The Truth about Book Sales

I’ve said here more than once I don’t make much money off my writing. So far, on average, I’m pulling in a whopping $50-80 a month in royalties.

That’s one person’s cable bill. It’s another’s phone charge. It’s a nice dinner out for two people once a month.

In other words, I ain’t getting rich, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Other writers I know are making thousands off their books. I keep asking myself why they sell and I don’t, and I never come up with an answer that sounds right.

Tobias Buckell, a mid-list writer who sells nicely but isn’t rolling in money, had this to say about it (click on the link to see colorful charts and get more info):

If you’ve been successful, good on ya. I’m thrilled when any artist breaks out to making a living. But genuinely understand that survivorship bias means there are plenty of people plugging the same formulas and not getting results that look even similar.

This is not bitterness on my part. I’m actually thrilled with where I am, which is far ahead of many. Over half my income comes from writing fiction (and if I weren’t in debt from having a medical crisis in 2008 I’d likely be able to make a living just on my fiction). I’ve been slowly building my career since 1999, since my first tiny sale. Each year my readership grows, my blog audience grows, the money I make off my fiction grows. I use eBooks, traditional publishing and crowdsourcing all as tools to survive. I’m playing the long game. And maybe I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m pretty open to that, but I’m always happy to report on what’s going on. Each successful career I’ve seen, though, requires a ton of hard work, and many people I see trying any method with a focus on shiny and new and ‘beating’ some system often flame out and fall away. Lots of people who’re doing the right thing and working hard flame and fall away too.

Making a living off art is hard.

But that isn’t a sexy sell.

That isn’t to say you should give up. Fuck that. But I am going to say: get ready to work, don’t expect riches. Focus hard on the art.

And pay attention to those charts and adjust your expectations accordingly.

There’s a lot of snake oil sales going on. And a lot of well meaning people who won the lottery telling everyone to go buy lottery tickets while financial advisors shake their head.

I kept thinking I was screwing up somewhere. I’m not. I kept thinking I needed to change what I wrote. I don’t. I’m just one of the many writers who haven’t risen above the bottom 1% yet.

I’ll keep plugging away, writing what I want to, self-publishing or trad publishing as I see fit (a lot of this depends on what I’m writing, because trad publishers are understandably more nervous around anything outside the “norm”), and see what happens. Right now, I don’t depend on my writing to eat. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to someday, but it ain’t happening now.

In the meantime, once a month I can go out to eat with AJ, my treat. Pay a phone bill. Pick up some groceries. That ain’t bad.

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About Fenraven

Fenraven happily lives in south Florida, where it is really hot most of the year. Find him on Twitter, Google +, and Facebook by searching on 'fenraven'.
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10 Responses to The Truth about Book Sales

  1. A.M.B. says:

    It sounds like you have a good perspective on it! Congratulations on the steady income, even if it isn’t as high as it should be. It’s nice to hear that some people manage to live off their art (particularly if they aren’t being heavily promoted by a major publishing house). As for me, if I end up publishing, I wouldn’t want to stop working. My biggest concern would be the long term. I would want to keep one foot in the 9-5 working world because gaps in a resume are tough for lawyers to overcome, and royalties could drop at any time (it helps that I like my job).

    • I’d just as soon write for a living, but I’m a realist. And while the additional monthly income isn’t great, it’s money I earned from my creativity, which means a lot more to me than the paycheck I get from the job.

      All things considered, I’m happy with my current situation.

  2. diannegray says:

    There are very few people in this world who can make a living off writing, Theo. It’s good to just take it as something you love to do, rather than sweating on sales. I love that you’re philosophical about it, that’s the best way to be 😀

    • I had no choice if I wanted to continue writing, and I admit, a couple times in the last few months, I came close to throwing in the towel.

      But I love writing, and while I don’t think I have something “important” to say, I do tell a good story. So I’m gonna keep doing it.

  3. Karen says:

    Sometimes a good story is as important as anything else, maybe even more, it can give a person a chance to slip away from the problems of their day to day life and with luck when they return it’s with a new perspective and something that seemed insurmountable becomes a problem they can handle. I’m lucky my life is in a good place right now, but when I was growing up especially those wonderful teen years, I know the biggest reason I got through them was because I could escape into a good book and read about someone elses life for a while, whether it was real or imagined it gave me a break from mine and helped me to gain a better perspective on things. So keep writing and never underestimate the value of a good story.

  4. Have you thought about getting professional covers? I mean, your books look more like erotica than my one m/m erotica (naked torsos, obscured faces). While it might get you a sale here and there, I suspect people could be disappointed by the fact that there’s not a lot of sex in the books. Perhaps see what’s kicking around for mystery/thriller covers. And while I don’t think any of your iterations were bad, or even amateurish looking, they’re not professional either. Also, clicking on a bunch of the covers is showing a 404 Not Found error. Though who knows, could be something weird on my end.

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