Knowledge is Power

There’s a thread on Kboards right now where someone posted about how anyone can make a living self-publishing and then shared that they were making $4,000 a month with minimal advertising (they had some free titles) off of approximately a thousand 10,000-word erotic romances.

That’s 10 million words of content. The OP stated that they’re working 15-18 hours days to do this and don’t mind because they come from a background of having to put together a bunch of minimum wage jobs to make ends meet.

I admire the OP’s work ethic and what they’ve accomplished for themselves. (At my current writing rate it would take me another twenty years to hit 10 million words published. I currently have about 2 million.)

But what it really made me think about was class differences and knowledge and opportunity and how incredibly-hard-working people can almost kill themselves working hard for small rewards simply because they don’t know that there are better options out there.

For example, I took a year off in college. I had this notion that I’d become a stockbroker and earn enough to go back to Stanford and pay for it with cash if I could just work as a stockbroker for five years. (Turns out I hate selling people things and would almost try to talk them out of investing with me since I was twenty years old at the time and it made no sense for someone to trust me with a hundred thousand dollars they’d worked hard to earn for decades.)

When I went back to college the next year I needed a job to make ends meet. (Kids, check the cost of living where you go to school. Seriously. Palo Alto is not cheap.) As a kid from a lower middle class family my immediate instinct was to go get a job at the local mall. Which I did. They were happy to have me and to pay me some amount a little above minimum wage, but not that much above minimum wage.

Which meant that while I was completing that triple major I’d decided on, that I was also working forty plus hours a week to pay my rent and car payment and put food on the table.

But there were so many other choices I could’ve made that would’ve made my life easier. I ended up getting fired from that job about two months before graduation. (About a week after I’d complained about being made to feel very uncomfortable by the manager’s brother who followed me around all the time and then got into a shouting match with the manager over the fact that I was wearing shorts and he was wearing shorts but she said I wasn’t allowed to while he was, but that’s another story for another day.)

When I lost that job, I learned a few interesting things that I wish I’d known earlier.

First, I was working enough to earn vacation time at that job but had never been told about it. So on my last day they handed me a check for something like $400 I hadn’t even known I was due.

Instead of working through finals week because I needed the money, I could’ve taken a few paid vacation days. Who knew? (My manager…)

Second, turns out I was able to go down the street to a temp agency and immediately get a new job that paid me twice as much as the bookstore had. For stuffing envelopes and updating a database of customer addresses. Brainless work.

I had grabbed the first opportunity I found because as someone who came from my background and had no financial reserves to take the time find “the best job” and no one to tell me there were other options, I didn’t know I could do better than that almost-minimum-wage job at the mall.

(Honestly, if I’d been really thinking about how to make the most while working the least I would’ve taken one of those “we’ll pay you $25K for your eggs” ads in the back of the school paper seriously and not had to work at all. But, ya know. Hindsight. And growing up with a mindset that expected to work hard for what I received.)

What’s interesting is that I almost fell into that same mistake again when I graduated. Working full-time to barely make ends meet while trying to complete a degree like that meant that I hadn’t followed the proper path to get a consulting or investment banking job. (Or to prepare for grad school.) I had no clue how any of that worked, so I failed all those interviews.

Which meant after college I found myself back in Colorado with no access to the fancy campus recruiting options and no job prospects.

Not knowing what else to do, I applied for a manager position at a local ice cream shop. The salary was enough to pay my bills and I was qualified for it. Not based on my degree. Based on my prior experience managing the cashier’s office at an amusement park for a couple of summers.

But that manager did the biggest kindness to me that anyone has probably ever done me. He told me they were willing to hire me and that they’d give me the job if I really wanted it. But he also told me that he thought I could do better than that job and encouraged me to keep looking.

So I did.

And about a month later I was able to get my first regulatory job which ultimately led to my consulting job.

That one difference in which job I took after college meant the difference between working sixty hour weeks to earn $40K a year with minimal benefits and working sixty hour weeks to earn $160K with good benefits and promotion potential.

(Not immediately. We’re talking ten years out. One job had career potential with an upward trajectory, the other did not because it was a small family-owned business.)

I was lucky. Because a complete stranger was kind enough to share with me that broader perspective that they had but I didn’t. No one in my family had been down that path before. My brother and I were the first to go to college straight out of high school. And I was certainly the first to end up with an “elite” degree.

(One I still didn’t leverage properly even where I ended up. Starting i-banking salaries plus bonus the year I graduated were probably more than that $160K. But coming from where I had that wasn’t even something to imagine let alone expect.)

