Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How much do e-authors make per hour/word?

Obviously, the answer to the question varies by the success of the author. But, I thought I'd relate my own experiences as a less than mid-level author with just a few novels published.

I started my self-publishing efforts back in September 2010. Back then, I planned to commit to 5 years of writing before deciding whether or not it could become my actual career. By late 2015, I hope to have 10 novels in print. The sales of those ten novels should give me a good idea if I'm successful enough to quit my day job and become a full-time novelist.

It's still a long time to 2015, but how am I doing now? Am I making good money? Could I survive on just writing novels? Not yet.

In about 20 months, I've published 3 full-length novels, 2 short story anthologies, 2 DIY books, and 3 riddle books. I've sold a total of around 15,200 units , earned gross revenue of about $15,200, with net expenses of about $7,000, resulting in about $8,000 profit (or about $400 a month).

Definitely not enough to earn a living, but it is enough to take a nice vacation each year.

But another data point you should know is how many hours I work on my novels. I do not have exact numbers for all my books, but I did keep track of my hours at the keyboard for a couple of them and I spend about 200 hours actually writing/editing per novel. This does not include thinking about the plot or outlining. I bet that adds at least another 50 hours.

So I'm going to assume 250 hours to finish each novel. How much does that earn me per hour?

For my best-selling novel, Dead Dwarves Don't Dance, I've earned a profit of about $4,300. So I'm getting paid about $17 per hour.

But that number does not count how much time I spend on marketing (blogs, facebook, twitter, forums, advertising, etc.). I have no idea how much time I spend on that, and it is spread out across all my books. So, let's say that $17/hour is the maximum I'm earning.

Dead Dwarves Don't Dance is about 74,000 words long, so it's earned me about 5.8 cents a word. Certainly not a king's ransom, but within the range of what you can get for writing for magazines and so on.

Unfortunately, not all my books sell as well as Dead Dwarves Don't Dance.

The story is not as good for my other two novels (The Elemental Odyssey and Where Magic Reigns). These are young adult adventure novels full of magical aliens and fun action. But while I think this series has lots of potential and the books are getting good reviews, they have not yet found a large audience. My profit on those two books is actually a loss of $4000. Fortunately, ebooks are forever and I have no more large expenses for these two books. So that loss will decline over the years, and hopefully become profitable at some point. All it takes is one person of influence to find it and mention it to some friends, and the series might skyrocket. (That's what I'm hoping for, anyway.;)

On the other hand, my DIY book (Format Your eBook for Kindle in One Hour) has sold very well and had very little in the way of expenses (about $7,400 profit). So, let's average all my books together and see what my totals look like.

Out of all my books, I've earned about $8,000 in profit.

With three novels and seven other shorter books, I figure I've spent at least 1,000 hours working on them, for a maximum of $8/hour.

Not enough to live on, alas. But, the good news is there's room for improvement. ;)

Now, what can YOU expect to earn? Absolutely no way to tell. You could might earn more than me or you might earn less. It depends on how good your books are. But, even more, it depends on how much luck you have. Based on the success and failure of other books I've read, luck seems to be the overriding factor.

If you have a terrible cover or blurb, or you write like a 2nd-grader, or your story is pathetic, you probably won't succeed. But if all of that is polished to an acceptable quality, your success hinges pretty much on luck. It all depends on getting discovered, and in the overcrowded ebook market, getting discovered is just luck or thousands of dollars in advertising. Not many of us have $$$$$ to spend on ads, so we rely on luck.

In almost all careers, you have to commit time and earn your way to the upper echelons. Sweat out the low pay early years hoping to improve your results in the long run. Fortunately, I have another career that can support me while I write novels.

My advice to anyone else is, don't quit your day job. Write diligently and in several years you might start earning a wage large enough to support you.

Or, you might be lucky and have a blockbuster on your first try. If that's the case, congratulations! It's kind of like winning the lottery but at least you earned it by writing a book!

If you're an author, do you have any guesses as to how much you're making per hour/word? Put it in the comments.


  1. It's not a guess. I know for certain that so far I've earned 0 per hour/word, within rounding error.
    But all is not lost! I'm having fun and meeting new people, and that has significant value.

    Thanks for sharing your travels, and kep going!

  2. Derek, I couldn't disagree with this more: "It all depends on getting discovered, and in the overcrowded ebook market, getting discovered is just luck or thousands of dollars in advertising."

    That's totally not true, and I've got dozens of books to prove it, many of which are doing quite well with ZERO promotion and marketing. I spend about $15 per book for the stock image that I buy on shutter stock.

    I'm sorry, this is just not the case. Plenty of other people I know publishing ebooks have found decent success by just putting up a professional looking book in a genre that is good for ebooks (YA, romance, thrillers, erotica, horror). Not all genre's are created equal, so that factors into it.

