A Story of Outliers – The Reality of Self-Publishing
Statistics on the costs, sales and profits from self-publishing novels is hard to come by. Even harder to gauge are trends associated with author demographics such as occupation, gender, personality traits and genres. If you are looking for this information then you’ve come to the right place. However, if you are looking to be motivated by a world of flashy ‘authorpreneurs’ and a constant stream of income I suggest grabbing a stiff drink before reading any further.
A quick Google search will produce thousands of articles on self-publishing success stories – think Amanda Hocking, Lisa Genova and Mark Dawson – but the reality between the headlines is a gritty world of long hours, little pay and common mistakes. Regardless of the quality of a novel, its sales require an enormous amount of work at the grass roots level. This includes gaining reviews and a following through to effective advertising. Put simply, the vast majority of novelists do not have the skills in marketing, self-confidence or business acumen to turn their investments into a profit. This may not be their objective – many of us simply write because we love to – but for those looking to dive into self-publishing a novel for commercial purposes, the following results should provide some rare transparency.
The objective of this survey is to act as a discussion point only. The statistics are based upon self-reported data from 493 self-published novelists over six months in 2020. This relies upon honest responses and a representative cross-section of responders. I do not recommend formal citation of the results as this is not a peer-reviewed study. Unrealistic outliers have been manually removed, as well as data from duplicate IP addresses. I have also converted between currencies (most commonly £ and AUD to USD) to represent all costs in USD. See the appendix at the end of this article for further survey metrics.
For those wanting a quick overview, the following infographic summarises the survey’s key results
How many novels do self-published authors sell per year?
The average annual novel sales for those surveyed was 48, which from the outset may seem depressingly low. However, this figure includes around 20% of novelists receiving less than five sales per year, and around 2% achieving sales of over 100,000 novels per year. Note also that these sales are actual sales (for money) and do not include free downloads or giveaways.
More than half of surveyed authors sell less than 50 novels per year. Sales of between 50-100 novels per year account for 13% of those surveyed, while those selling 100-500 novels per year account for 17%. This drops significantly to 8% for those authors selling 500-1000 novels per year and reduces to just 2% for those selling 5000+ novels per year. Of those surveyed, only 9% stated that they were making a profit from novel sales.
Anyone familiar with similar studies (eg. The Authors Guild Income 2018 Survey) would not be surprised by these results. With literally millions of self-published novels available on Amazon and other platforms it is easy to see how a vast majority of such books attract little to no readership. This can be crushing to indie authors seeing their sales flat line at zero, but results show that without significant investment in editing and creative marketing there isn’t much hope for seeing sales increase.
Which occupations sell the most self-published novels?
One of the most interesting proxies for self-published novel sales is an author’s (other) occupation. This is a poorly studied relationship, and potentially an emotive one for those who value literary merit over marketing prowess. The very definition of a self-published author is one who funds their own publication and marketing costs, and it should be no surprise that occupations with higher incomes tend to have greater sales performance. But this is hardly the only story. Occupation also indicates levels of education, areas of expertise and, in some cases, personality traits; all of which appear to be significant factors in determining self-publishing ‘success’. Some of these notable traits include extroversion, seeking and accepting feedback, being self-aware and showing a willingness to change. Being able to delegate and perform accurate cost benefit analysis when planning the publication process may also be valuable characteristics.
As shown below, those who work in marketing and advertising are leaps ahead of other occupations in novel sales. While the data could be biased due to high outliers, the story is quite clear – those who already have the know-how in marketing are well equipped to showcase their work effectively and save significant costs in advertising trial-and-error.
Full-time writers represent only a small proportion of self-published novelists, as making the income to be self-sufficient is a rare feat. It can be inferred that many of these responders are writing professionally outside of novels, with the self-publishing process being a supplementary form of income. Other full-time writers may be relying on a spouse’s income, be semi-retired or list themselves in this category while studying (note: student was not a category in this list).
Those in legal professions are unsurprisingly adept at selling novels. This may be due to their inherent proficiency in writing, but also likely due to the availability of funds for self-publishing expenses.
Some of the more intriguing results include police and forensics, who, when interrogating the data further, are predominately involved in writing thrillers and mystery novels. It makes sense that a professional background in crime lends itself to higher quality and more insightful storytelling in this genre. Likewise, those in defence careers (predominately writing historical and war fiction) achieve relatively high success in selling their novels.
