A Reality Check Moment

I recently had a conversation with an author privately that prompted me to write this post. Now, first I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to call out this author and if they read this post I hope they won’t feel that way. But what they were saying was out of sync enough with what I think the reality of publishing is that I wanted to post about it publicly.

Essentially we were talking about submitting a book to a trade publisher. And the comment this author made to me was that because any well-written and well-packaged book that wasn’t written in some niche genre could make them six figures through self-publishing that they would not be willing to accept any advance that wasn’t seven figures.

Now part of my problem with discussing something like this with another author is that I am constantly scanning for information from a number of sources, but I don’t tend to bookmark or index those sources so that I can refer back to them and pass them along as needed. For me, knowledge is one big mulch pile and I take what I suck in and process it in ways that get me to conclusions that I probably can’t tick and tie for another to follow.

But I’m going to make some sort of attempt to do so here, because I want this post to be educational not just opinionated.

So let’s unpack that person’s belief starting with the belief that “any well-written and well-packaged book that wasn’t written in some niche genre could make them six figures through self-publishing.”

Yeah, no.

But this belief is out there. And I think it exists for a couple of reasons.

First, I avoid these conversations myself because I know it’s just an invitation to be criticized. As soon as I say, well, no, that’s not really true someone will respond with “Oh, well you didn’t do it because your cover sucks, your writing sucks, you’re in a bad subgenre, you don’t know how to market, etc.”

No book is perfect. Every book has flaws. So when someone is trying to win this argument they will find those flaws and poke at them to prove their point. And I’d add here that a writing style that works perfectly fine for a majority of readers (cough, cough, Dan Brown) may not work for a picky group of writers debating quality.

So no one tends to push back on these statements that are made because they don’t want to be publicly called a loser.

And, two, generally only the people who do really well talk about how they’re doing to any great extent. I remember at one point posting about how thrilled I was to have 500 audiobook sales and having some very successful author come along in that thread and say, well I have 50,000. Gee, thanks, way to crush me. Maybe they didn’t mean to do it, but the message was sit down and shut up. Which many authors do.

I still talk about numbers here on occasion because I want people to see how the journey looks for someone who wasn’t an instant success but is making steady progress, but I almost never post numbers on that forum or discuss them there in any way for those reasons.

So over time authors get a really good glimpse of the lower end of the high range (because the really high end of the high range tend not to hang out and talk publicly about their numbers) and the lower end of the low range (where things are going so badly they’re begging for help). Everyone else in the range between those two groups tends towards silence, which can create a really skewed view of the realities of the situation and lead to someone believing the sort of thing I quoted above.

So let’s try to walk through this and see what we can actually determine.

In my opinion the Author Earnings Report was flawed in a number of ways and, of course, no longer exists. But it gets us some sort of ballpark to start with. The June 2016 report, which is discussed in this post (https://publishingperspectives.com/2016/06/author-earnings-more-data-profitable-authors/ ) estimated that there were 1,340 authors earning more than $100,000 from Amazon sales at that time.

That was trade published and self-published. All authors. 1,340 of them earning more than $100,000. Total.

Now understand that number is gross earnings. It doesn’t account for covers, editing, or advertising, all of which are costs on the self-publishing side. Also, some of those author names were the same individuals writing under more than one name, but that’s probably balanced by the authors who weren’t listed but could have hit that level across pen names. And it was just Amazon, not wide, but for most authors Amazon does still dominate their sales even when they’re wide so that probably offsets the costs that aren’t account for.

Compare that number, and this is a bit of apples to oranges comparison, to the current membership on Facebook of the 20BooksTo50K group which is at 36K. Or Self-Publishing Formula, Mark Dawson’s group, which is at 45K. Presumably these are people who want to make money from their self-publishing efforts.

Okay, so flawed as the number is, right there we have that only about 4% of “serious” self-publishers are hitting six figures.

(Now we pause while I question all of my life choices….)

(Okay. Done. Let’s resume.)

So getting to six figures at all is not a given. But let’s break down another part of that statement above, the notion that it can be done with one book.

Here is a survey that Written Word Media published earlier this year. It’s not a perfect article (is it really that hard to list right up front your sample size and the percent for each category), but it’s a start: https://www.writtenwordmedia.com/author-income-how-to-make-a-living-from-your-writing/

And what I want to point out is that first graph that shows that the median number of books published by an author grossing six figures or more is 28.

These authors are in the six figure range based on sales of all of their titles. Not one title. ALL of them.

(Now here’s where I pull a number out of my ass.)

Let’s assume that the median net income for those over-six-figure authors is $280,000. I think that’s probably way too high but it’s nice math and no one is going to yell at me for being too stingy with the number.

Okay, then. So if the median net income is $280,000 and the median number of titles published is 28, that’s $10,000 per title on average in a year.

