Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

Comparing Apples to Apples

Today, the Guardian brought us a story ominously titled “Stop the press: half of self-published authors earn less than $500.” If you haven’t read it already, go ahead and click the link. I’ll wait for you to get back.

Okay, there are two bits of this that I want to comment on. This first is this:

…the average amount earned by DIY authors last year was just $10,000 (£6,375) – and half made less than $500.

This amount, however, is significantly skewed by the top earners, with less than 10% of self-publishing authors earning about 75% of the reported revenue and half of writers earning less than $500.

Um, I have just one question. When was this equation not true of traditionally published authors? And by traditionally published, I mean those published by the vaunted print publishers who pay advances. I know that when I was published by Kensington, I certainly earned less than $10,000 a year from my writing. (In fact, to this day, I haven’t earned that much from the book I sold to them, and it came out in June of 2009.)

The vast, vast majority of traditionally published authors do not make a living at it. The vast majority of authors published by digital small presses do not make a living at it. A sizable percentage of those published either traditionally or by digital small presses will earn less than $500 from their efforts. And 100% of the authors who don’t get a contract with one of those two types of publishers and don’t self-publish will make less than $500 a year.  This is basic math.

As you know, I don’t consider myself a self-publishing evangelist by any means. It’s a business decision, plain and simple, and I support authors in making the best business decision for them, whatever that is. And I happen to believe that, for a lot of authors, a traditional print publisher or small epress is a better business decision than self-publishing.

That said, articles like these that seem bent on scaring authors away from self-publishing by issuing dire warnings about how little money they might earn forget that regular publishing isn’t a guarantee of JK Rowling/Stephenie Meyers/Dan Brown-like success. Being published, however you get there, isn’t a quick road to riches. If anything, it’s a slow road to a little extra pocket money.1 ETA: An Author’s Guild study back in 2004 found the average income for its members was $5,213.28 per year. That’s hardly raking in the dough.

In other words, if you’re considering self-publishing, don’t let articles like this scare you off. Because, unless you’re offered a very tidy advance by a traditional publisher, the reality is that in an apples to apples comparison, self-publishing isn’t necessarily a bad business decision.

What is a bad business decision is the second point of the Guardian article I want to talk about. To wit:

Authors…would be well advised to spend time and money on making a title look professional, the survey found: self-publishers who received help (paid or unpaid) with story editing, copy editing and proofreading made 13% more than the average; help with cover design upped earnings by a further 34%.

So, yeah. If you do choose to self-publish, don’t cut corners. Produce a professional product. Generally, it pays off.

Okay, off my soapbox for the day.

1There’s an old joke from auto racing that my father used to tell that seems appropriate here: “How do you make a small fortune in racing? Start with a large one.”


  • Nadia Lee May 25, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    I made 3-5 times more on my own w/ my self-pub titles than with a digital first press (pubbed under another name). And the latter was out MUCH longer.

  • Eliza Knight May 28, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Great post, Jackie!

    I completely agree with you on producing a quality product, and it certainly isn’t something to shy away from.

    And you’re right, its hit or miss with both paths. Thank you for pointing that out. I remember when there were conversations like this about digital-only publishers years ago, and now most of the trad pubs are starting their own dig-lines.

    Publishing is changing in many ways. It will be interesting to see where things are 5-10 years from now.


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