One prominent story making the rounds right now is how an author with an Amazon bestseller only made $12,000 off it. In fact, on Salon, the article’s headline is “My Amazon bestseller made me no money.” The takeaway seems to be that there’s no money in writing. As the author Patrick Wensink writes, “There’s a reason most writers have bad teeth. It’s not because we’ve chosen a life of poverty. It’s that poverty has chosen our profession.”

The actual details are a bit scant, but apparently the novel hit #6 on Amazon, selling about 4000 copies. I’m not sure what timespan that’s over–he says it was high on the bestseller list for a week, but it’s possible that 4000 figure is for sales across that month (July 2012), or maybe even all last year. Knowing the actual timespan would help break things down, but it doesn’t matter a whole lot; whatever the case, the bulk of those sales came over that bestselling week.

So let’s contextualize things.

First off, for a book to reach #6 in the Kindle store, it’s got to sell something like 4000 copies in a day. So I assume he’s talking about paperback sales. With this information, let’s rephrase what happened.

He made $12,000. In one week. With one book. Just on Amazon. Just for sales of his paperback.

Now, it’s possible this was for combined print and Kindle sales–details aren’t provided–but if his print version was what hit #6 on the bestseller list, his Kindle sales can’t have been much. May not make intuitive sense, but sales of one version do not guarantee sales of all versions. For instance, two of my books have so far sold a combined 2000 Kindle copies on Amazon this month. Their Amazon print sales? 0. So I don’t know exactly how many of his 4000 sales were for the print version–could be 3000, could be 3900–but anyway, it doesn’t much matter.

Because, again, he made $12,000 in one week for one book on one store on sales that were mostly of one format.

Put another way, if this book had maintained that rank for a year, its Amazon-only, mostly-print royalties to the author would be over $600,000.

In fairness, it’s really, really hard for any book to cling to the #6 rank for an entire year. That’s Harry Potter, Hunger Games, 50 Shades territory. Only one book in thousands has that kind of staying power. But this is just another way to think about what that $12,000 means.

For more context, more than 50% of Amazon’s book sales are for Kindle. If the book had been able to reach as many Kindle readers as paperback readers, its week of sales would have meant more like $20-24,000 in royalties. I’m not sure what percentage of print sales Amazon commands, but the consensus is it’s got about 60% of the ebook market. If you want to give Amazon the extremely generous figure of 50% of total book sales, and you look at what this book would have earned if it had sold equally well in all other outlets, those royalties would be in the $40,000 – 50,000 range.

A decent year’s salary, for a week of sales, on a single book.

Again, this is just a thought experiment. And a manipulative one. The reality is that only those huge bestsellers tend to do well in every market and format. I think most books that sell okay look much more like Wensink’s book–sales are limited mostly to one market and format. Just because the potential’s there doesn’t mean you can reach it.

But the apparent takeaway of this Salon article is that writing is such a poor way to make a living that even writing a bestseller is no guarantee of a year’s living wage, let alone a career. I don’t disagree that it’s very difficult to make a living at this. The Taleist survey of self-publishing–which was almost certainly skewed in favor of successes–showed that 50% of indie authors made less than $500 a year. Meanwhile, the Salon article mentions an advance for a traditionally-published book being just $5000, which is pretty common these days. Not exactly enough to live on.

But I think there are some bigger takeaways here: that unless you’re Harper Lee, you can’t make a career out of a single book. That seems to be a persistent myth among writers. One that sets a lot of us up for disappointment. One that leads us to believe the numbers never work out no matter how many books we write. I think that myth needs to die.
I also think this says something about what it means to be a “bestseller”–specifically, not much. “#6 on Amazon” sounds amazing, but let’s reframe things again. To sell 4000 copies a year on the Kindle side (which I’m much more familiar with than print), you don’t need to come anywhere near #6. All you need to do is maintain a steady rank of #10,000.
Not nearly as easy as it may sound, especially with a single book, but “#10,000” sounds pathetic compared to “A top ten Amazon bestseller.” Few books–six, as it turns out–are #6 or better at any given moment. Impossible odds. Making #10,000, though? That sounds like it could be achievable.
And that, I think, is the real takeaway here. One way to frame Wensink’s story is “Wow, he was a bestseller on the biggest bookstore in the world–and he didn’t even make minimum wage.”
I hear it, and I think, “Wow, this guy made twelve thousand dollars in a single week with a single book. I’ll probably never be able to put up numbers like that–but to make a career, I don’t have to.”
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15 Responses to Reality Check: Salon’s "My Amazon bestseller made me nothing"

  • Trish says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

    • Trish says:

      Well damn,
      I’d posted a comment, but when Blogger published it it posted it twice. So I deleted the duplicate copy and Blogger deleted both.


