How Much Can Indie Authors Realistically Make?

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A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers ~ Plato 

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 Snark, Mancode: Exposed, and 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 Pieces. Pieces 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 was indie but is just now starting as a traditionally published author), a few more between $500 and $2000, 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.com, BookPromotion.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. 

Also, don’t miss out on my newsletter for book and biz updates! Fill out that form over yonder >>>>> 

About RachelintheOC

Rachel Thompson aka RachelintheOC is a published author and social media consultant. Her three books, A Walk In The Snark, The Mancode: Exposed and Broken Pieces are all #1 Kindle bestsellers! When not writing, she helps authors and other professionals with branding and social media for her company, BadRedhead Media. She hates walks in the rain, running out of coffee, and coconut.

Buy Now : A Walk in the Snark * Mancode: Exposed * Broken Pieces

Comments

  1. Great post — encouraging and full of useful information. Thanks for your candor and help. Judy Christie

  2. As always, you’re insights are fabulous. I so appreciate how candid you are about stats and sales. Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Joe Hefferon says:

    Probably the most interesting and informative post to date.
    One thing we don’t figure in to our accounting, according to big-brained Dans: Ariely and Gilbert (TED Talkers both) is our time. I know Rachel well enough to conclude, roughly, how many hours she puts in to accomplish all that networking, tweeting, posting, publicizing, pitching, interviewing and oh yeah, writing and it’s probably more lucrative to be the shoe-spray guy at the bowling alley. So why do we do it? Do we write for ourselves? We’re certainly not writing for our BMW payments. So one does wonder if it’s worth it. It may be better to work a 9-5 and write as a hobby – no stress, just the free flow of creativity, uninhibited by press releases, deadlines and other commitments. No traveling to trade shows, tweeting 24/7 and putting post-its on the kid’s foreheads so we remember their names. On our death-beds we won’t regret a lack of book sales, but we may regret not having spent more time with our families.
    I’m guessing it’s our ego that drives many of us. We have to be at least moderately stricken with egomania to think anyone wants to read our stuff in the first place. We like the attention, and Indie or not, a good chunk of us dream about that NY Times book review. That’s the self-actualization part. First you have to eat.
    A decent actuarial would conclude that all the time and investments put in to achieving the kind of success Rachel enjoys translates to about $7.85 an hour (seriously).
    My apologies to the Clara Bartons among us but I don’t buy the line ‘if I can just help one person with my work it’s worth it.’ Baloney. (or is it bologna?) Go work at the Salvation Army; you’ll help more people in one weekend. Spare me your feigned concern for your fellow man.
    I think what writers need to accept is the craft is different from the business. Writing is the easy part – well, compared to the crappy selling yourself part.
    If you’re still reading this get back to work. If you really write because you love it then do it, every chance you get. Put a little less time on Twitter and more time writing a better book.
    Truth is I really don’t know why we do it, or if I really care. But this post got me to thinkin’ and I guess that’s not a bad thing.

    • Joe, my dear cynical friend. :))

      I do care about my fellow man — in my case, I wrote Broken Pieces to be a voice for those who can’t or won’t speak about the childhood sexual abuse they suffered. The connections, support, and encouragement I’ve made with other survivors is truly my reward.

      Rewards don’t pay the bills, so the profit is always nice! But it’s definitely not my main inspiration.

      Thanks for your insights. xx

  4. In 2012, I grossed just under $36,000 from my Indie books. However, since then, I have seen my sales steadily decline from nearly 1,000 books per month to around 200 per month. I have published two new books in the last 12 months, one is the fourth in a series and the other is an anthology of four books. I believe the abundance of free and 99-cent books is killing the marketplace for Indie authors. Combine that with the unsteady economy (in the US, at least) and it is a recipe for disaster. I advertise with Google AdWords (have been for nearly five years) and with Microsoft Bing. I blog, I network, I Tweet, I give interviews and solicit reviews. I’m hopeful that the influx of new, half-baked free and budget-priced books will decline and leave serious writers more room in the marketplace. Only time will tell.
    My sincerest congratulations to you on your success. I hope it continues for both of us!

    • Joe, thank you for sharing your stats. There are many factors contributing to loss of sales — my first two books (released in 2011) sell maybe 25 copies/month. My recent release (on more serious subjects) sells 450-500 — and it’s priced at $5.99! (the other two are 2.99).

      There’s a wealth of information out that 99c books are not the most beneficial price point for any author — 2.99 seems to be that magic number that equals not only higher sales but higher profit. Depending on your genre, people are either open to our material or they’re not. Standing out helps (through advertising, award wins, etc) as does building our backlist.

      Good luck to you and thank you for your input and kind words!

