring how long the author has spent in writing it.

    If all my books were priced at six dollars my sales would be zero per month. The cheaper ones are at the start of a series and they sell; the later ones are longer books and cost more, and those tend to sell to people who have bought the earlier books.

    A book every two months can be done – I’ve written one in two weeks with a week for revision and checking facts. However some books need considerably more research – and time for the author to get her head around what she is learning. SF for example, if it’s well written, should contain science. Historical fiction should contain history.
    A carefully plotted, interwoven lengthy novel with several sub-plots and many well-developed characters takes time. So a short book based on known material can be written quickly but a quality, in depth, researched book cannot. Not by this author anyway.

  36. Fabulous article and just what I needed to hear. Your math helped me see that I’m doing okay. With two novels out I was selling about 25 a month exactly. Now with the third out, that has gone up. I’m seeing the results of having more titles out. Starting my next series now. I aim for a book a year. This is slower than a lot of writers. Perhaps as I gain more experience I’ll get faster at it.
    I very much appreciate your advice about looking to the long term, and about not comparing to others and checking sales. These last two things get me into much trouble! It is best to focus on the writing. Thanks again

  37. Chiming in for folks who are nervous about DIY cover design–it can be done! I just did it. Check & see if your local library offers a Photoshop course. There are also other programs and tutorials you can use, but I bought Photoshop at a discount when I was a student.

    Although Photoshop is not as user-friendly as some programs, I looked for open-source fonts and watched a lot of YouTube tutorials. Ultimately, I went with a very simple design that used a period-appropriate font.

    (Inspired by reading this blog & JA Konrath’s, I just took the plunge and uploaded my first mystery novel to Smashwords & Amazon tonight: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/451669)

  38. This is a pretty good post. There’s definitely a lot of pressure in the publishing industry to sell fast and to sell a lot and it’s easy to feel like a failure if your first book doesn’t end up on the New York Times Bestseller List within its very first week (even if you, like me, are not very interested in being on the NYT Bestseller List).

    But I’m not sure I’m sold on the idea that making a living at writing must take five years (or more). It’s just that I’m looking through the “Indie Authors Quitting Their Day Jobs” thread on The Passive Voice and seeing a lot of people who have made enough money to quit their day jobs much faster than that, sometimes in as little as nine months in one person’s case. Yeah, I don’t know how representative that thread is of the general indie writer population, but it does make me think that it is possible to make a living at your writing much faster than you suggest.

    *Shrug* Not trying to argue with you, but I do wonder how these people have done it so quickly, especially since many of them don’t have a ton of books for sale. Then again, there are also quite a few people in that thread who report not yet making enough to live on or making their living later than others did, so maybe it just varies. Just something I’ve been thinking about.

    • dwsmith says:

      Timothy, yup, variable for everyone. Depends on so many factors such as storytelling ability, cover craft, great blurbs, and what readers happen to be looking for at that moment. So many factors, no way to tell.

  39. I love this article! The five to ten year plan is excellent advice, as is what authors should expect for each book. It makes me sad when I see writers who strive for perfection, even if it takes years. We’re never going to write the perfect story, find the perfect cover, and the odds of skyrocketing to the top of the NY Times bestseller’s list – there’s a chance, but they might find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, too.

    One thing that I really appreciate about this is that you point out how quickly we could (and should) be writing. There’s a misconception that you sacrifice quality for quantity in the indie world, and it’s an attitude I’ve run into time and again. I’ve just accepted the fact that I’ll never hit perfection. No matter how many times I rewrite the story, and no matter how many editors I send it to, every story is going to have flaws. So I set out to tell the best story I can, give it my best, and my readers always want more.

    I consider that success. It doesn’t hurt that I’m earning a decent living at it now either. It just took patience … and the next book, and the next, and the next, and the next.

  40. Great advice. As a hybrid author – 15 traditionally-published titles + 1 (just released) indie title – I’ve been on both sides of the equation. It’s easy to get discouraged if you’re basing your indie expectations on tradpub math. In the good old days, I was on the NY bestseller list and saw combination hardcover-paperback sales in excess of 400,000, but in the new reality I’m lucky to sell enough to make ends meet. Thankfully I have a rights-reverted back list that’s earning me money or I’d be applying for a job at Starbucks! I see my indie venture as one of potential long-term gains, so I’m working on getting Book 2 of my series released before the “ink” is dry on Book One (it’s already in the works). The one thing I beg to differ on is this business of cranking out multiple books a year. I think it’s possible to put out 2 good books or 3 good novellas a year; more than that, unless you’re a rare exception to the rule, you’re talking quantity over quality. I refuse to compromise on quality, period, end of sentence. And I believe you ultimately do yourself (and your readers) a disservice if you’re not putting out the best quality product you can provide. It’s not just about daily word count, there’s the time it takes to do multiple drafts to consider.

    • dwsmith says:

      Eileen,

      I have a hunch that in a private setting, over a drink, we would tend to agree more than we disagree on a ton of stuff. And I love how you are coming into the indie world and being clear about it. But I want to put out another side on something you said here in hopes of helping to knock down a few myths.

      As I say often, every writer is different. The myth of spending more time in a chair typing at 500 words per hour makes for bad writing is just a myth. Writing fast just means a writer spends more time typing. Nothing more. And the myth that rewriting makes stories better is just a myth when applied to all authors. Every author is different. Luckily for all of us. There is no exact speed limit and quality of story does not equal how many times you have futzed with the words.

      So clearly you have a system and a writing method that has worked successfully for you. That’s great. My suggestion is just don’t say blanket statements that make your method the ONLY method and anyone who doesn’t do it your way automatically writes crap. Sorry, I do things differently than you. I have sold over 100 novels traditionally, have well past 17 million copies of my books in print. And I would never tell you to write the way I do. And I would never tell other writers to write my way or their work must be crap.

      All writers are different. Some of us tell stories much better the first draft out and make our stuff worse by not trusting our subconscious. Other writers need to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite to get something the way they think it is best. No right way. And saying that one way, the rewrite way, is the only way, is a myth and you are doing beginning writers who are different from you a disservice. Every writer needs to find their own way to publishable stories.

      I will say in a blanket statement, however, that every writer needs a good copyeditor. (grin)

  41. Danielle says:

    I read this a couple of months ago and came back to it today. It’s very encouraging to me. I have one novel in the crime genre out and it’s only on Amazon. I wasn’t seeing any sales on B&N for the 7 months it was on there and had less than 5 sales on Smashwords. I decided to give Amazon KDP Select a try once they started Kindle Unlimited. I figured it’s only 90 days and worth a shot. It’s helped me with sales. I’m wondering how sales will pick up after the second book in the series is out there. Since going exclusive my sales have been $200-$688/month with one book and Amazon only. I’m basing this on only 4 months of ebook sales and pricing at $4.99, but I’m on track to do the same this month. I’m hoping it continues and even gets better as I release more books.

    I think I’ll branch out and put the books on other sites again once I have another one finished. Dean, I know you say to put them everywhere right away and leave them alone for a year. :-) I’m in the process of getting this book in Expanded Distribution.

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