      Hi Ed,

      I just discovered your blog and I’ve been enjoying browsing through your archives. I published a romantic thriller in Sept of 2011 and soon after found myself fascinated by Amazon’s algos, the various lists and the effectiveness of different promos. Since then I have been doing alot of watching and experimenting.

      Judging by my personal experience, this Salon article doesn’t make sense. I’ve never dropped down to #6 in the overall Kindle Store, but my book did drop down to #30 in the last week of February 2012, and it dropped down to #60 in Nov of 2012. In both cases the book sold well in excess of 4000 during that week alone. But as the book climbed in rank it continued to sell well, selling an additional 3-4 thousand copies in the following month or so. The Salon article makes it sound like the book crashed and burned and sold nothing after that initial 4K and that doesn’t make any sense. You may be right, and they may be talking about paper books. That probably makes much more sense, but then the entire article is basically flawed, because the revenue is through ebooks from what I’m seeing, not physical books.

    • Ed Robertson says:

      It doesn’t sound like he’s talking about the Kindle store to me, either. It takes about 1000 sales/day just to crack the top 100. Reaching #6 would probably require a few thousand copies in a day. That’s why I assume he’s talking paperback–and even then, Novelrank only shows him peaking at #18. I think he almost had to have more sales than he’s seen reported yet.

  • Trish says:

    I also have a question for you that doesn’t pertain to your current blog post.

    During the summer of 2011 I was following Modwitch on the Kindle Boards. At the time she was pretty much the only person I could find who was studying Amazon’s algos. Back then she had a theory that new releases were given a 6 week to 2 month window to prove themselves on Amazon. In this time frame, it took a new book alot less sales to catch the attention of Amazon’s bots, at which point Amazon would step in and start promoting the book by sticking it in other book’s also boughts. In her experience, it was much easier to get traction on a new release with less sales if you pushed it during those all important early weeks following release. She said after that 6 week to 2 month window, if the book didn’t get the sales, it would quickly slide into oblivion and it would take three to four times as many sales to get any traction on it.

    Is this something you’ve found to be true?
    If so, is this still true in today’s Kindle Store?

    • Ed Robertson says:

      Heh, Modwitch is great. She started the data-gathering thread that led Phoenix and me to start stalking the pop lists.

      Amazon is lots different from 2011, and new releases/alsobots aren’t my area of expertise, but I think her general theory still holds true.

  • Elle Casey says:

    I noticed two things after reading your (as always) insightful article: (1) a lot of people were probably buying the paperback not for the content but for the cover that would soon be changed but had become a form of legal trademark history, and (2) he might have been able to sustain those sales if the book itself was any good. I guess it wasn’t good enough.

    I’m an attorney, and if I were still practicing, I would have bought that book as a collector’s item or lawyer memorabilia. It was a big deal in legal circles, the letter that the Jack Daniels’ lawyer wrote to the author. Seriously, it was legendary. So that’s my take on how he even sold as many as he did and maybe why he didn’t sell more.

    • Ed Robertson says:

      Oh, good call about people buying it for the cover. Hadn’t even occurred to me. Those purchasers aren’t likely to turn into fans or recommend the book to friends, either.

      As for sustaining sales–I just think it’s really hard to do that, especially when the bump is from a lightning strike like the Jack Daniel’s thing rather than sustained word of mouth or what have you. 4000 copies really isn’t that much in the scheme of things, and many of the people who bought it wouldn’t get around to reading it for weeks or months. At that point, even if they go out and tell their friends, “Hey, this book is sweet, you should buy it,” that’s long after the spike has faded.

      On top of that, we’re talking about Bizarro fiction here.. it’s got its following, but it’s not exactly the most commercial genre in the world. I don’t know. People run Bookbub ads that grab them 1000+ sales literally every day. The promoted books virtually never maintain a significant boost for more than 2-3 days. That’s just how this stuff works, isn’t it?

    • Trish says:

      I think it depends on the genre for Bookbub ads. I’m seeing quite a few romance BB ads that have propelled the books into the Kindle Store top ten, as well as the Top spots in B&N and Apple. They’ve even pushed several books onto the NY Times and USA today bestsellers lists (both ebook and regular)Several books have spent 30-44 days at the top of the Kindle Store and B&N store.

