Accounting for authors (how to keep track of book sales, even if you hate math)

Accounting for authors (how to keep track of book sales, even if you hate math)

A friend of mine just published a book on accounting for authors and my response was “I can barely make words go; I’m not ready to math.”

But that’s partly why, it’s important to make your life easier, especially if you hate spreadsheets and numbers. I was actually pretty good at math in high school, but now I use a computer for everything.

And of course it’s a Lot Of Fun to see actually book sales and try to make the green lines and graphs go up. So here’s a quick primer of how to manage your author business *just enough* to make sure you’re actually profitable.

How to make money with book sales

First things first: most authors say they aren’t in it for the money and will be happy if just one person reads their book. I believe that’s a self-defense mechanism. It’s also baked-into a core creative ideology that “good art” is not the same as “what people like” – aka, popular or commercial fiction. So they separate from reality and can maintain the faith that their book is great even when it doesn’t sell.

This might protect their pride or egos or artistic sensibilities a little, but nobody writes a book and is then content with meager sales. So they spend money on advertising and promotion but it’s a black hole of indifference, and wasted effort.

The crucial thing to remember is that what can be tracked, can be improved. You need to see which of your efforts are paying off enough to keep doing them. Some things are necessary to get right, like cover, blurb and reviews – the basics that most authors screw up – but after that you need to cut costs and focus on the big wins, which are going to be:

1. advertising
2. content marketing

The first, you need to break even quickly, though sometimes you can scale up and then turn off ads and let it run for awhile. The second takes time to build but may pay off later (evergreen traffic, without buying it).

Keeping track of it all

Amazon/KDP does have a not terrible interface that’s gotten a *little* better but still isn’t that great, for seeing all your sales. For years I’ve preferred Book Report because it looks nice and I can check in daily and see how I’m doing.

If you publish wide on multiple platforms, you can check out Scribe Count which is similar to Book Report but with more options and stores available – if you’re using Draft2Digital to publish wide, they have their own reporting, but sometimes it’s nice to put it all in one program with a nice dashboard.

Budgets and spending

Those tools make it easier to see sales, but not spending: I recommend, if you can, having one dedicated credit card to all your book and publishing stuff, and if possible, focus all your book sale profits into the same place (a separate, linked bank account you use to pay off your card every month).

THEN I’d use Mint. You can add all your cards and accounts, even your PayPal, and it will keep track off all your spending and income. I don’t check it often but it’s great when I want to see where all my money is going and see all my activity in the same place.

Am I doing all this stuff? Not quite – I’m a mess. But I love the idea of breaking even with ads, spending a fortune on credit cards and earning flight miles for unlimited travel, while my books are bestsellers, even if there’s not actually much profit. That can only happen if I’m breaking even, which is harder than it sounds, but I’m getting pretty close even with my unfinished series and expect to get there.

Advanced stuff

Do you need to copyright your book? No, not really.

Should you register an LLC? Eventually, once you’re in profit, it’s not a bad idea.
For now, I’d just try to find a way to organize.

I’m too broke to publish, should I use kickstarter?

I’m a huge supporter of publishing on the cheap, and avoiding predatory vanity presses, which is mainly what I talk about here. People who want to crowdfund their publishing are usually already talking with a vanity press and just need “a few thousand dollars” to publish (or give that money away to a company that is not going to give you good enough work).

So, despite the fact that kickstarter can be amazing for established authors with a platform, it’s not in itself good for platform-building; nor will it help fix any core, critical issues like: your book doesn’t have a hook, an audience, a purpose, a great cover… in short, a kickstarter campaign has its uses, but most of them are a lot of work with very little profit – and you’ll be doing it instead of other, more important things.

Books and resources

Here are a few curated options on running an author business.

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