Self-Publishing Numbers: The Cost, The Profits, And What Constitutes Good Book Sales | Self-Publishing Relief

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At Self-Publishing Relief, we know that, for many writers, self-publishing is an investment in the future. But it can be difficult for indie authors to get a clear picture of their financial forecast in the publishing industry. How much does it cost to self-publish a book? How much money do most creative writers make when self-publishing? Which book genres are selling like hotcakes for self-published writers—and which ones are not?

Today, we’re shining some light on the mystifying statistics and sales figures for contemporary self-publishing.

How Much Does It Cost To Self-Publish A Book?

There is no more profitable investment than investing in yourself.
It is the best investment you can make; you can never go wrong with it.―Roy T. Bennett

It may not surprise you to learn there is no easy way to tally the average investment writers make in their efforts to self-publish. The difficulty is that comparing one author’s investment to another is comparing apples to oranges.

If one author chooses a free approach to self-publishing by uploading a book on a single major retail website, and another author chooses to hire a professional self-publishing company and also decides to “go wide” and publish on more than one platform, the end results are two very, very different products.

Three Different Ways To Self-Publish A Book—Each With Different Costs

No-cost self-publishing. It is entirely possible to publish a book without spending a single penny. Some retailers, like Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), allow writers to upload their books for free and set their own prices.

Medium-cost self-publishing. Some writers cherry-pick which parts of the publishing process they will handle on their own and which they will outsource to dedicated professionals.

Full investment. Writers who prefer to hand over the publishing process to experts often hire third-party publishing assistance companies (often called self-publishing companies) to handle the nitty-gritty work on their behalf.

(One quick note on vocabulary: Within the larger publishing industry, many professionals are getting away from the term “vanity publishing,” and so we do not use it here. Some people do claim a distinction between vanity publishing and self-publishing, but more and more that distinction is becoming less practical than semantic.)

How Much Does It Cost To Self-Publish A Book?

No Cost Medium Cost Professional Investment
Free digital publishing tools. Self-publishing platforms like Kobo and KDP offer stripped-down tools that allow you to upload text and create simple cover designs with stock art and standards fonts for digital-only publishing. DIY self-publishing. Authors purchase/design their own artwork, hire someone to proofread and format a book, manage all aspects of production and release for both print and e-book publishing. Third-party companies can manage the publishing process to ensure that a book is given a professional treatment. Services range from proofreading/formatting, to cover art design, back jacket copywriting, and more.
COST: $0 COST: Investment varies depending on the contractors’ rates. AVERAGE RANGE: $500-$1,200 or more. COST: $700-$10,000, depending on the services offered.
ADVANTAGE: It’s free. Unfortunately, free tools do not always promise high-end quality in the text, and avid readers are likely to key in to stock cover design. ADVANTAGE: If you are willing to take on some of the work of self-publishing, or if you have a particular talent for copywriting or graphic design, you may be able to save yourself some money. That said, in the “time is money” equation, you will have to decide if your investment should be in your writing time or your admin-tasks time. ADVANTAGE: Self-publishing companies employ professionals to ensure that your book can compete in a crowded marketplace and appear to its best advantage. Also, working with a publishing partner can save you dozens upon dozens of hours spent not only learning the nuances of publishing in your genre, but actually getting it done.

 

What Are The Average Costs Of Individual Services Needed To Self-Publish A Book?

If you were to break down the cost of self-publishing your book, here are some averages regarding pricing and investment that may help you decide which publishing path to take.

Cover art. Your investment in design may be affected by your choice to publish in print or digital format. If you are publishing only in e-book format, you need only a front cover. But if you’re publishing a print book, you also need a back cover and spine. Some companies offer affordable predesigned cover art; other authors prefer cover art that is fully customized to their particular book. There are some very basic covers out there for under $100, but plan on spending more like $200 to $600. And a top-tier custom cover can cost over $1,000.

