15,000 Copies Sold: The Economics of a Hobby Book Author

Curious about the economics of book publishing? I wrote about my experience as a small-time author in the niche category of woodworking trade books. Spoiler alert: Don’t quit your day job.

If you are an aspiring book author or have ever wondered how the economics of book publishing works I’d like to share my experience with you. I’ve been lucky enough to have two books published in the popular niche category of woodworking how-to trade books, a small but devoted corner of your local book store.

My first book “The Handmade Skateboard” came out in 2014 and examined the industrial history of the skateboard and offered five how-to projects to design and build your own. My second book published in 2019 was much more ambitious. It followed a similar format but revealed to readers how to design and build “The Handmade Teardrop Trailer” based on a design I found in a 1940s issue of Popular Mechanics.

Combined, my print and e-books titles have sold just over 15,000 copies and both are on their second or third printings. For a not-so-famous author like me, this could be considered a success. Most sell less than 500 copies, I’ve learned.

The United States of Handmade: Amazon provides authors with a tool to view the last year of US sales recorded by BookScan by date and geography.

Anatomy of a Book Sale

This is not a business to retire on, so let me explain the economics of being a small-time book author.

Both of my books have a printed cover price of roughly $25, but usually that gets discounted to $20 (or less) thanks to the Amazonification of book retail. When you do the math my titles have earned about $300,000 for the retail book economy. You may be surprised at how much of that money actually makes it into my bank account.

  • The retailer that sells the book collects about half the retail sale price ($12.50), a typical wholesale/retail split. But they don’t buy the books until they’re sold. If the seller is holding unsold physical inventory for too long, they can return it to the publisher at no cost.
  • With 50% of the sale accounted for, next the distributor gets paid for all the work involved in moving the books from the printer to the retailer, and for marketing it to booksellers to reserve some shelf space (physical and virtual). My publisher contracts with the behemoth in this space, Ingram Publisher Services.
  • Another couple bucks is divvied up by my publisher, editor, and art director. These are the professionals who assembled my books from the mess of raw assets. They carry the overhead of making it, and take the upfront risks of investing in my idea. Afterall, my book could be a flop and actually lose money.
  • So what’s left for me, the author? From the original $25 list price I get about $1 per copy, give or take. From what I hear, this is a pretty typical royalty rate unless you are Stephen King. (please don’t tell me if it’s not, I’m doing just fine with my ignorant bliss.)
  • And don’t forget the advance. For a conventional book deal, authors are usually provided an advance on the royalties based on a calculation of what the publisher thinks it will bring in. A $5,000 advance means you are prepaid for the first 5,000 copies sold. You won’t start seeing a royalty check until copy 5,001 gets rung up at the register.
  • Depending on your book contract, you may also have to pay for wholesale copies of your own book. That means for every book you give away to your favorite cousin or college roommate, you have to sell 12 copies to break even.

You might have gathered by now that don’t write books for money, although it helps. For the glory, well kind of. Mostly it’s my hobby. And writing books has led me to a lot of fun opportunities to teach woodworking classes or take on interesting commissions that I might not have otherwise found.

Give Self-Publishing a Try

For my third book, I tried a different approach. My subject matter was not a woodworking how-to book but rather a personal project that archives the life and work of my Depression-era ancestor artists and writers from Carmel, California. I decided to do-it-myself and self-publish a book using an on-demand publishing platform called Lulu xPress and a simple e-commerce website I stood up to process orders.

It has been an incredibly fun and personal project, and I’ve learned a lot about the intricacies of book publishing that most authors never get to see. Like how to export a print-ready PDF in Adobe InDesign, how to determine the best paper size and thickness for a book category, or how to register you hardbound and softbound editions with unique ISBN numbers at the same time so you don’t end up paying twice the fees.

Despite the hobby experience, though, I’ve only sold 6 copies (not counting the dozen I bought for friends and family), so commercial success it is not.

But that’s okay because this morning a direct deposit from my publisher just arrived for my December 2020 royalty payout – 2,200 copies sold! We’re getting take-out tonight, kids!

This post is republished from my LinkedIn Profile originally published on March 19, 2021

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