Manage Your Expectations, Indie Authors

Whether or not you believe in Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 Hours" rule from his book Outliers (the idea that 10,000 hours of appropriately guided practice is "the magic number of greatness," regardless of a person's natural aptitude), for writers there's no question that putting in the time makes a difference in one's success.

I work with writers (indie, hybrid, and traditional) every day who, with one book out, no blog, no social networking, no advertising, etc., expect to pay their rent or support their family on the sales of one book. That is an unrealistic expectation.

Let's deconstruct.

How Much Can I Make?

"If I can't sell 500 books per month, why bother?" a new writer asked me in an email recently.

"I need this book to go big so I can quit my job!" said another.

"How much can I make?" is really what people want to know, right?

Looking at Amazon's model, if you price your e-book between $2.99 and $9.99, you will receive 70 percent of each sale (above or below that, you receive 35 percent). So, I have priced my latest release, Broken Pieces, at $5.99, which nets me (before taxes) $4.16 per book.

If I sell 500 books per month, that's just over $2,000 monthly. Not sure where you live, but in Northern California, that covers my rent. That's it. It's great and all, but I still have many other bills to pay (never mind setting aside money for taxes).

In a recent survey of 5,000 authors by social scientist Dana Beth Weinberg, the average income for an indie author is less than $5,000 per year. Most make far less.

Associated Costs

What separates those who make money from those who don't? Quality. I'm not sure where this mindset comes from; where people think they can slap together a document with no editing, proofreading, graphic design of any kind, or formatting, and call it a book. I personally wouldn't dream of releasing a book that reeked of "homemade." Sure, plenty of authors do -- and they don't sell a thing.

But indie does not have to mean second rate. The bias toward indie authors is that we can't make it the "real" way (via the traditional publishing process), so it's said that we're flooding the market with sub-par writing, at best, horrific writing at worst.

I disagree, because most writers I work with do as I do: we pay good money for professional services. It's nice to make $2,000/month, but what happens when you deduct the thousands spent on those professional services? On promotions, contests, and marketing? You make less, but you're hopefully making up for it in volume due to good reviews and word of mouth.

Readers Are Smart

What's missing in the whole "bias" equation is that readers have been reading our whole lives, certainly longer than 10,000 hours. As an avid reader myself, I know when a book isn't working and I move on to something else. We're also vocal: if a book disappoints, we tell everyone we know -- via reviews, social media, book clubs, and blogging -- not to bother. If it's great, I shout it from the top of my Twitter feed.

That's why the onus is on the author to create quality. To work with professionals, critique groups, and beta readers. To know their demographic. To connect with readers (not just blast them with "Buy my book! Learn all about me!" tweets and posts -- the subject of a future article). To work at marketing and selling.

Ultimately, readers want to be entertained, to feel emotion, to learn. If our books don't meet a minimum standard of quality, we not only won't sell anything, but our expectations (like those shared above) are unrealistic. As writers, we are creators, we are crafters, and we are also businesspeople.

Ten thousand hours is a lot. If you write eight hours per day, five days per week, that's five years of writing just to reach a stepping off point, never mind the goal of ultimate success. So, it's simply not realistic for indie authors to expect untold riches from the sales of one book.

I will never discourage anyone from pursuing his or her dream of writing. My hope, though, is that writers will have a realistic view of how it all works, which will only contribute to their successes.

Agree or disagree? I'd love your thoughts.