Sure, a new release might take up the bulk of that, but the few six-figure authors I’ve heard throw around actual numbers for new releases talk about earning $30,000 with each new release or having about 7,000 sales at release.

So, $30K to each new book. Three or four books per year released. That’s $120K if it’s four books. The other $160K for the remaining 24 books in the backlist.

And, honestly, that’s not even how it works. The 80/20 rule is alive and well with publishing. Most authors are going to see that only 20% of their titles really perform well and that those titles make up 80% of their income.

So in a given year an author with 28 titles earning $280K will have five of those titles that account for $225K of that income. Note: still not six figures for an individual title.

And it’s not like the $30K/7,000 sales on release are numbers that author saw with their first release. Most authors only get those kinds of numbers when they’ve built up a sufficient audience and backlist. (I looked at the top 100 authors in my genre on Amazon at one point in time and want to say that the ones who were on there long-term had at least a dozen novels out.)

There are exceptions, sure. I know an author who sold something like 5,000 copies on the first day their first novel published. But thinking that anyone can self-publish one book and make six figures on it is not accurate thinking. Especially depending on the price involved.

Assuming a title needs 20% spent on advertising to sell, how many copies would an author need to sell to make $100,000 net on that one title?

At 99 cents they’d need to sell a little over 360,000 copies.

At $2.99 they’d need to sell about 60,000 copies.

At $4.99 they’d need to sell almost 36,000 copies.

Those are not small numbers. Bookbub which is the god of mailing list promos, has an average of about 3,600 sales for its biggest category. So if Bookbub can get you 3,600 sales at 99 cents where do the other 357,000 sales come from to hit six figures?

Also, I doubt this number is true anymore because of so many authors selling at lower price points, but the number I used to hear thrown around was that the average published book could expect to sell 200 copies.

Compare that 200 (which I think was a trade-pub number) to 36,000 copies. That’s a lot of difference.

And if that 200 number was accurate and was derived from trade publishing that’s for a well-packaged product (in general) that was written to a standard that passed muster with multiple levels of professionals. That’s a product that is supposed to sell.

So. Summarizing point one: Yes, there are authors who make six-figures. And they may even do so on a single novel over the lifetime of that novel. But most authors at that level have many novels to their credit and are making money across their entire catalog as opposed to from one single title. Also, the number of those authors as a percent of all authors trying to self-publish is probably far smaller than most people want to believe it is.

On to our second point. The myth of the seven-figure advance. I don’t even know where to go for this information. I tried. And I found an article on one YA series that attracted a seven-figure offer. And another article on some literary novels that had done so as well. And one on an established fantasy author whose books have been made into movies who was given one on their latest series. So those offers do happen. And if I were willing to pay for a subscription to Publishers Weekly I’d probably find more.

But they don’t happen often.

I am pretty sure that some of the self-published authors who did really well with self-publishing have been offered that much, but it was after doing really well with self-publishing already. To the point where the offer probably seemed like less than they could do for themselves financially and they only considered it for exposure to a new audience or access to markets they couldn’t readily access themselves.

But for a new author going the trade publishing route to expect seven figures? Oh no. Last I checked average advances for new authors were somewhere in the $5,000 to $10,000 range and maybe heading lower. And that’s for the publishers that even pay that kind of advance. A friend of mine signed with a smaller publisher and I think their advance was under $1,000.

(Now that’s where you say, I’d be better off self-publishing, thanks.)

So, summarizing point two: A seven-figure advance is going to be very rare. It is not something to expect in any way, shape, or form. It is certainly not a reason for turning down a six-figure offer.

And a further note here. There are many paths to publication. Trade pub is one. Self-pub is another. There are definitely authors who have done well as hybrid authors. Ilona Andrews is one who comes to mind. But when starting out it is best to pick one and pursue it exclusively.

The two paths are different beasts that have different rules and different challenges. And in a sense different tastes and expectations. At least on the fiction side. I like to say, and maybe it’s not 100% true, that on the trade side they’re always looking for “same but different”. They’re asking, “How is this book different from the hundred others I’ve been shown this year? Why would someone get excited about this particular novel?”

On the self-pub side a lot of the readers want more of X. They don’t need an author to change things up or advance the genre in some way. They liked X, they want more of X. (Not always, yada yada, but there’s certainly a component of readers that self-publishers “feed” by giving them more of the same.)

Which means a book that could make an author good money on the self-publishing side at 99 cents and in KU quite possibly would attract no interest at all on the trade publishing side.

So wrapping this up. I think one of the biggest challenges to being a writer is to learn enough to have realistic expectations. I certainly failed at this early on and it’s probably why I’m still here. But the other challenge of being a writer is remaining confident despite knowing enough to have realistic expectations.

There’s no harm in hoping or aiming for that seven-figure advance. Or that title that just breaks out and sells more copies than you could’ve ever dreamed it would.

Just try not to let it ruin you if the reality is closer to the norm than you’d wanted.

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres.

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