My Amazon bestseller made me nothing.

Posted: October 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

Patrick_Wensink

-My novel shot to the top of the site’s bestseller list last summer. You won’t believe how little I got paid!

In one more week I was going to be a millionaire.

At least, that was the rumor circulating around my wife’s family. One more week on Amazon’s best-seller list and I would have seven figures in the bank, easily. Her cousin had looked this fact up on the Internet, so it had to be true.

“Please tell them that is nowhere near true,” I said. “But don’t tell them how much money I’m actually going to make.”

“OK,” my wife said. “Can I tell them how many books you sold?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Why?”

I didn’t have a good answer. Secrecy seemed like the practical, professional response in times of success.

It made me wonder where this writerly knee-jerk reaction comes from. It wasn’t that people would think I made too much money. The opposite, actually.

This past summer, my novel, “Broken Piano for President,” shot to the top of the best-seller lists for a week. After Jack Daniel’s sent me a ridiculously polite cease and desist letter, the story went viral and was featured in places like Forbes, Time magazine and NPR’s Weekend Edition. The New Yorker wrote one whole, entire, punctuated-and-everything sentence about me! My book was the No. 6 bestselling title in America for a while, right behind all the different “50 Shades of Grey” and “Gone Girl.” It was selling more copies than “Hunger Games” and “Bossypants.” So, I can sort of see why people thought I was going to start wearing monogrammed silk pajamas and smoking a pipe.

But the truth is, there’s a reason most well-known writers still teach English. There’s a reason most authors drive dented cars. 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.

Even when there’s money in writing, there’s not much money.

I was reminded of a single page in “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”; specifically, the section where Dave Eggers breaks down his $100,000 advance on sales from his publisher. He then lists all his expenses. In the end the author banked a little less than half. It wasn’t bad money — just not the “I bet Dave Eggers totally owns a Jaguar”-type of income I expected. I mean, his name was on the cover of a book! He must be rich.

That honesty was refreshing and voyeuristic. I always said if I ever had a chance, I’d make a similar gesture. As a person learning about writing and publishing, there was something helpful about Eggers’ transparency. So here is my stab at similar honesty: the sugar bowls full of cocaine, bathtubs full of whiskey, semi-nude bookstore employees scattered throughout my bedroom tale of bestseller riches.

This is what it’s like, financially, to have the indie book publicity story of the year and be near the top of the bestseller list.

Drum roll.

$12,000.

Hi-hat crash.

I just started getting my royalty checks from July the other day (the publishing industry is slow like that). From what I can tell so far, I made about $12,000 from “Broken Piano” sales. That comes directly to me without all those pesky taxes taken out yet (the IRS is helpful like that).

Don’t get me wrong; as a guy with a couple of books out on an independent publisher I never thought I’d see that kind of money. Previously, my largest royalty check was about $153. I’m thrilled and very proud to say I earned any money as a writer. That’s a miracle. It’s just not the jewel-encrusted miracle most people think bestseller bank accounts are made from.

The book sold plus or minus 4,000 copies. (The publishing industry is hazy like that. What with sales in fishy-sounding third-world countries like Germany and England.) Being on an indie press I receive a more generous royalty split than most: 50 percent after expenses were deducted.

You can do the math. I’m clearly not buying a mansion. Hell, my measly dreams of constructing a Roald Dahl-style writing cottage in the backyard are even shelved. Twelve-thousand bucks is amazing, but it’s not life-changing money. Unless, of course, I need one of those clearance sale $11,999 kidneys.

In the end, I bought my wife a pretty dress to say thank you for putting up with me and my fiscally idiotic quest to write books. I also did the most rock star thing imaginable for a stay-at-home-dad/recipient-of-a-famous-cease-and-desist: I used the money to send my kid to daycare two days a week so I can have more time to write.

Now that I have some quiet time around the house, I’ve started wondering: Why didn’t I just tell my wife’s family the truth to begin with? Why don’t most authors talk about money?

My theory: because it’s embarrassing.

