Thursday, December 8, 2011

Crunching The Numbers Behind Self-Published Bestsellers

When proponents of self-publishing talk about the indie-publishing revolution, they mention the same names over and over again: J. A. Konrath, Barry Eisler, Amanda Hocking and John Locke.

There's a good reason for that; there are very few bestselling self-published authors.  According to this Wall Street Journal article, which postulates that "self-publishing is upending the book industry," only thirty self-published authors have sold more than 100,000 copies, out of more than half a million books self-published since 2006 and more than 133,000 books self-published in the last year.

In light of that data, the success of Darcy Chan, whose self-published "Mill River Recluse" has sold 400,000 copies should properly be deemed an anomaly, rather than evidence of a trend.  And this anomaly isn't especially lucrative. As the article points out, Chan's book, like most successful self-published titles in the last two years, sells for $0.99.  Amazon pays a 35% royalty on books sold at that price, or about 35 cents per copy, so Chan's earnings on her 400,000 sales total about $130,000.

That's a lot of money, and, as the WSJ notes, it's much more than an average debut author would get paid for a traditionally published novel.  But this is an extraordinary self-published novel; Chan is one of only twelve self-published authors to sell more than 200,000 copies.  When compared to extraordinary advances for traditionally published books, Chan's earnings seem less princely: author Erin Morgenstern got a "high six-figure" advance for her "Night Circus," Chad Harbach got $665,000 for his debut novel "The Art of Fielding," Stephenie Meyer got $750,000 for "Twilight" and Reif Larsen got a reported $900,000 for his "Selected Works of T.S. Spivet."

Traditional publishers also pick up the cost of professional editing, proofreading, formatting, typesetting, jacket design and marketing, while self-published authors like Chan must bear these costs themselves.  According to the WSJ article, Chan paid $575 for a review from Kirkus and an additional $1000 for online advertising.  And traditionally published authors also get bookstore distribution which is still a huge advantage.  Nearly two thirds of books are sold in bookstores, and, despite exponential growth, e-books only represent 20% of book sales.

A traditionally-published author would need to reach fewer than fifteen percent of Chan's audience in hardcover, or fewer than one-fifth in paperback to earn the same royalties.  The self-published e-book would have the benefit of a much lower price-point, but the traditional book would have access to the 80% of the market that e-books don't reach.

A self-published $0.99 book that sells 100,000 copies (remember, only 30 authors have done this in the last five years) earns $35,000 in royalties.  That's a great windfall, but it is not extravagant compensation for producing a book-length work of literature, nor is it particularly spectacular when compared to advance payments for traditionally-published books.

By comparison, an author who sells 100,000 copies in hardcover earns more than $350,000 in royalties (assuming a $25 SRP and a 10% royalty with an escalator to 15% after 10k sales).


  1. You make a valid point that $0.99 e-books are unlikely to make you rich, however, how many debut authors sell 100,000 hardback books?

    Everyone will choose their own path, but for many self-published authors, the goal is not to "hit the jackpot," but to establish ourselves over the long term with a body of work that we own and have full creative control over.

    I have no illusions that I will make a giant splash, but I know more than one author who have slowly been able to develop an audience and now are writing full time with a healthy income. Are they Stephanie Meyers or J.K. Rowling rich? No, but very few traditionally published authors are, either.

  2. So interesting! I think the point is that most writer's, traditional, indie pub repped or self pub, dont get rich writing books.

    People who write for the big bucks might do better putting all that energy into an i-banking career!

  3. Nearly a decade later, now in 2020, it would be nice to see a current analysis, similar to this, done.