Success Iggy PopOne of the oddest pieces of misreading to come my way arrived earlier with the headline “Only 40 Self-Published Authors are a Success, says Amazon.” This was based on a New York Times profile piece about self-publisher – and more recently, just publisher – Meredith Wild, romance author and creator of Waterhouse Press. Now, the New York Times has not always been distinguished for objective or impartial coverage of ebooks or Amazon. But this time – if you’ll excuse just a slight slathering of smarm – they seem to have done a fairly detailed position piece on the potential of self-publishing. Somehow, though, one source managed to spin that into the claim that “40 self-published authors ‘make money’, all the others, and they number in the hundreds of thousands, don’t.”

Claude Forthomme, herself a writer under the pen name Claude Nougat, presents this as a revelation. “The cat is out of the bag, finally we know exactly how many self-published authors make it big: 40.” And as she continues, “‘Making money’ here means selling more than one million e-book copies in the last five years. Yes, 40 authors have managed that.”

Now, the odd thing is that neither the NYT, nor Meredith Wild, claim anywhere in the article that I can see that one million copies is some kind of benchmark for making money, or success. The article does state that: “close to 40 independent authors have sold more than a million copies of their e-books on Amazon, the company said.” Admittedly, that’s no mean feat for them. But the sole standard for success? As Joanna Cabot wrote elsewhere, there are many individual standards for success which self-published authors are free to indulge up to their personal best.

This is especially surprising in the light of the release of the February 2016 Author Earnings Report. Now, there are some interesting figures there about the success of self-publishing and self-published authors. One is that, as of January 2016, self-published indie titles account for 42 percent of all U.S. ebook sales on Amazon. Another is that U.S. Amazon customers are spending some $5,755,000 daily on ebooks, and that $1,756,000 daily is going to authors. Oh, and that “$140 million a year in Kindle Unlimited payouts is going directly to authors.” And that self-published titles now account for almost 45 percent of ebook unit sales on Amazon, up from around 26 percent in February 2014.

Now, the NYT may point out justly that “only a small fraction of self-published authors sell enough books to make a living, and many are put off by the drudge work and endless self-promotion involved.” And it may use Association of American Publishers stats to build a biased picture of the ebook market. But nowhere is it anything like as negative as that “Only 40 Self-Published Authors” title suggests. Which makes me wonder why anyone would rush to misinterpret it so drastically. Especially with far better sources than a single NYT article around. Whatever the reason, I really would be surprised, and dismayed, to see that “only 40” rumor get around.


  1. I posted about the number of self-published authors making a living before — interestingly, in Nov 2011, there were only 2 who had sold 1 million ebooks on Amazon.

    To be fair, even the high 1,000,000 hurdle — if at 99 cents each, which most probably are — only equates to $350,000 (before taxes or expenses for marketing, cover design, editing, etc.) over 5 years. After income taxes and 15.3% self-employment taxes, those “millionaires” are probably only netting less than $50,000 per year.

    So it is fair to say that people selling under that amount are most likely not making a living at it, or certainly not “making it big.”

    Of course, as you point out, each author has his or her own reasons for writing a book, and their own goals and definition of “success.” (I did not sell a million copies, but I did make some nice side money, and I consider writing my novels time well-spent for many non-financial reasons.) And while the linked article is incorrect in saying all the other authors do not “make money,” it IS true that only a fractionally small number of authors — self-published or traditional — make a living based on their writing. (Fewer than there are players in the NFL.) And it does not appear this has changed.

  2. There are so many assumptions being made in both the article and comments. What constitutes “making a living,” for example. Is that $25,000 (more than a person earning minimum wage makes, i.e., about $16,000) or $100,000 (way more than most people would consider as a living wage.) I don’t know how much Mt. Atgard makes, but I suspect many of those earning minimum wage would be thrilled to earn $50,000 after taxes. I also suspect that many people writing do so in addition to other jobs so if they earn an additional $20,000 that’s gravy for many of them. To equate being successful with having to earn millions really does define the writer as being totally out-of-touch with 95% of the population. Certainly many, if not most, legacy-published authors wouldn’t qualify as being successful.

  3. I didn’t say earning $50,000 from writing is anything to sneeze at — it’s not! I said only about 40 self-published authors in the world are making that much, with everyone else making less, in most cases much, much, much less. The vast majority of authors (traditional and self-published) don’t “make a living” solely from writing any way you slice it — even if you consider minimum wage of $16,000.

    I was just trying to point out that selling a million books (the top 0.001% of authors) could equate to only $50,000 per year, minus expenses that could be substantial. So it could take selling 300,000 books or so to make $16,000/yr. My point wasn’t to arbitrarily pick an amount that counts as “making a living” (it’s relative, based on location, family size, etc.), but just that very few authors sell 300,000 books, or even 100,000 books.

  4. First problem, Mr Atgard, with your calculations is your 10 year denominator.
    Indie publishing ebook sales didn’t really take off until 2010–thanks to the price fixing conspiracy. So you’re off by a factor of two, to start with. Those Indies who made it to a million Kindle sales? They were (and still are) raking it in.