So bringing this back to that post on Kboards.

I see this woman who is happy with her accomplishments and happy with her income and I think of how many people come from those environments where you have to work tremendously hard to stay above water. And where it never occurs to you that you can work in a different way to accomplish that same goal. And where you don’t have the time or energy or connections to show you that easier path or to even tell you it exists.

A part of me wants to take that woman aside and say, “work smarter”. Write longer. Advertise.

But I don’t know that that’s an option for her. Maybe the quality isn’t there for that to help. Maybe it will just destroy what she has created.

So instead of reaching out to her, I wrote this blog post. To say that if you feel like you’re working at your max to barely get by that maybe it’s worth taking just a moment or two to look around and see if there isn’t a better option out there. If you’re good at what you do, see about a raise. If you’re not using the skills you trained on, see what’s out there job-wise. Ask yourself if there’s something else you could do that would pay more for the effort you’re putting in.

It’s too easy to get a little bit of something and cling to it when you’re right at the edge. But that can keep you at the edge.

Sometimes head down, full speed ahead isn’t the best choice. It got me a lot of what I ended up with, but looking back I know there were better choices I could’ve made.

Maybe that’s the case for you, too…

Writing Speed

One of the conversations that often happens around writing is how much can a writer feasibly write in a day or a week or a month or a year.

Often people will discuss how many words per minute they can type and try to extrapolate that to some number of words they could write if they just had the time. “Oh, I write 50 words per minute, so if I have sixty minutes that gives me 3,000 words which means if I quit my day job and write for six hours a day I can write 18,000 words a day. That means I could write the first draft of a 70,000-word novel a week.”

Now most people aren’t that extreme about it. But there are definitely people out there who argue that it’s easy enough to write 5,000-10,000 words per day. And that doing so for five days a week gives you 40,000 words in a week which gives you a novel a month easily.

What got me thinking about this is that I started the next cozy mystery this morning. And in the space of about an hour I wrote the first 2,400 words of the cozy, which for me was two chapters, each written in a thirty-minute chunk.

It’s only eight-thirty in the morning right now. I have a call in half an hour and need to feed the dog and spend time with her, but I have at least four more hours I could write in this afternoon. Which makes it look like I could easily hit 5,000 words for the day. And if I can do that today, why not tomorrow and the day after and the day after.

But it turns out that, at least for me, how many words I can write has nothing to do with my typing speed. It has to do with my idea-generation and refilling-the-well speed. I wrote 2,400 words this morning but none the past three days. And I’ve been pondering the way into this story and the plot for the story for months now. (The general idea–a cold case–was actually going to be the idea I used one or two cozies ago, so I’ve been trying to come up with a good cold case idea for months now. Which, because it’s a cozy, also has to be a bit light-hearted, too.)

It’s quite possible I’ll be able to sit down this afternoon and write the next chapter or two. But it’s equally possible that I’ll sit down to write that next chapter or two and not quite be ready for them yet. Or that I’ll write them and then need to go back after five or six chapters and smooth things out and ramp things up to keep the story momentum where I want it.

After many years of this I’ve found that for me the steady writing pace that helps me keep moving with a novel and not burn out averages around 2,000 words a day. (Non-fiction averages closer to 3,000 words a day and requires less downtime between drafts.)

And that’s still a higher number of expected words than I actually produce in a year because I need downtime between projects where my mind is working on the ideas and turning them this way and that and imagining scenes or dialogue I might include but I’m not writing.

Others work differently. Some people are binge writers. They just dive in and write for hours on end until they’re ready to collapse. Some people extensively outline so that when it comes time to write they can also put words on the page for hours at a time. Some are so high in Ideation that the ideas are always there and they don’t need that pause.

And some have to achieve perfection the first time they type a sentence so only get down 250 words an hour.

The key is to learn what’s reasonable for you and to plan accordingly. Don’t push yourself to be something you’re not. Find that steady pace that you can hit comfortably and work from there.

And also understand that others work differently and so will have different results than you do. Which means you shouldn’t tell someone they’re not capable of writing faster than you do just because you can’t do it. But it also means you shouldn’t tell someone who writes at a slower pace that they’re just not trying hard enough.

We all work at our own unique pace.  The key is finding what works for you and is sustainable for you.

 

Writing: Point of View Matters

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. I mean, I always am reading, but I think I’ve been diving into more new-to-me authors lately which means I’m running across more writing approaches or styles than normal.

And I’ve realized as part of that exploration that the point of view the author chooses to use can make or break a story.

