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6 Key Facts About Self-publishing – For Writers & Readers

6 Key Facts about Self-publishing – for Writers & Readers

Cover of Opening Up To Indie Authors

ALLi's campaigning handbook for wider acceptance of the indie publishing route, now available in paperback

PLEASE NOTE: This post is now out of date. for up to date facts and figures, go here


English indie author Christopher Joyce, who writes the successful “Creatures of Chichester” series of children's novels, recently put out a call on the ALLi members' Facebook forum for six key facts about self-publishing that could be used whenever one is asked to explain the concept. As ever, ALLi members were quick to respond, and I've divided their answers into two sets below, depending on whether you're talking to readers or writers.

Many were also quick to point out the one crucial point that should be stressed to both audiences is that the self-published author should always be applying all the processes to their own work that a trade publisher would – copy editing, proofreading, cover design, etc. Too many indie authors still don't do that, and publish sub-standard work simply because they can. For some possible answers on that score, read my opinion piece, The Elephant in the Self-Publishing Room.

6 Key Facts about Self-publishing for Readers

  1. Orna Ross advises “According to Jon Fine at the London Book Fair in April 2014, 30% of the top 100 books on Amazon are self-published, that percentage is still rising.”
  2. Many books that are now classics were originally self-published – Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, etc. “There are many self-published books who blow traditional books out of the water in terms of quality and story, so never judge a book by its publisher,” advises US novelist Samantha Warren. It may be that the classics for the next generation are those that are being self-published today. British indie author Chris Budd expands on that idea here.
  3. Self-publishing is not a 21st century phenomenon – it's as old as Caxton, it's just the technology that's changed. In particular, the simultaneous advent of financially viable digital printing, ebooks and online book retailing have fostered self-publishing in its current form – a perfect storm, you might say (but I mean that in a good way!)
  4. The fact that Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, was named by The Bookseller magazine last year as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Publishing, demonstrates how important self-publishing is deemed to be by the entire publishing industry.
  5. “An often overlooked advantage of reading indie books is that you can read the kinds of things traditional publishing won't publish,” advises Californian indie author Catherine Wilson. “That includes books for niche audiences (gay people for instance) and books with controversial themes. Indie authors can write what they want. We can cross genres. We can completely disregard genres. So let's urge readers to be adventurous. They'll find things in indie books they won't find anywhere else.”
  6. Many trade-published authors are self-publishing their back catalogue of books that have been dropped by their trade publisher – and are finding they're making much more money from their indie books than their supposedly commercial ones. Authors who do both are known as “hybrid authors”.

6 Key Facts about Self-publishing for Authors

  1. Indie publishing allows authors much greater earning potential than the traditional route, in terms of the percentage they earn of the retail price of any book. Typical in the trade is 5p in the £/5c in the $. An indie publishing an ebook on Amazon in the most popular price grosses 70% of the selling price. Yes, they have to cover their own production costs e.g. cover design, editing and proofreading, but this should still leave them with a much great margin per book, once they've covered their costs. Given that the vast majority of trade press authors do not earn a living by their writing – even bestsellers often make the bulk of their income via other means such as public speaking and merchandising – the indie route offers authors greater potential to live off their income from writing – provided of course that they are writing great books.
  2.  US thriller writer C J Booth points out some practical advantages that traditional publishing companies are unable to match: “For the indie author, the revenue stream starts from day one, the author has complete control (I changed my cover three times to reflect awards), and you can publish immediately.”
  3. Self-published books never go out of print, unlike trade books – commercial publishers will usually give a new book a maximum of a year to start making a profit before they give up on it and delist it from their catalogue. By contrast, the indie author can keep marketing their books for ever.
  4. “Not only has traditional publishing has become a difficult nut to crack for new authors, but also they are not geared up to publish more than one book a year from a writer,” says British novelist David Penny. “Because of this, going indie makes sense on a number of levels. You can publish as often as you are want. For the writer this means being able to work to their own schedule, for the reader it means not having to wait a year between books by a favourite author.”
  5. The previous divide between trade publishing and self-publishing is melting away like early morning mist, with a growing number of writing organisations now accepting indie authors as full members, after years of discrimination. As I wrote in Opening Up To Indie Authors, I'm looking forward to the day when we'll all just call ourselves authors: that day will come.
  6. You can write what you like, unchanged by publishers. Many indie authors who have formerly been published by big companies report on the bliss of being liberated from their publisher's dictates. Last – and eloquent – words here are from English author Pelham Macmahon: “As my life is being shortened day by day and I struggle to see what i am doing, self publishing is giving me wings to fly and a comfortable feeling that when I am gone my work can live on, no matter what others may think of it. My voice will be heard.” What author could wish for more?
  • For more thoughts and advice on gaining greater acceptance and understanding of the self-publishing sector, read Opening Up To Indie Authors – hugely helpful in building mutual understanding and partnership between all those involved in the world of books – authors, publishing companies, libraries, literary festivals and booksellers. NEW! Now available in paperback.
  • To show your support for the indie publishing movement, sign our petition: Open Up to Indie Authors

OVER TO YOU What's your favourite dinner-party line on self-publishing? Do share it, via the comments box!

