On Writing,  publishing,  Topic of the Night

Topic of the Night: About Time and Sales


At the writer lunch today we talked about a royalty statement I got recently from Pocket Books on one of my many Star Trek books. It showed that the book had sold six copies.

Under the old system, I would have glanced at that and just tossed the sheet laughing at how a book can only sell six copies in six months. But I am trying to move my thinking to readers.

The old traditional thinking (and those in traditional publishing to this day) never considers readers at all. Just sales, numbers on a piece of paper to be batted around with graphs and profit/loss statements.

Well, indie writers think of readers and what that royalty report stated clearly was that six people, six humans somewhere, spent money and time to buy one of my novels.

A novel I wrote 23 years ago.

Let me repeat that. I wrote that novel 23 years ago.

Indie publishing (ignoring the gold rush days) has been going now for about four years. I constantly try to get indie writers to think long term. Well, I sold six copies of a forgotten traditional book I wrote 23 years ago. No promotion, nothing.

How amazing is that?

Another Book from the Past

Also tonight I turned in to WMG Publishing an issue of Smith’s Monthly that is starting a novel serialization of my first published novel. For the rest of the year I will put in the 70,000 word novel Laying the Music to Rest over about ten issues of the magazine.

I am not changing a word or even a name. It will be the exact novel that was published by Warner Questar in 1989.  (Only we are fixing some of the typos that were in the earlier version.)

I wrote that book in 1987 on a typewriter, sold it in 1988, and it came out in 1989. It was not my first written novel, but my first sold. My first two written novels were destroyed in a house fire.

The reason I am bringing this novel back into print after all these years is the 30th anniversary next year of my writing it. The serialization will be done and WMG will have it in book form in 2017.

Thirty years.

Now try to imagine a book you write now still being in print in thirty years?

And earning sales.

Tough to imagine, huh? But you should, because that is the new world we live in. Books do not need to ever go out of print as my first novel did.


And shouldn’t.

Yet indie writers who are keeping track only have about four years of data at most. And the Author Earnings Reports only have about two years of data. And just look at the changes they have charted in two years.

So indie publishing in thirty years? Any idea? Most writers just shake their head, put their head down, some into the sand, and don’t want to think about it.

But there are a few of us who are thinking about it and trying to get a grasp on the ramifications in sales, in money flow, and so much more.

For example: You want to know how to have over a hundred novels in print? Simple: Write four novels a year and get them into print for thirty years. I did that in traditional publishing.

That just made a bunch of indie writers shudder. (grin) And most writers would never be able to do that, which is why there are so few of us with the length of careers and numbers of books that I have.

Consider another point… I have been publishing in my magazine and then in stand-alone form a novel per month for the last two plus years. My goal is to get the magazine past issue 100. About seven years from now.

And all those novels and short stories can remain in print and selling for far longer than thirty years.


Why I am going on about two of my old novels is simple trying to push writers into thinking about longer term.

I know Kris and I seem to most as outliers or old-timers, depending on who is ignoring us in any conversation. But both of us and a lot of other long-term professional writers are trying to get glimpses into very, very cloudy crystal balls and ask the standard science fiction question: What if this goes on?

What will general publishing, what will indie writing, what will traditional publishers look like in just five years or even ten years, let alone thirty years???

And in this new world what kind of sales can a book generate over thirty years? Especially if you keep paying attention to it and changing the marketing to fit the times?

Or over the life of a copyright? (70 years past an author’s death)

When you start looking forward, into the future, this new world of publishing gets very, very rosy for the writers who think long-term and stay active.

But if your focus and your entire self worth is tied up in how your latest promotion and sales numbers went, you will be lost in short order.

I sold six copies of a book I wrote 23 years ago and I expect to sell a bunch of copies of a novel I wrote 30 years ago.

And since I am still alive for the moment, that book I wrote almost 30 years ago has a very, very long life of sales ahead of it yet. Maybe another hundred years or more.

And that sometimes is hard to grasp, but I am sure trying.



