Thursday, March 15, 2018

Streams and Buckets: How to Make a Sustainable Living as an Indie Author

By John G. Hartness, @johnhartness

Part of the Indie Author Series

$74,000. There’s the number. It’s tax time, so numbers are what we’re all about this time of year, and that one’s mine. That is my income for 2017. It’s a decent number for my part of the world, enough to live on and pay the bills for a family of two with one income. It isn’t the million dollars that some folks make, but it also is a nice, steady increase over my income of previous years. It’s about what a teacher in my school district makes, if they have a Master’s Degree, National Board Certification, and 30 years of experience. So it’s a solid, professional-level salary.

I make my living from my writing. This is my day job, and my side hustle. I don’t have a safety net, and I don’t have a Plan B. This is all I’ve got, and I’m both happy and a little proud to be able to make a full-time living from my work. I published my first book, a collection of poetry and short stories, in 2009, so eight years into this career, that’s where I am. Not bad, since eight years into my first career I was sitting at around $32K/year. That was also 2003, so there’s a slightly different lens we use when looking through the wayback machine.

I don’t post my income because I think it’s some glorious number that should be shouted from the rooftops. I’m honestly a little uncomfortable having it out there. But I’m a numbers guy, and I need as much data as possible to evaluate my decisions, and the amount of data about what authors actually earn is woefully tiny. Plus, Jim C. Hines has been doing an in-depth analysis of his writing income each year for as long as I’m known him, and I find his annual posts very helpful. Since the whole point of this web series is to be helpful, I thought I’d follow Jim’s example. If you’d like to check out his posts, his site is here.

But the point of this article isn’t for anyone to say “Wow! He’s the bestest! He makes all the moneyz!” or for people to pity me and buy my books to keep me in ramen. Although I do have a new book coming out this month, so if you would like to keep me in ramen, you can pick up Queen of Kats exclusively on Amazon. The point is to look at revenue streams and buckets of money, and how to cobble together a living wage as a writer. Because this isn’t a regular job. There isn’t someone magically depositing 1/52 of your annual salary into your bank account every Friday. You have to go out there, kill it, and drag it home. But before the mighty hunter can drag home the almighty dollar and feed her family on it, she’d better know where the dollars are hiding.

Here’s where my dollars hide.

Ebook sales   $42,000, or 57%
Audiobooks    $13,000, or 18%
Print Sales     $11,000, or 15%
Trad Pub        $5,000, or 6%
Patreon          $4,000, or 5%

There’s a bunch of rounding there, so the percentages might be off a hair, but you get the general idea.

One thing that may be misleading in those numbers is the amount of stuff I sell in print. I really should label that “convention sales,” but “convention” is a really long word, and it would make it harder to line the dollar signs up in a pleasing fashion, so we’re slaves to the tiny bit of OCD that I have. Out of my “print sales” of $11,000, the vast majority of that was convention sales. Like, $10,000 of it. I sell very little in bookstores, although that number has increased in recent months since publishing print books through IngramSpark. But it’s still almost entirely hand-selling at conventions that makes up my print numbers. I made over 20 convention and signing appearances in 2017, and am on pace to break 30 in 2018. If I didn’t go to conventions, I wouldn’t have that ten thousand dollars. I also wouldn’t have a chunk of expense and would have more time to write, but I’d miss out on a lot of awesome industry and fan interaction. So it's a balancing act. But understand that practically none of my indie book sales come through traditional print channels. So don’t let that mislead you.

But as you can see from the numbers above, it’s all about having multiple revenue streams. Ebooks are my bread and butter. Obviously, since I make over half my annual income there. But audiobooks are a big chunk of money as well. And my contract with Bell Bridge Books for my Black Knight Chronicles books keeps chugging along, too. Last year was a down year for my trad pub sales, because I didn’t release a book in that series. I wrote one, but then I trashed it, because the book was hot garbage and no one will ever read it.

No, no one. And please don’t ask again. Nope, not even for that much money. It was that bad.

But I digress. As indies, we’re the ones steering the ship. The temptation is to follow a course that’s well-charted by lots of other successful indies and to go off into ebook-only, and hole up in your writing cave and concentrate on nothing but your ebooks and churn out awesome book after awesome book, only coming up for air long enough to swap newsletter ads with other indies.

Yeah…don’t do that. Obviously, there’s money to be made in alternative formats. I make it. Thirteen thousand dollars in audiobook sales is nothing to sneeze at, and I produce my audiobooks on a royalty share basis, so I split the royalties with my producer. So that’s twenty-six thousand dollars in audiobooks sold, and I’m the guy you’ve never heard of. Let that sink in. A fat hillbilly in North Carolina sold a Camry’s worth of audiobooks in one year, and you can’t find his books in any Barnes & Noble anywhere outside of his area code. I’m not famous. Most days, I’m not even infamous. But I’ve been at it for most of a decade, and I work my butt off.

My Patreon is another great income stream. I was very clear when I started it what that money was for – convention travel. The money that comes in from Patreon sends me to DragonCon, NC Comicon, LibertyCon, Congregate, and a pile of other conventions every year. My patrons give me cash, and I give them previews of all my new releases, and a free short story every month. If they are my top-tier patrons, they even get signed books shipped to their house! That money lets me make the convention sales that I make, so that’s a bucket of money that gets poured into an even bigger bucket of money later in the year.

