A hard-talking start to the new year
As a writing coach, my entire purpose is to help aspiring authors achieve their dreams. My job is not to shatter dreams, but sometimes I have to do just that.
This post might seem like a rather strange first post of the year, when everyone else is writing about new year’s resolutions and setting goals and reaching for your dreams. Because today I want to talk about managing your expectations - and I will most likely be shattering a few dreams along the way.
The first question I ask any new client is: what type of book are you writing? The second is: why do you want to be a writer? There are no right or wrong answers to this question. Every answer is valid. But it breaks my heart when an aspiring author answers “I hate my job and I want to earn enough from my writing to quit” or “I’m broke and I desperately need to earn quick money.” Because I know that soon I will be shattering their dream.
To save me from the heartbreak of having to break this news to you in person, I’m going to rip off that band-aid and give you the bad news here and now. (But keep reading for the good news)
I think, without exception, every single one of my coaching clients starts off their coaching journey expecting instant results. Most expect to publish their first book, and most dream of book deals with big publishers, print books in stores, and earning enough money to write full time. It’s my job to give them the tools to make that happen, but often – too often – it’s also my job to help them re-adjust their expectations, and to hold their hand when they realize that it’s going to be years before that dream becomes a reality.
The hard truth is that for 99.5% of authors, that’s not going to happen with the first book, or even the second or third, and it’s not going to happen overnight. Sure, there’s always an outlier who proves the exception, but it’s incredibly rare, can’t be counted on, and is NOT going to happen in the next six months, no matter how quickly you write your first book.
Firstly, writing is a craft. If you take up jewellery design, would you expect the very first bracelet you create to sell for hundreds of dollars at an art auction? If you take up piano lessons, would you expect to be playing concerts for a fee-paying audience in six months? Most likely you’d laugh at anyone who has those expectations, yet many beginner authors expect exactly that. Writing is easy, right? Anyone can do it. You’ve been doing it all your life, and you got As for your high school compositions, so you can write a book.
That’s partly true. Anyone can write a book, and anyone can be published. But it takes skill, practice, investment and marketing to write a book that sells enough money to enable you to quit your day job.
Writing takes time. Even if you’re a fast writer and you complete your first draft in three months or less, you can’t just throw your first draft out there unedited and expect it to be publication-ready. I’ve already covered the various stages of publishing in this previous post, but you should expect at least 3-4 rounds of edits. If you’re a fast writer, and can afford a coach or editor to hold your hand through the process, your first book might be ready in 6 months, and it might even be publishable. If you’re not a fast writer, or you’re still learning the craft, or you can’t afford to pay a professional to guide you step-by-step through the process, expect it to take longer. Perhaps a year or more.
Another hard reality is that traditional publishers are very picky, and very few debut books get published. Expect a lot of rejections for your first manuscript, but keep on writing. The second manuscript will do better, the third manuscript you submit to traditional publishers might be the one that gets you in the door. Sure, if you choose to self-publish, there are no gate-keepers stopping you from publishing your first book, but you may need to give up on that dream of print books in stores, and you’re going to be learning a whole lot more than just writing. You’re going to be doing a crash course in the business side of publishing too!
So now that you've accepted that writing requires skill and time, and you've honed your craft, perhaps hired a coach or editor to ensure the manuscript is publication-ready, gone through all those rounds of edits, and your first book is about to publish... now you can hand in your notice or pay off that mortgage, right? Wrong!
Publishing is not a get-rich-quick scheme.
First, let’s look at the number of books you can expect to sell. When my first book released back in 2010, I made a list of everyone I knew who I thought would support me by buying a book and worked out that I should sell at least 100-150 books on release. My publisher would surely be able to match that. I did the calculations in my head, and while it was nowhere near good enough to quit the day job, it was a good start. Want to know how many copies my book sold in its first month? 15.
You might be thinking that maybe back in 2010 fewer people were reading ebooks, or I didn’t have as many friends as I thought, or maybe my book just wasn’t any good, and your situation will be completely different. You’re probably not going to believe me when I say this, but ask any published writer and they’ll say the same thing: your family, your friends, your colleagues will not buy your book. They may be very supportive, but you cannot count on them to buy your books.
