Selling Shovels

Admittedly there were a few prospectors who struck it rich in the California Gold Rush of 1849. Most of the people who really got rich weren’t out there shoveling rocks 18 hours a day or panning in frozen streams. They were selling the pans, the picks, and shovels (often at exorbitant prices) to the idiots who were.

I often feel the same way about self-publishing books. Check out Amazon and you’ll find hundreds of books and eBooks selling shovels. That is, purporting to teach you how to become a successful author. Everything from websites to YouTube videos all with their own gimmick.

Add to that all the services out there, from editorial to cover design to book layout and you’ve got an industry that goes well beyond cottage.

I searched Amazon for books for writers I got 273,481 returns! Clearly, writing for writers is a booming business. Somebody is making money from all those books, but it sure ain’t the fiction authors. I’m not even looking at editorial and proofreading services or cover design and layout. In 2013 there were 450,000 self-published books. Take an average of 70,000 words and at standard per word rates you get:

  • Developmental editing: $.08 per word, or $5,600 total;
  • Basic copyediting: $.018 per word, or $1,260 total;
  • Proofreading: $.0113, or $791 total.

If I use the basic copyediting total and say 1/4 of those books got professional editing that means the total market just for editors is about $144,000,000. That’s a lot of shovels… and that’s just editing.

So what can you, as an author, expect to make after shelling out your hard earned cash? According to one answer on Quora, the average Amazon author makes about $100 per year on eBook sales. Here’s what I’ve gleaned from forums and talking to authors:

  • The average (arithmetic mean) number of copies sold in a year was 43. However, that average is misleading, as it’s inflated by a few titles that sold in the thousands.
  • The estimated median title sold 9 copies in a year. That means that half of all self-published books sold fewer than 10 copies per year.
  • It’s quite possible, that fully a quarter of all self-published works of fiction actually sold zero copies.

It reminds me of an old saying I once heard:

Q. How do you make a small fortune in publishing?

A. Start with a large one!

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