Freelance content editing. Content editors focus on the content of your book to ensure that it is readable, accessible, and engaging. The price for editing a full-length book manuscript can vary from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, based on the experience level of the editor. Another point to consider: Some editors charge by the word count or page, while others charge by the hour. Budget between $500 and $2,500 for this service.

Proofreading. Spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors annoy readers; no writer wants to see his or her typos highlighted in book reviews. As with content editing, the cost for proofreading varies widely, depending on the level of service you need and the proofer’s experience. For a manuscript of 75,000 words (approximately 300 pages), expect to spend between $750 and $2,500.

Formatting. Proper formatting is essential, especially for a book you plan to self-publish. Some publishers require specific formatting prior to publication. The cost for outsourcing this step can start at under $100 for an e-book only, to a few hundred dollars for both e-book and print book formatting.

If you would rather hire a company to help you manage the self-publishing process, here are some examples of pricing.

What Are The Hidden Costs Of Self-Publishing A Book?

It’s one thing to self-publish a book. It’s another thing to invest in a long-term writing career. Here are a few additional costs that are sometimes associated with the self-publishing process:

  • Author website design (plus hosting, artwork, and other add-ins for functionality)
  • Author headshot/professional portrait
  • Professional book review services
  • Publicity assistance
  • Social media consultation
  • Prizes and giveaways for fan-building contests
  • Promotional gift baskets
  • Other promotional goodies
  • Trade organization membership dues and writing conference fees
  • Advertising and sponsorship
  • Travel costs for promotion

Every penny NOT spent on investing in yourself (after basic needs of course)
may be a wasted future opportunity…―Richie Norton

What Is The Average Number Of Books Sold By Self-Published Authors?

Determining the average number of books sold by self-published authors is no easy task: the numbers change depending on who is counting.

Here are a few statistics to offer some ballpark ideas regarding how many copies of a self-published book an indie writer may expect to sell.

According to this source, a 2006 article from Publishers Weekly claimed that the average number of books sold by self-published authors is three thousand over the lifetime of the book. In the first year, a self-published author can expect to sell between 250 and 300 copies of a print book on average.

According to the writers trade organization SFWA, the total number of self-published print books sold over the lifetime of a book is only 250.

Our informal survey of the blogosphere indicates that many writers, anecdotally, put the total number of lifetime book sales for a given self-published title at three thousand—though whether that number reflects print and/or e-book sales is often left unclear.

If you’re looking for numbers regarding how many e-books (as opposed to print books) you might be able to sell specifically on Amazon, it may be difficult to find solid statistics. But you can get some ideas by checking out this comprehensive report on book sales statistics from authorearnings.com.

According to the report: Even if your book falls into the bottom 40 percent of Amazon’s e-book sales, you’re still in much better shape than you would have been before the advent of self-publishing:

Whether those 160,000 lowest-selling indies represent good news or bad news depends on your perspective: whether you view the glass as half-empty or half-full. In the past, when traditional publishing was the only real choice authors had, their manuscripts would have instead languished in traditional publishing’s slush pile, unpublished and unread. Instead, they are now collectively selling 150,000 copies a day, earning each of their authors, on average, $250/year — or roughly $100/title. And getting read, too, if not yet by many, and hopefully finding a few fans along the way.

What Is The Average Amount Of Money An Author Can Make By Self-Publishing?

The number of books a self-published writer sells does not necessarily correlate with how much money he or she can make. After all, one of the advantages of being an indie author is maintaining control over the price point of a self-published book. Two writers who sell the same number of books at two different price points will see very different profit margins.

Learn more:

What’s The Right Price For Your Self-Published Print Book?

How Should I Price My E-Book?

That said, some attempts have been made to collect statistics regarding the average amount of money that self-published authors can make.

According to this 2011 report by The Guardian, half of all self-published authors make less than five hundred dollars. But only 5 percent of respondents consider themselves unsuccessful, which means that the rewards of self-publishing are not measured merely in dollars and cents. The average amount of money reported by the self-published writers who responded to the survey was $10,000 a year.