It’s true that more people are reading digitally than ever before, especially with pandemic restrictions making print books less accessible, but the difference between 2010 and 2020 is the sheer number of books you’re competing against. In 2010 it was possible to write a good book with a fresh idea and make it big. Look at Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey. I have quite a few friends who hit the jackpot with their first books in those early days of ebooks.
But in 2020, there’s a LOT more competition than there was a decade ago. According to this article, it’s estimated that a minimum of a million new titles are added to Amazon each year. Sure, not all are fiction or in your genre, but you’re not just competing against the other books releasing in the same year as yours. eBooks never go out of print, so you’re also competing against ten+ years’ worth of books that have been published. Wikipedia claims that in 2018 there were over 6 million ebooks available on Amazon’s US store, which is the primary English-speaking market. Add another two years’ worth of books, and even if half are non-fiction, your book is still competing for readers against another four million books. (This article suggests those numbers are even higher).
How are you, a first time author with no established readership, going to get readers who don’t know you to give your book a shot over all those other books out there?
What you’re going to need is to find readers who don’t yet know you and persuade them. But finding them is harder than you think. You can’t just shout “buy my book” at random strangers on the internet and expect them to buy your book. If you self-publish, it’s going to take time, effort and money to build up your audience. This is why traditional publishing, in spite of the gatekeepers, is still an attractive option for first time novelists.
Depending on your publisher, you can expect varying results of what they will bring to the table. The bigger and better publishers, the ones who can bring more readers to your book, are the pickiest and your book will have to be exceptionally good to attract their interest. (Read: you’ll need to take more time learning the craft, and this most likely won’t be your first manuscript that sells). Smaller publishers may be easier to sell your book to, and more likely to take a chance on an unknown author, but they won’t bring as many readers to your book.
So if you succeed in scoring a contract with a reputable, mid-range publisher, how many copies can you expect to sell in your first year? There are no real fixed figures for this. Every book is different, some books get lucky and some don’t, no matter how good they are, but I’d ballpark your first book will sell between 50 and 500 copies in your first year, probably closer to the lower end of that range.
So now let’s talk some hard numbers to put your expectations into perspective:
According to BookScan, the average traditionally published print book in the US will only sell about 200 copies in its first year, and maybe 3,000 books in its lifetime. To achieve a print book contract, you’ll need a book that’s good enough and unique enough to win over first an agent then a publisher. Depending on the contract and publisher, the average royalty rate for a paperback is 8-10%. Let’s be generous and assume the higher rate. If you assume a print price of $9.99, that means the author gets about $1 per book. But these kinds of book deals are almost impossible to get without an agent, and an agent will take 15% of your income, leaving you with $0.85 per book sold. 200 copies = $170 per year. If $170 per year (approximately R2,500 in SA currency) is enough income to give up your day job, yay, your dreams may just come true!
However, fewer and fewer books are getting print deals these days, so let’s look at digital publishing through a traditional publisher. Most traditional publishers usually offer between 15% and 25% royalty on ebooks. eBook retail prices are usually lower than print, so let’s assume a price of $3.99, and that the author earns 25% royalty on the gross cover price not the net price. That’s still just $1 per book sold – if you managed to find a publisher that doesn’t require an agent to get you through the door. If you have an agent, you’re back down to that $0.85 per copy. Assuming you sell at the higher end of that range I gave above, and you sell 350 copies in the first year (unless you’ve managed to score that rare unicorn with your first book and secured a contract with a major publisher that does extensive promotion on your behalf) that’s just under $300 per year (about R4,500 per year in SA currency. I don’t know about you, but I’d struggle to live off that per month let alone per year).
If you self-publish your own ebooks, you now get to keep a much higher percentage of that cover price (70% from Amazon if you price your ebook between $2.99 and $7.99). If you price your book at the same $3.99 as the previous example, you can now expect to earn a whopping $2.79 per book. Since you don’t have a publisher bringing readers to your books, let’s drop the estimate to 250 copies sold in your book’s first year, and that’s about $700 income. Woohoo – that’s the way to go then to make money at this, right? Wrong! Because you’re now also covering the costs the publisher would usually pay for – book cover, editor, proofreader, formatting, marketing, which can amount to thousands of dollars. Chances are you won’t break even on that first book unless you spend a lot on marketing (and are prepared to make a few costly mistakes along the way as you learn the ropes)
Finally, every author, whether traditionally published or self-published will have some costs. At the very least you’ll need to register your own internet domain and create a website. There are cheap ways to do this when you’re starting out, but even so there will be some costs to do a half-decent job. So deduct those costs from what you just earned mentally above.
