How Much Money Is In the Self-Publishing Game?


I have a good friend who is a big-time business guy. One of his pet sayings is, “Data drives decisions.” In a bottom-line world, you can’t depend on sentiment, heart, hope, dreams or desire. Those all may factor into starting a business. But if the business is not making a profit, and you have hard data showing you why, you either change course or go under.

Does “data drives decisions” have any quantifiable purchase in the world of book publishing? When I became a published writer, having come out of a background in both law and business, I looked at the industry from a writer’s perspective and said to myself, “This shouldn’t be called a business at all. There are too many variables and quirks outside of anyone’s control. There is no way to reach an assurance level on ROI (return on investment). This is more like craps.”
Publishers are more in line with business practices, but even they cannot escape the gaming analogy. I mean, look at the wild 1990’s in publishing and the crazy money being thrown around, and what was happening? Publishers rolling the dice and occasionally coming up with seven. But more often than not it was snake-eyes, and books they thought would be sure hits were flops. Occasionally a book that had minimal support shot up to huge popularity. When other publishers tried to replicate that, it usually didn’t work.
I think the phrase, “What’s up with that?” started in a Manhattan conference room during those years.
Now we have entered a new world where the rules of the game are even murkier. Everyone’s trying to figure out what works. And what data to analyze.
Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest conducted a 2013 survey of authors to try to get at some answers. The survey asked the writers to identify as Aspiring, Self-Published, Traditionally Published, or Hybrid. One part of the survey took a look at how much money writers in each category are making. Predictably, the hybrids are doing the best vis-a-vis annual income. The income stream is analyzed by Dana Beth Weinberg over at the DBW site. I commend the article andthe comments to you. A couple of pull-outs:
The survey results show that hybrid [authors are] achieving greater success with their self-publishing efforts than…authors who only self-publish, but they don’t tell us why.
This is probably immune to precision. There are so many factors that are not replicable, and the landscape changes almost weekly. But there are clues:
Perhaps the greater focus on earning income among hybrid authors or their experience in traditional publishing leads them to make more strategic decisions about what to self-publish, how to bring it to market, and how to promote it.
This is undoubtedly so. The more you approach this game with a strategy, the better your odds of making some bank. Perhaps a more suitable analogy is blackjack. If you know the fundamentals you can almost draw even with the house. If you know how to count cards, you can improve your chances significantly. Which is why if they catch you counting cards in a casino, Sal escorts you out.
Or perhaps [hybrid authors’] greater success is the result of little more than the name-recognition boost that comes with having a brand developed in the traditional publishing world.
I would say there is more to it: the ability to write, proven over time.
Or maybe their success is a matter of selection: The hybrid authors surveyed were good enough to break into traditional publishing due on average to some greater talent or marketability that also translates well into the world of self-publishing.
I wouldn’t make any claims about talent, but I have worked hard on my craft from day one. When self-publishing became a viable option, I do think I’d reached a certain professional level I could depend on.
For authors deciding how to publish their work, the key question is this: Is there some set of practices that any author might adopt to improve chances of gaining readers and income from self-publishing, or are there advantages related to being a traditionally published author that might remain out of reach for the vast majority of self-published authors?
After a year-and-a-half into my own self-publishing journey, seeing not only what worked for me but also a number of colleagues, I set down what I saw as the key

principles, and came up with 5 absolutely unbreakable laws. I stand by them. They are the foundation for creating your own “set of practices” for self-publishing success. 

For example, the primary law is, “Write the Best Book You Can.” The set of practices you design to make it so might involve craft study, writing, feedback, writing, finishing, revision, craft study, coffee, more writing. Plans are unique, but the writer who pursues a strategic and thought-out approach to getting better is more likely to win in the end. 

The data from the DBW/WD survey also gives a realistic snapshot of what kind of winnings writers might expect. Big returns are rare but they do exist. This is, not surprisingly, what the entire world of free enterprise is like. Boffo successes are always fewer than tanks, near-misses and modest returns.
I would also remind writers of two axioms from the world of business:
Quality is Job #1.
Your mileage may vary.