Those novelists working in the arts represent the highest proportion of responders, however their sales performance is not inspiring. Due to the breadth of “arts” careers it is difficult to discern specific reasons for this, however a logical assumption may be that many of these writers are publishing for their own satisfaction rather than intending to become bestsellers. With a large proportion of these writers publishing literary fiction (see further statistics on genre below) it also makes sense that sales are not – and never were – a primary motivator.
Further down the list, those who categorised themselves as unemployed or retired received very few novel sales. It could be interpreted that many of these writers are self-publishing as a hobby rather than for commercial purposes. Another assumption is that a lack of funds for investing in the marketing and advertising process has meant that many high quality novels by these writers may never attract a readership.
How much money do I need to spend on editing and marketing my novel?
There is a strong correlation between the amount self-published novelists spend on editing and marketing and the resulting sales revenue. For many, this may be a disenchanting graph but there’s no way to sugar-coat the data. Yes, it’s true that some novels become bestsellers after a chance breakthrough with little to no investment in marketing. But the chances are comparable to a musician trying to make a breakthrough against millions of other talented performers.
The data shows that there is a threshold at $9,000, below which spending on editing and marketing yields minimal return on investment. Spending beyond this point yields a dramatic increase in sales revenue. This is more likely a function of persistence rather than affording a different calibre of marketing, with many self-published authors either running out of funds or abandoning their advertising campaigns at a psychological $10,000 limit.
The obvious question arising from this graph is what self-published novelists spend an excess of $9,000 on. How does this differ from the spend of those who fail to gain reasonable revenue?
What editing and marketing tools should I be investing my time and money in?
The below table shows the percentage of self-published novelists surveyed who use a range of editing and marketing tools. Professional editors and proof-readers would be pleased to see that their services are indispensable to those making an excess of $5000 in annual sales revenue. And rightly so. A professionally edited novel is a basic prerequisite to any marketing and advertising campaign. Interestingly, only 26% of those novelists making $0-$100 in annual sales revenue employ professional editing, and even less (6%) invest in proof reading.
Another essential area that many novelists appear to neglect – and pay for in low book sales – are book cover designs. Sure, if you have the skills in Photoshop to do this yourself then go for it. Alternatively, if you are so much of a perfectionist that you scrapped the cover design you paid for and re-did it yourself (yep, that was me with The Noriega Tapes) then that may also work. A quick browse through the covers of the lowest and highest performers on Amazon will show you that professional covers are a key requirement for high sales.
Another marketing tool that suggests high sales is a professional book trailer. These can be used for social media marketing, on your author website, on Youtube, your sales platform author page (eg. Amazon) and to create GIFs for advertising. You can certainly go overboard (I had my trailer filmed in an army fort and studio, and paid for stock footage from the US Invasion of Panama) but I feel that if you’re going to do it, make it professional.
Paid advertising and the use of professional ad images is unsurprisingly low for those novelists making less than $500 in annual sales revenue. This may be the single most telling indicator of sales revenue performance. Even if your novel is terribly written and edited, an effective ad campaign should at least get you over the $100 sales revenue bracket each year.
Having an author or novel website is particularly popular among all self-published novelists. It appears to be a standard tool for those making over $1000 per year. It is also an essential requirement if you are selling books directly – which includes virtually all authors who have paid for printed copies of their books. The cost of these websites is highly variable, with a majority of authors appearing to use platforms such as Wix to create cookie-cutter sites.
Using social media for author promotion is perhaps the most common tool used by self-published novelists. It’s no surprise as these platforms are free. Even still, it is intriguing that less than a third of those authors making less than $100 in annual sales revenue have bothered to have active author accounts in Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We shouldn’t be quick to jump to conclusions about laziness though – many of us have significant anxiety associated with self-promotion. I can certainly relate to those writers who debated whether or not to keep the writing process completely secret for fear of the confused and awkward discussions that inevitably come from family, friends and colleagues who don’t always wish you well. It’s a strange and uncomfortable topic for many.
The low uptake on blogging is also an interesting one. I can’t explain these results with any simple reason, except to suggest that it just isn’t a priority for many of us. Which is interesting, because I’ve found that the traffic coming to my website is predominately finding me through blog posts rather than anyone looking for me, or my book, specifically.
