Sifting Through Self-Pub Statistics

It's hard to find good statistics on what's going on in the publishing industry. If you read J.A. Konrath's blog, it sounds like making five figures a year in self-publishing is easy. If you read almost any publishing insider blogs, he's an unpredictable outlier.

I want to know what the averages look like, not the outliers. Let's see what we can find.

Disclaimer: I'm working with a lot of averages and assumptions in this post. Feel free to refute them if you've got hard, non-anecdotal facts.

Traditional publishing is tricky. I've heard everything from 0.03% to 1%. Agents get something like 10,000 queries a year, and take on a handful of new clients each. Of those, only some get published. Probably the number is lower than we'd like to think. Traditionally published: 0.1%.

Self-pubbed is easy. Anyone can do it, that's the whole point. Self-published: 100%.

So far, self-publishing looks like an easy pick, but getting published isn't our goal, is it? We want to make money.

No one likes to talk about advances in the publishing world, except to say that "it varies." Tobias Buckell did a survey a few years ago and found the median advance on a first novel was $5,000. Those numbers are old, but we'll go with it. Apparently most novels don't earn-out their advance, meaning royalties become a moot point. So unfair though it may be, I'm sticking with the simple number (minus your agent's 15%). Traditionally published: $4,250.

Self-publishing has no advance, but depending on how you do it, you may not even pay for editing, cover art, or printing services(!). On top of that, Amazon gives authors 70% royalties. JA Konrath suggests an eBook price of $2.99 to increase sales, and I have no reason to refute him here. That means $2.09/book.

But how many books? That's more difficult. Konrath sells thousands of copies per month, hundreds of thousands totals, but that's on many books. Breaking down his numbers, it looks like he has sold, on average,* about 4,000 copies/title. On a given title, then, he made $8,360, almost twice as much as our traditionally published debut author.

But we're not Konrath, are we? We're Average Debut Author Joe (or Joan). And the average unknown author sells, as near as anyone can figure, somewhere between 100 and 400 copies on a single title. Self-published: $522.50.

Traditional publishing wins, right? Well, this is still not the whole story.

If I offered you $10 right now versus a chance to win $80 for rolling a '6' on one die, which is the better bet? You have to look at the expected value. If you take the former, you have a 100% chance of getting $10. If you take the latter, you have a 17% chance of getting $80, for an expected value of $13.30 ($80 x 0.17). So, the $80 is a better bet (though the risk-averse might not care and opt for the ten-in-hand).

That's what we've got here. Traditional publishing offers more money on average, but it's much harder to get there. From the numbers I've got, the expected value for traditional publishing is low. $4,250 x 0.1%. Traditionally published: $4.25.

Where as self-publishing gets 100%. So, Self-published: $522.50.

But it's still not even this simple. These numbers make it sound as if $522.50 is a sure bet (the ten-in-hand, as it were). If that were the case, I'd be working on a random novel generator right now and sell books at $500 a pop! But randomly generated novels will not make you money. In both cases, you have to write something people want to read.

And in both cases, you have to do an insane amount of work both to write the novel and promote it. Once again, you have to ask what your work is worth. Nothing is certain, whichever direction you go.

For me, I'm still aiming at traditional publishing because it's not (strictly) about chance, and I believe I can do it. Because I wouldn't be the writer I am today if I had self-published the first thing I wrote, and I want to see how much better I'll be in the future. Because I'd rather hold the novel for some point in the future when I can make it much better, than make a couple hundred dollars today.

But that's today. Who knows what the future holds?

What's your route, and why do you do it?

* I'd prefer the median, since all of these stats are tainted with outliers, but I gotta work with what I got. Anyway, medians would just lower the numbers, not raise them.


mooderino said...

Very, very interesting.
Moody Writing

J said...

Thanks for the interesting numbers break almost-a-math-teacher side enjoyed it.

I'm planning to continue to shoot for traditional publishing. To be honest, I like the idea that along the way my work will encounter other people and their opinions. I feel that, in some ways, self publishing can enable writers to overstep the crit or feedback portions of writing that are quite important to the process. It seems that self publishing would be a way to write in a vaccuum of my own mind. While I write because I love it and the act of writing alone brings me satisfactions, that does not mean that I should hit print and publish on every little thing that flows from the end of my pencil. Just because I perceived something as genius doesn't automatically make it so to the rest of the world.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I love it when you do the numbers!

This is a great look at the author side, but I try to put myself in publisher's shoes to see why they do things. Part of why they pay larger advances (and take such a slim number of books) is because they need to move a certain volume to cover their costs - hence they will only take on books they think can move that volume right out of the box. What's the magic number? For large presses, maybe 10,000-15,000 units? I've heard some say as high as 25,000-30,000 units. That will put you in shooting range of the bestseller list if you can do it quickly, when then generates more sales (and so they pay commensurate advances).

Smaller publishers think smaller scale, and would be happy with an author that moves a 1000 units on their first book, then plan to grow the author with more titles.

Micro publishers (ones just starting out or with less than say 20 authors) will take a chance even a smaller number of potential sales.

Smaller publishers can be a great place to get started, the way many authors did before, when larger publishers would take a chance on a small number of initial sales from an author and then grow them through their career.

It's just as hard to grow a career as an author through self-publishing (Amanda Hocking not withstanding) as through any of the above routes.

My route? Basically all of the above: start small, keep writing and striving to grow an audience and interest larger publishers with new books. Rinse, repeat. And don't give up. :)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

*which then* Ugh.

