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I Am an Indie Midlister (and That’s Okay)

11 December 2014

From author M.C.A. Hogarth:

Here is my sales graph for November. As many of you have noted before, I never include the labels, which prevents you from knowing just how many units per day those spikes represent.

So I shall tell you that the high point on the graph, over there on the right, is 24.

That’s 24 units sold in one day, and for me that is a spectacular day, and I want to dance for excitement. A good day for me is a day I move 2-4 units a day. A happy day is over 10. Get above 15 and I start wondering if someone has done an article or a review somewhere pointing me out. That 24-unit day, for example, was the day after the PW article went live.

“Well, fine,” some of you may think. “But 2-4 books a day is more books a day than I sell.”

This may be true. But let’s consider this other fact: I have over 50 stories available for sale. If you count all the things I have available as distinct products, it’s probably closer to 100, once you add in the coloring books and children’s books and audiobooks, etc. So do a reset and realize that to move 2-4 units a day, I had to have over 100 different products available for sale. If you have only one or two products for sale and you sell even one a day, you’re already on par with me, if you’re looking at this from an effort standpoint.

. . . .

I do not begrudge my peers their better sales, because they don’t need to fail for me to succeed. This revelation is deeply freeing, because it means I can be thrilled for their successes, and fine with my own more modest accomplishments.

So I am a very solid indie midlister author, who is over the moon when she sells more than five stories a day (of whatever length, in whatever format), and who will probably continue to be thrilled that way for some time to come. I can say that without upset because the profile of the indie midlister is very different from the profile of the trad midlister. For one, I don’t have to worry that I’m not earning enough to justify my next work being made available. If my book makes $10 in a year, no one is going to tell me, ‘sorry, you can’t put your next one up for sale because your last one didn’t do well enough.’ This is a particular relief, because the thresholds for success as a trad author are often painfully high. ‘If this book doesn’t make $40,000 this year, I’m sunk’ is kind of terrifying. I don’t have that fear. I can cheerfully make $10 a month for the rest of my life and the only thing that will happen is that I have $10 a month I wouldn’t have had before.

Plus, every book I sell is populating an algorithm (or ten) that will make it more likely that someone else will see it, and buy it. It’s not like the old death spiral, where every sale is meaningless and will contribute to fewer sales unless you hit a certain threshold. The more I write, and the more I sell, the more likely it is that I will continue to sell.

And here’s the best news of all: I don’t have to be a bestseller to make comfortable money. In the past, if I had wanted to stay home and write books full-time, I had to hope I could sell my books to thousands of people. Now, I can make good money selling to hundreds. And hundreds of people is do-able. It might take some time to get there—I put my first story up on Amazon in 2009, so I’m into year 5 here—but it can be done.

Link to the rest at M.C.A. Hogarth and thanks to Liana and others for the tip.

Here’s a link to M.C.A. Hogarth’s books

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80 Comments to “I Am an Indie Midlister (and That’s Okay)”

  1. ‘If this book doesn’t make $40,000 this year, I’m sunk’

    For me it’s always been, ‘Oh Thank God, people still haven’t figured out what a hack I am after reading my latest POS book.’

    Then the book makes back its production cost and I’m doing the running man.

  2. Great post! It’s so easy to feel like a “failure” when we read about the superstar indies who are making 7 figures. Thanks for the reminder that we each get to define success for ourselves. 🙂

    I remember living with constant fear & stress when I wrote for NY, under the ever-present threat of having an option book rejected or a contract canceled if my sell-through numbers “failed to meet expectations.” Now I set my own expectations — and whether I sell 1 book a day or 100 books a day, I get to keep writing. The freedom to write what we love is truly priceless.

    • Yeah… hearing from so many indies that they put up a book and now they’re making five digits a month can get awfully discouraging. :,

      • Thank you for this. I am a mid-lister as well, most of the time. On rare occasions, I’ve had bestseller status, but then revert to mid-lister. I keep thinking I should be doing better by now but I still keep plugging along.

