Some Honest Numbers

Last week, Lisa Cohen did a blog post about the numbers behind her latest release, Dreadnought & Shuttle, and as I always find that sort of thing fascinating (every publishing journey is different after all), I thought I would share my own numbers for my first year of publication, comparing self-publishing and traditional publishing—of the same book.

I’m one of the lucky weirdos who got a traditional contract from a self-published book, and the differences in sales and royalties are what I both expected and hoped for when I made the switch from indie to trad. It’s why I signed the contract in the first place, giving up a little bit of control in exchange for a larger slice of pie. I don’t regret my decision, not one bit. That’s not to say that my traditional publication journey has been rosy, but it hasn’t been a tire-fire of angst either.

A bit of background: I first self-published what is now The Brass Giant in December 2011, then titled The Clockwork Giant. My decisions for self-publishing were selfish. I wanted the book out as soon as possible, to meet the growing demand for steampunk fiction, and I still hadn’t quite recovered from the rejections I got from agents on the last book I tried to query. I did query The Clockwork Giant a little bit before hitting publish, but of the few agents who requested material, none of them felt it was quite right for their list, but their mostly positive feedback on the manuscript made me feel like it was ready for publication (just not to their personal tastes). So I published.

Fast forward about ten months, and the SFF Imprint of HarperCollins, Harper Voyager, put out an open call for submissions, to launch their new Impulse imprint, a digital-first division to meet the growing ebook market. Self-published books were welcome to enter. I figured why the hell not, submitted, and promptly forgot about the contest a few months later after no response.

Unbeknownst to me, the contest received such a huge volume of submissions that it would take them over a year and a half to read them all, and in May 2014, I got an email from one of their editors with a contract offer for the first three books in my steampunk series.

I accepted, and one year later, The Brass Giant was released into the wild, and over the course of its first year of traditional publication, I’ve been nothing short of surprised, pleased, and soberingly angst-ridden.

So, here’s a look at the numbers, both from my first year of self-publishing, and from my first year of traditional publishing…

Self-Publishing:Clockwork Giant, The - Brooke Johnsonclockworkgiant

December 2011 – November 2012

          Total books sold: 128

                    Ebook: 80

                    Paperback: 48

          Total Earnings: $453.15

the clockwork giant sales numbers first year

(Note: the ebook was priced at $4.99, with roughly 65-70% list price earnings per sale; the paperback was priced at $11.99, with roughly 25% earnings per sale; I did not drop the price during the first year.)

It’s not much, really, looking back, but I am still immensely proud of what I accomplished with my first foray into publishing. By self-publishing, I took control of my writing career and said yes, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. That’s no small feat.

I learned a lot that first year. I did a lot wrong. I didn’t hire an editor. I didn’t hire a cover designer. I fully embraced my DIY spirit and forged ahead on my own. After the book released, I tried a lot of marketing and promotion tactics, took a lot of notes, revised the book, designed a new cover, did giveaways, worked social media, tried more things, took more notes… Overall, it was a beneficial experience, and the mostly positive reader response gave me the courage to submit the book to Harper Voyager when they opened up for submission that following October.

TheBrassGiantTraditional Publishing:

May 2015 – April 2016

          Total books sold: 2491

                    Ebook: 2254

                    Paperback (after returns): 237

          Total Earnings: $683.30


the brass giant sales numbers first year

(Note: the ebook is regularly priced at $1.99, earning 25% royalties per sale; the paperback is $6.99, with 8% royalties per sale; hand-sold paperbacks earn 50% of the list price. There was one price-drop campaign in February 2016, when the ebook dropped to $0.99 and was featured on BookBub, leading to a high volume of sales, but at half the royalties.)

(Also, pay no mind to the weird numbers on the 2015 side of the spreadsheet. I know the sales to royalties numbers are wonky with the returns. That was before I started calculating both the earnings and losses as a separate entities. Lesson learned.)

Another note: I did not receive an advance for my contract with Harper Voyager Impulse, so I did not have a specific number of sales to meet in order to earn out the advance before receiving any royalties. To be honest, I did not mind the lack of advance at all. It lessened the pressure for my book to perform to a certain degree, and since the digital-first imprint was a new venture with HarperCollins, I think we were all a little bit hopeful, slightly skeptical, and ultimately uncertain how things would turn out for everyone involved, so I think it was a safe move for both the publishing house and for me as an author. There was no minimum threshold to meet, no specific number that would determine if the book was a success or a failure. We started from the ground up. In my mind, the book could only rise higher from there.

Things I got in exchange for signing a traditional contract: cover design, editing, a publicist, a blog tour for the release, a paid-for feature with BookBub, features on the HarperCollins newsletter, and a variety of open doors that would have remained closed to me as a self-published author.

The Differences:

One thing you’ll quickly notice, even though I sold almost twenty times as many copies of my book after traditional publication, I only made $230 more than my self-published earnings in the first year. There are a few reasons for that:

  • the price of The Brass Giant is $1.99 for the ebook, and $6.99 for print when it isn’t on sale, as opposed to the $4.99 ebook price and $11.99 print price of The Clockwork Giant;
  • royalties are 25% of profits on the ebook and 8% of the print price in my traditional contract, as opposed to 65-70% earnings on ebooks and 25% earnings on print with my self-published book;
  • thanks to the success of my $0.99 sale after getting a feature on BookBub, more than 70% of the books I have sold to-date were sold at half-price, earning me half of my usual royalties per book.

If you’re not mathematically inclined, right now, I earn roughly $0.38 per ebook sold (the 25% calculated from the publisher’s total earnings per sale), and $0.56 per paperback sold when the book is at regular price (even less on international sales), whereas, when I self-published, I was earning between $3.24 and $3.49 per ebook sold, and $3.46 earned per paperback sold. The self-published version of the book made six times as much money per book sale because of the higher price and higher royalty rate.

However, I have sold nearly twenty times the number of books once the book was traditionally published. And to me, right now at the beginning of my career, it is far less about the money than it is about as many people reading my books as possible.

And when I say I’m at the beginning of my career, I mean it. I currently have two books for sale, one novel, which I would call a moderate success by the above numbers, and a novella that hasn’t sold nearly as well (but I didn’t expect it to). I am not a prolific writer. I haven’t published 5+ books. I can’t put out multiple books a year. In fact, it’s hard enough just writing and editing one book per year. But I know that I’m just getting started. My next book comes out this August. It may take me a year or two (or more) to publish the next one, but eventually I will accumulate enough books on the shelf that I start making real money doing something that I love.

When I chose to traditionally publish The Brass Giant after first self-publishing it, I wanted two things:

  • to find more readers;
  • to open the door to greater things.

I’ve already accomplished the first one. And I don’t doubt that the second one will soon follow.


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