An Honest Look at the Finances of an Indie Author

Photo by Bart Heird.
Photo by Bart Heird.

One of the things I love about the writing community, and the indie author community in particular, is its transparency. Gone are the days when discussions about contracts and money were things you just did not do. I applaud authors who are forthright with what contracts say and how much they make. This transparency helps us all learn and be realistic about our prospects.

I have had books on sale for over a year and I completed my first tax return in which I had sales to report. Since today is officially tax day, I thought it would be beneficial to share what taxes look like, honestly, for newbie indie author.

This was not an easy post to write. I will admit that being this transparent is nerve-wracking, but I believe it is important.

Disclaimer: I did not become an author to make gobs of money. I became an author because I have stories to tell and I love writing. Yes, I want people to read my books and like them, but even if I never published another book, I would keep writing. It is part of who I am.

Another Disclaimer: I am in this writing books thing for the long haul. I have done my industry research and I know I will need more books in my backlist before I start making any meaningful money. I define “meaningful money” as my books pay for themselves and that book reading habit I have.

Here are the numbers:

First, I tracked how much production cost for each book I have produced. This only includes my outside costs. It does not include my own labor cost for things like formatting.

book cost totals

 

 

 

Clarifications:
Content Edits include developmental edits and line edits.
Copy Edits are the last round of edits and include copy editing only.
Covers also includes all the Twitter and Facebook banners and other graphics for each book.

These numbers do not include an entire hosts of other expenses which includes, but is not limited to the costs of: ISBNs (I used to be a librarian. I think these are expensive but important.), proof copies of the paperbacks, software I use to compile the ebooks, traveling to a writers conference, traveling for research, copies of the print books I order to do giveaways, other giveaway items, envelopes for mailing, postage, marketing, writing classes, books on writing, domain costs, web server costs, professional organization dues, or the sheer amount of caffeine I consume in the form of tea and coffee per year.

If you total up the production costs (not including anything from the paragraph above) of putting out three books, the total is a whopping $3,965, averaging $1,321.67 per book.

There are cheaper ways to make books. You can forgo hiring a professional editor. You can hire a cheaper editor. You can buy stock covers or make your own. You can rely on readers or beta readers to do your copy editing.

You can. You can do all those things, but I do not. I want to put out the best possible book I can write. That means, I contract out the best people I can find and pay them decent money for the very hard work they do for my books. Some authors pay more than I do. Some pay less. The best thing about being an indie is I choose, and this is the path I have chosen. Your path may differ and that is okay.

Now for the hard truth. My tax returns included sales for the first two books which combined cost me $2,630.50 to produce. The third book, Letters in the Snow, did not go on sale until early in 2016. I included it here for comparison purposes.

With two books on sale, I made a whopping $448 last year.*

I did not forget any digits. That is $448 before taxes.

This is the hard truth of self-publishing, but I have friends who have gone the traditional route and their finances do not look that much better than mine.

What it means:

I am not going to lie. The numbers are disheartening, but I know they can get better. They will, eventually.

I still have a ton of work to do. I have mountains of words to write. If I want to make more money, I have to write more books. Good books, maybe even great ones. Books people want to keep reading at any rate. The ones out already get fabulous reviews, so I know I have the start of an audience and that is an amazing thing all by itself.

If you are new to publishing or thinking of jumping in, it is absolutely worth it. I did not write this post to scare you. I did it so you do not work under the belief that writing, packaging, and marketing books is an easy wave your wand thing to do. Mrs. Weasley is not going to do all that work for you, my dear. It is work, rewarding, but work.

For most of us, it also takes time. This is not my full-time job. It is another job I do, in addition to many other things that require my attention. I wish I did hide in a little hut all day and write, but that is not reality. I am learning to be content with the time I am have and be wise in my use of it.

My best advice? Do your homework and make an informed choice. Even more than that, find a circle of cheerleaders who will jump down the rabbit hole with you.

The even better advice? Keep writing, my friends.

*Updated: That is gross, not net. I lost money in the long run.

22 thoughts on “An Honest Look at the Finances of an Indie Author

  • April 18, 2016 at 8:56 am
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    Great blog. Thank you for being brave and honest enough to share. The harsh reality is that there are a lot of books on the market competing for limited readership. This is a long haul. And you do have to love it and be willing to work harder than you ever have. I wish you the nest of luck and hope you see those sales grow!