Twitter bird outlineEASY TWEET “6 Key Facts about #Selfpublishing that every writer and reader needs to know: www.selfpublishingadvice.org/6-key-facts/ by @DebbieYoungBN #publishingopenup”


This Post Has 41 Comments
  1. I am an upcoming writer and i am very sure that i am hooked into self publishing. I have two novels that i wrote and one of them had been rejected by a traditional publisher. May anyone who knows about how to self publish my work help me, thank you.

  2. Recently, I’ve come to realize some authors are simply confused about the self-publishing business. Many are holding onto some of the popular misconceptions, while others have the whole business of self-publishing completely wrong, thinking of self-publishing as a last resort, or for books that can’t sale. I think there are plenty of authors out there who are missing out on this option of book publishing because of the longstanding misconceptions about it.

  3. As a reader, I see the glory of self publishing as variety, if I want to read a book on some obscure topic, like history, or collecting, you can’t beat finding a tome by someone who has totally immersed themselves in the subject. I can’t think of a good example but mass publication by mainstream publishers isn’t necessarily a mark of quality.

    I’d rather overlook a few typo’s for vision and passion on a subject. It always has been that way, its great that there’s many more these days, and they’re far easier to get hold of.

  4. The publishing industry is in massive flux, and the benefit is to authors. The post and much of the comments are not about some existential boxing match over which is better, indie or trad publishing. The most important thing here is that authors can make an informed choice about what is the most viable option and the best match for their goals.

    If an author believes he or she is best served by working with a traditional publisher, and they know what they will gain and what they will give up, then good for them.

    If an author believes he or she is best served by publishing independently, and they know what they will gain and what they will give up, then good for them.

    The rest is details. Or noise.

    Trad and indie publishing both have crappy books, and they both have glorious books. If one works for you better than the other, go with it. If that option stops working for you and your goals, try something else.

    But if you’re thinking you’re climbing the only possible viable path to the top of your mountain, well, enjoy your blinders and watch your footing.

    As for me, I’m going to get back to work.

  5. Actually, I’m an author and I’m both self-published and traditionally published. My self published books have only sold about 6,000 each.

    As for advances and contract terms and marketing support not being there with traditional publishers, all I can say to that is, rubbish. I have just got a publishing deal and signed a contract with a major (one of the big five) publisher and I can tell you that my advance is very juicy, so too are the contract terms and royalties. And, the marketing (which we have discussed) is remarkable, way more than I could manage with any of my self published books.

    I’m sorry, but I just hate it when self published authors bitch and wine about the publishing industry. I’m sure there are a few (emphasis on few) self published authors who are good, and, in time, they will make it, but for the other 99.9%, give it up and do something else. Even as a successful self published author, you will only make 8 to 10K per year, but 99.9% will never get that, no matter how many novels they write over however many years.

    Trust me, an agent and a publishing deal is the only way to go if you are serious about being a ‘professional’ author.

    1. Fortunately, Steve, We let readers decide what is crap, not you.
      Orna Ross is a wonderful person who is heart and soul dedicated to helping Indie authors, so how dare you say she’s only in this for the money. If you want to come on this loop and make comments, you shouldn’t insult the person who made it possible. And if you are so against self-publishing, why are you here anyway???
      You say 99 percent of self pubbed work is crap, I’m amazed you’ve had the time to read all the millions of them so you can accurately say that. Wow, you must be a fast reader!!! Oh, wait, that’s just your opinion, it’s not a fact.
      Indie writers are the most awesome group of people I’ve ever met. We engage and help and support each other. I’ve never been happier than when I gave up my agent and my publishing contract and went indie.
      iAnd BTW even if I ONLY made 10K a year on my books, that’s still enough for me to quit my day job and sail away on my sailboat and write for a living. That way I can pull into ports and not be mobbed because I’m a mega millionaire like Steven King, and that’s a pretty sweet deal to me.
      We’re all different and able to follow different paths, Thank God. So congrats on your juicy contract, now go hang out with the other trad pubs who look down on indies.

