When is an indie doing well?

I was going to write about the latest payout numbers from the Kindle Unlimited Program today — and I will get to it shortly — but a member of my critique group asked a question Sunday that had me sit back and think. Several weeks before, instead of our regular meeting, we held a mini-workshop. It was something we’d planned for more than a month. We hadn’t advertised it because I was building the workshop around the needs of our group members. During the course of the session, a newcomer came in. That was fine. We invited her to stay and tried to make her a part of the workshop.

Now, during the course of her time with us, she referred to the book she had just self-published and kept telling us it was “selling well”. No explanation. Nothing more than a repeat of the same mantra of it was “selling well”. So, fast forward to this past Sunday and one of our regular members asked, “what does selling well mean to an indie author?”

When Kyle asked me that, I had to think. My immediate response was that it depends on the author and that author’s personal goals. I know there are some authors who are happy just being able to say they have published something. They don’t really look at what their sales are and look at any monies coming in as found money. But that answer sort of cheated, at least in my mind. So I thought for a moment and then asked myself what it meant.

To me, an indie is doing well when she can say that she earned out during a year on one title what she would have made as an advance from a traditional publisher. My response, based on that, was that when I make $5,000 in a year from a single title, I’m selling well. But was I right?

Another member of the group, one who has experience in the romance side of the industry, said my figure was a little high. She said that for some, that figure would be $1,000. So, I did what I often do, I asked our own Sarah what she thought. Her figure was more in line with the $3,000 mark. So there is no set figure, not really. You have to look at what the average advance in your genre for authors of your level happens to be. That means, for most of us, if we earn anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 for a title in a year, we have just earned out an advance. In other words, we made as much money as most traditionally published new authors would make for their first few books.

Keep in mind, if you earn that much money and keep earning on a single title, you are doing better than a lot of traditionally published authors who don’t ever earn out their advances.

So, how does this fit in with the new Kindle Unlimited payouts?

That’s simple. As a writer of long fiction, my payments under the new KU rules jumped dramatically over the previous months. From what I’m seeing, I’m not the only one to have this result. J A Konrath blogged about his numbers this past Saturday.  He noted the upswing in monies earned under the new program and made some interesting observations about the revamped KU program. I’ll come back to those observations shortly.

Hugh Howie has also weighed in on the new payouts.

Before I get to their observations, here is what I saw with my titles in the KU program. In June, I earned $1.35 for each title downloaded and read past the 10% mark. It didn’t matter if it was for a 10 page short story selling for 99 cents or a 300 page novel selling for $2.99. That old program was great for short works priced at 99  cents. You made more for a borrow than you did for a sell. But it sucked for novels priced $2.99 or more.

Under the new program, I earned approximately $.005779 per page read. Taking the number of “pages” read for Sword of Arelion (Sword of the Gods Book 1), my latest novel, and dividing it by the number of “pages” Amazon says Sword has, I made approximately $3.88 for each “download”. (Here I made the assumption that everyone read the book all the way through. Unfortunately, at this time, we have no way of knowing how many times a book is downloaded under the KU program or how far a reader goes before he stops reading. Hopefully, Amazon will correct that in the future.) That is a different of $2.53 per book read. That’s a huge jump in royalties and a welcome one.

Going back to Konrath’s post, a 23 page short story that earned him $1.35 in June earned him 16 cents. Yes, this is why those writers of short fiction — and those who had been gaming the system — were screaming when the new rules were announced.

So what does this new system do, really? What is its purpose?

Both Konrath and Howey agree that the system rewards authors who put out good work and hook their readers. If you are write a good book, they will continue reading. If you continue putting out good work, adding to your list of available titles, they will continue buying or borrowing your work.

I will add one more thing that I have been seeing. I’ve seen — well, I’ve heard from some of my readers — they they first try my books on Kindle Unlimited and then, once they liked something, they went ahead and bought it as well as the next titles in the series. That is a win-win for me as an author because it means I have found a new fan, I have received royalties from the KU program and then from the sale.

So, to get back to my initial question. What does it mean when an indie writer says they are selling well? It is a personal call, one made by each author. For me, it is making as much as I would if I had received a traditional publishing contract and, looking at my numbers for last year and this, I can say I am selling well. But it also means I have to keep writing and improving my craft and figuring out better ways to market my work because I want to improve my sales. After all, I’m not one to suffer for my art.  😉


  1. I see that “Sword of Arelion” has 384 pages for purpose of KU reading numbers. What is the word count on that, if you don’t mind my asking? I’m trying to figure out what the page count on our WIP would be, as we’re considering publishing it indie when (if) we finish it.