  • Marsha

    Three thoughts sprang into my mind when I read this.
    1. The longevity of book sales is fantastic news.
    2. Keep writing.
    3. I’d better start thinking about how to deal with these future sales after my death. A trust with named beneficiaries? Darn you, you’ve just added another chore to my verrrry long list! 🙂

    • dwsmith

      Kris and I will both be doing blogs about the death stuff down the road. We are honestly still researching it all now with this new world and there are no easy answers.

      But I feel really, really sorry for the idiot traditional writers who think their agents will take care of their work after they are gone. I’ve watched that already turn into a dozen different disasters, as well as shut down author’s books, stopping them from getting out once the author died. You don’t really understand how bad this is until you try to put together reprint anthologies.

      • Chong Go

        It twists my insides up when I think about some of the great books that are out of print because of some combination of:
        1) author’s heirs aren’t paying attention or are unknown
        2) not a lot of money in making the book available traditionally
        3) 70 year (plus) copyright keeps the story out of circulation (I fully expect that when Mickey Mouse approaches public domain, there will be another extension of the law. )

        • dwsmith

          Chong Go, yes, I agree, but it is always a fault of the author not setting something up right or trusting someone that could not be trusted. Often it is all of us thinking we have time to deal with that… tomorrow. And then tomorrow doesn’t come and our work is lost or tangled into a mess.

          That seventy year possibility is something that authors should be telling their heirs and talking to them. A vast amount of money even for work that didn’t sell much in the author’s lifetime.

  • Vera Soroka

    Yesterday I was reading a YA trad published author answer questions about if she was going on tour for her last novel in a series coming out. She didn’t know because her sales weren’t up to where they should be. She is a NYT bestselling author. For her it is all about sales and keeping on top. Apparently her books have been pirated. That was what she was blaming her lack of sales on. I thought if your publisher didn’t have such a high price on those novels, maybe they wouldn’t have that problem. She was talking about using the library and overdrive instead for those who couldn’t afford them. I use overdrive for those YA novels now because they are too expensive. But for her the sales were her survival in her career and not really about the readers. I don’t want to be that way.
    I also looked at an indie YA author who I can see just started in Nov/13 and has already got 38 novels out. She is doing very well. She’s leaving this poor YA trad author in the dust. I was thinking yesterday of how can I up my production and be more efficient. I think I came up with a way. I want to be more like that indie YA author and reach readers and not like that poor trad YA author who is trying not to drown in what they think is poor sales. The whole point of being an author is reaching readers, forever and forever. At least we hope.

    • dwsmith

      A great hope, Vera. And really great contrast between the two authors. Thanks. And you described the traditional author think so perfectly. Sales, just sales. With no thought that sales mean people spending money on your work. Where indie authors are connected closely to readers and understand. But what indie authors are missing is the one sale equals one person.

      For me, if one of my stories only sold one copy in a month, it still means to me that one person thought enough of the story to spend money on it and that has value to me. I no longer stack up readers like they are cord wood, but value every one of them. A huge shift in thinking for me from the traditional days.

      • Maree

        I think I read the same post from the same traditionally published author. The final book in her current series releases soon?
        I wonder if you misinterpreted the post? I admit I am a fan, so I may be biased, but I read it thinking that she’ll be a hybrid author after her contract period is up, (perhaps she already is under a pen name?) and if she’s not it’ll be because she got a very nice contract. She seems very sensible. I don’t see anything wrong with explaining to (young) readers why piracy hurts authors, and using something they want, a book tour, as a way to hit that home. She uses words and terms that certainly sound like shes been looking around at independent publishing.

        Or hey we could be talking about different people! But don’t judge people locked into a contract and what they can do while under it.

        • dwsmith


          Well, for a start, my point was that traditional authors only talk in numbers, and that’s what this author was doing that Vera pointed out.

          And piracy doesn’t hurt authors. One of the great myths. And this author was spreading it because she had had some traditional person, her editor or agent, give her that as an excuse for falling sales. Sad that otherwise really smart writers fall for that crap without any sort of information.

