Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
The self-publishing platform Lulu.com 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’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.
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.