While many may find themselves making only few hundred dollars a year through self-publishing,  a number of self-published authors have surpassed the “million dollars a year” mark, even entering double-digit millions. Here are some true stories of writers who have made a lot of money through self-publishing.

How much you are able to earn as a self-published author depends in part on the vigorous buying habits of your potential readership. Again, according to the aforementioned article from The Guardian:

Romance authors earned 170% more than their peers, while authors in other genres fared much worse: science-fiction writers earned 38% of the $10,000 average, fantasy writers 32%, and literary fiction authors just 20% of the $10,000 average.

Interestingly, the income for some self-published authors may not be wildly different than the average income for traditionally published authors. According to this 2015 article from The Guardian:

Traditionally published authors [make] a median annual income of $3,000–$4,999…

Overall, half of the writers—traditional and independent—surveyed this year earned $1,000– $2,999 or less (editor’s note: per year). At the top end, almost 10% earned $100,000 or more, with 4.1% earning $250,000 or more.

How To Make Sense Of The Confusing Statistics About Self-Publishing Book Sales, Cost, Profitability, And Investment

The statistics regarding how much profit you stand to make as a self-published author can be confusing.

As a takeaway, we would like to offer an old-school if/then statement to help make sense of the numbers.

First, the IF:

  • If your book is pretty good
  • If you invest a reasonable amount of time/money to ensure that your book appears professional
  • If you have a clear idea of your book’s audience and how to reach readers
  • If you’re willing to dedicate some time to marketing and publicity

THEN you can reasonably expect:

  • To sell at least a few hundred copies of your self-published book in the first year
  • To possibly sell a few thousand copies of the book over time, provided you continue to make an effort to market and promote
  • To recoup part or all of your investment, depending on your price point and marketing effort

And you just might:

  • Make a fortune, if you’ve put yourself in the right place at the right time to connect with eager booklovers who just can’t stop themselves from buying every single thing you write

How Many Books Must A Self-Published Author Sell In Order To Be Taken Seriously By A Literary Agent Or Traditional Publisher?

Sometimes, indie authors are interested in transitioning to a traditional publishing model. But how many books does a writer have to sell before an editor or literary agent decides that a self-published book has enough readers to merit a traditional book contract?

It is a general publishing industry rule of thumb that literary agents tend to get excited about the prospect of working with a self-published author when that author has sold five thousand copies in one year.

But that statistic can be very misleading. After all, there’s no telling what might ignite a literary agent’s interest. Sometimes, a self-published book with low sales numbers may still be an irresistible story to a literary agent—so in this case, it’s not numbers that drive an agent’s curiosity but the effectiveness of the query letter.

Believing and investing in yourself is the best way to shift your thinking
from a paradigm of excuses to one of solutions.―Farshad Asl

If your self-published book sales numbers are low, we urge you not to be discouraged. Although literary agents are often on the hunt for books that could promise to be lucrative, many professionals who work in the publishing industry do so not because they anticipate making a fortune but because they just happen to really love books. It would be an injustice to write off your book’s potential for literary agent representation due to low sales numbers. Editors and literary agents are always on the hunt for hidden gems and undiscovered talents.

Learn more: How To Query A Literary Agent With A Self-Published Book | Self-Publishing Relief

What Are The Signs That You Could Make A Lot Of Money By Self-Publishing As An Indie Author?

If you’re hoping to make a lot of money by self-publishing a book, your success depends not only on the content and marketability of your product, but also on your own particular skill set beyond the written word.

Here are a few things that best-selling self-published authors have in common.

Don’t work for money; make it work for you.—Robert Kiyosaki

Profitable genres. Read more about which book genres are most profitable for self-publishing.

A book series. A series works to draw readers from one book to the next, increasing engagement. Often, writers will offer the first book in a series for little-to-no money in hopes of luring readers to pay for future installments.

Dedicated followers. Whether through newsletters, advertisements, or social media outreach, financially successful self-published writers gather a fan base.

