Is Self-Publishing a Better Road to Wealth for Writers?

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In the world of publishing, Hugh Howey has become a celebrity of sorts. The author of Wool, a series of fantastically popular novellas that he published through’s Kindle Direct Publishing system, Howey has made more than $1 million and been held up as proof that the day of self-publishing has arrived. It’s clear that he’s an outlier. Even so, he has been beating the drum for publishers to change their business models in response to self-publishing. On Wednesday, Howey posted an analysis of Amazon data that, he says, show that self-published authors make more than writers with traditional deals.

The analysis contradicts several pieces of conventional wisdom. While other reports say that e-books account for 25 percent of sales, Howey claims that digital actually accounts for more than half of total trade book sales. He looks at three genres specifically—science fiction, mysteries and thrillers, and romance writing—and says that Kindle sales made up 86 percent of the top 2,500 bestsellers in these genres on Amazon. Within these genres, he found that indie authors sold slightly more titles than authors with Big Five publishing deals and that they accounted for 47 percent of the revenue that authors made from their work, as opposed to 32 percent from those with major publisher deals. “The much higher royalties and other advantages, such as price, seem to counterbalance the experience and marketing muscle that traditional publishers wield. This is something many have suspected to be true, but which now can be confirmed,” writes Howey.

Howey’s data provide only one snapshot of a single market on a single day. Amazon may dominate the e-book world, but its sales data don’t cover the entire industry. Revenue streams that come to authors with publishing deals, such as advances, aren’t accounted for. The data are also focused on a particular corner of the market that may not move in lockstep with markets for other types of writing.

Taking the data at face value, Howey’s report seems to demonstrate a well-known dynamic in business: Higher rewards come to those who take greater risks. If self-published authors need editing, publicity, and other services for their work, they will have to pay for those things themselves or invest the time to do them. Part of the appeal of a publishing deal is offloading those chores on a company with employees with specific expertise. Industry analyst Mike Shatzkin argues in a blog post that people who are good at writing are no more likely to succeed at these things than people who are good at cooking will be at running a restaurant. If indie publishing were truly proving more lucrative than the traditional version, argues Shatzkin, many authors would be dropping their deals and few indie authors looking for them. He says that the opposite seems to be true. He’s concerned that authors who follow Howey’s advice are setting themselves up for heartbreak:

“So my advice about Hugh Howey’s advice is simple. Totally ignore it if you’re not a genre fiction author; there’s precious little evidence or thinking in it that applies to you. And if you are a genre author, be very clear about the extra work and extra risk you take on … to get some extra margin. Both will be required for sure whether the extra margin materializes or not.”

While the report has largely served as a way for the two wings of the e-publishing industry to stake their claims, it also serves as further proof that it’s damn hard to make much money typing out sentences. Writing for Digital Book World, Beth Weinberg, a sociologist studying the digital publishing industry, parses the data to show that few of the authors in Howey’s analysis are making a living:

“In Howey’s data, 944 authors out of the 3,439 authors of the almost 7000 Amazon best-sellers (with estimated sales greater than one book per day) were estimated to have earned above federal minimum wage ($7.25×8 hours=$58/day) from their best-selling books on data collection day. This number represents more than a quarter of the top-selling writers in the selected fiction genres (27.42%), but it is an extremely small percentage of the writers in these genres with books for sale on Amazon.”

Further, these numbers count only the top tier of publishers, argues Weinberg, who says that the study is capturing somewhere between the top 1.5 percent and 4 percent of writers in each genre. Whether authors choose to self-publish or seek deals with large publishers, one thing seems clear: Most of them should keep their day jobs.

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