How much is your indie short fiction worth?

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Note: Forgive me, I have checked and rechecked my math, but I made so many errors the first time through that I can’t be sure I’ve caught them all. Sheesh.

All right.  This is another tense topic for me, because I suspect I’ve been doing something that makes me happy in the short term but is not going to lead me any closer to my goals:  selling stories for too little.

I think a lot of writers are doing this.  We go, “Oh, well, I have to get the readers before I get the money, and selling things for low amounts of money will get me more readers.”  And it is a seductive thought, because then you can get the validation:  lots of readers = lots of validation.  Lots of readers who are willing to pay nothing = still lots of validation!  Validation doesn’t seem to change with the amount of money the readers are paying, for me, AT ALL.  However, whenever I sell a paper book for which I, as the publisher, have paid a few bucks for, and people pay like $10 for, I feel like I’m cheating or scamming people.  I’m making like 75% profit!  (Well, because I’m buying it for author rates, to which bookstore and distributor discounts do not apply.  The profit is a lot less, like a dollar, on books that go through the distributor.)

Except, of course, I’m not really cheating people; I had to write the thing.  It didn’t just magically appear.  I am not doing this as a hobby; I want to make a living at it.  So if I repeatedly undercharge I’m just digging myself a hole.  The goal here is to get enough work selling that I can pay for my time at minimum, dammit.  And I don’t want to wait 60 years to pay for that time, either.  I want them paid for in five years or less, selling at humbly reasonable rates.  Why five years?  One, it sounded reasonable in considering how long it takes to pay off a traditional advance, and two, I want the stories to more than pay for my time, eventually.  Even writers need a rainy-day fund.  Five years sounded good on that, too.

I’m using the most of the same bases of guesstimation as last week:

Number of words/hour on average first draft: 1000.
Words edited per hour for cleanup (NOT including client changes/revisions/copyedits/etc.): 2500.
Time taken to write/edit 10K:  10 hours writing + 4 hours cleanup = 14 hours (if everything goes smoothly, and not including submission time, and not including research/brainstorming time).
Time for copyediting/proofreading: 15 minutes minimum on a short story.
Time to build cover: about 1 hour on short stories.
Time to format: 1 hour short stories (ebook).

And I’m assuming that you do it all yourself AND do it reasonably well AND do it quickly AND do no promotions…or at least treat time spent promoting as an investment that may or may not pay off.  Also that you have not sold or will not sell your story elsewhere (which is foolish; you should go for it).

For self-employed people, you have to take the hourly wages x 2 to get about the same take-home pay, due to taxes and hours spent doing non-production tasks, like managing your business.  Working for the man means you get paid to answer emails from your employer.  Working for yourself means you don’t.

Minimum wage in Colorado: $7.36/hr.  Self employed: $14.82  Skill level:  can’t spell, cardboard characters, unbelievable plot, could be outsourced to a monkey.

Average wage of HS graduate*: $25,000 women/$32,900 men ($50K women/$65.8K men–$25/hr women, $32.90/hr men).  Skill level: can spell but can’t handle grammar, has read a few of the greats in HS English, has one or two decent strengths, has no idea why things work or don’t.

Average wage of college graduate: $40,100 women/$51,000 men ($80.1K women/$101K men–$40.10/hr women, $51/hr men).  Skill level: spelling/grammar proficient, can think analytically about a text and is aware of genre requirements, is decent at all areas of writing with a few real strengths, is starting to recognize personal style and audience.

Indie sales cuts (based on Amazon rates, because I make more sales on Amazon than anywhere else, and they tend to be slightly lower than anywhere else, and when in doubt, I try to lowball):
$.35 for a $.99 story.
$.70 for a $1.99 story.
$2.09 for a $2.99 story.
$2.79 for a $3.99 story.
$3.49 for a $4.99 story.
$4.19 for a $5.99 story.
$4.89 for a $6.99 story.
$5.59 for a $7.99 story.
$6.29 for a $8.99 story.
$6.99 for a $9.99 story.

I won’t go above that, because I refuse to buy ebooks over $9.99. However, I don’t buy textbooks or other generally higher-priced books as ebooks, so I don’t want to say that a book that would normally go for $50 as a print book shouldn’t go for more than $9.99 as an ebook. I buy fiction; I mostly write fiction; I’m talking fiction.

Note: we still haven’t hit the skill level (or pay grade) of a professional writer yet.

I’m going to guesstimate my average short story length as 4K.  This is short story week, because the combined post was so long I didn’t want to read it.

