Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Do Self Published Authors Make More Money Than Traditionally Published Authors?

The conversation about author's wages continues to sizzle. Last month, I posted about average author salaries after one Big 5 published author posted her annual earnings. This month, I wanted to share another interesting blog post centered on self-published incomes vs. traditionally published incomes.

In this post on, Hugh Howey takes a hard look at ebook data to assess who earns more -- shelf published authors or traditionally published authors?

The analysis looks at the top 7,000 genre fiction ebooks sold on, breaking out author incomes based on whether the book was self published, published by the Big 5, by Amazon, by a mid-to- small-sized pub house or by an uncategorized source.  The results are quite intriguing, and make a strong case in favor of self-published authors' earning potential.

Go ahead and take a look.  I'll wait.

Interesting, right?

Now before we all jump ship in favor of self-publishing, I wanted to point out a few things.  I'm a big believer in using data as an unbiased source of information. But you have to be careful when analyzing partial data because it can very easily be skewed. And in the case of the publishing industry, where only a portion of the information is ever available, the data is always inherently flawed.

For example, this assessment only takes ebook sales into account.  To me, this biases the results in the favor of non-Big 5 publishing houses.  If you included print books in the mix, you'd likely see a bigger swing in favor of the Big 5 because of their print distribution networks. In fact, distribution networks are often the catalyst for successful self-pubbed authors deciding to partner with a Big 5 house - they can offer access to mass retailers that you simply can't get on your own.  And while ebook growth can't be denied, print is still the dominant form, so you can't look at ebooks in absence of print and assume it represents the whole picture. At least not yet.

Total size of market also has an impact on the number, as does proliferation.  For example, the data suggests that authors publishing with small-to-mid-sized houses make less than indie and Big 5 pubbed authors.  But this could be driven by the fact that they represent a significantly smaller portion of total books on the marketplace - if a house is only publishing 5-10 books a year, they're going to make up a smaller portion of the earning pie, regardless.

Similarly authors who publish multiple books a year will naturally have greater earning potential. And as the article points out, traditionally published authors are typically limited to one book per year (at best) where indie published authors don't have the same process or contract restrictions and can publish with more frequency.  More books = more money.

So does this mean I don't agree with the article?  No, not at all.  It raises some interesting points, and I think makes a very favorable case for publishing overall:  we might not all become millionaires, but there's money to be made regardless of which path you choose.

The one undeniable fact, no matter how you split the data, is that a self-pubbed author makes a larger percentage of every book sold. For ebooks, that number is ~70%, where a traditionally pubbed author takes home ~30% per book.  That means self pubbed authors have lower volume hurdles - they need to sell half as many books as traditionally pubbed authors to make the same income, assuming flat pricing.

The other thing that all of us need to remember - regardless how we decide to publish - is that publishing a book alone does not guarantee success.  Hugh Howey's article only focuses on the top 7,000 ebooks - but there are millions published each year through various avenues.  And as I pointed out in my previous post, most traditionally published authors won't earn past their advances, and most self-pubbed authors won't break through the already cluttered marketplace to sell a large number of books.

I don't say this to depress you, but simply to paint a realistic picture of what you can expect to earn as an author.  And at the end of the day your path to publication is yours and yours alone. It shouldn't matter which path will make you more money, but whether or not your decision is the one that makes you feel like you've realized your publishing dreams.

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