        Anyway, I have a good friend who really needs to read your post. She’s a wonderful writer and has been getting very discouraged lately. She has more titles out than I do, but hasn’t yet had anything breakout. I will point her towards your blog and hope it helps her see that most of us are not selling hundreds of books a day.

      • I don’t have anything out yet. I find it both encouraging and discouraging at the same time. Sigh.

      • Oh, MCA, I am SO relieved to hear I’m not the only one who feels this way! Thank you for this post. It really puts things into perspective.

      • Thank you from me, too. I happily identify with being a mid-lister. And you just made me feel like whistling with glee even for my paltry sales this month, and I don’t even like to whistle.

  3. The range for “midlist indie author” seem pretty wide…

    • Interesting point. Makes me wonder if the term “midlist” is a misnomer when it comes to indies. Midlist for corporations meant authors who consistently delivered competent enough books they could print as mass market paperbacks and expect to make their investment back on, plus a tidy but not remarkable profit, all with minimal mainstream marketing. Front list, of course, was authors who commanded large advances and whose books were at least well marketed, with campaigns, if not outright events.

      But all indie authors are our own frontlist. If all indie authors are small presses whose list is (often) exclusively their own novels, then maybe there’s really no division. Maybe it’s all big new campaigns for new releases and then backlist (previous releases).

      So it seems like “midlist” has come to mean “mildly successful” as opposed to the “wildly successful” the media mostly focuses on when it comes to indie authors — or, really, any authors for that matter.

      Also, MCA — Another great, thought-provoking post.

      • Rusch’s definition of a midlist writer:

        The long-term mid-list writer. Here’s where the myths start coming in. There are a lot of us mid-list writers who make a full-time living at writing. And not just a small five-figure living, but a real honest-to-goodness six figure (or more) income year in and year out. Often, the long-term mid-list writer—a writer whose career has spanned decades—knows more about business and survival than anyone else in the publishing industry. We have to. Someday some of us might become bestselling writers. Some of us have chosen not to (believe it or not). And many of us will remain mid-list writers until the day we die. The mid-list writer may have had one or two bestsellers, but we don’t camp out on the bestseller list year in and year out. We might have books that sell a million copies, and books that sell 10,000 copies. And we might have them in the same year.

        • If you aren’t a “bestseller” (consistently has blockbusters like Patterson, Grisham, et al) then from a trad perspective, what other description is there other than midlist? Possibly debut author (someone who has released a single book and doesn’t have a history yet to put in one of the other categories). So, unless I’m missing something (very possible) you’re a midlist author if you aren’t consistently putting out blockbusters, but you still have a career.

        • Thanks Bill, great quote. This is what I always thought mid-list was/is. Solid earnings, good living. No one really knows who you are beyond your core readers.

        • And another one of her definitions (somewhat more lengthy, but good background here):

          Before we go any further, I need to define what a midlist writer really is. The midlist is a publishing term from Big Publishing that means “the middle of the list.” That doesn’t mean the writer is mediocre or that the writing isn’t as good as, say, Turow’s. What it means is exactly what it says.

          First of all, the titles are placed in the catalogue by month. So let’s assume that Kris’s Publishing Imprint’s Summer List covers June, July, and August. … The next thing you will see is a page marker that says “June.” Sometimes the image of a book is on that page as well. Sometimes not. It all depends on the design. The next two or four pages are dedicated to a single book. This book is the “top of the list,” the book that we at Kris’s Publishing Imprint hope will sell the most copies in the month of June. We will put the bulk of our June advertising dollars behind that novel.

          …The next page will showcase another novel. It will get fewer advertising dollars and probably no tour booking. Certainly no publicist and no shepherding. But we at Kris’s Publishing Imprint still have high hopes for this book, in fact so high that we hope to someday give future books by that author the same kind of spread the first book on the June list got.

