There are a lot of popular misconceptions about book publishing. I think these are not so much due to not understanding the process but more in terms of understanding the magnitudes of the numbers involved.

Disclaimer: I may even get some of the numbers below wrong!

In the US alone, more than 200,000 books are published annually!

This essentially means that randomly coming across a new book is like finding a needle in a haystack when you’re not really searching. This means that new books don’t automatically appear on the shelves in book stores(*) or libraries. If they go there, somebody made it happen.

(*) If you know a sympathetic book store, coffee shop, cafe’, novelty store, traveling circus, etc. owner, there’s a way to get the ERE book at wholesale prices. However, it won’t be possible to return unsold copies, which makes it a very tough sell in most bookstores.

Most books you actually see are selected and chosen much like blockbuster movies. They are written at what presumably is a 3rd grade reading level and details the story of some celebrity. This is the stuff most people want to read. Book publishers work on the same principles as venture capitalism. A lot of money is invested in many different books. About 85% of all published books don’t earn their author advance back. It is hoped that the other 15% make up for that.

Author advances vary widely. If you’re a movie star, a previously successful author, or Oprah likes you, advances can be in the six-digits.

An unknown first time author (like me) could expect to get something like a $2-3000 advance and should be happy about it. Given the numbers above, it is quite unlikely that the author will ever see more than that.

This makes for a very poor hourly wage. For example, I spent an estimated 2500 hours writing the ERE book.

Another common misconception is how much an author actually makes in royalties. Typical numbers are 5-8% of the list price. The rest goes to the publisher, the distributor, and the end point of sale. As far as I understand, these take an almost equal cut each.

It’s thus easy to compute that if the advance is $2000, the book costs $15-20, and the author doesn’t make his advance, the average book sells around 2000 copies during it’s lifetime.

A reader posted a comment that if a book sells more than 1000 copies per year, it’s doing better than 96% of all books. That’s my goal, then.

I chose to self-publish, so for me the situation is a little different. First of all, I don’t have a marketing department. However, one of the points I realized was that if a publisher publishes several hundred books annually, how much time are they going to spend hawking your book anyway. Hence, selling is very much left to the author.

I very quickly discovered that books don’t sell themselves. I naively hit the publish button expecting 500 sales within the first day or two, since the book had been widely expected on the blog. Over the course of the first three days, I sold under 100 books. One week later, I had my first day with 1 sale. The day after, I had no sales.

This was quite below my expectations and somewhat depressing. I subsequently lowered my expectations, and now I feel much better thank you 🙂

Then the book appeared on amazon. I made a post about it and noticed that sales came back. Both on amazon and on the e-store. In fact I very quickly noticed a correlation between me talking about the book and people buying it.

The book needed to be marketed.

Of course this annoyed some people—possibly because they have/had the same expectations about how the book should sell itself as I did for the first 5 days—but it’s mostly accepted by anyone else: Books have to be marketed by their authors.

I’m currently doing what I can. I have now fully realized why the book publication process has “write the book” listed as being the easy first step.

If you actually want people to read your book, you have to do a lot more work. I also think you can’t just get out of the work by giving it away. If you do that, people are just going to file it in their download folder. I have downloaded plenty of free stuff that’s gone unread. Freebies aren’t going to give you a “free out of marketing” card.

In terms of the financial side, self-publishing is also different. I chose print on demand because, most importantly, I reserve all rights. Also I don’t have to pay upfront for an offset print run of 2000 copies. This prevents me from having to store 20 boxes of books in a basement I don’t have. It does make the unit cost of the book higher.

Also, I did not get an advance. On the other hand, I keep more of the royalty, actually a lot more.

My royalty depends on how the book is sold. It basically goes like this

  • Createspace: $12.26
  • $8.27
  • Everywhere else: $4.28
  • Kindle in the US or UK: 70% of the sales price whatever it is.
  • Kindle everywhere else: 35% of the sales price.

Since most people buy on and 2/5 buy the kindle version, I make about $7 per book sold.

As you can see, this is WAYYYYY better than the traditional publishing route.

I bet you really want some hard numbers.

As of today, I have sold 397 copies + a potential number of extras in the “everywhere else” channel which I won’t know until next month.

I have made about $2800 in the self-employed pre-tax sense. Due to our tax bracket (DW’s work), you can take off 40% of that to the various “Uncles” (10% state, 15% fed, 15% social security), which leaves me $1700 after tax.

I have no idea how sales will go in the future. Amazon dropping the price by 28% yesterday certainly helped. Until then I had been selling about 5 books per day, but the drop significantly boosted sales.

As you can see, writing books is not going to make you rich. I’d probably make 5 times more in terms of hours spent by flipping burgers.

There are essentially three ways, that you can make it as an author(*)

  • Get on Oprah.
  • Write a large number of books (a few dozen). The trickle from all of them combined would make it possible to make a living as an author. Also it increases your odds of one of the books “winning the lottery”. Once this happens ,expect your other books to pick up too.
  • Write e-books. You get 100% of the royalty. If you’re in the right market and you got your marketing down, people are easily willing to pay $30-70 dollars for something that only requires a few hundred hours of your effort. You wont make many sales, but due to the huge markup, you don’t need to. You just need to write a new one every few months.

(*) I define author as having written a stand-alone text. For instance, I wouldn’t call a journalist or a blogger an author under those terms. I know this definition is fuzzy.

Of course only lunatics become authors to get rich. For most, I believe it’s still a question of status and recognition whether that be from others or from themselves. For me, self-publishing a 100% authored book would be the natural next step up having already contributed to other books and magazines. I also feel that it serves as a substantial validation of my work that people are willing to pay to read what I’ve written. I don’t think I’d want to go the traditional publishing route even if someone made the offer, so beyond this, Oprah! 😀

Much thanks to BB for the donation!