For the past few years, Jim Hines and John Scalzi have done blog posts where they talk about how much they made that year. I figured this year, it was my turn. They also use pie charts to show certain things, and who doesn’t like pie? So, I might find a use for one, too. Maybe a graph or two, even! Because numbers.
First, a little background. In 2014, I released my first self-published book, Zompoc Survivor: Exodus. It did pretty well, selling about 2500 copies or so its first month. All told for 2014, I made a little over $7,000. Not a bad first year. As the year ended, I decided to release my Demon’s Apprentice series again after getting the rights back from the publisher, and it started off reasonably well. But nothing prepared me for January of 2015, when The Demon’s Apprentice started to take off. And I was even less prepared for what happened in February, when Page of Swords blew its predecessor out of the water and hit #1 on the Paranormal chart on Amazon. The rest of the year was a bit of a roller coaster ride, and I’ll chart it with you. All told, before taxes, I made $67,384 in 2015, which is only a little less than what Jim C. Hines made, if you add in what he made before his agent’s commission.
Now, before that sounds too braggy, remember that since his royalties are from traditional sales, he probably sold a metric ton more books than I did. My guess would be that he sold at least three to four books for every copy I that I sold, which is why agents and big publishers aren’t kicking down my door just yet. Earnings doesn’t equal salability.
Products and Distribution
What this represents is a total of six books in two series sold exclusively through Amazon. After a certain point roughly half of this income represents revenue from Kindle Unlimited. The series are the Zompoc Survivor series and the Demon’s Apprentice series. The genres are post-apocalyptic/dystopian and YA paranormal respectively. Most of my revenue comes from the Demon’s Apprentice series. In fact, every month where I earned more than $10k corresponds with or closely follows a release in that series.
While my career is proof that you can make it by selling solely through Amazon, that may not be the path for everyone. But it sure seems to work with YA paranormal and zombie novels. Later on, I may go with a wider distribution, but for now, this is working.
Breakdown by Month
Below is a chart that shows my total income each month. The thing to remember is that the month I earn the money is two months after the sales have actually happened. So, January is showing what I earned in November, February shows what I earned in December and so on.
So, as you can see, my income varied greatly by month. The chart below breaks it down as a percentage of the annual amount was earned in a given month.
One thing you can easily see from both charts is that more than half of my income came in three months. What happened in those months? Oh, that part is easy: I had book releases around those times. Demon’s Apprentice in late December, Page of Swords in late February, ZS: Odyssey in August and Vision Quest in mid-October. And between book releases, you can see how my income went down. Now, some may argue that my income drop also was most pronounced during the summer, which is typically a dry time for self-published authors. I released the third in the Zompoc Survivor series in August, which caused the small jump in October, so that could also add weight to that line of reasoning as well.
Another thing I learned in looking at this is that for me, a book release has a strong cycle of about two months, and then things drop to a much lower level, one that stayed pretty steady between books. In a way, this kind of mirrors what traditional publishing sees, I think, a strong start and then a drop off after a month or two. The difference is that my books stay available on line after that, which is where my main customer base is, while traditional books, unless they do REALLY well, tend to fall off the shelves after that big sales period (and traditional authors see returned copies come out of their royalties). So this is another place where I think I tend to have an advantage over a traditional author, because I don’t have that drain on my royalties. My physical books are print on demand. So, like a traditional writer, I have that bigger influx at the beginning, then I’m in the trough between books, only I’m still making a little money.
One thing that I learned this year was patience. While February ended with more than $10,000 in sales, I didn’t see that until the end of April. That was a long sixty days. As soon as that hit, and I knew I had another fifteen grand on the way, I was at a point where I could quit my job, since I would have what I made in a year at that job essentially in the bank before I hit the middle of the year. From there, I knew I had a bit of a cushion if I needed it, and I kept that buffer in place.
And as soon as I DID have the full amount in my hands, my wife and I sat down and figured up our total bills for a month, and I set aside enough to cover my half of them for the rest of the year in a completely separate account. All of our bills were set to autopay, and overall, we didn’t change our lifestyle in a lot of big ways. We still live like I made what I used to. If I had to point at one big change in this year, it’s been that we just haven’t had to worry about money. My largest new expense was a decent used car for going to conventions. No new jewelry, no long vacations or any other huge expenses, and no sudden move to a bigger house.
Up until May of this year, I worked in customer service for a credit card company (much like Dave Stewart in the Zompoc series, except mine wasn’t the hell hole his was). My work week was 34 hours, and I devoted those extra hours and more to writing. My wife worked overnights and in recent years, went to evenings, so most of my writing time happened between midnight and three or four AM. I used to put in about fifteen to twenty hours a week on writing. Since May, that number has gone up considerably, though I also end up putting in a more than a few hours each week on marketing and the nuts and bolts of actually putting a book together and managing my writing career. Convention appearances and speaking engagements take time to do right, or at least, they do for me.
Whatever conclusions you might draw from the numbers and patterns, looking at this does prove one thing for certain: as an independent author, you HAVE to publish regularly. And you have to keep your name out there where people can see you. Many of my sales during the summer came from convention appearances and just handing my card out to people. While I didn’t make it into the $100K range like some writers, I also acknowledge I’m something of an outlier, and that as much skill and effort as I put into things, there was still a measure of luck involved. But luck only does so much. Once you’ve been blessed with a little you have to do something with it, like write the next book and up your game a notch.
For aspiring and current authors, I hope this gives you an idea of what is possible. A LOT of people have never heard of me, and that's okay. Enough people have that I can write for a living, and that's the important part. It IS possible to succeed at this without selling your soul or compromising your craft. You don't have to make the NYT Bestseller list in order to write full time. (It helps, though).