I came across this on Twitter yesterday – Tobias Buckell tweeted about it. I recommend checking out the comments to his story A Game of Rats and Dragon in Lightspeed Magazine – they’re funny, sad an infuriating in equal measure. I do wonder who this Chris Fowler guy is and what his beef is – ostensibly the guy is complaining because he says Buckell is ripping off Cordwainer Smith’s story The Game of Rat and Dragon, whereas Buckell positions it as a homage to Cordwainer Smith’s story. However, the comments section gets out of hand and this chap Chris ends up insulting all and sundry!
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.
A 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Self-published authors will find it harder to access sources of other revenue, such as foreign rights.