Now that you're thoroughly depressed and wondering if it's even worth writing that book since it clearly isn't going to be the yellow brick road to an overnight fortune, I did promise you some good news, didn’t I?
The good news is that success is possible. More authors are making a full time living off their books than ever before. Self-publishing has opened up so many more opportunities to authors, and there are fewer restrictions and more avenues to publishing than ever before. Readers don’t care if a book is trad-published or self-published and we’ve already established that more people are reading digitally than ever before. Readers are always looking for new books, new authors, new stories to sweep them away, now more than ever. There are millions of readers out there, and you only need to sell to a tiny percentage of that readership to make a living as an author.
And you know how I know that success is possible? Because I am living proof that it can be done. If I can do it, you can do it too.
But you do need to manage those expectations. Don't plan to quit your day job unless you (a) have a family to support you financially while you build your writing career, or (b) are prepared to make serious lifestyle adjustments to live on less.
I was not able to quit my day job when my first book published in 2010. When I stopped working at my day job in television advertising in 2017, I still could not support myself on my writing alone, even though at that time I already had 11 books published. (For the record, the day job quit me, not the other way around). I still needed to do coaching and occasional freelance work to make end meet, and I had to drastically reduce my lifestyle and expenses. But then book 12 published in 2018, and I had my best year ever. And when book 13 published in January 2020, it did better than any of my previous books, and readers went back and bought my previous books so all my books had a great year.
2020 has been my best year ever for writing income. It’s taken a decade and 13 books to reach this point but it’s finally happening. If I were a faster writer, or a more disciplined writer, or if I’d spent less time doing unpaid volunteer work, or had a partner to help support the household, I could have reached this point much earlier. If you have that perfect storm, then your dreams might come true a lot quicker than mine did.
So I want you to take a moment now to consider your own situation:
What were your expectations before you started reading this post?
Do you still think those expectations are achievable?
How quickly do you want to make this happen?
Are you a fast writer or a slow writer? Are you disciplined about your writing or can you be more disciplined?
What are the things that are standing in the way of your writing (needing to earn a living, a demanding day job, other interests or hobbies, your family)
What are you willing to sacrifice to improve your writing productivity – your social life, your favourite TV shows, time with your family?
Can you afford to give up your day job to concentrate on your writing, or do you still need to prioritize earning an income?
How much of a priority is your writing? You cannot expect to earn a full-time income from writing if it only ranks #6 priority in your life and you only spend two hours on it a week.
If a quick timeline is important to you in achieving writing success, how much money can you afford to invest in your writing for a coach, editor, book covers, marketing?
If you don’t have the money to pay for a coach, or to self-publish, are you at least willing to compromise on time, and be prepared to keep writing until you’re able to get past the gatekeepers to achieve a traditional publishing contract?
Are you willing to consider a smaller digital-first publishing house rather than holding out for the unicorn of a big print publisher?
Are you re-considering your original decision to find an agent, or a traditional publisher, or to go the self-publishing route?
Are you willing to keep writing book after book knowing that it might only be your 5th or 10th or 15th that finally starts to earn you the kind of money that will make your dreams come true?
Finally, even knowing what you know now, that it might be years before you’re published or making decent money from your books, do you still want to do it anyway?
Because at the end of the day, those are the writers who are going to make it. The writers who love what they do, who keep at it, keep learning, keep improving, keep writing, those are the ones who will achieve success. I am very proud of every one of my clients who has hung in there, even after they realized this wasn’t going to be as quick or as profitable as they hoped it would be. You will succeed – that I promise, even if it might take a little longer than you originally thought.
If you didn’t already read the article I linked to earlier, then I highly recommend you read it now, because it ends with a whole lot of good news, as well as tips for how to ensure you are one of the authors that succeed: https://justpublishingadvice.com/there-are-now-over-5-million-kindle-ebooks/