The Trouble with Indie Math

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

The self-publishing platform recently published this infographic drawing on data from the latest report based on the Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey as well as from the Author Earnings project:

Lulu self-publishing ebooks authors


Lulu’s intent is to tout the benefits of going indie—and indeed, the service makes a lot of good points, many of them reasons why I personally decided to self-publish my own fiction as D. B. Shuster.

But buyer beware! While there are plenty of great reasons to go indie, there are some fundamental problems with the arithmetic in Lulu’s comparison of the traditional and self-publishing paths.

Speaking at the Digital Book World Conference + Expo last year, I presented my own research on the economics of those publishing models, plus anecdotal experience from publishing my thriller serial, Kings of Brighton Beach. As I told audiences then, I could write four short books at 25,000 words each and put them out at $2.99 apiece, the minimum price required to receive a 70% royalty rate from Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform. I would then stand to make a little over $2 on each novella.

If I then attracted 3,000 fans, each of whom bought all four novellas, I could expect to earn over $24,000. In comparison, if I sold a 100,000-word novel to a traditional publisher (the same amount of work but closer to the length traditional publishers might expect), then I could expect to make about $5,000, including the advance.

self-publishing authors ebooks

Obviously, this seems like a fabulous case for going indie—except for one major problem: Finding 3,000 fans is incredibly difficult for many authors, no matter how they publish. And without sales at that level, the math falls far short of expectations.

Among the voluntary sample of authors in the 2015 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey who reported on the sales of their latest books, 71.8% of indie authors sold fewer than 1,000 copies, compared to 40.5% of traditionally published authors who had sales no higher than the triple digits. In fact, 59.7% of indie authors in the survey sold fewer than 500 books.

In other words, most indie authors who responded to the survey hadn’t attracted even the 642 fans that my back-of-the-envelope calculations above suggest would bring their income up to what they might expect from a traditional publishing deal.

One might argue that the survey data aren’t representative, and maybe indie authors are really doing better than we would expect from these numbers. Perhaps, but three years of surveys with different samples of authors have yielded remarkably similar results, and other sources of data tell a similar story, as I’ve previously reported.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t money to be made in self-publishing. Far from it. Many authors have reaped its benefits by cutting out the publisher and enjoying a large share of the rewards. Yet there is substantial risk involved, too. And as I’ve written before, most books sell very few copies, and most authors don’t earn big money. Moreover, the more successful indie authors tend to be those who make considerable investments in producing their books.

The trouble with the kinds of assumptions Lulu makes is that they’re based on finding an audience at a scale many authors struggle to achieve in such a competitive market, in part because doing so takes investments of time and money that many find prohibitive.

As the box at the very bottom of Lulu’s infographic points out, there are many non-monetary reasons to self-publish—which, in my view, may ultimately be more compelling. Indeed, the Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey found indie authors are happier at more modest levels of success than traditionally published authors.

Realistic expectations are not the enemy of hope, but they are the ally of wise decisions. While I hold out hope that droves of readers will ultimately discover and love my own stories, I now know that grabbing their attention may take far more time and money than I initially budgeted. Although I plan my next steps strategically, I also know the math might never work to my advantage, and I forge ahead anyway—for love, if not for money.

The complete report based on findings from the 2015 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey, The Author-Publisher Relationship in a Changing Market, is available for purchase here

15 thoughts on “The Trouble with Indie Math

  1. Matt Perkins

    The thing that most of these calculations seem to ignore is the trad-pub reject pile, which makes all trad versus indie discussions a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison.

    100% of people who choose the indie route will actually get their work published. Thus, all figures regarding indie publishing include everyone who even attempted to do it.

    Think about what these numbers would look like if we factored in the vast majority of authors who sought traditional publication and never got it, thus earning zero revenue.

    1. James Love

      Matt … you rock! You’ve identified an important consideration in determining meaningful metrics regarding this issue. Solid point.

      Sure self-marketing is tough, however if one touches people with their writing, a fan base will develop over time. Even if it is a little success … its still success …

      1. Bill Leland

        Some other factors in this:
        1) A vast number of self published books are poorly written and/or poorly edited. You are not going to build a following for material nobody wants to read.
        2) Regarding print, retail bookstore buyers, for the most part, will not carry a self published book. The whole distribution network is often messed up if the author is trying to sell retailers a book…invoicing, returns, margins, etc. are all new to the author and a retailer has no desire to educate them about how it all works.
        3) Very few brick and mortar stores will carry a Create Space book. Bookstores HATE Amazon!
        4) Unless the self-published author is teamed with some kind of subsidiary publisher who has the connections, reputation for good books, and a marketing and distribution program, self publishers are better off to stick with eBooks, not print.

      2. T. Mason Gilbert

        I agree with James. If you touch people with your writing a fan base will develop over time. Add marketing skills to that by surveying your fans to find out what they like and where they are coming from, etc. and you can refine your marketing to reach specific sectors of people who are similar to your fans.

  2. Stephanie Scott

    The other aspect not mentioned here, is self-pub says $5 production cost. What about the cost to hire a cover designer and professional editors? I know that not every self-publishing author chooses to pay for those services, but that is also at their own risk. The infographic even includes mention that covers are a major factor in sales. The self-pub authors I know are investing on the front end. Services like Book Bub are great for exposure, but again cost money (usually worth it as reported by authors I know who’ve used it), though BB usually only accepts books that already have a build up of good reviews, meaning the book already has to have been promoted and marketed. So while you can for $5 upload a book to the web, the chances of success for that author, while not incurring any additional costs along the way, seems likely to be lost among the thousands of indie pub books.