Sure, there’s a headline-grabbing thrill when Lena Dunham snags a yacht-load of money for writing about stuff only her gynecologist should know. But when a friend of mine, who is a terrific writer, told me he was offered $5,000 for his latest book, which came out on a major publisher, it left me kind of flat. It left me even more silent when it became clear that’s a pretty normal deal. This financial underwhelming hush is the same feeling I was left with after reading Eggers’ fiscal rundown. It’s something people whispered about back when I was dreaming of having a book with my name on the cover and maybe being in the cross hairs of a legal shit storm involving whiskey

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Comments
  1. […] My Amazon bestseller made me nothing.. […]

  2. I can’t tell if this is discouraging or encouraging, haha. On the one hand, it’s definitely awesome to know that you bestselling authors are normal people. I don’t write thinking I’ll be the next J.K. Rowling! On the other hand, ARGH! That’s not that much money. Oh well. Any money from something you love is worth tenfold to money from a crappy job, IMO

    • Popcorn says:

      Did you see the post

    • You need to remember, this is off of just one book. Most successful authors write much more than one, and as the number of books go up (as long as they can keep up sales) so will the amount that you can make per year. In other words..It will depend on how much you want to work.

      The cool thing about having the publicity, that he has mentioned in this article, is that it makes any work you do afterward, much easier to sell. You also never lose royalties for your passed work, so the one that got you noticed in the first place, will still make you money, be it little, or a lot.

      Basically, it goes down the to same ‘pull up, your bootstraps attitude’. You get back, what you put in. No one gets paid, to write a book, then sit down and do nothing. If you want to write, write everyday, and treat it like a normal job. If not, then you aren’t going to make a living at it. Simple as that.

      • Popcorn says:

        Hi I am almost finished my first book (scattered thoughts of unique mind) I would like for you to promote it-tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it

      • Check out the guidelines on my featured blog titled, “Book Blog and Promotions!”, you will find all of the details there to submit a proper proposal for promotion.

      • celticbrighid says:

        I agree. I think he is on a uphill climb which can only be a good thing.

      • Well yeah. You gotta keep up the work if you want to keep making more money at it. It can be a lot to take on, especially once you have multiple books to promote, but in the end I think it’s worth it because one can make a decent living. Which I think is what we’re all after isn’t it?

        I mean, I haven’t met a writer (a decent one anyways) who has been in it solely for the money. If we can just be able to make a living, the same as we would any other lower-middle, to middle class job, than I know a lot of us would be happy at just that.

      • NYC Man says:

        a very similar road for an actor

    • Great comment Stefanie, there’s not many jobs where you are CEO one minute and janitor the next, or to use an old quote, Chief cook and bottle washer!

  3. mkharkins says:

    Honesty- It’s refreshing 🙂 Thanks

  4. Stacy B says:

    Nice to hear about the real peeps in the writing world. Indie romance/erotica publishing is huge and has it’s own world. You should check it out. I don’t know if it’s possible to use that marketing model for non-romance/erotica books or not, but maybe you could totally self-publish.

    Send me links to your books and I’ll post them on my blog (which has a whole 152 followers). It’s something, right? 🙂

    • Popcorn says:

      Hi I tried to find you blog but it kept bring me to your Facebook page. I am almost finished my first short stories poetry book-would you post that on your blog. I could really use the exposure

  5. It’s about par for the course. I failed to make any money until I went to the print on demand – self publishing route. It hits you in the face when you see a book you wrote being sold on ebay for three times the original asking price. Solution, I now buy as many books as I can and flog them myself when on the road speaking about being a dyslexic self-publishing playwright and novelist. It works. They clap and cheer and pay a fee to listen to me and some actually buy the books.

  6. Derek Haines says:

    I do believe every word Patrick, sadly. I love writing, but my monthly blogging and advertising income always outstrips my book royalties. Hardly just that one click on an inane online ad is often worth more than a copy of 80,000 words written with passion.

  7. I am proud of the fact that I “almost” broke even with my second and third books. “Almost” but still not quite. lol

  8. That’s actually great money from an independent book publisher. Congrats! Most readers think I carry around a bag that regenerates books so I can just hand them out willy nilly or charge a ridiculously low price for them at conventions. Readers have no idea how little authors make.

