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Indie Author Earnings: Make Money A Measure of Success

orna ross talks about author earnings

Orna Ross, Director of ALLi “For an indie author earnings are an important indicator of success.”

ALLi Director Orna Ross expands on the organization's submission to the UK government's All-Party Committee on Author Income and the statement she made on the latest AskALLi Advanced Salon that caused controversy recently: Income should be a measure of self-publishing success. Where do you stand on this issue? Read the post then join the debate via the comments box.

There are very few “shoulds” in Indie Author Land. Ours is a dynamic environment, where the rules – where there are any – change rapidly and one of the great delights of our work is being part of a broad church, that attracts writers from every kind of background, with every definition of success.

Money is the measure of author success most often used by the outer world, with constant talk of bestsellers.  In a different way, money is also a measure that each indie author can use ourselves, to track our progress and spur our growth, no matter what other values we may also be pursuing.

It's one of the challenges of our job, knowing when to take off the writing hat and put on the publisher one. Actually indie authors, like other creative entrepreneurs, have three jobs: making (the creative writer); managing (the creative director) and maximizing influence and impact (the creative promotor).

(More on the suggestion that we wear three hats, not two, in this blog post. And you'll find a Facebook group organized around this “three hat” principle here)

During last week's AskALLi Advanced Self-publishing Salon with ALLi's Enterprise Advisor and author advice guru, Joanna Penn, I found myself saying:

“Let money be your measure of success.”

It got a strong reaction from those who may not have caught the rest of the context. I  was addressing the way in which authors expend a lot of creative energy, time and money chasing Facebook Likes, Twitter followings, Amazon rankings, positive reader feedback, or reviews. The suggestion was that money–profit– might be a better metric than some of these in tracking our value to our readers.

Indie Author Earnings: Income As A Measure of Success

There were those who agreed. Historical fiction author Jane Steen made this public comment on the video on Facebook Live:

“Loved ‘let money be your measure'. We're too inclined to be shy about saying how much we earn – at first because we're earning so little, and then eventually because we don't want to sound like we're bragging! I loved it back in 2011-2012 when the early self-publishers posted earnings reports.

Then there were those who vehemently opposed the very thought. Much of that correspondence was private. I'll let this paragraph from a member I'll call John represent that position.

“I was horrified to hear you say that authors should make money their measure of success. The very reason I write is to escape all that. I get quite enough of it everywhere else in my life, thank you very much. My boss, my wife, my bank.  It’s not what I expect from my authors' group. Or, Orna, to be frank, from you. I'm very disappointed.”

There were less polite messages and it’s interesting to me that so many of those negative responses were private. I've given them all consideration, but I stand by the comment, made in the context of our AskALLi Advanced Salon. That monthly salon is aimed at author-publishers who want to sell more books and reach more readers. In short, to be better publishers.

Income is the best measure we have of our success as publishers.

The more businesslike among you are likely scratching your head at why we're even having this discussion. For you, it's obvious. Of course, money should be the measure! That's what running a business means! But I also get where people like John are coming from.

An author business is a creative business and these have different drivers to conventional business. Writers–alongside other creatives, coaches, activists, artists and suchlike–don't have profit as the overarching motive, or we wouldn't be doing what we do in the first place. (There are easier ways to earn a profitable crust).

Creative businesses are powered by passion and mission as much as profit. But income is the measure of whether we're fulfilling our passion and generating the influence and impact that fulfils our mission as authors.

Indie Author Earnings: From Professionals To Business Owners

Until recently writing books was a career, a profession. Authors were content providers for other businesses (publishers) set up within a scarcity business model. In this model, only a few of the many authors who write can be accommodated (receive a publishing contract and bookstore opportunity). And only a small subset of that lucky few can be afforded the sort of marketing that makes financial success likely.

Since the onset of the internet and online commerce, that has changed. Authors now also have self-publishing, which is set up within an abundance model. Key difference is: self-publishing puts us into business ourselves.

Now we're not freelancers, trading our time for money. We're not content providers pitching for some of the tiny bookshelf space available.  We're business owners.

We own the rights in our media and publishing enterprises, we own the assets, we own the money flow. Problem is, we don't necessarily know how to access that opportunity, or what to do with the abundance of opportunities exploding all around us.

We may not have yet caught up with the implications of the changes. We can be enmeshed in the old way of thinking. We may not have thought through how going indie changes things for us.

We can be carrying an unconscious bias against business, or some other kind of mindset that comes between us and success.

