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).