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Measuring Success by Susan Kaye Quinn

“Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.” – Jules Renard (French Writer, 1864-1910)

Until very recently, writing was a Glory business, where success for most authors was measured by status, not dollars. Landing an agent and a book deal with a Big Six (Five? Four?) publisher meant you had “made it,” even if the advance was small, the sell-through was tough, and you had to keep your day job (Noah Lukeman cites 10,000 sales on a debut novel as a “success” on an advance of $3,000). Getting published was hard, but making a living off your writing was even harder. Glory was the coin of the realm.

Then self-publishing came along and destroyed that statusquo like a brush fire through a drought-stricken forest.

Suddenly, it was possible to make money with your writing. Lots of money. Words like gold rush were thrown around as overnight indie successes came from (seemingly) nowhere. And while sales and rankings and Money became the new barometers for success, authors were caught between two worlds – one where Glory was everything and Money was considered venal, and one where Money was everything but the stigma of being “self-published” still slammed doors (to reviewers and distributors, if no longer to readers). Many arrows were sent over the ramparts as authors lined up on both sides, but slowly, slowly, writers began to realize:

They were in charge.
They could change the rules.
They could define their own success.

That's when the indie revolution really happened, and for all writers, not just those who had (already) indie published.

What Would You Consider “Success” In Writing?
“A shelf full of my books.”
“Paying one bill a month with my writing.”
“Seeing my book in the bookstore.”
“Having a reader say my book had an impact on them.”
“Making enough money to write full-time.”

Pick the Right Goals For YouSuccess should be measured by goals that are meaningful to you, not someone else, but you don't have to limit yourself to one. For me, reader impact tops my list, followed closely by being able to make enough money from my writing to send my three boys to college. Somewhere last on my list is getting on the NYTimes Bestseller list and seeing my book in the bookstore. Would those be nice? Hells yeah. But I can be happy without them.

Goals EvolveThe goals of any writer will evolve with their career. In the past, writers could look to other author's experiences, as they cranked through the traditional-publishing machine, for a map of sorts for their careers. Now, indie publishing has opened fresh trails, largely unmapped, with new ones being carved out each day. No one has been in the indie game for more than a few years, and authors with decades of publishing experience are (usually) the furthest from understanding the e-reader climate we have today.

How is a writer jumping in the indie pond supposed to know what to expect?

The Sales Ladder: Success for Indies
Here's a guideline or snapshot of what kinds of success are possible for indie authors today. It will probably be out-of-date by tomorrow, but I hope it will help you set some (reasonable) expectations for your indie author career. These are all my opinion, based on my personal experience as well as the experience of the many indie authors who have been kind enough to share with me. This generally applies to genre fiction.

Breaking Even
If you self-pub, you will have costs (editing, formatting, cover art, giveaways, marketing materials, ads). It's tempting to skimp on these, but unless your DIY skills are professional grade, you are better off paying for those services (IMHO – I believe a professional cover pays for itself). Your book needs to recover these upfront costs for your writing to be a viable business and not just a tax write-off. Most self-pubbers spend less than $1000 upfront to publish a novel, which means they need to sell about 500 copies (at $2.99) to break even. Selling hundreds of copies is a very reasonable thing for a first-time indie author, if you've done everything right (professional cover/blurb, good price, killer book). If your book isn't on track to reach the hundreds of sales mark within a year, see below for Why Isn't My Book Selling?

Breaking even means you've “made it” as an indie author – you've established a small business that pays for itself, and that's no small cheese. Congrats! Have a latte!

Breaking A Thousand Sales
If you have a wide social network, you might have several hundred people who will buy your book just because they love you. Selling hundreds of copies is also possible with concerted hand-selling – I know one FB writer friend who hand-sold 1000 books in one year to book clubs and events across Ireland. But unless you're a bonafide celebrity, or put Herculean effort into hand-selling, you are unlikely to break a thousand sales just because people like you (no matter how many FB friends you have).

