Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Don't Quit Your Day Job

Aspiring or first-time authors sometimes hold the misconception that they will hit it big with their first books. Visions of bestsellers dance in their heads. It’s time for a reality check.

The statistics have not changed much in the years that I’ve been involved with publishing. In the entire Kingdom of Bookdom, which includes every book sold in every category—not just Christian books—maybe ten percent of authors make a living solely by writing books.

In the Christian book industry I doubt if that many authors make a living with their writing. The authors you meet at conferences may still have day jobs, or if they freelance, they edit manuscripts, ghostwrite books, or put on their own workshops. Or they still have day jobs. They work all day, and then come home and write their novels at night. Or if they’re early birds like me, they hop out of bed at 4 a.m. and sit down at the keyboard before rushing out the door to make it to work on time.

Another group of writers may be blessed with a spouse who is the sole breadwinner of the family. Mothers who are writers take care of the kids and write during naptime. I’ve known stay-at-home writer dads as well. The whole family tightens the purse strings and lives on a budget.

Of course, a handful of authors inherited their fortunes and live on Fantasy Island.

Here’s the reality. The average Christian novel sells about 4,000 to 5,000 copies . . . maybe. Some sell less; some sell more. You notice I didn’t say that the first-time author only sells about 4,000 copies. No, that includes experienced and newbie authors as well. Do the math.

A smaller percentage may sell 10,000 to 15,000 books each time. Now we enter more rarefied air. A much smaller group sells 20,000 or 25,000 books, but those are usually long-time authors or a new author who happens to write a book that hits a nerve with readers who purchase books.

Only a tiny few sell in the 50,000 to 100,000 or more range consistently. You know their names. They live on the bestseller lists. You see their names month after month after month after year after year after year on the CBA or ECPA bestseller lists.

And once in awhile, the industry catches lightning in a bottle, and you have series like Left Behind or a single book like The Shack.

So please, if you are a newcomer to publishing, adjust your expectations, and if you knock it out of the ballpark, you’ll be as surprised as your agent and your publisher. We pray for bestsellers!

Please let me know if this blog helped you in any way. This is a two-way conversation. I have both published and unpublished authors who read The Roving Editor every day, and we need to hear from everyone so that we can learn from experience. Also, leave me a note about a topic that you would like to see me cover: business plans/financials; the printing process; how sales work; in-house marketing or publicity. Nothing is off limits. Let’s talk.


  1. I appreciate the honesty of these posts. You are answering questions that most of us are afraid to ask, but these are the facts we must know in order to understand the business side of our trade.

  2. Only four to five thousand copies? That comes as a huge surprise to me. I didn't expect that.
    Thanks for the reality check, Barbara!

  3. I get up at 4 a.m. too!! Wow. Next time my alarm goes off, I'll think, "Hey, I'm not the only one awake."

    Great stuff, Barbara. I have the perfect job. Teaching. So for two months out of the year and two weeks around Christmas, I get to pretend I'm a full-time writer. :)

    I'm DYING to know what's all involved in a Pub Board meeting. I'd love to know how long it takes. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it. I mean, do they bring a book to the table, discuss it, and decide, all in one meeting? Or is it over the course of weeks? Months? (Can you tell I'm waiting on Pub Board for a publishing house?)

    Thanks for this blog! I love it!

  4. It's good to live in the real world and not in the clouds. I've had family members and friends make the same misconception.

  5. Very interesting post! I'm a debut Bethany House author and my first book is coming out in Oct. The back of my ARC says that the first printing is 25,000. Now I'll be watching to see if we come close to selling near that number or not!

  6. I'm back because after tweeting with my friend Jody, I thought of another topic I'd love to hear more info on.

    How do publishing houses go about predicting how many copies they will sell of a particular book?

    I'd be very interested to know.

  7. I'm thankful to have my own patron of the arts: my hubby.

    As far as what I'd like to read on one of your posts: what is Abingdon especially looking for in fiction just now? What are some of the things that make-up the wow-factor in fiction in your opinion?

    And, please, continue with any of the inside looks at the publishing business.

  8. You've all offered great comments. Some of the bigger houses won't even sign a new author because they need a sales record on their other books.

    Some want every book to sell at least 10,000 minimum, but others set the bar at 20,000.

    That's why it's hard to break in unless you write Love Inspired or for Barbour or Abingdon. There are other smaller houses as well.

    And you've given me some great ideas for blogs! Pub boards are mysterious entities to anyone outside the publishing industry. I'll open the door and let you take a peek inside. I'll even tell you about the arguments. :) Yes, people on Pub Boards disagree.

  9. My husband teases I single-handedly keep the entire CBA in business! From these numbers, looks like I'll have to double my purchases...for a good cause, of course. Authors need me!!

    Love the blog posts, Barbara. Keep 'em coming.

  10. I won't name names, but I can give you the way Pub Boards work in most companies. It's not a trade secret, but authors are never told about how those boards work. It's useful info.

    And yes, Kellie, buy, buy, buy! LOL Back in the 1990s, there were about 5,000 Christian bookstores. Their numbers have shrunk to somewhere between 1,500 to 1,900 stores. I'll try to get the exact number from CBA. More on that later.

