I had this discussion the other day with some other writers. In short, we concluded that getting published is easy. Getting paid for your fiction is hard.
There is not much money in being a writer
At least not much, and certainly not for a long time to come. In fact, it is actually worse than that. If you want to put a halfway decent product out there, in addition to what you already own (PC, printer, etc.), you’ll need a subscription to a site where you can publish your work and have it critiqued, you’ll need your own blog, probably a subscription to Author Marketing Club (which has some great marketing tools), a style checker such as ProWritingAid or AutoCrit to proof your work (this is in addition to a professional editor, not in lieu of), etc.
So that is all probably $25 a month if you are a smart shopper (probably more like $40). And for your first book you will probably spend — should spend — about $2K for artwork, editing, marketing and promotions. And that book you’ll give away or sell at $.99 just to get your name recognized.
Your Second Book
You’ll do it all again for your second book, which — if you are a good writer and get positive reviews and some notoriety with your first book — you should be able to sell your second for $2.99. So at this point you are about $5K in the hole. Again, if you are a smart shopper and have friends with the right skill sets, maybe only $3k. And this is just cash out of pocket. This does not include your time.
Assuming you can net $2.00 a book on your second book after taxes, you will need to sell 1500 – 2500 books your first year just to break even. Not impossible, but that is far, far more books than the typical self-published writer will sell.
I’m not trying to discourage you from publishing a book, but let’s be realistic
My view is that the key to success is delivering a quality product, starting with the writing. Unfortunately, though, good writing and a good story are only a prerequisite to generating sales, but by no means sufficient. You must also have all the other things I alluded to: Great cover art, professional editing, smart marketing, etc.
So being a successful writer does not happen quickly. It takes time. Absolutely have a sense of urgency about working your backside off to make a great product. It won’t happen by itself. But you must also have the patience to keep refining it until it is not just good enough, but really good.
Again I quote Huge Howey (this is one of my favorite quotes). If you don’t know him, he is an indie author who wrote the bestselling Wool: “…the biggest barrier to releasing quality material is probably impatience. You have a work that feels pretty good; you’re exhausted; you want to move on; you might be a bit delusional about how good it really is; so you hit publish. Nobody steps in and tells you to make it better, to do another pass, to get a better cover, to write a better blurb, to hire or trade for some editing, to beg or trade for some beta reading. You simply jump the gun.”
I recently published my first novel
Howey rightly knew, there were SO many times in the last two months before I did finally push the ‘publish’ button that I wanted to just be done with it. Of course it is not perfect now, but it is much better than if I had ‘jumped the gun’ as he says. There were times when I could barely force myself to proof it yet again, but I kept looking at the quote above, and did not pull the trigger until I knew — really knew — I had done all I could. The reviews have been positive, but I can’t say I’m making much money from it (yet).
I’m not trying to discourage anyone from writing
I am suggesting that if anyone thinks there is much money to be made from writing you should take 20 mins to do the math with your own assumptions and see if you can live with what your calculations tell you.
On the other hand, if you want to write because you love to write and don’t care about the money, then absolutely keep doing it. Take pride in it and value it as a craft you can refine over the years.
And if you have an inclination to both write well and think about publishing as a business, then you could be well positioned to actually do better than break even.
Book marketing and promotion
We need to drill down on this for a moment. To succeed (if your definition of success includes sales), you also have to market, and in doing so you have to be smart and aggressive.
My day job for the last 20 years is marketing products, and I can assure you that if you think potential buyers are going to accidentally stumble upon your product (that is, your book) in material numbers, you are badly mistaken. And the odds get worse every day because there are smart, aggressive marketers out there becoming ever more adept at how to get their product ahead of yours in the SERPs, on FB, on Twitter, on Amazon, etc. The competition gets stronger every day at monopolizing your potential customers’ time.
I know that this does not play well with many creative people. But I have an unshakable belief that no book — no matter how brilliantly written — is going to sell much if it can’t get enough exposure to at least be considered by the target market. Every day your book — my book — is competing with millions of other books and thousands of other forms of entertainment (billion dollar industries such as television, video games, movies, sporting events, concerts, museums, gyms, etc.) for potential reader’s time.
I am passionate about this because there are good writers that — unfortunately — just don’t have the stomach or inclination for marketing. I know from my own life experience that we can do it.
We are all capable of some simple marketing steps that will help us get our book more exposure
I’m sure there are some great books out there that never got out of the slush pile or above the one million sales rank on Amazon because there was little or no marketing effort. And exposure is all we can ask for. If we get lots of eyes on our product but it does not catch the market’s interest…then so be it. We did not write well. We had our shot, and we blew it.
One of my goals is to write a helpful, simple guide for new authors to succeed at marketing. Lord knows there are a number of them out there. Here are two that are good starting points: Joanna Penn’s How to Market a Book, and Carole Jelen and Michael McCallister’s Build Your Author Platform: The New Rules. Together they will give you some helpful insights.
Nothing I have said here or in any post before is meant to discourage anyone in any way. My goal is to emphasize that with a bit of marketing we can get our beloved writing in front of a big enough audience to give it a chance to catch on. But it takes work and it takes smarts. You can do it.