The Self-Publishing Debate: A Social Scientist Separates Fact from Fiction (Part 3 of 3)
Is self-publishing an amateurish endeavor, a means of sharing stories, a strategic move in a writing career, or an entrepreneurial activity? To gain insight into this question, I have been analyzing the responses from the nearly 5,000 authors who responded to the 2013 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey in relation to whether an author is aspiring (not yet published), self-published only, traditionally published only, or hybrid (both self-published and traditionally published). In Part 1, I compared the top priorities of these 4 types of authors, and in Part 2, I examined the differences in their stock of published unpublished manuscripts. Now I turn my attention to the differences in their income from their writing. Not surprisingly, most aspiring authors in the sample reported no annual income from their writing. About 19% of self-published authors in the sample also reported no annual income from their writing, compared to 6% of traditionally published authors and only 3% of hybrid authors. While most of the survey respondents clustered at the lower end of the income distribution, some authors did report earning $200,000 or more from their writing, the highest income choice on the survey: less than one percent (0.6%) of self-published authors, 4.5% of traditionally published authors, and 6.7% of hybrid authors who reported on their income. (In the chart, I have collapsed the top categories to $100,000 or more for better visibility. These aggregated category represents 1.8% of self-published authors, 8.8% of traditionally published authors, and 13.2% of hybrid authors.)
Self-published authors in the sample earned a median income in the range of $1 to $4,999, while traditionally published authors had a median writing income of $5,000 to $9,999, and hybrid authors earned a median income of $15,000 to $19,999. Comparing authors with the same number of manuscripts (analysis not shown), there is a strong similarity in income between hybrid and traditional authors, but hybrid authors outperformed their self-published counterparts on earnings.
Together, what these patterns suggest is that few authors are getting rich off of their writing or even earning enough from their writing to quit their day jobs. As the data for this study come from a non-scientific sample, readers are cautioned in generalizing to the entire author community; the survey responses may not be representative. At the same time, the overall pattern of findings is consistent with other studies that show that few books or few authors or even few artists of any type for that matter actually “make it” and are successful (however one defines the term). The new lesson from this study is that the chances of having a financially viable writing career may be best for hybrid authors and traditionally published authors.
What’s the truth about self-publishing? Is self-publishing an amateurish endeavor, a means of sharing stories, a strategic move in a writing career, or an entrepreneurial activity? This analysis of results from the 2013 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey suggest that all of these depictions of self-publishing may be simultaneously true, and they point to a segmented population of self-published authors, ranging from those who are less serious to those who are more serious about writing as a professional endeavor.
On one end of the spectrum, it seems self-publishing has attracted a number of authors who are less serious about their writing as a profession. This group, the majority of self-published authors in the sample, publish work that other authors might hold back or spend more time preparing, have written and published fewer manuscripts than authors who have ever traditionally published, and make little to no money from their publishing endeavors.
The other end of the self-publishing spectrum is represented in large part by the hybrid authors in the survey. These authors have a greater focus on earning income from their writing, have produced more manuscripts than either their self-published or traditionally published counterparts, and are earning higher incomes on average.
The survey results show hybrid authors achieving greater success with their self-publishing efforts than have authors who only self-publish, but they don’t tell us why. 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. Or perhaps their 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. 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.
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?
Some of the questions in the 2014 survey have been designed precisely to address these questions. I’m looking forward to working with the team at Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest to tease the answers out of the 2014 Author Survey.