Challenge,  publishing

I Feel Bad For New Writers… Part Five… The Upside

The Choice Between Two Paths…

This entire series has been talking about the choice new writers coming into professional fiction writing have between the old methods of traditional publishing and the new world of indie publishing.

If you have not read the first five parts of this series, please do so now. This will make more sense if you do so.

So in this chapter, I want to quickly go over what is possible for success on both paths.

Traditional Publishing…

For many, many, many writers, simply having a book published by a traditional publisher is the success. Period.

And many writers don’t ever want to leave their professional job to be a professional writer. No dream of that. They are happy with a book out once-in-a-while. For fiction, traditional publishing often will fill this dream with one or two books, which is all 99% of writers on this path will get. The writer goes away happy with a couple books they can show people and their grandkids.

But for new writers wanting to make a living at fiction writing, there is no real chance of that anymore in traditional publishing. (And remember, I made my living (over $100,000 per year) in traditional publishing for almost twenty years. What I did can’t be done anymore for a hundred reasons.)

Let me explain why.

First off, remember there is five to seven years of the early years of agents and rewriting and all that before you get to this point.

Also keep in mind that advances in 2023 are way, way down from 2010 and from 2000, let alone 1990. Sales by traditional publishers are way, way down as well and there are only five companies left from hundreds in the 1990s and thousands in the 1980s.

So coming up with an example… Say you have a fantastic book that brings excitement and your publisher offers you a $300,000.00 advance for a three book deal. (Realize most novel advances are $5,000 to $20,000 per book at best these days.) But I want to follow the dream for you, okay. Your book is “special.”

$100,000 per book. This is an advance against royalties. Basically, a loan. Keep that in mind.

At that size you get 1/5th of each payment on signing, 1/5th on turn in, 1/5th on rewrites, 1/5th on hardback publication, 1/5th on paper publication. After 15% agent fee, you get $17,000 per payment.

Each book will be structured the same way. So you would get a large payment on signing. About $51,000. Not bad.

The other four payments will stretch out over at least three years per book, and the second book payments won’t even start for a year. And the third at least two years out. So if all goes well, you will finally get all the payments in your contract 5 to 6 years after you signed the contract.

More than likely 6 years.

Note: if the first book doesn’t sell well, they can cancel the contract and make you pay back the second and third book money you have gotten. Happens, especially if you or your agent is a jerk.

You will have signed a contract and if it is for a series, you will never own the series, even if they cancelled the books. Happens all the time. It is dead to you. They own the series, the characters, everything because of the contract you are now forced to sign in modern publishing.

Can you make a living on $300,000 three book contracts? Nope. Unless you can live on around $40,000 average per year before taxes. They won’t even consider a second contract until they get the “numbers” on the third book. At least five years out. At least.

Can you hit a “home run” and have your book explode? Sure, it happens. But not as often or as big as the big lotteries in the States. The odds are better in the lottery. There are lottery winners, there are books that explode.

Another aspect is that your $300,000 advance is paid back by royalties off of sales. If the book is sold at full price, you get 10-15% paper, around 25% electronic and hard (if your contract was pretty good.)

Using just the paper version for the example (because traditional publishing is focused only on the paper and price the electronic out of reach) the price of the trade paper is $14.99. 15% of that is $2.24. So if all books sell at full price, it would take around 135,000 copes to sell to earn back your advance. Not going to happen considering you get on the Times list with 5,000 copies sold these days.

The number of copies needed to pay back the advance comes down at the higher 25% and prices of hardbacks and electronic. But still way out of reach in 2023 sales numbers without lottery level luck.

Again if all the copies are all sold at full price.

That also will never happen.  You know that big dump of your books in Costco that you would be so proud of? You get nothing per copy, because what is called a discount schedule. (It will be in your contract and you can’t change it.) Very, very few of a modern print run is sold at full price. Certainly not in mass to Amazon. Every Amazon sale will make you pennies instead of that $2.24

The bottom line… You will never earn back your advance no matter how well your book sells. Everything in modern traditional publishing is designed to not let that happen. (Ever hear of a movie making a profit?)

And in the court case with Simon and Schuster merger, the judge at one point asked a person on the stand about the advances and this publishing executive said flatly, under oath, that they considered advances free money to authors.

So why do they offer massive advances like that? Their corporate bottom line. A $300,000 advance on three books can be appraised at 3 million on their balance sheets and then depreciated. If they make some of their money back in sales, so much the better.

When there were a hundred different publishers and advances were ten times the level they are now, and publishers actually cared about sales, it was possible for someone like me to make a living writing fact, under numbers of names, and for many publishers.

Not today.

Indie Publishing

Can you make a living as an indie publisher with your writing?

Yes. Thousands and thousands are doing just that. With more coming in every day.

The path to making over a $100,000 a year or higher is stupidly simple compared to what I outlined above for traditional.

Indie writers get 70% of the cover price for electronic books for all worldwide sales.

Indie writers get 95% if the book is sold through the writer’s own store.

Indie writers get 92% if it is through a Kickstarter.

Indie writers can make home run money by licensing their books and such.

Just like traditional publishers, indie writers can sell translation rights, or do the translation themselves. Same with audio. (Traditional publishers take both of those.)

Paper sales tend to run from 35% to 50% depending on a ton of factors.

So since indie publishers are focused on electronic and keep the prices reasonable for readers, take that same book that was sold to traditional and go indie. It would sell electronic for $6.99. Each sale gets the writer $4.90.

So to make that ($300,000 minus 15% agent that the traditional author got = $255,000) same money, each of the three books would have to sell about 17,500 copies. Not likely in three or four years without the series really exploding. Possible sure, I have done it, but not likely.

