INDIE BOOK SALES
If you self-publish a book, how many copies should you expect to sell?
To me, this number is much higher than many of the popular numbers floating around. I will try to explain why I believe this.
The most popular estimate to throw around may be 100 books. Not per month. Not per year. Ever.
Other popular estimates are somewhere between 300 and 700.
I believe that any committed author should expect to sell much more than this in the long run, and I also believe that most committed authors either do or will.
BOOK SALE ESTIMATES
There are many ways to estimate the average number of books that an indie author sells by analyzing data that’s available.
You could study Amazon sales ranks, both Kindle and print. Sales rank interpretation, though, isn’t quite as easy as it seems. There are seasonal effects; as the number of books grows, books with higher sales ranks sell more frequently than they used to; Amazon often changes the algorithm, etc. Still, this can give you a general estimate that will be in the ballpark.
Then there comes the issue of which books are indie books? There are various ways to do this, such as that used for the Author Earnings Report.
But those are just Amazon sales. Many authors are getting sales from Nook, Kobo, Smashwords, and other online retailers. Many are selling in bookstores. Others sell effectively in person, such as at conferences, readings, signings, etc. These numbers are significant, especially for the many indie authors who effectively market their books through other sales channels.
So the first thing to realize is that there are hidden sales that many of the estimates don’t consider.
There are other ways to go about estimating indie book sales, but no matter what, it’s hard to account for direct sales, which are significant for some authors, so there will always be hidden numbers.
The hidden sales aren’t what I wish to focus on, however.
AVERAGE INDIE SALES
Let’s look at this word ‘average’ in the context of:
How many copies will the average self-published book sell?
To me, it’s not useful to average ALL self-published books.
Include all self-published books if you wish to pat yourself on the back for beating that number, or if you wish to discourage authors from self-publishing.
If I wish to set a good benchmark to aim for, there are many books that I would exclude from the list:
- Many book ideas, unfortunately, have very little potential no matter how well they are carried out. There are just some topics that some people don’t want to read. Do you really wish to compare yourself to a genealogy intended for family members, for example? It’s not just genealogy. There are many kinds of books that are popular to write, but can’t be expected to have much audience. (At least the genealogies may sell to family members.)
- How about those ‘authors’—if you can call them that—who view writing as a get-rich-quick-with-little-effort scheme, publishing pamphlets. Is this a realistic comparison?
- Even many ‘real’ writers have published experiments, such as short stories and novellas, putting little effort into the book, hoping to learn something from the sales (or probable lack thereof). Surely, this shouldn’t be factored into setting a benchmark.
- Then there are books with major issues with the storyline, plot, characterization, spelling, punctuation, grammar, flow, writing style, formatting, etc.—I’m thinking of those so drastic as to greatly deter sales.
- Suppose that you have a fantastic cover. Should you compare your book to those whose covers convey the wrong genre? It seems like other books that clearly signify the content would provide better expectations.
- Similarly, if you have some great marketing plans or prior marketing experience, should you compare yourself to all the newbie authors who do virtually no marketing, or whose marketing makes very little impact?
- Are you a committed author, planning to create several quality books? Then don’t look at the one-book wonders (i.e. an author only wrote a single book) for your basis.
- We can come up with other books that you might wish to remove from the ‘average.’
Do you want to compare your sales to those books? If not, you might also wish to exclude these from the ‘average.’
Think of it this way. Suppose your dream is to be a professional baseball player, and you’re motivated to work so hard that you’ll settle for nothing less than the major leagues. Do you want to know what the average professional baseball player makes, including minor leaguers? Or do you want to know what the average major league player makes?
(For the record, I don’t view traditional publishing as the major leagues and indie publishing as the minor leagues. I see many successful pros in the indie league, and I see many pros playing both leagues.)
If you remove all those books from the ‘average,’ I believe that you’ll find that the average indie author makes MUCH more than $1000.
If you want to look at the cream of the crop, if you want to confine yourself to Amazon, for example, you should be looking at author ranks of about 10,000 or less. I’ll return to this figure later.
AUTHORS VS. BOOKS
There is yet another important point to consider.
Most successful self-published authors write several books.
So if you want to know what an indie author makes, that’s far different from looking at what a typical indie book makes.
First of all, authors who write several similar books sell many more copies of each book than authors who just publish one book.
Then, whatever they make per book, multiply that by the total number of books, which may be 5 or 10, but is often 20, 30, 50, or more.
This opens the door for many authors who only make $500 per book. Publish 20 books and you make $10,000. Plus, every book you publish helps generate sales for your other books.