          The next page has two half ads, which showcase two more books on our June list. They might be trades, they might be mass market originals, but they get what’s called “piggy-back” advertising. In other words, when we at Kris’s Publishing Imprint buy an ad for the second June novel, we’ll put pictures of these two books at the bottom of that ad with an “Also Available!” notice. And that’s about it.

          At the very back of the catalogue, you’ll find a page that says “Other Titles” separated out by month. In the June listing, you’ll find one or two books that don’t get any catalogue space at all. Often they’re tie-in novels or series novels by house names (bylines owned by the publishing house), and they generally get no promotion at all.

          That’s six books (which is probably one too many in this recession era), which make the list for June. That list is:

          1. Bestseller (or Wannabe Bestseller)
          2. High Hopes But Not a Bestseller Yet
          3. Familiar Name
          4. Familiar Name/Build
          5. Tie-In
          6. House Name/Series.

          What’s in the middle of that list? Why, it’s the two Familiar Name books. If you’re a fan of the genre in which this imprint specializes, then you’ve probably heard of Familiar Name even if you’ve never read her books. She’s well known, but often she’s an Advertising Bestseller (see the Bestselling Writer post for that definition) or an award-winner or someone with a long term career.
          – See more at: http://kriswrites.com/2010/12/29/the-business-rusch-midlist-writers-changing-times-part-11/#sthash.ltKjslTK.dpuf

      • I know the term doesn’t quite work for indies, but I call myself a baby midlister. I use it to say I’m not wildly successful and no one’s ever heard of me but I’m within spitting distance of making Konrath’s living wage. And like MCA, I sell a steady 5-10 copies a day with an occasional rare and wonderful spike… and sometimes I know where it comes from and sometimes I don’t.

      • Thank you!

        We’re having this discussion elsewhere about what ‘midlist’ means. To me, midlist always meant you make money, but not enough to live on (without a supportive spouse/family/roommates/etc). Not a super blockbuster star or anything. But I’m enjoying that framing the post this way has exposed that debate, and that people are now trying to figure out what these terms really mean, when you start looking at actual money/copies moved. 🙂

        • I think the term “mid-list” is like the term “middle-class”. Both are highly flexible terms, and can mean just about anything, depending on who is speaking and who is listening.

      • I should also point out that the actual origin of the term “midlist” was between “front list” and “back list.” It was never meant to refer to the group between the top earners and the bottom earners. (In fact, the bottom earners were always included in that group, at least in terms of their newest books. Old books are “backlist.”)

        With traditional publishing, the only books that don’t qualify for “midlist” status are those you don’t publish.

        • The funny thing is that in corporate publishing, backlist was the obscure, no longer really around titles. Having an extensive backlist likely meant mediocre sales with each marketing campaign more perfunctory than the one previous.

          In digital publishing, there are few things better than having an extensive backlist. Old books occupy the same shelves as new books, because there aren’t any shelves any more, just a crapton of books you might like.

          That’s pretty rad.

          • Yes, and that’s what the backlist meant in publishing before Barnes & Noble and Borders got hold of it. (Well, that and the Thor Power Tools decision, which made huge print runs for midlist books less profitable.)

            But up until the 1980s, backlist was gold.

            Now, with ebooks, suddenly it’s platinum.

  4. Thanks so much for writing this for those of us to whom 25 sales in a day would also occasion a happy dance and a bottle of (cheap) bubbly.

  5. I had to let this sink in:

    “… realize that to move 2-4 units a day, I had to have over 100 different products available for sale. If you have only one or two products for sale and you sell even one a day, you’re already on par with me.”

    Because I have seven products and I’m doing about 1.5 a day, so I feel a little better about what I’m doing.

    This gets more interesting when you do the math. If 2-4 per day is her average, say 3 a day, and she has 100 products, that would be about 300 sales a month. Her products range from .99 to six bucks, so let’s make the math easy and say she’s earning five bucks per sale (like I said, that’s high; use whatever you want).

    The means an income of 300×5=$1,500 a month, or $18K a year.