Short story (4K):

Time to write: 4 hours; time to edit: 1.6 hours; copy/proof .25 minutes; cover 1 hour; formatting 1 hour. Total: 7.85 hours.
Minimum wage: $116.37
HS graduate: $196.25 women/$258.27 men
College graduate: $314.76 women/$400.35 men.
I’m using 2 copies/month (beginner sales) and 5 copies/month (average sales) as my numbers. Five is the number that Dean Wesley Smith gives as a good average. (Not for him; he’s doing 7, I think. For his students.)

To make minimum wage on a $.99 short story, I need to sell 333 copies; to make HS graduate level, I need to sell 738 copies; to make college graduate level, I need to sell 1143 copies.
$1.99 = 167; 369;572.
$2.99 = 56; 94; 151.

Let’s say I sell about 2 copies/month. that will take me:
$.99, 13.9 years to make minimum wage, 30.8 years to make HS grad level, and 48 years to make college grad level money.  Sheesh.
$1.99 = 7 years; 15.4 years; 24 years.
$2.99 = 2.3 years; 3.9 years; 6.3 years.  Still over 5 years.

Let’s say I sell 5 copies/month.
$.99 = 5.6 years; 12.3 years; 19.1 years.
$1.99 = 2.8 years; 6.2 years; 9.5 years.
$2.99 = .9 years; 1.57 years; 2.52 years.

So: If I sell my stories at $.99 cents each and sell five copies a month, It’s still going to take me three times as long to make about the same money as I would selling 2 copies a month at $2.99 each.  However, I have convinced myself that I would never buy a short story for $2.99, so…I doubt I’ll get many takers at $2.99. I am going to have to work myself up to trying it sometime to see. If it’s given that getting that 70% royalty at $2.99 is the sweet spot, and that I wouldn’t buy a short story for more than $.99, what’s the answer?

Here are the numbers on selling $2.99 bundles of five short stories AND the same, freestanding short stories:
2 copies/month on short stories AND on bundles:
–$4.18 on bundles (2 copies total)
–$.35 on each story sale (2 copies for each of five stories, 10 total), or $3.50 total
–Grand total $7.68/month
–Hours on stories: 39.25
–Additional hours for bundle (with new cover): 1.5 editing (yes, I redo it), 1 hour cover, 1.5 hours formatting–4 hours additional.
–Total hours: 43.25
–Need to make: $640.97 minimum wage/$1422.93 HS level/$2205.75 college level.
–Pay for time at: 7 years/15.4 years/24 years (vs. 13.9 years/30.8 years/48 years)
5 copies/month on short stories AND on bundles:
–$10.45 on bundles (5 copies total)
–$.35 on each short story sale (5 copies for each of five stories, 25 total), or $8.75 total.
–Grand total $19.20/month.
–Pay for time at 2.8 years/6.2 years/9.5 years (vs. 5.6 years/12.3 years/19.1 years)

Here are the numbers on a 10-story collection: the short story collection (something of a length that I can turn into a book).
–10 short stories, $.99 each when purchased separately.
–1 ebook of 10 stories for $4.99 each (I’m not pricing them at this point at the moment, but I’m going to say that two $2.99 bundles of stories is a bargain at $4.99).
–1 POD of 10 stories for $9.99 each ($3.20 profit when Creatspace sold through Amazon)
2 copies/month on short stories AND ebook collection AND POD:
–$6.98 on collections (2 copies total)
–$6.40 on PODs sold via Amazon.com (2 copies total on a $9.99 POD with $3.20 profit each)
–$.35 on each short story sale (2 copies each of 10 stories, 20 total), or $7.00
–Grand total $20.38/month
–Hours: 70.85 for short stories alone, 11 hours for ebook, additional 4 hours for POD (1 hour wrap-cover formatting [back and spine], 3 formatting interior POD), total 85.85
–$1272.30min/$2824.47HS/$4378.35college
–Pay for time at 5.2 years/11.5 years/18 years.
5 copies/month on short stories AND ebook collection AND POD:
–$17.45 on collections (5 copies total)
–$16 on PODs sold via Amazon.com
–$.35 on each short story sale (5 copies of 10 stories, 50 total), or $17.50
–Grand total $50.95
–Pay for time at 2.1 years/4.6 years/7.2 years.

Conclusion: The only way I can afford to sell short stories for $.99 each is to either sell short stories at $.99 with 2 5-story bundles or with a 10-story collection and a POD. The only way to make a short story pay off at college level in under five years (on average) is to sell ~2.5 copies a month at $2.99 each or to write significantly shorter stories.  They probably aren’t worth the time, except I love writing them.