Multi-book authors tend to do more effective marketing. It’s simple, really. Whatever marketing they do has the potential to bring dozens of sales from a single customer, instead of just one.
Series authors have a marketing advantage, too.
In May of 2014, an author rank fluctuating between 5,000 and 10,000 would have sold 1,000 or more books for that month. I know this from author ranks that I’ve studied firsthand, and I’ve also discussed this figure with other successful authors.
On top of this, there are several authors with mild success writing in two or more names (using pen names). So, for example, an author can have two or more author names with an author rank of 20,000 or better, and may still be selling 1,000 books per month.
At a modest $2 royalty, which many indie authors make, you only need to sell 500 books to make $1,000 per month, which is $10,000 per year if you can do it consistently.
Personally, I think all committed authors should aim for an author rank of 10,000 or less—not just to get there, but to sustain it long-term.
Let me stress the long-term part. It could be several years down the line. I’ll give you another goal to work on first, in the next section.
Of course, the number of published books and authors is growing rapidly. Not too far in the distant future, an author rank of 20,000 or higher will yield sales of 1,000 or more books per month. As the number of books grows, it’s worth adjusting one’s aim to 20,000 or more, as appropriate.
Most authors aren’t going to achieve success right off the bat, and even those who do struggle to maintain that success.
The way to sell 1,000 books per month is to first sell 100 books per month. Set attainable goals first, then increase these goals when you reach them. After 100 per month, aim for 200 per month, then 500 per month, and then you can finally aim for 1,000 per month.
It takes time, thought, research, inspiration, and some talent to produce quality content.
One book usually isn’t enough in modern times. It takes a great deal of time to produce a half dozen or more quality, marketable products.
It takes time to develop a professional online platform. It takes time to learn effective marketing strategies. And the marketing tends to be more effective when you have more books worth marketing.
Plan for long-term success.
Think 100 books when you start out. No, don’t expect this in Month 1. It might take a year, or a few years. But keep working to get to 100 books per month. Then you can start thinking about higher goals. It may take many years to reach long-term success. Think long-term, as it’s within your reach.
If you expect immediate results, you’re likely to be one of the many authors who get discouraged and give up prematurely.
At the same time, you need to get good evaluations of your writing style and storytelling, and you need to research what makes a book marketable. Not every book sells, so if you want to be a successful author, you need to ensure that you’re writing books with good long-term potential.
People like to throw out small numbers for how well the average indie book sells.
As I mentioned, I believe the average committed indie author makes much more than this figure.
But the truth is that the average traditionally published book doesn’t sell much either.
You’d hope to easily sell 10,000. You dream about 50,000, 100,000, or 1,000,000.
But very many don’t sell 1,000. Just being traditionally published doesn’t make the book marketable or in-demand.
However, we could similarly throw out the lowest-selling traditionally published books for various reasons, just as I did for indie books. If you have a large following or great marketing plans—perhaps a killer publicist who will surely book major league interviews and land great reviews—then you wouldn’t compare yourself to the average traditionally published author.
The biggest-name traditionally published books do sell with amazing sales frequencies.
Indie books do take up a large share of the market, especially among e-books, but for the top authors, traditional publishing offers great bookstore potential, and also reaches those customers who still prefer traditionally published books.
Famous traditionally published authors could surely self-publish and still be highly successful, perhaps more so:
- Already famous, surely much of their fan base would still support them.
- They can safely invest in professional editing, formatting, and cover design, so these really aren’t issues.
- They are more likely to get a return on reasonable marketing expenses, too.
- They can earn upwards of 70% royalties, rather than settling for 10 to 15%.
- They can price their books lower than many traditional publishers would allow, which may actually improve both sales and royalties, and also allows them to reach a wider audience.
- Now let me ask you this. Suppose you’re one of the most famous authors on the planet and you choose to self-publish. Are bookstores really going to close their doors to you and force your customers to buy online instead?
In fact, a few prominent traditionally published authors have made the switch.
Some authors also self-publish in pen names in addition to publishing traditionally. Perhaps they write more books than traditional publishers can accommodate. Or perhaps they want to prove to themselves that they could make it as indie authors, too.
I believe that many of the big-name authors from the past who succeeded as traditionally published authors could also thrive in today’s market as indie authors if they had been writers in today’s world instead. Not all would, of course, but those with a unique style and those who could really dazzle readers, wouldn’t they also thrive in today’s world, even as indie authors? Perhaps not all of the classics, especially literary works, but think about the more accessible reads, master storytellers (not literary wonders) that anyone can appreciate. I believe if they were really committed to indie publishing, they would thrive.
Copyright © 2014 Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers
- Volume 1 on formatting and publishing
- Volume 2 on marketability and marketing