Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Sales Numbers

Some Interesting Comments…

A number of posts back I talked about the difference between indie writers and traditional publishing writers.

Not one person thought my sales numbers of over forty thousand for the traditional published author were too high. No one even questioned them. (They were far too high for 2019.)

But wow did I get a lot of people objecting to around 50 copies a month average sales for indie.

I understand that. I was doing a comparison on two books between the two types of publishing. And I used the word average, but so many writers don’t understand that term when it comes to sales.

So let me be clear. Unless you hit the lottery, your first two indie published books, in the first year, will not average 50 copies a month. They will be doing great if you have a lot of friends and family to sell 50 copies the entire year.

But if you keep writing, keep learning craft and business, and keep publishing books, the sales numbers will increase IF YOU ARE DOING THINGS CORRECTLY.

So what is correctly?

Here is a list… Ready? You won’t like it.

— Writing under only one name. For every genre.

— Selling wide in as many places as you can.

— Electronic and paper editions at least. Audio when you can.

— Professional-looking covers that match the genre of the book. (And you are doing your own covers. Get feedback from people who will tell you the truth about your covers.)

— Active, professional sales copy without any plot that tells the readers what the book is about and why they should buy it. (This is a learned skill and 99% of the writers I know do not have the skill, thus bore readers with sales copy. Yet almost no writer wants to learn this skill.)

— Writing with speed, meaning putting something out new and fairly major to your readers every three months at least. This has to be consistent over years.

— Keep learning craft and working on being a better storyteller.

— Learn copyright and licensing.

— A good web site that lists where readers can find your work.

— A good newsletter (grown organically) to tell your fans about your new work regularly.

— A presence on social media, but no need to overdo it. Just have accounts and be on groups you can learn from.

— Setting up a good business structure. Make sure your electronic book pricing is not too low or too high. ($2.99 for a stand-alone short story. $4.99-$5.99 for a novel, $6.99-$9.99 for a collection, depending on size. Please take your pricing arguments to another website.)

— Grow some patience, learn the word “average,” and have a ten year plan.

But most of all, learn copyright, licensing, and storytelling.

So those are my suggestions. Notice I said nothing about advertising or anything else.

But I did forget one major thing. Go have fun!


  • Filip Wiltgren

    “— Grow some patience, learn the word “average,” and have a ten year plan.”
    I think this is the hardest part for many people. I’ve met writers who are way better than me, who expect to strike it big in their first year(s) and then just fall away.
    But maybe that’s the problem, that they are way better, and thus have higher expectations. I’ve been working on having small expectations – writing consistently, putting out work on a regular basis, and getting back to Heinlein’s Rules whenever I fail.

    • dwsmith

      And Filip, you keep that up and ten years from now you will be successful, doing great, and looking back at all the flashes-in-the-pan writers and wondering what happened to them. Well done. Especially the continued climbing back onto Heinlein’s Rules. That horse is so darned slippery for all of us.

  • Glen Sprigg

    Excellent advice! I love how the entire tradpub structure is so outdated, and how indiepub gives us the freedom to be exactly what we want to be.

    I’m studying your blog religiously, Dean; I’ve gotten to the Heinlein’s Rules posts now, and it’s very exciting stuff. I just wish I wasn’t back in school so I could devote five or six hours a day to producing new inventory. But I’ll get there; it’s just a matter of time.

    I think covers are going to be the most challenging part for me, since I have the artistic acumen of a blind squirrel. But it has to be done, so I’ll do it. I’d rather be learning about that than Intercultural Business Management, anyway.

    I’ve noticed that your pricing suggestions have gone up; it used to be $0.99 for short stories, then $1.99. Is that an inflation thing, or more of a ‘our quality is now that much higher’ thing?

    • dwsmith

      The post you got those numbers out of is ten years dated. 99 cents became a garbage pile of publishing with mostly only trash in it. Avoid at all costs because readers know what is in there as well. You want quality product, you don’t go into a 99 cent store to buy it. Keep that in mind.

  • Ashley R Pollard

    Seems like I’m doing great. Three books out in the first year. Pity this last year I hit a health issue wall, but I’m starting to get back on track.

    Thank you for all the good advice. It has been a lifesaver as a newbie.

  • Susan

    I love posts like these. They refocus the ball in the writer’s court – versus me getting sucked into the thought “uh-oh things aren’t happening our there.” Getting worried about things not happening “out there” can be a real creativity vacuum.

    • dwsmith

      Susan, it is a very interesting way for your critical voice to stop you. It’s out of your control, thus you should stop. Critical voice comes in from all directions for all of us.

  • Nicki

    You know, you keep saying we’re not going to like the list (or that nobody will listen), and every time I read that I get mad at you (because of *course* I’m somehow, magically, the exception – **eyeroll**).

    And then I don’t follow the list/rules/suggestions, even when I see evidence of how well they work when I had managed to pull them off for a few weeks one summer.

    I’m printing myself a copy of this post on bright paper and laminating it. I’m going to post it somewhere obnoxious so I have to keep looking at it. Eventually, I’m going to allow this information to sink in.

    Thank you for continuing to share even when some of us are thick-skulled blockheads (me).

  • James Palmer

    Great points, Dean.

