How Much Can Indie Authors Realistically Make?

Two friends have told me this week that they're disappointed in the sales of their first book, because it's not enough for them to quit their jobs and write full time. I also read articles on Writer's Digest and another one by David Vinjamuri (IndieReader) about the success of indie authors. And because we met with our accountant today, I have some hard numbers I wanted to share because, well, I truly don't pay attention beyond my daily sales and it's a good reality check.

Over the past eighteen months, I've made $36,000 in books sales (that's gross, not net). That seems like a pretty good number (to me, anyway), and something I never thought I'd see. (2012: $14,000; 2013: $22,000 thru August).

Yet, is it, really? Let's deconstruct.

BOOKS

I have three books out (A Walk In The SnarkMancode: Exposedand Broken Pieces), eBooks only at this point, though Booktrope signed me for print so I look forward to having that out soon. I'm also finishing up my social media for authors book and working on Broken Places, the 'sequel' to Broken PiecesPieces sells more by far than any of my other books; it's also the best reviewed and winner of five awards. That helps.*

*Note: All three of my books have been edited, proofed, formatted and designed by professionals.

GUESTIMATED BREAKDOWN

I tell you this NOT to sound like I'm bragging, because to be honest, there are many authors out there making way more than me. However, it's worth breaking it down to look at the reality of that amount:

  • $36,000 divided by 18 months = $2,000/month. That is my monthly rent. Nothing else, just rent.
  • $2,000/month divided by 4.16 (my 70% royalty from Amazon) = sales of approximately 480.7 books monthly, which is right on target.
  • I still have to pay taxes on that, so say for the heck of it since I have no idea, let's deduct 20%. That's down to $28,000.
  • I pay $500/month for Google AdWords x 12 months, so deduct another $6,000 -- down to $22,000.
  • Add in expenses like Hootsuite, ManageFlitter, Pluggio, and other various and sundry costs to run any author platform effectively, and deduct another $2400 so we're down to --let's call it $20,000.
  • Be sure to subtract the content editing for all three books, formatting, proofreading, and graphics, and deduct another $7500, so down to $12,500.
  • That's about not quite 6 months of rent. As the breadwinner for a family of four, I still have my day job (BadRedheadMedia.com)
  • Add in travel to conferences, conference fees, and award entry fees and forget it -- I'm lucky to still be in the black. So final total is $7,000, or 3.5 months of rent.

I'm not complaining.

My point is this: I'm making a decent living on the sales of three books, but not enough to make a decent living doing nothing but writing.

I share this not to discourage anyone, but to make any aspiring author or gosh, any author anywhere, realize that writing one book will not take care of you for the rest of your life. That is a myth and I'm not sure why most authors have this dream of a movie and Oprah's couch, when the reality is that less than 1% of writers will ever achieve that (a number I pulled out of the air but seems about right), and those who do have likely released ten or twenty books by the time they're an 'overnight success.'

In an informal poll on my Facebook wall, I asked if some authors would share their total gross sales for one year. Authors offered up these numbers: $200 so far from one author (who is traditionally published), a few similar to my numbers (anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000), and one standout, author Steena Holmes (who has now been signed by Amazon) made $185,000!

WHAT YOU CAN DO TODAY

So, let's stop talking numbers and get practical: what can you do right now to increase your sales?

Take a look at your overall platform -- what are you doing well? What could you be doing better? Whose website/blog do you love? Start there. Then look at:

  • Website and/or Blog: If you've designed your own site and aren't getting a lot of visits, be sure you're using Wordpress.org (not the free .com) for better SEO and Google Analytics to see your REAL visits. Many folks are using Blogger (as I did for years) and blogger seems to inflate the number of views and hits (not sure why). I saw this for myself when I went from blogger to Wordpress. What changed is that my visibility is higher now, I average about 300 views daily, and I now offer a limited number of ad spaces because I've got the Alexa ranking to back all this up.

 

  • Social Media: I've written about social media for the last three or four years, some here but mostly over on BadRedheadMedia.comBookPromotion.com, and San Francisco Book Review. All I will say here is that the majority of my sales that don't come from word of mouth or advertising come from social media, so you at least need to be active on Twitter, Facebook (a page), and Google+ (also a page); Pinterest is worth exploring also.

 

  • Advertising: Google AdWords is absolutely worth the investment only if you know what the heck you're doing. Mostly people don't. I didn't -- I make my husband do it (read free tips at TheAdWordsGuy.com) since he's into all the analytical stuff -- ugh. Fortunately, he's become so adept at it, and so many folks are interested in it, he started a business a few years ago doing nothing but that. But you don't have to hire him or anyone -- read, do the tutorials, learn, then do it.

 

  • Book Blogger/Reviewers: If for no other reason, you should be on social media to connect with readers as well as book bloggers and reviewers -- not in a creepy BUY MY BOOK! kind of way, but really connecting. Most authors don't know how to get reviews so rather than buying a book (here's a great one -- written by reviewer Barb Drozdowich) or connecting with people who do know, they randomly hit up strangers (who are usually not their demographic anyway). Waste of time.