          Sales numbers for all bestsellers in traditional are down over the last three years. Even more so over the last year, but because of the system, most major writers haven’t noticed yet. Not kidding, authors are about a year behind their own sales numbers, if not more. So this author was told her numbers were down, they are not renewing her series, and someone she trusted blamed piracy on the problem and this writer believed it.

          So I am judging the writer for not understanding her own business. That I will do. Making the best of a bad situation?? Not sure that going on a tour will help that either, especially since chances are she’s paying for most of it.

          Of course, far more details than what was in the blog, but as a long-term traditional writer, the messages are pretty clear and pretty sad. And I do hope she does move indie and continues the series her fans love. Good for her readers. But she is going to have to shed some really bad information. And really stupid advisors.

          • Maree

            My comment was meant for Vera! I wasn’t challenging your interpretation Dean, just that I think that Vera may have, (and very likely it was a different post but it sounded very familar) read the same post as me, and interpreted it differently. It was one post in a thousand.

        • Vera Soroka

          No, it was a different author. She makes no bones about it that her sales were down because of piracy and that because of that she might not go on tour. She is with Sholastic and she says they pay for her tours but she does travel cheaply. I would not want to travel the way she does but she does enjoy it. As for indie publishing? She is overall against it. She still thinks traditional is the best route to take. Which is fine for her as she is a NYT bestselling author. She has had a very successful career which is great because she is immensely talented. But with her last book coming out in this series she may not be touring because of this piracy thing that they said is making her numbers go down. She also has more projects coming out with them. She is firmly set in traditional publishing.

          • Teri Babcock

            This makes me wonder how many NYT bestsellers are in danger of significant, year over year sales declines that will reduce not only their income but their negotiating clout with their publishers. I wonder if we’ll see part of that group drop into mid-list-type deals. Interesting that someone can hit (I’m assuming this is the case with the latest book) the NYT list and yet not have enough sales to justify a road trip

          • dwsmith

            And Teri, this will be a blog topic for me. Thanks for the reminder. But this is happening across the board. I’ll dig up some facts to show the downward spiral of the top sellers for the blog.

            I use the analogy that publishing has gone from a massive mountain range like the rockies to rolling hills. Everything has flattened from the traditional publishing side. Indie, another matter.

  • Jason M

    I think I speak for the group when I say that we don’t consider you an old-timer, Dean — far from it. I personally didn’t spend $650 to go to your master class to hear outdated advice, and you delivered. Besides, as you point out constantly, outside of distribution and marketing, a lot actually HASN’T changed.

    The last six months of 2016 was lousy for both sales and production for me, but your advice has been keeping me afloat while going through a period of huge personal transition. The advice to think long-term is worth its weight in gold, since we all lose perspective — ALL of us — at some point or another.

    I’m sure that one of your readers will thank you in his/her Nobel Prize speech someday.

    • dwsmith

      Jason, I hope the personal stuff smooths out. And really good point. But keeping the perspective on long term, it keeps the daily, weekly, and yearly personal bumps in perspective. Really good point.

  • Dane Tyler

    It sounds extremely exciting when you say it like this, Dean. Sales for me eventually, but for my children and grandchildren. And if they play their cards right, for their descendants as well. Very interesting, very exciting. Who knows what the future will hold, but that’s a pretty exciting prospect.

    Just need the patience and persistence to get there.

  • EE Isherwood

    This is all very good news for those, like me, just getting into indie publishing. I published a trilogy over the last 45 days and I’ve become aware of three very important revelations. First, people review my novels and share their experiences inside my world. This means people thought enough of my imagination to comment on it! I brought value to someone. Wow. Second, my readers mention things about themselves which make them real people—not just stars on a page. As you say, they are real humans, investing their treasure in something I created. Unbelievable! Last, my books will go on doing that forever. I’m a digital publishing native, so it seems natural and right to me that my digital books will still be around in a thousand years. Not as great or important literature of course, but even if it’s on server somewhere orbiting the moon, it will exist. Someone can open the file and read my words. Sounds crazy, but those are the reasons I love writing and why I enjoy your website. You not only see the big picture, but you see the important one too.