    Like I said, I have no idea how accurate this is, but it does give you an idea of how high the mountain is you have to climb to get up to a reasonable wage. (In my neck of the woods, with my budget, I would need between $25K-$30K, without factoring in the health care insurance for my family of four.)

    The metaphor I use is that with each product, I’ve created a golem that can go off and work while I’m busy making the next golem. Depending on the quality of your work, your covers, your marketing efforts, determine how much treasure your golems bring home.

    • I think that math would hold if I’d started out the year with the average of 2-4 a year, but I started in January with “Oh, I hope ONE thing moves today!”

      Every month, I get a little more traction. I’m only just at the point where I can expect daily sales, instead of just hoping for them, and my spikes are in the 15+ range instead of the 5+ range.

      Still, the fact that I have been getting traction, and that I’m moving upward every month, is hugely encouraging. I think, anyway. And if you feel better about what you’re doing, that’s even better! Your sell-through percentage is already better than mine. 😀 *high-fives*

      • With so much available, even just picking up a single person who loves what he or she reads and goes on a M.C.A. Hogarth reading binge could cause a noticeable spike in sales.

        • I can watch this happen, actually. Most days it’s pretty obvious when one person is moving through a particular setting’s books because my backmatter leads them to other books in that setting.

          This sometimes causes grief, as when people go from the mildest/sweetest books in a setting to the darkest/most violent ones. And I go “NOOOOOO DON’T GO FROM THE MILK AND COOKIES DIRECTLY TO THE BLOOD AND VODKA STOP SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE FIRST” >.>

          • NOOOOOO DON’T GO FROM THE MILK AND COOKIES DIRECTLY TO THE BLOOD AND VODKA STOP SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE FIRST

            lol

            I’m glad I’m not the only one who has that kind of range in their repertoire. I need a reading list that is dependent on which book they start with first.

      • Thanks! I’m glad you understand what I was getting at, trying to gain some perspective on sales and quantifying success.

    • Where I live (Australia) a minimal-wage would be US$55,000. A reasonable one would be US$70,000. We have high taxes and a ridiculous cost-of-living.

      Assuming $4 per book, I’d need to sell 40 books per day. Following the pattern of 100-books-for-3-sales-per-day I need to publish 1200 books for a livable wage.

      Yes, this is very feasible. *headdesk*.

      • Sophie,

        that’s not true. This is not a linear relationship. The books you have published feed each other, through the back matter, recommendations, fan lists and also-bots. And every new book pulls up the old ones.

        No need to despair. (Says she who has three books out…)

  6. Very interesting post. There are many measures of success, the first being fully confident that you gave your best efforts. She seems very grounded. Good attitude.

  7. I may be mistaken, but I believe she means 2-4 units total a day from all of her 100 books combined.

  8. Nice post. It helps us all maintain perspective.

    • Hugh Howey frequently reminds us that the biggest story in self-publishing is not the breakout million-sellers but the folks managing to make a living, buy a new car, or pay a bill. I think far more of us are in the pay-a-bill or buy-a pizza-ranges of indie income than the pay-the-mortgage or buy-a-house ranges. But we can see the light better earners shine on us as we head in their direction.

  9. Newbie Romance Writer

    I am one of the people who bought several of M.C.A. Hogarth’s books after reading the blog post here, and finding I liked her style. I had never heard of her before. Since I was on vacation in November, I glommed six books in short order.

    Right now as a writer I am in a similar league – with so far 5 romances and about 30 other products out there, all written in the last 18 months and completely self-edited, currently I earn about 20 to 25 bucks daily, on average, at least half from borrows rather than purchases. That’s all net gain, since I avoid any paid promotion. My most recent release had 186 pre-orders, which really pleased me, and the first review says they can’t wait for the sequel, which pleases me even more. But I don’t consider myself a midlister as yet; still in the larval stage, not yet a butterfly.

  10. I very much appreciate that you chose to share your numbers, MCA. That kind of sharing spirit is what I love most about indie authors.

    • ^^ This!! 🙂 I love the Indie world exactly because of this reason!