I’m reading a novel right now that’s written in first person, something I personally have no problem with. My cozies are written in first person. But as a writer reading this book I am annoyed at the author for making that choice.

Because they chose to write in first person but they included at least six different points of view. ALL of them in first person. NONE of them identified in any way at the start of each section. And they change point of view within chapters. So you have on first-person point of view starting the chapter and then another picking up at the section break halfway through. It feels like I’m constantly playing catch up in each new section, trying to figure out who is talking now.

The story itself is fine. But I know because of the point of view choice this author made that my mom won’t be able to read it. She’d never be able to make those switches successfully.

And what annoys me so much is that the author could have simply used a deep third person point of view and accomplished the exact same thing but had it work better for the reader.

This is not some new author. This is a trade-published author with I think 11 books out. (All in first person, though, so maybe that’s the issue. But by now you think they would have read enough to know that deep third can be very close to interchangeable with first person.) And they have an editor who should’ve seen this, too.

So that’s one. And probably the one that prompted this post. But another I’ve been thinking about lately is that I just don’t like to be in the point of view of nasty human beings. It’s like immersing myself in slime. I don’t mind reading stories that have nasty human beings in them (as long as they get their comeuppance at the end), but along the way I really really don’t want to sit in their head for any length of time.

I read all the JD Robb books this last year and there was one (of the fifty?) that I really did not like for this reason. She’d included the killer’s point of view in a certain number of chapters and I just didn’t want to read them. I didn’t want to see some self-centered asshole murderer justifying their actions.

As a writer reading something like that I then step back and ask, “Did that help the story? Did the story gain anything by having an insight into this character’s thoughts?”

And my personal answer there was no. That was the only book of that series that I really didn’t like, but it wasn’t the only one that included the POV of the killer. But I don’t think any of the books I read in that series that had the POV of the killer benefited from having it. And I think in some cases it actually took away some of the suspense because we already knew things about the killer that the detective hadn’t yet discovered so false paths we might’ve gone down as readers were taken away.

Now, those books are so good that I’ll keep reading them anyway. I think she is a master of her craft and does so many things so well that she’s well worth studying.

But another author that I’d recently started reading I’ve stopped reading for also including the bad guy’s point of view in the story. In that case it was a lazy user-type who starved his kids and beat his wife. He gets killed in the end but about half of the book felt like it was in his head and I just did not want to be there. Especially since it was a world that should have killed him much earlier on.

I’m sure there are other POV changes I could think of given enough time, but those were the two that were top of mind for me just now. But I guess in a sense they both boil down to the same issue: don’t do something with your writing that pulls the reader out of the story. And if that seems to be happening, then check you POV choices.

 

A Few Good Posts on Critical Voice

I bookmarked this post yesterday to share at some point: Confessions of a Hate Reader…by Jeannette Ng and then realized today that Dean Wesley Smith has been talking about critical voice the last couple of days as well. Here and here. Also, this has been a bit of an ongoing discussion I’ve been having with a bunch of writer friends.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the most successful rule-breaking books are ones that were an author’s first book. Because often that book is written before a writer attends a bunch of writing conferences or joins writing forums or joins writer Twitter and is told what isn’t allowed or what’s passé. (Sparkling vampires? What are you thinking? English boarding school books? Been done before.)

It’s also before they’re actually published and have to contend with negative reviews of their work, some that are quite strongly-worded.

I wrote my first draft of my first novel in six weeks with no one else’s opinion involved. I’d been reading fantasy and other genres for thirty years so I knew basic story structure and I just did it. It wasn’t good. I had to revise it to make it work, but I did it because no one told me I couldn’t. And it went so fast because there were no road blocks in my mind about what I should or shouldn’t write.

I gave a character blue eyes, because I like blue eyes. I didn’t think if that was something that’s overdone. Or if it made me racist. I just wanted that character to have blue eyes.

But as I became more steeped in writing circles I found more and more criticism and objection to so many things. (Like characters with blue eyes.)

It wasn’t directed straight at me. It was directed at other books. But I heard it. I saw it.

They weren’t judging me directly, but they didn’t have to. I applied those judgments for them to my own words.

And eventually it stopped me from writing my next fantasy novel when I was about six books in. (Medieval settings are so boring…Who wants a love triangle…Am I just writing the same story again…Are my sentences and paragraphs too short…)

I pivoted to non-fiction for over a year.

And then I switched to writing cozies. A completely different genre.

I’d had a story idea for ages that I wanted to write, but honestly I think part of the reason I decided to write that series is because I hit my breaking point with all the criticism.