  5. I’m in your range, Red, with more books out there, but I haven’t been blogging in over a month. I believe a realistic goal for myself, is 4-7 years, 15-20 books, and THEN 100% to marketing and writing. I’m just past year two. I’m building it like a business, planning it as a source for early retirement, which I think is a much more reasonable, attainable goal for an Indie writer (or an unknown, traditionally-published writer). Also a writing partner recently picked up a two-book ghostwriting contract for us at $20K per book, so ultimately (before tax), $20K apiece for what will be a one-year project, six months per book for a tantalizing, based-on-real-events book and then a related, follow-up autobiography from the most accomplished, wonderful 88-year-young woman I’ve met, with a life story that includes a wedding with Desi Arnez and Milton Berle as the entertainment and 2500 guests! Point is, there is other writer work authors can pursue (ghosting, proofing, editing, blog/web design, social media/marketing consulting, etc.). Great blog, lady!

    • Thanks, sweet Rob! I’m thrilled you’re doing so well. Ghostwriting is absolutely a wonderful gig for talented authors such as yourself and how exciting to be making good money from it on top of your fabulous books.

      You’re one of the hardest working authors I know and deserve every bit of your success. Can’t wait to read more about the ghost gig.

    • Rob, you’re not selling your books for $1.99, are you? I read an article recently that said Amazon numbers show the $1.99 price point is a black hole. The article hypothesized that customers view free and $.99 as promotional prices; $2.99+ as quality book prices; and $1.99 as neither a promotional price nor a quality book worth buying. Maybe you could try playing with your pricing a bit and see if that makes a difference.

      • I read that also, Mandy. 2.99 is the sweet spot, absolutely.

        Though this is interesting: I priced my latest release BROKEN PIECES at 5.99 and it sells FAR more at that price than when I lowered it to 2.99 (for a 3-day promo) — barely sold 50 copies at that price. At 5.99, I sell anywhere from 10-20 daily.

        Perceived value definitely has something to do with it — this book is much higher ranked, has won awards, blah blah … all that adds up to value in the reader’s mind.

  6. Amazing and informative article. Thanks for sharing

  7. Such a great post. I love how you get down to the nitty gritty of it all. I’ve recently lost my job due to illness so I’ll be trying to write more now but I can’t imagine the day I come close to $36,000. You rock!

    • aw, I’m sorry you lost your job, honey. That sucks. :( I hope you’re doing better.

      Writing is a wonderful way to deal with our difficulties — even if we never show our work to anyone (and honestly, that’s the best way to write IMHO). Take care of yourself! That’s most important.

  8. Another wonderful post chock full of great information and tips. Like the others, I would like to thank you for being so open about your situation because it really helps others, like myself, have realistic expectations. I’m nearing the phase of sending my first book on to a professional editor and up to this point, I hadn’t a clue what to expect next. Of course I still don’t (LOL) but at least it helps to see how others are faring. I had no idea there was such a difference between WP.com and .org so another thing I will be checking on. I’m pretty consistent about my blogging but have cut back to about once a week since trying to finish up the book. As I stated earlier this week, MondayBlogs has helped produce a big jump in my numbers and that holds all through the week. As you said, the connecting is really important and I do think some people forget that. I’m hoping that by learning the right way to work this as a business will help yield some positive results but to be honest, I’ll just be happy if people enjoy what I’ve produced. :) Thank you as always for being a wealth of information for the writing community. You rock lady!!

    • Thank you, sweet Steph! You rock more.

      There is wonderful satisfaction in connecting with readers — whether that’s one of 2,000. I received an actual fan letter (well, via email) last week and it was so sweet, it made me cry. Sure, the money helps and I’m grateful people are purchasing my books — especially given the state of the economy and the state of my family’s economy right now — it’s tough. Every bit helps!

      xx

  9. Great post, Rachel. Very informative. Thanks.

    • thanks so much, Wayne. Happy to share my experiences. Lots of other people out there selling more and doing well. My main point is that while it sounds like a lot, the reality of investing into making a quality book requires an investment in ourselves.

      thanks for reading and commenting.

  10. Thank you for sharing this article. I plan to publish my first book soon and have a pretty realistic view of what to expect (if I make $20 I’ll probably throw myself a party), but it’s always nice to see the facts and, more importantly, what goes on behind those facts to make it successful.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Laura and good luck with your adventure!

      I love the fact that anyone wants to read my work — honestly, these numbers shocked me! But I do have so many friends who are MUCH more successful authors and the trick definitely is creating the best possible book you can — every single one of them uses professional editors, etc and it shows.

