The Cost To Create An Audiobook Edition Of Your Book

Releasing an audiobook edition of your novel or other book is one way to earn more income from a manuscript you’ve already written. Those of you who know the story of how The Martian sold know that’s a big part of its success. 

One question I get a lot is how much it costs to have an audiobook edition of your book produced. 

Just as there are traditional publishers for print and ebooks, there are companies who will produce your audiobook. Podium is the one that produced The Martian. Just as with traditional print publishing, the publisher, not the author, pays the up front cost.

You can also create and release your novel as an audiobook yourself, in partnership with a narrator/producer. That what I did.

Doing It Yourself

So far, I’ve used ACX for my audiobooks. ACX is an Amazon company. It operates as an exchange where authors and audiobook narrators/producers connect with one another. The author supplies the manuscript and the narrator/producer records and produces the audio and uploads it to ACX.

Shiromi Arserio produced the second and third books in my Awakening series, and is currently working on the fourth. Here is her recording studio modeled after the Tardis on Dr. Who:

Different narrators have different sounds and styles. For a good example of two different professional narrators in the same genre, you can listen to Shiromi in the sample for The Unbelievers and to Jewel Greenberg, who narrated The Awakening.

Your audiobook, once finished, will be available through Amazon and iTunes. (And any other platform ACX publishes on. As with other terms, this can change, so you need to check the terms on ACX when you’re ready.)

ACX pays a percentage of the sale price as a royalty. This, too, can change, and it has gone down since ACX began. This is part of why some authors are now using Author Republic. I haven’t tried that platform, so for now I can only tell you my experience with ACX.

Paying Your Narrator/Producer

There are three ways to pay your narrator. The first is to pay per finished hour (PFH) of audio. The second is a royalty-share deal. The third is a hybrid option.

Paying up front means that once you as the author pay the narrator/producer PFH, the royalties you get through ACX are all yours. 

To give you an idea what the cost might be, my second novel (a supernatural thriller), The Unbelievers, was 84,400 words, which resulted in 9.1 finished hours of audiobook. If a narrator charged $300 PFH, that would be $2,730. Some narrators charge less than that, and some more.

With the royalty-share deal, you pay nothing up front as the author. But when the audiobook sells, ACX pays you half the royalty and the narrator half the royalty.

A hybrid deal is where the author pays less–usually around $100 PFH–toward editing, proofing and mastering costs, but royalties are still shared. It’s a great way to attract good narrators if you can’t afford their usual PFH rate.

Which Way Is Best?

Deciding which to do depends on your budget, your long-terms goals, and on what terms the narrator you want is willing to work.

Pluses to paying full price up front include:

  • Long-term, if your book sells well, you will earn more because you won’t need to split the royalties.
  • It may be easier to find a good producer/narrator because you won’t be asking that person to bet a lot of time and expertise on your novel, you’ll be paying up front. For royalty-share, you need to sell the potential narrator on the value of your work, usually by showing a track record of good print or ebook sales, or best seller rankings.

The minuses are what you’d expect:

  • Not everyone has the funds to pay up front for an audiobook, and even if you do, you might want to invest those dollars some other way.
  • You don’t know how long it will take to earn that money back.

The positives for authors of royalty-share deals:

  • No up front money to invest.
  • The narrator/producer has a lot of incentive to help promote the audiobook so she or he gets paid.
  • You may be more motivated to promote knowing someone else has taken a chance on your work.

Minuses of royalty-share for authors:

  • If the book really takes off, you will be splitting the royalties with your narrator for a long time, so you may spend much more than you would have had you paid up front.
  • The narrator you most want to work with may not be willing to do a royalty-share deal.
  • To do royalty-share, you’ll need to agree to keep the book with ACX and that narrator for a number of years (check ACX for exact terms). 

The hybrid deal threads the needle. You’ll still need to pay some up front costs, but it’s a lower investment. For my 9.1-hour book, that would be $910 instead of $2,730. While you’ll still be sharing royalties, a good narrator/producer makes a tremendous difference. Poor sound quality or an unprofessional narrator can mean that no one buys your book at all, as most people listen to the sample before buying. In my view, better to have a good narrator with whom you share royalties than no royalties at all.

Other Costs

In addition to the dollars you spend, whether up front or through splitting royalties, you’ll also need to invest time. Your narrator will spend the most time producing each hour of audio, but you’ll need to listen to it and check to see if it is accurate and sounds good.

Though I didn’t track the hours, my best guess is I spent at least 15 hours listening, taking notes, and corresponding with the narrator on the 9.1-hour Unbelievers recording. And I had a fantastic, super-competent narrator who rarely made errors and whose production quality was excellent. In the long run, that is not a lot of time, but I mention it so you know it’s not as simple as just handing over your manuscript and watching royalties roll in. 