I figured if people were going to hate me for what I wrote I might as well be writing a version of myself onto the page so there’d be no ambiguity about who they hated. Hate that character, you’re going to hate me, too. We’re not identical, but we’re close enough for that to be the case.

I’ve always been okay with the fact that not everyone will like me and that for some of those people nothing I do will change that fact. I learned that lesson in middle school.

But I had to relearn it with my writing: Not everyone is my reader.

It’s not possible for everyone to be my reader. The world is too diverse for that. What someone loves about my writing, someone else will hate. That is a given. And the key I think to surviving as a writer is to either be like DWS and not care at all what anyone thinks or to focus on your readers and give them more of what they want and ignore the people who don’t want it.

(Which is hard to do. I don’t want my writing to cause harm to others. But if I want to keep writing at all, I have to at some point put those other voices aside and write my stories, flawed as they may be.)

Anyway. Something to think about. I’m off to finish the next non-fiction book. Haha.

What Does It Cost to Self-Publish A Book

I tend to ignore the conversations where people discuss what’s required to self-publish a book. A few years back someone who’d done very well with self-publishing who I know and like posted a list of everything a new self-publisher should take care of before they publish and I remember staring at that list in horror and thinking I’d never have self-published if I’d thought it required all of that.

I always figure it comes down to a difference in philosophy. I long ago accepted that I will never be perfect and that the level of effort to reach perfection far outweighs any benefit I’ll receive from it. In school being perfect would’ve meant I couldn’t take all the courses I wanted to, play the sports I loved, and do the extracurriculars I enjoyed all at the same time. It seemed oddly limiting to me to spend all that time on one thing so I could get an A+ or up my shooting percentage in basketball when I could get an A- and still start varsity with a lot less effort.

I also long ago learned that arguing with the perfectionists is exhausting and a waste of my time and energy. And in self-pub especially where everyone thinks they can see and judge your performance it’s an even more obnoxious experience. Because, since of course I’m not perfect, if I say, “you can do it for free” then someone will call out my writing or my covers or my blurbs or my book rank.

But here’s the thing: You can do it for free. Or at least close to it. It just takes time.

I’ve published two books so far this year. One non-fiction title in an area of expertise I have. One cozy mystery.

I used GIMP (a free software) to create the covers myself. Will they win awards? No. Do they achieve their purpose? I like to think so.

The non-fiction cover had one stock image, the cozy cover had three. I’m still working through a DepositPhotos package I bought that came with something like 100 images for $50. So, let’s say one cover cost me 50 cents. The other cost me $1.50. And time. It maybe took me an hour, probably less, to create each cover.

(Keep in mind at this point I’ve created well over a hundred covers in GIMP. Probably more than triple that if we start counting paperback covers as separate.)

I also self-edit.

Yes, that means that there are people out there who will read one of my stories and tell me it could’ve been better. But every story can always be better. Every single one ever published. And no story will appeal to all readers. Ever. But the stories I publish are me. They are consistently mine. People may not like what my characters do or what they value or the level of action/emotion/exposition/etc. in my novels, but for those who do like my worldview they know they’ll get a novel that delivers what they like.

I did have three subject matter experts read the non-fiction title to make sure I wasn’t saying anything dramatically controversial but at the end of the day that was my take on a field where I have twenty years of expertise. It was delivered in my voice and with my opinions based on my experience.

And, sure, maybe I could pay a few hundred dollars and have someone find five extra typos, but I don’t think it’s worth the expense. It’s certainly not worth it on the fiction side to find someone who may not know any more about writing than I do to tell me what they think is wrong with my story.

I format my own files as well.

Nowadays I use Vellum for ebooks and for fiction print books. But before I purchased Vellum a well-formatted Word file worked just fine. (Styles are your friend.) I still use Word to format my non-fiction print books using the free template from Amazon. I’m not trying to deliver the most beautifully formatted book out there. I’m just trying to deliver my words in a way that lets the reader absorb them easily and without distraction.

I also upload the files myself.

And write my own blurbs.

(Again, my blurbs may not be the best blurbs that could possibly be written for each book, but they’re mine so they fit perfectly with what someone will actually get when they buy the book.)

Because of all of that I was able to write, prepare, and publish two books for $2.

And my time.

The reason you might pay someone to do these things for you instead is because there’s a learning curve. My first-ever cover was absolutely horrid. I did not know how bad it was. I thought I’d done a good job with it.