 

  • Time Management: You cannot do all marketing or all writing. There has to be a happy medium. Take advantage of applications like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck, ManageFlitter, Pluggio, or BufferApp (I use a combo of many) to schedule in articles and blog posts, while still live interacting as a reward for hitting your daily writing goal.

 

  • Business Plan: Most successful authors have a business plan of some sort -- from formal to one page. Even if it's just an outline, know beyond what word count you want to achieve daily and dig deep: how many books do you want to sell daily, monthly, quarterly, yearly? What activities are you doing to sell? Always be learning, changing, updating -- this is a changing industry. You have to keep up.

Like most authors, I write because I love writing. Just having one person read my work and reaching out to me is a success. This article in no way discusses the enormously gratifying feeling of hitting PUBLISH and seeing your work in print which is a huge deal! Write because you love it, not to make a quick buck because as you can see, it's not the cash windfall many authors expect.

You need to manage your expectations and keep writing, keep marketing, keep connecting.

And keep your day job. At least for now.

 

Interested in learning more about my services or books? Click here. And a hearty thank you to the many authors who shared their sales numbers with me for this article. 

 

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Comment by Godrose S.Onajobi on October 19, 2013 at 2:39pm

This is an interesting post from you Rachel.

I just released my newest eBook - "Pregnancy Poems Collection" and I found your post helpful to motivate me forward.

                                              From www.Pregnancy-Mama.com

Comment by Rachel Thompson on October 17, 2013 at 6:30pm

Hi Lisa and thanks for reading. For many authors, it takes until book 2 or 3 for the marketing machine to kick in -- when in reality, it's best to start six months BEFORE your book release.

Connection and relationship-building are so key to all of this -- to make us bond with others in similar situations (if nonfiction) or to provide a new take on fiction -- no matter the genre, the concept is the same. And yes, always be learning! If something doesn't work for you, try something else. 

None of this happens overnight. I think I made $1500 my first year with one book out. As the cliche goes (and holds true), it's a marathon, not a sprint. 

Comment by Lisa Thomson on October 17, 2013 at 5:21pm

Great information, Rachel. Thanks for this eye opener. I already knew I wasn't going to live off book sales even before I published.  The social media and blogging avenue is so important though, and I only got into it as my book was almost ready to distribute. The best point you make here in my opinion is the "Always be learning, changing, updating". Great advice.

Comment by Rachel Thompson on October 17, 2013 at 2:34pm

Kate, you are quite welcome. 

As I said below and in the article, we write because we have stories to tell and we love it. but it IS a business. We (and our books) are products. We're still artists, but like any small business, we have to know the costs. 

Any questions, let me know! 

Comment by Rachel Thompson on October 17, 2013 at 2:29pm

Thank you Maretha -- we definitely write for the love of writing. That's (I hope) a given. 

There's already so much negative bias toward indie authors, by NOT hiring professionals to work on our books, we (inadvertently) make mistakes because we are so close to it. 

I think it's also a matter of knowing what we're good at -- I do not have an artistic eye, and formatting makes me wants to stick a pen in my eye, so I hire people to do that. Editing though is a learned skill, worth every penny you pay up front. An investment, if you will, in yourself. 

Good luck and as always, keep writing! 

Comment by Maretha Menichini Botha on October 17, 2013 at 11:59am

Dear Rachel, Thank you very much for such an honest look at the realities of self-publishing.  I was particularly interested in your comments about proofreading and editing - really to get a polished product out there. I would hate to fall short here.  Of course, there is so much to learn, especially for those of us who learned touch-typing on a golf-ball typewriter..., but I'm trying very hard.  So, looking at the realities of the thing, I have to admit that I write for the love of the activity and should someone enjoy what I've written, it would give me the push to keep going.  Of course, I do believe that one reaps what one sows - so no matter how long it takes, if one makes the effort, one WILL reap the rewards in future.  All the best and I look forward to more of your comments in future. :-)

Comment by Kate Powell on October 17, 2013 at 11:50am

Thank you for posting this Rachel; concrete info assists me tremendously.

Comment by Rachel Thompson on October 16, 2013 at 6:52pm

Hi Deborah -- That's an issue for many of us, given life, social media, and various other demands. I find that when I schedule writing time (even if just one hour/day), I shut off everything: no phone, no social media, door shut -- it's the only way to get it done! 

As for time management, take advantage of great apps like Hootsuite or Bufferapp to schedule in SOME posts and tweets -- I check in frequently during the day to interact live, but I can't respond to every post or tweet as it pops up. 

There's even an app that shuts it all off for you (online, anyway) so you can focus on one task (FocusWriter and RescueTime are a few to try). Hope that helps! 

Comment by Deborah Armstrong on October 16, 2013 at 6:28pm

Rachel - thank you for sharing with us. I find that time management seems to be the most difficult for me. I am easily distracted, however I am getting better at staying on course. 

Comment by Rachel Thompson on October 16, 2013 at 5:04pm

Thank you, Anne! So far, it's been great. I'm in a unique situation in that I've done all my books w/ my own team, so going into Broken Pieces for print, most of the work was already done -- so I'm thrilled they still wanted to sign me and allow me to keep my digital right. 

That's happening more and more in the industry -- hopefully it's a win-win for all parties. Thanks for sharing and your kind comment. 

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