    1. David, the page numbers listed on the Kindle product page are not the “normalized” page numbers for KU payment purposes. The “normalized” page count is actually 671. As for word count, without going to the work computer to find my file, I want to say it comes in somewhere between 110k – 115k words. But remember, payment is based on the normalized page count.

      1. Yep. My 120,000-word novel (a bit under 500 pages on trade paperback) came in at 640 normalized pages. And my KOLL/KU income doubled the first time, and is on track to quadrupling this month. I’m very happy with the new system.

        1. So far, I am as well. But we are still at the mercy of how large the community pot happens to be each month and the number of pages read. For someone like me who likes to be able to plan on how much money will be earned each month, that is bothersome. But I will still take it. 😉

    2. My first novel (published on KDP Select three weeks ago) is 144,388 words long. KDP measures it as 643 normalized pages. I confess I’m curious as to why Amanda’s book measures out at 671 KENPC for only 115,000 words, but Amazon hasn’t released a detailed description of how KENPC is calculated.

      As for how we might define “well,” I like Amanda’s metric for genre titles: $5000 per title per year.

      I’m very interested in another question: What’s the split for a single title between conventional KDP sales and KU page-turns? I was expecting perhaps 10-15% KU, but across my novel’s first three weeks it turned out to be 37%. As Amanda said, this number won’t mean much until Amazon tells us how many borrows we’re getting per month. I do see that 37% figure suggesting that the KU program is working beautifully.

      It’s certainly given me the impression that I have to get off my lead ass and write more novels. (I have another that should be ready to publish in early January.)

      1. Jeff, the best I can figure on how Amazon figures the number of normalized pages is that it has a set number of words per page but it also takes into account page and section breaks that are built into a title. Of course, as you said, we can’t be sure since we don’t know how Amazon is working that algorithm.

        I, too, would like to see the number of downloads we are getting under KU. I’d also like to see them give us some indication of where readers tend to quit reading a title. It would really help to know if we have a lot of readers starting and yet not finishing something. Or, conversely, to know if they are basically reading all the way through.

        And, like you, I have to get off my lead ass and get more work out there. I’ve seen an pretty good increase in overall sales and downloads once I hit the 10 novel mark.

  2. Amanda,
    Congratulations on selling well. Always a good thing to hear that writers I enjoy are managing to survive in these hard times.
    Comparing your Amazon earnings to a tradpub cash advance is likely the best measure we have, but it’s still apples to kumquats. The sad fact is that for most writers with current tradpub policies that advance is the only earnings they will ever see on a book. With small print runs, limited if any reprints on midlist works, and their somewhat creative bookkeeping, once that advance check is cashed you might as well have flushed that book away. Not so for indie. Not only does your latest book sit there on Amazon’s virtual book shelf until you take it down, but so do all the other books you’ve put there just waiting for someone to enjoy your latest then decide to see what else you’ve done.
    So, seems to me that not only have the gatekeepers lost their wall, we’ve also driven the money lenders out of the temple and replaced them with a direct cash flow from the customer, through Amazon, to the writer with only the distribution costs skimmed off.

    1. I agree with you. Plus, there is the fact that indies reach that magic number quicker than trad published authors do because we don’t have agents and publishers taking their share of the money out before it finally trickles down to us.

    2. Yes indeedy. If I were a tradpub executive (and I was one for twenty years) I would be sweating blood right now, especially in areas like genre fiction. KDP and KU are going to wipe that particular slate clean within ten years, if not sooner. (And there are Certain Presses that I honestly won’t miss.)

      I sold my first novel to a small press ten years ago. I made it into an ebook and published it on KDP Select three weeks ago. In nine days it made more money that the hardcover had made in ten years.

      I’m a believer.

      1. But, Jeff, ebooks are just a temporary inconvenience for them. We know that because they’ve told us so. And they just know the government will ride in and save them from Amazon because they’ve told us loud and long how bad Amazon is. VBEG

        1. Actually, GEG. Still, it’s a slightly painful grin, because (without going into too much detail here) I know exactly how publishing companies die.

  3. I think another metric to employ is whether you are covering your costs. Costs could include covers, copyediting, printing copies for beta readers, and research books.

    The advance is a good metric, but hard to figure if you’ve not gotten to that point. Thanks for the $3K figure. It’s good to know.

