I’ve seen a few numbers circulate recently, and people using them to speculate whether self-publishing is dead, dying or something of the sort. For example, one says that the average self published author made under $500 last year. There’s been speculation that self-publishing is a bubble, and as bubbles do, it will soon burst.
But as someone who’s participated in these surveys, I know they miss a whole lot of important information. Backlist is a big one. An average survey of traditionally published authors will include a good spread of veterans and then a few debut authors. Because self publishing is so damn new, it’s definitely weighted towards debut authors.
Veteran authors have the advantage of both a large backlist, an audience that already knows them, and then just the skill that comes from writing and publishing so long. Often they also have a good support system built of editor, agent, beta readers, etc. Whereas a debut author, whether traditionally published or not, is still finding his/her legs, as well as audience. A self-published debut author is further at a disadvantage, having to vet editors, not having the built-in publicity machine of a publisher’s brand.
I know many people who self-publish and many of them spent $0 on the process, opting not to get professional editing or covers. I’m not encouraging this, but it’s quite a different experience than someone who spends years going to writing conferences, pitching to agents, etc. Many of these new self published authors also would have made $0 without the path of self-publishing. For reasons of either quality or market fit, their work wasn’t getting published traditionally and so they would have made nothing, and now they’re making an extra $500 (or whatever).
None of this really looks good for self-publishing, so maybe that’s why we don’t talk about it. But it doesn’t make sense to compare that number to someone who had a manuscript that was publisher quality and fit, who paid for professional developmental and copy editing, who paid for a professional cover and book trailer, who bought enough advertising to make up for the lack of publisher influence.
There are plenty of authors who are working toward traditional publishing and have been doing so for years. They buy books on writing craft, take workshops, go to conferences and spend hundreds or thousands of dollars a year on this pursuit. And they can take decades. These people are never figured into calculations of author income because, making $0, they are not considered to have any. Contrast this to a self-publisher who may publish their first or second manuscript. They may only make $100 a year, but this is still more than the person seeking traditional publication. Again, I’m not recommending on path over the other, because you may argue that those early manuscripts aren’t ready for publication, and that’s fine.
What this does serve to illustrate is that the surveys are naturally skewed toward making self-publishing look like a poor deal financially. If all those aspiring authors who faithfully earn $0 a year, every year, were factored into published author income, traditional publishing would look pretty bad financially too! Actually it already does. Writing, on the average, is not a highly profitable profession. I would speculate that if we factored those zero-earners in, traditional publishing would be far less lucrative than self publishing.
The valuable number is not how much a self published author earned; it’s how much they profited (income minus expenditures), especially as it compares to a traditionally published author who put the same amount of effort/money into it. On an anecdotal basis, for someone who puts the leg-work in, self-publishing is actually more profitable. But we can’t confirm this via the surveys, because they didn’t ask the relevant questions.