  11. Very insightful post on the hard business end of the writing world. When you take this detailed look at the investment in a good book (editing, cover design, artwork, marketing) it makes you appreciate it even more.

    • Hi James and thanks for reading and commenting!

      It’s interesting — some people think self-pub’d authors don’t bother with professional services — no data to support that, just a supposition (I just shared an article in HuffPost on Friday from a college professor who states that the ‘vast majority of self-published authors don’t use an editor’ — I’ve asked to see his hard data. Ahem), when I find that to be rarely the case. Investing in pro services is an investment in ourselves.

      Those who don’t have pros edit, proof, format, or design are not selling as well (based on my informal survey). When I hear someone say that they were an English major so that qualifies them, I cringe. Even if you’re a twenty-year editing veteran, you still need someone else to look at your work.

      Sorry for the rant LOL.

  12. Any author who is planning or ‘banking’ on retiring on their book earnings is quite frankly an idiot who has not done the slightest research. The likes of Stephen King and JK Rowling are the exceptions. Sadly, it is not just wannabee-millionaire-authors who have these ideas. When I first had a short story published in an anthology, my idiot supervisor at the time (back when I had a ‘real’ job) was quite sure that this meant I was sure to shortly finish writing a novel that was sure to be snapped up by a publisher and rushed out meaning I was sure to be receiving such a big advance that I could retire or at least resign my job (no, she didn’t like me much which is fine by me as I despised her) (and yes I did deliberately use lots of sure’s – because I felt like it). For anonymity’s sake, I shall call her NCC (as short for Not-Called-Carolyne). Aside from being an idiot, NCC had this ludicrous idea that publishers are all sitting around, nervously drinking coffee and chain-smoking while waiting for the next manuscript to arrive in return for which they shall be feverishly writing a cheque with lots of zeros preceded by a number greater than zero. Sadly, NCC is not entirely on her own in this matter. Indie or non-indie – not many authors make big money. The ones that do work bloody hard at it, just like anything else.

    Now you must excuse me while I rush off to the postbox – my royalty cheque is about due and I might be able to afford another hamburger with it.

    • Hey, hamburgers are great :)

      I get totally what you’re saying. People think writing is so glamorous, when in reality we slog away at the computer for years.

      And as you say — not many authors make much money. And even those who do make a decent amount put it back into editing, covers, advertising, travel, goodies (bookmarks and such), etc., to increase visibility. It’s JOB. One we have to love or we wouldn’t be stupid enough to stick with it!

  13. As always, your transparency and brevity rule! Thanks for being a light in this wild West kinda industry. I am releasing the last 2 of my project of 9 and then the real fun will begin – advertising and yes, print versions. It’s easier knowning people like you have done it all and to follow your advice/lessons learned.

    • Thank you, Mohana. I appreciate your kind words. You’re one of the most talented, prolific writers I know. Not sure how you manage with family and a thriving career but you do!

      Ads and print are important to increasing visibility, no question. We’ll chat further when you’re close to that.

      hugs to your continued success!

  14. Thanks for your informative and encouraging post. I always get great value from your posts. :)

  15. It’s exceedingly rare to get such an honest, soul-baring peek inside a gifted writer’s head. Moreover, Rachel’s POV of the incredibly competitive book world today is remarkably REALISTIC. (That’s one reason why we value her as a columnist for Self-Publishers Monthly — plus she’s a cutie pie.) We’ve all heard the cheerleader stories about “Fifty Shades of Grey” and its ilk, but this is REAL LIFE: what you might actually hope to accomplish with your own book(s). Let me close by adding that Rachel works hard — really hard — cultivating her readership, tweet by tweet, post by post, e-mail by e-mail, day after day after day. Fellow writers will be wise to plan on near-daily, relentless outreach to readers in order to achieve results like these.

  16. andy holloman says:

    bravo…honesty is so refreshing…..folks who pay attn: to the realities of writing and the potential for income know that it is very very limited…..i love the real numbers, wonder what % of folks would be so forthcoming (i suspect most would rather have a root canal) your numbers are TRULY AMAZING, espec. for non-fiction….

    i feel that i hit a GREAT bit of luck in getting first yr gross sales w/ one book of $24,200… sales have slowed in 2013 but it appears likely that two yrs after publ. of first book, unit sales will be around 11k or so (90% eBook)….. the cool KDP thingy and book bub delivered in basket loads in 2012…don’t see that happening again, but can’t wait to discover the next new thingy that helps….thank heavens for connections w/ folks like you and all the other writers friends i’ve made…of all the investments i’ve made (editor, formatting, cover design, etc.) the best “non-financial” investment i’ve made is the time and energy i put into building friendships within this cool little community…. hugs…a

    • Thanks, luv. Awesome numbers yourself, dude!