  • Thom

    So right, Dean. Thanks to my unions, I still get residuals for acting gigs as far back as the 70s, and TV writing gigs from the 90s. Slightly different, but royalties add up.

    As far as self publishing, I wrote not a single short story in 2015. Not one. Yet Amazon paid me $70 last year on short story sales. That’s pretty amazing to me.

  • Mark

    People have always been able to self-publish, but it’s much cheaper now. That opens doors.

    It is cool that the current environment allows writers to self-pub with partners (Amazon et al) that at least sometimes promote the books via search results.

    The real question is the return of effort vs. reward? If you spend a lot of time writing and the reward is a trickle of sales, is that satisfactory? Many people might get a better financial return doing something else with their time. For example, let’s say you write 20 hours a week during your free time. If you got a part-time job that paid $10/hr, that’s $200 per week, or about $10,000 per year. Over ten years that would be $100,000, and if you presumably invested that money since it was a part-time job, it could be much more lucrative than a trickle of book sales over the same time.

    I think it’s good to look at these propositions from all angles. Mostly, I think, if you want to write for profit, you probably need to really love writing because most people won’t make a lot of money from it. So do it for love and the fun of some extra cash. The “ebooks are forever” credo is probably true, but that means every year the number of ebooks readers sort through when purchasing is getting larger and larger. Every year the visibility of low-selling ebooks gets dimmer and dimmer. If you’re on page six of a search results page, you’re invisible.

    • dwsmith

      Yup, all true. And everyone should just quit and get a real job at $10 per hour. (shaking head)

      So say it takes you 60 hours to write a 40,000 word novel. So with a day job you have made $600 bucks. Wow. Go pay a few bills and buy dinner.

      With the same time spent on a novel, you have a product that could last for seventy years past your death. So you put it out there and get a few sales a month.

      Sales equal people actually buying your work. And every-so-often over the years, you change out the cover, give the book a little boost, put it in some bundles or things like that.

      Say the book just sort of sells along. Nothing great. Maybe it averages 50 copies a year total over all sites around the world. Fifty people buying your work every year.

      Sell it $4.99 and get $3.00 per book sold. Also on paper get about $3.00 per book sold. About $150.00 per year. Not much, but nothing to sneeze at.

      4 years you make $600. Equal to the day job for the sixty hours spent.

      The money you have from the day job is long gone and those sixty hours working for $10 per hour are forgotten.

      Your book is still going, and maybe if you do a little upkeep on it, it will earn you another $600 in the next four years. And so on and so on.

      And that’s a loser of a book as far as many indie writers think.

      Not sure about you, Mark, but I would rather spend the 60 hours investing in my own future. And finding ways for people to find my work along the way by writing more books and finding ways for people to find them as well.

      So Mark, you work your little day job, I’ll still be entertaining people for another hundred years, long after you are gone. And I am gone from the planet. Blunt, but true. But with a different attitude, you could do the same thing.

  • Maree

    In my experience there are two types of old timers. There’s the whole ‘back in my day’ type, who are the cliche, but the thing is, they didn’t decide to stop learning when they reached 50, or 60 (no idea exactly how old you are) they did that long ago, and they just got more annoying and less relevant as time passed.
    And then there’s the other kind. The people who didn’t stop learning. I want to learn from someone who has been actively learning for longer than I’ve been alive! The extraordinary feeling of interacting with someone who remembers back before my existence, and yet isn’t locked into that time period, who enjoys the here and now, that is extraordinary.
    I appreciate the experience and eagerness to learn that you bring to the table. It makes you a great teacher.

    • dwsmith


      Thank you. That might be the nicest thing someone has said to me in a very long time. Thank you. Made my night.