  • April 18, 2016 at 5:06 pm
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    Well done! Mine looked about the same last year. This year I broke even. Which, in my book, is a win! But I still mutter under my breath from time to time like a mad woman, “Long tail. Think long tail.” Deb

  • April 18, 2016 at 7:54 pm
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    Deb, thank you so much for sharing this. It seems so many writers tout “self publishing” as a way for every writer to make “big bucks.” They don’t seem to acknowledge that the “big buck makers” are the few authors at the ends of the bell curve. You are doing it the right way–releasing a professional product. I expect your numbers to grow, and I know you do, too.

    I wish more indie authors would do what you’ve done with this blog. Providing writers with realistic expectations and real data on which to base decisions.

  • April 18, 2016 at 7:57 pm
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    Michele, so sorry. I posted the wrong name on my response to your blog! My sincere apologies. I found your blog via a share and mistakenly thought the person who shared was the author. So very sorry!

  • April 18, 2016 at 8:14 pm
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    This gives me hope. Long tail is the key and getting a backlist, but everything takes TIME.

  • April 19, 2016 at 9:51 am
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    I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the grim reality for most indie writers is that book sales aren’t even this rosy. Anyone earning over $100 a year for sales of their entire collection is lucky. I personally have been published since 2013, and despite still publishing, I find my book sales keep plummetting more every year. There’s so many free books out there now that readers aren’t interested in paying anything for their entertainment anymore. I end up giving away so many books that it almost makes more sense to release them to bittorrent than Amazon. Like you, I love writing. It’s publishing that I’m starting to regret.

  • April 19, 2016 at 6:23 pm
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    Thanks for your honesty! My sales look very similar for a first year, and I think it is the cost of learning to be a business-person after spending all of these years first learning to be an author. 🙂

    Your covers are absolutely gorgeous! I’m a little confused by the blurbs though. I thought your books must be Christian inspirational/historical based on the covers, but the blurbs make them sound like historical fantasy. (Or even alternate history/fantasy.) Are you finding your readers?

    I’m going through a rebrand right now, so this is on my mind.

  • Pingback: Expenses–and books don’t sell themselves | Must Use Bigger Elephants

  • April 20, 2016 at 7:54 am
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    My books are historical fantasy. They are not Christian inspirational. I love my covers. I wanted the covers to reflect the fantasy aspect of it and blurbs emphasize the romance aspects of the series.

    I know rebranding has worked for a lot of people, but I am very happy at the moment with what I have. Thanks for the kind words.

  • April 20, 2016 at 7:43 pm
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    Thanks for writing this post. I too am nowhere near breaking even on my books, but I’m slowly building a backlist and each new release brings in new readers so I’m hopeful. Your covers are absolutely breathtaking and your reviews are fabulous so you’ve had a fantastic start. Good luck!

  • April 21, 2016 at 8:38 pm
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    Michelle,

    Thank you for being so honest. It’s totally normal for businesses to be in the red for two or three years before really turning a profit, so really, you’re right on track.

    The thing you’ve really done, wholly at the benefit of yourself, is had quality branding early on. I’ve helped many authors with re-branding the interiors of their entire series, and though it’s always been a major success and they’ve all been delighted at their new interiors, I know going through 4 to 10 books is hard on them financially and can be taxing on patience/energy. Debuting professionally, with solid covers, good blurbs, and great interiors is the best way to make a real impression on other professionals in the publishing field.

    It looks like you’ve started on the exact right foot. Good for you for not losing your mind over this!

  • April 22, 2016 at 4:00 am
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    Thanks for posting this and being so honest. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Hopefully the swell of comments and shares shows we’re all not alone in this!

  • April 22, 2016 at 7:29 am
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    Thank you for the encouragement. I knew spending money on editing and covers and then spending time to properly format was key. I have no regrets.

    You are also correct that any new business takes time and, though I know it, I am glad to be reminded. Thank you for reading.

  • April 22, 2016 at 7:30 am
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    The comments have been amazing and have solidified my belief that I was the norm, not the exception. All it takes is us being willing to be honest. Thank you so much for commenting and reading.

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