Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, February 21, 2011

Can You Make a Living Writing LDS Novels?

Last week, I had the chance to attend LTUE (Life the Universe and Everything.) Although it is a conference focused primarily on fantasy and Sci-Fi, it attracts writers of all genres. During the course of the conference, I ended up having discussions with several different authors that all came back to the same point. Is it possible to make a living as an LDS author?

Wow. Talk about a dicey question. It is possible? Yes. Is it possible for most authors? No.That’s it discussion done. I haven’t ticked off any authors, publishers, or friends. (A feat in and of itself.)

Which probably means that answer is too simplistic. Sooooo, let’s try this again. I will attempt to be open-minded, tactful, and yet honest at the same time.

You might wonder why this is such a difficult question to answer. Do I know roughly what all of the publisher’s pay per book? Yes. Do I know about how many books each publisher expects to sell on a given title? For the most part, yes. So just multiply A x B, The issue is that 1) every publisher has exceptions. If I say Cedar Fort usually sells x amount of books, they can come back and say, oh we’ve had titles that sell 10 times that many. And it’s true, they do have titles that sell a ton more books than normal. But is that fair to use as an example for a new author? Is it fair to set expectations to a level that is virtually unreachable for Jane Doe that just got accepted for her first mystery novel?

Issue 2) is that publishers are not fond of releasing sales numbers. Even though I suspect all LDS publishers have a pretty good idea of what other LDS publishers are doing, it’s kind of a trade secret. They might not be happy if I started spouting sales number of specific titles publicly.

So what I’ll try to do is use generic enough examples that I won’t tick anyone off, while still providing something useful to you the new or aspiring LDS author.

Let’s start with something pretty basic. Royalties. Royalties in the LDS market typically come a few different flavors. Hardback vs. trade paperback (not the small mass market paperbacks you can fit in your jeans pocket but the one that’s about the same dimensions as a hardback), and retail vs. wholesale.

’ll explain wholesale first, since it’s easier. Wholesale (sometimes referred to in contracts as gross sales price) is the amount the publisher sells the book to a bookstore for. This is usually going to be 30% to 50% off the listed price. However it can be much less if the publisher is trying to get rid of extra inventory. If your publisher pays on wholesale, the normal rate will usually be 10%, whether the book is released in hardback or paperback. So if your book sells for $14.99 and the book store buys it for $8.99, you get about $0.90 per book. If your book sells for $6.99, you make about $0.42 per book.

Retail is a little bit trickier. Trade paperback usually has a royalty in the range of 6.5% for the first 5,000, 8% for the next 5,000, and 10% for anything above 10,000. Hardback is typically a little higher. 10% for the first 10,000 and 12.5% for anything above that. Not all publishers pay the same rates, but these numbers should work for our purposes. Retail is based on the list price of the book—what’s actually on the cover. Again, most contracts have some kind of stipulation regarding books that are sold significantly below normal pricing (clearance or promotional.) If your contract has a section like this, you should ask your publisher how many of their titles are typically sold for these lower rates.

Generally royalties are paid on all books shipped for the previous six months, less a holdback for returns. So in early February I would get a check for all book shipped between July 1st and December 30th. However some publishers wait six months and then pay on a monthly basis. So in early February I would get a check for all books sold the month of July. The good things about this are that there are usually no return holds and you get paid monthly. The bad news is that you have to wait five months longer to get what the other publishers pay in one sum. While some LDS authors do get advances against royalties, most still do not.

Now let’s get to the question most would-be LDS authors are clueless about. How many books can I expect to sell? Ten or fifteen years ago, a new LDS author could sell 15,000 to 20,000 copies of a title or even more. You might think that number has gone up, since there are more LDS readers, more LDS bookstores, and more LDS publishers. But the dad truth is that it has gone way down. Why? Well for one thing, there are MANY more titles being released now. Instead of having ten to twenty fiction titles coming out in a year, readers have well over a hundred to chose from. In addition, the novelty factor has worn off. Remember how cool it was when God’s Army came out? Wow a MORMON movie! How cool was that? Roughly ten years later, Mormon movies are everywhere. And sales have gone down just like they did with books.

