Self-publishing Pros and Cons – Revenue

I’m going to split this analysis into two sections and a conclusion. First I will look at the evidence for revenues from Traditional Publishing, and secondly from Self-Publishing. What I am trying to do is find an average figure. Of course if you are J. K. Rowling or one of the new breed of million selling self-published authors, the figures will be much higher. But what I’m trying to achieve is a comparison tool for a newbie writer who doesn’t know which path to choose. Don’t shoot me if you don’t like the answer, I’m just presenting the evidence as I see it!

 The Evidence for Traditional Publishing Revenues

If you Google publisher or novel advances then you get quite a few different bits of evidence. But in summary these are my findings:

The Wall Street Journal claims that $15,000 is a mediocre advance, but also states that advances from Independent Publishers average between $1,000 to $5,000 advance.

About That Book Advance … is an essay in NY Times from 2009 suggests $30,000 as an average advance.

Author Advance Survey by Tobias Buckelll

Tobias Buckell surveyed 108 science fiction and fantasy writers back in 2005. There’s quite a bit of data available, but the main finding that I think is relevant for this post is that the median first novel advance was $5,000. This is probably enough information for this pros and cons comparison. He has done a more recent survey I think, but I can’t see the data from it on his blog – maybe not enough responses yet? But let’s go with his $5,000 figure.

Traditional Publisher Revenues – Conclusion

If we err on the side of caution then perhaps we can take Tobias’s figure of $5,000 per novel as a starting point. We should also remember that advances aren’t the only potential source of money. Hopefully of course one’s novel should outsell it’s advance and bring in further funds. There is also the potential sale of other rights – film/TV and foreign-language publishing rights. Again Tobias Buckell has some useful information on multiple income streams.

But let’s assume that we make as a minimum $5,000 per novel publishing via Traditional means.

Evidence for Self-Publishing Revenues

Despite the number of self-published authors blogging out there and talking about their sales figures, in a way getting an average for this is quite difficult. There are of course the success stories, like Joe Konrath and Amanda Hocking, but I can’t see their revenue stats as anything other than outliers, which is not what we want for this analysis.

So what evidence can we use? Well I decided to take some information from a well-known self-published author who doesn’t have mega-sales. I won’t name him, but he blogs quite a bit and seems to be well-known, so I would say that he would be a good example of a self-published author who has got his marketing right, seems to right popular books and knows what he is doing. But he hasn’t broken out yet to bestseller status. His figures in general seem to indicate sales of about $800/month, but this is across 4 titles. So looking at a whole year, he might be making $9,600. I’m not sure if one title makes up most of these sales, but the figure does seem to be similar to the survey mentioned below in the Guardian for average self-published revenue.

survey posted on the Guardian website states that the average income of self-published authors was $6,375 in 2011. Half of those surveyed made less than $500. It’s interesting that those who were more successful were the ones who got more help – they engaged editorial services etc. So effectively employing the same services that a publisher would provide, but on a freelance basis. It is worth noting that most of these writers will have several titles on sale – the most successful ones planned to release 5 or more titles in the next year. So average revenue/book must be $1,000 I would guess?

Another piece of evidence I found was on Mike Cooper’s blog. This presents Amazon’s own figures that the average book makes less than $500. What’s the average book? Does this includes rafts of Public Domain stuff and short stories. Difficult to say. But it’s a stat so worth including in our evidence.

Self-Publishing Revenues – Conclusion

I think from the evidence I have read for self-published authors its all about volume – if you can churn out a lot of decent quality material then you can make an average of $6-10,000 per year. If you get successful then you could make a lot more.

Self-Publishing Revenues – Pros and Cons – A conclusion of sorts

The problem with statistics is that is difficult to compare between different sets of data. However, I think it is possible to draw some general conclusions from what I have presented above. Here they are:

  1. Traditional Publishing can provide a better per title revenue with advances of around $5,000 vs average per title self-published title revenue of $1,000 (even for successful authors). And remember I am underestimating the traditionally published revenue stream by not taking into account any other sources of revenue other than an advance.
  2. Self-published authors have to produce quite a lot of material – 4-5 books a year – to make what a traditionally published author could get from their first novel advances.
  3. Self-published authors have to invest in editorial services to make their book more marketable. These costs for traditionally published authors will be covered by the publisher.
  4. Self-published authors will find it harder to access sources of other revenue, such as foreign rights.
From this evidence I have to say that the traditionally published route looks more attractive. The problem though is getting your work signed up.
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6 thoughts on “Self-publishing Pros and Cons – Revenue”

  1. “The problem though is getting your work signed up”

    First you need to find an agent, then a publisher. This will require you to invest a lot of money, which you conveniently don’t mention in your article. Subtract at least $1,000 from your advance. Which is not $5,000, but $5,000 minus whatever your agent charges.

    Whatever you may have left, you’d better invest in promotion because your publisher wont do it for you.

    And how many who go the traditional route manage to get their writing published? Less than 1%?

    Does this “look more attractive?” Not to me it doesn’t.

  2. Andrew – good point about the agent’s fees, I forgot about those.

    I’m not so certain about the publisher not doing any promotion though. Do you really think a company is likely to release a new product without trying to promote it? Any book will at least get some attention from the publisher’s PR department given to it, as well as course of being sold to retailers by the publisher’s sales reps.

    1. Yes, just like every dog has it’s day, every book will get some promotion. Always taking into account that you are lucky enough to belong to the less than 1% that gets published at all.

      Actually, you’re risking your career. If what little promotion your publisher does, and added to that your own efforts, aren’t enough to at least sell a decent amount, your chances at publishing a second book are slim to non-existent.

      Summarizing: Before you see one cent you will have spent around $1,000 in the roughly two years it will take you if you are lucky enough to get a contract. Agents usually charge 15%. That is $5,000 minus $750 minus $1,000 makes $3,250. You will get one third upon signing the contract, one third when the book is ready for publication and the last third some six months later (this may vary).

      My advice? Don’t give up the day job. 🙂

        1. I’ve never gone that road myself, so this is what I read on the sites of authors who did.
          A lot of agents seem to expect printed versions of your work, though electronic submissions seem to be acceptable as well nowadays. If they want a printed version, those costs, and the postage, are at your expense. If you want any chance to get an agent you have to submit to several. Then there’s telephone calls and meetings you have to go to.
          It adds up, and there is no guarantee you will even find an agent willing to represent you. Also, there is no guarantee that if you do find an agent he or she will be able to “place” your novel.

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