Remember those two things. The first will keep your priorities straight and the second will keep you sane. And keep writing, because you won’t win if you don’t play.

32 thoughts on “How Much Money Is In the Self-Publishing Game?

  1. I always appreciate your taking the time to help writers make sense out of this crazy industry. Thanks for the tips, as always.

    BK Jackson

  2. Not much to argue with here, Jim. Writing the best book you can will always be the foundation for possible success in the publishing business. My co-writer and I are hybrid authors. We decided to try the indie-publishing route with our last book THE BLADE, and recently finalized a 3-book deal with a traditional publisher. In both cases we stand to make money. Returning to the traditional model I realized a big difference between the two is the all-powerful deadline, something few self-published authors contend with unless they have the discipline to self-impose one. Now I’m back to producing a daily word-count because I have no choice–there’s a contract and money involved. But that’s also a key element to writing success–commitment.

    • You’re right about the deadline thing, Joe. A self-publishing writer needs a SID (self imposed deadline). It’s easy to go soft on that score. Congrats on the new contract.

  3. While I might sound like an old grump, I would have thought the first law was to write a book about the five unbreakable laws and then sell it to every wannabe author? πŸ˜‰
    I was tempted to buy the book, though, if only to confirm that it’s another list of necessary conditions–there are no sufficient conditions (silver bullets, if you will). Writing a great story is not even sufficient anymore–never was, I guess, but today even more so. I don’t see the business as craps or a card game. I see it as playing the lottery, so your best tactic is to keep your costs low (ebook self-pubbing) except for your time you put into writing and PR and marketing. That’s my rule–and you all have it for free, not $0.60 ($3/5). πŸ™‚

  4. I read this survey when someone posted it on FB and found it very interesting.

    I think the answer on hybrid success is all of the above. They do have name recognition and while that is no guarantee, if it gets you the click, you’re already ahead of the game. Hybrids have also been through the editorial mill and should (hopefully) be less likely to send something half-baked into the world.

    Also, in the survey, I’m sure the sample pool of hybrids was smaller over pure self-pubbed so there was a smaller distribution.

    Another key, at least for the hybrids I know, is a willingness to engage and leveraging their trad publishing to build a network. First with other like-minded authors and then with readers/fans. I follow/friends with at least a dozen and enjoy it thoroughly. In between erudite and amusing discussions on writing and the industry are subtle promos about the books. They also genuinely love what they do and while often critical of the industry, the criticism is more chiding and is based on true knowledge and they never ever (ever) slam other writers.

    I am more likely to buy based on the familiarity and pre-existing relationship. I would like to think when my time comes I will be welcomed into the mix.

    I find those with some trad experience are generally more interesting, as opposed to some noob self-pubbers that post stuff like, “So what’s you favorite character in my new book? You have bought my book, haven’t you? If not, you should buy my book because then you’d have a favorite character.”

    All in all, the difference between dealing with a pro and an amateur is going to reap results for the pro.

    Just my 2.62 cents (adjusted for inflation) Terri

  5. My new mantra that I posted at DBW regarding that survey is: I was going to write a comment but it doesn’t sell books.

    And I really wish someone would remember I coined ‘hybrid’ author in a blog post in June 2011. It’s still there.

  6. Jim, I think you nailed the biggest issue for self-publishers when you described it as a business-that’s not the approach that most new writers appear to be taking. The mindset that I see in evidence most is a ‘if I build it, they will come’ attitude. The thoughtful reply would be, “Well, maybe . . . “

    I think the primary business advantage that the traditionally published author has is that he or she has been through the phases of agent seeking (sales), contract negotiations, and performance on the contracts. Each step reinforces the fact that this is a business and leaves the author with a very different perspective of the industry.

    I wonder how many authors are able to look at the novel that they have slaved over, loved, and sacrificed for and step back to ask the necessary business questions. Who will read it? (Hint, it’s not everybody!) How do you find them? Are there enough of them to make it profitable? How are you calculating profitability? By the initial offering or by the year or decade? By each product in the product line?