    1. Covering costs was my first metric — and one of the reasons I learned to do so much of the production end myself or found folks willing to trade services. Now I have to look at other metrics, or try to, to see where I’m going.

      1. And then does one subtract costs out to determine whether one has reached the amount of the hypothetical advance? Since we’re defining “selling well,” with the focus on selling, the subtraction might not be necessary. But if one were spending a lot on editing and art, it would seem wrong to say one was selling well if one didn’t cover those costs.

        I trade, too, and have kindly beta readers with eagle eyes. My cash expenditure is the cover.

        1. I subtract my costs, but that’s just me. Again, as I said in the post, it is something every author has to define for herself.

  4. Reblogged this on amiecus curiae and commented:
    As someone going indie, this was what I wanted to know. Before I was saying I’d PPP the champaign when I made a sale. As an indie, when do you pop it? When you make as much as you would trad pub. Okay. For short stories sold to magazines that’s $0.06 per word for professional, but can be higher. But let’s say the bottom rung on professional sales. And they’re usually exclusive for a year. So if you can make that much in each short’s first year, you can probably consider it a success. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the reblog and absolutely on short stories. Plus, by going the indie route, you can put the short stories out as individual titles and then bundle them into collections, getting paid twice as long as you let folks know that certain titles in the bundle were published separately.

  5. I’d add a time factor to the equation. I collected my last rejection note in June 2013 (I didn’t try to get an agent). I indie-published my first novel in November 2013. In that time, the book’s earned me a bit under $5,000 (not counting some Kickstarter money I raised before publication, although most of that went into production costs).

    If I’d sold the book to trad pub on June 2013, I’m guessing I’d have gotten a $3,000 advance (not sure what the going rate for SF/Superhero/Alternate History first-time novels is). Said advance would have been broken up into three parts: acceptance, delivery of final draft, publication (this is from what I’ve read, not actual experience, of course; please correct me if I’m wrong). So it’d be three payments of $1,000, the last one taking place, say on June 2014, assuming it took a year to publication, which I hear is wildly optimistic. Most books don’t earn out an advance, but let’s go crazy and say the book did, and tack another $1,000, for a total of $4,000 by July 2015. I’ve still beaten that.

    Except, of course, the novel got rejected. my choices would have been to submit to Baen (a year’s wait, no guarantees), get an agent (at least a year, also no guarantees), or keep going down Writer’s Market for publishers who look at un-agented manuscripts (ditto). Chances were, by this time, I either wouldn’t be published at all or, if very lucky, I’d have gotten the first $1,000 of my advance.

    But wait, there’s more! During that time I also published two sequels to that novel, which have earned me about half and one third what the first one did, plus a short story collection set in that universe, and another novel and short story in a different setting. What are the chances the first sequel would be out by this time under trad pub?

    tl/dr – Indies all the way, baby.

    1. Most definitely. The time factor is a big thing to consider when looking at what direction to take your work — trad or indie. I didn’t include it in determining if I am selling well because all but two of my books never went that route. Of those two, only one was seriously submitted traditionally. At that, I lost a year before deciding to go small press with it and then, when rights reverted, to take it indie. I earned well under the small press and better indie but a lot of that is because there have been sequels and another is on the way. Which reminds me, I need to get back to work. 😉

    2. Thanks for mentioning that. Time is a very big deal when you’re 63. I finished my first novel in 1999 and shopped it for five years before selling it to a small press. I don’t have that many time slots left. The other issue is feedback: If I had to wait five years to find out how well a novel resonated with readers, I would learn slowly (if at all) what works and what doesn’t.

      1. The feedback point is a good one. It helps you figure if you should be revisiting your marketing (which I should for a couple), at the very least.

      2. Agreed about feedback. Not just direct in the form of reviews and e-mails and so on, but sales. For example, my supers/alt-hist series is selling about ten times as much as my paranormal/action stuff, which tells me I probably need to stick to the former (which is weird; I thought the opposite should have been true).

  6. Selling well as an indie? For me, it’s an ever changing definition. When I first started selling, selling a book every week or every two weeks was “selling well” because, hey, I was selling something!.

    Then that changed. My sales improved a little, and selling well became selling a book a week. Then it improved again. Right now “selling well” is selling a book every two or three days. That’s peanuts compared to most authors, and certainly not enough for me to do much more than pay a bill off of, but it’s a darn sight better than I was selling when I started.

    Getting these next couple of books out in the coming months will probably raise my standard of “selling well” again, hopefully up to the book-a-day location.

