May 25, 2012

DRAMATIC SURVEY RESULTS: Self-published books are not cash cows


E.L. James

There must be plenty of people secretly scribbling away at romance and erotica novels at the moment, inspired by the E.L. James story. So perhaps this Guardian article yesterday was a timely reminder of the reality of most self-publishing stories: according to a survey of 1,007 self-published authors conducted by Taleist, the (mean) average amount they earned last year was $10,000, and the median was $500. That mean is obviously weighted at the top end by the odd runaway success story, a la Amanda Hocking and James.

There were some predictable results: writers of lit fic are least likely to make decent money, with the picture slightly rosier for genre writers, and romance writers sitting pretty, making on average 170% more than other self-published writers.

Again unsurprisingly, those authors who invested in editing and proofreading help were more likely to earn, at an average rate of 13% more than those who went it alone. And hiring a cover designer added an average 34% to earnings. Of course these services will have been paid for out of the author’s pocket, so whether that extra 13% or 34% earns out the investment is another question.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the survey is that, despite the low earnings, only 5% of the authors asked considered their efforts unsuccessful. Money isn’t the only measure of success in publishing houses either: we and other indies have many times committed to publish books knowing full well that they won’t make us much — if any — money, because we believe passionately in the worth of the book. In a way, of course, self-published authors make that same value vs value decision — just with far, far fewer beneficiaries …


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.