    I think a lot of the 50 copies a month expectation comes from a few indie authors who are doing that, or even better, right out of the gate. Guys like Craig Martelle and Michael Anderle. And that was before ads made everything on Amazon pay to play. So there’s a new false expectation there that tells people they’re a failure if they don’t do at least that well with their first book their first week as a published author. Personally, I’m waiting for all of those guys to flame out. Kevin J. Anderson and I were talking at Dragon Con a few weeks back, and he suspects that this kind of rapid growth is untenable in the long term, because they’re going to saturate their small market. I’m with you. Slow and steady wins the race.

    • dwsmith

      Yup, slow and steady always wins. And I have seen so many flash writers come in, do great for a few years, and then vanish in the last 40 years that I always look to sustainability and so much of the writers digging in the sewer of Kindle Select or writing at a pace I would find difficult to maintain in my youth will either learn and get to a sustainable pace or a sustainable sales market or be ‘whatever-happened-to’ writers.

      • Kristi N.

        “…writing at a pace I would find difficult to maintain in my youth”

        So…curiosity thrills the cat, I have to ask what you would consider a sustainable pace for the younger you and how it compares to the sustainable pace for the more experienced you?

  • Dale T. Phillips

    I’m doing about 90% of your model, and am steadily increasing, 8 years in. Am 80% done of my own starter plan, always moving forward. Seems to be working, especially the fun part. Just got good novel #7 out the door, and have a host of projects to do next. Some of us listen and learn. Thank you.

  • Mike Southern

    I follow what you’re saying, Dean, but I’d like one clarification.

    Your first item for writing correctly is, “Writing under only one name. For every genre.”

    Does that mean to use a single name for ALL of your writing across genres, or do you mean use a single but not necessarily the same name for each individual genre? I can see where writing everything under a single name would increase the number of books for that name much more quickly, but would that cause some confusion among readers? I seem to remember you saying that one author you knew changed from writing SF to mysteries, and the change angered existing fans. But of course, writers like Stephen King now write everything (at least, as far as we know) under their own name with no problems.

    I guess I’m asking whether there’s a guideline for when to use different names for different genres vs one name for everything.

    • dwsmith

      One name, no matter the genre. If you are not doing your blurbs correctly, branding your covers to a genre correctly, then yes, there will be confusion. But if you do that right, readers are smart and will follow you. And some would like your mystery novels and some will like your sf. I write a popular mystery series under Dean Wesley Smith and am known for Star Trek. No one seems to care at all. This is a new world. Changing names for genre is so 1990s, but you have to trust your readers and you have to do your covers and blurbs correctly.

  • Mike

    I read this Jeff Bezos quote and was wondering how it applied to writing and publishing.

    “I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’

    And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. …

    In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection.

    It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ [or] ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible.

    And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

    To my mind, you just preemptively answered that question 🙂

  • J.M. Ney-Grimm

    They will be doing great if you have a lot of friends and family to sell 50 copies the entire year.

    Interesting. My first full year as an indie—2012—I sold 50 books exactly. I remember I was disheartened at the time, but also hopeful that with perseverance I would succeed eventually.

    I was so excited in 2013 when suddenly in May I started selling 10 to 20 books per month.

    I’ll admit that when 2015 arrived and I was still selling 20 books per month (across all titles), I was disappointed. I think I fall down on productivity: I don’t release something new every 3 months. As of now, close to 8 years as an indie, I have 23 titles out (6 novels, 6 short novels, 3 collections, and a handful of standalone shorts), which isn’t enough.

    • dwsmith

      J.M., yup, not enough for discoverability and some consistent sales to kick in. So keep having fun and writing.You’ll get there.

  • Alea

    I seem to remember seeing this post a week or two back, but it doesn’t hurt to see again. And it’s good timing for me. I just realized one of the projects I’m working on is not a 5-6 year project but a 10 year project (as in release of regular installments it will take 10 years at least to get everything out there) and so it will pay to take the time to not rush it. I’m okay with not having sales now and with working on the list items. If I don’t have any sales in 5 years, I’ll keep going because I’m going to finish the big project properly, one way or another. (Looking forward to the Business class at the end of the month)

  • Chong Go

    A bit off topic, but have you been following Ken Burns “Country Music” documentaries? There’s a lot of interesting stuff there about critical voice and handling copyright/writing credits. A bunch of the most famous songs were described along the lines of “won’t sell ten copies”, and you hear writers saying they never know for sure if the song will be a hit or not.

    And then there’s people selling their writing credits for a few hundred dollars. Willie Nelson tried to sell his writing credits to “Hello Walls” for $500, but the singer (Faron Young?) insisted on giving him a $500 loan instead, on the condition that Willie not sell the credit. The song was so popular and covered by so many other singers, that Willie’s first royalty check was for $14,000.
    These aren’t really central topics, but it is interesting to see how they crop up in a different area of writing.

    • dwsmith

      Yeah, been watching that. Really fascinating stuff. And writers are writers are writers. Worst enemy is between their own ears.

  • Lorri Moulton

    I was just rereading this and wondered if you have any recommendations for learning to write professional sales copy. I try not to give away the plot but always looking to improve. Thank you, Dean!

    — Active, professional sales copy without any plot that tells the readers what the book is about and why they should buy it. (This is a learned skill and 99% of the writers I know do not have the skill, thus bore readers with sales copy. Yet almost no writer wants to learn this skill.)

    • dwsmith

      We do a six week course on it online. Takes six weeks to learn it and all the ways of approaching it. Past that, I know of no one who teaches it outside of major advertising programs that cost more than you would want to think about.