    Basically, for me it’s an upward journey. If I defined my “selling well” by the sales of someone like Correia or Howey, well, I’m going to get depressed and think I’ll never go anywhere. What I do instead is weigh my output on their scale, and my sales on my own upward run.

    It’s a long, financially perilous path, but that’s not exactly unexpected.

    1. Max, it changes for me as well. I remember those days of just wanting to see a sale. Then wanting to see one a month or a week or a day. “Selling well” also depends on what context I’m using it in. There is the personal gratification definition of what it happens to be and then there is the economic definition of what it happens to be. Each of those changes from time to time and probably always will.

  7. My rule has been earning out. The first four Colplatschki books earned out. For whatever reason, the Cat books have not earned out yet, neither have the later three Colplatschki books (differing costs of editing being the big factor for the Colplatschki differences). After that? Gravy, gravy that is slowly increasing. Am I successful? No idea, although I think so. Are some of the books and stories successful? Oh yeah, baby!

    1. Earning out is important. However, I do put a caveat on that when I talk to people considering going indie. These are the ones who think they have to be big bucks for cover art, pay someone to format and convert their work and then pay someone even bigger bucks for editing (and that usually ends up being only proofreading). But any definition of selling well has to include making sure you have made back any monies you have paid out to get your work ready to sell.

    2. Just got an Amazon email this morning advertising a bunch of books. Chicken Feet was in there!

  8. I like to think I’m ‘selling well’. But I put caveats on that. I’m selling well because… I’m a debut novelist and fairly unknown. I’m strictly indie and not hybrid. I don’t have a huge marketing budget.

    I’m almost to where I can bankroll the next book off the monies I made from the first two instead of dipping into savings. I’ll be really happy when I can put back the money I took out of savings to finance this venture, and still be able to bankroll the future projects. Ecstatic when I can have actual profit I can throw on the floor and roll around in. (Everyone has to have a goal, right? lol)

    Great post once again, Amanda. =o)

    1. LOL. I now have a vision of all of us rolling around on the floor, pausing to stick our tongues out at all those who tell us indies are bad and tossing our Amazon royalty statements in their faces. I think I like that image. 😉

  9. Thanks Amanda, a lot to think about here.

    Just starting on the publishing, with the first 4 novels over the last seven weeks, I’m a long ways from making my costs back. I’m also a long way from saying “I’m doing well” by the metrics mentioned here.

    But, I feel there’s a couple of positives, there are three reviews of the first book, and one on the second on Amazon. And I accidently discovered yesterday that there was a review on each of them on Goodreads {well, at least a rating. I couldn’t find the reviews}.

    I think after #5 goes up on Sunday I should probably do some promotion. I haven’t done any yet.

    If Dorothy were to act on the thought that was mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’d likely be her first customer/ client.

  10. This really is a subjective question I guess.
    I always thought that If you’re selling over fifty books a day (on average), you were selling okay.
    if you’re selling over a hundred books a day, you’re selling well.
    And if you’re selling over two hundred, you’re selling great.
    That included KU sales of course.

    Now I came up with those figures based on how much I make on each of my books, and where I really want to be on my own sales figures to make the royalty I would like to make. Now maybe I set my sights a bit high, because of all the kindle scammers who were selling a thousand plus books a day, and bragging about what great authors they were (I’m enjoying their screams of anguish now). But my goal is to make a certain salary from my writing, so I can work full time at it (which often works out to a 60 hour work week), and well, it pays to have goals.

    I have had some great months, and I’ve had some really bad months. Last month stunk, because I had a lapse of a quite a few months of not publishing anything (family issues), but once I got a new book out, sales went back up, which was great. I have been learning a lot about how this business works, and I’m hoping I can build on that knowledge, so that eventually once my catalog gets to a certain size, I will only have to write maybe four books a year to keep my sales up, rather than trying to write between six and eight.

    But again, it comes back to you, and what you’re trying to do. I’m trying to make a living at it now. I used to just do it for fun (because honestly, when I work at my ‘usual’ career I make a pretty good salary) so before, doing ‘well’ was ten books a day. Now it’s a hundred. Before, writing was something I did in my spare time, now I do it 8 or more hours a day.
    Before I wrote whatever I felt like, now I still write what I enjoy, but I also try to only write what my readers will enjoy as well.

    It has been a very educational time, especially the last two years.

    1. John, great comments. Thanks. You’re right. The last couple of years have been very educational for all of us. Sometimes, it has felt like I was back in trig class, wanting to beat my head against the wall because the prof forgot he was in the US and lapsed into Farsi (something that happened on a regular basis). But for the most part, it has been a fun journey, if nail-biting from time to time.