    And patience really is a virtue. Traditionally published authors aren’t usually selling their first story. Then they go through a development process even after they do sell their sixth novel, the one that didn’t get rejected out of hand.

    Self-published authors tend to forget a first story is just that-the first. The odds of making a killing on a single story is akin to hitting it big at roulette on a bent wheel. Getting the next story out and making it better than the first one should be key. And then the third, fourth, fifth.

    And now the caveat-I’m that very newbie writer who’s self-publishing. So take everything with a large grain of salt and add one bathtub margarita.

    And save me a seat at that roulette table, would you?

  7. Hi Paul,
    Don’t let me discourage you! In spite of what Terri says, after 14 books (all fiction–I reserve my wisdom on writing for blog posts and comments), I don’t consider that I’m an amateur, so I can say that if writing is in your blood, playing the lottery will be required to feed your passion. Your last sentence says it all…just keep writing!

  8. I would still say that prepublished authors should make every effort to get their work published in some way before going indie. I think it helps build an audience and brand. Many new authors publish first in an anthology, and go from there. I would also say that one has to be prepared to go years without earning a good income from the writing. Many published authors have years when they’re earning the equivalent of minimum wage. It’s a good idea to have a successful, supportive spouse during the lean years! πŸ™‚

    • Agree entirely, Kathryn, about the need to go through the “grinder.” It’s hard for purely self-publishing writers to do that, but one of the systems they can set up is one that sort of replicates the it. They will be glad they did.

    • Certainly helps to have the spouse there as publishing requires patience, patience, patience…and hard work. I do think all too often some writers put their work out there without going through that ‘grinder’.

  9. I second your last line, Kathryn. My wife has been more than understanding.
    BTW, I tried the traditional route. After > 1000 rejections and several agents wanting to read the MS and then sit on it for months, I decide to hop on the self-publishing train with POD. That became too expensive, so now I just do ebooks. I’ll probably regret that eventually (hard to sign ebooks at a bookstore or book fair, for example), but it allows me to keep costs at a minimum. PR and marketing just costs me time, which I steal from the writing, of course.

  10. I read the article earlier this week, and I appreciate your views on it. I especially enjoyed the writing business being more like a crap shoot, and the two axioms from the world of business. Oh, and the reminder to stay at the gaming table. I’ve been reading different takes on self-publishing for about five years now, and joined the self-published last year. Over the last year I’ve gone from expectant, to frustrated, to confused, to accepting. There aren’t any guarantees in life, and certainly not in publishing (Be it traditional or self-published. At the same I time I self-published two of my friends published with small presses. They didn’t have amazingly different results, either. And I know one of the books was very good.) The one thing we (as writers) have control over is writing better and writing more. And then we just have to stay sane doing it! πŸ™‚

    • “Over the last year I’ve gone from expectant, to frustrated, to confused, to accepting.”

      LOL, that almost sounds like the four stages of grief….but very wise, Lara. Control of the writing is most important, and actually writing keeps us ahead of the “waves of doubt” (that’s Stephen King’s phrase).

  11. I’ve mentioned my friend before who is my hero. She writes 40K-50K romances, always in themed trilogies. She self-pubs and I think she is up to 6 series.

    With very little training and experience, she has tapped into a small, dedicated reader pool and she does it with her charming self-effacing online presence. Excerpts from her WIPs, cover art, and her bubbly enthusiasm is what you get when you meet her on-line.

    From what she has told me, she would likely fall on the high end of 4-figures for annual self-pubbed earnings. She will never go blockbuster, but could potentially be picked up by a romance line.

    As far as I am concerned, when it comes to self-pubbing, she is doing it right.

  12. Thanks for a great post as always Jim. My plan is to be a hybrid author (without the two heads and tentacles…). In 2014 I have the new Ursula coming out and also have MS out on submission to traditional publishers and finalising others. I like the flexibility the new industry provides but it still feels like a game of roulette sometimes!