But here are the differences and why so many indie writers are making a living and no new traditional publishing writers are.

1… Indie writers keep all rights and control and if there is a new way to make money with those books, the indie publisher can do so. Translation, audio, and so much more.

2… Indie writers can write and publish a new series of three books quickly, no waiting for years like in traditional. In fact, in the same five years that a traditional writer would be waiting, indie writers can write and publish at least twenty more books, maybe in some instances a lot more. (Remember, in my 70th year I published 70 major books and another 60 plus short stories. We can do that in indie if it suits us.)

3… Indie writers can keep covers fresh and blurbs fresh and find new readers.

4… Indie writers are in complete control of their own work and never have to ask permission for anything.  That fact alone can make an indie writer a ton of money when an idea strikes.

So is this process from new writer to making a living indie fast? No.

See my list of the path into indie publishing in a previous post. You need to have enough books to get to a discoverability place in the market (Commonly thought of as 20.). You need to be a great storyteller so when someone does buy your book, they tell others. That means you have to keep learning and studying as you go.

If you think you can do this sooner than it would take you to get a law degree from being a freshman in college, stop now. If you are in a hurry and looking for shortcuts, stop now.

You can make a living with fiction writing, but you won’t realize it until one year it just happens because you love writing books and telling stories and learning.

So two money paths between indie and traditional to get your books to readers.

And one thing to keep solidly in mind from my very first post. In 15 years, traditional publishing will basically not even be here in more than a shell of itself. And these posts about choices for new writers in 2023 will seem very quaint.




  • Philip

    Except for the megastars (1/10th of 1%), you’ll notice many authors have a day job (usually academic or journalism) or they have a spouse in a highly paid career (corporate attorney, doctor). They’ll slip these facts out in interviews. They’ll discuss how it took them 27 drafts and 3 years to write their novel and most people hear that and assume they were paid enough by NY to afford that. Nope.

    I mentioned this a couple weeks ago, but a certain horror author who’s insanely talented and has a big following and is respected in the genre had a health crisis to kick off 2023 and his friends had to start a GoFundMe because he was a full time traditional author and couldn’t afford health insurance.

    Dean — I love when you dive into the math of indie. I recently told a friend I was going to try a version of your short story challenge but start at a pace of one short story a week. He told me first short stories “never” sell and then he scoffed when I said I’d consider it a huge success to sell 2 copies per month. He said that was clearly “failure” but then I outlined how that $48/year grew exponentially if I maintain the writing and publishing output and he was astonished. I suck at math, we’re talking basic math here, but it still surprised people.

    • Kate Pavelle

      Philip, hooray for your short story challenge, and for setting your friend straight on the math! I want to share a fun thing which may be of use to you: I’ve been publishing a Free Fiction Friday story, using the model Kris uses (free for a week, include buy links, retain title/teaser/buy links when swapping for a new one (I also retain the cover image.)
      Since I pretty much blew off Covid on the writing front, I had to restart my newsletter and FB group again. My goal was only to get on a regular publishing schedule, and get those stories in front of readers. Most of what I write is gay romance, urban fantasy, sci-fi, crime, strong women adventures, and weird stories. It’s a mix, not everyone will want to read everything. I’ve also just merged two pen names for the sake of efficiency, sustainability, and visibility.
      Honestly, I didn’t expect any money at all. “I’m not Kris,” I thought. “I know I’m small potatoes.” (Does that make me gourmet? Yeah, I think I’ll identify as a gourmet potato for now 😁)
      I’m a tiny, gourmet potato, but color me stupidly happy when I started to see sales! And yes, even on the ones still available for free. It took 4 or 5 weeks to get readers used to them. My open and click-through rate on my newsletter is up. I repost them on FB (all profiles), IG, and LinkedIn. My justification for LinkedIn is that I’m a professional writer and since others show samples of their professional work…why not? (Since I licensed a story out to an environmental non-profit as a coloring book, having them and their peers see what else I do is not a bad thing. Since I will be using Kickstarter to finance the next coloring book, I want them to be familiar with who I am.)
      Also, last week I saw my first sale on my PayHip store since before Covid. I see that as a good sign.
      BIG BONUS: I finally streamlined my draft – to – wide publication process, including the cover. It now has a rhythm of it’s own and I am not messing with that, that’s exactly what I needed!
      If you build it, they will come.

  • Ed Teja

    Numbers never lie, do they? The entire premise of trad publishing is based on an obsolete premise… a romanticization of a past world.

  • Peggy

    Minor nitpick…. you wrote:

    the price of the trade paper is $14.99. 15% of that is $1.20

    According to my calculator, 15% of 14.99 is $2.24, which means you only(!) need to sell about 134,000 copies to make back your advance. It’s still not going to happen (except in rare, lightning-strike cases, of course), but it is *slightly* less bleak than the example as you originally wrote it.

    In another life, I would’ve made a great auditor. GRIN

    Thank you so much for these reality-check posts!

      • Anthony

        They actually get 8% of a trade paperback, so the 1.20 figure is correct. They get a slightly higher royalty for mass markets (10-12%), but those aren’t printed in quantity anymore. And still comes out to 1.20 tops.

        • dwsmith

          I was trying to be really over the top on amounts and rates. You are correct, Anthony on the rates. Even my over-the-top amounts still show the nature of the problem. (grin)

  • jaran

    Hey Dean,

    I know you advocate for going wide, but I was curious if that includes trying to get your books into digital public libraries?

    The reason I ask is I recently saw a promotion in nevada where the public libraries are running a indie author contest. Finalist get their books included in overdrive library or whatever.

    • dwsmith

      Sure do. Going through Draft2Digital gets you into libraries all over the world. Overdrive is one main way.