    Second, your numerator: the *average* price of all Indie ebook sales isn’t even close to $0.99 but is instead closer to $4 (which means double the earnings rate you quoted) so you’re off by a factor of 8. Here, check it out:

    Suddenly, that $50,000 a year goes up by 16x to $800k a year. Or more for those that started *after* 2010.

    Third, the reported million sales? That is at the Kindle store alone. Doesn’t count Apple, Kobo, Nook, Tolino, and a zillion small ebookstores world-wide. In the US alone, that adds up to anything between 20-30%. Assume Amazon is 80% of the ebook market (it isn’t, yet) and you’re past a million a year. So you’re off by a factor of 20X on ebooks alone.

    Fourth, Indies aren’t about ebooks alone (the message of Author Earnings is that indie ebooks are a viable way to ramp up a writing career, not that it is the *only* way to distribute). Indie titles are racking up close to 10% of Print sales at Amazon and elsewhere. (It has been a couple years since Ingram and B&T did away with the ghettoization of POD books. Plus, the more successful Indies don’t rely solely on POD, they can and do batch print runs through traditional presses.) Indies also sell foreign translation rights. Movie rights. Merchandising rights. Audio books. Oooh, yeah. The big growth area fir tradpub? Indies are there already.

    So, no, if big money is your sole consideration for success, then Indies can and do rake it in by the truckload.

    But the Indie story *isn’t* about 40 authors making a million sales or a couple hundred making a million a year *net* or any such big numbers. It is the literally thousands (tens of thousands?) taking in much smaller but significant revenues; mortgage money, kids tuition money, car payment money. For some, just getting their ideas out to a thousand readers and making regular pizza night money is their definition of success.

    The point of going Indie is just that: independence. Not depending on others for your success or failure, not having to deal with others’ *definition* of success; not the NYT, not some corporate beancoubter in a glass tower, not some ivory tower critic or academic.

    The basics of publishing is authors getting stories and ideas to readers.
    And that is what going Indie is all about.
    The money csn be good, though.

    It’s still a hard business to succeed *big* in but in tradpub those are the 1% of one-percenters anyway. The publishing story isn’t about *them*; it is about the tradpub catalog fillers that take years to “earn out” a $7500 advance. And it is about Indies making that much in a year or less off a few hundred sales a month, a dozen sales a day…

    It is about “don’t quit the day job” and the many Indies who *do* get to quit the day job profitably, even if it takes them a couple decades to get a million sales at one store in one format in one country.


    Wrong metric, really.
    But then tradpub is all about the wrong metrics anyway.

    But that is a whole other story.

  5. First, I did use 5 years, not 10. Second, I am one of those indie authors who is happy to have made some decent side money writing, and was happy to write the books even without earning any money. Third, my main point was to temper expectations; I always tell aspiring authors to write a book because you WANT to, and think of any potential earnings as a bonus, and I stand by that regardless of your optimistic math (which you then admit only applies to 1% of 1%, trad or indie). So without going point-by-point, I don’t think you either refuted what I said or really understood what I was saying.

  6. The head of a small traditional publishing company, Joe Biel (who had some commentary on this site) recently said that the average number of sales for a traditionally published book was about 3,000. And was very proud of the fact that his company’s average was 6,000.

    Working from those numbers, I would think any indy writer who sells over 10,000 books is doing a whole lot better than the average traditionally published writer, and by any measure is doing good as a writer. There are a lot more than 40 indies who have sold more than 10,000 books.

    That there is not enormous money to be made by the average writer, in general, isn’t news. It’s been a fact of life since writing was invented. People generally choose writing as an occupation for other reasons than it is an easy and dependable way of getting rich.

    But even if getting rich is to be the standard, we would have to really measure only those writers whose goal it is to get rich, who actively pursue it, who have had some time (maybe more than five years) to prove themselves and then try to measure their actual success/failure rate. Bunching those writers who are trying to pursue writing as a career, and are motivated primarily by money, with other writers (like perhaps a successful computer consultant who publishes for fun, a lawyer who published a single biography of their father, or a mom who writes a children’s book) makes about as much sense as judging the odds of making a living as a Broadway actor by how many people sing in the shower.

    I suspect the odds of an indy writer, with a reasonable amount of talent, who is willing to write in a popular genre (like romance) and who works hard at is are probably pretty damned good compared to material success achieved by those pursuing other professions. Are the odds of someone getting rich writing romance novels the same, worse or better than someone trying to get rich in the stock market, in real estate sales, in industrial design? I don’t know, but the numbers (40 Amazon writers selling 1,000,000 ebooks) being tossed around are meaningless in judging that.

    The easiest way to get rich is to start rich. People who have access to a lot of money, also have a leg up in making more money. If you’re starting off poor, you’ll have a hard time getting rich no matter what line of work you pursue. I think, even without having all the facts, the odds of someone who works in a fast food restaurant for minimum wage getting rich through self-publishing are better than the odds of someone who works in a fast food restaurant and doesn’t try. Are they as good as a poor kid who wants to make it as an basket player? Or one who wants to make it as a political? Hard to say. That’s probably where talent and determination make more of a difference than numerical odds.

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