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The Self-Publishing Evangelist: Making Sense of The Author Earning Report

Self publishing writers make more money than traditionally publishing writers!

At least, that was the take-away by many writers and publishing-industry watchers this week, when super-bestseller Hugh Howey released a controversial website called The Author Earning Report. Now Howey, if you don’t know him, wrote the hugely successful dystopian serial novel Wool. He made a lot of headlines in 2011 when he took a deal with a publisher to do his print book but retained his ebook rights, because he said he didn’t need the help.

Howey, needless to say, has made a lot of money from self publishing, and in return has become an outspoken and usually well-spoken advocate for it (unlike some other novelists-turned-self-publishing champions, who use their platforms to throw insults and belittle others; I’m looking at you, Konrath).

But that’s not the point. The point is that Howey took a bunch of data from Amazon sales rankings, ran it through a series of computer programs, and came up with conclusions illustrated by fancy charts, the most notable being these:

Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you royalties that will support you to eternity.

Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you royalties that will support you to eternity.

“self-published [genre-fiction] authors are earning more money on fewer titles.”* 

“Most [genre-fiction] self-published authors are, on average, earning more money on fewer books.”

Hundreds of thousands of struggling writers everywhere rejoiced.

But is he right?

Probably not, according to the folks who:

a. Actually know about analyzing statistics, and

b. Don’t have a personal bias toward any particular outcome.

I’m not here to argue statistical analysis. I skipped all of those classes in college, and besides, “How (not) to lie with statistics” already makes a compelling case for how Howey and friends made flawed leaps with their data sample. (Amazon’s big, but it doesn’t even represent the majority of book sales.)

But can we really say Howey was lying? I am, by nature, a trusting person. And I really liked Wool. So I want to believe that Hugh Howey is not intentionally lying or trying to influence people to make a choice he actually knows is bad for them.

I think Howey, like a number of other very vocal, very passionate evangelists for the new publishing models, is looking through the filter of his own recent, euphoric experience and seeing what he wants to see.

Hugh Howey, in other words, has been born again.

Do you have friends who recently joined Crossfit? Or Weight Watchers? Or church?

There’s nothing like a new convert. Their faith is pure, untested by the harsh realities of life (weight loss plateaus, Rhabdomyolysis, spiritual betrayal). They haven’t asked tough questions yet. They haven’t been in this world long enough to see its dark sides.  They genuinely believe that everyone else will find the same joy, the same satisfaction, the same success that they do, and that choosing another path is missing out on a lifetime (or eternity) of satisfaction. You can’t blame most them for wanting to share their enthusiasm, even if it sometimes comes across as naive (at best) and misleading at worst.

That’s about where we are with self publishing now. These new types of widely-distributed, career-making publishing platforms for books are still in their infancy—by most measures, less than 5 years old. Almost every member of the self-publishing congregation is a new convert, when we consider the history of books and publishing. And the size and scope of the business changes monthly, as new channels open up and the competition grows by multitudes. The number of people throwing themselves into the mix is staggering.

And every single experience is different. “Success” or “failure” is all in how you choose to look at it.

For example:

Amazon brags that 150 authors self publishing through Kindle Direct Publishing sold 100,000 copies each last year.

What they leave out is that hundreds of thousands of authors have uploaded books through their site. (I tried to find an actual stat for this, but couldn’t; does anyone know how many individuals are enrolled in KDP?) Which makes a writer’s chance of hitting that 100,000 mark slightly less than getting struck by lightning while holding a winning Powerball ticket.

Howey doesn’t want to talk about those numbers, though. To him, every writer who self publishes and sells 5 copies is a writer who would have been passed over and lost in the slush piles of traditional publishers, and their work never would have had the chance to draw an audience. In that scenario, the self-published book that’s sold 5 copies is a success of self publishing.

That’s the voice of a born-again evangelist, not an unbiased statistician. And we should celebrate the optimism, hope, and forward thinking that evangelists of a new idea bring.

What we don’t have to do is blindly accept what’s too good to be true.

When we step away from the hype, I believe that if we’re going to talk about authors and money, then we need to talk about this:

Self publishing is an excellent option for writers who are willing to put the time, effort, and investment into it. Those who have the talent to attract a following, and the drive to stick with it and succeed. Those are the people who will see financial rewards.

Of the people who self published 391,000 books last year, how many are really part of that category?

Probably not as many as the number who read Howey’s article.

The vast majority of writers will never support themselves on their self-publishing (or traditional publishing) income. Most self-publishing writers won’t even make back the financial investments that they put into their books.

Those who do will be the ones who treat their writing and publishing as a job, not a hobby. They are the people who are willing to do the tedious work, learn new skills, and make appropriate investments of time and money.

Of course, financial return is not the only measure of success, and as we just finished discussing, people publish for a variety of reasons. But when you see reports like the Author Earning Report, be smart. Take it as the evangelical tract that it’s meant to be, and not the scientific study that can be tested, replicated, or guaranteed.


* Genre fiction: romance, mystery, fantasy, science fiction. Those books that used to see most of their sales in the $5 mass market editions? They’re now the center of the e-book revolution.


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