    Yes, there is certainly luck involved, but this notion that you have to spend so much money up front to create a successful ebook is just really misguided, imo.

    1. Even though this was posted 2 years ago, if you're getting an image for $15 on ShutterStock then the version you're getting likely isn't licensed for publication...

  3. gniz, I don't see how you disagree. You say you did nothing but put your book up with no marketing and sales magically happened. That sounds like luck to me. Sure, you have a good product, but I stated that as a given in my post. I'll say it again a bit differently:

    Given that you have a quality book, getting discovered and selling many copies is a result of luck or advertising.

    There are plenty of quality books out there that don't sell well, while others do. Is this difference anything other than luck?

    If it is, you could make a lot of money selling that proven strategy.

  4. I absolutely disagree, and I've stated it clearly. It's NOT luck that my books are found. Amazon's store functions in such a way that readers are able to access new works quite easily.

    People buy my books because they browse and find them. There are lists that come out with new horror, new erotica, etc. People find books numerous ways through Amazon's search function and algorithms, and if your book's subject matter is compelling, people will buy it. Then it gets in the "also boughts" of other books.

    There is some luck, yes, because not every great book is a huge hit, and not every book can be. But most books that are well conceived, with a good cover, blurb, and sample pages--will sell quite decently within a few months of being put on sale. Provided you write in a fairly mainstream genre (if you don't, why would you expect to sell at all??).

    The luck is in whether or not you skyrocket up the charts to number 15 in the kindle store. I don't think anybody can predict that, and I think throwing money down the toilet on advertising won't make it happen either.

    So although there is certainly luck in becoming a huge hit, there isn't as much luck in creating books that sell anywhere from 3 to 30 copies a day. I can pretty much guarantee that if I put out a new book under a new name, I'll eventually sell anywhere from 30-300 books a month. Sure, it's a wide range, but either end of the range is decent enough money from my perspective.

    There just isn't that much luck in creating a good product that sells quite decently.

    Occasionally you'll strike out completely--I have some books that don't sell particularly well. But almost all of my books make money because I keep the overhead costs low and I write fast. And probably five or ten of my books and novellas sell very, very well, providing thousands of dollars of income. One of my books (a compilation of novellas I did under a pen name) typically makes me two or three thousand dollars each month.

    That wasn't luck, because I've replicated this success with other books. My book COMPELLED might sell a hundred fifty copies this month, and The Skeptic might sell three hundred. Sure, I can't predict down to the penny what either of those books will make, but they do just fine.

    Another book might sell a bit less. But I can put up a book and if its done well, I'm going to make somewhere between a couple of thousand dollars or more per year--and its very rare that I don't. I wouldn't call that luck, personally, because its something that's replicated across multiple books and multiple names.

    There is variation in the amount books make, but I don't lose money on any of my books.

    Sales did not "magically" happen. I think you're using sloppy analysis because the truth might be more painful. If you ascribe it to luck or magic, then you don't need to change anything. But if you're maybe doing something wrong or inefficiently, then you would need to rethink how you approach this business.

    I said it before and I'll say it again. Spend your time writing, not PR and marketing (unless you're a PR guru like John Locke). There's no need to spend 2 thousand dollars up front on a single book. Even if you get someone else to do your covers and editing, there are way cheaper services out there.

    Spend time studying the successful books, their covers, their genres, their blurbs. Really look at what's drawing people in. I promise you, it aint all luck--and it definitely aint sinking money into ads. Saying it is diminishes the hard work and craft that's gone into making very successful books take off.

  5. "If it is, you could make a lot of money selling that proven strategy."

    No I couldn't, because my "strategy" would take up less than a page. Write a good book or novella, make a good cover, write a sharp blurb.

    In order to do those three things, you need to spend countless hours honing your craft, studying the successful books in your genre, and getting better and better at what you do.

    The sad fact is, people don't want to hear the truth. The truth boils down to lots of hard work, lots of hours studying your craft, and an absolutely brutal level of self-reflection about what you need to do to improve.

    The reason more people don't succeed in ebooks is because they don't want to put in the work.

  6. gniz, I think our disagreement may stem from our differing and subjective definition of "discovered" and "sell decently".

    I do not consider a book that sells 30 books a month to have been discovered or to be selling decently. I'd say that 200+ sales per month might be considered "discovered". But, that's just my opinion.

    You say that some of your books don't sell particularly well. Can you identify why some of your books sell well and others don't? Given that all your books are of quality, why did some of them not sell well? Quality book A is selling great. Quality book B is selling poorly. What is causing the difference other than luck?

  7. Derek, We can agree that there is an element of luck. But there's a reason why Author A can put our 60 books and almost none of them sell a copy in a month, and Author B can put out 60 books and most of them sells hundreds a month.