  6. I think the most important facts to remember are the tiny sales of the vast majority of traditionally published books. Sara Sheridan, who writes historical fiction and is traditionally published, has interesting things to say about how writers are perceived by publishers as ‘not part of the team’ in spite of producing the raw materials that pay all their salaries. At least when we publish ourselves, we are very much part of our own teams! http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/sara-sheridan/writers-earnings-cultural-myth_b_3136859.html

  7. Steve, I wonder why you have chosen to participate in this forum, or indeed why you chose to read a post about self-publishing in the first instance since you are so clearly against it. Are you a reader, or do you work within the publishing industry? This month, speaking at a conference for women writers, literary agent Andrew Lownie predicted that in five to ten years from now, 75% of the books would be self-published, 20% would be publishing assisted by agents, and only 5% traditionally published. Other agents disagreed with the percentage, but they did not disagree that this is the direction that the industry is heading in. The role of the literary agent must evolve with it. Certainly, in the US, agencies are setting up their own self-publishing platforms. I paired up with a traditionally published author of 10 books over the summer who intends to self-publish when her current contract comes up for renewal, and who said that many authors known to her were in the same position. Advances and contract terms are not what they were and marketing support has all but gone. I am afraid if your view of self-published authors as unprofessional or ‘hobbyists’ is antiquated. Many ALLi members have been traditionally published in the past and self-publishing is a positive choice for them, not a consolation prize. Many find genre restrictions too restrictive, or refuse to write for a commercial market. The ground-breaking, genre-smashing fiction is either self-published or with the small presses who still care more about the book than the profit that the book will make them – and if you don’t believe this, talk to authors who have worked for 5 years to get a publishing deal, only to be dropped within a year because their book did not fly off the shelves of Tescos. Publishing is a rapidly evolving market. It is not what it was 5 years ago when I was published by Transworld and I suspect that in 5 years time, even if the 5% that Andrew Lownie predicts is 20%, things will be very different again. It is true that there is some poor quality self-published fiction out there, just as it is true that there is plenty of poor-quality traditionally published fiction out there. It is true that it is a struggle to sell self-published literary fiction. I have sold 1000 of each of my self-published books, but my e-books do not have shelf-lives and will keep selling. I have only just got started. As for Orna setting up ALLi for money… I am not sure that statement is worthy of comment, but I feel that I must. There are plenty of vultures out there willing to charge authors fees that they will never earn back. I have found plenty of value in my ALLi membership. It gives me access to community and discounts for a range of services. In fact, I suspect that I could recoup my annual fee quite easily if I was that way inclined.

  8. Oh my God, here we go again, more indie crap about how self-published authors are taking over the world – I think not.

    Here are the 6 (true) key facts about self-publishing for readers.

    1. Not true at all, in any given month during 2014 there was only two or three self published books in the top 100.

    2. Mark Twain, Dickens, pul-eeeeze, tell us something we don’t know. Besides, they were not strictly self-published, it was a different set up back then.

    3. Not true, nothing to do with technology.

    4. Orna Ross set up the Alliance for, yup, Money. Self published authors are the easiest target for earning money.

    5. Yes, with indie books you can read the kinds of things traditional publishing won’t publish, like: crap, rubbish, garbage that is poorly written.

    6. Trade publishers drop books when they don’t sell anymore and when the original author self publishes it, guess what, it still doesn’t sell more than a few hundred per year, max.

    As for all the other crap about imdi authors having greater earning potential, what a load of crap, 99.9% of indie authors don’t even sell 50 copies per year. Yes, you make 70%, but that’s 70% of sweet FA. I’d rather have 7% of 500,000 sales thank you very much traditional publishers.

    Erm, self-published books never go out of print? this is true, what a bloody shame though, most should not even go live to start with.

    Traditional publishing is not a difficult nut to crack if you have a cracking story. Write a superb book and at the first agent you send it to will snap it up and get a deal. The reason agents only take on 1 in every 1000 manuscripts submitted is simple, 999 of them are total crap written by people who woke up one morning and decided it would be easy to write a novel, it’s really hard I’m afraid.

    The reason publishers ‘dictate’ is because they know what the f**k they are doing, most self publishers are clueless and deluded about the crap they write.

    Seriously, most self published authors are self published for a good reason and it has nothing to do with creative freedom or being in control.

    1. Steve, what name do you write under? I am genuinely interested to see what a really cracking professionally managed book should look like, but I couldn’t find anything written under the name Steve Mason.