A backlist of books. This way, purchasing ad space for one single ad could lead to multiple book sales and increase a writer’s potential return on investment.

Frequent publication schedule. Writers who are making a lot of money tend to be writers who work quickly and release books regularly.

Smart marketing. Fan-building writers understand the importance of Facebook ads, Amazon ads, BookBub ads, and other platforms to boost discoverability.

Which Indie Publisher Sells The Most Self-Published Books?

Doing what we love, investing in ourselves pays off.―Akiroq Brost

According to statistics cited by Publishers Weekly, Amazon’s CreateSpace has largely held the number one spot as the publisher releasing the most self-published PRINT books each year. In 2017, it released over half a million self-published titles. Self-publishing company Lulu came in at a distant second, with around 40,000 titles. Author Solutions and Blurb rounded off the list in third and fourth place. However, Amazon has folded CreateSpace into Kindle Direct Publishing.

As for e-books, Amazon again holds the top spot with its KDP program. There are over five million self-published KDP books available through Amazon. The retail giant has been mercurial about releasing statistics, sometimes embracing transparency and sometimes obscuring numbers. Anecdotally, it has been speculated that at least one new KDP book is uploaded every five minutes.

After Amazon, Smashwords holds the second place spot in digital publishing, and at the time of this writing, they have released approximately half a million books. While KDP authors are usually confined to the Amazon platform, Smashwords functions as a distributor which allows authors to compete in other marketplaces.

One thing is certain: Self-publishing is here to stay. Since 2011, the industry has seen a 218 percent increase in applications for ISBN numbers for self-published books.

For a free one-on-one consultation about your self-publishing goals, reach out to the experts at Self-Publishing Relief.

Could An Alternative Publisher Be A Profitable Choice For You?

In the old days, publishing models cast self-publishing and traditional publishing (also called legacy publishing) as diametric opposites. With self-publishing, authors took on the burden of investment. With traditional publishing, publishers took on the burden of investment.

But these days, new publishing models are offering creative writers opportunities that might have been unthinkable fifteen years ago.

Hybrid publishers straddle the line between self-publishing and traditional publishing, so that both author and publisher split the financial burden of the publishing process —and also split the profits. There is no one particular model that defines hybrid publishing; each hybrid publisher has its own system.

That said, it may be difficult to spot a good hybrid publisher when you see one. Many hybrid publishers are viewed as preying on creative writers, promising mythological “respectability” that can’t necessarily be delivered. This article from SFWA shines more light on the differences between subsidy publishers, vanity publishers, and hybrid publishers.

If you’re the kind of person who is prepared to do a lot of due diligence before signing a contract with a publishing house, then you may want to investigate the possibility of working with a hybrid publisher as an alternative to either self-publishing or traditional publishing.

(Editor’s note of disambiguation: If you’ve heard the term “hybrid author,” you may think that it’s the term for an author who works with a hybrid publisher. But that’s not necessarily the case. In the parlance of the publishing industry, a hybrid author is a writer published both independently and traditionally.)

Making Cents: What Is The True Reward Of Self-Publishing?

If you want to be truly successful, invest in yourself to get the knowledge you need to find your unique factor.
When you find it and focus on it and persevere your success will blossom.— Sydney Madwed

While the emphasis of this article has been on clarifying the cost and profitability of self-publishing, we hope it goes without saying that many of the rewards of self-publishing are not limited to financial gain.

In fact, many writers would assert that the true benefits of publishing a book are primarily emotional. Self-published writers gain a sense of deep satisfaction from seeing their writing find a home in the world—and it’s impossible to put a price on that.

You made my dream a reality, and my upcoming projects will definitely be done by Self-Publishing Relief. Every time I look at my book…I have you people to thank.—Charles R. Young, Self-Publishing Relief client.

Read more testimonials from our happy, self-published clients.

 

Question: What do you feel are the primary advantages of self-publishing?

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