A final tool that may bring out an authors’ anxiety are email distribution lists. We’re all used to receiving spam, and most of us have an aversion to the idea of being at the sending end of such emails. Nonetheless, it’s clearly a tool of choice for those at the high end of sales revenues.
Is there a direct correlation between how much I spend on marketing and novel sales?
A good way of illustrating the spread of data in this survey is using the scatter plots below. While the relationship is certainly not linear, it’s safe to say that with increased spend on some key areas (such as book cover design and advertising) you are going to increase sales. Note that the below graphs only show the results for those novelists making up to $2,000 in annual sales revenue – this is to ensure that the data trend is visible.
As you can see, there are a number of outliers where those who have spent very little on either book cover design or advertising make impressive sales. Likewise, there are plenty of examples where novelists have splashed out significant funds and received a very poor return on investment. The takeaway here must be that sales of self-published novels rely on many variables, and anyone planning their budget should consider the realistic return on each of their investments.
What is the total amount I should be spending on self-publishing a novel?
Now let’s look at a larger range of costs involved in the self-publishing process, and what the total costs can and ‘should’ be. A warning – some of the survey responders have spent what are effectively house deposits on their novel marketing. I don’t recommend using these figures as your budget or baseline. Make sure you get a number of quotes for each of these services and don’t be tempted to always go for the “Rolls-Royce” product. After all, many of the companies providing these services really don’t care how well your book sells; they make their money from your once-off spend.
I have provided the following data using the median instead of average, as this provides a more accurate representation of the actual costs of self-publishing a novel. As you might expect, the number of “zero expenditures” on many of the below categories can skew the averages downwards to an unrealistic extent.
Other services and costs not included in this list may include legal fees, search engine optimisation (SEO), audiobook costs, podcasts, the cost of social media automation services, personal coaching, paid promotional events, targeted surveys and paying for reviews or quotes by public figures.
Some of the more insightful results above include the fact that editorial and proof reading services basically plateau off around the $1000 mark. So if you are going to spend $1000 on anything, make sure it’s on these services. You’ll get the same quality service as those authors earning over $5000 in revenues.
When it comes to advertising, costs can blow out substantially. Those at the higher end of sales invest significantly more in advertising, however you’ll notice that the median actually drops for those in the highest earning bracket. This suggests that advertising gets initial sales, after which organic sales become self-sustaining. If you’re starting out, however, don’t bank on these organic sales coming from nowhere. Getting over the hump of gaining initial readers is an unescapable reality. Also consider that many (if not all) of those writers earning over $5000 in annual sales have multiple novels and/or series out. Anecdotally, a large proportion of those authors spend on advertising before and immediately after a book launch, then drop off the spend once the book has traction with readers. It shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a long-term investment.
Setting aside funds for postage is also an essential consideration for gaining reviews. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that people are going to pay top dollar for your novel without reviews. You’ll need to run a grass roots campaign to generate reviews (something I could do much better at!) and this costs a lot in postage, especially if you live in a place like Australia.
Perhaps the most interesting result above is the inverse relationship between spend on self-publishing services and annual sales revenue. In simple terms – this suggests that the more competent you are in doing the book formatting and administrative work associated with publishing your novel yourself, the more likely you are to be persistent with the marketing process, and in turn more successful at gaining sales. Conversely, those who use their funds to pay someone to create an Amazon account for them, upload a .mobi file and provide the password in a ribbon and bow are probably not going to be very competent at generating online sales.
Which methods of novel sales are most successful?
The following table shows a breakdown of the sales methods used by self-published novelists, divided into annual sales revenue brackets.
In-person sales are clearly not a high-selling option, but this method shouldn’t be discredited or avoided by those starting out. Indeed, this is the method through which book launches gain sales and is a must for new authors. Important to note also is that there were a number of survey responders earning over $2000 in annual sales who made their sales predominately from in-person sales. A vast majority who earn their revenue from online sales, however, brought the averages down significantly.
Selling through a distributor is a way of getting your novel appearing in large online bookstores, but unless you are a well-known author people aren’t going to be buying your books through these online stores. You are more likely to be selling your novel through online platforms like Amazon, Lulu, Smashwords and Kobo.
Which personality types sell more self-published novels?
