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What Should Authors Expect to Earn?
Written by
Brooke Warner
December 2015
Written by
Brooke Warner
December 2015

A funny thing about authors: they’re not a modest bunch. Even the most humble, down-to-earth authors I know have wild expectations about the potential their book has to be a best-seller; to earn out; to change their life. I get it. A lot of authors pin their dreams on their books, and there’s something beautiful about that. And while no aspiring author needs to be denied hope, or to be told not to dream big, I’ve seen the flip side of soaring too high. Sometimes hope balloons get launched only to be deflated later in so many ways—slowly with the dawning of a realization that the aim was too high; violently with angry resentment; tragically with the onset of self-pity. If knowledge is power, authors could spare themselves these sad aftermaths by understanding what the industry considers to be good sales numbers.

Earlier this year, NPR reported a story called “When It Comes to Book Sales, What Counts as Success Might Surprise You,” whose message boiled down to the fact that traditional publishing’s sales aren’t nearly as good as most people believe them to be. Literary agent Jane Dystel, interviewed for the piece, said, “A sensational sale would be about 25,000 copies. Even 15,000 would be a strong enough sale to get the author’s attention for a second book.” Notice she said the word “sensational,” not “common.”

When I first started She Writes Press, I used to ask the authors what kinds of sales they expected from their first book—generally a debut novel or memoir. I heard one number come up pretty often: 10,000 copies. That seemed to be a benchmark authors deemed to be possible, perhaps attainable. But the truth is it’s a very hard number to hit. A few of our authors have hit 10,000 copies sold, but that’s with paperback and e-book sales combined, and it usually involves some sort of ebook campaign.

If you want a crash course in author earnings, there’s a whole site dedicated to it called Author Earnings. Its limitation is that it’s dedicated to a discussion of ebooks. Run by self-publishing advocate Hugh Howie and a guy called Data Guy, their unequivocal goal is to show how indie authors make more money self-publishing (ebooks) than do traditional authors traditionally publishing anything. It’s good to dig into the numbers, but it’s also self-evident that self-published authors would make more money (hand-over-fist more, actually) than traditionally published authors on ebooks because they take home 70% of their earnings whereas traditionally published authors take home 25%, minus their agent’s commission.

I recommend reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s October 2015 post, “Business Musings: Author Earnings,” not just for her dissection of Howie and Data Guy’s logic and analysis, but also for another important point she makes about how to make a living as an author—that you have to publish often and well.

I see two types of independent authors: The first batch are those who have a legacy project they want to publish beautifully and be proud of. They want their book out in the world and for it to have a fighting chance at getting reviewed, being carried in bookstores, and selling a decent number of copies (maybe 1000 or more). These authors have a very good chance of achieving their goals. The other subset are those who aspire to be career writers. These authors expect to earn out their expenses and to turn a profit on their investment. They want the other things too—to be in bookstores, to be reviewed, etc.—but their expectations are generally higher, and wrapped up in money, because earning out and selling a predetermined number of books is tied together with their perception of success. Thus, more is at stake, and they expect to succeed.

If you’re in this latter category, there’s good news/bad news. The good news is that it’s possible to earn out your expenses and turn a profit on your investment. The bad news is that there’s a very slim chance that this will happen with your first book. You need to keep creating content and stacking up more product (in the form of new books) to generate five-digit sales numbers. Very few independent authors reach 10,000 sales, and when they do, they’re typically scooped up by traditional publishers. Rusch makes the incredibly good and valid point that the most successful type of authors are those who are publishing every which way they can. Sometimes called “hybrid authors,” these are writers who publish traditionally, who self-publish, and who publish in between—perhaps through other independent models, or perhaps publishing some digital-only books.

To make money in book publishing, you are best off looking at your first book as an investment in yourself. It’s unlikely to earn its money back, and its success should be directly measured against how much money you put into publicity. It’s difficult to give a hard number on what a “successful” independently published book might be, but we can look to traditional publishing to direct us. In traditional publishing, a book is a “failure” if it doesn’t earn out its advance. By that logic, an independently published book might only be considered a success if it earns out its investment. An author who spends $500 on a marketing and publicity campaign will have a very different experience than an author who spends $10,000. However, the author who spent only $500 will be “successful” at a much lower rate of sale than the author who spent the ten grand.

