Don’t quit your day job

Consider how many books are sold by a traditionally published multi-Hugo winning author:

It’s the question every writer dreads: “How many books have you sold?”

It’s a tricky question because for 99% of the year, those with traditionally published books honestly have very little idea. But two times a year – in the spring and in the fall – we receive royalty statements from publishers, which give a sometimes cryptic breakdown of what has sold where. So for those keeping track here with my “Honest Publishing Numbers” posts, here’s an update.


Sold about 23,000 copies as of December 31st, 2015 (representing about 16 months of sales)


About 7,000 copies as of December 31st, 2015 (note that this book came out in October last year, so that’s only two months of sales. Not bad)

That’s not bad, but less than one would tend to imagine. However, to put it in perspective, “tiny” independent publisher Castalia House reliably sells between 3,000 and 10,000 copies per book. Self-published Mike Cernovich has reported over 15,000 23,000 copies of Gorilla Mindset sold since June 2015. And while I’m not at liberty to talk about their book sales, mostly self-published and sometime Castalia authors Jonathan Moeller and Christopher Nuttall both sell… considerably more than that.

All without any of those books appearing in a single traditional bookstore. And despite being nobodies in the eyes of every mainstream publisher, they’re all doing rather better than most traditionally published authors.

Almost a third of published authors make less than $500 a year from their writing, according to a new survey, with around a half of writers dissatisfied with their writing income.

In the wake of a year that has seen a bitter war of words rage between traditionally published and self-published authors, the survey shows that the old way of doing things continues to reap the most financial rewards for writers, with traditionally published authors making a median annual income of $3,000–$4,999, and independent writers a median of $500–$999. So-called hybrid authors, however – those who publish in both ways – did best, earning $7,500–$9,999 a year.

This is why I always tell people who say they want to write that they should never pursue it as a career. It is a pastime; if you enjoy it, then by all means, write! But don’t focus on the possibility of making money, and by no means plan on it. Do it because you love it. Let your enjoyment of your work shine though it.

It can be done. Larry Correia shows that hard work can sell books. John Scalzi shows that relentless self-marketing and politicking can sell books. Mike Cernovich shows that owning social media can sell books. But the odds are against the average individual, and against the better-than-average individual as well.

UPDATE: Jerry Pournelle adds his thoughts on the matter:

Some of us do a little better than that.  See my essay on how to get my job.

Self publishing works for some who work very hard, and do a lot to let their intended readership know their works exist. Being displayed for sale in a bookstore used to work, and for some  still does, but being known for writing good stories of a particular kind has always been the key to making a living at writing.

My essay was written  before the self-publishing revolution, when independent publishers were known as the vanity press, and sold mostly to the author’s friends and relatives; today it’s possible to sell eBooks to a large niche readership, who, I suppose, can be thought a big expansion of friends and relatives; big enough, sometimes, to support someone who tells them stories they will pay to read.

Of course, as Mr Heinlein taught us, we write for discretionary income: as Robert put it. Joe’s beer money, and Joe likes his beer.