Self-publishing: 'under 10% of authors earn living'

Self-published writers who have an agent, or who use the DIY route to get a traditional deal, earn much more than the average self-published writer, according to a survey of more than 1,000 self-published writers. But only a minority (less than 10%) make enough to live off their earnings.

The survey, conducted by the Australian publisher and authors’ services business Taleist, found that just 97 of the 1,007 respondents indicated they could live exclusively off their royalties. In fact, half the respondents failed to reach $500 in royalties in 2011, with a quarter of the books facing the prospect that they will not cover their production costs.

On average, the respondents earned just over US $10,000 from their self-published books in the year. However, the survey also found that a “two-track economy” existed, whereby a small group of self-publishing authors were earning about 75% of the reported revenue. Two-thirds of these “top earners” were women, and though they are roughly the same age as the average self-published writer (roughly 40), the data showed that they had been taking writing seriously for slightly longer than the rest of the group.

Nearly three times as many top earners had an agent (29% as compared to 10%), but most did not. While having an agent was not a necessity for the majority of self-published writers—even those who earned the most money—the survey found that having an agent was associated with earnings more than three times higher than unrepresented peers.

Other keys to success included making a book trailer, investing in proofreading, editing and cover design, and being over 40. Romance writers also did better than science-fiction, fantasy or literary fiction writers. 

Authors who had once been traditionally published, or who had never been rejected by a publisher, also tended to fare better, lending support for the argument that traditional publishers are decent arbiters of quality after all. Those who were rejected by traditional publishers were the lowest earning of the respondents.

Despite the relatively low earnings, the survey found that there had been an “explosion” in the number of titles being self-published; 53% of the respondents self-published for the first time in 2011, with 20% making their début in 2010. Those who self-published for the first time in 2011 were busy: they published 2.8 books on average. Nine out of 10 of the respondents said they would continue to self-publish. A third of respondents said they had never even submitted their work to a publishing house. 

The vast majority of respondents were in the US (72%), with 9% based in the UK.

The average income for UK-based authors in 2007 was £16,500, according to an ALCS/PLR survey.