How Many Books Does an Indie Author Sell?

Bookshelf

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.

AUTHOR RANK

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.

PATIENCE

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.

TRADITIONAL PUBLISHERS

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.

Chris McMullen

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

How Can Kindle Unlimited Improve Your Sales?

More Sales

Kindle Unlimited

For $9.99 per month, customers can check out up to 10 Kindle e-books from an extensive library of 600,000 titles at Amazon. All books enrolled in KDP Select are participating (plus 100,000 others from mostly small presses). Authors will receive royalties in the form of KDP Select borrows. The July, 2014 KDP Global Fund has been increased to $2,000,000. You can read more about Kindle Unlimited by clicking here.

Authors need to decide whether to opt in or opt out of KDP Select. The big question to ask is whether or not participation in Kindle Unlimited will improve the book’s sales.

Obviously, some books will thrive in this program, others will not. The difficult question is predicting how your book will do. I will discuss the pros and cons of Kindle Unlimited by focusing on how it could improve sales, and then I will discuss the opposite.

How Can Kindle Unlimited Improve Your Sales?

  • Kindle Unlimited customers can download KDP Select books for free. They can store up to 10 borrowed books on their devices, then download more once they return any of those 10. Every time a customer downloads a book and reads past the 10% point, you receive a royalty. For Kindle Unlimited customers, your book is permanently free (well, they do pay $9.99 per month for the privilege) AND you earn a royalty when it’s read. Customers are looking for books to download.
  • Kindle Unlimited offers customers the opportunity to try newbie authors or indie authors without risk. Bad book? Doesn’t cost a penny. Just get a new one. There are hundreds of thousands of indie authors, though, so just because many customers will be trying out indie authors doesn’t mean you’ll be one of those authors. As always, you need good content, good packaging, and effective marketing to make the most of the opportunity.
  • KDP Select books that succeed in getting numerous downloads will have an advantage over books that aren’t in Kindle Unlimited. It allows indie books to compete with traditionally published book more than ever. Every download improves your sales rank. That improved sales rank helps you generate even more sales. Books that thrive in the program can reap many benefits. Not all books will thrive; the better your book, packaging, and marketing, the better your chances (but that’s true even if you opt out of KDP Select).
  • Another benefit of frequent downloads is more exposure through customers-also-bought lists. Kindle Unlimited naturally helps books that help themselves through good content and marketing.
  • More downloads also leads to more reviews. Some books won’t get additional downloads, so none of this will help those books (but for those books, opting out might not be any better). Kindle Unlimited puts a premium on writing the best book you can.
  • The best benefit of more downloads is for books with excellent word-of-mouth potential. Here is where Kindle Unlimited can really favor fantastic books. Succeed in getting frequent downloads in Kindle Unlimited, and if you also have great content, you may see a very significant long-term growth through word-of-mouth sales. Many books don’t succeed in generating word-of-mouth recommendations, but those that do can really take off.
  • If your book is perceived as a great value, Kindle Unlimited subscribers might be attracted to your book. Since they can get any book free, they aren’t shopping for the cheapest book—they’re shopping for the best value. Suddenly, a higher price seems like a better value (since it’s free, why not read higher-priced books?). In addition to price, they will look at the length of the book and the quality (it could be that longer books are a better value; time will tell). But with a higher list price comes higher expectations, and your book better deliver on those heightened expectations to thrive in the long run.
  • If you have a great book that customers want to keep, the customer might want to keep it permanently. The customer can only store up to 10 borrowed books on the device. When a customer cancels Kindle Unlimited, all the books disappear. So the customer might want to buy your book—as a sale through Kindle, or as a paperback. This way, in time, outstanding books may actually sell two copies to some customers (once as a KDP Select borrow, once as a sale).
  • Thousands of customers are using the free 30-day trial. When the trial ends, some will cancel their subscriptions. Now suppose they downloaded your book during the free trial period and wished they could continue reading it. Well, they can. Now they just have to buy it. Many books will actually earn two royalties in the first couple of months of the program because of this.
  • Like any tool, the tool itself might not have much value to you, but if you do effective marketing with the tool, it can pay significant dividends. Kindle Unlimited seems like it may be just like such tools. The more sales you drive through effective marketing, the more sales rank, reviews, and word-of-mouth sales can help your book. The quality of the book and packaging are important, too. For example, try using the #Free with #KindleUnlimited hashtags, or look for Facebook groups specifically for Kindle Unlimited, or show parents what a value Kindle Unlimited can be for their kids. Where there is a will…

Remember, just because it can improve sales doesn’t mean it will. Some books will thrive in the program, but others won’t.