Indie Author Earnings: Profit Mindset

The profit mindset that you need to succeed as an indie author has three components:

1. You need to believe that you can make money as an author-publisher, writing the kind of books you want to write.

2. You need to understand what that asks of you, creatively and commercially, and be willing to do the necessary creative work, rest, play, and practice.

3. You need to commit to paying yourself first.

The psychologists speak of this in terms of intrinsic, inner-directed and extrinsic, outer-directed motives and rewards.  As writers, we're primarily motivated by the intrinsic, as publishers by the extrinsic. And so, as author-publishers, by a fine balance of both.

In practice, holding this balance means understanding, measuring and integrating our passion and our profits into our plans, our degree of influence and actual income into our records.

So many authors undervalue themselves and give themselves away. Let's not be one of those.

Indie Author Earnings: The New Author

The difference between the old way and the new for authors was forcefully brought home to me during a recent appearance before the UK government's All-Party Committee on Author Income. Other writer representative organizations like the Society of Authors were fixed on local issues (Brexit) and how the profits of the trade-publishing industry might be shared more equitably with authors. Their recommendations were around copyright restriction and negotiations with publishers.

For them, Amazon is all bad, a blight on the publishing landscape.

For us at the Alliance of Independent Authors  VAT and other sales taxes, the changed position of the author in the 21st century from hired professional to creative business owner, the need for business skills training for authors and the issues arising from global, digital distribution in ebook, audiobook and print-on-demand e.g. sales tax attributions. For us, Amazon is a mixed blessing. Indie authors will always be grateful to the innovative company that freed us from a closed system but we also have challenges in working with them as a business partner, and concerns about their dominant position in the marketplace.

Our deposition centered on the recognition of self-publishing and selective rights licensing by authors as a new way of getting words to market that offered significantly more opportunity for improving author income for most authors. We also pushed for government to support the training needed by indie authors, alongside other digital creative entrepreneurs, to avail of that opportunity.

(See ALLi's Self-Publishing 3.0 campaign for more on this).

Indie Author Earnings: Making Money a Measure

What the responses to my podcast comment make clear is that our connection to money is a relationship that stirs strong emotion. If you take the emotion out of it, however, I do still think the profit in our author business is the best measure we can have of the value we are offering our readers.

It's an opinion arrived at from my own experience as an indie author, and the experience of observing thousands of other indie authors, close up.

I'd personally love to see more authors earning a decent living from their writing. And I think the best way to see that happen is for more authors to take money more seriously as a measure of success. And intentionally begin to take the steps that will see them earn more.

What do you think? Is there a better measure of publishing success? How do you define success in your publishing business?

#Indieauthors - how do you measure #selfpub success? ALLi Director @OrnaRoss makes the case for measuring it by MONEY! Read why & join the debate! Share on X

Indie Author Earnings: Further Reading and Advice

Self-publishing 3.0

SelfPub3 Part 1: Author Earnings through Author Business 

SelfPub3 Part 2: Call for Action on Author Earnings

SelfPub3 Part 3: The Future: AI, the Blockchain and the dawn of Self-Publishing 4.0

Running an Author Business

Business models for indie authors: which one is right for you?

Three Aspects of Indie Author Business: Maker, Manager, Marketeer

Author: Pay Yourself First

Author: Orna Ross

Orna Ross is a bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction and inspirational poetry, and a creativity facilitator. As founder-director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, she has been named one of The Bookseller’s Top 100 people in publishing. 


This Post Has 26 Comments
  1. Well, lovely article, and yes! You should measure your success by your sales, profit and best selling stature. It gives every writer significance, doesn’t it? We live in a capitalists society that promotes and needs success to push civilisation forward. How else can you measure it? I’m sure there are some fantastic books out there that have been lost in the Amazon rankings or been pushed away by top publication houses. We all can’t have a best seller. Anyway, I only left this comment to get a link back to my website, in the hope it helps me get more sales. Tut! The irony of it all.

    1. Success on one hand is just publishing your book. If you didn’t want to make money why publish at all…just write?

  2. Nobody disputes the subjective measures–personal satisfaction, et al. Let’s set those aside.

    What else but money (or sales) can we use as an objective measure?

    Awards? But those are highly subjective, and bestowed by peers and industry. Not objective, sorry.

    Money–that is, sales–are bestowed by the only group that really matters (in our objective realm)–readers. If readers are willing to pay, then the author is objectively successful. If not, the author can only be subjectively successful.

    I detect tinges of green in those who try to argue against money and sales being the major measure of success. I’ve yet to meet an author who sells well and makes money who will nevertheless argue s/he is NOT successful.

    I have, however, run into many who stridently proclaim that they feel successful in spite of failure to sell–so I don’t discount the possibility. I’m never so foolish as to try to prove a negative.