I try other things as well. I recently started offering a short story subscription on Gumroad, where folks who don’t like Patreon can get the same things my Patreon users get. I have also uploaded an audiobook short there, and will probably record a few others in time and put them up for sale as well. I do a little book formatting as well, and some book doctor work when people hit me up about that kind of thing. I’m also working with a friend to set up some online classes, but I think it’s more about him being amused at me trying not to swear on camera than about anything I’m actually teaching. Whatever, as long as the check clears…

And that’s the point of this whole ramble – as long as the check clears. There’s no right or wrong way to build a writing career. As indies, we have the ultimate freedom to go out and dam up whatever revenue streams we want, to fill up our buckets of money in audio, or ebook, or small press publishing, or Patreon, or convention sales, or in-store book signings, or Wattpad, or Facebook Messenger bots, or tying pages to the legs of carrier pigeons and sending them to your readers.

Okay, not that last bit. Let’s take a hard pass on the whole “tying things to birds” idea. That’s a good way to get pooped on.

But you get my point. The money is out there. I made enough of it last year to pay the bills for my family, through cobbling together multiple revenue streams into an income. If I had a weak convention for book sales, then I chalked that one up to marketing for ebooks and audio. If I had a slow audiobook sales month, I stepped up that marketing avenue the next month. We are our own companies, and we can be nimble enough to react to market forces and trends in our sales approach. We don’t have the monolithic structure of a lot of big publishers, with entrenched employees and hidebound strategies. We can see an opportunity and jump on it.

Do you think Drip sounds cool? Check it out! Do you think creating a Facebook messenger bot to blast new release info to your newsletter subscribers seems awesome? Build one! Do you want to sell used socks on eBay for a living? Okay…that’s not really what we’re about here, but you be you, Boo-Boo. I’ll just…be over here. Waaaaayyyy over here.

So get out there. Write all the words. Try all the things. Find new revenue streams. Try audio if you haven’t. Sign up for an author/artist alley table at a local comic con if you’ve never done it. Create a Books & Brews event with your local pub (yup, did that too) and talk about your friends while you drink! Create a Youtube channel (I’m bad at Youtube, so I’m not gonna link it, but it’s there). Create a TeePublic store and sell t-shirts.

Whatever you’re into, you can make it work. All of these things are potential new income streams, which will eventually fill up your buckets of money. Are you gonna get rich? I don’t know. I hope so. I want you to get rich. Or at least be comfortable. And happy.

Do your thing. Do it your way. Make a living. Be happy. Be well. I’ll see you in the funny papers.

John G. HartnessJohn G. Hartness is a teller of tales, a righter of wrong, defender of ladies’ virtues, and some people call him Maurice, for he speaks of the pompatus of love. He is also the best-selling author of EPIC-Award-winning series The Black Knight Chronicles from Bell Bridge Books, a comedic urban fantasy series that answers the eternal question “Why aren’t there more fat vampires?” He is also the creator of the comic horror Bubba the Monster Hunter series, and the creator and co-editor of the Big Bad series of horror anthologies from Dark Oak Press and Media. 2015 has seen John launch a new dark fantasy series featuring Quncy Harker, Demon Hunter.

In his copious free time John enjoys long walks on the beach, rescuing kittens from trees and recording new episodes of his podcast the Writer’s Journey, where he interviews other writers and explores their journey to writing success. John is also a contributor to the Magical Words group blog. An avid Magic: the Gathering player, John is strong in his nerd-fu and has sometimes been referred to as “the Kevin Smith of Charlotte, NC.” And not just for his girth.

Website | Goodreads | Facebook | Twitter | Patreon | Podcasts

About Amazing Grace - A Southern Paranormal Mystery

Jessica Fletcher meets Aunt Bea meets Odd Thomas in this Southern Gothic Paranormal Mystery with a dose of romance from award-winning novelist John G. Hartness.

Lila Grace Carter is your favorite new detective, you just don’t know it yet. She’s determined, smart, caring, and sassy as the day is long. She also talks to dead people. Of course, as she puts it, “I’m Southern. We all talk to dead people down here. The difference is, they talk back to me.”

Lila Grace has lived in Lockhart, S.C. her entire life, and has always been shunned for being different. Discovering her ability to see and talk to ghosts at an early age, she used her ability to help people settle disputes, communicate with lost loved one, and generally make life better in small ways.

Until poor dead Jenny Miller showed up on her doorstep. Now Lila Grace has a teenaged ghost following her around, a handsome new sheriff in town, and a murderer in her sleepy southern town. This ain’t Mayberry, kids.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound |


  1. Excellent tips here for the Indie author, which I am trying to become. I have so many ideas, it makes my head spin!! I know I have to get busy. Your ideas have inspired me. Thanks!

  2. Kudos for being brave enough to post your income! Too often we hear of the indie author making a kazillion dollars and then wonder what we're doing wrong.

  3. Thanks so much for two things:
    1. Being willing to post your income (I'm an accountant, I've been desperate for this kind of breakdown). It's incredibly useful.

    2. Telling us that you wrote a book in an established series that you are under contract for, and you trashed it. Every writer needs to know that it happens to beginners and experienced writers alike.