What's a self-published indie novel really worth?

Posted on August 28, 2016 (Subscribe to Blog)

I spent part of this weekend catching up on the last seven months' worth of statistics and sales, and number crunching to find out where I am in terms of an early retirement plan. Hmm. Sadly, I'm nowhere near it yet. I'll have to write a LOT more books before I can give up my day job. That's okay, because writing a lot more books is what I intend anyway. The question is, how many more will I need to write before I can retire?

I suppose first you have to ask yourself what you call a decent amount to retire on. Everyone will have a different opinion on this, and it will depend on several factors like whether your house is paid off, if your spouse works or not, what kind of lifestyle you lead, and so on. But let's just pluck a figure from the air. Let's say $25,000 a year from book sales. Okay, that's not enough for someone to quit his day job, but it's not that black and white for me, because I wouldn't just give up my website business all at once; I'd keep it going with existing clients but maybe stop taking on new work, and let it peter off over many years. So I'd have residual income from that and a few other things I have going on in the background. So $25,000 is not really a "give up your day job" target, but it works for me.

Currently, though, I'm a long way off. I've always appreciated when authors are transparent about their sales, whether they're earning hundreds of thousands a year, or just a few hundred. It's interesting to me to matter what. So here we go with mine. Look at the previous three years, 2013-2015:

  • 2013
  • $11,920.00 – Amazon Digital Services
  • $191.54 – Barnes & Noble
  • $140.41 – CreateSpace
  • $418.91 – Draft2Digital
  • Total $12,670.86
  • 2014
  • $11,290.52 – Amazon Digital Services
  • $522.78 – Barnes & Noble
  • $369.09 – CreateSpace
  • $828.27 – Draft2Digital
  • Total $13,010.66
  • 2015
  • $9,976.00 – Amazon Digital Services
  • $368.42 – Audible.com
  • $377.97 – Barnes & Noble
  • $780.46 – CreateSpace
  • $1,263.52 – Draft2Digital
  • Total $12,766.37

Based on how books were selling, 2015 was actually looking to be more like $16,000 in total... but something happened around May that year. My Amazon US sales dropped from an average of 280 per month to a puzzling 134 per month. It wasn't a gradual decline. If you looked a sales graph, you'd see a steady, horizontal line for several years, then a sudden drop in May 2015, then a new steady, horizontal line a little lower down. It's puzzling. What happened? I did a lot of googling at the time, and I found lots of authors had been affected, so I can only assume Amazon "did something." (It's always Amazon's fault, right?)

The previous horizontal sales line was so steady and consistent that I could look ahead to the future and figure out exactly how many more books I would need to replace the income from new website design business. Well, I guess I can still do that... only now the landscape is a little greyer. Here's the figures SO FAR from 2016 (as at the end of August):

  • 2016 (Jan-Aug)
  • $3,583.28 – Amazon Digital Services
  • $154.04 – Audible.com
  • $96.32 – Barnes & Noble
  • $539.52 – CreateSpace
  • $394.64 – Draft2Digital
  • Total $4,755.36

If you extrapolate from that, I would expect this year's total to be around $7,200.00, which is significantly lower than it might have been a couple of years ago. Slightly less than half by my reckoning. Ugh.

I can't complain, though. And if I did, where would it get me? According to statistics, 90-95% of authors make less than a $100 a year on their books, with the remaining few percent making hundreds of thousands. The market is saturated with new authors. I'm lucky to be making what I am, and I know it. The thing about a novel is that you pour months of hard work into creating it, and for what? A few hundred bucks a year? Maybe so. But it's potentially a few hundred bucks a year forever, and when you have a large library of books, that can make a significant difference in your old age.

And don't forget, there's always the chance that a series will suddenly find its footing and take off, and then a few hundred dollars per book might turn into something far greater. That's what authors strive and hope for.

In the meantime, anyone wanting to "earn a quick buck with a quick book"... forget it!

So, based on these recent sales figures, let's figure out how many more books I need to write to make that target of $25,000 a year. Well, since I'm probably less than a third of the way there, obviously I need to triple my library, right? I have 19 books out now, or 20 including the Island of Fog omnibus – which means I need to write another 40 books or so.

Gulp.

If I publish 4 books a year, which is doable, that's another ten years of writing before I can stop taking on new website clients and just maintain my existing sites. If my sales hadn't halved the way they did last year, I could look forward to only five more years of writing instead of ten. But there you go.

Maybe I need to be smart about what I write going forward. Let's break this down and see what each book is actually worth:

  • Island of Fog – $840 per year for each new book
  • Sleep Writer – $100 per year for each new book
  • Island of Fog Chronicles – $102 per year for each new book
  • Island of Fog Legacies – $363 per year for each new book

It's difficult to get calculations exactly right for a variety of reasons. Naturally, over the past 12 months, I've sold more Island of Fog Book 2 ($1236) than Books 3-9 (from $953 down to $840 each), so I've based the above figures on the most recent book in the series, which will always logically be the lowest earner. Same with Sleep Writer and Island of Fog Legacies. The Chronicles are different, because they're independent, so I took a mean average of the two.

