As a follow-on to this post, I finally found the source of the data that caused me to give up any notion of financial success as a novelist. If you’re reading this with the goal of being financially successful, you might want to pause and decide if you really want to continue. I was blissfully able to ignore all the other bad news I’d read until I got to this one.
Everything You Wanted to Know about Book Sales (But Were Afraid to Ask)
An In-Depth Look at What/How/Why Books Sell
For me the passage that killed was this one (there’s a lot of great information, so, if you’ve come this far, I strongly urge you to read it):
That’s a small sample though, so I went through the BookScan numbers for every fiction book listed on the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014. I used 2014 instead of 2015 to make sure each book had at least 12 months of sales. No list is perfect, but the NYT list includes story collections and small press books alongside the big name literary authors and award contenders. 2014’s list includes names like Haruki Murakami, Lydia Davis, Marlon James, and David Mitchell as well as small press debuts by Nell Zink and Eimear McBride. It’s a good sampling of the “books that people are talking about” in the literary world.
The BookScan sales of those books literally ranged from 1,000 to 1.5 million, with an average (mean) of just over 75,000 copies sold per book. That 75k number is pretty skewed by the existence of Anthony Doerr’s runaway literary hit, All the Light We Cannot See, which sold over 1.5 millions of copies. (The next highest book was about 270,000.) If we remove the best and worst selling books on the list, we get a mean of 46,550 copies and a median of 25,000 copies.
My take from this is the 50th most ‘notable’ book sold a whopping 25K books, when ranked by sales. I already know there’s a steep drop off in book sales after the first year and while a very few books will become perennial sellers, all the rest probably see 80-90% of their sales in the first 12 months of sales.
Note that these books all have conventional publishers, and, in most cases, the publishers are big ones. Thus, were I to achieve my fantasy of being picked up by a major publisher (which, of course, requires being taken on by an experienced agent), the best I can look forward to is, really, 25K books sold. As much as I like the notion of being a best selling author, I just don’t think my style of writing will have a wide enough appeal to generate the sorts of sales that would build on themselves enough to be best selling. My fantasies assumed I’d be more in the top 1K books, which if the 50th is that dismal, how bad can the 1,000th be?
Yes, if you have a backlist, any new book will generate a bump for all the rest, if your latest is well received, but I’ve read that it’s generally only possible to make a living as a novelist after you’ve had 10 novels that sold fairly well AND you keep cranking them out. I managed to write nearly 250K words in a year, which is 2-3 novel’s worth, so output isn’t the issue. But I was unsuccessful with my query attempts (detailed in here), so faced with the three orders of magnitude more dismal prospects of self publishing I decided being a novelist just wasn’t where I needed to be.
Oh, mentioned in the above article is this equally depressing one, which I will leave you with:
What Writers Earn Money? A Look at the Author Earnings Report on Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing Sales
Curious how many authors are earning poverty wages or better?
4,600 authors [earn] $25,000 or above from their sales on Amazon.com. 40% of these are indie authors deriving at least half of their income from self-published titles, while 35% are Big Five authors deriving the majority of their income from Big Five-published titles, and 22% are authors who derive most of their income from titles published by small- or medium-sized traditional publishers.
So… not exactly a ton of writers are even scraping together poverty wages from writing.
How about writers who could be described as making a nice living off of books at $100,000 a year?According to this report, only 1,340 make the cut. For comparison’s sake, there are 1,696 NFL players in any given year drawing an average salary of $1.9 million.