Randall Wood

Lee Child and Measuring Success.

happy girl

                                                                                                                Via: Flickr

A few weeks ago Lee Child was brave enough to stick his head into the lions mouth of the indie world. First he appeared on The Passive Voice. This is a courageous thing in itself and not to be taken lightly. Lee put himself before a crowd who he knew was going to be confrontational to say the least, and he endured quite a bit of trade-pub bashing while trying to have an honest debate. I have to commend him for that. Then, a few days later, he appeared in an email exchange with Joe Konrath, who then published the exchange on his blog with open comments. In both of these conversations they discuss their individual success.

One of them makes millions per book and is treated like royalty by his publisher. The other is Joe.

But Joe has not done too bad at all. His sales were enough to make him a millionaire last year. Not too shabby, but by Lee’s numbers he would be a failure. Lee and Joe obviously have different opinions about what success is.

Hugh Howey has said several times that the Indie Authors who have hit it big are not the real story. The real story is the one that gets little press. The real story is the number of authors that are now making a living by self-publishing their own work. Where a mid-list author used to have to work a day job to supplement his writing, that’s no longer the case. Now that same mid-lister, (especially if they have a healthy backlist that they’ve retrieved their rights to) can make a good living writing and self-publishing their work. The new authors that can afford to quit their day jobs to write full time are also in this boat. They can do what they love and make a living at it. Most would call that success.

Now try to put a number to that. What dollar amount does the average person require to be deemed successful? I’m not referring to their own individual definition. What’s the number for the majority?

Back in 2010 a group of Princeton researchers tried to put a figure on this.

They called it the Happiness Cap. They placed a figure of $75,000 a year on it.

They pointed out that there were two kinds of happiness. A person had a day-to-day mood, changing with several factors and several outside stimuli. My coffee is cold, its Monday, my job sucks, it’s been raining for six days, etc. Then they point out a more measurable happiness, one defined as a deeper satisfaction with the way their life was progressing. This is where the figure of $75,000 seemed to take hold.

From the article:

So, where does the $75,000 come into play? Researchers found that having a lower income did not cause sadness itself but made people feel more ground down by the problems they already had. The study found, for example, that among divorced people, about 51% who made less than $1,000 a month reported feeling sad or stressed the previous day, while only 24% of those earning more than $3,000 a month reported similar feelings. Among people with asthma, 41% of low earners reported feeling unhappy, compared with about 22% of the wealthier group. Having money clearly takes the sting out of adversities.


At $75,000, that effect disappears. For people who earn that much or more, individual temperament and life circumstances have much more sway over their lightness of heart than money. The study doesn’t say why $75,000 is the benchmark, but “it does seem to me a plausible number at which people would think money is not an issue,” says Deaton. At that level, people probably have enough expendable cash to do things that make them feel good, like going out with friends. (The federal poverty level for a family of four, by the way, is $22,050.)

So, how does this relate to Self-Published authors? Simple really. With advances from the Big Five publishers dropping to an average of $5,000 per book, and the contracts almost guaranteeing the book will not earn out (unless it’s a runaway hit), you would need to land 15 publishing contracts to make $75,000 worth of advances. (Actually you’d need 15% more than that because your agent would get a cut, but that’s another post) Since most books take months if not years of querying agents and then more months/years of submission to publishers, who, if the book is signed to a contract, take 12 to 18 months to then publish it, the chances of reaching $75,000/year income is very small.


But the self-publishing author can skip all of this. They can publish without the wait, without the agent, without the publisher and the minuscule advance, and go directly to the reader. They start earning 70% of list price as soon as their book hits the virtual shelves.

Let’s take an average book price for a self-published author; $4.99.

A book priced at $4.99 earns a royalty (for lack of a better word) of $3.50 per sale.

$75,000 / 3.5 = 21,428 books per year. That’s 58 books a day. A fairly high number for a beginning author, but not out of reach.

But the self-published author can write and publish as fast and as often as they wish. So let’s increase the number of books published to three. Now they only have to move 7,142 of each book a year. 20 a day. Much easier.