      It was a bit scary when I hit PUBLISH on this post, but if nothing else, people know me for my honesty in writing about reality! So many authors make so much more, and so much less, and it’s not a competition. All our books are so incredibly different as are our writing styles. It truly is dependent on the reader and word of mouth.

      Of course, social media IS our word of mouth now and so crucially important. Hugs to you, Mr H.

  17. Interesting break down (and brave of you to post your $$)
    I knew when I started I wasn’t going to be rich. Would be nice, but the reality is, no. I’m still working a 40-50 hour a week day job. As long as I enjoy writing, and enjoy the responses, AND have fun online, whatever I make in my writing (or DON’T make, as the case may be), it’s worth it.
    I never look at the numbers. I see an email telling me I have a deposit in PayPal and think, “Oh goodie, I can buy a bite of Godiva ice cream”.
    As long as someone tells me they liked something I wrote, and I make enough moola to buy some chocolate, I’m a happy camper. :)

    • thank you, Casey! It’s definitely rewarding to know people are reading our work, no doubt. and I certainly didn’t share to make anyone feel bad. With my first book in 2011, I was thrilled to sell more than 10 copies per month.

      It’s definitely a slow build, a marathon, all those cliches that ring true. If you’re a good writer (and you ARE), you’ll build also. I can’t tell you the difference a backlist made for me, as well as advertising.

      I love interacting with you and believe in your talent. And hey, Godiva is awesome. xx

  18. Rachel,

    Great post! I never ask other authors how many copies they’re selling because it seems too much like, “How much money do you make?”

    My current book is selling a lot better than my previous three. I suspect it’s the genre, price, and serialized format.

    Thanks for providing this data and dose of reality.

    • thanks for reading, Nina! You’re a talented writer and go-getter. I knew that when I first met you (live, in NYC, it’s Nina and Rachel!). You were so quiet. You had me FOOLED. :))

      Yea, it’s a good dose of reality for any author, especially the ones who (like Ross mentions, below) expect to retire on the sales of one book. I plan to definitely dig deeper with more authors for actual numbers for a future article. It’s good data to know.

  19. You.are.terrific. Wise words.

    eden

  20. I never cease to be amazed by people who say, I’m going to write a book. Then I’ll promote it on some talk shows. I’m sure it will be a best seller. I already have the title.

    hahahahahahahahahaha

    Love,
    Janie

  21. Thanks so much for the insight. This is a great realistic look into the financial rewards of indie writers. My son, who has a voracious appetite for reading, expressed interest in writing a book for early readers recently and I am doing all I can to help see his dream a reality. He is doing it for the love of storytelling, but adds making a little money off it would be nice.

    • Hi Heather — it’s wonderful that he has that gift and desire. I think if anyone goes into it expecting to make millions, they’ll be in for a great disappointment. Not that he won’t (or that I won’t someday), but it’s good to know and study the market and learn about our readers and how to best connect with them.

      I wish you both the best and if I can help in answering any questions, let me know.

  22. Good grief! Great information. Rachel, you are a whiz kid. I actually BOUGHT A NEW PAIR OF SHOES with this month’s royalties. What.

    • Hey, every girl needs a new pair of shoes.

      I keep hoping I’ll get to the point of having fun money — you’re fortunately past the child-rearing stage, Molly, and able to enjoy your fun money! Good for you.

  23. Compared to the whole, few writers earn enough money to support themselves from their writing—meaning pay rent/mortgage, put food on table, fill gas tank, pay utilities, etc. Most published writers/authors usually have an average real-world job or a spouse/partner who supports the dream. This goes for most traditional and self-published authors.

    For example, the authors who write award winning literature usually end up teaching in an MFA program. There are several hundred of these programs in the US offering jobs to probably a few thousand of the most talented authors—-meaning authors who have won reputable, juried lit awards for their work.

    For those who do not win these awards, there is always teaching English or another subject like history [these are usually the biggest departments] in the public schools.

    Then there are the authors like me who refused to give up and eventually put in so many years working an average job with a monthly pay check, he or she now gets paid not to work through a retirement plan. For me, that retirement plan is CalSTRS, and it is much better than Social Security.

    I started working at age 15 washing dishes in a department store coffee shop; served in the U.S. Marines; fought in Vietnam, and retired from teaching in the public schools at sixty. During forty of those years, I never gave up my goals to become a published author earning a BA in journalism on the GI Bill to improve my writing skills; then a teaching credential so I could teach and earn enough to survive; then an MFA part time over several years while teaching days; then several years attending writing workshops out of UCLA’s extension program, etc.

    Today, the sales of my published work supplements my teacher’s retirement adding 10% to 33% to my monthly income in royalties.