    • Popcorn says:

      Hey looks good me that you got it together. I seen your webpage. You have a p_h_d that’s a very impressive and you published 4 times by really publishing company. I am almost finished my first book called (scattered thought of mind) I would like you to take a look at it tell me what you think

  9. I have had a different experience being a self pubbed Indie myself. I think it may all just come down to niches an author chooses to write in. While I’m not driving a Jag either, I make quite a comfortable living and that income keeps increasing incrementally with each book I release.

  10. Bree Davison says:

    The not having a Jag thing was the worst let-down. Thanks for your honesty though.

  11. When I was a student one of my professors who published crime novels under a pen name told us how much money a writer makes. He gave us an average which was really low. I knew what I was going to do before I started writing. It’s such a wonderful thing to get a book published as a lot of us never even get there.That’s why I want to write, not for the royalties ;).

    • Popcorn says:

      Hi with you being a librarian you would know a good book from a bad book right!-well my first book that I’ve written its called Scatter thoughts of a unique mine. I’d like you to look at it and tell me if it’s a good read or not

  12. Reblogged this on C. L. Swinney's Blog and commented:
    Brilliant, spot-on, and tragic all in a few hundred words.

  13. sherrinak says:

    Reblogged this on sherrinakblog and commented:
    Whoa

  14. Joe Moore says:

    Hope you don’t mind, I borrowed your link for my forum (http://thalastwordinbooks.com) because I believe too many writers have a fairy tale idea about writing and making money. While there are a few like Erik, I think yours (and mine) are the more common results.

    • Popcorn says:

      I don’t mind that you borrowed my post. I’m happy that you did it .I just ask one thing- just from time to time would you tell people to go to my blog so you can read all the stuff that I have to offer

      • Joe Moore says:

        That’s already taken care of as I put the actual link on the page. I always give credit and promote other writers. That’s something we all should be doing. It returns to us if we do.

  15. Deb Sanders says:

    About 1% of published authors generate 90% of the royalties, mirroring our current American economics, The key to surviving as a writer is understanding one book will not make you wealthy for life unless you land a major movie deal and learn how to budget wisely. You are a self employed entrepreneur offering a service. Surgeons don’t perform one operation and live on the proceeds. Caterers don’t prepare for one event and live off the proceeds. Writers don’t write one book and live off the royalties. If you’re not churning out new material on a regular basis, in six months or less, no one will remember who you are. The upside is enjoying the experience and hearing from fans who like your work. How many people can say they had an Amazon Best Seller? Congrats on your success. Now go write another book.

    • Popcorn says:

      Hi I would like for you to review my first book that I have ever written its called (scattered thought of a unique mine)I hope it acceptable!

    • Tom says:

      Nicely put Deb. My first eBook sold a few and then although I was eager to write a second, I took my time to get it right. It took another year to produce the second one. I reduced my position and hours at my regular job, and then I went right on with the third novel. I’m now on my fourth novel in less than four years.
      I’ve found that having a website helps too, because it gives a bit more credibility than simply having a blog. I’m aiming high now by setting my present story in the US – so how well is that going to work for me? 🙂
      In line with what you’ve said in your comment, I’m already making notes and writing passages to help when I start work on two sequels. Writers, and especially indie published writers must learn that they are not owed a living – writing must be their accepted profession. The more you write and the better standard that writing is – then the more you sell.
      Nice to see somebody who knows what she’s talking about.

    • Leah says:

      He did write another book. And another! we’ll see if it pays the bills someday!! 1 already came out. 2 more coming out Fall 2016. He definitely wasn’t complaining. And, after tax and expenses, we used about 5,000 of it to pay off some debt from putting a new roof on our house. Exciting, right? (Patrick’s Wife)

  16. C.B. Pratt says:

    I’m not sure if it will make you feel better or worse to tell you that the average author makes less than $5,000 a year from their work. So you are ahead of the game but still behind the eight-ball. I hope this book will go on selling steadily for years and so will the next half dozen or so to come.