And the more they write the easier it gets. The more books they have out there the less of each one they have to sell each day. These books are passive income, they earn money without the author having to do anything. This leaves them free to write the next book and the next book and the one after that, perpetuating the cycle and making it grow.

All while sitting at a desk in their pajamas, working for themselves.

Lee Child makes millions per book and most would call him a success. Many indie authors are making over $75,000 a year and quitting their jobs. Are they not a success as well? I bet if someone were to ask them they would respond with a smile and a YES.

I would say they are just as successful as Lee.

Oh, and happy too. Mustn’t forget that.


5 thoughts on “Lee Child and Measuring Success.”

  1. Measuring it from a business perspective, you’re successful if you can “pay yourself a living wage” from your profits, and then some. That takes a lot less than $75,000 for people with a low cost of living.

    Another way to look at success and failure: for a big publisher, a book that can’t move 5,000 copies is a failure. If I sell 4,000 copies each of five books a year, though, I’ve almost hit that $75,000 a year number. The two business models are leagues apart.

    Randall, you and I will live to see the day when the Stephen Kings and Nora Roberts of the publishing world can no longer ignore the math staring them down. There’s a BIG difference between 75% and 17.5% royalties. The “B” replacing the “M” in “millions” kind of difference. (The study you’re citing actually explains why they haven’t jumped ship yet, though.)

  2. Very true, Jim,

    On the other hand, when you reach the success level of a Lee Child or Stephen King you basically become your own publisher. I’m sure they can pretty much dictate their own terms up to a point. If the publishing houses ever do go under they can simply hire a group of ex-employees and just do it themselves. I think the key will be print distribution, once that is overcome by the changes happening there will really be little reason for them to stay with them.

    Here’s a thought; What if your name is James Patterson and you already have your own “publishing machine” up and running. Now your publisher is screwing up your sales by arguing with the biggest distributor. Despite all of his bluster he’s had to of thought, at least once, could I do this better myself?

    If I were Lee Child I think I would make an effort to meet a few of the younger and more tech savvy people at my publisher next time I visited them. Get their names and contact info and start building a plan B, even if it was on the back of a bar napkin. As they say in business, when a disruption hits a business the rate of that disruption increases exponentially every year. The smart guys are already thinking about it. The others with their heads in the sand…its going to hit them hard.

    1. I think it’s going to be a long time before big pub’s mistakes are going to trickle down to authors in the Lee Child and Stephen King brackets. And although it would be smart–and I believe these two guys in particular have no lack of smarts–they won’t be indie-pubbing until they don’t think of us as what their publishers scrape off the bottom of their shoes.

      That said, speed the day! Can’t wait until an author SO big jumps a BPH ship that people like Mike Shatzkin won’t be able to pooh-pooh it.

  3. There is also something that my financial planner calls “Economic Freedom.” He defines it as having enough assets (not counting house) so that if you never earn another penny in your life, you’ll be okay. As a dentist, I’m not there yet. As a writer, I don’t know if I’ll ever get anywhere near it. Can the “mid-listers” who are making ends meet via self-publishing become economically free? There’s a difference between making ends meet and having a solid financial future extending, I suppose, up until the moment of your death. I’m sure Joe Konrath and Hugh Howey and many others have already achieved this by self-publishing. I hope it becomes more common… King and Patterson and Preston and Child don’t need any more of readers’ money, but readers want what they have to offer. I hope at some point they offer it at a price that doesn’t mean that the only book one buys “this month” is one of theirs…

    1. Very true. I’m sure that economic freedom number will be different for every author out there. In my experience the ones who know it going in will be the ones who do well. Take Hugh for example. Here’s a guy who worked for some very rich people at the top of his profession. He saw the life they lived and chose not to aspire to it. When he did make it big he moved to a SMALLER house. That’s when I really started listening to what he had to say. It told me he had his priorities figured out. Some will never have enough, some already do, for others its so close they can taste it (raises hand). I hope we hear more stories from the ones who get where they want to be. Being “economically free” as well as “creatively free” is just the perfect world for most midlisters, this one included.

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