  13. You’re always encourage me so much, Mr. Bell! I’ve had several short stories published, which I consider quite a respectable grinder, editorially speaking. I self-pubbed a novel last month and have had a nice trickle of sales, and I’m hard at work revising book 2. I don’t have an editor, per se, but I’ve got a great critique group and an editing partner, and we’re all studying the craft like mad. Two ladies have written some decent Amazon best sellers, so something is working!

    Mostly I’m writing because I love it. I wrote fanfiction for years, and never made a dime. I know I won’t make any money off these books for some time, but as long as someone out there enjoys them, I’m content. πŸ™‚

  14. The independent/hybrid authors selling well are the writer’s who understand and have endured the slush pile. They’re the writers who’ve never given up, who keep learning how to use every tool in the writer’s tool box – not just using their favourite tools – but work hard to master every single one. They also understand patience and perseverance. And understand that life isn’t always ‘fair’.

    They never moan or complain – they keep writing – and when they find readers who love the work, they write for them.

    It’s happened to me this year. I write romance. My readers set up their own FB group to talk about the characters they love and run their own competitions. They are rabid fans of the series. You see, it’s not about Me. It’s about the characters and how readers have connected with them. My job is to keep writing, hopefully thrilling and surprising the reader and never letting them down.

    If I can do that, I’m a happy woman.

    And James, your how-to books are dog-eared and marked and abused.

    Thank you.

  15. Interesting discussion!

    I commend the study author for taking on this project, and I do realize that it’s a work-in-progress and prone to the same growing pains that any WIP is. I absolutely agree that WRITING a good book should be the first priority for all writers. Those statements aside, I have a few nagging thoughts about the survey results and how they’ve been reported.

    There are likely a number of unidentified/not thoroughly discussed reasons why hybrid authors appear to be selling more books than are self-published authors (based on the results of this study).

    First, as Terri Lynn Coop pointed out, the sample size of hybrid authors is far too limited to make a judgment that’s statistically sound. What was the statistical significance of the comparative differences that are cited in the survey results? If there is no statistically significant difference, then the difference is meaningless.

    Secondly, backlist publishing probably may have a great deal to do with the publications/sales figures for hybrid authors. Dissatisfied that their books were “out of print,” many have regained rights to old works and republished them. There’s no breakdown in the survey that distinguishes backlist republications from newly published works. If we take that into consideration and remove the republished backlist books, would hybrid authors (even if the sample size were larger) truly be publishing and selling a greater number of NEW books than are self-publishers? Without a breakdown, we simply cannot know.

    Now that I’ve stirred THAT pot, I want to end on a positive note. Writing a good book is hard work, and getting one published is hard work, no matter what route an author takes. Whether one type of author is publishing or selling more books than another type is only interesting if one is tracking trends. Do I really care if one kind of author prevails over another in the number of books s/he’s publishing/selling? Absolutely not. I’m thrilled that ANY author is publishing/selling books because that means readers are buying books. That’s a win-win for authors and readers alike, and this world could use a lot more win-win!

    Thanks for opening up this discussion and reminding us (sometimes relentlessly) to stay focused on writing books that engage readers.

    Morgen Rich

  16. Here’s something no one has mentioned: assuming a writer knows how to write, and how to follow good advice, the best way to improve the odds of succeeding as a writer is to gain the interest of someone who is influential in publishing (both digital and print). It’s not easy to do, because such people are understandably wary of writers. But if a writer does gain the interest and sympathy of a publishing known quantity, there is no way to “quantify” the meaning and value of a single phone call made by such a person. I make this claim on the basis of long-ago personal experience.

  17. What Barry is talking about is “la palanca”–i.e. leverage or connections. One reason I like writing is that doesn’t seem to be as needed to “have success” as other activities that might bring you fame and gain. I could be wrong–maybe it’s another necessary condition, or sufficient, if you’re related to a traditional publishing CEO?

  18. Very interesting. I do feel more confident self-pubbing my novel after signing with my agent. It gave me the confidence that yes, I do have a wee bit going on with this book. I just downloaded Self Publishing Attack! I’ll gobble up any advice I can get πŸ™‚

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