You’ll also need an audiobook cover. You can start with your ebook or paperback images, but the covers on Audible are square, so at the very least, you’ll need to resize your current book cover. It’s best to pay a designer to do this, because she or he can make sure the quality of the image remains and rearrange the elements so they are balanced for the square size.

Other Benefits

Not only will you have another edition of your book to sell, you’ll learn a lot by hearing your book read aloud by a professional. With my first supernatural thriller, The Awakening, I discovered there were words I overused in my writing. Despite that I’d read much of it aloud to myself when proofreading, I simply didn’t hear that until I heard a narrator read it. Other people tell me they don’t notice, but it jumped out at me.

With The Unbelievers, the second in my Awakening Series, I discovered nuances in the characters that helped me as I was writing the third.

The Tough Question — Profits

How much you’ll earn on an audiobook through ACX is hard to say. First, while you are paid a percentage of the sale price, the sale price varies, and it’s set by Audible, not you.

For example, right now, the regular price of The Unbelievers on Audible is $19.95. But an Audible member can buy the book using a credit, and typically members pay $14.95 a month to belong and get 1 credit per month (though sometimes Audible gives you extra credits).

A member also can buy the book for the purchase price, which might be $19.95, but other times is less. People who already own the Kindle version of the book can buy the audiobook on Amazon for $1.99. Also, sometimes the book is just priced at a sale price of $1.99.

You do get a bonus if a person signs up to Audible for the first time and chooses your book as a free download. That’s only happened three times with The Awakening.

As the author, you have limited ways of promoting the audiobook beyond telling your own email list about it and including it on your website and social media. Because you don’t set the sale price or know when it’ll be on sale, you can’t purchase listings anywhere featuring a sale.

Sometimes Audible includes your book in its own sales email. Once I saw The Unbelievers for $1.99 in an email with five other books. I was happy about that, but I had no control over it.

Sales of the ebook edition can help sell the audiobook, because of the low price for people who own the Kindle version. Lately, I’ve had a lot of audiobook sales of The Awakening because I’ve made the ebook version free to generate sales for the rest of the series. That means the buyers are likely getting the audiobook for $1.99.

That’s a worthwhile strategy when you have a series, as it usually prompts sales of the later books. But if you are selling only one audiobook, it will take a lot of those sales to generate much income.

The Bottom Line

An audiobook edition can definitely be a nice added source of income for a book you’ve already written. On a royalty-share deal, you’re investing only your time up front, but there are caveats, including that  you are tied to the narrator. If you like working with that person, as I do, that’s fantastic. If not, you will be less happy.

On the other hand, if you are paying up front, it might be quite a while before you recover the cost of your audiobook edition, so you’ll need to weigh whether you believe your book will sell well enough and for long enough to justify that.

I’ve been happy so far with my audiobooks and I think it’s been worthwhile. If you decide to do one, or if you have experiences to share or other questions, please post in the comments.

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. 9/15/17 Update: KOBO is now offering audiobooks. If you’re interested, check out Listening To Jim and Bryan Talk About KOBO And Audiobooks.

The Prosperous Writer’s Guide

This Friday, I’m recommending The Prosperous Writers Guide To Making More Money: Habits, Tactics, And Strategies For Making A Living As A Writer by Brian D. Meeks and Honorée Corder.

This book covers in a fun way why it’s important to understand the numbers involved in selling books. Also, and more importantly, the authors show you how to use those numbers to increase your sales. Focusing mainly on Amazon, the book helps you figure out whether the cost of an ad is worth it, whether your book description and cover are helping you sell your novel or hurting your chances, and how to choose keywords that can get your novel in front of the new readers.

Even if you are not yet publishing, or if your novels are published by a publishing company, it’s worth reading this book to better understand the factors that affect sales and how visible your novel will be on Amazon.

Much of the The Prosperous Writer’s Guide is helpful for other publishing platforms, too. The authors include tips on improving your book description and how to evaluate whether and how much overall sales have improved based on different ads or changes to your book description or cover.

I hope that’s helpful.

Until Sunday, when I’ll talk about the cost involved in creating an audiobook edition of your novel–


L.M. Lilly

Goodreads For Authors by Michelle Campbell-Scott

This Friday I recommend Goodreads for Authors, a book by Michelle Campbell-Scott. I love Goodreads as both a reader and author because it is all about books and is designed for, and filled with, readers. Step-by-step, Campbell-Scott walks you through how to use the social media platform.

The book tells you how to sign up on Goodreads, add or start a blog there, claim your author profile, review books, meet people, and set up ads, among many other things. If you’re already familiar with Goodreads, as I was when I read the book, you can easily skip to the parts you still need to learn. I encourage you not to do that, though, and instead to read the entire book. It’s a fast read, and Campbell-Scott is very thorough, so you may discover facets of the platform you missed on your own.

I listened to Goodreads for Authors on Audible. While that worked fine, I wished I’d bought the book instead so I could more easily flip or scroll to review certain sections. Also, there are links and checklists in the book that I would have found easier to use in ebook or paper form. If you’re too busy to read another book, though, and might be able to fit it in on audio, definitely do so. You’ll still get a lot out of it.

Until Sunday, when I’ll do an overview of how I interact on social media as an author–


L. M. Lilly


One Author’s Challenges With Assisted Publishing

This Friday I recommend a post by an author on her experience with assisted publishing. As I wrote about in Do You Need A Publisher, Part 1, these types of publishing services assist with the tasks authors who self-publish do on their own, such as uploading books to different platforms, finding a cover designer, and editing. Some charge a flat up front fee and others get paid through a percentage of royalties.

Author Maggie Cammiss thought this sounded like a reasonable deal when offered by a division of the traditional publisher who’d published the first novel in her series. Some challenges arose, though, with the paperback edition that led her to wonder.

Read about her experience here:

Getting Back on the Horse

See you again Sunday, when I’ll talk about creating time to write as you manage your first profession.


L. M. Lilly

If At First You Don’t Succeed: Iterate and Optimize

This Friday I’m recommending a book that’s a quick read with a mix of inspiration and business advice for writers: Iterate and Optimize: Optimize Your Creative Business for Profit by Sean Platt, Johnny B. Truant, and David Wright of the Self Publishing Podcast.

What I like most about it is that it encourages writers to get started or to grow their business rather than being frozen by indecision and concern about doing the “wrong” thing.

Under this philosophy, let’s say you finished a novel you’re pretty happy with. You spent the last two years writing and revising in the early mornings and a few weekends carved out of your other job or profession. Rather than spending two more years tweaking it for fear of rejection or bad reviews, the Iterate and Optimize approach encourages you to start querying agents or to publish it yourself and to get on with your next novel. If you get rejections on the first, or it isn’t as well-received as you hoped, or you discover six months from now that the cover you got fairly cheaply doesn’t match your target market, you can both improve and update the first novel and use what you learned in your second.

The book also provides a lot of solid information not only about self-publishing but about growing a business. Even if you’re planning to stay focused on your current career and write on the side, and so feel you don’t need to worry about the business, this is worth a read. It’s quick and interesting and will give you context for the ever-changing publishing world where your books will live.

The Amazon blurb and the book itself suggest reading the authors’ Write. Publish. Repeat. first. I haven’t read it, so I can only say I got a lot out of Iterate and Optimize without having done so, though it’s possible I missed something in the process.

Until Sunday —


L. M. Lilly

Do You Need A Publisher, Part 4: Control

Skip this post if you don’t have any control issues.

Still here? Me too.

So let’s talk about control and the best way to publish your novel. So far, of the factors listed in Do You Need A Publisher (Part 1) that affect whether you pursue a traditional publishing deal or publish your fiction yourself, I’ve covered money and the desire for prestige or recognition.

Money is probably highest on my list right now because I’ve radically cut back my law practice, and my goal this year is to live on what I earn as a writer. (I have a long way to go, but that’s another post.)

If you’re planning to continue with your current career or profession, though, how much you earn from your writing might not be a driving force for you. As for recognition, for some writers, it’s the whole point. Others who have a first profession prefer to keep it separate from writing, so they use a pen name, particularly if they perceive their colleagues or clients may see their writing as a distraction.

Control, though, that’s another thing.

Who Needs Control?

Odds are, if you’re successful at what you’re doing now, it’s because you were able to manage your career well. If you run–or are a partner in–a business or firm, at the very least, you probably prefer choosing for yourself what you do with your time and how best to pursue your professional goals.

Also, and perhaps more important, most artists and writers want control of how their work goes out into the world. I once attended a horror convention where four novelists whose books had been made into films spoke on a panel. They agreed that helped them earn money, gain name recognition, and sell more books. Those of us in the audience wanted to know how they got those film deals and whether we could ever hope to get one. But three of four panelists spent most of the hour complaining about the hatchet jobs the filmmakers had done on their stories.

(F. Paul Wilson, the fourth panelist, declined to join the complaints. He said he hadn’t loved the film made of The Keep, but it prompted a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise have found it to buy the novel, and that was all good. I really liked that about him.)

When it comes to control, traditional publishing is a bit like handing your fiction over to the film producer. I say “a bit” because you’ll have a say over revisions, unlike if your book were turned into a screenplay by someone else. The text of the novel is likely to be for the most part as you wrote it. You probably won’t, though, be able to choose which specific editor you want. And, as with a movie, as a new writer, you’ll have no control over how the final product looks, how it’s priced, or how it’s marketed.

How much does this matter? It depends.


At a writing retreat I attended, New York Times Bestselling Author Susan Wiggs showed slides of different covers one publisher had used for one of her novels. She wrote women’s and mainstream fiction. She had zero input into the first cover. It had a dark purple background, making the novel somewhat foreboding. It didn’t sell very well, despite her previous success and devoted audience. She pointed out over and over to the publisher that her readers reached for her books like they would reach for a box of candy.

Finally the book was re-released with an upbeat cover with pink edging that looked like ribbons. It did give the same impression as a beautiful box of Valentine’s candy. Her sales shot up accordingly.

As a self-published author, you choose your cover designer and your cover. Recently, despite that I loved the cover for my first thriller, The Awakening, I had it redesigned when a fellow author pointed out to me that it didn’t look good in the thumbnail size on Amazon. (I’ve pasted in both below—the original on the left, the new on the right.)

I also wanted the new cover to fit with the design for the fourth and final book in the series, which is coming out in May, 2017. Because I’m the one who chooses the design, I could make that switch without needing to convince anyone else.

Control has its downsides, though, because we don’t always have the knowledge we need.

I’ve seen indie authors choose covers that don’t convey the type of book or that don’t look professional. It’s also easy to get too wedded to your concept of the book without being a good judge of how that hits the reader. With traditional publishers, you’ll get a professionally-designed cover chosen by someone more objective who has more experience matching covers to genres.


Have you ever gone on Amazon to buy a book thinking you’ll buy it for Kindle and start reading that day, then changed your mind and ordered a paperback when you compared the prices? Take Louise Penny’s latest mystery, for example, because I love her books so much. A Great Reckoning as I write this lists at $14.99 for the hardback, $14.99 for the ebook, and $9.99 for the trade paperback.

If this seems crazy to you given that ebooks don’t require printing or paper, you’re not alone. What’s the deal? Traditional publishers a while back won a drawn-out fight with Amazon so that they can price their ebooks as high as they want. It’s one of the reasons a slightly higher percentage of print books v. ebooks were sold last year than the previous year. If the ebook costs the same or more to buy, a lot of readers would rather have paper.

If you’re Louise Penny, author of a popular, long-running series, this pricing is probably fine. Fans like me will run out and get the book as soon as it comes out no matter the price.

For most other authors, though, this type of pricing is not so great. If I don’t know who an author is, even a compelling cover and intriguing blurb won’t make me plunk down $14.99 or even $9.99. I’ll put the book on my Goodreads shelf if a friend highly recommends it. But I’ll probably buy it only if I come across it again somehow and the price has dropped, I find it in the library or at a used bookstore, or I happened to get a nice check in the mail and I feel like spending.

As a self-published author, most of my royalties come from ebook sales, then audiobook sales, then print. Because I get a larger share of the purchase price than do traditional authors, I can price my ebooks fairly low. In fact, right now, my first book in my series is free in all its ebook editions, then Books 2 and 3 are $3.99 and $4.99. At other times, I’ve priced The Awakening at anywhere from $4.99 down to $0.99—all much easier prices at which to entice a new reader.

Also, many of the email subscription newsletters that list bargain ebooks only list books at $4.99 or below. As a self-published author, I can choose to discount my book for the increase in sales or in the hope of selling later titles in my catalogue. Traditional publishers sometimes do the same, but the author has no say in when or how or why.

Marketing And Advertising

As an indie author, I pay for all advertising. Until this year, I wasn’t relying heavily on income from royalties, so I didn’t pay as much attention as I now wish I had to which ads result in the most sales. I know which ones were amazing—Bookbub and Ereadernews Today—and the ones that didn’t do much for sales, but for a lot in between I’m not sure. This year I’m experimenting cautiously and keeping better records.

Whether traditional publishers are better at knowing what works and doesn’t with advertising is an open question. But if you have a traditional publishing deal, the publisher is paying for the ads (and for premium placement in bookstores if you’re really lucky), not you, so at least you’re not directly bearing the cost.

Also, with a traditional deal, you can and should engage in marketing and public relations on your own. You can maintain your own email list, be active on social media, and contact bookstores about speaking there if your publisher isn’t doing enough for you. From what I hear, most small and medium-sized publishers expect authors to do quite a bit of that if they expect to sell.

Another sales issue is the summary on the book jacket or on line. As an indie, you write that book description yourself or engage a copywriter to do it. If you have a publishing contract, you give up that control. As with the cover, that can be good or bad. You may be able to do a great job writing your summary, and as an indie, you’ll be able to tweak the description to see what works. On the other hand, being a step removed, the traditonal publisher may do a better job targeting your market.

That latter point isn’t always the case, though. I’ve known several traditionally-published authors who felt their publishers missed the mark in how they described their novels.


What formats you make your novel available in is up to you if you self-publish. As I talked about in a previous post, as an indie author, I can make my books available as audiobooks, paperbacks, ebooks, and in any other format that comes along. I retain all my rights.

With a traditional publishing deal, often the publisher has those rights but is not required to use them. So you may give up your right to produce an audiobook of your novel, but the publisher may opt not to produce one even if you request it.

Righting The Ship

As in most other industries, it’s much harder for a large company to shift a business model than it is for one person. That’s part of why it’s taken so long for traditional publishers to begin marketing backlist titles as ebooks and to start email lists of their own when indie authors have used these tactics successfully for years.

That’s the main thing I like about publishing my own work. The books I’ve mapped out to write and publish this year may or may not be bestsellers, may or may not be popular, and may or may not earn as much as I hope they will. But if I’m not happy with my results, I can take different approach next year without any major upheaval.

So What’s Better?

As the pluses and minuses above show, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer here. Whether you’ll be happier having control over every aspect of your fiction or handing over much of it to a publisher depends on the pros and cons of the particular book, publisher, and deal. Also, it’s not an either/or situation. You can publish one novel or series yourself and seek a traditional publishing deal for another.

What will work best for you also depends upon who you are as a person. When I started my own law firm, despite that I had many of the same clients and did the same type of work as I had at a large firm, I enjoyed it much more because it was my firm. If I was working Sunday night, at least I was the one who’d chosen to take on that project or promised to meet that deadline. I also was the one who kept the profit. And, finally, down the road, I could adopt a different business model.

So far, I see writing similarly. If that changes as I move forward, I’ll let you know.

I hope this has helped you sort through your options.

Best wishes for a productive, not-too-stressful week.

L. M. Lilly


When Your Job Is Not A Day Job

Ever since I published my first novel in 2011, business colleagues have asked if they could give my number to other professionals who are writing novels. Others have contacted me because they’ve recently started or finished a book and want to hear from someone like them about the writing and publishing process.

Having another career in addition to writing is wonderful in many ways. It can mean we’re doing work that’s mentally engaging where we meet interesting people and, hopefully, earn a fairly good living. But that same career can also make it a challenge to write, publish, and–if that’s part of your goal–sell your work.

If you sometimes feel it will take forever to finish your novel or you can’t imagine when you can squeeze in time to send out query letters or go through the self-publishing process once you do finish it, you’re not alone. Advice to “write during your lunch hour” doesn’t help if your typical lunch is 10 minutes eating at your desk while reading trade publications or answering email.

So you know it’s not just you, below are some of the downsides for writers who also have another career or profession. But I’ve also listed the upsides. Yes, there are upsides!

The Challenges

If you write as a second or additional career, you’re more likely than other writers to:

  • Experience significant demands from your first profession, including ethical obligations. One advantage of a traditional day job, such as working as a data processor, telemarketer, or waiter, is that generally when you punch out for the day, you’re done. When I worked as a cashier, if I didn’t want overtime, usually someone else did. As a lawyer, if a client calls last minute or a court enters a ruling that requires a quick response, I need to take care of it. Any plans I had to spend that evening or weekend polishing my chapters for an editor, researching where to schedule ads for an upcoming promotion, or being with family or friends, need to be put aside.

While that’s part of what makes a career more interesting than a day job, it also makes it much harder to set a firm date by which to finish or publish a novel, to send out a certain number of query letters a week, or to regularly post on social media.

  • Have an unpredictable schedule from day to day, week to week, and month to month. This makes it harder to write at the same time each day or the same day or days each week, which in turn makes it harder to get into a writing habit or to make time for marketing or publishing. (In future posts, I’ll address some ways to track your progress and establish a writing a habit, despite that writing every day at a certain time may not be possible.)
  • Think of “books” only as printed books and focus on bookstores as the best sales outlets. While a love for and familiarity with paper books can mean you’ll be more motivated to sell paperbacks when many other writers are ignoring them, it also means you may overlook the sales potential of ebooks and audiobooks, as well as overlook the necessity of an on-line presence. I sell the most novels in ebook format, then in Audiobook format, than in paperback. If I’d kept my view of books as paper books, I doubt I’d have sold 10,000 copies of The Awakening to date.
  • Have a limited view of what “professional” means and how it looks. Conforming with certain standards for appearing professional is great when it comes to presenting yourself. You know how to dress and behave in a professional way and you understand why you should have well-written marketing materials free of typographical errors.

As I talked about in Is This Blog For You?, though, unfortunately, this view also may cause you to dismiss advice from those who don’t fit your image of a successful business person. I almost skipped a free on-line seminar I’d signed up for when I saw the first two minutes of the initial video presentation. The presenter wore jeans and a wrinkled T-shirt, and he was sitting at a computer desk in his bedroom, his electric guitar leaned against the bed behind him. (The presentation was not about music.) The decor also suggested the bedroom was in his parents’ house. As someone who takes a lot of care in what I wear to court, to teach, or to meet with a client, my gut reaction was that this wasn’t someone who took himself or his presentation seriously, so why should I devote time to his talk or to any part of a seminar that would use him as the headliner?

To my surprise, I learned quite a bit from him about writing good advertising copy, and I learned from the other presenters, too. All of which I would have missed had I rejected him based on my view of how a professional looks and acts.