    • Popcorn says:

      I agree with your movie review on the new version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The way that they design the costume for the new teenage mutant turtles looked horrible! I look forward in reading more of your movie review

  17. Jen Gentry says:

    I will be honest and say I did not read all the comments. But seriously. Did you honestly think you were going to be one of those incredibly rare one hit wonders? Being a bestseller on Amazon is a wonderful thing… to get the ball rolling. And yes I am also a best selling author on Amazon, three times over. I did not start seeing a regular monthly royalty check until I released book number three. I have had a steady royalty check coming in now monthly for the last year after three years of writing. promoting, and in general working my butt off for it. And no, it is not yet where I could live off of it entirely, but I keep writing. I keep putting more and more work out there. The more work I produce, and the more time I spend building my platform increasing my reach and readership, the more money I make. Last week I took the plunge. My day job got cut and for now am going to write full time. I am feeling really good about this because I have seen the results. The thing is to keep writing and stop that mentality; oh, this one book is going to make me rich. Yeah right, successful people never give up they keep going.

    • C says:

      I don’t think he’s saying he thought that would happen. He’s saying that a lot of OTHER people think authors are rich if they have a best seller. He knows better.

    • Tom says:

      Superb response Jen. I’ve been checking out occasional comments and only responded to one other so far – by Deb Sanders.
      Congratulations on your success so far and may it continue and let the ‘day job’ become a memory. 🙂

  18. As an author still in the $153 range, this was an awesome post. Thanks.

  19. kitsyclare says:

    I appreciate your honesty. I’ve been published by a Big 5 and I’ve indie pubbed. I’ve made good money on a couple of things and low figures on others. For me, it’s a love, an obsession, a need. I also teach part time. That way I don’t have to feel so distraught over the rollercoaster highs, lows and in-betweens. My advice to you? Keep writing!!! And write great books. Catherine Stine aka Kitsy Clare

  20. $12,000 is an awful lot of money to most people. Not sure why you say in the heading that it made you nothing. Come on, 12 grand! And it’s still selling. It’ll continue to sell and you can go and write another book. You should be proud, seriously.

  21. Greg Mischio says:

    I think Jen Gentry is right on, and I always go back to what Stephen King says. “Thanks for paying me a lot of money for doing something I was going to do anyway.” You write because you have to, not for the cash.

    But you make a good point. The days of big cash advances are long-gone. That lottery-thinking mentality has to be replaced by how to become a good marketer and handle the business side of what you’re doing. Otherwise, stick to your day job and write for the fun of it.

    Congrats on making it to the top of the Bestseller list, Patrick. That’s fantastic!

  22. beedazed says:

    Reblogged this on beedazed and commented:
    Hmmmm!

  23. celticbrighid says:

    I am just wondering how long you have been writing? If only a few years I would think that your success may just be the beginning of the upward trend. At least I hope so. I’ve recently published my first novel as well and have yet to see any money from it. I’ve also read (and hopefully this will give you heart) that with multiple titles come multiple sales. so keep writing!! I for one am proud of you. Brighid O’Sullivan @celticthoughts.com

  24. Unfortunately the majority of writers/authors will never earn a living with their creative endeavors – that is the hard fact. We can hope for some money once ‘expenses/fees/taxes are deducted from the normal avenues for publishing but it is knowing our words are out in the world and will be for future generations that is the real value and reward.

  25. Tom says:

    We can’t afford to believe that we will be a one-trick-pony. The best philosophy I can come up with for writing success is – don’t treat it as a hobby; treat it as a job!
    In 1992, following a successful 23 year military career in the British Army I couldn’t get work. How did I break the losing streak? I treated the act of getting a new job as my new job. Within about three months I was in full-time employment, and as it happens I was invited (and paid), to give talks to large groups of folk who were about to leave the British Armed Forces.
    You get out what you put in, and quality is more important than quantity, so don’t rush it.
    Good luck.

  26. I was also screwed by used book sellers selling new as used says:

    Look at all those used/good as new books selling on Amazon. Hmmm who’s getting those royalties? And why is it, you go to buy one book and they have multiples of your book available? Just who is selling your new books as new?

  27. Jackie Dana says:

    Rule #1 of becoming a writer: If you’re going to publish someone else’s post (http://www.salon.com/2013/03/15/hey_amazon_wheres_my_money/) then you should at least acknowledge that it’s not yours.

    • Popcorn says:

      Everyone knows I didn’t write that article. I didn’t write any other article I posted. I only thing I have written on blog is The (Scatter Thoughts of Unique Mind) and that is story/poetry book I am writing. I post something tomorrow make it clear to everyone that I didn’t write that article. I just post thing about other writer to bring writers together!