If you do break into the thousands-of-sales range (single book, within a year of launch), it is a sign that you've moved beyond your direct sphere of influence – people are buying your book because they like the novel (not the author). This is your book selling itself – the cover is drawing people in, the blurb is enticing them, and the “look inside” feature or reviews are sealing the deal. You may have marketed well (or done no marketing at all), but no amount of marketing will sell in this range without having something a lot of people (specifically, thousands) deem worthy of buying. This is a very good thing.

Selling in the thousands also means you start to make money – how much depends on how your book is priced. If you're selling thousands of a 99cent book (annual royalty $300 – $3,000), you can fund the start up costs for your next novel. If you're selling thousands of a $2.99 book (annual royalty $2,000 – $20,000), you can start paying the electric bill, or even your car payment, with your royalty checks.

Breaking a thousand sales means you have the ability to write and package a book that will sell itself. This is awesome! Now get busy and write another one. (Interestingly, the royalty on 10,000 sales for a 99cent self-pub novel is the same as the $3,000 advance on the 10,000 sales for a “successful” traditionally published novel noted above.)

Reaching Tens of Thousands of Sales
If you're reaching tens of thousands of sales in a year, you've joined the over-1000-sales-a-month club and have substantially broken out. Your book has what I call “stickiness” – people read it, and it sticks with them. They rave about it, review without asking, and hand-sell it to their friends. This is word-of-mouth in action, and those steady sales gun the algorithms at Amazon, which then begin to sell your book for you, via also-boughts, email campaigns, popularity lists and other machinations that are mysterious but real.

Bestseller lists on Amazon

If you're selling at this pace on one title, you're on the bestseller charts somewhere on Amazon (unless your category is extremely competitive). If your 1000+sales a month are spread over several titles, you may not be on the charts, but you will still be making a nice income. Authors that sell at this pace are often ones with several titles out, for three reasons: 1) once a fan is earned, there are more books for them to buy, and 2) releasing a second book brings new fans to the first one (especially if they're in a series), 3) having multiple books in a series allows authors to play with pricing (or go free) with the first book and still make carry-over sales on the other books in the series.

Regardless of how you get there, you are rocking the indie sales. At 50,000 sales on a 99cent book, your annual royalties are $17,500. For a $2.99 novel, you're looking at a cool $100,000. You're now paying the mortgage and possibly supporting your family on your royalty checks .

Selling over a 1000 books a month means you are earning a living with your writing. Congrats! You've done something many, many writers (trad-pub and indie) wish for. I call this the “indie midlist” – they're not the indie superstars, but they're selling a ton of books and making solid bank every month. It's like the trad-pub midlist, only the indie midlist author (typically) makes more money.

Amazon Top 100

If you're selling 1000 books a month, that's 30 books a day. To get into the Top 100 of all books on Amazon, you need to sell at least 500 of a single title a day (15,000 books a month). If you're selling at this pace, your book has gone viral – something about it resonates with the book-buying-public in a fierce way. Maybe you've touched on the zeitgeist of the moment. Maybe you're riding the wave of an uber-crazy-popular genre (the hot genre of the moment is sexy New Adult contemp romance, just in case you were wondering). I've seen authors get in the Top 100 with a specific promotion for a day or two, but to stay there for a week or more, you've got some serious mojo going on.

You are no longer midlist; you're officially an indie rockstar.

Agents and editors sit up, take notice, and start offering you print deals (Glory) in exchange for your e-rights (Money). Hollywood and foreign rights editors come knocking too. The problem is (if you can call this a problem) that if you're selling 15,000 books a month, you're making $30,000 a month, or the equivalent of $360k a year. Even a six-figure-advance on a print deal with a NY publisher starts to look short-sighted. This is where having a firm grasp of your goals and what makes you happy as an author is important. Some indie authors give up their e-rights to get the print deal – because they've always wanted to get in the bookstore, or they hope the print channel will boost them even further into rockstardom. Some indie authors turn down the print deal and happily rock-on as an indie author with crazy large direct deposits to their checking accounts.

If you're here, you might think there's no where else to go. But there is!