  9. I agree wholeheartedly with all Ann Swinfen says. Marketing is a stumbling-block, whether traditional or indie. We may understand our target readership and not be short of ideas for promotion, but it’s such a monumental investment of time, energy and money. So easy for writing time to shrink to around a 10% ratio. Nor, as indies, do we have access to the selling of rights in appropriate markets. Should we be spending time trying to get into bookshops? Even for mainstream publications, they were never the average author’s friend. Plus that method of warehousing, transport, sales and returns etc., pushes up costs, is labour-intensive, eats time, has a heavy carbon footprint and is outmoded. It’s why the industry is collapsing. Even in these days of cutbacks, getting into libraries seems to me a better aim. A sale is a sale. I suspect that somewhere along the line, ‘gatekeepers’ will have to be re-introduced. As I see it at the moment, the future lies in a wholly professional and streamlined alternative to traditional publishing based on online sales and POD.

    At least we are free to experiment with pricing or giveaways which makes ebooks (and even prints) a real competitor to the mainstream industry, resulting in those Amazon figures!

  10. Me too Ann, my experience is very like yours. And if you’re only a year in, I predict you’ll get to grips with the marketing side soon… it’s about taking control also and doing things your own way but it takes a while to settle in. I’m only really understanding what I’m doing now and I started in 2012. Like you, I feel so privileged to have been here for this sea-change.

  11. As a writer who was originally published in the traditional way, I switched at the beginning of this year to becoming an indie author-publisher, after ever-growing frustration with the current state of the publishing industry. The two things I value most about indie publishing are being in control of the whole process and becoming part of such a warm, supportive community. It has its down-side – I’m hopeless at promotion and marketing – but these days you’re meant to do most of it yourself even in the traditional industry, so it can’t be avoided! Prompt payment of royalties is a bonus too. Finally, it is positively exciting to be part of this sea-change in the world of books, where authors themselves matter and are in control, as they were right up to the end of the nineteenth century, and in some cases into the twentieth. I’m a much happier writer than I used to be..

  12. I just had the opportunity to hear Hugh Howey speak. It was not only inspiring and fun (he has a great sense of humor), but it reminded me (again) why I self publish: control and empowerment. I control what I write and when it gets released. And I have more control over when I get paid. I also love the fact that I’m finally making the most money from the revenue stream that *I* generate. I went back and totaled up what I made on my books when they were trad/small press published and it was depressing to see how much others made off my work. I was last in line to get paid and got paid the least. One publisher paid ONCE a year. Publishing is still pretty crazy, but as Howey reminded me, I would write if no one paid me. I love it and love what I do. But it’s is nice to be making money from my writing. There’s more, but I’ll stop here. 🙂

    1. Pretty fun and inspiring to hear you too, Pauline! 🙂 Congratulations on your self-publishing success and thanks for letting us know about your experience.

  13. The top 100 will always be dominated by books by or about those with celebrity status, but the top 1000 makes interesting viewing for SP supporters. I imagine anyone in the top 10 000 is making a fair living, I’ve not reached that happy point but my steady trickle of royalties is very welcome indeed as supplementary income. I have readers who buy my books the minute they come out (and long may their numbers continue to grow) and that is the biggest rush any writer can know. I’ve agonized over taking chances, and been smacked in reviews when I did, but also supported by reader reviews. My decision, ultimately, after beta reader and editor feedback, and that is a large part of what being SP is about. Risks, learning curves, pushing new boundaries, are not mantras in the traditional publishing industry.

    ALLi is a great group. My weakest link is marketing / promotion but it is only a matter of time before the giant surge in SP tackles that too and then, oh my, watch the sparks fly. For now, writing, and watching the rising profile of the best Indies across the world as they are increasingly recognized as serious contenders, is a very happy place.

    1. Thanks for being here Elegsabiff! You’ve touched on another one of my favourite reasons for self-publishing: the closer connection with readers. I’m increasingly drawing on them as a resource, a dynamic that’s greatly pleasing to us both. And I’m so glad you’re benefitting from ALLi membership. If you get a moment to say so on this post, that would be great: https://selfpublishingadvice.org/alliance-of-indie-authors-members-on-member-benefits/

  14. Self-pubbing provides FREEDOM: freedom to write what I want, publish what I want, hire the artists and editors I want, choose the tiles I want, pick the prices I want, choose the genres I want, choose the book length and page size I want, choose the formats I want, and probably more I can’t think of this early on a Saturday morning (4:56 am in the US).