    Here’s one way to gauge how tough it is to earn enough money as an author to support yourself off just those earnings:

    To be considered a mid list fiction author, a book has to sell about 5,000 copies. For nonfiction, that number is about 7,500. Could you survive off the royalties of those sales numbers?

    The average traditional book sells 250 copies its first year and 3,000 in its lifetime. For self-published authors. that number drops to 80 books for a lifetime of sales for one title. That is the average. Think of all the books that fall below that average and the fact that books sold by best selling authors like J K Rowling and Steven King are also figured into those numbers.

    The competition for readers is tough and if an author doesn’t have a powerful love of writing—actually an addiction to writing—he or she might want to find another way to earn money.

    By the way, my wife—-also a published author—is one of the few that makes a living off her work—almost thirty years now. Her books have sold more than a million copies in English and have been translated into more than 30 languages. Several of her titles were optioned for film but none were ever produced.

    • wow, all great information and thank you for sharing, Lloyd. Thank you for your service and your dedication to writing is impressive. And kudos to your wife — definitely a goal for any author.

      I definitely appreciate you sharing the specific numbers also — having sales data is helpful for business and goal planning for any author. It takes the ‘pie in the sky’ dreams and helps make them quite real.

      Like you, I work full-time (on my own business), which brings in more than writing does. We (as a family of four) could never survive on one or the other — even plus my husband’s income. And even then, we’re stretched tightly to provide. It’s hard work to create good work, and then to sell that work. But as you say, if we didn’t love it (or weren’t addicted to it), we’d never bother.

      Be well, friend.

  24. This post is fabulous! Thank you so much, both for listing actual numbers and what that means, but also for making it clear what work you do on your end to promote. It really is so helpful to understand what it takes to be even marginally successful as an indie writer, and it’s rare to find someone who will talk about money. I’m going to link to this article on my editing site so when people ask about the difference between self publishing and traditional publishing there is another source for them. Thank you!

    • Thank you, Lori! So happy to provide what I can. It’s just a glimpse, of course, into one author — many others have, I’m sure, quite different stories. I appreciate you wanting to link to it — fine by me and thank you.

      In fact, I’m researching further to provide more data for an upcoming article on my ‘BadRedhead Says…’ column for the San Francisco Book Review. I’ll share that when it’s done.

  25. I’m impressed.
    I’m not earning anything like that but it brings in more than my part time teaching job did, and it’s less stressful! That said, it’s my sole personal income these days, and given that my state of health has suddenly done a serious nose dive, I’m unlikely to find another job in the near future I can actually do while wearing pyjamas and being almost brain dead.
    Another factor for slowing of sales (something I have experienced in the last 9 months) is simply the vast number of books out there. UK Kindle has over 2 million. Logically, the market share for a single author is likely to fall.
    I’m hoping that once I start to get the health issues under control, I may be able to improve things. I have a back catalogue of novels, and enough blog posts to cherry-pick the best ones for themed books. I’ll see what I can do between hospital visits!
    And thank you for breaking it down and sharing the figures. revealing and helpful.

    • Thanks for commenting, Viv. SO sorry about your health! That’s awful.

      Having a backlist will absolutely help you. And as more and more writers enter the market, branding ourselves to stand out becomes even more important.

      It seems impressive, but it’s not enough to live on (for a family of four). That’s why I started my own business (to help authors learn what I have), and make use of all those 15+ odd years of soul-sucking pharma sales and marketing. At least it’s helping me now!

      good luck, sweet, in all aspects.

  26. Great post! I have only released one book (sold only 14 copies so far, but at least I’ve sold some!) and I have to keep reminding myself that I’m lucky to have been able to finish a book and that is quite a feat. I would love to one day be able to quit work and just write, but it most likely will never happen. That’s not a bad thing, that’s just life for most authors.

    Still, to be able to write and love doing it is a reward in and of itself. I certainly wouldn’t complain if I made $20,000 in a year though!

    • Quite welcome. Remember, if you get to $20,000 that’s your gross. So deduct all the expenses plus taxes and you’re lucky to walk away with 25-50%. That’s the main reason I did this article. What sounds like A LOT becomes much less in our day to day existence.

      Not to discourage you! or anyone else. Just sharing the reality of it all. We have to love it to do it, right?

      BEST of luck!

  27. A lot of great info here, thanks! I have been considering switching from my free WordPress blog to the .org version. How difficult is it to make that switch? Would you recommend that an author hire someone to make the transition? Or is it relatively simple?

