Write With Realistic Expectations

Aspiring or first-time authors sometimes hold the misconception that they will hit it big with their first book. Visions of bestsellers dance in their heads.

It’s time for a reality check from The Agent’s Desk. One of our jobs is to manage your expectations through every stage of this long process called publishing.

The statistics have not changed much in the years that I’ve been involved in the book industry. In the entire Kingdom of Books, which includes every title sold in every category—not just Christian—only ten percent of authors make a living solely by writing books.

The authors you meet at conferences may still have day jobs, or if they freelance, they edit manuscripts, ghostwrite books, or conduct their own writing workshops. Or they still have day jobs. They work all day and then come home and write their novels at night. Or if they’re early birds like me, they hop out of bed at 4 a.m. and sit down at the keyboard before rushing out the door to make it to work on time. Some pound out two or three pages every day while riding a commuter train.

Another group of writers may be blessed with a spouse who is the sole breadwinner of the family. Mothers who are writers take care of the kids and write during nap time. I’ve known stay-at-home writer dads as well. The whole family tightens the purse strings and lives on a budget.

Of course, a few authors inherited their fortunes and live on Fantasy Island.

Here’s the reality. The average Christian novel sells about 5,000 copies. Some sell less; some sell more. You notice I didn’t say that the first-time author only sells about 5,000 copies. No, that includes experienced and newbie authors as well. Do the math.

A smaller percentage may sell 10,000 to 15,000 books each time. This is our hope for you because it will assure you a place at the table and a long-term career. Now we enter more rarefied air.

A much smaller group sells 20,000 or 25,000 books, but those are usually long-time authors or a new author who happens to write a book that hits a nerve with readers. We hope you are the exception and will publish books in this range.

Only a handful of authors sell in the 50,000 to 100,000 or more range consistently. You know their names. They live on the bestseller lists. You see their names month after month and year after year on the CBA or ECPA bestseller lists.

Then, once in awhile, an author catches lightning in a bottle, and you have a series such as Left Behind or a single book title like The Shack.

So please, if you are a newcomer to publishing, adjust your expectations, and if you knock it out of the ballpark, you’ll be as ecstatic as your agent and your publisher. We pray for bestsellers!

Image: Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

44 Replies to “Write With Realistic Expectations”

  1. It’s comforting to see numbers. I like to know the norm and what I’m up against. But I still bet every author has the little smidgen of hope that they’ll be that breakout book.

    1. As well they should, Melissa. Hope that our words will touch the lives of thousands of readers is what keeps us writing. The power of life and death are in the tongue…and in the words we write. I’m proud of you!

  2. Barbara,

    When do you think it would be “safe” for a novelist to consider writing full time? What kind of benchmarks should they have? So many books? So many books under contract?

    1. Good question, Jordyn. I think everyone’s situation is different, but I would suggest you sock away money in a savings account to see you through the dry times. I know successful authors, authors who have published ten or more books, who struggle. Consider how much money you need each month to live on. Do you have any income besides your job? Do you have health insurance? Unexpected medical bills can eat up funds quickly. A doctor’s visit for me as a self-pay patient costs $70…and I get a discount. Generic medications are inexpensive, and some physicians will keep you supplied with samples of other types of medications. If you’re young and healthy, this might not be a concern for you. A health insurance policy can cost $600 to $800 per month for one person. Don’t forget that you need to save at least 10 to 15% of your advances and royalties to pay state and federal taxes. Only you will know when the time is right. Pray and seek God’s direction. Put your faith in Him, and He won’t let you fall. I don’t want to discourage anyone from full-time writing, but please consider the costs before you make the leap.

  3. What an eye-opening post and a great reminder that I’m not alone in juggling family, writing, and everything else. I’m glad you have realistic expectations and high hopes. That frees me up to press on and also reminds me what to pray for. I didn’t realize you were an early bird, just that you’re an amazing bird. : ) Blessings on your day and may we all fly high for Him!

  4. This is in line with what I’ve heard. My hope is that I earn out my advance. Of course, my husband hopes I do better than that. 🙂

  5. Point well taken, but I would say to have reasonable expectations, while writing with sky-high expectations. I understand that I may be the only person to ever read my book, but I will imagine a bestseller as I write it! For me, that is the way to dig deep and bring out my best.

  6. Keli, earning out the advance is paramount to a publisher and therefore to an author. Advances are an indication that a publisher believes in your book, but you need to earn out that advance in the first year for the book to be considered successful. This will affect how you’re perceived by your present publisher or the next one. Accepting the highest advance is not always the wisest course. Higher royalty percentages and escalations that reward you for selling more books than expected are a way to make sure you receive royalty checks. You want the publisher to offer you another contract.

  7. Barbara, thanks so much for the reality check, and for providing some actual numbers that give a general view of book sales!