NYTimes Bestseller List

Addison Moore, Indelible, NYTimes Bestseller

If you're not just in the Top 100 on Amazon, you're actually in the top 5, then you're selling 3,500+ books a day. You're in the stratosphere, and if you maintain that for any length of time, it's likely you will end up on the NYTimes Bestseller List. Yes, this happens to indies. More than you might think, lately. Two Indelibles (Chelsea Cameron, Addison Moore) made it onto the NYTimes Bestseller list in the last few months, and Hugh Howey hit it last year. But they didn't get there with their first books – all three had several indie books out prior to that, with solid fanbases, then wrote something that went viral. When you're on the NYTimes Bestseller list, the interest of NY publishers becomes even more intense.

If you're Hugh Howey, you turn down three rounds of courting from NY publishers before you negotiate a print-only deal (keeping the lucrative e-rights) that makes you the hero of indie authors everywhere *cough* not just me, I swear *cough*. (Note: after Hugh paved the way with that ground-breaking deal, Colleen Hoover  closed a similar print-only deal with Simon&Schuster. That makes it officially a trend: NYTimes Bestseller = print-only deal)

How Do I Climb The Indie Sales Ladder?
Is climbing the ladder one of your goals? If your goal is to see your book in the bookstore, the indie sales ladder is not the way to go (NYTimes Bestselling Author Hugh Howey only recently got into bookstores in the US). But if making enough money to write full-time is what would make you happy, indie publishing gives you the best chance at that. There are fewer indie authors at the top of the ladder and more at the bottom, but the indie midlist is filled with authors making a living with their writing.

Why Isn't My Book Selling?
The best piece of indie wisdom I have came from the Kindle Boards, where an author posed the question, “Are you selling more today than you were a year ago? Then you're headed in the right direction.” Of course, most indies haven't been selling for a year or more, and the tendency is to get hyper-focused on sales of the moment.

If a book isn't selling well enough to break even, I can usually tell why with a quick look (not always, but often). These are the most common reasons:

  1. Cover – a good cover isn't just professional-level graphic arts; it has to instantly communicate genre and story and intrigue the reader enough to pick it up. Compare yours to the top-selling covers in your genre and see how it measures up. 
  2. Blurb – a weak blurb often means a weak story. This is not my judgement, it's your reader's. If you have a killer story, make sure it shows in the blurb. If you don't have a killer story, see #5.
  3. Price – first-time indie authors can command $2.99-$3.99 for their novels (this can vary somewhat by genre, but holds pretty true across the board). Here “first-time” is defined as “the first time a reader is discovering your book.” Indie wars have been fought over pricing, especially the 99cent and free price points. But no matter where you stand on the low-price end, pricing high can kill your sales.
  4. Genre – some genres simply have very small pools of indie readers (literary, poetry), or readers that are hard to reach (middle grade). Indie readers tend to be adults who read genre fiction. There's room for all kinds of indie books to sell, but mysteries will
    sell better than young adult, and romance will sell better than everything else.
  5. Craft – if you're not selling, your craft may not be ready, by which I mean your storytelling craft, not your prose. Readers are shockingly tolerant of bad grammar and rampant typos; I'm not saying this is good, simply that it is true. However, readers will judge by the first page/chapter whether an author has a command of storytelling. If it's not strong enough, they will not buy the book. By the end of the book, your storytelling craft better deliver on the promise of those first pages or those readers will not recommend your book to their friends (ergo, no word-of-mouth). All writers can improve their craft, and I'll posit that all writers can improve their sales by improving their storytelling craft, no matter how much they're currently selling.
Note: none of the reasons above are you have no talent or you suck, stop writingYour book is not you. Fix the “Why Isn't My Book Selling?” mistakes and write another book.

If you've broken even with your book, you're likely not making the “Why Isn't My Book Selling?” mistakes. Then, my best recommendation is to sow the field with a reasonable amount of marketing and focus on writing the next book. Write the best book you can. Write a series. Write in a different genre. The sales will come or they won't. You don't have control over sales; you only control what you write next.

I hope this snapshot of the world of indie sales helps and wish you all many happy sales on your indie journey!