  3. Victoria Strauss

    But this infographic–like other resources on self-publishing statistics–is looking at _sales_. So you really can’t factor in the trad-pub reject pile, because that represents work that was never offered for sale. (Plus, if you want to complicate things even more, how many of the trad-pub rejects then went on to self-publishing, removing themselves from one category and placing themselves into another?)

    It’s a bizarre infographic, anyway, since it looks only at print, which is not where most self-publishers are succeeding.

  4. Patrick Samphire

    This infographic seems almost fraudulent in entirely leaving out the costs of self publishing, both in terms of dollars and time, in covers, layout, editing, proofreading and so on. Also, who sells 3000 print copies of their self pub book?

    There are lots and lots of good reasons to self pub, but this infographic seems more concerned with misleading authors into using their service than giving good information.

    1. Katy Pye

      Patrick, I absolutely agree. That $24K figure looks enticing, but the input costs to bring a book to market can wipe out a good third of that if not much more. I’m grateful my novel has gone well beyond the average sales $ mark for an indie book, but it’s not recouped my original (to say nothing of ongoing marketing) outlay. Yep, great to have a traditional publisher pick up all the production costs, but it’s my understanding the author is responsible these days for most of the marketing work.

      Overall, a great, if not lucrative, experience and I love being able to say I did it all.

  5. Jack Bray

    this is comparing small apples with big apples..both taste the same…but growing them..oh, boy…with self you need to be a promoter which is what you get when you’re a big apple…I long for the day my books are trad-published so I don’t have to market them…I’m a writer, not an adman or PR guy…

  6. Helene Byrne, BeFit-Mom

    These numbers seem to lump fiction and nonfiction together. As a nonfiction indie author, I know that if you publish a book that solves a specific problem for a specific (the smaller the better) population, that your audience will find you and the development of an author platform (a critical issue, not all indie author/publishers start with no platform) will be much easier than with a fiction title.

  7. Sandra Hutchison

    Yeah, it’s not nearly as simple as this graphic makes it look — but then, Lulu isn’t in the business of persuading authors to keep slogging away for a traditional contract when they can work with Lulu!

    For genre fiction, if an author is productive and willing to do the hard publishing and promotional work, this graphic probably holds some truth.

    For others … it will probably be a long slog as an indie to get to this point. Unless they’re really, really lucky or have an unlimited marketing budget. But frankly, for traditionally published authors, luck and the marketing budget matters too. In either case, authors still have to promote to succeed.

  8. Alex Newton

    I feel one has to consider the the situation of the e-book market to complete the picture. Let us take the Amazon Kindle platform as an example. Amazon controls more than 60 percent of the U.S. e-book market and is clearly a leading indicator of the market situation. At the time I write these lines, the total number of e-books available on is 3,340,095. The number of English-language e-books exceeds 2.7 million. And this represents just a snapshot in time. Every month, more than 70,000 titles are added to the platform, translating into approximately 25 percent annual growth in the Kindle e-book supply. So what is the biggest challenge that authors face today? We just conducted more than a hundred in-depth interviews with authors from all kinds of backgrounds. Their very first answer was almost unanimous: Visibility! – When you browse the front page of the Amazon Kindle store, approximately one hundred book titles will be shown to you (provided you care to scroll down). Mathematically, the chance of your book showing up on that front page is 0.003 percent; that is one in more than thirty thousand books. E-book publishing has become like drilling for oil. Highly profitable for those who know where to dig and hit a well; incredibly frustrating for those whose exploration efforts take place in the wrong fields or who lack the proper technology. That’s the issue in self-publishing – no matter whether print or digital.

  9. Nora

    Exactly. Given that after 4ish (?) years, my blog posts garner about a dozen hits on average, there’s no way I could pull off indie success. Totally not my skillset.

  10. Diana

    I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve sold several hundred print books through the library system and through friends and their friends, though very few outside Australia. My e-books have been very successful in America, but not elsewhere, even in Australia. My first two books have made their set up costs with a little to spare and the third one, published in December 2014, hasn’t moved much at all.

    I can feel the way the market is slowing. Whether this is because there are more books hitting the Amazon shelves, so diminishing my opportunities, or whether it’s because – as one article maintained – people are playing on their iPhones and iPads and not downloading books, is not certain.

    I can’t help writing books, so I guess I’ll keep trudging along and if I sell a few, great – and if I don’t make my set up costs – then so be it. At my age (71) it doesn’t really matter as long as I am still enjoying myself 🙂

  11. Paul Draker

    Bill, you sound very convinced. But it’s worth pointing out that in my experience retail bookstores will very happily order and stock indie-published print books on their shelves, as long as those books are printed through Lightning Source instead of Createspace, distributed by Ingram, sold at industry-standard REG discount (40-45%) off list, and made returnable. In other words, just like any other publisher’s books. Indies have to play by the same rules to get into bookstores. But if we do, then even Barnes & Noble will order and shelve our indie books — and possibly even stock them at the corporate level and sell them nationwide, if we can get their small-press department excited enough. Barnes & Noble is also happy to hold author events for indie authors… they’ve certainly done so for me. As long as we remember that a bookstore’s a for-profit business, and doesn’t owe any author — indie or traditional — shelf space, they are happy to engage with us. If they think they might be able to make money selling our books, they won’t hesitate to order a few copies (or, if we’re talking B&N, 50-60 copies) to try it out.

    There’s no reason for a self-publisher to stick with eBooks and avoid print. Or audiobooks. Print may not be very profitable, relative to eBooks, but there’s very low cost to publishing both. These are business decisions that every author can make for herself or himself, based on the size of his or her readership, his or her budget, what genre he or she writes, and whether or not he or she wants to sell hefty hardcovers with lovely dustjackets, or 6\ x 9\ trade paperbacks, or 4-1/4\ x 7\ mass market paperbacks, or whatever.



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