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Do Self-Publishing Authors Earn More?

Do Self-Publishing Authors Earn More?

ALLi at London Book Fair

(l. to r. ) Indie Authors Hugh Howey & Orna Ross w/ Amazon's Jon Fine being interviewed at The Digital Minds Conference London Book Fair

Here at The Alliance of Independent Authors, we’re trying to get an answer to that question.

At the Digital Minds Conference at London Book Fair recently, Jon Fine said that self-published titles now account for the top 30% of books on Amazon.

Assuming those authors have self-published directly onto Amazon, and even if they are charging low prices for their books, chances are they are taking home more money than the trade-published writers sharing their top billing.

The same is true all the way down the lists, as self-publishing services pay higher percentages, in many cases far far higher, than trade publishing. And also pay out more often,

Quick aside: Authors always pay to be published. Amazon, Apple, Ingram, Kobo, Nook, and Smashwords — self-publishing's Big Six — are not “free”  as you hear some people say. They are services that take their payment at  the point of sale rather than upfront. And, trade publishers don’t “pay authors”, as some people claim but — just like self-publishing services — give writers a percentage of earned income from a book and (sometimes) an advance on those earnings, alongside paying for some of the services like editorial, design and marketing.


Since February 2014, bestselling indie author Hugh Howey and an unnamed co-author have been aggregating “mountains” of information from Amazon's online bestseller lists, bringing together data on thousands of books and publishing the data online, alongside a petition, and Hugh’s analysis of what it all means.

Some Facts from Hugh and colleague's first report (genre fiction, mystery/thriller; SF/Fantasy; Romance): 53% of bestseller lists were either self-published or from a single-author publisher, accounting for 43% of daily unit sales, compared to 34% of titles from one of trade publishing's Big Five (Hachette, Harper Collins, Holtzbrinck/Macmillan, Penguin/Random House and Simon & Schuster.

Indie authors are outselling the big five,” Hugh concluded. “That's the entire big five. Combined.”

“Indie and small-press books account for [nearly] half of the ebook sales in the most popular and bestselling genres on Amazon,” with the big five taking just 32%, even though DIY authors make only 24% of daily gross Amazon sales and Big Five, 52%.

This is because trade publishers are not passing on the income to authors, Hugh argues, and he makes a plea to trade publishing to cut back its expenditure in other areas and redirect it towards writers and readers.

Trade publishers “need to start treating the reader and the writer better, or they aren't going to survive,” he says. “They concentrate too much on their own tastes in books, in the needs of bookstores, in their relationships with the media, and not enough on the content creators and consumers.”

ALLi Members Experience

Anecdotal experience of many of our members who were previously trade published chimes with these findings, from my own experience to a recent post in an ALLi forum by historical romance writer Fenella Miller, urging a young writer not to hastily accept a deal: “I would not go with a trad publisher again as I make far more from my indie-books – both back list and new – than I did,” said Fenella, admitting “However I might be tempted to snatch at any deal if I'd not been published traditionally.”

Linda Gillard has similarly framed her “heart-warming story” as “mid-list author dumped by publisher finds success and a salary in the welcoming arms of Amazon’s KDP.”

We'd like to collect lots more qualitative data (i.e. your own stories) below.

And to heartily commend the work of Hugh Howey and his colleague, as the first author-centred attempt to grapple with quantitative data.

You can read the latest report from AuthorEarnings.com over here.

In the meantime, what's your experience?  Are you happy with the money you're making from your writing? Do you think self-published authors earn more?

Author: Orna Ross

Orna Ross is a bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction and inspirational poetry, and a creativity facilitator. As founder-director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, she has been named one of The Bookseller’s Top 100 people in publishing. 


This Post Has 34 Comments
  1. I wrote a non-fiction niche book at the end of 2012, and published it as an ebook in Jan. 2013. Writing and editing a 50,000 word book with 57 color photos, then publishing on Amazon with no outside help took me a total of 550 hours.

    It took me another 120 man hours to perfect a paperback book file on Microsoft Word, design my own cover, and convert the file to PDF for printing. I had my books printed and put them up for sale on Amazon and on my website.

    I sold 200 copies in the first six months, and I am nearing 500 at the one year mark. Ebooks have outperformed paperback sales-bringing the total number of copies sold over 1,000 in the first year.

