Blog by Toby Welch

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Self-Published E-books Versus Traditionally Published Books


A common question these days is whether self-published e-books can compete with books put out by professional publishers. And the corresponding question of whether authors published with small, medium, or the Big Five publishing houses have an advantage over self-published authors. To give you a snapshot, let’s check out the Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey. Dana Beth Weinberg, one of the panel members for the survey, clearly knows her stuff. Weinberg received her doctorate from Harvard University and is Professor of Sociology at Queens College – CUNY, where she directs the MA Program in Data Analytics and Applied Social Research. She shared the survey’s findings on, some of which we already know:

- Authors and publishers face a hard market, and it’s not easy to sell a lot of books.

- Publishing is a segmented market. A small percentage of authors are in a position to support themselves with their writing, no matter which publishing route they’ve chosen.

- Publishers don’t have a lock on the answers, and the contributions they make to author sales and income are increasingly in question, leading to calls for partnerships that provide greater benefit to authors.

- Self-publishing is making it easier than ever before for more authors to make at least some money, if not a lot of money, on their writing, but these authors are a small percentage of the whole.

What about manuscripts that have been rejected repeatedly by traditional publishers whose writers want their stories read? Sometimes an e-book is the only viable option for a book to have the potential for something greater than collecting dust in the bottom of a desk drawer. The story of the Fifty Shades of Grey series comes to mind. The author, E.L. James, couldn’t find a publishing home for her books; no mainstream publisher would even consider it. James decided to self-publish it as an e-book and a print-on-demand book and when sales started to climb, it caught the eye of Vintage Books. Since then, the Fifty Shades trilogy has sold over 100 million copies and counting. If James hadn’t had the option of self-publishing an e-book, the world may never have known Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele.

E.L. James aside, the question of how self-published e-books do versus traditional books is shrouded in mystery as no one is fully revealing that sales data. E-book distributors like Amazon and Kobo don’t share their e-book sales figures and they aren’t required by law to do so. But in February of 2013, Hugh Howey, the author of the bestselling originally self-published science fiction series Wool, came out with the most comprehensive, factual-based report on author earnings and sales figures on Amazon. (Type “The 7k Report” into a search engine to check it out for yourself.) After years of hypothesis, Howey’s report is rooted on the findings of 7,000 authors on Amazon, the largest book and e-book retailer in the world. The most eye-opening statistic the report unearthed was that self-published authors are outselling the Big Five. That’s huge! Let me repeat – self-published books by indie authors sell more books than those put out by the Big Five publishing houses.

I must clarify one caveat before continuing. As it would be impossible to analyze all books due to the overwhelming massive numbers, Howey’s figures are based on the e-book genres of mystery/thriller, science fiction/fantasy, and romance as they are the top three selling genres on Amazon, making up over 70% of the 100 bestsellers on Amazon. Even knowing that, Howey’s figures continue to amaze. Of the top 2,500 genre fiction bestsellers in the entire Amazon store, 86% of them are e-books. If you narrow that figure down to the top 100 best-selling books, 92% of them are e-books. No, that is not a typo. Just over nine out of ten of the top 100 best-selling books are e-books. It’s shocking, I know.

Let’s take the results a step further and discuss money. Back to the 7,000 books analyzed, works published by the Big Five take home the biggest slice of the cash pie by far. But once you take into account that the publishers, on average, give 25% of the net revenue to the author, even on e-books that have almost no overhead for a publisher, the self-published author comes out on top as he gets to keep a bigger chunk of the author earnings pie. In short, revenue is greater for books housed with traditional publishers but the writer’s actual take home pay is greater for a self-published writer. As for writers in the study that are earning seven figures, ten are indie authors, eight are published on Amazon alone, and nine are Big Five published.