Most people I meet don’t ask me anything, because they are often too busy talking about their world, but if they do ask what I do, I tell them I’m an author and a retired teacher. I might also talk about serving in the U.S. Marines and fighting in the Vietnam War, an experience that’s embedded forever inside my head.
Once I mention I’m an author that sometimes leads to other questions. Then there are the few who ask the question that’s the title of this post. Recently I stopped by a coffee house and had a conversation with an attractive young lady. You might not consider her young. She was 58, but I’m 71 and to me, she’s young.
By the way, I can start a conversation with anyone or anything if the mood’s there. I can even talk to my computer screen, car or me, and sometimes I answer me. If you spend as much time as I do alone in front of my desktop computer writing like I’m doing now, it makes sense.
The lovely young 58 year old asked me if I was self-published. When I told her yes, she changed the conversation and talked about her passion for acting and that she had an agent but never earned enough from acting to support her and her children, so she waited tables, and with a master’s degree eventually went into teaching the same subject I taught for several decades. Teachers are underpaid, but they are paid better than waiting tables. I know because I’ve had jobs in restaurants, and I was also a public school teacher for thirty years.
I woke up the next morning after that conversation wondering what others might think success means for a self-published indie author compared to traditional authors, and I ended up writing this post.
The Guardian in Stop the press: half of self-published authors earn less than $500 reported “It shouldn’t have surprised me that 75% of the royalty pie is going to 10% of authors: that’s life in many industries”
In fact, according to How Much Do Writers Earn/ Less Than You Think from Publishing Perspective.com, 20 percent of self-published authors earn nothing, zero, zilch, and the next 60 percent earn less than $1,000. Traditional published authors do a little better but not enough to be impressive. About 18 percent earn nothing and another 35 percent earn less than $1,000 annually.
Study the chart following this paragraph and you’ll discover that not too many authors (1 to 3 percent) earn more than $100,000 annually, and it doesn’t matter if they’re an indie or traditional author.
There are also terms that rank authors. For instance, there are midlist authors and bestselling authors. My former wife of 15 years is a bestselling author with 8 books published in more than thirty languages, and her work has sold more than a million copies in English alone. While we were married, I edited many of those books before they went to her publisher.
However, the vast majority of titles published are midlist books, and by definition, I’m a midlist author. My books have sold more than 22,000 copies earning me about $40k since January 2008, and more than 43,000 have been downloaded during free giveaways I paid hundreds of dollars to advertise though BookBub and eReader News Today.
Then there were the pirates. Back in 2008, I was told that my first title, “My Splendid Concubine”, was the #1 downloaded pirated book of the month or year. I have no idea how many of the pirated versions were downloaded, and it doesn’t bother me because I don’t think most readers that download pirated books to save a few dollars would spend money to buy books anyway, but maybe if the pirate liked the book, they’d tell a friend who actually buys books instead of stealing them.
In addition, according to Janet Reid, Literary Agent, you have to sell more than 20,000 copies to be noticed, and The Guardian reported that the median earnings of professional authors fall below the minimum wage. I’ve sold more than 20,000 copies, but no one seems to have noticed me yet. Does that man Janet Reid is wrong?
For the last seven years, I’ve earned an average of about $5,500 annually from my writing, and that’s about half of poverty wages if you have no other income. I have several other sources of income, because I worked for 45 years, fought for my country, invested, saved, and planned. Even though I’ve been writing books and learning the craft of writing since 1968, I didn’t hold my breath waiting for fame and fortune to walk in the door.
If you go back to the chart above, you’ll discover that even those poverty wages as an author put me in the top 10 percent of indie self-published authors and the 75 – 80 percent bracket for traditionally published authors. That means my work has sold more copies and earned more money than 75 percent of traditional published authors, but there are still critics out there that consider self-published indie authors losers and posers. I think the lovely young 58 year old I had a conversation with in that coffee house was one of them. She might have asked me other questions, but I don’t remember if she did.
What about all those indie and traditional authors that don’t sell well? How do we judge the quality of their writing when we don’t have the time to read that many books? After all, it takes time and effort to write a book. You don’t do it in the time it takes to stick a piece of gum in your mouth. It can take weeks, months, and years. It took me almost 10 years to write my first published novel, the one that’s earning me most of my money as an author.
Another way to judge the quality of an author’s work is reputable literary contests. Most charge an entry and/or reading fee, but that doesn’t guarantee an author’s work will pick up an award,
Predators and Editors strongly advise writers to enter only those contests without a fee. What do authors do when there are literally hundreds of writing contests but most of them charge reading and/or entry fees? I wrote about that in: Is it wrong to pay an entry fee to a literary contest? Over the years, my work has picked up a number of awards from literary contests that charged fees where about 95 percent of the authors that submitted work and paid the same fees didn’t earn any mention of their books.
Then there are reader reviews. For instance, Amazon. The 3rd edition of my 1st book has a 4.2 average with 292 customer reviews. My second title has 3.9 with 19 reviews; the third title is a memoir and it has 29 reviews with a 4.4 average, and my last title only has 5 reviews with a 4.0 average. No matter how hard I try, it hasn’t been easy finding readers for my last novel. It doesn’t help that every time I write a book it’s in another genre. That means I have to hunt for another audience of readers that might want to read it. I’ve also written about Authors Finding Readers where I explain why it isn’t easy to find readers.
But last Friday when I was asked if I was a self-published author by that attractive young 58 year old, and I said yes, there was no follow up questions so I didn’t bother to tell her my work had sold more than 22,000 copies, more than most authors, indie or traditional, will ever sell.
How should authors be judged – by the quality of their work or the number of sales or maybe a mixture of both? What do you think?
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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