We're holding off on this as long as possible - we'd love to be proven wrong, and find that .99 is a viable strategy. For the benefit of author friends, we are sharing the numbers - see previous posts. Our goal here is to make a reasonable income on our work. We've amended our EU prices to end in .99 - these were pegged to the US price which gave weird amounts after conversion/ tax (and fluctuated with the dollar rate - so one day they're .99, then .03 then .87... messy!). They're now all .99 for good.
And so, to the 'elephant in the room' question: What is an author worth?
We're in the UK, so I'll put numbers up in GBP - our US readers should add about half again to get the dollar equivalents.
Let's think about a few comparators to start:
- UK Minimum Wage - £6.31/ hour. On a 37.5 hour week over a 52 week year, that's roughly: £12, 304.50 per annum.
- UK Average wage - £26,500 (Source: ONS)
I think this is a reasonable starting point. Any full time job, be that serving in a restaurant or running a company, should generate minimum wage.
Is an author's job more or less worthwhile than an average job? That's a hard one. It's not integral to life - we're not doctors. We don't make life altering decisions like lawyers.
But authors do have a profound effect. Authors amuse, entertain and educate. Some books will change lives. Others will relieve boredom for a few hours. I think that both kinds of book are worthwhile.
What about similar jobs - other writers, and creative types: what do they earn?
- Musician: £21,492
- Painter: £22,700
- Printer: £26,833
- Web designer: £29,870
- Journalists: £35,117
- CEO £117,700
OK, the last one was a little cheeky. But self-publishing is a lot like running a small company - with responsibilities ranging from writing to editing, to marketing, to project management.
Most authors (and this is anecdotal) seem to be graduates. Graduates earn more - which is fair enough as getting a degree means both tuition and lost years of income (in my case [Sean], that's 5 years of learning not earning with a tuition cost of about £70,000 / $105,000... plus interest; add in an average wage and a graduate in that position is almost a quarter of a million in the red from uni). I think it's fair to aim for 'above average'.
But what do other roles earn?
- Dentist: £53,567
- Senior policeman: £58,727
- Doctor £70, 646
Or, for Dan and I more specifically, what do our original career choices yield?
- Barrister: £45, 571
- Chef:: £17,391
Direct comparisons for authors are impossible - we don't earn a wage. We get royalties when we sell. We're subject to massive swings, and it's entirely unpredictable. But let's take a stab at working out what we'd need to sell to make the same as these comparators.
- Assumption #1: An author puts out ONE published work per year (based on the trade publishing model - we'll do a more prolific comparison below).
- Assumption #2: The 'working life' of an author is 35 years (which is the time between "good enough for publication" and "retirement". Most authors (again, anecdotally) fall in the 30-65 bracket
Based on those assumptions, it's possible to extrapolate that an author working full time will manage 35 books in a lifetime. That means "on average" they'll have 17.5 titles out at any given time.
Again, the average approach ignores a lot of the grainy detail. Early, on, authors will be making money on very few books - and that gives many a reason to quit before they get to a sustainable income. It's also important to realise that more titles out = more visibility, lifting the sales for all titles including back list.
So, let's pretend we want the same salary as a journalist. For simplicity, I'll that round the annual income figure to £35,000.
- At 99c (yielding 21p), that's 166,667 sales.
- At $2.99 (yielding £1.28), that's 27, 344 sales.
- At $4.99 (yielding £2.16), that's 16,204 sales.
- At $9.99 (yielding £4.33) that's 8,084 sales.
Above the $9.99, the royalty drops off far too quickly to ever work. The sweet spot seems to be about $5. If all our imaginary author's books are $4.99, then that's 16,204 sales divided by an average of 17.5 titles to give an average sales per title per year total of 926.
That's 926 sales each and every year on each and every title. Three a day. That sounds pretty doable, but for the fact we don't know how sustainable eBook royalties are long term. Traditionally, the bulk of a book's sales are in years one to three. Three a day now might be doable, but in twenty or thirty years? Who knows?
There are still issues here - a universal $4.99 approach probably isn't optimal. If you've got 17+ titles, then a permafree/ laddered approach is much more likely to make money (One free/ some 99c/ some $4.99/ mix it up for promos). A large catalogue is awesome for maximising revenue per title.
A lot of the sales are likely to be back-loaded - we're assuming a 35 year stint here, and it's likely that years 25-35 will earn exponentially more than 1-10. Early on, an author is a nobody. After a lifetime of writing, they've got credentials that will sell books.
Then there are the package elements that an author won't get - no health insurance, no pension, no company car etc. That will eat into the author's earnings. Inflation will have a huge effect over a 35 year term too - 5% inflation would mean that £35k today is £193,060 in 2049 (35000*1.05^35). 3% inflation, and that same +35 year figure is £98.485. If we aim for 'today's liveable salary' then we have to remember that £35 is likely to be insufficient in the long term. We can counter that by simply increasing the price of our books in line with inflation - but that loses the rounded .99 psychology that helps sell books. And if the rest of the marketplace ignores inflation, then we'll sell less.
Over a long haul, I think most authors have the potential to do well. If we want to switch it up some more, our numbers suggest a one a year author has to sell 16,204 copies of every book. That's quite high, but eBooks *should* have a long time to earn out. Sixteen thousands sounds high; three a day doesn't (and if you've got multiple formats, languages and retailers, then the average per format per channel might well be a fraction of a sale per day).
But we've also got production costs. If an author spends $2,000 all-in, then that's an extra thousand sales a title. 17,204 sales then. That seems doable over the long haul, but it is an outlier sales total. Most authors will never manage it. Being an author means you need to be extraordinary just to be average - and you need deep pockets, a hell of a lot of determination and a fair bit of luck to boot.
Prolific workrates help. Two books a year mean 9,204 sales per title over it's lifetime - much more doable.
Three a year - 6402 sales
Four a year - 5051
Six a year - 3700
Twelve a year - 2350
If those are 99c instead of $4.99, add a zero to the end. I don't think 12/ year is sustainable - not over three and a half decades. Not for full length novels anyway. Erotic shorts, sure. You might manage a dozen a month - and that model is probably more sustainable - the readers are always in need of new content, it's short and it's not demanding in terms of plot (but does have it's own challenges).
What do you think an author is worth? Could you sustain a high workrate over a protracted period? Should an author need to churn out lots of books just to make ends meet? There has to be a balance between payment, and readers. I'm not sure what the equilibrium is.