Posted on January 27th 2012 in How much is your fiction worth?, The General Heap

15 Responses to “How much is your indie short fiction worth?”

  1. Jeff Ambrose Says:

    Great post, DeAnna. The only quibble I’d have is looking at it in terms of hourly wage instead of pro, semi-pro, token, or book advances. I’m not really sure how that would work out … which means, of course, I have a nice blog post on my hands. But despite this quibble, it’s a fascinating way of looking at it. And your conclusion is right on the money: Even in this New World of Publishing, short stories really aren’t worth the time.

  2. De Says:

    One of my conclusions from last week was that token/semi-pro/pro advances/rates are baloney, paying far less per hour at “pro” rates than an average college grad would make–why make a comparison that’s already BS? It’s far easier to hit “pro” rates, but they won’t pay for your time. I believe actual pro writers make far more than “pro” rates anyway.

    I love short stories. Love reading them, love writing them. But, aside from the rare story that takes off, I don’t see them paying for themselves. I’ll probably still write them, though.

  3. Jeff Ambrose Says:

    Didn’t think to go back and read your previous post. Now that I did, well, I see your point.

    2011 was for me the year in which I focus on the short story. 2012 is the year of the novel. I suppose 2013 will be the year of something, I just don’t know what.

  4. De Says:

    Year of the big money, no wammies?

  5. Jeff Ambrose Says:

    2013 — The Year of Big Money.

    Works for me! Which means I better get my butt in gear this year. Only 11 months left!

  6. De Says:

    Right, so how many novels are you going to get done this year?

  7. Jeff Ambrose Says:

    Good question. I’m planning to write at least 6 — one every two months — in multiple genres.

    I’m working on a crime novel now (getting close to the midpoint), and have another one worked out in my head. I’m jotting down ideas for a romance novel, which is taking shape faster than expected, and I have a basic premise for a second one. I have a several fantasy and SF ideas, and at least one horror. I also have an idea for a series of gritty/epic fantasy novellas that could be collected as one giant novel that could take on any of GRRM’s doorstoppers in a cage match; in this case, 2 novellas = 1 novel.

    But other than the two crime novels and one romance, I can’t plan too far ahead for the simple reason that that’s not how my mind works. My creative voice is like the wind: It just blows where it wills.

    How about you? What are you goals this year?

  8. De Says:

    Excellent!

    Out of curiosity, do you have any opinion on whether you’ll write as a male or female name on the romance novel?

    I’m getting my backlog out for the first half of the year, with a break after a class in March to write whatever fool thing comes into my head. After that, I’m going to finish the last book in the current kids’ series, then (I hope) come up with something epic-fantasy-intrigue-ish, because it’s a genre I dearly love to read. After that? Who knows? Probably another book at least–maybe a kids’ book with a boy protagonist. The possibilities…

  9. Jeff Ambrose Says:

    Yep, I’ll be using a female name — Robin Kirkwood. I already have two short stories up under that name.

    You talking about the Char. Voice workshop with DWS in March? I’ll be there!

    In fact, provided there are no Life Events, the only thing that might derail my 6-novel goal is that workshop. Writing a novel every two months means it’ll come right in the middle of Novel #2. Also, my fear is that after the workshop, I’ll want to tear up everything I’ve ever written and start over from scratch. So maybe between Novel #1 and the Workshop I’ll write a novella or even some short fiction. We’ll see.

    You sound a bit like me — the creative voice is like the wind: it’ll blow where it wills.

  10. Teramis Says:

    Interesting exercise. Short stories by themselves are not usually cash cows. We are unfortunately long past the time when a writer could make a living selling short stories in the publishing industry at large, and in the new media areas, things are still shaking out. Here are some thoughts, hopefully relevant to your post, no particular order:

    1. pricepoint. You wouldn’t pay 2.99 for a short, but a lot of people would. They aren’t the majority of readers but they’re out there, and if you can sell a handful of stories to those readers and make oodles more than lowball-priced sales would net, it’s all win-win. I urge you to pick a story or two and just take the plunge. Put them on the market at that price and see how it goes. The other often overlooked advantage to the higher price point is that it implies quality. “You get what you pay for.” True or not, in a sea of .99 shorts, the more expensive pieces cause people to look twice, and those who like to think of themselves as discerning buyers are more than halfway there to a one-click purchase.

    2. Quantity sold. It is my belief that internet marketing tactics can be used to effectively pump up sales volume for fiction (of any sort) in the internet marketplace. I don’t mean banner ads and such; I mean target sales campaigns that recruit and sell to an audience that likes your work. This is completely beyond the scope of a comment reply, so I won’t get into more detail here, but my point is simply that there may be ways to amplify sales that are not being practiced by the majority of the bookselling market right now, and which would help your work find it’s proper (appreciative, money-paying) audience. If I have time later I’ll post more about this and send you the link.