If earning out is going to be your measure of success, consider a few points. One, do as traditional publishers do and allow that earnout expectation to be spread out over three years. Two, allow for your first book to be an investment in yourself—in the brand of you, future author of many books. And three, get savvy about all the ways you might sell your book. Savvy authors are doing ebook campaigns through companies like BookBub. They’re finding avenues to sell their books directly—to corporations, hospitals, rehab centers, associations, etc. They’re creating affiliations and partnerships.

Publishing a first book may be a thing on your bucket list, and if that’s the case, and you don’t want to think too much about the money, then don’t. But if you’re serious about earnings and have your sights set on becoming a career writer, writing your first book is not unlike standing at the threshold of a new galaxy. There is so much to learn, so much to explore, infinite paths that might lead to sales, and any number of unexpected relationships that might be forged. If you have the aptitude, this could be the beginning of something amazing and exciting and lucrative. But don’t for one second think all you have to do is to keep writing. You have to treat your writing as a business. Take a course. Read up. Follow people who know more than you. And then you keep writing, yes, but also keep producing, keep learning, keep growing, keep up. And godspeed!

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  • GillianAlex

    excellant article. THIS IS WHY I LUV THIS SITE!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Charlene, a very level-headed perspective. Congrats and good luck. :)

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for all the good comments, everyone, and Avril, yes, I'll be in Tucson. Come track me down please!

  • Avril Somerville

    Great post! I appreciated the section on first-time author's expectations. Not only is the advice sobering, but it takes some of the pressure off that we put on ourselves. I'm implementing some of those savvy tactics this year, while still creating new content for upcoming books. Takes a lot of work, but I remind myself that I chose to accept my creative calling. This is exactly what I signed up for for, so I am taking the entire journey in stride.

    Thank you for this post, Brooke. Hope to see you at TFOB in March.

  • <<...writing your first book is not unlike standing at the threshold of a new galaxy.>>

    Yikes! That's exactly the way I feel! Brave. New. World.

    Thanks, Brooke!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt
    Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq! ...And a pre-publication discount!

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    Thanks Brooke for an informative and insightful look at dollars versus daydreams. Communities such as this one here at SheWrites have a profound influence on all of us because we meet, greet, establish relationships with and continue to connect with other writers struggling in the same ways. 

    My personal stretch when I began writing prose books three years ago has been a ten year arc. I figure it will take me ten years to complete the basic three books, my novel on Reincarnation and Karma called The Stain, my non fiction book called Medicine Buddha/Medicine Mind about the healing power of Visualization Meditation, and my memoir, My Impossible Life, basically a tragedy turned to triumph story meant to inspire and entertain, due out late this year or early next. Throughout the days, weeks, months of writing, I have also spread myself into social media learning how to work with FB ( I now feel pretty confident) how to use twitter (still learning) how to use Goodreads ( in a wild learning arc through Brains To Books Cyber Con: go in, join Backstage and Fairgrounds to learn how to participate in a great networking with other authors of your genre) and LinkedIn (again, still in process.) In addition I have a radio program Off the Top, where I volunteer host and often interview other writers. The program goes out on my website as well as the local radio station whistleradio which streams to over 1 million.

    Sounds like a lot but I do this while I work as a spiritual consultant and meditation teacher as I have for over 15 years. I like to be busy but I also see that every one of these activities may provide, down the road in five, ten or fifteen years contributions to an income stream from my books. More importantly to me, I am and will continue to reach an audience of readers who get, read and respond to my work.

    Hard work? Anything worthwhile in my life has been and I expect will be. I just breathe and enjoy it. Best to all! 

  • Leigh Goodison

    Excellent post. Thank you. Publish well and often should be the career writer's mantra. I just released a medical thriller, The Jigsaw Man, and plan on releasing three more books this year. While it seems like I might just be throwing material out there, my books have been written over the last 25 years. I've just been writing and waiting for that elusive dream of a traditional publisher. Instead I'm now going to rewrite, polish, perfect, and aggressively market my 'inventory.' 

  • Jean Ellen Whatley

    Hi Brooke,

    This was one of the most down-to-earth, useful and insightful summaries of earnings expectations I've ever read. Made me feel better about my first book, Off the Leash, and it's a good reminder to get out there with my next book & mix it up.  What great advice!! Thanks!

  • Thanks, Brooke. As a first-time author about to launch a memoir in the fall, I appreciate your perspective on earnings, especially the three-year timeline.