  28. Fabulous post.

  29. Thank you for sharing this information. I always wonder about the sales for indie authors, but it’s so rude to ask about money, so I appreciate your candor. I’m still wrestling with whether I want the ‘freedom’ of indie publishing or trying the traditional route, so it helps to have more facts to help with that decision.

    • Thank you, Jocelyn. I’m happy to share. Obviously, it’s different for everyone, but I can tell you that the traditionally pub’d clients I have still are doing their own publicity and social media. They get better distribution and visibility in the publishing community, but for online presence, it’s ALL on them, and they make 10-20%, whereas indie authors make 70%.

      It’s an investment though — it costs money to produce a wonderful quality book. Having options is a great thing!

  30. Jacqueline says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I’m a recently published indie author and I’m still trying to find my footing, especially as far as marketing is concerned. I went through and liked/followed you on most of your social media sites. I hope you don’t mind! Thank you again!

  31. Thank you for this very candid perspective. It’s sobering to read how many expenses you have to assist in earning the gross. I hope this next year gets better for all of us!! For now I am still thrilled with the ability to get my work out into the world and even “pizza money” is celebrated. :)

    • Quite welcome, Billie. thank you for reading and commenting.

      I KNEW I recognized your name — The Meaning Of Isolated Objects is on my Kindle and I’m SO impressed. *major kudos* Cover looks different — I got it awhile back and am thoroughly enjoying it.

      Back to this topic: yes, it’s quite sobering. And I realized after I wrote it that I didn’t include book trailer costs — so I will likely do an update at some point! But yes, we have to write because we love it. The dream is to be Stephen King or Anne Rice, but the reality is it’s difficult to attain those heights. As I’m sure it is with any writer, we love when anyone reads and enjoys our work! That is a huge success in and of itself.

      I wish you more success and promise to write a review when I’m done. I have a long plane ride tomorrow, so here’s hoping I will be able to read in peace.

      xx

  32. Rachel,
    This is such an excellent article. Its inspirational while so informative. I loved it. I’m printing it so I can re-read it often. Your breaking costs down is so realistic and gives people a way to manage expectations and build a budget as well. Thank-you. I know you probably get millions of questions but do you like Hootsuite best for social media? Time management is also such a factor, for example “Do I work in the rose garden and photograph what I write about?” or “write about what I grow and photograph?” Or get caught up promoting and reading social media?” Thank-you again. I think you must be the most amazing time manager.
    Also are you saying AdWordsGuy is your husband?
    Regards,
    Susan Fox
    aka Gaga’s Garden

    • Hi Susan! Thanks so much for the kind words.

      Yes, AdWordsGuy.com is my husband, JP. He started doing my adwords years ago and has become so adept at it, he now does it for dozens of author clients.

      As for time management, I use programs like Hootsuite, Pluggio, and ManageFlitter to schedule, follow/unfollow, and curate articles, quotes, and pix, so my streams and wall doesn’t become all ME ME ME!

      Honestly, if you schedule in your writing time and your marketing time daily, it’s much easier. As in, write it in your planner or schedule. That practice works best for me.

  33. Most depressing article I’ve read this year (no offence to the author- you’re only relating what is). My take-away from this? ‘Literary pursuits in the teens of the 21st century was a self-defeating enigma’ … or that’s how I imagine the historical record will perceive it. It’s kind of sick, really. Authors who ‘get it’ are leaning more and more toward learning the craft of promoting (social, paid, or otherwise) and less and less toward the development of writing itself. I mean seriously- think about it candidly for a minute. With only so many hours in the day, and given the ‘numbers’ described by so many above, where can there actually be an equilibrium? Something is going to suffer. The math is simple: if you spend the bulk of your time becoming a Google Adwords Sage, or a Social Media Guru, then what are you at the end of the day? Are you an author who does a little promoting or are you a promoter who does a little writing? It’s this blurred line that is killing– hold on, let me write that word again, and in all caps this time, for emphasis – ‘KILLING’ the art of authorship.

    To many, it may be deemed a fair-enough trade; but don’t kid yourselves. If aspiring barbers spent the bulk of their day twittering about their barbershops and only briefly did hair… soon, we’d be a nation of people walking around with bad haircuts. I don’t blame us for this mess. I think it started long ago when big publishers decided that sorting through the slush pile was just ‘too labor intensive.’ So in typical Wall Street (also in NYC) fashion they began to figure out ways to farm-out the dirty work (agents), to squeeze out a few more dollars (voice takes a backseat), and standardize the product for greater efficiency (the F-word, ‘Formula Fiction’). In the wake of that mayhem, what are we left with? …Yeah. Exactly.

