The eBook Path to Riches: Possibly Steeper Than Assumed

A comment in my “The State of a Genre Title” post reads:

Wow, if you would’ve published that book yourself, you would’ve made over $300K from the ebook alone.

Actually, probably I would not have. And here’s why.

The poster of the comment is, I assume, taking his number from the idea that I would earn a 70% royalty from my self-published eBook version of Redshirts. In the timeframe noted in the entry, I sold 35,667 eBook versions at $11.99. And quick math shows that 70% of that gross is $299,353. Which is just under rather than just over $300k, but close enough. But:

1. Assuming that one is distributing through Amazon (the largest retailer of eBooks worldwide at the moment), one gets the 70% royalty rate from the company only if one agrees to certain things, like an exclusivity window for Amazon and an agreement to price the eBook within in specific price band, the top price of which is $9.99 (edit: see comment here, correcting me). So already the maximum gross for that number of sales drops, from $299k to just under $250,000. Still not bad, but also not $300,000. At the 70% royalty, Amazon also charges a download fee against royalties, to the tune of 15 cents per megabyte download. Redshirts is 449kb (just under half a MB), so that’s $2,407 shaved right off the top. That’s 1% of my gross, but, hey, $2,400 pays a lot of bills. There are other details that can also drive down gross here, but you get the idea.

2. If I don’t agree to Amazon’s demands for the 70% royalty tier, then I drop to the 35% royalty tier. The good news here is that (on Amazon, anyway) I can now price the book above $9.99, so let’s bring that back sale price back up to $11.99. At that rate, a 35% royalty nets me $149,676. Again, totally not chicken feed, and well done me. But it’s also less than half the $300,000 I was told I would get, and that’s not trivial in the slightest.

3. All of this assumes, of course, that I could, on my own, shift 35,667 eBooks in the timeframe discussed. I would like to think I could, because we’d all like to think that. But it’s worth noting that some non-trivial fraction of those sales happened in part because of large chunk of marketing and advertising provided me by my publishers (Tor and Audible for the audiobook), and that some chunk of those sales happened because of the incidental benefits accrued by being traditionally published. Hitting the New York Times hardcover bestseller list (which happened without the eBook sales at all, by definition) led to profiles and interviews with the Times and NPR and other mainstream outlets. Those wouldn’t have happened with eBook only. I had Redshirts advertised everywhere from Locus to The New Yorker — again, not something I could have accomplished on my own.

Yes, I am a well-known writer with a large footprint online, and that doesn’t hurt. But simply being well-known does not automatically equate to massive book sales. It’s pretty obvious I think well of myself, but ego aside I am skeptical that I would have sold 35k worth of books at an $11.99 price point on my own.

4. This leads to the obvious question of whether I would sell more if I chose to sell at a lower price point; say, oh, $4.99. The answer here is of course it’s possible, although it’s not guaranteed. But to reach the vaunted $300k gross at that price point, I would need to sell roughly 87,500 copies, if I was using the 70% royalty, and obviously about twice that for the 35% royalty. That’s a lot of books to sell with only myself for marketing muscle. And obviously, the lower I price the book, the less I gross per sale and the more I have to sell to get to the goal. And, again, clearly, if I didn’t sell a larger number of books, my takehome would be commensurately lower.

5. Yes, but, what about [insert favorite eBook success story here], who made tons of money without all that, and so on, etc? This is where I remind people of the fact that exceptional cases are not a great place to argue from. I know that directly since I’ve been lucky enough to be an exceptional case, and I cringe every time someone points to me and says, more or less, “There’s my argument.” Exceptional cases are, by definition, rare and not representative.

6. And beyond all of that, if I published on my own I would have to do all the work aside from writing, or (because I’m lazy and in some areas not competent) hire people to do it for me, so what I publish looks professional and not like a crap. That’s money I’d need to put out up front on the hope of getting those hundreds of thousands of dollars in ebook sales. I’m okay with someone paying me to do all the work.

So could I have made $300,000 if I had self-published Redshirts as an eBook? Well, it’s possible I could have. But it seems to me very unlikely. And regardless if I had made that money, it would have required much more time and effort from me than I would have wanted to exchange. And at the end of the day, the way I did publish is going to do just fine for me. So I am comfortable with the publishing choices I made, and am very happy and genuinely grateful I have the opportunity to make those choices at all.

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