    I can also talk to you about first printings, Jody, but it may wait for another blog. I pray for your success and for the success of every reader!


  11. I am amazed at how many would be writers don't realize what they are up against in the industry. This is very informative and something I can use for my little writing group. Im not in it for the money, so I guess my expectations are fairly low. I have to continually leave my writing in God's hands.

  12. Exactly, Jan. If anyone enters Christian publishing only for money, then they should walk away and write for the ABA market. We all need to keep our ears attuned to God's still small voice and trust our writing and editing to Him.

  13. I'm a teacher. Apparently I don't do anything only for money.

  14. I'm a stay-at-home mom and writer. So ditto what Christa said!

    I haven't been around much to comment lately, but great posts, Barb. I've been reading them all!

  15. I'm an unpublished writer who stumbled on The Roving Editor a few weeks ago. I'm also about to graduate college and trying to figure out what that day job will be. On second thought, the stuff you wrote yesterday about the copy editor sounds intriguing.
    <>< Katie

  16. Christa, I know what you mean. My first "real" job was interning at a newspaper. Definitely not a big moneymaker. I've never been motivated by money. Maybe that's why I don't own Trump Tower. LOL

    And Jen, I just heard today why you've been so quiet. Hope you're feeling better. We'll talk, girlfriend. :)

    Katie, depending on where you live, see if you can get an entry level job at a newspaper, magazine, or any kind of publisher. Newspapers are excellent places to pick up proofreading, copyediting, and writing skills.

  17. Ah those dreams of writing full time, sitting in my cabin, writing away. But then there's reality--which I'm not very fond of, but very firmly planted in nevertheless. *-) But just in case it ever does happen, I do have the plans for my cabin and grounds all picked out. 8-)

    This is probably a really stupid question, but I'd like to know how much of an editor's contact with an author, percentage wise, is via email and by phone? I'm assuming it's mostly done by email these days, but don't know.

  18. This is kind of my "area." A long time ago, I worked a day job, built up a savings, and then excitedly quit to write full time. What a joy it was going to be, right?!

    A year later, I was searching for a job, broke and still a struggling writer. Now, even though I'm selling books, I'm still not making enough to live comfortably without a day job. Consequently, Corporate America will probably have to pry me away from them and order me out of the building before I give up the security of a paycheck and health benefits. I can write at night and on the weekends, right? :-)

  19. You know those billionaires who committed to giving away half of their fortunes? I wanted to wave my hand and say, "Over here! We have a lot of starving writers." LOL Gone are the days of patronage.

    BK: Most of our communication is through email these days, but all my authors know they can call me anytime.

    Here's a thought, if anyone out there has a "real" cabin (not just a virtual someday cabin) think about holding a writers retreat or workshop there. Several of my authors and I were blessed with spending a weekend at a cabin in the Poconos that a church member donated, and we'll never forget it. It was such a bonding experience.

  20. Besides being a writer, I'm a stay-at-home mom of four ranging in age from 11-17. I don't have time for a day job! LOL I'm glad my husband is supportive! (It goes both ways . . . he's a teacher!)

  21. Someone posted this on Facebook recently (can't remember who): Authors are the only ones in the publishing industry who can't make a living at it.

    There's some irony for you!

    Thankfully for most of us it's a passion that God placed inside us, not the money, that compels us to sit day after day at our computers.

  22. Barbara, I found the number estimates of how many books an average first-time author sells very interesting. In line with that, I have a question. What kind of advance does a first-time author generally receive? Or does that just depend on the house?

  23. I'm working the 40-hour weeks as a licensed therapist and trying to squeeze time in to write in the evenings and weekends when not being mom to a 2 1/2 year old. *sigh* When will hubby hurry up and finish med school?

    This was an eye-opening post. Glad I found your blog. I hope to see you at the ACFW conference!

    the character therapist

  24. 4-5K may not be much but I'd be ecstatic that even that many buy and read my book. :) I work part-time now and it's just to supplement the income while hubby is the breadwinner. I do plan on quitting the part-time job if I'm ever blessed enough to be published (as I don't make much more than minimum wage anyway).

  25. Right on the money, Barbara. ;-) Believe it or not, there are a number of published authors who actually pay to write--they spend more on marketing, going to conferences, free lance editors, etc. than they make from their books.

  26. Barbara, very informative post. So glad folks like you who know what's going on behind the curtain are willing to pull it back and give us a peek. To strengthen your point about realistic expectations, my first novel, The Unfinished Gift, as of Feb had sold 23,000 copies. I'm aware this is huge for a first novel, and I'm very grateful. It is still selling, but even with this, I could never live on what it has produced financially.

    My new release, The Homecoming, began with a 15,000 first print. Again, high hopes here for future sales. But I've had to give all my expectations for doing this full time to the Lord. If I look at the math, it can be discouraging, even with these numbers.

    But when I look at what God is doing in my heart, the pleasure He gives me when I capture something just so on the page, the amazing emails I receive from people the books have's pure joy. If I never get to do this full time, I am a blessed man.

  27. Thanks so much. I've been thinking that if I hadn't had my day job -- and it's very demanding -- I might have had much more writing success. Thanks for pushing me back to reality. I do expect to spend a lot more time writing when I retire in a couple of years.