So I introduced this series a little over a week ago, and I’m coming back to you with some preliminary data from my cost/recoup survey. Keep in mind that I’m pulling from a relatively small cross-section of the publishing writer population, so I don’t have access to huge amounts of data. For that, you should look up the Author Earnings Report headed by Hugh Howey, or look at findings from Digital Book World’s articles on past surveys they’ve conducted (they’re in the midst of collecting survey data again for those interested). I did take the DBW survey this morning, and after answering the questions, I was able to get a look at the collected responses, so I’ll include some of that here.
Actually, I may start off with that, as it’s the biggest thing I think people need to know before they embark on a writing career.
Seventy-five percent of the over 2k people that answered this question (so far) do not make their living off of their books.
That’s slightly higher than what the results of my little survey would indicate, but, again, DBW is pulling from a much larger pool of people than I am, as they have a much wider reach. Actually, I was a little surprised the percent of people living off of writing income was that high. It’s a pleasant surprise, and I think that gives people reasonable hope for achieving that someday, but I wonder how that percentage would change if Amazon disclosed total sales figures from self-publishing authors. Anyway…
Here are some of my results. I had 122 responses to five questions over the course of a week. This is what I asked for, in regards to a single book:
- Total cost for book cover design, including photography/design elements
- Total cost for editorial services
- Total advertising costs, not including swag/giveaway/contest items
- Total cost for physical promotional items
- Total amount made in the first three months of the book’s publication
- Any other notes or comments they wanted to make
It was a very simple survey and didn’t include things like how many books they’d released before, if it was a second or third or whatever in the series, how long the author had been publishing… there are a lot of other factors that go into a book’s success. I didn’t poll on which marketing efforts or publishing platforms saw the most results. I didn’t even ask about genre. All I wanted was simple numbers, so I could show people what to expect to put into their book and what might be a reasonable expectation of return.
I tallied up the numbers and averaged data columns, and here’s what I saw for middle of the road cost and recoup:
- Average spent on cover: $302.66
- Average spent on editing: $339.08
- Average spent on advertising: $310.55
- Average spent on physical promotional material: $184.44
- Average made on a single book in the first 3 months: $2,245.45
- This means the average profit minus the initial costs was $1,108.71
So, if you spent the average of $1,136.73 on publishing a single book, you could reasonably expect to have an extra $1,108.71 after those expenses over three months. But, of course, you won’t see that money all in one chunk. Amazon (almost definitely the biggest source of income for self-publishers) pays monthly, but from three months back. You wouldn’t see a dime from a new book until 1/4 of a year after hitting publish.
If you live in any first world country, that’s not enough to live on by anyone’s standards, nevermind support a spouse and/or children. It’s a harsh truth to come to grips with, and it’s a big reason why most people will never be able to write for a living. Yes, there are lots of people who do, but 75% of writers (per the DBW survey) get their primary income from another source. That remaining 25% might be writing for a living, but they might be writing things like blog posts for website content for Viagra, or random lists of things for Cracked.com, or technical manuals for vacuum cleaners. “Writing” isn’t restricted to novel form only.
If that makes you sad, maybe this will inject a little hope into the matter. One of my responders who spent $0 on their cover made $23,000 in three months on a single title. One person spent $0 on editing and made $2,000. One spent $0 on advertising and made $4,468. But, a good majority of everyone who responded to this survey made under $1,000 in those three months. The highest number I saw for sales was $27,000, but there were more $0 entries in that column than you’d expect for people spending between $100-300 on a book cover.
There were plenty of extremes in the data I got back, and, really, I could spin the numbers just about any which way to sway you to one side of an argument or another. That’s the thing about numbers. It’s really easy to interpret these raw figures and present them as “here’s why it’s awesome” or “here’s why it sucks” evidence. I really want to be unbiased with how I give you these results, as I think everyone should make their own decisions about if this is the right path for them or not.
So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to break this down into a few different posts, focusing on one question per post. I’ll talk about not just the data, but how authors arrived at those costs, and what others can do to maybe save a little money here and there, and what I think is the best investment they can make in each area. Always keep in mind that publishing is a very fluid field, however, and what might be true one month could drastically change the next. I got a lot of additional comments on this survey, so I may dedicate an entire post to that as well, or sprinkle in some of those bits in the topic-specific posts.
And for the sake of absolute transparency, I’m also sharing the Excel spreadsheet with the collected data. My knowledge of Excel is horribly, horribly limited, so I’m admittedly fumbling in the dark with how I’ve broken it all down, but you can see exactly what I’m pulling from if you want to dive into the numbers yourself. Get the Excel file here. (And good luck with that. Apologies in advance to you Excel-savvy people. LOL)
That done, next time I’m going to talk about the cover costs as related to this data. It’s a topic I know quite a bit about, seeing as cover design is one of my other hats, so I hope that post will be helpful. Feel free to discuss all of this in the comments, and if you have questions, I’m happy to answer where I can.
Update: For the sake of easy navigation, I’ve collected all of the posts in this series right here: