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    How many books would you need to sell to earn 20k?

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    I looked at the royalties of the five most commonly used platforms for self-publishing your book to answer the question:

    How many books do you need to sell as a self-published author to earn 20k?

    Specifically, I looked at the royalties from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, and IngramSpark for e-books, paperbacks, and hardcovers. You can find the settings and price points I used for comparison below.

    This is followed by a summary of the findings (click here to jump straight to the summary).

    Read on to find out where you could potentially earn the most with the least amount of book sales, so you can use these results to inform your marketing and publishing strategy.

    how many books would you need to sell for 20k

    The Settings I used to Compare

    The amount of royalties you will receive for a sale is dependent on certain factors, such as list price, page count, and print settings. To compare the different formats and platforms, I standardized the settings as much as possible.

    For the prices, I used the book pricing guide from scribemedia as a guide. For each format, I chose the highest price within the “cheap” category. 

    This resulted in the prices being:

    • $3.99 for e-books;
    • $13.99 for paperbacks;
    • $19.99 for hardcovers.

    Based on the formula used here, I determined 300 pages for the paperback and 257 pages for the hardcover. This is equivalent to a book of around 90,000 words. For the e-book size, I took 3 MB, as this seems to be the size of a novel around this size.

    Calculators were used for determining the royalties for the print books for Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IngramSpark.

    To compare print books, the settings needed to be largely the same. Both paperback and hardcover settings are black & white interior on crème paper with a matte cover. The hardcover had no dust jacket, as Amazon doesn’t provide that option.

    Trimming was 5.25” x 8” for paperback and 5.5” x 8.5” for hardcover. In addition, on IngramSpark a 35% wholesale discount was chosen for global connect (the minimum discount required for global connect).

    For the royalty percentages for e-books, the information from each platform was used. Considering the price point, that meant:

    • 70% minus delivery cost for Amazon;
    • 45% for Ingramspark;
    • 70% for Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and Kobo.

    Summary

    1. On average, you need to sell the least amount of books when publishing on Amazon, with a total of 6496 books. The highest amount of books you’d need to sell for 20k would be, on average, when publishing with Barnes & Noble, with a total of 7829 books.
    2. The least amount of books you’d have to sell for 20k would be with paperbacks on Amazon, with 5076 books. The most amount of books you’d have to sell for 20k earnings would be with e-books on IngramSpark, with 11111 books.
    3. Amazon has the highest average royalty of $3.23. As you would expect, the lowest average royalty was for Barnes & Noble, with $2.60.
    4. IngramSpark has the lowest royalty for e-books, with $1.80. The highest royalty is for Amazon’s paperbacks, with $3.94. Their royalty for e-books, however, is lower than that of B&N, Kobo, and iBooks.
    5. Contrary to popular belief, royalties for hardcovers can be 25% higher than the royalty for e-books ($3.13 average hardcover vs. $2.50 average for e-books). The average royalty for paperbacks is the highest, at $3.47.

    Amazon requires 6496 book sales on average

    Most of the time, book sales won’t be based on just one format: you’ll sell a combination of e-books, paperbacks, and hardcovers. Ideally, I would know the exact percentage of average sales for each of these formats for indie authors so I could determine the expected amount of books you would need to sell for $20k (for a weighted average). However, those sales figures are hard to find, which is why I calculated the retailer’s average number of books sold. Note that for Kobo and iBooks, this makes no difference, as they only offer e-books.

    As shown in the figure below, Amazon would require the least amount of book sales on average to make $20k, with 6496 sales. Contrary, Barnes & Noble has the highest average sales number with 7829 book sales. IngramSpark, Kobo, and iBooks are all around 7200 book sales. 

    This indicates that if you don’t have much time to spend on publishing and marketing your book, you could make the most use of your time by publishing with Amazon.

    graph showing average number of book sales needed for 20k

    Despite all the ire Amazon has earned from different sections of the author community, they are still the platform doing the most to help authors reach their readers and shouldn’t be ignored. Hopefully, as transparency increases, other platforms will become more competitive and improve.

    – Joe Bunting, founder of TheWritePractice.com

    Want to become a writer? Check out this article on their website.

    Paperbacks on Amazon need 5076 sales for 20k

    Although most of the time self-published authors offer a variety of formats, it’s also not uncommon for indie authors to publish only in e-book format. It’s generally believed that most people would buy the e-book version since it’s less expensive, even though there are numbers that indicate print books are still more popular than e-books (as reported here and here). These numbers should be viewed with caution, however, as it’s difficult to determine accurate e-book sales, especially since Amazon doesn’t release any sales figures.

    Either way, it seemed appropriate to figure out whether or not focusing solely on e-books might be the most profitable strategy. As can be seen in the figure below, an author would actually need the least amount of sales with paperbacks on Amazon (5076). In fact, apart from Barnes & Noble, adding paperback and hardcover formats of your book would lead to less necessary book sales for $20k.

    This indicates that, even if the number of print sales would be lower compared to e-books, it would still get the author to earn 20$ quicker.

    bar graph number of book sales per retailer and format for 20k

    The highest average royalty is $3.23

    Based on the used price points and options, I wanted to see what the average royalty per book sale would be. We often see percentages, which makes sense as the royalty price is dependent on several factors. Still, an actual number feels more concrete and gives a better indication of what you can expect when you self-publish.

    It comes as no surprise that the highest average royalty per sale is for Amazon, at $3.23, since we’ve seen above that they also require the least number of book sales. And, as with the book sales number, ideally, I would know the ratios per format to give a better estimate. As before, iBooks and Kobo only offer e-books, so their royalty will be $2.79 for each book sale. Following Amazon is IngramSpark. The average royalty is lowest for Barnes & Noble, with $2.60 per sale on average.

    This indicates that with both Amazon and IngramSpark, you can earn, on average, above $3 per book sale. Of course, if this seems too low, it’s always possible to increase the price of your book on any or all of the formats.

    bar graph showing average royalty per unit book sale per retailer in USD

    The lowest royalty is $1.80 for e-books published with IngramSpark

    Similar to the average royalty, having an actual price point for the expected royalties makes it more concrete and indicates where to best spend your time when publishing and marketing.

    As is to be expected when looking at the number of book sales needed for each format within each platform to reach $20k, IngramSpark has the lowest royalty for e-books at $1.80. This is the only one that dips below the $2.- of royalty per sale. This is likely because, as opposed to the other platforms, IngramSpark offers distribution to multiple sales channels (among which are Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and iBooks), which means it has to take into account the different royalties earned through various platforms. And, as it’s a third party, it’s expected that IngramSpark also takes a cut from the earnings. As such, it makes sense that their royalty rate for e-books is on the low end.

    bar graph showing royalty per unit book sale per retailer and format in USD

    As you can also see in the graph, the royalties for e-books on the other platforms range between $2.- and $3.-. As can be seen, the most royalties can be earned with paperbacks and hardcovers, especially on Amazon and IngramSpark. With Barnes & Noble, these earnings are lower, especially for hardcovers. When it comes to print costs, they are similar to those of Amazon. However, Amazon (when not choosing expanded distribution) has 60% royalty, whereas Barnes & Noble offers a 55% royalty.

    When it comes to investing your time and, potentially, money, it seems best to add all formats to Amazon to maximize potential author earnings. Moreover, it seems like a better investment to add your e-book versions to Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and iBooks yourself rather than use IngramSpark, as this will lead to higher royalties. You could then use IngramSpark’s print option to distribute your print books worldwide to brick-and-mortar stores and libraries. However, if you are short on time, IngramSpark will give you a wide distribution for both e-book and print versions. This is also convenient when you don’t have a Macbook to upload your book to iBooks.

    Hardcover royalties can be 25% higher than for e-books

    There’s often advice to new indie authors that selling hardcover copies of your book isn’t worth the royalties. This doesn’t come out of nowhere: printing costs are higher than for paperbacks and, until recently, Amazon’s KDP didn’t even offer a hardcover option.

    However, as you can see in the graph below, it is possible to get a decent amount of royalties from a hardcover book. The biggest reason for this higher royalty rate is the choice of cover. Often, authors will pick the dust jacket option for hardcovers. However, this isn’t possible with Amazon’s KDP, which only offers a laminated cover. To keep things comparable, the royalties for IngramSpark and Barnes & Noble were also calculated with a laminated cover.

    If, however, you would opt for a cover with dust jacket, printing costs increase around $1.50. To receive the same amount of royalties, you would need to increase your price with more than this, based on the formula they use. For IngramSpark, the new list price would be $22.74 and for Barnes & Noble $22.40.

    An indie author can get the highest average royalty through selling paperbacks, with a profit margin of $3.47. The lowest average profit margin is e-books, with $2.50.

    This indicates that to maximize royalties, it may be better to choose for a laminated cover for the hardcover copies. This way, the author can choose a lower list price than when using a dust jacket cover to obtain the same amount of royalties. It also shows that adding paperback and hardcover versions of your book for sale will contribute to earning $20k faster than when offering only e-books.

    Conclusion

    Based on the above results, it’s possible to conclude the following:

    • Publishing through Amazon’s KDP will give you the most benefit for your time.
    • Adding paperback and hardcover versions of your book for sale will get you to earn $20k faster than only offering an e-book version.
    • Distributing your e-book through separate platforms will give you higher earnings than doing this through IngramSpark.
    • Using the global print distribution option from IngramSpark in addition to print books on Amazon may help increase earnings, especially if the author also wants to sell to places outside the US.
    • With a laminated hardcover book, it’s possible to list the book for a lower price compared to a dust jacket cover option. 

    Which stats did you find the most interesting?

    What’s your #1 takeaway from these findings?

    Does it influence your self-publishing strategy in any way?

    Other interesting reads

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