Even if the KDP Select per-borrow royalty goes way down (it’s usually around $2), if you have more customers than usual, it may be a fair trade-off. Additional readers gives you:

  • Long-term potential for valuable word-of-mouth sales.
  • Improved sales rank.
  • More reviews, on average.
  • Greater exposure.

If your book enjoys any of these benefits, in the long run, it may even be worth staying in KDP Select even if your net income diminishes slightly.

And if you opt out, there’s no guarantee that will turn out to be any better. But it could be, so let’s look at the other side of the coin.

Could Kindle Unlimited Hurt Your Sales?

  • Well, if you choose to opt out KDP Select, any customers in Kindle Unlimited may be reluctant to buy your book when there are 600,000 others that they can get for free. But for the remaining bullet points, let me focus on how staying in KDP Select may actually hurt your sales, or where opting out may be the better option.
  • The biggest drawback of KDP Select still is, and always has been, exclusivity. You’re not allowed to publish the e-book edition of your book (or one similar to it) on Nook, Kobo, Smashwords, or anywhere else. Some books sell primarily on Amazon; those books will probably be better off in KDP Select than not. Other books sell 25% or more through other sales channels; for these books, it’s possible that exclusivity isn’t worth the sacrifice. Though Kindle Unlimited may squeeze Kindle’s competition, reducing the potential to draw sales from other channels.
  • If your book doesn’t thrive in Kindle Unlimited, your sales rank will slip and that will in turn deter sales somewhat. You can actually get a few downloads every day and slip in sales rank because so many other KDP Select books are getting more downloads than you are. This will in turn diminish your prospects for reviews and word-of-mouth sales.
  • If Kindle Unlimited readers perceive that your book doesn’t have enough value, that may deter sales. They may deem that the price is too low (it would take 10 99-cent books just to make the $9.99 per month fee pay off), maybe the book is too short, or maybe they will scrutinize the Look Inside and pass on anything that doesn’t seem to be high in quality.
  • One of the bad things about freebies may be true of Kindle Unlimited: When customers can get something for free, they don’t always read the description or check the Look Inside carefully (or even at all!). Then they leave bad reviews because the book didn’t turn out as they had imagined. Sometimes bad reviews actually improve sales (especially, when it’s clear the customer made a mistake), but sometimes they do hurt sales, too. You won’t have to worry about customers hoarding books and not reading them, though, because they can only store 10 on the device.
  • If you’re used to stimulating sales through promotional strategiesfreebies, 99-cent prices, BookBub, etc.—these marketing tools may become less effective. What will a Kindle Unlimited customer care about freebies or low prices? They can get $9.99 books for free!
  • Series authors are impacted by Kindle Unlimited. It may be wise to remove the omnibus from KDP Select (but you’re probably still bound by the exclusivity terms if your individual volumes are in KDP Select). The omnibus will lose its effectiveness with Kindle Unlimited readers (though this may help the sales ranks of your individual volumes). If you ordinarily make the first volume free or 99 cents, or price all of your books at 99 cents, this strategy may not be appealing to Kindle Unlimited readers looking for a good value. Maybe a higher price would appeal to these readers more. (Or if all your volumes are cheap, maybe it does make sense to leave the omnibus in KDP Select—that volume may offer enough value to receive a download, if the individual volumes don’t.)
  • Mismatched value could lead to frustrated buyers and negative reviews. For example, if you take a book that’s really not perceived to be worth more than $2.99 and raise its price to $6.99, customers hoping to get a $6.99 value may be disgruntled. Higher-priced books are only favored if they deliver on the higher expectations.
  • If you have a long book and customers aren’t enjoying the beginning enough to reach 10%, you could potentially receive a bunch of downloads, but never see the royalties. More than ever, it’s important to engage the reader immediately and hold the reader’s attention.

Additional Notes

  • If your book wasn’t selling to begin with, Kindle Unlimited probably isn’t the answer to your sales woes. It could be the cover, the blurb, the Look Inside, reviews (maybe even the good ones), the idea, the lack of marketing… Don’t expect Kindle Unlimited to be that magic wand you were hoping for.
  • It doesn’t make any sense to compare July, 2014 to June, 2014, i.e. to compare your income with Kindle Unlimited to your income the way things used to be. The way things used to be just isn’t an option. What you really want to know is, will you be better off in KDP Select, or out of it?

Chris McMullen

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

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