The Pluses

As a writer with another career, you’re also more likely to:

  • Have a professional network from your first career or profession. Knowing about another career from first-hand experience and interacting with professionals in other careers gives you a wealth of plot material. It also gives you a lot of information about various types of jobs. Other writers can get that by researching or interviewing people, but you already have it in your head. Which means you won’t ever need to be that writer whose main characters are always writers. (Something that always annoys me, unless it’s Stephen Kind doing it. Somehow, he makes it work.) That network also expands the number of people who might help you spread the word when you publish.
  • Have extensive knowledge of your field and/or technical expertise. Knowledge gained through your first career can also provide a foundation for your novels. Readers love getting the inside view of a profession or industry. Authors like Scott Turow and John Grisham used their experiences as lawyers to create exciting novels and sparked a new genre, the legal thriller.

Even if you don’t write about your profession, the skills you learn with it can be helpful. When I started writing The Awakening series, I was working so many hours as a lawyer that the last thing I wanted to was to write about law. But my research, writing, grammar, time-management, and client service skills aided me in plotting, finishing, and marketing the books. I also tapped into professional contacts who were medical doctors, probate lawyers, and former police detectives to flesh out details of the obstacles my main character faced.

  • Have more money than time. While not everyone with a first career or profession makes a lot of money, odds are you earn more than someone working retail or punching a clock. This can also be a challenge (see above), as you’re probably working more than 40 hours a week. But it does give you a certain flexibility. You can buy time by paying others to do things that otherwise take up your writing time, such as housecleaning. You can also pay for a class run by a skilled, published author or pay a reputable story editor to go through your manuscript. If you choose to self-publish, you’ll probably be able to afford a professionally-designed cover, which will increase the chances of readers buying your book.
 The Big Picture

Of course there are differences among those of us who juggle multiple careers, and no advice is one-size-fits-all. What worked for one author, regardless of her or his background or other career, to sell a thousand copies may do nothing for another writer, and may not even work for the same author a year later.

The publishing industry is changing rapidly, and it’s an exciting time to be part of it. You belong to a long tradition of writers with other careers that includes William Carlos Williams (doctor), Lewis Carrol (mathematician, photographer and teacher), and Virginia Woolf (publisher). Overall, in my view, your first career or profession on balance helps your writing, despite that you many not be able to maintain the same production schedule as someone who works a 9-5 job or writes full time.

As we go forward together, I hope some of what I’ve learned—and what I keep learning—as I juggle the roles of author, attorney, and adjunct professor will save you time and trouble and make your writing life happier and more successful.

Until Friday,

L. M. Lilly

Do You Need A Publisher, Part 3: Money

Mary Higgins Clark was paid a $64 million advance for a five-book deal. The average advance for a first novel, however, is generally between $5,000 to $15,000. Most novelists, including published ones, don’t make a living writing. They supplement with other work, often as teachers of writing, speakers, editors, or non-fiction writers. Others write on the side and earn most of their money in another profession.

In Do You Need A Publisher (Part 1), I talked about the factors that might affect whether you pursue a traditional publishing deal or publish your work yourself. Those factors include:

  • a desire for prestige and recognition, which I talked about last week
  •  a desire to earn money
  • a desire for control over your work
  • a desire to run a business, and
  • what type of book you’re writing

You can make money no matter how you publish, but here are some differences in what you’re likely to earn and how it may affect your career:

The Big 5 Publishers

The authors who make the most money up front are the household names, such as Mary Higgins Clark, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King. Most authors in this league have been writing and selling novels for decades, but sometimes a debut novel will be bought for a six or seven figure advance. The Big 5 are the publishers that can pay these types of advances. An advance means the author is paid before the book is published. If the book earns enough in royalties to repay the advance, the author is then paid royalties as well. The upsides of this type of deal are obvious. Before the book goes to press, you have a good chunk of money in your pocket.

On the downside, the need for the book to earn back the advance is a lot of pressure. If it doesn’t happen, that may tank the chances of a contract for later books. More significant for most new writers is that the odds against landing a deal with a large publisher are near zero. First, you’ll need to spend time and effort trying to find a literary agent to represent you before the Big 5 will consider your work. Second, even through literary agents, the Big 5 most often enter contracts with established authors.

Given the potential large payoff, though, if you think your book will fit one of these publishers, don’t be dissuaded by the odds. Not only is there a shot at a large advance and the publicity and marketing that comes with it, much of what you do to pursue your goal will help you if you later decide to try another route. For instance, crafting a compelling query letter to agents can also help you write queries to publishers or write marketing copy if you self-publish.

Small and medium-sized publishers

Small to medium-sized publishers usually offer advances between a few thousand dollars and $45,000, though some very small presses may offer no advance. The financial upsides include possible up front money and the fact that the publisher pays the publishing costs, such as cover art and editing. The publisher also may help market and publicize the book, and most bookstores are more willing to carry a traditionally-published book than a self-published one.