    I do, however, suspect them of trying a bit too hard to convince not only their audience, but themselves–and I challenge any of them to honestly say they’d turn down six figures in their pocket, or that they’d immediately and convincingly feel more successful thereby.

  3. ‘No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ I’m not a great fan of Churchill. But if you substitute money for democracy here, there’s something that I kinda believe in. I wrote one book. No money. A couple of not bad reviews. Wrote another book. Got help from Scottish Book. No publisher interested. I’m not interested in fast cars, or big houses or all that other rigmarole. That’s my marketing line. I want readers. I want success. Ssssh, whisper it, I’d sell out my high moral values in a minute for the clean life and airy living of a real-live author.
    The problem is and has been for a while, the exception to the rule is the only rule. These prodigies of the marker. The exception to the rule that single-highhandedly sell, sell and sell, are those we are meant to ape. It’s like carrot juice and enemas that cure cancer. Whatever way you stick it, it doesn’t work. But it worked for me, says the prodigy.
    Money is not a bad thing, a means of exchange. Everybody is shouting and nobody listening. I’m not sure what the answer is. Try harder. You’re not doing what is required for the market. I write stuff nobody reads. How do you cure that?
    Throw money at it. Aye, well gie’s some.

  4. Simply love the question! I think there’s a different answer for each of us, considering the motivation we have to write, but I believe it’s also a matter of personality. In my case I see 3 stages and different ways I’will measure “Success” along my author journey. I’m a newbie, I will publish my first book in September this year. But from when I’m going online in June with my freebie, my first measure of success will be to have as many readers read my book as possible, and possibly have them satisfied and happy about my books. Second stage: from book 4-5ish to part time to full time income, I will just be thinking about making money (mind you I love to write, bla bla bla but Money Matters!) There’s no way to say I’ll get there (part time/full time income) but if I should, then priorities change again. I’ll consider myself successful if apart from writing I get to travel a lot (at least 8 weeks per year but final aim is 12 and maybe a couple of months living and working from elsewhere. I’ll give up more income for a happier life. And happiness is the best (and final) measure of success 🙂

  5. Gosh darn it, finally someone who gets IT . . . or at least isn’t afraid to say IT. Orna, your statement is one of the exact foundations on which the “Act Like an Author, Think Like a Business” Annual Conference is built.

    There’s literary success, and there’s financial literary success. As authors, we determine our own measure for each. And there absolutely should be a measure for both literary success and financial literary success.

    Money matters. If you have a message to tell, well, it cost money to move the message. And if you only want to make enough money to move the message, that’s fine. But if making a living as a writer is part of the plan, then you have to determine what that looks like for you and the efforts and actions you need to take in order to achieve it.

    Why you write, why you publish, and why you sell a book are all three different thought processes, and as an author, your intentions, actions, efforts, and goals should be based upon your answers.

    1. Thanks Joylynn, I agree that it’s really important to break those three down: the writing and the book production are craft tasks and will have completely different measures of success to the selling of the books. And the positioning of books, and the author, in the marketplace for maximum influence and impact will be different again. Your conference sounds fascinating, off to check it out.

  6. I’ve always suggested that money matters.

    First and foremost because If we as authors don’t put a value on our work, why should readers? We’re basically saying that the hours we put into it, the time we spend creating wonderful stories, the time we take from family and friends has no value.
    There are other considerations as well. If you pay for professional editing and cover art (and you should) are writers just supposed to eat that? How do you get that back? With the cost of an edit around $200 and ditto for cover art, who has that kind of money?

    You should write because you love it, but you should be paid for what it took for people to see it.

  7. Having just been shortlisted for The Selfies, I was delighted to read the role of the self-publisher described as an author who is their own creative director. I have been trad published. I was made to write an alternative ending for my book, the title was changed and it was given a chick-lit cover of a type very much in vogue at the time. I was green and I accepted these changes as part of what it meant to be published. When I was dropped because my next book was ‘not women’s fiction’ it became blatantly apparent that my publisher didn’t share my vision. As my own creative director, I get to bring my story to market, using professionals who do (Hello, Dan Holloway and Jane Dixon-Smith). Literary fiction has never sold in great numbers. Read Diana Athill’s ‘Stet’. She describes how her heart dropped when a really good work of literary fiction landed on her desk, because she knew they could not turn it down and that it would make a loss. I don’t think it is possible to argue that as publishers, our measure of success should be money alone. My primary objective has to be making the book the very best it can be, because words and important, books are important. I want to recoup my investment, of course I do, and I would love to think that I could make a living out of it, but that is far from being a reality. This year, for me, success has meant breaking the Australian market, carving out time to write while fulfilling caring responsibilities and being short-listed for three awards. These may sound like small steps but to me they are the encouragement I need to keep going.