    I’m not quite making a living, but it’s not peanuts, either. My website now outperforms Amazon in sales, and I recently attained a #1 google ranking for my website, which I built and update daily. It took 18 months of hard work to get that google ranking-and as a self published author directly marketing to readers I get paid 63% of the cover price after expenses for each website sale- I’m sure that’s far, far more per book than a traditionally published author.

    I haven’t so much as contacted a trade publisher or talked to anyone in the industry. Everything I needed to learn to do this was found on the internet through google searches. If I can do this with NO outside help…………….anyone can.

    I don’t know much about the traditional publishing industry, except that it has become redundant.

  2. Thank you Orna Ross for this practical and useful post and to Hugh Howey as well!
    I intend in the next month or in 2 months to self-publish a short criminal story as a way to prepare the ground and test the whole self-publishing experience. I also saw the bookhbub ad mention. As soon as my experience starts I’ll share it with you

  3. What’s your experience?
    I finished my first novel in 2011 and failed to get any meaningful or timely responses from dozens of agents (bar one who actually explained why it was not for her and gave me some useful advice), so I self-published on Amazon and Kobo. I use CreateSpace for PoD. I now have a novella and 3 novels published in a series, and cumulative sales are just below 60,000. I’ve paid for editing and book covers. I ‘marketed’ by offering the first book to independent free reviewers and doing the occasional giveaway on GoodReads. I once spent about $20 on some advertising on a couple of review blogs. I run a web site and Facebook page for the series.

    Are you happy with the money you’re making from your writing?
    No, I want to be a millionaire. Right now. 🙂

    Do you think self-published authors earn more?
    Than trad-pubs? Yes, if you’re talking the average writer who keeps working at it, but the distribution isn’t standard for either type. There are *lots* of self-pubs who write a few books and earn nothing, and there are a few writers that the publishers get behind who earn huge amounts, quite out of proportion with the value of the books. Not that I’m jealous.

    Would I cross the line?
    Only if a publisher offered the deal I understand Howey has – he handles the ebooks and they handle the physical books.

    Am I happy?
    Of course!

  4. The short answer is no, for me at least. But I only have one self-published novel currently and one short story. My two non-fiction titles which were published by a small trade publisher netted me £3500 in two advances.

    Since I began self-publishing in 2012 I have spent £600 on editing and marketing so I’ve still made a profit out of my writing of £2900.

    I would love to earn more money from but that isn’t my primary objective. If it was I would still be working in TV. I love being able to decide what will go in a book and what the cover will look like.

  5. Lisa, thank you for sharing. I think your story is very typical and one we hear too little about… much more interesting to most writers than the outlier, big bestsellers that get so much attention. I also am interested in the point you raise about fame. To your fans, you’re a famous writer, and their connection with your writing is providing your living. That’s what counts, not being a known name to lots of people who’ll never read your work. Congratulations!

  6. I’ve been very pleased with my earnings as an indie. I first self published in June of 2011 and had a net loss after expenses but kept experiencing slow growth, continuing to write. By end of 2012 I’d made $53K and in 2013 the number was nearly $90K. It absolutely is possible to make a good living as an indie writer. But and this is a BIG BUT… you absolutely have to keep writing and putting new content out there. The chances of getting lucky with one book and making the big time are practically nil. I didn’t start to see a dramatic upswing in sales until I had four or five books out there. That’s when the free promotions or sales or advertising starts to work. Lure them in with a good deal and they’ll buy the rest of your books if they like your writing.

    I am very prolific, releasing between four and six full length novels per year. I am currently working on my 20th book. That means I write every day, whether I’m feeling sick, it’s a holiday, or I’d rather just stay in bed and bingewatch Netflix all day (Man, do I miss doing that!). I understand that not everyone can do this. People have full time jobs, little kids, lots of little distractions. The first book I ever wrote I got up an hour early before work to get some extra writing in, and shooed the kids away after dinner to get another two in before bed. Was it hard work? Yes. Did it pay off? Definitely. I’ve been writing full time now since January of 2013 and it’s everything I wanted it to be.

    I’m lucky to have a great editing team around me and my husband designs my covers, plus my kids are old enough to fend for themselves most of the time, so I have more time to devote to my writing. But I do make a good living at this and I still consider myself a nobody in the world of books. I have a strong core of fans but by and large most people have never heard of me. I have to think that if I was making 25% of net from a traditional publisher on the sales of my books I’d still be working full time at my miserable day job and using the proceeds to buy shoes instead of supporting my family.