This is not to say that Mormon novels don’t still sell well over 20,000 copies, because they do. But they are the huge exception to the rule now. And most of the authors selling that many books started way back when there wasn’t that competition. A new LDS author with a genre title (mystery, romance, thriller, etc) can expect to sell typically no more than 5,000 copies, unless they get amazing marketing from their publisher. 10,000 is a major best seller.

Let’s run the numbers. $14.99 for a trade paperback. Whether your contract is wholesale or retail, you will get about $1 per book for the first 5,000. You will probably sell no more than 5,000 books. So you can expect to earn less than $5,000 per book before taxes. In order to make a living writing books, you would need to publish roughly ten novels per year.

Are there exceptions? Yes. I believe that at least Cedar Fort, Covenant, and DB can point out a novel or two every year that sold more than 20,000 books. Maybe more than 40,000. But the truth of that matter is that a new author publishing a genre novel should not expect to earn more than $5,000, and most will earn quite a bit less.

Am I saying not to write LDS novels? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s not just LDS publishers that have those kinds of numbers. Most independent publishers would be thrilled to have their authors sell 5,000 books. But you should not go into it expecting that after a year or two you will be able to retire at your cabin by the lake. Writing LDS novels can be a great experience. There are so many rewards that have nothing to do with money. I’ve loved writing LDS novels and I hope that regardless of what happens with my national writing career I will be able to continue writing and publishing LDS novels.

But if you are writing an LDS novel because you just lost your job and you want to make a living as a writer, you’d be much, much better off sending out resumes. LDS publishers and other authors, please feel free to point out any areas where I have been less than clear or where my information might be outdated.


At 2/21/2011 11:04 PM, Blogger Jordan McCollum said...

Nice reality check. Thanks for using hard numbers, especially for sales figures. Publishers are so reluctant to do that, but it's really useful information! (I certainly feel informed.)

At 2/21/2011 11:33 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Jeff, thanks for the post. My only contribution would be to emphasize (you made the point, but I just want to reemphasize it so nobody worries :) is that you can have a very successful book with a smaller LDS press that sells far fewer than 5000. 5000 would be a number for the biggest LDS presses.

At 2/21/2011 11:39 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Thanks, Stephanie. I think I was trying so hard not to offend publishers that I didn't communicate that fact clearly for the benefit of authors. You can absolutely sell fewer than 5,000 books and be a success.

In fact one of the things I suggest is asking your publisher how many book sold they would consider successful for you.

At 2/22/2011 12:11 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Jeff, that's a great suggestion to ask your publisher what kind of sales they expect. When I got my first royalty check, I had no idea if it represented good or poor sales.

At 2/22/2011 1:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It depends on what you consider "making a living".

If you live in a paper bag. Never eat out. Sell your car and ride a bike. Grow your own food. Cut you own wood to heat the house. Own a very small home. And do everything with a touch of frugality, then selling 5,000 books is like winning the lottery. So if you're in that class of frugal author and you get an LDS book contract you're in the money!

Whee. Isn't this author stuff great?

At 2/22/2011 7:46 AM, Anonymous Chas Hathaway said...

Are the numbers similar with LDS nonfiction? I would assume they would at least be comparable, but being one of those beginners, I'm just curious. How do the numbers compare between LDS fiction and LDS nonfiction?

At 2/22/2011 11:52 AM, Blogger Laura said...

Amen to this post. It's nice having it all laid out- everything I've learned in the last three years about LDS book sales.

At 2/22/2011 12:01 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

Excellent and honest blog, Jeff.

At 2/22/2011 12:02 PM, Blogger Charlie Moore said...

Anon, you were either talking about some fantasy world or the Great Depression. Making a living as an LDS author; here's some perspective. My wife and I make about 80K a year and we live paycheck to paycheck and we're actually quite frugal. My guess is that LDS authors who haven't dipped into the national market (and many who have) aren't making that kind of scratch on their books.
Of course people can live on less than 80 large a year, but not too many ascribe to anon's lifestyle description. My guess is that those folks who asked the question, Jeff, will be tickled pink when they see their name in print with (a novel by) on the cover of a published book. And that royalty check for a few hundred $$ they receive a few months later will be the neatest thing since sliced beard. I'm an old grandpa and its pretty neat to me.