Susan Kaye Quinn is the author of the bestselling Mindjack Series, which includes three novels, three novellas, and a trailer. She's currently writing a steampunk fantasy romance, just for kicks. When that's out of her system, she has ambitious plans to embark on a series about the Singularity (the time when computers become more intelligent than humans) that should appeal to fans of the Mindjack novels. Or possibly play on Facebook all day. Could go either way.

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This Post Has 39 Comments
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  2. Thank you for the great post. One of the scariest things about being an aspiring author today is it feels like fumbling in the dark–you’re not sure if you’re headed for a cliff with sharp pointy rocks, a benevolent dragon, or are about to break through to the surface.
    Your post is the most helpful guide I’ve seen–making you the Medea to our labyrinthine Jasons! (We’ve still got to slay our own minotaurs, but at least we know the way!)

    1. Sweet! But I’m glad you’re still slaying your own minotaurs, cuz that stuff gets scary. πŸ™‚ One of the great things about the indie world is all the sharing that happens – I’m glad to be a part of it!

  3. Susan, absolutely wonderful post and so helpful, to get a feel for some concrete benchmarks. Thank you for sharing this somewhat mind-boggling information, and CONGRATULATIONS on the well-deserved success of your books!

  4. Good job, Susan.
    Very inspirational…
    I’m not quie mid-lister yet, but my sales are 1500+ per year after just 18 months of writing. Mostly in the zombie/vampire genres, we’re steadily putting out the work, and sales are always climbing.
    We even started to convert the eBooks to paperbacks late last year.
    One question… how do you ‘know’ when your covers are good enough?
    I have learnt so much in the last year. Thanks again.
    Ian Hall
    Co-Author of “Vampire High School”

    1. Congrats on your sales, Ian!

      Covers are subjective, just like the rest of this business. Personally, I’m always looking for “wow factor” – if someone looks at your cover and says “wow! that’s cool!” you know you have something. That should be the reaction you want from everything – the blurb, the cover, the book. You can still sell books with a “good enough” cover, but you’re not going to go as far as you could. Great packaging gets people to take a chance on your book – then it’s up to you to seal the deal with what’s inside.

      Best of luck!

  5. Wonderful post, Susan, thank you so much for sharing your expertise! My debut book is a Poetry book, so sales are only trickling because it’s such a niche market – however, they are trickling, so that is still moving forward! I’m also working on two novels; a middle-grade adventure/mystery and a contemporary adult romance … and I’m thinking that focusing on the romance might be a wiser move for me at this point. I can always continue with the other book while that one is in the editing/critiquing stage. And I still intend to put out another poetry collection (already working on it), because I just love poetry! Thanks again for a great post! ~ Julie πŸ™‚

    1. One of the beautiful things about indie publishing is you can publish anything you want! Maybe the market is small, but so what? However many readers you have, that’s more than would have enjoyed your work as it sat in a drawer. So bravo to you for getting your work out there! And yes, the romance will definitely be a wiser move (from a marketing sense). Another beauty of indie publishing is that your better-selling works can support your lesser-selling works (just like publishing houses used to do).

      Best of luck to you!

    2. You are so right, and thank you so much for taking time to respond, Susan – that’s just one of the awesome things about this IndieReCon that I’m really enjoying! I love the sharing and sense of community!

  6. Fantastic post that covers all the basics. GREAT work, Sue! My favorite part = your book is not you. Do the marketing basics and then get back to work.

    And I’ve already got all three of your fantastic books in BOTH forms, so I’ll skip the giveaway. But you know I think your books rock~ <3

  7. Nicely broken out here. It’s interesting to compare the number game to traditional publishing (the only kind I’ve done to date). one thing in traditional publishing that I have NO CLUE how it compares to Indie, but I suspect is different, Traditional publishing has a huge initial sales (whether appearance or read) because of that first month ‘to the book stores’ thing. I had a giant summer, then it has trickled since. I suspect Indie has the initial (that under 1000 friends and family you mentioned) and then if it’s going to catch on, builds slowly from there, so it actually grows for a while.