    1. They don’t sound small at all Jane, they sound most significant and, yes, ALLi has always defined independent authors as the creative directors of their books and their author businesses. Of course, words and books are important, we are all dedicating our working lives to that and I definitely hope my post doesn’t argue that “our measure of success should be money alone”. There are subtle distinctions here.

      The podcast comment, and subsequence post, are addressed to those who resist or overlook money as a measure (not to those who do engage with it and wish they were seeing income in greater measure). Yes, it’s easier if you write in a popular genre but for indie litfic writers, it’s better than it was in Athill’s world, where sales were restricted to a local territory only and costs were higher.

      Theoretically, there are enough readers of literary fiction globally to keep a litfic author in a living. The challenge, of course, is how to reach them and how to stand out in an overcrowded space (sometimes I think there are more writers than readers of litfic and poetry).

      My post just wanted to suggest that money is the best measure of progress in that direction: book by book, reader by reader.

      The Australian market is an important development for any author but especially for an author in one of the less popular genres. Congratulations on that… and of course on your award nominations. Keep on keeping on!

  8. I don’t think money is the measure of success of an indie author, or any author. Making lots of money is often a measure of the marketing brilliance of the indie author or publisher. It can also be good fortune. It may have nothing to do with the quality of the writing.

    I would love it if my books all became bestsellers, but I don’t anticipate it. And if I judged myself based on sales, I would have quit writing several years ago. I judge by how my audience reacts to my books. If the reviews show they enjoy them, I fell successful. I’d feel more successful if they sold more, but it doesn’t discourage me.

    When I read reviews and readers say it kept them up all night, or they felt as if they were there, that gives me the inspiration to go on.

    I don’t expect to be a bestseller; I stink at marketing. But all my books are well-regarded ones, and most have earned reviews of 4.6-4.9 on Amazon. That encourages me.

    1. Thanks so much for jumping into the debate, Jim, which such great points. I completely agree sales and writing quality are not equivalent. I’m not really talking about bestsellers, about judging ourselves based on sales, or even about “making lots of money”. My suggestion is very much about us beginning where we are and using money as the measure of our progress towards becoming a successful publisher. About not accepting that we “stink” [love it!] at marketing but finding a way to market that satisfies us creatively.

      Good reviews, good feedback, good writing: these are important, for sure, but does it serve us well to make these our measure of success as publishers (as distinct from as writers)?

    2. Picking up on what Jim says … I’m torn here because I’ve just started to make a little more money and starting to see myself as more worthwhile as a writer … but at the same time I know there are writers out there who are ‘successful’ – and I’m looking at indie authors here – who are terrible writers but are making lots of money because of their marketing skills. I’ve taken many a course and read many a book by authors teaching me to make money while they themselves are average or worse as writers. In the eyes of friends I’m getting successful by making more money – but I want to see myself as successful because my books have quality. In fact I want both. Perhaps financial success is *one* measure, but not the only one.

  9. If making lots of money is the measuring stick of success, then I’m an abject failure and need to give up and stick to my day job. I don’t see myself as a hobby writer, but as I don’t need pressure to perform with my writing, I choose to aim to not make a financial loss. To me, success is having someone recommend my books to another reader. I don’t like being told that there is only one way to be an indie author. There is more than one way to define success. To those who use money as their measuring stick – I wish you well and hope you exceed your goals. My business model is different. I put the creative as the top priority and the income second. Doesn’t make me any less of an indie author.

    1. Definitely not, Alison, and that’s why the topic is framed as a question and the post opens with saying that nobody else can define success for us. There are no shoulds in the broad church of indie.

  10. Having already invested over $10,000 in top-notch content, copy and line editing for the first three books of my epic medieval fantasy series, The Drinnglennin Chronicles, and projecting another $8000 to cover the editing of Book 4 and all four book covers, I certainly consider this outlay as an investment in future returns. As a hybrid author, I fully embrace the author-entrepreneur mindset, and will measure the success of my writing in terms of books sold. I see this, in no way, to be in conflict with my #1 steadfast goal for my work to reach its intended audience. If it’s good writing, if I’ve made sure my books receive the same standard (or higher) treatment they would get from a traditional publishing company, and if I invest the time and money to ensure people know my works are available, I should earn a respectable income from them. Yes, then I will consider myself a successful writer. Launch dates for all four books are in 2019, so time will tell!