  7. I guess I’m the only here not selling anything outside Bookbub promos. I have looked at promo treads at kboards’ Writer’s Cafe and see I have results similar to many others. I looked at book rankings on Amazon of many writers-bloggers, their fiction is ranked outside 100,000 when not promoted via paid ads. This is less than one copy a day. But their how-to-publish books are doing well. Unless you are a prolific writer of romance, thriller and mystery it’s hard to get sales in fiction. And I don’t think that most titles outside top 100000 on Amazon, that’s over a million of them, are trad published.
    In terms if promos, I have tried virtually all type of advertising, blog tours, etc. Bookbub, KBT, Bookblast, ENT are the only one resulted in sales, but unless you have a backlist if 3-5 titles in the same genre they would be difficult to sustain.

    1. thanks Gregory, you raise interesting questions and it is undoubtedly true that genre fiction and nonfiction provide the most likely prospect of making living for writers. I know one Booker Prize winner whose book was selling 700 copies a year before he won the prize. There was a brief flurry when he sold thousands, now it’s back down to the same level. He has since started a (much more successful) crime series. The market for literary fiction and creative nonfiction is small, always was. Nonetheless, it’s my experience — and of many other litfic authors I’ve met — that they earn more selfpubbing than in trade. What is essential, whichever genre you work in, as you so rightly point out, is to write many books. The one-hit wonder is so rare as to be discountable. Thanks for joining the discussion and sharing your experience (and detective work!)

  8. Thx for initiating this discussion with a fabulous post, Orna.

    I am a hybrid author, having been traditionally published 3x, and self-publishing my first title last fall.

    I am satisfied with my per book earnings. I just need to work on my distribution. Am focusing mostly on printed copies of my book vs e-book sales, although I’m not sure why. Such a learning process. Thx to my editor for pointing me in the direction of this post and ALLI.

    1. Hi Doreen, thanks for dropping by and delighted you’re satisfied with your earnings to date. In our new book, Choosing A Self-Publishing Service, what is recommended for print is to use Createspace to reach Amazon distribution but opt out of their extended distribution and use Ingram — Spark or LSI — to reach the rest. Good luck with the print distrib, I guess there are all sorts of rewards for print, beyond the monetary!

  9. Congratulations Pauline, sounds like you’ve found the right path for you. It’s sad to think of another small press closing — and of course their “cut” of the income has to be shared with booksellers, wholesaler etc. It’s an almost impossible business model now for all but the biggest publlshers. But there’s a lot of ‘slack” there for indie authors to pick up. Delighted you’re growing your income and love that “not yet”.

  10. While I was grievously ill in January, I did something I’d been wanting to do. I went back and added up numbers for all of my published book. I went indie last July when my publisher closed its doors. I have been with a mid-size trad press and smaller presses for bulk of my published “life.”

    The short answer to your question is: no, not yet.

    But I made more in three months than my best year. Those books have had a long life, so I’ll need to sell more to make more as an indie. But….

    For the first time, I made more from books than someone else did. For me, that is the real story of going indie. I’m the one making the most money on each sale. I found my first royalty statement from my trad pub:

    They made 50K+ and I made 4K if I rounded up.

    I loved the small presses I worked with, but they were still making 2/3 more than I was on the sale of my books. And, because they paid quarterly, they got to use it to build their business. While I played guessing games about what things I did actually sold more books.

    So the “long” answer is heck yes, I’m making more. 🙂 And I know more so I can be more effectively with my business.

  11. I’ve been self-publishing since the dawn of Lulu.com, my first novel appearing in 2008 as a Print on Demand book. There was a gap to my second book, and during that time the Kindle was born. I’ve now self-published eight books, sold about a dozen actual paper books but several hundred ebooks – maybe even in the thousands. In the last year I’ve written and published three new books and a ‘box set’ and seen an uptick in sales just in the last month, when the latest book and the box set appeared.

    The moral seems to be, as everyone says, you have to publish more books and stick around. The internet is like a big spidery-thing that infiltrates your name and your work into many nooks and crannies and eventually your audience finds you. I couldn’t live off what I make at the moment – maybe a couple of hundred dollars a month – but I’m hoping in a year, that will change. Or I become a banker…

    1. Hey, another Lulu alumni! I used Lulu for my first novel, back in 2005. Stuck with them until Swarm Press picked up the paperback rights in 2008. I was even a guest on the Lulu Podcast a few times.

