A self-publishing renaissance? Most writers making less than $1k a year

eBooks may provide a new path to success for authors, but the roads are still fraught with perils

Kris Ligman
Jan 20, 2014 · 3 min read

A few years ago it would have been accepted wisdom to dismiss self-publishing out of hand. Print-on-demand publishers (often derided as “vanity presses”) were almost unilaterally considered a scam, and the only ‘real’ way to see one’s work on shelves was to work up the chain the old-fashioned way — or be a phenomenally lucky single mother writing out your wizarding school story on napkins.

Today, self-publishing is an increasingly accepted alternative to working through a publisher, and there are more than a few successes we may point to. Hugh Howey, best-selling author of Wool and its sequels, found success coming out of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing system. Former group home worker Amanda Hocking self-published and sold 17 novels before landing a three-book deal in 2011. And like ‘em or loathe ‘em, E.L. James’s 50 Shades series began as a popular Twilight fanfic and then went on to become a series of original, self-promoted eBooks before its author was picked up for print and movie deals.

But publishing is still a rough game, and a new study presented at the Digital Book World conference last week suggests that the odds of making a living from your writing are about as slim as they ever were.

The new report, drawn from over 9,000 surveyed writers across the career spectrum, found that over 77% of self-published writers earned less than $1,000 a year from their works, even after taking into account the typically higher rate of royalties versus traditional publishers.

Unfortunately, the news isn’t much better for going the traditional route. 53.9% of writers working with publishers and 43.6% of “hybrid” writers (working both solo and with a press) fell into the same bracket. Only a tiny fraction of respondents were described as earning more than $100,000 a year from their work, with most falling into a category of part-time and hobbyist authors.

Wool author Hugh Howey, however, maintains that we’re in the midst of a “renaissance” for self-publishing. Already a traditionally published author when he turned to Amazon’s direct publishing system, Howey now has a contract with Simon & Schuster for the print rights to his works, while retaining control of his eBook sales. He contends that the Digital Book World report is misrepresentative.

“Not all books that go the traditional route are counted here, just the few who get published,” he is quoted as saying in The Guardian. “Meanwhile, every self-published book [in this report] is tallied.”

It makes a certain sense: the ratio of submissions to print deals isn’t represented in the Digital Book World report, leaving us to speculate on the conversion rate based on other surveys or publishers’ anecdotes. Stories abound of publishers and agents receiving 100-1,000 unsolicited manuscripts a month, of which very few will make it beyond the slush pile. By contrast, virtually anyone can get an eBook onto Amazon (unless you write cryptozoological erotica — alas), making the barrier for entry much lower, as well as the overall pool of writers and works much larger.

Nevertheless, with the normal payout for self-publishing apparently coming in at under $1,000 a year, it might be time to reconsider your chances of becoming the next E.L. James (even if you thought that was shooting low already). We may indeed be in the midst of a renaissance for self-publishing, to use Howey’s word, but the business hasn’t gotten any easier.

    Kris Ligman

    Written by

    Non-binary newsie/CM, waiting for my robot body.

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