At 2/22/2011 12:07 PM, Blogger Candace Wright said...

This post was so insightful. THANK YOU.

At 2/22/2011 12:12 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

Jeff, one point I think you missed is the little matter of shelf life. An LDS novel usually has a lot longer shelf life than a mainstream book (mega best sellers are an exception of course)which means two things: a title is in front of the reading public for a longer length of time and because of the longer shelf life, sales numbers and royalties for a specific title may be spread over many months and sometimes years. It may take several years for some books to reach that $5000, so it's unrealistic to expect it in one royalty check. I'm still receiving royalties for books I wrote ten and fifteen years ago. A friend who writes for Harlequin says her books are displayed for 45 days, then they are pulled and the shelf space goes to a new release. Since there are so many more LDS writers now than when I first started, shelf life has decreased, but it is still a factor.

At 2/22/2011 4:57 PM, Blogger Debra Erfert said...

Thanks for the realistic view of what published authors bring in financially, LDS or otherwise. I've often wondered what my "hobby" might pay, and now I know-if I ever get to cross that line and see my name on the front cover of a book. Check that--When I see my name on that front cover!

I don't know if you remember, Jeff, but about a year ago I felt like chucking the whole writing thing. But you took the time to counsel me. I want you to know your advice kept me going. Thank you.

At 2/22/2011 6:54 PM, Blogger Michael Knudsen said...

Hey, if I can take my wife out to a nice dinner and a night's stay at a swanky hotel on my royalties this year, I'll call it a huge success. It's my first book. A year ago I doubted I'd ever see it published. I'll have already received the best part of my payment before the royalty check arrives. Now, I am more ambitious for the future. Look out, national market.

At 2/22/2011 8:42 PM, Anonymous Shannon said...

You know I sold 25,000 books and thought that was a low number at Cedar Fort because I have never followed blogs until Cedar Fort started the PR blog and told me that was the trend now. So I never talked to another LDS Author about how they were doing. I sort of thought I was supose to be selling a heck of a lot more. To find out that 5,000 is considered good make me break out in giggles tonight. Man oh pays to be a nonfiction writer I supose.

At 2/23/2011 12:14 AM, Blogger Andrew H. said...

People from most of the major LDS publishers told me that generally their non-fiction titles sell more than fiction. Sales-wise, clearly that is the way to go.

At 2/23/2011 12:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, nonfiction does do better because people are looking for your book. But fiction writers get to enjoy a fan base--which nonfiction titles really don't get unless your John Bytheway. I really think all the nonfiction LDS Writers need to get together and form our own Whitney Awards for us. Or put the pressure on the committee to have an award for those that write nonfiction.

Just my two cents on that.

At 2/23/2011 1:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What would the categories of a NON-FICTION whitney look like? Selfhelp? Contemporary Documentary? Historical documentary? Scripture Analysis? Biography? What?

How about it Rob? Some non-fiction categories for the Whitney? That could be really cool.

At 2/23/2011 1:48 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...


A lot of people have asked the Whitneys to branch out in other directions (like non-fiction, short stories, poetry, screenplays, etc), but I've always felt that it's better to focus on one thing (novels) and do it well rather than stretching ourselves too thin.

Fortunately, I'm not involved with the Whitneys anymore, so I don't have to worry about it. :)

At 2/23/2011 1:56 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Josi Kilpack is the current president of the Whitneys, so you'll have to ask her :)

I think Rob is right. Better to do novel-length fiction awards well than to try to stretch so far that the Whitneys collapse.

One tricky problem you run into in non-fiction is you have books written by General Authorities. How many people would be comfortable taking a book written by an apostle and judging it in a contest?

At 2/23/2011 2:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're right. Who could compete with that kind of competition? Do you vote for the Rob Wells or the Thomas Monson biography? One is substantially more colorful, but the other so much more (how shall we say it?) ubiquitous---Love that word.


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