    3. One reason to continue writing shorts: when you have more content on line, you are creating a pool of “related reading” for people who come across your work. They like one story, they browse and buy two others. Essentially, quantity of work alone becomes a self-amplifying sales tool.

    4. Let me once again express my amazement at your highly disciplined output. You are a machine, DeAnna Knippling. An incredibly talented author of cyborgian resiliance. I couldn’t produce 1000 words an *hour* of coherent storytelling, consistently, if you paid me. That is a quirky and invaluable knack you have, there. Guard it well. My production rate is about 1/3 of yours. I work longer to produce equivalent length, so simply grinding out “more” is not the answer (or not the first answer) to my own “get income from my writing” questions. This is a long way around to saying I think you have an advantage there over many writers, in that you seem stuck in high gear and are traveling down the output road perhaps faster than you actually realize. You go, girl. :D

  11. De Says:

    Jeff, I always think it’s sad that romance “has” to be written by women. Like, wouldn’t you want to have a guy tell you a story about romance? I don’t get it. But I’m new to the genre, too.

    Yes! I’m sorry, I keep forgetting you are you :) DORK!

  12. De Says:

    Teramis,

    1. I *will* work myself up to trying a $2.99 short story. I just have to think about it some more (i.e., rationalize my fears). I’ll pass on how it’s going, eventually.

    2. Please do. Marketing is not one of my strengths–at least, on the adult stories. The kid stories have their niche, and I could probably boost them a lot by doing the logical things. I’m going to hang on until I have the current kid series more nearly complete. But that means I need to be learning now!

    3. Sort of. I can do that with novels, too, and I suspect when I run the numbers there, I’ll find the risk vs. time will be more worth the effort.

    4. Thank you :)

  13. Jeff Ambrose Says:

    At one point in time, I thought all pen names were just a bad idea. But once I started writing, I realized that “Jeff Ambrose” writes one kind of fiction (sf/f/h), so when I published a few crime stories under that name, it didn’t “feel” right. Don’t ask why. So I republished those two stories under a double byline — Jeff Ambrose and Mark Sled — then continued publishing my crime fiction under “Mark Sled.”

    This is my long way of saying that I’ve come to see that an author name is a kind of brand. In the field of romance, 95% of writers are women. Nicholas Sparks is the only male romance writer I know of. So I figure, why try to swim upstream on this one?

    Besides, “Robin” is one of those names that can go either way. My Robin Kirkwood bio is exactly like my Jeff Ambrose or Mark Sled bio, EXCEPT I make sure to write in the first person and talk about my “spouse” instead of husband or wife. Looking at it, you wouldn’t know if Robin was a man or woman. And on the “Robin Kirkwood” website, I make no attempt to hide the fact that “Robin” is a guy and writes under other names.

    In terms of WHY romance “should” by written by a woman … well, it’s probably the same reason why Jo Rowling published under J.K. Rowling. For Rowling, main character was a boy, therefore primary readers are boys, and boys don’t want to read novels written by women. With romance, main characters are generally females looking for love, therefore readers are overwhelmingly females who want feelings of romance, and I suppose that females who want to feel romantic trust a woman writer to give them that feeling more than a man writer.

    Whether that’s true or not … well, I don’t want to test it. No one knows if Harry Potter would’ve sold as well if it’d been published under “Jo Rowling.” It’s a pretty thought to think it would have, of course. No one seemed to care AFTER the fact, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have cared BEFORE.

  14. De Says:

    Me, too. I hated the idea of trying to hide behind a pen name–less than honest.

    Then I realized kids might read my adult books and get caught doing it–ouch. Parents can be brutal. They can find my adult stuff if they’re that dedicated…but they probably won’t wander into it by accident. Not that it’s that bad. But there’s cursing and sex.

    But the romance thing? Dumb. I think it’d be a good sales point–especially in book trailers. If I wrote more romance, I’d try writing a male-pseudo-penned romance to see how it went.

  15. Improving Sales and Income in Ebook Publishing | Notes From the Lizard Lair Says:

    [...] Writers in today’s new media marketplace are sallying forth and self-publishing a lot of their material. Some are asking what pricing is best and what level of sales is needed in order to make a living at writing. This is an exercise every writer goes through at some point, if that writer is doing it for real income, not merely as a hobby. Here are some thoughts about pricing and income in the current ebook publishing marketplace, with a focus on short fiction. This is not a rigorous treatment of the subject, but some thoughts spurred by a blog post by DeAnna Knippling. [...]

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