    1. Trad-pub focuses on that first month, because traditional marketing focused on the presence in the bookstore as a way to move copies. If there weren’t enough sales in that first 3 (or 6) month window, the book would get pulled from the shelves. The thinking was that bookstores were the main way the book would be “discovered” and thus being pulled from the shelves was the end of that book’s “potential”. The endless virtual shelves online have completely changed how that works, and trad-pub marketing is starting to get that (in some quarters). Indie-pub authors know from the get-go that bookstores are not their main sales channel; online is. And so they focus more directly on marketing to customers (rather than bookstores and pre-launch hype, which used to be the main trad-pub focus, and still is in some ways). Trad-pub books have the “long tail” just like indie books do – the difference is that indies have other advantages (price being one) and a sense that marketing isn’t something you just do one time (at launch) and then walk away.

      Great points though (and obviously worthy of a whole ‘nother post!)!

  8. Fantastic post with some real food for thought there. My books been out for 9 months or so now and selling moderately well but I don’t think its really broken out of my own sphere of influence yet (accept for maybe when I did a free promo and had close on 3000 downloads in just one day!).

    For me, I do have a nagging feeling that its because my blurb isn’t killer enough.

    Is there anyone out there who’d like to have a look at: http://www.amazon.com/The-End-All-Worlds-ebook/dp/B0083XG35W and give me their thoughts? πŸ™‚


    1. Thomas – My best advice is to seek out other indie authors in your genre and see if they’ll swap critiques with you (for your blurb or future books – it’s a great way to network). You can also look at the blurbs of bestselling books in your genre for clues as to how to build an exciting hook. I have a post about Hook, Line, and Sinker marketing that might help as well.

      Good luck!

  9. Wow Sue. Just . . . wow. I learned that I’m both successful and not successful, lol. Need to get more books out there–which I’m working on!

    But I loved that you laid it all out there for me. I now GET IT. Thank you!

  10. Oh my goodness isn’t it funny how we start out so humble…then sometimes forget why we started this journey? My first goal with getting published or being published was that at least 5 people I didn’t know read my work and enjoyed it. Yet even now it still amazes me that I’ve come so far. But I still don’t consider myself a rockstar.

  11. Awesome, awesome post! I haven’t seen such a thorough, no-holds-barred breakdown of indie publishing anywhere. I’m still an infant in the indie publishing world, but I can already see that what you posit to be true definitely is true for me. I’m loving my sales, and though I was nervous about it originally, I’m so glad I went with professionals every step of the way (cover to editing to formatting). It helped me not stress so much about doing it all myself, and in the end, I believe it’s helped me make back every dime I spent and then some. Can’t wait to have multiple titles out there! I think that really is the key (of course, they have to be high quality titles). Thanks, Sue!

  12. Great post as always, Sue! One point worth adding is that people who move out of the lowest rent district of the marketplace, $.99, to $2.99/3.99will often see a sales dip at the outset, so a more accurate benchmark is, “are you making more money now than before?” You want to see your earnings go up, even if your sales numbers plateau while you’re making the price transition, and that’s how you know your business is growing.

    1. Money is the Great Indicator! πŸ™‚ I agree that you need to look at your bottom line, but there’s also something to be said for garnering more fans, even if the money is less/same (initially). A wide fan base will net you more over the long term than a narrow one, assuming you continue to write more works.

      I’ve seen some indie authors experiment with higher price points and have success, but they generally already have a strong following. I see their ability to command higher prices as another indication that they’ve grown a steady fanbase (usually at lower prices).

  13. Don’t get me wrong, I would eventually love to make enough money with my writing to quit my day job, I’m ecstatic that people are not only reading my debut novel, but enjoying it and already asking for the next one. I haven’t checked sales numbers since the weekend. Once I get more out there to offer readers, I might gear up the marketing end of it.

    For me, I’ve already achieved one of my levels of success. πŸ™‚ Great post Susan. Thanks!

    Melanie Macek

    1. Congrats Melanie! And I think you’ve nailed it: there are many levels of success. Reaching for the nearest one and attaining it, and appreciating the hard work that went to get there = the way to serious fulfillment as a writer. Well done!

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