  11. Now, in my case, I made less. But then, I think that’s right. (This article reminded me that I haden’t looked at the July spreadsheet. But, why should I?) so I had two reads, I would say, under the new system, of 147 “Pages” total (I DO wonder if there’s some kind of error when people hit the last page, Kiwi is 74, so why not 148?).

    Under an actual 99 cent purchase of the novelette, I’d get 35 cents.
    Under an old Select borrow, I’d get something like $1.35, more than even the cover price, so you can see what the scammers John’s talking about were aiming for)
    Under the new plan, those two reads got 85 cents. Which is a little better than two sales. But this analysis is at below the $2.99 magic price for 70% royalties.

    Still, it seems fair, it’s pretty close to what I’d have gotten with sales instead of borrows.

    But you can see why I try not to pay any attention about what happens with it any more.

    1. And I will repeat what some of us have been telling you. You need to get more work out there. I’ll also let you know something else. My short stories sell about as fast as cold molasses moves — slooooooooow. Sarah once told me that she’d heard sales for e-books pick up dramatically once you get that 10th (iirc) title out there. They will pick up even more if most of those are novel length.

      1. So I’ve discovered. “Gee, I’ll put these short stories out there for 0.99, and use them for advertisement.” Yeah, like that’s worked well. I’m going to have to push that novel out. I was aiming for the Christmas season, but might have to bump it up. Then I’ll mark down some stories as freebies. There’s two Christmas stories I was going to use as freebies, anyway, but one hasn’t gelled right.

      2. I’m getting there. It’s not easy.

        I’m definitely going to spend a LOT less time on FB, the latest time eater. Last weekend I was extremely sick (the Doc was this close to sending me to the hospital) and I posted about it a couple of times when I was lucid. Nobody noticed. I also posted a 1000 word Dr. Mauser Flash I’d written the night before I fell ill, and again, nobody noticed. So FB is moving WAY down on the priorities tree.

        But I need long blocks of time to write, and they’ve been hard to come by lately. 100 hour paychecks are nice, but they cut into writing time.

  12. A friend mentioned this post on her own blog and being a hybrid author, I was curious so here I am. When I say hybrid, I mean I first signed with a small press–digital first, no advance publisher, then self-published, then signed with a large publisher for an advance, and I continue to self-pub. My journey may or may not be typical but I thought I’d chime in with my experiences.

    With the small press, I had three novel length works in both digital and print, plus four digital-only novellas. I made a little each quarter but the experience taught me how to work with an editor, a little about marketing, and something of the publishing industry. While waiting on that big publisher to decide on my submission, I jumped into self-publishing with a cross-genre series I knew most publishers wouldn’t be interested in. I got very lucky. The first three books found an audience–and it was all luck. I have no idea how or why. Trust me, if I did, I’d be doing that with every release. I did what I considered very well. I made enough to pay for a new roof for my house and pay off some outstanding bills. Then things calmed down. Sales were “steady” but not spectacular.

    I signed a two book deal with that NY publisher. My advance was paid at 1/3 on signing the contract, 1/3 on acceptance of the book proposal (3 chapters and synopsis), and 1/3 on acceptance of the completed manuscript. This spring, I signed another two-book deal with this same publisher. In my case, the books were fast-tracked on the publishing schedule so they came out within a year. I sold through my advance on the first book less than a year after release, and I’ll sell through on the second book because its sales numbers are better. The first book is also going into foreign language editions, something I’d have trouble doing with my self-pub books. Readers who discovered me through the NY pub are now checking out my self-pub work. Different sub-genres but the thing about romance is that many readers read cross-genre. Lucky me. 🙂

    Am I doing well? Not when I compare my number to the self-pub giants in my genre, but when I look at my monthly direct deposits and realize I can buy groceries next month without having to pinch pennies? Yeah, I think I’m doing okay. Between the three publishing models, I have 24 books out. The new KU model of paying per page has been a boon for me. My books range from a short novella of 25K to a full-length of 85K. Most average around 50K. And now I’m rambling so I’ll shut up. Anyway, thank you for your insight. I’m always curious about what standards other authors are using to gauge their success.

    1. First of all, welcome to the blog. I’m glad you came over and hope you’ll stay and look around. Second, thanks for sharing your experience. It helps all of us to put things in perspective when we hear how others are doing and how they are doing it. Here’s hoping things keep going well for you.

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