  11. subject after my own heart. Having written a book with the subtitle “Define Success in Your Own Terms and then Achieve It” I guess my position is clear! For me that’s the joy of being indie – you get to say what success means for you. The real issues tend to come when people *say* (they might even *think*) their definition is one thing and yet their actions or their comments show it isn’t – that’s when the time for self-scrutiny really comes. Everything you do in your writing life needs to be focused on your definition of success. The telling factor is that so long as you are doing that and the results are stacking in that direction, you shouldn’t be worried when you don’t get *irrelevant* things. If you say you write just for the love and yet you’re upset by bad reviews; if you say you write only to share your words and not to make money yet you price your book at $4.99 and fret over lack of sales, maybe that’s an indicator that you actually want something else. And remember what you want can change over time – so regular reflection is really important.

    1. This, exactly. There are myriad goals for writing and publishing books to the highest standard within your reach — and to keep reaching. Some examples are creative satisfaction, engagement with readers & other writers, the constant learning required for a thriving creative career. Money is one of those goals, but I don’t think it should be so vigorously prioritized. The implication in this article is that those of us with non-financial goals need “mindset training” to get our minds right. (That sounds absolutely horrifying, btw; I should think writers could find a less Orwellian phrase.) First, a writer must understand & define their own goals. Then the most important question is, “Am I achieving my goals?” That’s the star you’re reaching for.

      1. I definitely didn’t want to imply that, Anna, and would love suggestions for a less Orwellian phrase. The word “mindset” is being widely used in the community now, so perhaps I used it unthinkingly. For me, it’s not about prioritizing money over other goals so much as pointing up that under-prioritizing, or unexamined assumptions about money, are widespread. A huge number of authors we meet assume there is no living to be made in writing, and that completely frames their experience as an author and a self-publisher. We also see what happens when people get clarity around their different definitions of success for writing and publishing–as you say, there have many different aspects to consider–and how that changes things for them.

      2. I think Orna’s right that we need to talk about money (even if only so we can be honest with ourselves that we *really* don’t want it), but I totally agree. I also agree about “mindset” – it’s used everywhere in the coaching community who are the very worst jargonisers (I sort of am one so I sort of nervously allow myself to say that). It encompasses how we approach a problem, how we frame a situation, what we care about most, how we want to change the world, what we believe we are able to do in order to change the world, how much we believe we are reliant on things we cannot control, how important something is to us or where it fits in our values – without quite meaning any of these!

        1. I find it useful to think about mind modes, which we switch in and out of, and which we can intentionally or unconsciously, apply to a sitution. And a mindset, which is often unconscious, and which can totally frame how we meet a challenge, and what we think we can or can not do. When it comes to money, we can carry an awful lot of unexamined assumptions that confuse or constrain us, especially as creatives who greatly value other dimensions of life.

    2. Love this! Self-definition is key here–without clarity, you can be achieving all sorts of great things… but they’re not the right things for you. It can be
      incredibly confusing and challenging to work out that definition but essential work for the indie, yes.

      1. “It can be incredibly confusing and challenging” – yes! And that’s why it has to be a regular, iterative process (in my book I recommend coming back to this question once every 6 months to make sure you are on track, just like a business would keep coming back to its business plan). We read a lot of stories about people who knew exactly what they wanted to do, then set out and did it and they’re great stories but often really unhelpful. Because most of us start writing because we know we have to write, but beyond that we haven’t a clue! That evolves and emerges through a combination of time, experimentation, and taking lots of wrong turns.

  12. When Debbie asked me to do an “Indie Success” article I hesitated for a long time before I wrote that I was proud of having passed the £100K mark. On the one hand I was worried people would laugh at me for ONLY having managed that much since I began self-publishing. On the other hand I was worried people would think “well, she only cares about the money. She’s not a REAL writer.”

    And then I thought about 2011 and how all the indies were telling each other how much they earned. About how much that motivated me, especially when I read about the people who were just making a bit of money, because that seemed so doable and not nearly as daunting as trying to become a huge success. And I loved reading reports from writers who already had a backlog of unpublished work and WERE making huge money! It made me understand that the indie life is scalable, that you can make it into what you want it to be.

    So what’s happened to us? We’ve listened to all those voices who tell us that talking about money is unprofessional, I think. But that’s old-industry thinking. That’s what kept trad authors from realizing that their incomes were being chipped away at by bad contracts. If we lose that ability to talk about money we’re going to go down the same route.

    1. Yes! I think there is this dualism in our culture that polarizes art and money, the commercial and the creative and it doesn’t serve us well. Creative business is an opportunity to integrate these in a way that works for us.

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