    • I would be less than honest if I said I only became brave enough to show my numbers very recently, because I was tired of hearing from people that my sales volume indicated failure. It’s only when I started wondering ‘failure by whose standards? And by what measurement?’ that I realized ‘wait, I sell books. I sell them every day. To strangers! Why isn’t that enough?’

      That was a very freeing revelation.

      Besides, we hear enough about the indie superstars who have The Magic and become overnight successes. It reminds me of how a lot of military SF is written about the officer corps. You rarely get epic, stirring stories about grunts in the trenches. I like stories about officers and I am gratified when they succeed! But I think surviving the literary trenches is also a good story. 🙂

      • Thanks very much for sharing this – for all the above reasons. I’m not doing your volume, but I haven’t got anything like your catalogue. (Only four books so far. More on the way, but some family matters must be taken care of first, alas.)

        Great success is, at least for the present, beyond my reach. Stories about small successes help to keep me going.

  11. Thanks for the candor and generosity, M.C.A. This is why I love this thing we’re doing: the standard for defining success is flexible, while the line for defining failure—when one can say he or she is not doing well and will never do better—is clear: quitting.

    Avoiding failure is simple. Just don’t give up.

    • The ‘don’t give up’ part can be almost impossibly hard, without people around you to say ‘hey, I’m in your boat with you.’ So here I am!

      • Indeed. And it’s very much appreciated that you’ve taken the time to do so.

      • The ‘don’t give up’ part can be almost impossibly hard, without people around you to say ‘hey, I’m in your boat with you.’

        Totally true. That’s another part where luck comes in. I’m realizing more and more that it was sheer and absolute luck that a reader who really liked my stories encountered them about 10 months after I published the first. I was getting more and more discouraged at the time (as I recall) and wondering if my stuff was as good as my first reader said it was. Having a total stranger – who happened to be super intelligent and articulate; and who had a blog where he reviewed his favorite books (mine among them) – was huge. It tided me over until the time – 6 months later – when total strangers started to buy my books regularly.

        I sell only 10 – 20 books per month (across 14 titles), but that is hugely better than selling 5 books some months and 0 books others, which is how it used to be. I look at it your way: these are total strangers choosing to buy and read my stories. That means something!

        M.C.A., thanks so much for sharing your numbers! Most of the indies actually sharing numbers are talking hundreds or even thousands of books per month. I’m cheering them on, but many of them say things along the lines of: if you aren’t selling at least a few hundred per month, you’re doing something wrong. While it’s nearly always true that one can improve something – covers, blurbs, a specific aspect of storytelling – that something is not necessarily what is stunting sales. Just sayin’. 😀

  12. Another great article. M.C.A., you’re going to spoil us. 🙂

  13. I loved this post! The real story of self-publishing is the success people are having at all levels, even if it’s the joy of making a work available and receiving one rave review or one fan email.

    The fact that writers are earning a living without being household names is something to marvel at and celebrate.

    • I see a lot of people discouraged by the Big Stories where someone puts up a book and then a few months later they’re making thousands of dollars in royalties every month. I’m happy for those people! But I think folks starting out look at that and then think ‘why am I only making $20 a month? I must suck.’

      I think my story makes a good counterpoint to all that. It’s taken me years to get to the point some people get to within months. I had many years of $25 months! But every month was a tiny bit better (for the most part), and the trend has been generally upward, and now finally I feel like I’m at the point where at least some of it is self-sustaining.

      I am always trying new things, to see if any of it helps with that process. But as I’m dogging my way up the hill, I wanted to say ‘hey, look! You’re not the only one without the rocket-powered boots. But we can still get there.’ 🙂

  14. Wonderful post! Most encouraging as I keep plugging away. I don’t have very much out and not much sales. I have to get more stuff out. I love your covers by the way!

  15. Thanks for sharing, M.C.A., and your art is wonderful!

    I’m amazed at your volume of works. Wow!

