A year ago, during the last week in November and the first weeks of December, I self-published my first book, Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery, as an ebook on Smashwords and Kindle, and as a POD book through CreateSpace. I had no history as a published author, no contacts in the publishing world, and no marketing plan. I had a self-created author web-site and blog site, a facebook friends list of about 40, a lovely cover for the book (shout out to my cover designer Michelle Huffaker), and the confidence that I had done everything possible to make my book worthy of being published. I also had hope that if people found my book that they would buy it and like it enough to recommend it to others.
In addition I had discovered a vibrant community of indie authors and ebook experimenters who were blogging away about their own journeys into the world of self-publishing; and what I appreciated was their willingness to provide the details about their experiences, the good, the bad, and the ugly, so people like me could learn as we went along. In that spirit I would like to provide a year-end assessment of my own experience, in the expectation this will help encourage other authors who are just starting out on this journey.
First the numbers:
In the first 4 months (December 2009-March 2010) I sold 158 books. 54% were ebooks-the vast majority through Kindle, and 46% print editions, slightly over half through Amazon.com. I made just short of $350—covering my costs–which were $250 for the cover design and $100 for proof copies of the print book and author’s copies to send to reviewers. I was cautiously optimistic, writing in a blog post subtitled “Can I call myself a real published author yet?” that 158 sold books had put me well on the way to the average number of books sold by self-published authors (200), and that I no longer worried that only people I knew would buy the book.
In the second 4 months (April 2010-July 2010) I sold an additional 772 books (making my total 930). 79% were ebooks (again primarily Kindle), and 21% were POD (but now 99% were directly through Amazon.com). I was ecstatic. If the 2006 Chris Anderson “Long Tail” analysis still holds true (and there is little evidence to the contrary), the average number of books per title sold in a year is 500, and 96% of all titles sell less than a 1000 copies. Based on this, my 722 books put me well above average, with an excellent chance to reach that 1000 goal before the end of the year.
In the final 4 months (August 2010-November 2010) I sold 1761 more books, 88 % of these were ebooks (primarily Kindle-which was now paying a 70% royalty) and only 12% were POD books. This meant that in the first year I sold 2691 copies of Maids of Misfortune, garnering me over $5000. (Note, none of this includes the books I have probably sold through Smashword affiliates in the past 2 months, since these balances haven’t come through yet; none reflect the few books I have sold on consignment in local book stores. It also doesn’t include the $300 a made from selling 629 copies at 99 cents of Dandy Detects, the short story I wrote to promote my full-length novel.)
What has this all meant to me?
First, I am just plain flabbergasted. I really didn’t expect to have sold these many books in the first year. While I know that this is a paltry amount for people who have gotten large advances and print runs in the hundred’s of thousands, I also know enough published authors in the midlist book category to know that this is pretty darn impressive for a first time author.
Second, it has completely justified my decision a year ago to self-publish. If in November of last year, I had decided to try the traditional route one more time, the story would have turned out very differently. If I had been lucky enough to get an agent and sell the book to one of the appropriate mystery imprints in this past year, I would have probably gotten an advance of under $3-4,000 (and if I had gone with a small press I might not have gotten any advance.) In either case, the book would not even be out yet, so no one would have read it, and the most I would have earned would have been about $1000 since advances are paid in 2-3 stages. So for 2010, no books sold versus 2600 books and $1,000 versus $5,000.
In case you were wondering, my expenses this year have continued to be low–and pretty much the same marketing costs I would have to incur if I had been traditionally published (business cards, attendance at a mystery convention, cost of entering 2 book contests)–so my net for this past year is definitely better than I would have had publishing through the traditional route.
But what about once the book came out through the traditional route? For 2011, even if the traditional publisher was inordinately speedy and got the book out in 12 instead of the 18 months that is average, and even if it sold a lot more print books than I have been selling, Maids of Misfortune, as a first time genre book, would be unlikely to sell enough copies at the much lower royalty rates of traditional publishers to pay out it’s advance in its first year. This would mean I could not expect to get any additional money, besides the rest of the advance ($2,000 to 3,000) in 2011.
However, there is every reason for me to think that I will do even better next year than I did this year with Maids of Misfortune because my sales rose steadily during the past year, and 65% of my book sales came within the last four months. The first 4 months I sold on average 1.3 books a day. The second 4 months I sold on average 6.3 books a day. The last 4 months of the year I sold on averaged 14.4 books a day, and in the first 4 days of this month (December) I have sold on average 26 books a day. I don’t know if this means that more and more people are hearing about my book and buying it, or that the number of people buying ebooks (the majority of my sales) is rising so sharply that, even if I am not attracting an increasing share of the market for historical mysteries, my total number of books sold will steadily rise. Either way, there is a very good chance that I will sell least 5,000, and maybe as many as 10,000, copies of Maids of Misfortune in 2011, and make at least an additional $10,000-$20,000 in sales. So going through the traditional route, I would have made at most $3,000 in two years; having self-published, I will make at least $8000 and maybe over $20,000 in two years.
Third, this level of success permitted me to make the changes necessary to write full time. As I discussed in my last post, two weeks from now I will retire completely from college teaching (I had been working part time to supplement my retirement income.) This in turn will help me accomplish my goal finishing Uneasy Spirits, the sequel of Maids of Misfortune, and publishing it before the end of next year. If I had published traditionally, with either no advance (small press) or a small advance (as first time author), and the book wasn’t even out yet, I wouldn’t have felt confident enough about the future earning power of Maids of Misfortune to have made this decision at this point.
I have had a very successful first year as an indie author; however, there is no particular secret to my success. While I have spent most of the past year on this blog talking about why I made the decision to self-publish, what strategies I used, what has worked and what hasn’t, if you read these posts, you will discover that nothing I have done has been particularly brilliant or unique. In most part I have simply followed the advice given out by a number of wonderful experts on their blogs and in their how to guides. See, for example, April Hamilton’s Indie Author Guide, or Zoe Winter’s Becoming an Indie Author, or Joe Konrath’s Newbie’s Guide to Publishing.
What I think an aspiring indie author can learn from my story is that, if you have a book that is well-written and meets professional editing and design standards, and you publish it as an ebook (particularly on Kindle), and you follow the advice of the experts (develop a consistent brand, get the book reviewed, make sure it can be found under the right categories in ebookstores, and participate in the various conversations on the web that will get you and your book noticed), this sort of success is very achievable, even for a newbie. And it can be a lot of fun.