The downsides include that the author has limited or no control over many factors that affect a book’s sales, such as the quality of cover art, editorial services, marketing copy, where and when the book is advertised, and the price. Also, the size of the advance usually matches the marketing budget. A $5,000 marketing budget won’t go very far, and you’ll likely have lost control of your work and rights that might help you earn more money.

One of my income streams is from the audiobook editions of the first three books in my Awakening series. I did a royalty-share deal with the producer/narrators, and the books were already written, so creating the audiobooks was a no brainer. If you sign a contract granting those rights to a publisher, though, you no longer have that option, and the publisher may not be obligated to produce audiobooks. Finally, royalties from a publisher range from 10-25% of the purchase price, while when you self-publish, your royalties range from 30-70% of the book’s price.

Publishers that charge the author/vanity presses

If the fee is reasonable and you’d rather spend money than invest time in publishing your own work, you might be the lucky one-in-a-million author able to earn money by paying a company to publish. You need to consider, though, how much you’re paying compared to how many books you’re likely to sell, keeping in mind that these types of companies, no matter what they say about marketing or publicity, rarely do much to sell your book. Publishers that pay the author an advance and hope to earn it back and then some through book sales have an incentive to see that your book sells. Companies you pay do not. They are making money off of you.

For that reason, in my view, it’s a very long shot that you’ll make money paying a company to publish your work. You’re also risking paying for services that will be inferior to what you could have contracted for yourself. The only time I suggest these types of companies is if:

(a) the fee is not that much more than you would spend if you found the services you need yourself;

(b) you get a referral from someone whose books are selling well and who is earning more than she or he spent;

(c) the person who referred you is selling the same type of book you wrote; and

(d) that author’s books are well-edited (no typos, good story arc) and have professional-looking covers that fit the books’ genre.


Some authors earn an excellent living by publishing multiple books themselves, by self-publishing and later being picked up by traditional publishers (as happened with The Martian), or by some combination of the two. A few authors that appear to have done quite well self-publishing include Hugh Howey, J.F. Penn, and Melissa Foster. Others earn enough to write full-time or have a decent side stream of income. Others, usually those who publish only one or two books and devote little time or money to marketing, spend more on self-publishing than they earn.

On the upside, as noted, indies earn a much larger share of royalties, particularly on ebooks, than do traditionally-published authors. That means you can generally price your books lower to gain readers while earning the same amount in royalties or more per book than traditional authors do. Indies also retain all their rights and have control over the covers, marketing, editing, etc.

The downside of indie publishing is that the indie must pay the publication costs, which range anywhere from zero (as all aspects can be handled by the author) to a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. In addition, if you plan to market your book through paid advertising, you pay for that as well.

The Short Version

To pull this all together, the Big 5 offer the biggest potential for large advances and stellar advertising and marketing, indie/self-publishing offers great potential earnings if you’re in it for the long haul, and the likely financial rewards of publishing with small/medium publishers vary widely depending upon the advance offered and the publisher’s marketing budget. If you publish with a small or medium-sized publisher or you self-publish, a lot of your success will depend on how much time, effort, and sometimes money you are personally willing to invest. As for publishers who charge you, there may be some authors out there who made money that way, but in my opinion, it’s a buyer-beware proposition.

Stay tuned for posts on the other factors that go into choosing a publishing path.

Until then, best wishes for a productive, peaceful week.

L. M. Lilly

Buying The Job Of Writing

The first time I published a novel, I took part in an on-line book release promotion that included nine thrillers, each priced at 99 cents for the ebook edition. That was in 2011. The promotion brought me to my first 200 sales for The Awakening, which was very exciting at the time. Over the next few years thousands of copies sold but I was running a busy law practice and didn’t release Book 2 in the series for another three years. Not the best marketing plan, but that’s a topic for another day.

One of the other thriller writers who took part, Russell Blake, was writing full time. He published thriller after thriller, became a New York Times and USA Today best selling author, collaborated with Clive Cussler, and now has an Amazon world devoted to one of his series. (OK, I’ll stop now because I’m getting depressed.)

In 2015, Blake wrote a great post about what he would have told himself as newbie author. It’s a funny and informative article, the main thrust of which is that if you’re successful as an author, you’ve bought yourself a job. You can check it out here. Please share your thoughts on it in the comments.

Have a great weekend.

L. M. Lilly

Do You Need A Publisher, Part 2: Prestige And Recognition

One factor, maybe the most important one, in deciding whether to seek a publisher or to self-publish is what you want out of writing. (For a discussion of types of publishers, see last week’s post.) If your goal is to make a living writing, how much money each method is likely to generate might matter most. But even if that is your goal, prestige or recognition is almost always part of the motivation.