    I noticed that only one of your titles is in Kindle Unlimited. Does that mean your books are selling well on the other stores?

    • I’ve dipped my toes in the KU pool and not had tremendous success with it, so right now the only book I’ve got there is a children’s book (I believe), since I figured parents are more likely to rent e-books for growing children than buying them (this is how I do it, anyway, for my child–so far, though, no luck).

      I’ll probably try KU again next year in Q1 when I simul-release an entire fantasy trilogy. We’ll see how I feel about the market then. 🙂

  16. Thanks for sharing your experience M.C.A. I love to hear author stories and see that love for what they are doing. Sometimes we get caught up *just* in the business aspect of it.

  17. This is a great article. It turned my gloom into happiness. I looked up my sales record for 2013 and it turned out I sold an average of one book a day. With only eight books available. In 2014 I added two more, giving me ten, and selling 1-1/2 books a day. I plan to add a minimum of three more books by January. If this works out like MCA’s results, I can do even better. Self publishing is awesome.

  18. “I do not begrudge my peers their better sales, because they don’t need to fail for me to succeed.”

    I love your attitude!

  19. Great and very encouraging post, M.C.A. Thanks for this.

  20. If I didn’t already like MCA from her forum contributions, I’d love her for the genuineness and honesty of this post. Go and sell even more, lady! (Sea creatures? hahah)

  21. “And here’s the best news of all: I don’t have to be a bestseller to make comfortable money.”

    To me, this quote is what makes being an indie so wonderful. It’s great to read about the big names, but not everyone is going to be a best-seller. And with this new publishing model, being a mid-list writer is not only achievable, but can be so thrilling and satisfying.

    Thanks for sharing this, MCA. I need to get to my writing so I can build my catalog.

    • I think the adjustment for us as we figure out that we don’t have to strive for popularity in order to put food in our mouths is going to be painful. But the more people we have admitting ‘you know, I’m not a household name and I still make comfortable money,’ the easier it will get.

  22. Thanks so much M.C.A., and everyone else who’s sharing numbers. It does get discouraging reading the big success stories and then looking at my numbers and wondering where I’m really at.

    Right now my numbers are all over the board… I’ve got three paid titles out and couple of freebies… In October, when my latest release came out, I moved over 150 books. So far in December: 10. It feels like a roller coaster sometimes, but readers seem to like what I’m doing, the averages are slowly rising, and like M.C.A. said, there’s no pressure to sell 40,000 copies to prove to someone that I’m worth another contract.

    I love being indie.

    • 150 books is awesome! 😀

      But boy you’re right about the roller coaster. October felt like I smashed into a wall. And then November skyrocketed until I felt like I was going to break my head on the moon. o_o

      • What really surprised me was that the new release was number 2 in a series, and over a third of the books I sold in October were Book 1–and that’s way more copies than I usually sell. I knew that putting out another book in the series would probably give the previous volume a boost, but I wasn’t expecting that much of a boost!

  23. MCA, would you be willing to estimate (to the nearest half-million or so) how many words your available work constitutes?

  24. You are a beautiful, generous person. Thank you for being who you are.

  25. Thanks for sharing these numbers, MCA.

    Like many here others, I used to get a bit down after reading of overnight success stories. It’s nice to see that my own case is quite normal.

    Thanks for being so brave!

  26. So does she mean 2-4 total per day (about $4,000 per year) or 2-4 median per novel (~$25,000 per year), or 2-4 per title per day ($100k plus)?

    Seems like the first, which I’m not sure qualifies for midlist. Midlist imo connotes earning a working to mid class income.

    • I mean 2-4 per day, yes. Total! But I do get those spikes. And I started out the year selling very few books a month, and now I’m up to respectable amounts. By my standards, anyway. 🙂

    • That’s one of the very few definitions mentioned here that midlist has never denoted. Most trad pub midlisters have day jobs. Not all, granted, but most. There’s a reason trad editors always said don’t write for money.

  27. MCA thanks for such an honest and open post. Keep selling 🙂

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