This is another poorly studied topic, and unfortunately one in which initial trials of this survey received minimal responses. Instead of using DISC and MTBI personality assessments (which would have provided more detail) I simplified this down to a basic introvert and extrovert self-assessment. The results are nonetheless thought-provoking.
While extroverts only make up 27% of those self-published novelists surveyed, they accounted for a massive 63% of novel sales. For those who love nothing more than hiding away in your hyggekrog and hiding from attention, this result does not bode well. There is clearly a benefit to being confident in meeting others, joining new groups, selling both yourself and your novel with charisma, and creating a large social media following. For the highly introverted, however, don’t despair. Many are still making significant sales (potentially with a forced smile along the way!).
How do genders compare in self-published novel sales?
The breakdown between novel sales by gender is a well-studied area. In the world of traditional publishing, males have long dominated bestsellers lists and there is an abundance of research highlighting a male author bias in the traditional publishing industry. By bypassing all conscious and unconscious biases in what constitutes a sellable novel (and who writes them), self-publishing provides a fascinating insight into how the genders compare in an open market. I warn that the statistics below are an insight only and would benefit from a much larger survey, however the results suggest two interesting findings. Firstly, more females (62%) write and self-publish novels. However, when it comes to sales, the percentage of self-published novels by females represent slightly less, at 54%.
While females clearly dominate both the number of self-published novels and their sales for those surveyed, it is important to understand why the 38% of men surveyed accounted for a higher proportion (46%) of sales. Some of the reasons could include a higher level of self-confidence in male novelists in promoting their work; a potential overstating by men of their sales performance; a preference by readers for the genres in which the male writers dominate; a larger budget for editing, marketing and advertising by men (a potential function of inequality in pay), and different strategies in the marketing process. I’m keen to get other ideas to add here – feel free to comment!
Which genres sell the most self-published novels?
Like gender, the breakdown of the success of different novel genres is a well-studied topic. This information can be found by analysing the bestsellers lists, however our preferences are highly fluid. Changes in popular culture are constant, and global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic tend to influence our fiction preferences.
As shown below, the self-published novelists surveyed had a preference for writing romance (24%), Thriller & Mystery (18%) and Science Fiction/Fantasy (18%). Interestingly, those writing Thriller & Mystery had more success in novel sales (a change of +9%), as did those writing Young Adult fiction (also +9%). Those writing Romance remained steady in their proportion of sales (25%). The results suggest that those writing Science Fiction/Fantasy didn’t fare as well with sales (-3%). Similarly, there was a lower proportion of sales than writers for Contemporary Fiction (-9%) and Literary Fiction (also -9%). Another interesting finding was that those writing Erotica (only 2%) were quite successful in selling their novels (+4%), as were those writing Horror (+2%).
These results may help explain some of the results in other areas (such as gender and occupation), however I would not recommend basing any decisions on which genre to adopt based on these trends. Forcing yourself to write in a genre that is not natural to you, or which you don’t have a reading interest yourself, will not be a wise decision. There are bestselling self-published novels in all of these genres, and I would argue that the sales outliers are far more a function of the quality of the editing and marketing strategies than the genre.
Sales of self-published novels are highly dependent upon the investment in editing and proof reading, book cover design and creative marketing campaigns. No book sells without a grass roots campaign in gaining reviews and spending on postage to achieve this. Using effective advertising tools such as professional book trailers and targeting your audience with unique ad images, as well as persisting with the spend on online advertisements is critical. The results show that those who spend in excess of $9000 in marketing and advertising achieve a significant increase in sales, however there were outliers in all spend categories of this survey. Being an extrovert, working in marketing and advertising or a field related to your subject area, being active on social media, blogging and focusing on online sales were all shown to result in higher sales. Metrics such as gender and genre show trends in sales performance, however these should not be seen as determining factors.
- Survey Link (now closed):
- Survey Response Date Range:
- Jan 2020 – July 2020 (6 months)
- Survey Responders:
- Method of Survey Invitation:
- Demographics Targeting through SurveyMonkey (USA, UK, Australia)
- Email distribution list invitation
- Twitter direct messaging
- Direct contact through author websites
- Facebook messaging
- Instagram messaging
- Link via my website
- Worldwide; top countries by IP Address were USA (41%) followed by the UK (20%) and Australia (18%)