The Self-Publishing Debate: A Social Scientist Separates Fact from Fiction (Part 1 of 3)

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

If you had asked me a year ago, I would have told you that self-publishing was the road to nowhere. In my research, I had found that self-published authors published only one book on average, and those who had published subsequent books were unlikely to break into traditional publishing or to have substantial sales. Then I went to the 2013 National Conference for the Romance Writer’s of America, where I met dozens of writers who were enjoying self-publishing success. Some of the writers who spoke with me were bringing in a hundred dollars a month, while others had netted hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars last year.

After the conference, I began to consider self-publishing my thriller series, Kings of Brighton Beach. My writer friends are mixed on their responses to this decision. Some think I’m jumping in too early, that this new project, which I haven’t shopped around at all, is the one that will finally land me an agent and traditional publishing contract. Others tell me I’m being extremely wise: I’ll maintain creative control, write on a schedule that suits my needs, and hopefully bring in at least enough money to justify the hours and heart I pour into my writing passion.

Emotions run high when writers and publishers debate the merits of self-publishing. Some people hold that self-published authors couldn’t break into the world of traditional publishing, gave up, and rushed their poor quality work to market. Others praise self-publishing as a democratizing force that makes it possible for authors to share their stories, even when traditional publishers, perhaps wrongly, imagine those stories don’t have large and lucrative markets. As such, self-publishing gives authors the freedom to share stories with limited appeal or, alternatively, the means to demonstrate marketability and perhaps attract a traditional publisher. In yet another view, self-publishing is a highly entrepreneurial activity. Self-published authors take home a larger share of royalties, and by cutting out the publisher middlemen, they stand to bring home a lot more cash even if they sell fewer books than they would with traditional publishers.

Am I selling myself short if I self-publish, or will I make my own writing dreams come true? I’m one of a multitude of writers grappling with these questions. Happily, in my day job I’m a social scientist, who has the privilege of turning these emotional questions into empirical ones.

We’ve all heard the stories about the self-published authors who have skyrocketed to fame and fortune as well as the tales of those who have only managed to sell the books of their hearts to friends and family and no one else. Stories like these have a way of pulling our attention and tugging on our already high emotions about the future of the industry and our place in it, but they don’t necessarily represent the larger or typical pattern of success and failure.

I recently had the good fortune to help co-author the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey. In preparation for the thousands of survey responses we are collecting for 2014, I have been revisiting the treasure trove of information from the 2013 survey.

Last year, Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest surveyed close to 5,000 authors. The survey identified four types of authors, each with a unique profile: aspiring authors, who have not yet published; traditionally published authors, who have only published their books with traditional publishers; self-published authors, who have only self-published; and hybrid authors, who have both traditionally published and self-published their work. Since the survey was open to anyone and is not a scientific sample, we cannot say that the findings represent the population of writers. Nonetheless, comparing the priorities (Part 1), productivity (Part 2), and income (Part 3) of these thousands of writers may help us better understand why so many authors are choosing to self-publish and what they might reasonably expect from this path compared to others.

The survey asked authors to identify their number one priority in getting published. For all four types of writers, the top priority reported was building their careers as writers, but from there, the priorities quickly diverged. dbweinberg prioritiesFor aspiring and self-published authors, the next most popular answer was “to satisfy a lifelong ambition.” In contrast, traditionally published and hybrid authors were more likely to choose “to make money from my writing.” As a priority, “sharing my personal experience” or “sharing my particular expertise” were more popular choices for self-published authors than for others, but these priorities were not at the top of the list for most self-published authors.

The different patterns in the priorities of the four types of writers suggest that they may be choosing their publishing paths based on very different decision criteria. For the respondents to this survey, all four types of authors are eager to build their careers as writers, but traditionally published and hybrid authors are more focused than the others on earning income from their writing. These differences in priorities may lead to different decisions about what, when, and how to publish. They also may lead to different expectations and levels of success from these endeavors.

In Part 2, I turn my attention to the productivity of these different types of authors.

See more results of the survey presented at Digital Book World 2014, where Weinberg will talk more about the evolving author marketplace. Register today!

21 thoughts on “The Self-Publishing Debate: A Social Scientist Separates Fact from Fiction (Part 1 of 3)

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  2. Pingback: Publishing Opinions | The Self-Publishing Debate: A Social Scientist Separates Fact from Fiction (Part 1 of 3)

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  4. Christine M. Fairchild

    I’m confused on the importance of this survey. The answers are not mutually exclusive. Any author trying to make money will typically have all the other reasons as well because there isn’t much money in this biz, so you better have more than that as a motivator. I know established, bestselling authors, who needed all those other reasons to last the 10+ years it took to get to where they are.

    Again, I suspect you are mixing debut with veteran authors, fiction with non-fiction, literary with genre. The real information is hidden in parsing these groups and comparing them appropriately. Otherwise, throwing them all into one grouping produces not very realistic views or actionable information. I was excited by the survey, but feel disappointed with what seems a lack of a clearer, more scientific approach.

  5. Linton Robinson

    I lost a lot of interest when the first “fact” I ran into is so obviously false that any first year “social science” student would spot it.
    How can one book be the average number from self-published writers? Since you can’t publish less than one book or a fraction of a book, that would mean that nobody publishes more than one. Obviously not true.
    I don’t know what it is about self-publishing that causes people to publish rot about it, or to drone on saying the same things everybody else said, over an over.

    1. Dana Beth WeinbergDana Beth Weinberg Post author

      As a professor of Sociology who also teaches statistics to graduate students, I must correct your statement. First, there are a number of different types of averages or what we call “measures of central tendency,” including the mean, median, and mode. In this case, I report the median, which is the value of the variable of interest when we sort the responses from lowest to highest and identify the one in the middle. In the results here, we see that the “middle number” is 1, meaning that at least 50% of self-published authors only published one book. (Were we to take the mean, we would have added up the sum total of books by self-published authors and divided by the number of authors.) As you rightly noted, the average number of self-published books could not be less than 1, since self-publishing one book was the requirement for being identified as a self-published author. However, the median number of books could easily have been greater than one, and the surprise here is that it was not.

      1. Joe

        What, no reply from Mr. Robinson? Surely, after such a condescending post that was so eloquently shot down by Ms. Weinberg, he has something more to say…

        Mr. Robinson?

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  9. Venkatesh Iyer

    I think the make money from my writing statistics basically indicate that newbie writers are more concerned about making a name, getting some sales and some followers. As they taste increasing success, they start thinking about the money-earning potential. In other words, in this particular aspect, hybrid authors are simply authors who have tasted some success, through self publication, traditional publication or both.

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