Most of us who write, especially if we’re over forty, dreamed when we started out about book signings, being interviewed on Oprah or C-SPAN, or winning awards. It’s a great feeling to publish a book and be recognized for it or simply be able to see it on a bookshelf. So let’s start with talking about prestige and recognition. Don’t worry, I’ll get to money next week.

Prestige and Mahogany Desks

John Gardner once said, in his book On Becoming A Novelist, that there’s nothing less prestigious than being an unpublished novelist. Today he might substitute “self-published” or “independently-published.” While publishing your own work is becoming more accepted, if you opt to do so, you’ll still need to be prepared for the people—whether or not they’ve ever written a word of fiction—who will look down their noses at you.

Others simply won’t see you as a “real” writer. A colleague once told me how much she’d liked The Awakening, which she’d borrowed from a friend. When my second book in the series came out, she couldn’t make it to the book release party, but she asked me to bring a copy to her office. When I handed it to her, she said, “I don’t have to pay for this, do I?” Had I been published by Random House, my guess is she wouldn’t have asked that.

This view that a traditionally-published novel has more value or that it’s more impressive to be a traditionally-published author is known in the indie world as the Mahogany Desk Syndrome. Many see it as nothing more than a form of snobbishness. It also reflects the fact that when a company unrelated to you chooses to publish your work, it shows the world that someone other than you is willing to put money, time, and effort behind your writing.

My own mahogany desk and bulletin board–the old fashioned kind.

I understand those who feel that way, but I personally am more impressed by people who stand behind their own work. When I left a large law firm to start my own practice, people congratulated me on being an entrepreneur and having great confidence. I view publishing my own work the same way.

Awards and Best Seller Lists

Many literary awards, including some for genre fiction, are open only to novels published by traditional publishers. For instance, self-published books are not eligible for the Edgar Award, which recognizes mysteries. The Man Booker award, a literary fiction prize, also is not open to self-published books. This is starting to change, however. The Deep, a self-published novel by Michaelbrent Collings, was nominated for a Bram Stoker award in 2015. And in researching this article, I learned that self-published books, so long as they are available in print, can be nominated for Pulitzer Prizes.

Many awards exist that are specifically-targeted to indie/self-published authors. (A few are listed in this Publishers Weekly article. ) Being able to say your book is award-winning is a plus, but there is definitely a Buyer Beware factor, as some indie awards have hefty entry fees.

As to Best Seller lists, both the USA Today and New York Times best seller lists are open to both traditionally and independently published works. In addition, Amazon continuously lists the Top 100 books overall and in numerous categories regardless of publisher. The Top 100 lists update hourly. Getting your book into the Top 20 of any category helps sales because it means people see your book. Being in the Top 100 of all the books is a huge sales boost. As far as prestige, though, because the lists update hourly and it takes fewer sales to qualify, they don’t have the cache of the USA Today or New York Times list.

Speaking Engagements

One novelist I met at a conference, who was also a former attorney, said in-person events were the main plus of having had his novel published by a small publisher. While he didn’t have much of a marketing budget, his publicist got him onto panels of traditionally-published authors at fan and reader conferences.

Most speaking opportunities I’ve seen that are open to indie authors are limited to conferences specifically directed at writers interested in self-publishing, not at readers. Likewise, when I joined other self-published authors at a local book expo, the traditional publishers were on the first floor and the indie authors were relegated to the twelfth. There were no signs posted telling attendees that there were more books on the twelfth floor, so there was almost no foot traffic.

There are exceptions, of course. The Martian started as self-published, and I’m certain Andy Weir is welcome to speak anywhere he likes.

What Readers Think

Most readers don’t care how a book is published. Few people check the publisher when they buy a book on-line or in the bookstore. They look at the cover, the summary, and the first page or so. Also, the more books you publish, the less people scoff. Those indie authors who hit the USA Today or New York Times best seller lists also add a stamp of approval to their books and careers.

At the same time, if a book is free or 99 cents–both strategies indie authors employ to boost visibility and sales of other books in their catalogues–or the cover looks unprofessional, a reader may hesitate. A book from almost any traditional publisher has been edited and proofread by professionals, which is not true of all self-published books, so readers may have had a bad experience and be skeptical of indie publishing. I’m convinced that’s why one 5-star review of The Awakening after I started offering it free said, “I actually liked this book,” as if the reader were quite surprised. A professional cover and well written and edited book summaries and sample chapters will usually override any reader concern about your work, though.

In short, my view is that if what matters most to you is prestige and being recognized by peers as an author, some type of publisher, be it small, medium, or Big 5, is at least somewhat more likely to provide that. All the same, if you prefer to self-publish, fear not. The world is changing quickly, many awards are open to indie authors, and many people no longer make a distinction between one type of publishing and another. In fact, I predict that in another five years, how you publish will make no difference at all.

Best wishes for a productive and not-too-stressful week.

L. M. Lilly

P.S. Please share your views in the comments, as a reader or writer, of indie versus traditional publishing.