      Good times..!

  12. I think self publishers have the potential to earn good money because they can control what they do and exploit opportunities as they arise. More books equals more sales. My sales have increased since I released my second book and I expect to earn more with the release of book 3 later this year.

    1. Thanks Eliza! It will be interesting to see what happens. Other members have reported Books 3 and 5 as being the two most significant “jump ups”, in terms of income and readers. Look forward to seeing what happens for you.

  13. My first year I made $5,000, my second year I made $25,000, and in both 2012 and 2013 (I started publishing November 2009–so in fact in year three and four of my career as an indie author) my income tripled and I made as much each year as I was making as a full time history professor at the peak of my career. This year, my fifth year, I am on schedule to make the same.

    This was despite never having published anything before, and since I had no back log or no back list, this is with only 3 full length books and 3 short stories.

    Most of the authors I know never made this much money in a year–and if they did it was as an advance that they then had to spread over multiple years, with no guarantee there would be anything when the advance was spent. Needless to say I am happy as an indie author.

  14. As an indie author I earn approximately 3 times what I used to earn as a mid-list award-winning traditionally published author. That means I now earn a comfortable living, selling approx. 100 downloads a day of 6 ebooks that range in price from 99p – £2.99. My books have only recently taken off in the US, so I expect my income to rise in future. I’m also beginning to sell in Canada & Australia. I think this is just the beginning.

    I’ve never made any of my books free and I do everything myself apart from design my covers, which I pay a professional to do. My only other expense is the commission I pay my agent who still works for me, selling translation rights to my indie books and looking after my one remaining trad pub book which is still with the publisher who dropped me.

    I’m sure I could earn more if I got to grips with Twitter, Bookbub and other selling & marketing tools, but I prefer to prioritise writing. I aim to produce a book a year, so my marketing strategies have to fit in with that writing workload.

    I’m very happy with what I earn, although I do work very hard for it. Obviously, I didn’t become a writer for the money. It never use to bother me that I wasn’t making much out of my traditionally published books. What bugged me was that other people *were*.

    1. “Just the beginning” indeed Linda — thanks so much for the clarity around the figures, for sharing your results and the insight into you business model ie. focus on the writing and the pricing you use. Congratulations on doing so well in the challenging world of literary fiction.

  15. “Are you happy with the money you’re making from your writing?”

    Happy isn’t the word I’d use, or even the emotion I’m hoping for.

    So I’ll re-phrase it: Am I satisfied with the money I’m making from my writing?


    Looked at as a business “my writing” is in the red. If my writing is to bring me a monthly lifestyle-sustaining net income, it’s got a long way to go. We’re talking orders of magnitude amounts to go. It supplements, but does not replace, income I receive from my creative services business.

    By the way, I’d ask that question of *all* authors. I think you’ll find the majority will answer the same way: “No.”

    “Do you think self-published authors earn more?”

    I assume you mean more than authors who work with a publisher.

    That’s such an open ended question, I wonder if you’ll ever get a meaningful answer, or if responses will just add to anecdotal noise.

    Here’s my piece of static:

    If one takes the “average” self-published author with one book and the “average” traditionally published author with one book, the answer is “no.”

    Traditionally published authors receive an advance on royalties. Whether you were published un-agented by a small press and received at token $1000, as I was and did in 2008, or you receive the average agent-brokered “nice deal” from a larger publisher (around $25000, by some estimates), that’s much more than the average self-published author will earn in a year from a single book of their own.

    That’s *one* reason why authors should never steadfastly consider themselves “indie” or otherwise. The deal that returns the best possible return should always be on the table. Sometimes, that means signing a publishing contract. Sometimes it doesn’t.

    1. Thanks so much for the thoughtful answers, Matthew. I do think personal testimony is really important, and adds up to much more than “anecdotal noise”, especially in a context where a lot of people (publishers, trade pubbed only authors, literary agents) are talking about something (indie author income) without having experienced it. Nothing benefits other writers more, I think, than the experience of other real-life authors — even if their own experience differs. Also ALLi’s definition of “indie” in no way precludes accepting a contract on favourable terms from a trade publisher (http://allianceindependentauthors.org/faq/#what-is-an-independent-author). One study found that what some call “hybrid” authors — those who use trade pub for some books while self-pubbing others — do best financially, http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/self-publishing-debate-part3/ but again the evidence is far from conclusive. I hope you’ll soon be *satisfied* by your book income.