    By the way, I am not saying either of us are author A or B in this example. My point is that there are people who successfully put out multiple ebooks under multiple different names with little to no marketing, and most of their books sell very, very well. They make money any of us would be happy to make.

    You said 30 books in a month isn't really selling decently. It's on the lower end, sure. But 30 books a month at 2.99 is 720 dollars a year. It's not great, but if I only spent 15 dollars, I think it's just fine, thanks.

    Now as I said, that's the low end. The mid range and high end books net me anywhere from five or six thousand a year to over twenty thousand a year.

    Yes, it's a range. I cannot guarantee that every book I write will sell X number of copies. So luck is involved. Does that mean it's all luck?? Heck no! Some of it is luck, some of it is quality, business sense, timing, price, etc.

    How can you not see that luck is simply one factor out of many? I'll tell you what. Spending money on ads and time on marketing might lead you to believe that luck is a bigger factor than it is, because you don't understand why all that work isn't leading to more sales...But the reason is that those sorts of things (marketing, PR stunts) don't work very well unless you're very good at it.

    You asked me if I can see why Book A is selling better than Book B? When it comes to my books, I absolutely have an idea. I've talked about it on my blog. It's usually a mix of issues. Possibly a bad or misleading cover or title, sometimes a poor blurb. Occasionally it's in a genre that's not popular (such as a boy YA title I have).

    Sometimes the book itself really ISN'T that good. Saying A and B are of total equal quality is always going to be a fallacy because no books are equal. My books aren't all equally as good as one another! That's insanity to think that way.

    I evaluate my books very honestly. Initiation isn't that great of a book. It's my first novel and it has lots of problems. 7 Habits is funny in places, but repetitive and dark.

    Compelled is a really solid piece of work, I think--and the sales have borne that theory out, too. So how can I think it's all luck? I've seen for myself...I have nearly 100 titles for sale under multiple pen names, Derek. I have a lot more research and data than you do, and I'm telling you--it's not luck.

    I've also worked with other writers. The good ones have successful ebooks and the bad ones don't. It actually is that simple! And when I say good--I mean that they need to understand everything; how to do covers, write copy, and write a good book, sell it at the right price and in the correct genre.

    It's not easy, but it sure as hell aint luck.

  8. I'd love to see more data about your experience. Telling me that I am wrong and you are right without a bit more supporting data doesn't help me agree with you.

    I had no idea you had 100 titles available (your A. Niz name has 15 and I don't know what your other pen names are). Obviously, at that quantity 30 sales a month is significant. At that echelon, I agree with you that luck is no longer as big an issue as it is for a new author.

    But most of us fledgling indie authors don't have 100 titles, nor will we likely have that many in less than 20 or 30 years. So, I post my thoughts about publishing from a newbie's point of view. And, from a newbie's point of view, with only a 10 titles out, I still believe that luck is a significant factor in selling books.
    Why did my book Dead Dwarves Don't Dance do so well? I have no idea. Of course, I believe it's a good book (it's getting an average of 4 stars) and it has a snappy title and a good cover. Yes, that definitely helps. In fact, I believe it's a prereq for good sales. But I've seen other books by other authors that I think are better than mine languish in the 100k rank range and worse. Why? I don’t know. Everything they're doing seems to be right, but nothing's happening. So, I call it luck.

  9. "Why did my book Dead Dwarves Don't Dance do so well?"
    For one thing, it's science fiction. It seems like science fiction and fantasy readers might be almost as loyal and voracious as romance readers.

    I don't study the sci-fi genre as much, so I could be wrong. But it strikes me as a great area to work in for ebooks, possibly an underserved market right now.

    Ebook covers are a different animal from traditional covers due to the size and the screen resolution, etc. So a lot of people have complex, beautiful covers that don't translate very well as an ebook. Publishers have started catching onto this with their newer covers, and indies should know it by now.

    Why do some books not sell? I think there are always reasons. A cover might not actually be as appealing as you think. Your opening pages might be slow. You might not have tapped into the correct genre. Your keywords might be inappropriate, and so might your categories.

    There are SO SO SO many ways to go wrong.

    By the way, of my 100 titles, very few are full-length novels. I've been focusing on novellas which I then compile into books. It's been working well for me thus far and allows me to produce more quickly.

    You're right. The luck factor is a bigger factor the less titles you have out. If you're skilled, you will eventually overcome the luck factor with your skill and diligence. But if you don't produce a lot of work, then the luck factor will loom large over your career.

    The answer, as always, is to write more.

    Great chat. I'd be happy to discuss further with you. Sorry if I came across harsh but i do root for us indies to succeed and I hate to see people putting a lot of money in up front and spending too much time on fruitless marketing efforts.

    Again, sorry if I came off overly critical in the process.

