★ One Thing About Me

A couple of years back, I was faced with a group of twenty-five nervous freshers in a first-year psychology seminar. I broke the ice by playing the Three Things About Me game. This game – or, at least, the version I play – involves saying three things about yourself. Two things must be true and one must be false. The aim of the game is to make the lie so compelling that your partner can’t guess correctly which of the three things is untrue.

When I explained the rules of the game to the terrified students, I included ‘science fiction author’ as one thing; ‘half-marathon runner’ as another; ‘piano player’ as the third. Most of the students guessed correctly that ‘piano player’ was the lie.

But, deep down, I felt that ‘science fiction author’ was a lie too. By that point, it had been several years since I’d published Déjà Vu. Was I still an author? Are you an author if you don’t have anything out there? Maybe it’s better to say ‘I wrote a book once’.

I wrote a book once called Déjà Vu. It came out in 2005. Seven weeks ago, I self-published it for the Amazon Kindle. I would have been happy with three customers. I have one thousand.

To put this in perspective, I’ve read via Bubblecow that

…if a novel sells 10,000 copies in a year it is doing well. For a first time novelist, with little track record, a figure of 2000 copies per year is probably closer to the truth.

By this metric, a ‘doing well’ novel sells 192 copies per week. Déjà Vu has sold an average of 142 copies per week.

The Amazon Kindle self-publishing model means that authors have a great deal of freedom in the setting of the price, as long as you don’t want to sell it for free. If you give a list price of $2.99 or over, you can get a 70% royalty option.

Think about that for a moment. A 70% royalty. That number isn’t far off from the one most buyers assume is going towards the artist when they buy a book or CD. The reality, of course, is that royalty rates are closer to 10-15%.

The list price I’ve given is $0.99. For this, I get a 35% royalty. In Amazon’s royalty statements (which you receive, like clockwork, on the 15th of each month), they will use the ‘average list price’ to calculate your total royalty. For Déjà Vu, this is £0.62. So 35% of this is 21.7 pence per copy sold.

Thus far, then, I’ve made £217 (ish).

I’m providing these figures in a spirit of openness, mostly because (i) I don’t care who knows what the sales are and (ii) they demonstrate that I – as a lone author, with no traditional publisher – can make money on a book using the Kindle.

This second point interests me. I’ve never made money on a book before. Ever.

Let’s be honest: this is a very small amount of money. But this is just one book. An author with several and a bit of marketing push would clearly make a lot more. I’ve sold only 10% of these copies to the American Kindle store, which is by far the largest Kindle market. If an author could get noticed in that market, the figures would probably be much higher.

A final point: The rankings data show that sales for Déjà Vu have been fairly constant following an initial increase about three days into the availability period. There’s no downward trend at the moment.

If you’re an actual or would-be Kindle author and would like the benefit of my vast, seven-week experience, read on.

Things I did right

The cover is very good. I can say this immune from the charge of immodesty because the preceding covers (all my own handiwork) were shit. The cover is probably enticing people to look at the book. I’m sure that covers in general mean a lot to people.

The price is right. It’s deliberately low – at 70p, or 99c – because my goal is not to make money. I get plenty from my day job. A glance at the Scifi/Mystery and Crime as of lunchtime Friday 22nd April shows that it’s at #2. Four of the others in the top ten are priced less than £1.

Whatever the price range for an impulse buy is, Déjà Vu falls within it. This probably helped the book to chart early. Once a book charts, it’s then in a place where people who just want to buy a book of a type – technothriller, science fiction, whatever – can go and buy it, creating a virtuous circle. This might explain the difference in sales between the UK and the US. While plenty of people in the US seem to like the book (i.e. it hasn’t been interpreted as parochial), the size of the US Kindle store means that Déjà Vu has never made it onto a chart. It would need considerable initial bounce to do so.

I’d strongly advise you to price your book as cheaply as possible. Don’t think about making money, or at least don’t think about making very much. Think about getting readers. They’ll probably remember you when you put your next book out.

I’ve been lucky with marketing. That is, the little I’ve done has had a big impact. My piece over at Scott Pack’s blog seemed particularly successful, judging by the comments. Ken Macleod is a science fiction author who has given me some much-needed mentoring ever since I sent him a copy of Déjà Vu years ago. Generously, he used the wide readership of his blog to let readers know about the book.

One last thing I did right: Formatting. I’ve read several books by traditional publishers on my Kindle and not one of them has been without major formatting glitches and typos. It pays to get these details right. Déjà Vu’s average user rating in both the UK and US is 4.5 of 5 – I’d be willing to bet that one star of that is fit and finish. As a self-published author, I can take the time to get this stuff right. Correct indenting and italicisation means a lot more to me that it does to a guy in an office in a traditional publishing house. There’s no excuse, either: the moment a typo is spotted, a corrected ebook can be uploaded to Amazon and be available in two or three working days.

Things I should do better next time

I should have had my other books ready to publish immediately. Reviewers have commented that they looked for the next book in the series but couldn’t find it. I guess you could call these lost sales, but I’m sure some of the people will still remember enjoying Déjà Vu when the sequel, Flashback, is released in a couple of weeks.

I’m undecided about the price for Flashback. One issue is that I’ve had to pay for a professional editor, and for the cover. (Déjà Vu was edited under its original publishing agreement, and I created the cover myself using an image I bought.) Yes, this is a disadvantage of being a self-published author, but it’s costs like these that have led publishers, in the past, to look at my work and say it’s not worth the bother.

I think it is worth the bother. But with these costs, I might increase the list price just enough so that I get the 70% royalty option. The price will be $2.99 or £1.70 – with luck, still within that ‘impulse buy’ band, but faster to pay off its greater expense.

‘Science fiction author’ – looking like less of a lie these days.

Published by Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

Join the Conversation


  1. I hadn’t come across that quoted stat before. If that’s true, it’s no wonder that agents and publishers have just about given up on first time authors, and even mid-listers. Congrats on your sale. The Kindle “indie” marketplace doesn’t seem so different from other book markets. Well written genre fiction sells. Catchy thrillers with lots of hooks, sell well even if booksnobs (like me) aren’t so thrilled. Literary novels find admirers but fewer sales. Most aren’t breakout hits and the low price point helps. In the short run, I think readers benefit because there’s quality fiction almost free. In the long run I’m not sure how great it is for writers, but then most of us would never make a living out of it.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I think agents and publishers generally support midlisters until a certain point when they decided it’s time the midlister made some serious money or stopped altogether. Ian Rankin, for instance, has spoken about this. Best of luck with your own fiction – I chuckled over your ‘about’ page.

  3. Semantic point: do you distinguish between being “a writer” and being “an author” – the latter only coming true when someone’s prepared to pay for what you’ve written?

  4. I’m not sure, Tim. The distinction you’ve made there sounds right to me. I’d say ‘novelist’ and ‘author’ are both somewhat professional terms. ‘Writer’ is more existential. What do you think?

  5. Thanks for posting this information. I’m just starting to think about routes to market for a couple of books that I have ‘on the drawing board’ and as an unknown, eBooks seem like a good path to take. My books aren’t fiction (one fitness related and one ‘motivational’), but I suppose there are similar traits. Thanks again – this information is far more useful than the pages and pages of ‘trash’ that I’ve been wading through on google.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Justin. I’d certainly consider ebooks as a main route for nonfiction. You can typically price these a little higher than fiction works, and if your audience is niche, you’re much more likely to find them (i.e. they’ll be able to find you fairly easily via text search). Best of luck with your books.

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