      It’s the only non-Amazon promo I’ve seen to have such a lasting affect. POI and ENT don’t even come close. It’s also the only promo I’ve seen to give a book lasting traction with the other distributors. (with the exception of Kobo)

  • Anonymous says:

    My take away from was that his total income so far was $12,000 from the book which is pretty good until you look at the sales figures which was 4000 sold. Assuming those are mostly paperback and hard cover sales then he’s only making 20% cut from each sale.

    The rest is going to Amazon and some indie publisher he referenced but chose not to name. How it got to number 6 with only 4000 sales I have no idea maybe Amazon threw it up there purely from the press he was getting about the cover.

    • Ed Robertson says:

      For the record, I’ve actually met his publishers and several of their authors, so I could be biased. But I liked their organization. I think they provide genuine value, particularly considering their genre is a tough sell.

      So take it when a grain of salt when I say I don’t think the publisher is the issue. My paperbacks are self-published, run in the same price range as his, and only earn me $2-3 per sale. I think he’s getting a fair deal. From his publisher, anyway. I don’t know a whole lot about what Amazon nets.

  • J. A. Self says:

    This article was total crap. Like you said, there is way too much information missing to get a real read on the situation… makes you wonder if the article’s writer knows what information is relevant and what isn’t. Most people who write articles about publishing for big media outlets don’t know that stuff.

    My takeaways were:

    4000 is a tiny number of sales, especially since it was “a bestseller.” Again, we lack information, but was this for one day? One week? If you only make 4000 sales on a book, most big publishers don’t want to sign you for another.

    The book’s author (and the Salon writer) seem to think that hitting a bestseller list at all means you instantly get a huge check. No writer makes all of their money in one month (even if it’s an advance), and this guy’s complaint seems to be that he didn’t get a huge one-time payday. That’s really, really not the new world of publishing. It’s all about the long game.

    The last takeaway is that there are still people out there looking to write Amazon hate pieces. :(

    • Ed Robertson says:

      I mean, I guess he was disappointed that being at the top of the bestseller lists in the biggest online book store on Earth didn’t make him rich. I probably would be, too. But this was a lightning strike, which means everything about it was abnormal–and if that strike doesn’t set the whole book forest on fire then and there, it’s going to fade much faster than normal, too.

  • Great analysis as always, Ed. I think some of us that have been doing this for a while and/or making a living as indie writers forget that most persistent of myths, the idea that you can hit it big with one book and be done. The truth is most traditionally published writers whose books you see in the store have full-time jobs, but that there are plenty of indies like Elle Casey that are doing well and the secret even in tradpub circles has always been writing multiple books (or having multiple pen names to go with multiple books). There’s always been no shortage of folks who want to focus on the downside of making a living writing rather than looking at the positives, though.

    • Ed Robertson says:

      No joke. The idea that you can get away with only writing one book every two or three years is just so strong. To make a living like that requires you to earn an advance of maybe a hundred grand each and every time you write a book (or, I suppose, to consistently earn out smaller advances by a wide margin). There are very few authors who can do that. And all it takes is one stumble for your next advance to be cut in half or worse, and then you need a day job again.

      I may disagree pretty hard with DWS over marketing and exclusivity or whatever. But it’s easy to forget how much we owe him for helping to explode the myth that there’s something disgraceful about working hard enough to write several books a year. And for most of us, that’s what it takes to make this a living–for us to treat it like one. If you’re not writing full-time hours every single week, it shouldn’t come as some great shock when it doesn’t *pay* full-time hours, either.

      You and Elle are models of this. Fortunately for us mortals, making a living doesn’t always require being able to write ten books a year, either. Though I’m totally jealous of those who can. :)

  • I can agree with the article. As an author who reached #222 last month on Amazon with Sin, and two bestseller categories in #NewAdult and College and #Coming of Age you’d think I was swimming in money right? The reality is yes I pulled $7,000 and some change in sales last month, not a bad payday BUT this month the same book is sitting at a rank of #5300 which means at the moment I’ve made a little over $600.

    If your book doesn’t hop on a bestseller chart and stay there for a few months you can’t even make a minimum wage income to live off of for a year. Thankfully I have a husband that has a great job or this writing thing would leave me and my family struggling to eat.

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