    I wish I had an answer for the problem, but I don’t. Like I said, I find it totally depressing. So do I hop onboard and become a gifted Social Promoter, spewing out a steady (if not thoughtless) stream of series fiction books just that I might placate my position as yet another mediocre (or worse) author of our current age? I think not. To me, it’s just an alternate way of selling one’s soul. Instead, I’ll remain hopeful. Who knows! Maybe sometime in the not so distant future there will be a literary renaissance. It’s happened before. Maybe historians will search out all those ‘under-promoted’ books of our era and discover some real gems. In all likelihood, I will never know if something like that comes about… but my grandchildren might. In the meanwhile, I can find my satisfaction in the handful of people who actually find my book and whose lives are touched by it in some meaningful way. Either that or I can volunteer my free time at my local homeless shelter- as time better spent. Oh- and yeah- it looks like I’ll be keeping my day job.

    • Thanks for your reply, Tony. I realize it can seem depressing, but to me, it’s not. For one main reason: I don’t base my success as an author solely on how much money I make. I take great satisfaction in creating a top-selling book that has resonated with many survivors of childhood sexual abuse. As you say, I’m honored to have touched others in some meaningful way. If only money defined me as an author, I would be kinda bummed, for sure.

      Not to say that sales and dollars earned aren’t important, because they clearly are. My goal is always to share my experiences with others — both the positive and the negative.

      I also love helping others learn how to manage their time with regard to social media and marketing — because you’re right, we absolutely have to focus first on the quality of the craft. Without a great, well-put together book, we’d have nothing to sell at all. It’s not either/or — it’s both, as any author will tell you, whether indie or trad’l. But we are fooling ourselves if we think that just because we build it, they will come.

      I did the soul-sucking thing (pharma, 15 years) so I feel well acquainted with my own limits regarding selling. But if we don’t treat out writing career AS a career, we’re not being realistic. Even artists and musicians have to sell their art to eat. Why should we be any different?

      Regardless, your response is thought-provoking and I appreciate you sharing your views. Thank you!

    • I don’t think anyone should be discouraged by this article. I think it is a realistic look. Very few people, if anyone, will publish one book and be an overnight success. I think a lot of people get into indie publishing thinking they will. Personally, I have been indie publishing for 2.5 year and this year in June I left my day job. I will make six figures this year in book sales from self-publishing. It is hard work and takes a lot of dedication and determination beyond that which reasonable to most people.

      • Thank you, Liz! Your books are fabulous — I’m so glad you’re making a great living at it.

        I’m always a little shocked when someone tells me they’ve quit their day job to write full-time — without any online presence or books to their credit. It’s completely unrealistic, and I’m not sure why people think there’s a ton of money it. Sure, if you’re Stephen King, maybe. But wow, he’s incredibly prolific! Hundreds if not thousands of works out there!

        I’m thrilled you stopped by and would welcome any advice you have for authors — a guest post maybe at some point? I’ll email you.

        xx

  34. One thing I’ve heard that makes a lot of sense to me is that it takes about five books before an indie writer can start to see a steady (modest) income. Looking at the degree by which your earnings grew over three years, do you think that calculation sounds accurate?

    Also, tks for the breakdown incl. the advertising info. Definitely useful.

    • haha, great line about the OC — technically, I haven’t been in the OC for over a year now but I’m stuck with the name.

      Five books sounds about right, though it’s by no means a ‘magic formula’ – though I will agree that yes, my latest book BROKEN PIECES is by FAR my biggest money-earner ever. I also feel it’s the best book I’ve done so far — we all get better (hopefully) the longer we’re in it and the more we learn.

      Part of that equation is understanding that very few debut books (by an indie author) will result in millions of sales. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, etc. If we look at Gladwell’s ’10,000 hour’ principle, we’ve got a ways to go to be considered an expert or even accomplished. Having realistic expectations is an important part of being an author….for anyone.

      thanks so much for contributing to the discussion!

  35. That seems like a huge chunk of money for Google AdWords, 20% of profit. Do you think it has had an equivalent job boosting sales. I heard about you through social media.

    • Many people are hesitant to spend money on advertising because it seems like a lot. I have to sell over 100 books monthly to pay for my ads (which I most definitely do — usually 300-400/month). But the importance of Google AdWords is the direct effect on Amazon and search ranking.

      Type in ‘book club books’ on Amazon and BROKEN PIECES comes up #3 (at the moment) out of ALL the other book club books on Amazon. I couldn’t ask for better exposure! Here’s the link so you can see it: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Ddigital-text&field-keywords=book+club+books+

      Regardless, I started out spending maybe $3-5/day with my first book. Advertising is a critical part of any author platform. Most authors should expect to spend anywhere from $1000-$5000 on ads per year, according to McGregor (Chip). I do adjust also — on a short sales month, I spend less. Nothing is set in stone.