Still, you can clearly see which books are my bread-winners. The original Island of Fog books continue to earn the most by far. I think the Legacies books will pick up traction as the series grows, and I'm happy with the Chronicles books because they're fairly short and simple to create. But I'm disappointed with interest in the Sleep Writer series, which I had planned to write more of. I probably still will, but when you look at numbers like these and have to decide between writing a Legacies book for $363 a year or a Sleep Writer book for $100 a year... well, you know.

And as for the main Island of Fog series, I have to admit I'm tempted to write Book 10. Sales for those books is pretty consistent throughout the 9-book series, and it seems almost guaranteed that a Book 10 would be worth another $840 a year, and so on.

But should I write it simply because it earns more? Well, not if I couldn't do it justice – except that I know I could. I stopped writing those books only because I felt I'd told Hal's story and wanted a change of scene for a year or two. I've now had that change of scene, and I could go back to that series and continue with it, perhaps a year after Castle of Spells or something like that.

If I wrote ONLY Island of Fog books from now on, and they each earned the same amount of money as the others ($840 per year), then I'd need to write another 21 of them to reach my $25,000 a year. At 4 books a year, that would be five years of work. So that's a bit more promising!

Or I could continue with the Legacies books and also add a few Chronicles here and there.

Or all of the above.

Whichever way I look at it, at the current rate of sales I'd need to write part-time for at least another 5-10 years before I even think about turning away website work. Of course, it wouldn't happen that way. It'd be a gradual process, steadily more writing time versus less website design time, and more writing time would mean more books per year and more book sales, etc. And sales could increase or decrease at any time. It's all so unpredictable that this kind of number crunching only gives me the vaguest glimpse of what's around the corner.

But none of it really matters. I can't imagine life without writing.

What on earth would I do with my spare time?

Comment by ROGER ESCHBACHER on Sunday, August 28, 2016...

A fascinating (and sobering) post. With my sales, I'm guessing I'd have to write several thousand more books before I got anywhere near your "plucked from the air" figure. ;)

Good thing I, like you, can't imagine not writing. While any author hopes for the big breakout success, I'm grateful for the creative outlet that self-publishing provides. The thought that at least a few people are enjoying my scribbling keeps me going. Thanks for sharing, Keith!

Comment by ARANTZA on Sunday, August 28, 2016...

Have you looked into having them translated into other languages? That way you might get more money from the books.

A 10th Island of Fog book sounds like a winner.

Comment by GRAEME JENKS on Sunday, August 28, 2016...

To me, I would say that they are very decent numbers. Even when you change to pounds (for my benefit). But It does vary person to person i suppose. You would have to take into account your readers also. For example, I guess book sales would fall depending on household income and so fourth, which can change very fast these days. Either that or others have done the math and are holding back so you will keep writing more books. Either way you should be proud of your books and any money it brings you. Looking forward to the many many many many more books. Haha

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Sunday, August 28, 2016...

Graeme — yes, there are a ton of factors involved that can change the outlook for better or for worse. But right now, it's fun no matter what.

Arantza, I have considered having them translated, but it's an expensive business. I wish there was a way to just press a button and have an auto-translation, but you can imagine how pitiful that would be!

So that's at least one thumbs-up for an Island of Fog Book 10. :-)

Roger, your books are GREAT — but you're not exactly fast. I know, I know, you're too busy writing for My Little Pony and Scooby Doo, which is awesome. But several thousand more books at a pace of, what, one every few years? By my calculations, that's how long it would take for a new human civilization to rise from the ashes of some global catastrophe or other. By then, you should have a pretty good backlog. Hehe!

Comment by BRIAN CLOPPER on Sunday, August 28, 2016...

Very good post. It's always interesting to see such disclosure with your writing income.

I love writing and do it for the creative high. There is no end to what I want to do with my creativity. Writing 3-4 books a year while I teach full-time has been a pattern I've settled into easily over the past five years. I want to keep at it for at least a good twenty years. I already have 20 books out there and estimate another 10 years will double that amount.

My sales are not anywhere close to your sales, but each sale, each review that pops up that shows my work is a solid pat on the back.

Plus, more titles out there means an increased chance of something that pulls in a larger audience and could then generate demand for my other works. I am so glad I didn't stop after the first few books. The creative rewards far outweigh the trickle of sales right now.

Comment by DONNA on Sunday, August 28, 2016...

