How Much Should Your First Book Earn? Self-Publishing 101
Publishing isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme, but some authors do earn a lot off the bat. If you’re new on the block, you’re probably wondering how your book will rank in the charts and how much you can expect to earn from your first release.
That question is surprisingly hard to answer.
If you’re going the traditional route with an agent and publisher, you can expect an advance of $10,000 when you sell your book to the publisher. That’s a lot—and you can be sure that it’s almost certainly more than your book will earn whether you publish traditionally or self-publish. The expectation with an advance is that you will collect royalties after you hit that $10,000 mark, and the publisher will have a better idea how much of an asset you are as a writer.
Self-publishing, sadly, doesn’t come with any advance payments—but you can collect royalties from day one, and those royalties will be significantly higher than any you would claim with a traditional deal. Instead of keeping ten percent of your book’s earnings, you can keep seventy percent. That makes a bigger difference the better your book sells.
Estimating Potential Earnings
There are many factors that go into self-publishing: the lifetime of your book, how many copies you sell, how much each copy costs, what percentage you can claim for royalties, and the cost of publishing. Let’s look at these in more detail.
Copies sold and book lifetime.
The lifetime of your book is possibly infinite, and can’t be estimated. It’s entirely possible that you’ll earn almost nothing on your launch, but have the book get discovered ten years later and become a smash hit. To simplify our sample study, let’s limit our focus to the first month following your release. This is the span where you’ll probably get most of your sales and have a good estimate of how your book is doing.
Cost per copy.
This varies from genre to genre and is something you’ll need to check before determining for yourself. Self-published novels usually sell for anywhere from 99¢ to $9.99. It gets more complicated if you factor in reduced sale prices or page reads from Kindle Unlimited, but we’ll keep it simple for now and assume that you’re listing your books for an even $5. If you want, you can already multiply this number as many times as you want to see how many copies you should sell if you want to break even or profit from your publishing.
This is one of the biggest factors attracting authors to self-publishing. The royalties are generous and add up quickly. Different platforms offer different royalty rates for authors, but Kindle (the largest retailer) usually offers 70%. Out of your $5 book from earlier, you’re going to get $3.50 to your wallet for every copy you sell. If you were earning royalties from a traditional publisher, you would have gotten only a few cents.
Just as royalties are a major perk to self-publishing, the publishing costs are one of the biggest deficits. Publishing is a big job, and you can’t count on yourself to be able to do everything—especially not being able to do everything well. Track your costs, and you’ll have a better idea of what it would take for you to actually profit from your book.
Estimating Potential Earnings
According to self-publishing expert Chris McMullen, the average book sells 100 copies over its lifetime. Many books out there are complete flops, selling five or fewer copies, and a few are megastars. Let’s assume that your book is going to fall dead in the middle and make exactly one hundred sales over your first month.
Here’s what the equation looks like at a glance:
_____ copies x _____ cost per copy x _____ royalty percent - ____ publishing costs.
Let’s fill it in with our sample.
100 copies x 5 cost per copy x .70 royalty percent – 200 publishing costs: $150 net profit.
You can also use the calculator that the Self-Publishing School has here for faster math, but keep in mind that this calculator doesn’t include publishing costs.
A hundred and fifty dollars doesn’t sound like much, and it certainly isn’t enough to quit your day job on, but if you assume that book continues to sell and that you continue to write new books on a regular basis, your earnings will stack accordingly.
However much your first book earns, your future books will likely perform better. You’ll have a backlist, more experience, and know which pitfalls to avoid. Most authors lose more money than they make for the first few years of publishing and only start to earn after building up a serious backlist. It’s best to move into your first book with the assumption that it is only the beginning of a prolific career and will pay out more later on.
I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on debut success. Please sign up to comment below or join my Facebook group for self-publishing fiction writers by clicking on the blue button below.