  16. I am pretty happy with my earnings, though they do fluctuate a fair bit. And it’s really only this year that I have been doing well. I self-published my first book in 2011, so it’s taken a good three years to gain traction. My growing list of books has certainly helped in that respect. My biggest monthly income this year was almost $1500 and my smallest about $200. It’s going so much better than expected that I am seriously considering quitting my job and putting all my effort into my books. Because these results are from me only putting in the time I have spare. So yes, I am definitely happy with my earnings. 🙂

    1. Thank you Jessica, for contributing, and fantastic that you are doing better than expected, especially as you write in genres that conventional “wisdom” doesn’t see as doing well for indies — literary fiction, poetry etc. And thanks too for mentioning the two essentials: a growing list of books giving the traction time to build. Sounds like the day job is on the way out. 🙂

  17. Jane,

    I’d like to know more about your 5% of books sell over 1000 copies. Do you mean per month? Per year? Lifetime? I’m not familiar with that number.

    I’m at just over 2100 sales this month for my top seller, All the books in my mystery series are over 1000. My two best author friends’ best books are all well over 2,000 for the month, too, for their top titles.

    Are you maybe talking about print copies? Because again, I only have one book that I’ve ever pushed in print, my non-fiction, but it’s also over 1000.

    I’m nothing special in the world of authordom, but selling 1000 copies is just so darn easy, I struggle to understand the 5%.

    If you’re talking about selling 1,000 in a day, well, that’s harder, I’ve only done that once (May 11, 2014 – .1200).

    In fact, it’s almost impossible NOT to sell 1000 copies once one gets accepted for a Bookbub ad.

    Mostly, I just love data and I’m curious about the 5% rule and if that’s maybe something that was true 5 years ago, but in this new golden age, isn’t really applicable.



  18. I am sure that the top end self-publishers retain more of their profits than the top end traditionally published authors. Certainly, all is not rosy in the other camp. Just today, I have heard from an mid-list author friend (10 books published) contracted to Harper Collins. Her advances are now considerably less than they used to be. Her publisher no longer does ANY marketing whatsoever. She has spent £2000 of her advance promoting her latest release, excluding her time. She writes today that she is now seriously considering going indie. I am not sure how to advise her, except to say that I don’t think she knows how much her publisher does.

    The fact remains that only 5% of books sell over 1000 copies. I have spent in the region of £1200 on each of my self-published books, say £4800. I also regularly attend conferences and training courses (say £500 per year). It is only in the last fews months that I have sold enough books to get a monthly cheque from Amazon. Before that, it was sporadic. My income from writing this year has averaged £125 per month, plus the books I hand-sell on which it is very difficult to say there is any profit. I hope that my book sales will increase, however, if they continue at the current rate it will take over 3 years to pay for production costs alone. (I never factor anything in for my time.) It is hard for me to make any money selling my books via bookshops and I frequently accept that there will be a loss for the sake of long-term growth.

    I am not a novice. I have one traditionally published book and four self-published books. I have a consultancy job one day a week that pays the bills. My six-day a week job (writing and promotion) is a very expensive hobby.

    Please don’t think this is a complaint. No one is forcing me to write, or to publish the work I produce. Where I have gained enormously is prize money. I used this to fund a career break and to pay off the mortgage, so I can now live extremely cheaply. I am well aware that I am very lucky girl.

    I’d love to know at which point other indies out there broke even and what made the difference for them.

    1. Hi Jane, thank you for this generous sharing. May I ask: do you publish ebooks or just print? And also what kind of marketing was included in your £1200 budget?

    2. Hi Jane: Enjoyed reading your comments. Since you have self-published four books, I was wondering if you could suggest your best self-publisher as I have manuscript that I am thinking of self-publishing.
      I would appreciate knowing about your experience in self-publishing, especially what to watch for. Appreciate your help.

  19. This is such great and encouraging information. Most importantly, my husband – a bottom lines kind of guy – will love it! Writing to satisfy our souls and love for stories goes only so far in convincing him that it’s all worth it.

    Thank you so much for sharing this!

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