  • Sean McLachlan

    I’ve only been at the indie publishing game for three years but I can already see the benefits of what you’re saying. One of my earliest indie publications was a novella I had sold to Black Gate Magazine a couple of years before. I got paid $450 for that sale and decided not to try to sell it as a reprint because (A) you don’t get much for reprints and (B) it was a novella and thus an awkward length for many publications.
    So I indie published it instead. It’s my worst seller and only gets a couple of sales per month over all venues, giving me a grand total of about $4.20. But multiply that by 12 months and that’s $50. For doing nothing. For a story I sold years ago.
    And who knows? Maybe a few of those people go on to buy one of my novels and get sucked into one of my series.
    I’m still new at this game, with only 13 indie publications, but I cna already see it building over time.
    Now if I could only be more patient. . .

  • Lyn Perry

    Dean, I basically took a year off from writing and the indie industry. (Won’t go into why at this point.) Didn’t check my sales at all. Then just last week I decided to slowly get back in the game, so to speak, and start writing again. Even checked KDP to remind myself what stories I’ve actually published, lol. I noticed I had 6 sales representing 5 different titles! And my first thought was, wow, 6 people thought enough to invest their time and money in my books…which I haven’t promoted or even thought about for over a year! And then I began kicking myself. What if I had 100 titles out there waiting for people to pick them up? Thanks for this timely post. – Lyn

  • Michael Alan Peck

    From a creative standpoint alone, six readers grabbing a 23-year-old novel that you weren’t even trying to sell is a thing of beauty. I just finished Moby Dick, which I hadn’t ever picked up before. Reading mostly while commuting, I was completely transported away from the L train (I live in Chicago) every morning and evening to ride up and down the foam via words that Melville put out there 165 years ago. The book was a dud in his time, and he’ll never know I read it, but how many things can you accomplish in life that may touch people nearly two centuries down the line?

    I’ve had some sales. I hope to have more. But meanwhile, having anyone read and enjoy it at any time is a win, as far as I’m concerned.

    And we need our outliers and old-timers. They’re often the only ones worth paying attention to.

    Thanks for this.

  • Robert L. Slater (@RobertLSlater)

    Thanks for keeping it coming. The first short story I sold was straight from you and Kris and a comment you made about never trusting an editor with a clean desk! I took your challenge at Rusticon workshop somewhere around twenty years ago and four years ago I got really serious. Wrote a novel, created a pub company and started selling it as wide as I could. I’ve held onto the comment that $125 a month for a self-pubbed novel is good and the sales have fluctuated, but bumped up when I released book II in September. I’ve been patient, careful and eager to continue my education, but most of all, I’ve been talking about the long view. The one where I gradually work less in the day job, write more, continue publishing and set myself up for that income to grow. I’m not a fast writer yet, but I’ve learned a lot of lessons.

  • Aleksandr

    I do work a day job in a cash-rich industry, so my financial needs (pension, mortgage, savings, food, utilities) are taken care of, so for me it’s not about end-of-month money, but doing the mid-term thing. Five years from now, there should be a nice amount of savings plus the mortgage will be paid off, at which point I will seriously re-consider whether I still want a day job.

    Meanwhile, I’m concentrating my efforts on putting out more product. I’m re-claiming a fair amount of my work from a small publisher and am boosting my self-pub catalogue, hopefully at a rate of four novels a year plus small stuff/co-written stuff.

    For many reasons (one of them being tax, but the other is mid-term thinking), what money I make gets re-invested to put out more product (I’m hiring translators and audiobook narrators to spread my work as far and wide as I can). If everything goes according to plan, those multiple trickles should generate enough income that five years from now I can either quit or downshift when it comes to the day job. It’s a strategy I largely conceived inspired by reading your posts (and books).

    And I have a similar attitude when the royalty paments are rolling in – every time I get one, I think, “That’s money nobody has to work for”, because the work is done. Who has those kinds of revenue streams without being independently wealthy and/or having a huge investment Portfolio (and with global markets on a roller-coaster, that’s far from a safe bet)?

    So thank you for all your guidance.