Going Full Time By the Numbers
Becoming a full-time writer is, for many authors, the show, the major leagues, of making books. It is certainly not a requirement to be considered an author, or even a successful one, but many define it as the major goal of their careers. That’s understandable, if you have a passion, of course you’d want to dedicate as much time as possible to it, and cutting out a day job frees up loads of hours and options. So then, the question becomes how to best reach that goal?
To many, the obvious answer is pursuing traditional publishing deals, and there is nothing wrong with that if it’s your career plan. However, in purely fiscal terms, chasing the traditional contracts might not always be the best path to full-time writing. While some will have other factors like marketing and physical store distribution, as a new author you are very unlikely to see any of that. It is possible, if you go the agent-to-big press route, but that is an extremely specific tactic.
For the remaining aspiring authors, aka most of them, going traditional comes with a very real cost. Before we dig into that, however, let me get a quick preface out of the way. This blog is going to be digging into the royalties of authors from indie versus traditional streams, but under no circumstances should you take that to mean this is the only factor worth considering. A publisher has reach, connections, marketing, quality editors, the ability to take on a book’s financial risks, there are ample reasons to take your book to a traditional publisher. However, if you are aiming to reach full-time writer employment as fast as possible, then the difference in royalties is one we have to address.
To start off, we’ll need some numbers to play with. We’ve used 30% as our average traditional royalty before, so we’re going to stick with that one. Your rate might be higher or lower depending on agent/clout/negotiation, just keep in mind this is meant to be an approximation. As for indie royalties, that is easy since Amazon makes it public: 70%. Also, just for ease, we’re doing everything gross, not net, meaning we’re not going to fuck with taxes today.
At 70% royalty, I make $3.50 from every $5 book that is sold. To reach that amount on a 30% royalty, the book would need to be priced at roughly $11.70 for me to make the same royalties per sale. $11 for a digital book is going to be a tough sell, especially if you’re a newer author trying to break into the market. With a lower price, you could be more competitive and hope to make up the difference in volume, which some do opt for. It is important to keep in mind, however, that it is extremely unlikely you’ll be the one to make that call. A publisher has assumed the fiscal risk of the book, and therefore (rightly) gets to set the price at a point they feel will serve the company best. Whatever they choose, you’re along for the ride, which is all the more reason to do your homework and stick to applying with publishers that you trust.
Now those numbers will stay constant, but it can be hard to appreciate them in a vacuum. As an example, let’s take a fictional book, Modern Pelican Fighting by Svelte Thruster. In one universe, Svelte goes indie, in another, he takes it traditional. The indie is priced at $5, while the traditional comes in at a higher, yet still competitive, $8. On release month in both universes, we’ll be optimistic and say the price difference had no effect on sales. His limited audience is dedicated to the material, and both universes buy exactly 1000 copies.
Indie Svelte has made $3,500 in his first month, while traditional Svelte made $2,400. We can add in other factors like whether he had print distribution or marketing pushes, but the idea here is to talk in a general sense, and you’ll obviously know if your choice involves factors like that. Remember, just because today is about royalties doesn’t mean they are all to consider.
Let’s add in a third world as well, one that’s a tad less optimistic. We’ll say a third Svelte launches in a universe with traditional publishing and a $10 price tag. Only this time, we’ll also assume that the higher cost cuts into his sales. Still being fairly kind, this world only sells 750 copies, losing 25% of customers to the price hike. At 30% royalty, this Svelte earns $2,250 for the month, coming out with less money despite the higher price point.
For some folks, the difference of $1,100 isn’t going to mean much, but for the majority of us that’s money worth considering. Of course sales will drop off over time, yet the royalty proportions remain the same. $1,000 here, $50 there, it can really add up as your catalog grows, and if your current goal is financial independence, those amounts could be the difference between going full-time this year versus making the jump in 2020.
To close out, I do want to say that the point of this blog is not to tell you that indie is the best route to financial independence. I don’t think there is a best route, honestly, not a generic one that I can point to. We all have our own best paths, our own opportunities we get presented with. My point is not that indie is best, it is that you’re better served going in without preconceptions. People think traditional is the optimum full-time path because it is often presented that way, but when you dig into the numbers it isn’t always true. Do that for everything. Evaluate every option, really challenge your own preconceptions, and make sure you’re truly finding the best choice for each project. That, sincerely, is the best advice I can give you on working toward making it as a full-time writer.