  28. kvennarad says:

    You actually made MONEY publishing on Amazon? Wow!

    I live in Scotland, my publisher is in South Africa. Amazon, who are in America, deduct so much US ‘tax’ that I hardly see a single kopek!

    Haven’t they heard of ‘No taxation without representation’?

    [To see my published stuff, go to mairibheag.com and click on ‘Works’]

    M

  29. Derek Haines says:

    Thank you Jackie for discovering this blogger to be a fraud. I would draw the attention of the owner of this blog to the fact that by copying the content of this article, you are in breach of copyright law. The original article, published on Salon clearly states their copyright.

    http://www.salon.com/2013/03/15/hey_amazon_wheres_my_money/

    Copyright © 2014 Salon Media Group, Inc. Reproduction of material from any Salon pages without written permission is strictly prohibited.

    SALON ® is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as a trademark of Salon Media Group Inc.

    Associated Press articles: Copyright © 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

    The very least you could do is add a source link to your illegally copied material. I am sure I feel the same as many who have commented in good faith on this article. Very annoyed to have been played for a fool.

  30. Reblogged this on Shirley McLain and commented:
    I think all of us Authors have dreams of making it and getting rich with our fabulous book. This is the other side of the coin. You know that part that tries to break the dream. For me, I will continue to think and dream that I will be the next Diane Gabledon or J.K. Rowling. A girl can dream, can’t she?

  31. Jeremy Lonell says:

    Uh huh… 4000 copies isn’t even close to a bestseller. Those are mid list numbers for NY publishers. The real Amazon bestsellers sell in the six figures.

    • Deb Sanders says:

      There are things to consider besides sales volume. Four thousand copies sold in an obscure category could produce an Amazon best seller while that same number would barely break a 100k ranking in others. I know a lot of authors who purposely place their book in unique categories hoping to snag a best seller ranking. Plus, Amazon constantly tweaks their algorithms. One of my books hit the Amazon Best Seller ranking in 2012 but I wonder if it would do as well today. I would hope so but who knows? That being said, Amazon did purchase the German translation rights to my book and the title enjoyed a nice run overseas. While hitting the best seller ranking is not a fast track to “easy” money, it certainly places you in a better position to grab the brass ring.

  32. cairennhouse says:

    Reblogged this on Jayne Hyatt and commented:
    So, your book is an Amazon best seller? Congratulations! Uh, how much did you actually earn? Here’s the scoop:

  33. Reblogged this on Thunderhawk Bolt and commented:
    A rich writer is a rare bird indeed. For every Rowling, there are millions of us hunched over keyboards long into the night, crying into our coffee, and wishing we’d never stopped smoking.

  34. Reblogged this on Charlotte Gerber and commented:
    The real story about living the author’s life, and why most writers live in poverty. If you thought it was all glitz and glamour, think again!

  35. I need to keep this post handy for those times when people in my life think I’m going to be making Stephen King’s money on my books. LOL Every time they say “WOW! You’re getting published! You’ll be raking in the dough and you can buy me {insert item here}.” I have to tell them, “No, publishing isn’t like that. People like Stephen King are the 1% of the publishing industry. It’s more likely I’ll be able to buy a Happy Meal at McDonald’s before I can buy expensive high ticket items.” They look at me like I’m lying and just trying to short them what they think I should do for them. It’s a fickle industry that we’ve chosen as our profession. Whims change at a moment’s notice. But honestly, I wouldn’t want to do anything else. EVER. 😀

  36. Teinevai says:

    I guess that’s why you hear author/writer’s say that writing is a passion for them, something they dabble in after work, in the weekend etc

    I never heard of a would be writer saying he/she was writing a book because of the cash incentives.

  37. The thing that “surprises” me, is not that the royalties for 4000 books is $12,000, but that 4000 books make it the number 6 best seller on Amazon. If the number 6 book is only selling 4000 copies a month then that doesn’t give much hope that my number 649,313 and 2,177,205 will ever sell more than 20 copies.

  38. […] OK, enough wallowing in piles of filthy lucre. Back to reality. […]

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