But that’s the beauty of self-publishing. A cover can be changed out in a day. It will only live on on Goodreads if you were unfortunate enough for it to make it there. (Which for that book I was not.)

As a new writer I had that time. And really, honestly, if I’d paid for those services back then I would’ve been throwing my money away because I didn’t know enough to judge what I was paying for.

I have no doubt there are “formatters” out there right now charging a couple hundred bucks to run a file through Vellum because there are authors out there who don’t know better and will pay them for that.

Now, of course, in any discussion about this someone will inevitably come along and argue that six-figure authors don’t do it all themselves and give that as proof for why new authors should pay for all of this, too.

But that’s a fallacy.

Because the decision a six-figure author is making is very different from the decision a new author is making.

My most successful title has made me a profit of $725 per hour it took to write. If I knew that every title I wrote would be that successful then I’d be a fool to do everything myself.

Better at that point to pay someone $250 for a cover than spend an hour (which is worth $725) creating my own.

This is why a number of the very successful authors I know pay for editors. Not because they can’t do it well enough themselves, but because that time they’d spend on editing can be better spent writing the next book. They can publish a couple more books a year by using an editor.

They have the ideas and the audience for that to make sense.

But for a new writer? It doesn’t.

The sad truth is that for most new writers that first book will not be a resounding success no matter how much money you spend on it. You can get the best edits, the most beautiful formatting, the perfect cover. You can even spend on blog tours and hire a publicist (which, really, honestly does not make sense for 99% of self-publishers). And you can put thousands into ads and develop a launch strategy and all of that.

But at the end of the day that book will still not sell.

Because most first efforts are simply not that good.

And what they generally do have going for them are the things that extensive inappropriate editing can destroy. (Voice, a unique perspective, etc.)

So remember: You really can publish for free. And if you’re new, that may really be the best choice to make.

Take the time, learn how it’s done. Get that first title out there. See what happens. Rinse. Repeat.

(And if that title does have legs, if you’re one of the rare early successes, then use your profits to buy a prettier cover or some paid ads. Just be sure you know by then what will work for the type of book you published.)

 

Author Vulnerability

In response to the latest author blow-up (RWA-related), Nora Roberts made a post. There were two things she said in there that I wanted to share here because I agree with them and she says them better than I could myself:

Writer…is a word without gender, a word without color or race, a word without sexual orientation, without creed.

This first point is essential to me. Anyone can be a writer. Anyone can choose to tell their stories and if they do so then they are my peer, no matter what they choose to write or who they are.

(I can choose not to read them. Or not to agree with them. Or not to interact with them. I can even choose to call them out for what they write. But my personal opinion doesn’t make them less of a writer and it doesn’t make them less than any other writer. There is no group of writers that is less worthy than any other. You write, you are a writer.)

She also said,

Let me add, as a personal note, that over the course of my life, the course of my career …I may have–most likely have–said or done or written something that was offensive, racist, homophobic. Without intent–but intent doesn’t mean a damn to those hurt. So I’ll apologize without qualification.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how writing, especially fiction writing, is a career where we as individuals publicly express ourselves more than in almost any other career. Our job involves writing hundreds of thousands of words and putting them out into the world for others to consume.

Doing so puts our unquestioned beliefs and biases on display for the world to see. In the stories we choose to tell and the characters we choose to focus on, we show ourselves.

It’s a vulnerable place to be. For all writers. Because none of us are perfect.

I will say for myself personally that I have never written a word of fiction (there might be an email or two I’ve sent) where my intent was to cause harm to another.

But I know I haven’t been perfect. And looking back now I can see that there are words I’ve written that could hurt some readers. Words or tropes I used at the time that I didn’t know were hurtful when I used them.

I try to listen and learn so I can do better the next time.

But I also know I will never be 100% perfect on these things. Because of who I am and what I don’t know or the themes I focus on as a writer (which mean I neglect others) I will never be a safe space for all readers.

I don’t think any writer is.

That doesn’t mean I won’t listen and try to be better. It just means I won’t always succeed. (Or sometimes may choose to disagree. There is no way I can agree with 100% of people in this world. My goal though is to avoid unintended harm, words that mean nothing to me but do to someone else.)

The good news for today’s reader is that there are so many authors out there publishing great work (maybe self-publishing, maybe trade publishing) that you can find those authors who resonate for you. Who love what you love. Who value what you value. Who tell the stories you want to hear.

They are out there. Find them. Support them. Lift them up, because that is how you will get more of the stories you want from them.

They are being vulnerable by writing their stories, let them know that you value what they created in whatever way you can.

 

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.