  8. As one of the dreamers, I suppose it seems foolish that I’ve taken the faith leap to writing full-time. But for the moment, I’m following my heart. Perhaps soon I’ll have to wake up and smell the reality check…but not just yet.

    This is good, solid, down-to-earth advice…that stings a little. 🙂

    1. Sandie, you prayed for a long time before you felt it was time to quit your job, and the Lord has proved it was the right thing to do and continued to provide for you. I expect He will continue. 🙂 You have great expectations, but God put those in your heart. Dreamers usually know when the time is right.

      1. Oh, it’s all so scary…and exciting!! The Lord created me to love a sure thing, and then to exercise muscles of faith to do just the opposite with my career choice! LOL He’s a funny God sometimes. We have a lot to talk about when I get there.

      2. Sandie,
        I can really relate to this. I’m the same way. I’m a hedger. I want there to be a safety net– like keeping my secure paying job. Sometimes I wonder if God is calling me to take a step of faith by just writing– maybe for a season. Don’t know yet. Trying to be prayerful about it. Would really like to know how your journey goes.

      3. Jordyn, me too! So far, the grace has been fairly remarkable. All my needs are met, not always as quickly as I’d like!…but still met. I’ve just signed a very unexpected contract with a new publisher, and have been getting some editing assignments… So stay tuned! 🙂

  9. They are harsh numbers to accept but important to know. Thank you for enlightening me. I’ll try to keep my chin up while I keep on praying to know God’s will for my efforts.

    1. Don’t be discouraged, Meghan. You have stories to tell that no one else can. Writers write because of that burning desire that drive’s them onward. Keep your head up and focus on the horizon. You’ll get there…one step at a time.

  10. I don’t take lightly the fact God has blessed me with a profession I love (nursing) and a heart/gift to write, too. In college, I switched my major about 10 times, much to my parents’ chagrin. But all those times, I was switching between two majors: English and medicine. Now, I tell them, their investment in both has paid off . . . perhaps not monetarily, but in the way I am able to bless folks in the hospital as a nurse and out of the hospital with words. What more could a girl hope for? (Okay, so maybe it would be nice to someday sell a few books, but being content along the way is 1/2 the battle . . . if not all of it.) And even if I do sell a few books, I can’t imagine giving up nursing. Each of these works feeds the other, and sometimes in miraculous ways. Thanks for this great post!

    1. Amy,

      With your writing– you will be selling more than just a “few” books. Truly gifted.

  11. Thanks for posting, Barbara. I think this is a great post for agents-in-training as well. Of course, I was some what aware of the numbers, but having it in writing definitely helps as I am thinking ahead for the future, as well. 🙂

    Have you ever been surprised or disappointed in an advance that an author has earned? Or are you pretty well aware of what an author may earn when he/she is offered a contract?

    1. No, I’ve not really been surprised. As an editor, I negotiated lots of contracts with agents and knew about what my competition offered. I’d love to be really surprised one of these days!

  12. As a young writer with only a few years of writing on the semi-pro/4theluv short story circuit that many a writer happened upon in their beginning ventures into Myspace, Facebook, or what have you, I wonder if there is something I should be doing if I hope to successfully transition into full length releases? I’m one who is averaging 1,000 readers on any given short story (Though sometimes even less) and feel that I’ve done just about all I can in my present market and that’s being kind and not suggesting any wasted time.

    I mostly write psychological horror/thrillers and gallows humor, if genre makes a difference in my approach.

    1. You’re fortunate that you started with short stories, Wayne, and you’ve already built a fan base. How do you prepare for writing novels? It depends on whether you’re a plotter or a pantster. There are some excellent books available on writing a novel. Check out what Writer’s Digest Books has to offer. There’s a wonderful series called Write Great Fiction that can help you. Then start writing! I wish you all the best in your career.

  13. At my very first writer’s conference, I was told, “Don’t quit your day job!” But I had just quit my job!!! So, I panicked and doubted God’s earlier direction. Soon afterward, I realized why I needed to quit my day job–to be available for some upcoming family crises. I know it’s important to listen to wise counsel, but I’ve also learned the importance of seeking God first–listening and obeying Him. Plus, I have to examine my motives for writing every day! Btw, I’ve also discovered that for a lot of writers, it’s really not about the money, is it? If they were writing for the money, they would have quit a LONG time ago!

    1. The key is to pray and act in obedience. I quit my job twice, and each time, the Lord had a plan and a purpose. The first time I co-authored two books. The second time, my parents were ill and both passed away in the same year. When it was time to go back to work, He opened the door for me. He always provided for us.

  14. As someone still hoping to be published, this information is invaluable. My husband’s first question when I started looking for representation was what I could expect in terms of monetary income (he’s in business), and I laughed and told him that I’d have to find someone willing to buy it first. This gives me an answer for him, assuming, God willing, it sells at all.

    Thanks so much!

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