  15. I’d fully concur with Orna on this…. And even more so since joining the Alliance of Independent Authors where I’ve made some wonderful friends and found fantastic mutual support – a far cry from the early days of writing on what felt like a desert island! Another obvious key benefit is having the means of production to get my work out there to my timetable – having control over my creative work is so empowering. (Albeit, of course, subject to all the editorial checks and balances already mentioned in the article above…)

    I’m delighted to say that the sales of three of my titles apparently outstrip the typical sale volumes for many (or even most – I’m not sure) mid-list traditionally published children’s authors – this is especially the case for The Secret Lake whose sales are well over 6,000. (I’ve been told this by industry insiders when revealing my sales stats….). So winning both on royalty and the books sold side of things certainly can be done 🙂

    1. Most certainly can! Even in the challenging world of children’s publishing. Thanks Karen and for sharing your sales “facts”, something so many publishers keep hidden.

  16. I like the last one – you can write what you like. You don’t have anyone saying, you can’t write that it won’t sell. Or something I’ve come across personally, ‘It’s not strong enough to compete in the current market’. I love the fact I can write what I want and to what length. I can write short stories to novelettes.

    1. Hurrah for creative freedom! I used to get those rejections too, Julie, back in the day and then when I finally did get a good publishing deal, I hated the treatment my books got as they tried to squeeze them into that old “current market”, instead of slowly, book by book, building a readership, as I do now. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  17. Thanks Debbie for the kind mentions. I especially like the way you’ve approached this from the viewpoint of the reader as well as the writer. One of my own favourite facts about self-publishing (I have so many!) is that it has turned writing from being one of the loneliest jobs in the world to one of the most social. I’m blown away everyday by the kindness and generosity of hardworking indie authors. Thanks for a great list and I look forward to hearing what’s important to others.

  18. I didn’t state a partial fact, William. I just didn’t feel the need to state the obvious. But be careful not to make the false assumption that because a book is self-published, it will sell fewer copies than a trade-published one. Plenty of self-published books sell many more copies than trade-published ones.

    1. I guess I don’t see this post as something for people actually in self publishing, but for people looking to go into self publishing. So for as to being obvious, I am not sure.

      Please show data that the average self-published book sells the same number of or more copies as a traditionally published one, and more importantly, that incomes from that are equal. Pointing out million selling authors on either side is not proof of anything except people do win the lottery.

      Speaking of false assumptions, your assumption is that any author can be as good and have the network to sell an equal numbers of copies as any publisher. I would be happy to see that data as well. Self publishing and tradition publishing are two valid options for being published. Simply dangling the carrot that you can get more money per book is not enough if you only sell 10.

      I am not against self publishing, but I think people should know the realities of the business, not simply the ideal of it. It is really hard to make a living out of any creative field. Most do not succeed. Many that do don’t actually need to have an income from that media. People should be going into this with their eyes open. It is hard enough without the expectations.

      1. Hi William, Debbie’s off in the wilds of Scotland now on half-term holidays. Looking at this debate from the outside, it looks a little like assumptions about assumptions! What I took from the post was “earning potential… in terms of the percentage”. In other words, all else being equal, in selling the same number of copies, a self-published title earns (considerably) more for the author than a trade published title. Debbie’s comment said, “don’t assume a self-published title sells fewer” which is not at all the same as saying the “average” self-pubbed title sells the same/more than the “average” trade published book. What I’m sure we all agree on is that having more options has to be a good thing for writers and as a refugee from trade publishing myself, I’m not surprised by the numbers of our members who now prefer the self-publishing route. But of course, these two are not opposites; many writers use both options, depending on the needs of a particular project. You’re right that it’s not easy to make a living in any creative field (supply and demand, alas!) but it has rarely — if ever — been easier for a hardworking author who understands how to publish well to make a living from writing. For which: thank you, self-publishing!

  19. I really don’t mind the discussion of self publishing, I obviously find it a great opportunity. But I also don’t find it a good idea to state partial facts. Yes, the royalty is higher, but if the unit sales is greater through a publisher, than simple royalty rate is not an indicator of income.

  20. I just checked Amazon’s top 100 books. I could not find a single self-published title. Are you sure Jon Fine was not simply talking about some small sub-catagory of Kindle titles?

    1. Top 100 sellers of the whole year, William, not top 100 on any one day’s list. I will ask Orna as I’m quoting her. I am not sure whether he meant ebooks or all books. Either would be an impressive figure.

    2. Some authors will cheat the system and buy positive reviews. People read reviews to see what real people thought of your book. If you can’t get ahead without cheating, you should play a different game! That’s my philosophy, and I think that the trust I build with my book and blog readers will be THE key factor that sustains my business. Not only is review tampering highly unethical, but I find it unnecessary.

      Cheating gets you ahead today; honesty builds a foundation for life. It feels good to know that people will look at Mini Habits’ reviews and see nothing but honest feedback. Fortunately, the feedback has been positive, and that’s why overdelivering is important.

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