The REAL Picture Ain’t Always Rosy

This article came out in 2012, with statistics from a self-published book world survey saying that about half of all self-published authors make less than $500 per year from book royalties. Now, keep in mind that this was five years ago, right about the time when the self-publishing boom peaked. Things have changed quite a bit since then and, while inspiring stories of success still abound, the hard, ugly truth is that there are now more independent authors, and more books getting published on a daily basis than ever before, which further reduces the odds of any one book making it big. The landscape of stores and distributors has changed as well. As always, Amazon still dominates both the market place and the discussion, with its ever-expanding reach into different aspects of the publishing world, but keep in mind the eBook industry is international, and current events in foreign countries will also play a role in the success of a book or author.

In many ways, the bleak statistics from the article make sense, given that a vast number of self-published authors don’t follow the “standard” format of publishing. Since distributors and stores only impose the most basic quality controls, a lot of self-published books suffer from lack of sales because the author simply didn’t deliver at a level readers expect for the price. Maybe the cover is awful. Maybe the book isn’t formatted properly and is difficult to read. Maybe it hasn’t been edited, and the reader gets tired of seeing fifteen typographical errors on every page, and having to guess at the meaning the author may have intended. Maybe the author doesn’t really care. Maybe their only intention was to make their stories available to a small circle of their friends and loved ones, and they have no interest whatsoever in making a career out of their writing.

The great thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do that. The bad thing about it is that the circle of distribution is never that small.

This has always been and always will be a sore point between authors and readers, and the sales slump we are seeing now could very well be a sign that the market is self-correcting: weeding out the “bad apples” so the good ones can thrive.

However, another reason for low royalties is the continuing downward pricing pressure in the industry. With subscription services gaining popularity, voracious readers can now consume dozens of eBooks for a low monthly fee. When comparing that “basically free” phenomenon with a regularly priced eBook, and given the high volume of books they read on a regular basis, those regularly priced eBooks can seem overpriced. Any savvy consumer will want more for less–that’s perfectly understandable. But it puts the pressure on authors to price their eBooks lower, to offer some or all of them for free, and to do it with a smile on their face, even as they are (metaphorically) cutting off pieces of themselves to gain a foothold in the fickle book market.

Publishing has now become a matter of quantity, rather than quality. The more books you publish, the more sources of revenue you have. You make more selling 100 copies of a $0.99 book than you would selling 10 at $3.99. Faster releases piggyback off their own buzz waves, and keep the word of mouth flowing easier than if an author publishes one book every two years. Even if those slower releases are longer, better, and better presented, many times they will fail simply because readers lose interest and forget by the release date. With so many other options to choose from, instant gratification tends to win out.

From where I’m sitting, those 2012 stats don’t look like they apply any longer. I would estimate that the average annual income for self-published authors is slightly lower now and, having seen a number of authors quit over the last couple of years in order to get full time jobs because of financial problems, it hasn’t gotten any easier to make ends meet on just book royalties.

For this, and many other reasons, the best advice any author or industry professional will ever give you is this:

Write what you love, because you love it.

That love will sustain you through good times and bad. If you don’t have it, if writing doesn’t spark a fire in your soul and consume your every waking moment, all the hardships, setbacks, obstacles, and detours will eventually wear you down and kill any enjoyment you may have started out with. You can’t write to popular trends, because those change in a heartbeat. You can’t write to your audience, because their tastes will change and evolve overtime. You can never please everyone, and readers will feel your lack of passion through your written word.

Every author secretly holds out hope for the “bestselling author” title and J.K. Rowling-class fame, but if you write for the fame and fortune alone…well, as you can see, there is precious little of that to go around.

So here’s another piece of advice I feel I should impart:

Go into this with your eyes open, and a backup plan at the ready.

Knowing what you’re getting involved in, what you can expect, and how to compensate will not only save your sanity, but also keep you afloat when others around you might be sinking. Set the groundwork before you publish your first book: have an online platform and a strong social media presence to build a powerful wave of initial interest. It could mean the difference between creating a readership and fading into obscurity before you have a chance to shine. If you have a day job, hold onto it to pay the bills. Save up for the initial expenses (because they do exist and are necessary) and budget yourself to only what you can afford. Keep abreast of what’s happening in the industry and make a plan for every contingency. And above all, don’t put all of your eggs into one basket. Hedge your bets, publish everywhere possible to reach as many readers as possible.

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