So, I know a lot of you here reading are indie publishers like me. There’s a LOT of great things to say about being an independent published author and I’m sure I’ve covered it in depth.

However, I wanted to highlight something that most of us independent authors will never really see, and that traditional published authors may. 

To do this, I’m going to focus on a huge new release by Xiran Jay Zhao – Iron Widow. For those that don’t know, Iron Widow is pitched as “Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this blend of Chinese history and mecha science fiction for YA readers.”

The Debut

This work has done incredibly well. How well, you ask? Well, here’s a small picture…

 That’s right. Number one of the hardcover list for the New York Times. Now, let me be clear – the NYT cherry picks its results. Just because you sell well, it doesn’t mean you will end up on this list. 

It’s also Young Adult, which trends more heavily towards hardcover / paperbacks than other genres. 

She’s also a bestseller in Amazon USA (still, 9 days after release) and has a rank of 1948 on So, she’s doing well in ebook sales too. 817 on Audio is pretty nice as well, obviously. 

What Does It Mean?

Well, to hit a NYT bestseller list, you need anywhere from 5-10,000 books sold in a week. That, by the way, is just to HIT the list. Now, she’s on a sub-list, but she’s also number 1 on that list, so we’ve got to assume she’s selling at least 10000 such books.

With, it’s easier. At 1948 rank, she’s selling around 90 (ebooks) a day.

All in, knowing this, we can easily estimate that in her first week, and assuming she has a standardish contract; the NYT bestelling hardcover has earned a minimum of $22.5k. She’s also sold a minimum of 800 ebooks (Hah! Minimum for sure since there’s often a VERY steep drop), which probably means another $2.2k. I’m not going to estimate audiobooks because how much she earned will vary a LOT depending if the audiobook is done in-house or it was sub-contracted out. Either case, she’s made at least US$25,000 in one week.

This is, obviously, a guesstimate.

Being on the NYT bestseller list will push sales up, it will help overall sales as even more bookstores sell her work which will result in even higher royalties.

And this is all for one book.

To get an idea of how big a difference the higher selling price of a hardcover earning is, realise that even though my A Thousand Li books have debuted very high (under top 100 on list; generally my income (from ebooks and paperbacks) within a month is under half of what she did in a week. 

But She’s a Social Media Powerhouse

Undoubtedly. Xiran has nearly 77k followers on Twitter. She has an incredibly popular Youtube channel with 334k followers. She has had at least one viral TikTok with over a million views.

Those are numbers that most authors would kill for and Xiran is VERY good at working social media. So a lot of this success is surely hers.

However, the ability to print over 10,000 hardcover copies of a book, get them into bookstores all across the US and still have more so that the book can keep selling? That’s very much a trad pub thing.

I know of NO independent author who can afford to run a risk like that. Even the biggest indie author I know who has done print work does it via Kickstarter to allay the cost and risk. 

For that matter, the infrastructure and logistics to handle all these printings, all the shipping, the enquiries by bookstores and libraries on the backend – that’s all trad pub. 

And don’t forget, this is a YA book. They are going to heavily lean into hardcover and paperback. 

Let’s not forget she also simultaneously released her audiobook too, so they are riding on that new release energy. Simultaneous releases are doable by indies, but it’s hard. We have to hold back a book that we could be making money on, for what sometimes seems to be only marginal increases in sales.

Slow Releases, but Huge Stakes

Slow release (a book a year or two) is where  a frontlist driven trad pub does well for an author. Look at those numbers up there and realise that if they had guessed right (or heck, even not); Xiran would likely have a $25-50k advance per book. Asssuming she got, say a $50k advance (not unusual for YA still); that means she’s earning at least $50k per year (assuming we call it once a year. I think it actually took 1 1/2 years to come out). 

Anyway, that’s pretty nice for an advance for 1 book. Most indie authors would kill for sales from 1 book for that in a lifetime.

This is where trad pub really excels – at the top-end. The biggest trad pub authors do really well with great sales at the higher end, because they sell books higher, because they afford to put out books for people to grab.

If you sometimes wonder why Brandon Sanderson or Stephen King or the like don’t go indie? This is why.

Indies need lower (much lower) sales to hit that same $50k revenue. We also bank on a larger number of works, all of which keep selling (trad pub is horrible at backlist. Like seriously horrible – but potentially getting better) and earning.

However, we have much higher cost. We pay for our own editors, we pay for our audiobook producers (mostly – unless you sign away rights), we pay for cover designs and marketing and all that jazz. That $50k gross is often dropped, because for trad pub authors, those numbers I give (outside of the 15% agent fee) is theirs

So, trad pub has its own game, its own power. What they do well, when it works out blows indies out of the water, every time. 

However, that brass ring? It’s really, really hard to grab. 

PS: I haven’t even mentioned things like foreign translation rights which definitely have sold, reprints, options for TV & Movie, etc.

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