Sometimes the business side of writing seems like a taboo subject. Authors, much like other artists and creators, don’t want to talk about revenue. They don’t want to think about author earnings being a vital part of how they survive while creating.
And then there are the career writers. Authors who enjoy writing, but approach it entirely as a job. Earning revenue is central to their writing, rather than a by-product of it. Neither is right or wrong; this just highlights that people write for a lot of different reasons.
Writing To Get Paid
If you’re a happy creator or an entrepreneurial grinder, once you’ve decided to turn your creation into a product the first steps are the same. You have to begin with your goal and work back from it.
Let’s say you want to sell 1,000 copies and earn $3,000 dollars in a year from one book. That’s relatively easy math. You need to earn $3 per sale and sell about 3 copies per day. Not easy, but once you break it down like this, you’ve created attainable goals.
That’s what earning an author income is all about; setting attainable goals.
How Much Can You Make Writing A Book?
If I had to guess, I would put that as the most common question I’ve fielded during my years in self-publishing. Which is weird because I don’t think of writers as particularly revenue-driven types. It seems like more and more authors are chasing that dream of quitting their day job and just creating stories for a living.
What I’ve discovered is just how possible that actually is! The True Fan theory, which has been around for a long time, sets out a goal of $100,000 a year. With that goal, you need 1,000 ‘true fans’ to spend $100 each year to get there.
For authors, getting a reader to spend $100 a year isn’t exactly reasonable. Yes, once you have a catalog of titles you’ll draw some revenue from backlist sales. But that’s not reliable unless you’re a popular author.
Realistically, if you sell direct and have 1,000 fans, you might earn $10-15 from each a year. Which is respectable income, but not enough to live on.
Author Revenue: A Mixed Bag
Because author earnings are largely tied to a single purchase product (your book), it’s hard to earn a lot from a few buyers. You could go wide and hope to sell more books. If you earn $3 per sale but sell 30,000 copies, that’s still a sizable income. Or you could hyper-focus on a niche audience with a more expensive book.
There is no one right way (if there was, I promise I would tell you). A lot depends on the genre you write in, the time you have to dedicate to both writing and marketing, your design skills (or publishing team), and the quality of your writing.
All of which makes it damned hard to pin down a strategy that works. And is the reason you can find any number of ‘publishing guru’ types out there. From blogs to videos to podcasts to books, publishing experts abound. For all the saturation of experts, many of them do know what they’re talking about.
You can find lots of great advice to help you sell your book. From book launches that spike book sales or clever ebook strategies, there are ways to push your sales purely with your book.
Allowing For Self-Publishing Costs
One factor that’s still fairly new for working authors is the cost element. There’s an idealistic view of being a writer that involves sitting at a desk and pouring ideas onto the page (or screen). Those ideas are so magical, publishers just pay you for the privilege of printing and selling your book.
Today, many writers eschew that model—since it only works for a small fraction of writers—and are publishing themselves. The staggering cost of printing a run of books is gone because of print-on-demand, so that just leaves the cost to edit and design the book and the marketing efforts.
Which can still be substantial. And when we want to consider how much authors make from their work, we have to allow for that cost. Think about the amount of money you’ll spend on publishing as an investment in the book. The quality of your book cover design will absolutely impact your author earnings, for example.
Author Earnings And Passive Income
Okay, here is the really important part of writing for profit. Most of us who write for a living don’t earn an ‘author salary’ in the same way you do with a regular employer. Your author earnings will come in two primary forms:
- Spikes in sales because of a book launch or marketing campaign
- Passive income from regular sales
Your passive income is what you earn from past efforts. It’s money you make without doing anything. Even Forbes, in this list of passive income ideas from 2019, includes two ideas that lend themselves to books. Bookselling is, all on its own, a perfectly valid form of passive income.
Once you have a few books published and available for sale on your author website, you’re set up to accrue passive income. But even with four or five books in your catalog, you would still need to sell a lot of books to chalk up enough author earnings to be a full-time writer.
Luckily, there are a ton of different ways you can use ecommerce to sell a variety of products (and even services) to supplement your book sales.
Passive Income Ideas
Anything you can create and offer for sale using either a digital medium or on-demand creation can work as a passive income source. You’re only limited by your creativity!
The most important consideration is how the products and services you offer work with your books. If you’re a fantasy author, you’ll want to sell products that appeal to a fantasy reading audience. If you write business books, your products will look very different!
Okay, not just the books you write. There are so many ‘book’ options. First, offering your book in a variety of formats. Paperback, hardcover, and ebook are pretty standard. But you could also do an alternative art cover or a version with a special note or essay included.
Or you could create other kinds of books; like notebooks or planners. Make a cover that highlights some of your characters or a notebook that works as a companion to your book.
If you’re inclined to making graphics, you might create a photo book of alternative art, maps, or character sketches.
And these are ideas are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to books you can create and use to earn passive income.
This one depends on your skills, but if you’re a good editor or designer, you might offer those services to other authors. I love this idea, though I admit it’s less passive than the others I’ve mentioned. But using your skills to earn extra income builds your network and portfolio; both great ways to grow your author brand.
For some authors, selling their services could prove more lucrative than selling books! And it can lead to a whole range of opportunities.
You can find a ton of different ways to brand a product and have it created/shipped on-demand. And if you use Lulu Direct and Shopify as your primary sales channel, you can use other Shopify apps to connect a variety of product options.
The actual products might vary (again based on your books and the genre you write in) but there are some standards. Things like coffee mugs, water bottles, t-shirts, hats, or pens all make amazing products. Because these products are branded around your books, they’re completely unique. That makes them even more desirable for your fans and creates an opportunity to approach the True Fan income I mentioned earlier.
Offering an online course is perfect for business and educational authors. Though it can work for any kind of writer. You simply create a course based around your area of expertise and your readers pay for access to that material.
The course could be in the form of a video (or series of videos), a workbook, textbook, audio; or even all the above! Courses make terrific passive income because you only need to set it up once and make it available to your readers. Once the course is done, your knowledge is only a click away for anyone who wants it!
Author Earnings Means Diversifying
It’s hard to earn enough income from just book sales to be self-sustaining. That’s just a fact of the publishing market right now. Print-on-demand makes it simple for anyone to create their book, which then floods the market with options for readers.
Diversity is what you need. Think creatively about products that compliment your book. Use ecommerce tools to sell directly so you can build a customer list (for future marketing efforts), and as you amass products on your author site, you’ll see your passive income grow.
Paul is the Content Marketing Manager at Lulu. When he's not entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person but considers himself cat tolerant.