  10. gniz, no worries. You just helped me refine my original statement. ;)

    When I first started publishing, I had no idea advertising was worthless. But after I spent $700 in 3 spates of ad campaigns over 15 months, I can clearly see that volume of advertising doesn't work. And I'm not willing to spend more on more experimentation.

    As for covers, I personally dislike the majority of the photoshopped photographic covers. I find them bland-looking and cheap. So for 3 of my books I opted to hire a great artist. Yes, I spent $500 for the cover, but I think they're awesome. Plus I'm supporting an excellent artist. And I've had many comments from readers who said they purchased Dead Dwarves Don't Dance because of the cover.

    For my other books I've spent less on covers. Some are good, some are terrible because I made the cover and I'm no artist. But I'm still experimenting. My riddle book covers are quite bad, so I'm working on getting some cartoonish type cover art at a lowe cost. I'm hoping that will improve sales.

    But it might not. Those riddle books were experiments. Low-risk experiments because I didn't spend any money on them. I love rhyming riddles, but we'll see if I'm the only one. The next one I'm publishing is a Halloween Riddle book in September. It will have a nifty cover. Hopefully, it will sell better than the others.

    My writing and blog are about experimenting with indie publishing from a newb's point of view. In a few years I'll no longer be a newb and will probably have different viewpoints.

    Thanks for your input! It only helps me and others with additional ideas and options.

  11. Hey Derek, I agree that Dead Dwarves has an awesome cover, so that makes total sense that people bought the book in part because of it.

    I also agree that the overly photoshopped covers can look bad. Some of my covers aren't so great either--there's risk and experimentation no matter which way you go.

    However, more and more I've learned to just choose a good image, and I've gotten a better and better sense of what that looks like now. Compelled is a decent enough cover. Simple image, with a decent font. Make the title large so people can see it even in a thumbnail. There are certain things to do with ebook covers that differ from print book covers, because of the size and everything.

    The things that have helped me the most is to write faster, write pieces that are between 12k to 30k words, make it a series or theme and sell individually, but be able to package them into 1 book that can act almost like a novel when all is said and done.

    This has really helped me to churn work out faster, stay excited, experiment more and learn faster what works. In order to do it you need to be a fast, clean writer and have a fairly cheap way to make covers, etc.

    Obviously other people have different styles that work for them. But there aren't all that many people making really good money at this. Adapting to the unique qualities of the ebook market is necessary to maximize earnings, I think.

    Anyway, good luck and keep telling us how it goes. I, for one, love your updates and your honesty with everything you do.

  12. Hey Derek, if you haven't already read this, it sort of states my philosophy to the letter (except I focus solely on ebooks where he expands a bit past that)...


  13. Great back and forth discussion. The truth is, this new blossoming ebook market is so new, most of us are figuring it out as we go. I absolutely agree that the secret is to write more. There's no substitute for hard work and many of us indie authors with less than 10 books out often wonder why lady luck will sometimes shine down on Joe Blow with only one book to his name.

    A buddy of mine is a poker nut and he says that game's a mix of luck and skill. Sure a newbie might stroll in and win a few times, but over the course of 1000 games, the experienced, intelligent player will almost always come out on top.

  14. Funny, I read a post on another blog that had a scathing view of the "it's all about luck" viewpoint. The conclusion seemed to be, if you think it's just luck, that's because you don't really know what the reason is. I agree with that viewpoint, though I can understand how things like finding the right audience can feel like just luck.

    I've also heard of so many authors saying that their books have hit it big with zero marketing effort. I find that interesting, though I'm not tempted to test it by allowing my books to simply float out there on their own, with no support from me.

    I have a very low key, full time job (easy, my bf calls it :-) so I can dedicate a lot of time to my writing. I plan to publish a book every three to four months. If I can run with that, I'll have at least three books out by this time next year. I also have no plans to ever quit my day job. My goal with self-pubbing is just to get my books out there. I'm able to get all the important stuff, critiquing, copy editing, cover art design and formatting done for free (either myself or by doing or calling in favors) Which allows me to publish my books for the lowest possible fee.

    Even if I get a less low key, but better paying job in the near future, it won't de-rail my self-publishing plans, just slow them a bit. And that's fine.

  15. One thing I wish Amazon would do was give some of the same kinds of stats that blogs have. I'd love to know how many times my book pages were clicked and how many times a sample was downloaded. That way if my book was viewed say 15,000 times and sales were still dismal it would tell me that the cover is drawing them in, but the blurb isn't enticing enough. Likewise, if the views are high and sample downloads are high, but sales are low then one could infer that the cover and blurb are doing their work, but the sample isn't closing the deal. I believe that would help to reduce whatever luck element is involved. For the record, Amazon's author central does have some 'stats', but they're all about sales and not clicks and sample downloads.

  16. Well that depends on any things like on sales, views, popularity and other things.. It depends on how good your books are.

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