Author Joshua Hoyt said...

This is very interesting and the lay out is great. I'm with you though and I think it important to try the traditional publishing to make myself get better. I want to be a better writer the best writer I can possibly be.

Ken Lindsey said...

Great post, Adam.

I am going to head straight into the self pub world. It's a bit of an experiment for me, and to be honest, I'd rather take this side early on.

I've never actually tried to publish through traditional methods, and this is kind of my stand to see what I can do with my own networking and promotion. There are no guarantees, but I do put a lot of faith in good, hard work.

We'll see how things move forward, and I'll be letting everyone in on the trip with me. Wish me luck!

Hepius said...


I'll get back to you in the near future with my self-publishing numbers.

The decision to self-publish was a difficult one for me. My goal all along had been to write something good enough to be "legitimately" published. Unfortunately I never managed to acquire representation.

I could have started something new, but I just wasn't prepared to let go of Eternal Knight. I'm not even sure starting something new was much of a possibility. At this point in my life I wasn't sure I could justify the immense effort.

I also believe in my work. So I have decided to go for it. I'll certainly run the stats and see what happens. I have decided not to follow the $.99 trend. I'll go $4.99 eBook and $11.99 trade paperback. We'll see what happens.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Here's an interesting discussion on self-publishing:

Dee DeTarsio said...

Great post--thank you! There is so much buzz and hype about this new digital revolution, I think the pendulum will be swinging (for both readers and writers) for awhile, and it is great fun to be a part of it! I love discovering new authors--readers are smart people and we know what we like!

Larry Marshall said... would seem that you need to return to statistics school :-)

On the one hand you say that there's a 1% chance of getting a traditional contract and then exclude all of the hundreds of people selling significant numbers of eBooks as being "outliers."

By your definition, ALL traditionally published authors are outliers as well. You're probably correct that only a small percentage of people are making lots of money as independent eBook authors but even if that percentage is as small as 1%, the chance is just as good in traditional publishing. Most of the evidence I've seen suggests the chances are much better than 1%.

Cheers --- Larry

Adam Heine said...

@Susan: Thanks for the link. I don't get to Michelle's blog often enough, and I love it when folks talk honestly about their journey like that.

@Ken & Matt: Good luck with your books! Matt, I know you in particular have been going into this with a pretty level head (that's not to say Ken isn't, just that know more about Matt's decision). I'll be very interested to see how it turns out for you.

Adam Heine said...

@Larry: I see what you're saying, that if there's a 0.1% chance of getting traditionally published, doesn't that make all published authors outliers?

But my purpose was to look at what an unpublished author can expect to make on average, based on which path they take. Labeling traditional publishing as an outlier would've been pointless for the purposes of this post (besides which, the expected value takes this into account).

A quick summary (for me too, cuz I like numbers):

Odds of publishing a novel: 0.1%
Avg profit per novel: $4,250
Expected value: $4.25

Odds of publishing a novel: 100%
Avg profit per novel: $522.50
Expected value: $522.50

The only outlier was Konrath, because his profit per novel is 8x the average. Part of my point is that the self-published author cannot expect to make that much, any more than a traditionally published author can expect to make J.K. Rowling's millions.

K. Marie Criddle said...

I agree with Susan: I love seeing the physical, mathy breakdown!

I'm going with traditional publishing for many of the same reasons as you: I believe I can do it (sooner or later) and I want to hold out for the support of an editor, agent, publishing house, etc.

However, I do admire those who self publish because they do something that I can't possibly do well: promote themselves to sell. It belies such a strong faith in their work that I hope to cultivate for my own someday. Sometimes writing is for the introvert and selling is for the extrovert. Heaven bless/help the person who does both.

Malcolm R. Campbell said...

One of your statistics surprised me. I have always heard that most self-published authors sell fewer than a hundred copies of their books over the life of the book.

Either we're looking at different groups of authors or things are getting better.

At the same time, we hear that most self-published works badle need editing; yet, looking at various editing sites, I see that the cost of getting a book edited is likely to surpass what most authors will earn on it, especially if they're selling fiction.

No matter what the numbers look like, a lot of us write because that's what we want to do, and we can be thankful for any regular jobs that pay the rent.

Whatever the numbers are today, tomorrow and the day after will bring new numebrs when creative people think of new ways to lead people to their books (without that major marketing campaign from a NY publisher).


ellie said...

Definitely, a growing self-publish..but even there I feel there are fixes you could get into that you might be out the $500 before you ever start, easily.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Great post, Adam. My husband asks me these kinds of questions about publishing all the time. I'm sitting him down right after this to read this article. So interesting. I love the way you broke it all down.

And, to answer your question, I'm going the traditional route. I don't think I could ever self-publish because I need the validation that what I've written is worth reading before I feel confident enough to sell it.


Paul said...

No question on the math, but I do wonder if this is a case where neither path makes much sense without a sizable amount of faith. Which is to say, is a sure $522 worth what it takes to actually write a novel?

I'd say this is an industry where you swing for the fences (similar to any risk-filled industry, be it biotechnology or film) because only becoming an outlier will make it worth your effort. And, although I don't have any data on hand to back it up, I'd think that traditional publishing still has a significantly higher upside.

Also, the traditional way to mitigate these risks is to adopt a portfolio strategy, but I imagine if you have a trove of completed novels you've already got a good idea of how things are turning out.