I am just a reader here, so I cannot give any input as to your finances, other than my small contribution to that income. LOL I have bought every book of yours so far except the Chronicles and Legacies books. The reason for that is that I am burned out on the Fog series. Nothing personal, and the writing continues to be your solid best, but I even put off reading the 8th, and then finally the 9th book, to finish up the series. Again, like I said, the writing is very consistent and good, but there is just so long that I can stay in any given world and not get bored. I imagine some day I may buy the Chronicles and Legacies books, but I cannot say for sure. Would I buy the 10th Island of Fog book... on the fence. If I did, I wouldn't read it right away, and it would probably mostly be because of my OCD that dictates I have all books in a series. Just being honest, and I love your writing as much now as I did when I discovered you on 11-29-2011 when I got the 1st Fog book for free. My husband and I read it and bought book 2 on 12-11-11, book 3 on 12-24-11 and book 4 on 12-29-11. I will assume book 5 wasn't out yet, because it wasn't until 9-15 12 that we bought it.

Anyway, we love your writing and your books, and I cannot imagine not reading your new stuff, as long as we can afford it. Keep up the good work!!!!

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Sunday, August 28, 2016...

Brian, we're about neck and neck when it comes to how many books we've written. It's funny how we're always starting and finishing one at about the same time. Let's hope that continues. :-)

Donna, thank you! That's valuable input. To be honest, that was one of the reasons I stopped the series after 9 books — because sometimes there can be too much of something. On the other hand, others clamor for more. So it's really difficult to know what's best.

One thing I will say is that my goal is (more than ever) to make every book I write a standalone story. I think the worst offense is to have an ongoing series (on TV or in print) where there's no resolution in sigh, just a continuing arc that never seems to end. Like a "whodunnit" murder-mystery where the writer draws out the conclusion as long as he can to the point that everyone is fed up. Or the "Lost" TV series where every week opened more questions.

But I think it's fine when each story/episode is complete in itself. Then the reader/viewer can stop at any point or keep going, their choice. Like putting on a comfortable sweater for a while.

I started the Sleep Writer series because I, too, wanted to move on from Island of Fog. But it didn't gain any traction. I love that series and want to write more, but it's hard to justify it when very few are reading it, especially when the Fog books are still selling consistently.

Ah, the struggles of an author. What to do, what to do... But thank you for your feedback here, and for being a fan for as long as you could muster! :-)

Comment by RALPH CORDEROY on Monday, August 29, 2016...

Thanks for the detail, Keith, very interesting. I expect others that also liked this post would appreciate a summary of what marketing efforts go along with achieving these sales, and whether you've plans to try anything different.

Comment by ARANTZA on Monday, August 29, 2016...

Hi Keith, I know how difficult translating can be to do a book justice. I have read many translated books and often thought I could have done a better job myself. I would like to work as a translator but never got the chance to get properly qualified. I would still love to translate your Island of Fog books into Spanish for you or at least just the first one to see how it goes. I'm Spanish, living in England, studied English Philology and I also count with my sister's input who studied Spanish Philology and is currently a Language and Literature secondary school teacher. So we both know a bit about words...

I'm confident I could do your books justice, I wouldn't even dream of offering otherwise. Think about it and let me know. ;)

Apologies if I've already posted this, unreliable mobile wifi while on holiday...

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Monday, August 29, 2016...

Ralph, I might do that marketing type post soon, though honestly I don't really so any marketing anymore. It all seems like a waste of money and time because there are just SO many authors vying for the spotlight.

Thanks for the offer, Arantza! Let me do some research on this. You'll certainly hear from me if I decide it's worth doing. I mean, it SHOULD be worth doing, but let me dig around and see. I'll email you separately from now on. Thank you!

Comment by MONICA G on Monday, August 29, 2016...

I say more, more, more! My whole family loves the Fog books. Any and all of them. I will never have enough of being immersed in that world, and actually find myself "homesick" for it from time to time. I am mentally leaping for joy at the prospect of a book 10 in the original series. Quite frankly, I miss Hal and our old motley crew. I say bring it on!

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Tuesday, August 30, 2016...

Haha! Maybe I should do a poll about this...

Comment by SALLY V. on Tuesday, September 6, 2016...

Good posting, Keith. As the author of three best-selling cookbooks here in Canada, it is always interesting to see the income of other authors - whatever their genre. My friends all assume my cookbooks have made me a rich woman. Ha ha. I currently earn an average of a few hundreds dollars a year on residual sales. There is no guarantee that sales of my books will continue. But, like you, I appreciate any financial reward for my writing endeavours. And like you, I won't be giving up the day job any time soon. By the way, I discovered your blog as I was looking for information on Enid Blyton. I am a British ex-pat who read many of her books as a child and to my own children when they were young. Best of luck with your future books.

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Tuesday, September 6, 2016...

Hi Sally, and thanks for the feedback! Hey, when people think you're selling more than you are, it means you're doing a good job of at least appearing to be a successful author. :-)

You could say it's deceptive saying, "My books are really popular right now, and reviews are great! Buy your copy now!" but the alternative is to say, "Sigh, nobody's buying my books, but maybe you will? Go on, earn me a few bucks. Please?" I think the second version will just turn people off.

Always good to meet another British ex-pat, not to mention an Enid Blyton fan!

Comment by BRIAN B. on Friday, September 23, 2016...

Very interesting. Enid Blyton wrote 21 Famous Five books. We all wish there were more. Learn from the master. ;-)

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