      And it still stands that the best way to sell more books is to write your next one.

      good luck!

      Rachel

  36. I get by on half of what you make (barely), and my margins are razor thin. A single bad month would probably have me out on the streets, and I have nothing left over for promotion. I don’t know that I’d pay for it even if I did.

    This isn’t entirely by choice; while I am grateful to make a living entirely by my writing, I started self-publishing because I wasn’t getting any temp or freelance work. Still, I’m not homeless anymore, and I’m not starving to death, so I’ve got that going for me.

    • I’m so glad it’s working for you, Michael! I’m so glad you’re not homeless or starving, too :). #hugs

      If it was just me to support, it would be a lot. But given that I’m the breadwinner for my family of four, it doesn’t stretch as far. Rent alone takes most of it, and we now live in Northern California, in a small town where the rent is half of what it was in So Cal (for which I’m grateful).

      The point is that we all have expenses and we all have different ways to spend whatever profit we do earn. Fortunately, my business is promotion for authors, so I can do theirs while I do my own. It all works out.

      best of luck!

  37. Lisa Hagerty says:

    I’m a newly published indie author (December 24th) and I published a novel, novella and short story at the same time to hopefully take advantage of the Amazon logarithms. From the 24th-31st, I sold 14 books total. YTD (i.e. 5 days) I’ve sold 9 more. I lost my job in September, which is how I’ve had the extra time to write all that, but it’s obvious to me I have to find another!

    • Those are decent sales numbers for your first-time out, but not enough to support you. I’m 3 books in and still have my day job (it is my own business and I work with authors, which is amazing and I love it!). Every author dreams of the day where all we do is write, but until then, we have to face reality and live our lives, pay our bills, eat food — ya know. :)

      You’ll get there. Just have a plan and keep writing.

  38. Thanks, Rachel, and everyone else who responded. As someone who comes from the accounting profession, it’s nice to see some hard numbers attached to indie income. I would actually be interested (after tax season) in putting together a formal study on these figures (including actual tax ramifications). Would you mind if I borrowed this information?

    • not at all! that’s great.

      Not sure if you saw my guests Liz Schulte and Steena Holmes also — they’ve made for more and share specific numbers also. Could be helpful as well.

      thx

  39. I’ve made the equivalent of about $10 in 14 months … that doesn’t even cover how much it’s cost me in books on how to market my book!

    • It certainly can be frustrating. I always encourage authors to look at the big picture: it’s not just social media, or blogging, or advertising, or great reviews, or promotions, or email newsletters, or price: it’s a combo of all of it.

      And the biggest sales factor (I’ve found), is to write your next book.

      good luck! hang in there.

  40. Paul Magno says:

    Very informative…The one question I have is regarding Google Adwords.

    I’ve used Adwords before, so I’m familiar with the process. My question is whether you can link the Google ad directly to your Amazon book page or if you need a blog. It would seem that for a 2.99 book, Google Adwords may not be cost effective, especially if you ad in the cost of a blog and the time needed to create content for that blog.

    Thanks in advance

  41. Somehow you knew I needed to read this today! It so deeply resonates with where I’m at. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and practical tips. There’s so much to gush over, but this tip: “…to schedule in articles and blog posts, while still live interacting as a reward for hitting your daily writing goal.” Is brilliant. I love a reward system so as to not blow the day flipping on and off twitter. (ha ha!) Thanks for all that you do and I look forward to digging through some of your other articles (after I finish writing this chapter ;)
    Cheers!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Self-published authors should check out Smashword’s Mark Coker’s presentation about getting the most out of Apple’s iBookstore. Meanwhile, Rachel Thompson takes a hard look at how much an indie author can realistically make. […]

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  7. […] month I wrote a post showing my sale numbers and other numbers a few authors have shared with me. Today I have the […]

  8. […] read a particularly brilliant article today, How much Can Indie Authors Realistically Make? by Rachel Thompson who sums up the numbers you are more likely to see. Basic moral of the story? Don’t quit your […]

  9. […] Rachel Thompson – How Much Can Indie Authors Realistically Make Molly Greene – When Sales are Slow Toby Neal – Are Indies Getting Clobbered by Big Name Ebook Discounts Digital Book World – Self Publishing Debate – Writing Income  […]

  10. […] to push herself to do more. She also works tirelessly to help other authors do the same. In a post on her blog, she breaks down her sales and expenses, but leaves us with this amazing piece of advice […]

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  12. […] read a particularly brilliant article today, How much Can Indie Authors Realistically Make? by Rachel Thompson who sums up the numbers you are more likely to see. Basic moral of the story? Don’t quit your […]

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