Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings Report is Going to Cut the Anti-Self Publishing Rhetoric Off at the Knees

Have youkindle paperwhite 2013 had a chance to read Hugh Howey's Author Earnings Report yet? The first edition was only released yesterday, so you might not have had a chance to read it yet. I strongly urge you to do so, because at first glance it appears to undercut much of the anti-indie rhetoric of late.

Whether it's Chuck Wendig describing self-published titles as a shit volcano, Donald Maass relegating self-pub authors to steerage, or George Packer's slanted anti-indie piece in The New Yorker, there seems to be an excess of rhetoric lately critical of the quality of ebooks produced by indie publishing.

This pattern was brought to my attention in a comment by Mackay Bell yesterday. I wasn't quite sure what to think about all the criticism (I wasn't sure if it were valid), but now that I have seen the Author Earnings Report I now believe that much of it is baseless.

This report is based on the best seller lists for the Kindle Store, as reported by Amazon on their website.  The set of data I am looking at this afternoon consists of 7 thousand (ish) titles from 3 genre best seller lists: mystery, SF/F, and romance. That's an impressive sample size, and the report uses this mass of data to come up with some interesting inferences about author earnings, but I'm not interested in the money (more on this in the postscript).

What caught my attention today was what the early sections of the report said about the number of indie vs traditionally published titles on the list as well as the relative quality, price, and reader satisfaction.

One common attack aimed at self-published ebooks is that the quality is much poorer than for traditionally published titles. But as this report will show you, readers don't necessarily agree.

The first thing we learned is that ebooks from indie authors and small publishers tended to have a higher average rating and a lower average price than titles from the Big 5:


FYI: The last category, "uncategorized single-author publishers", refers to imprints that only have a single author to their credit. I think, and I'm sure most will agree, that these are probably self-published authors who created their own imprint.

Chuck Wendig characterized self-pub ebooks as a shit volcano, but if you look at the above charts it would seem that readers are quite satisfied with the self-pub ebooks they're buying - more so than with traditional titles. Perhaps the mass of poor quality ebooks he complained about aren't bothering readers quite so much as they bother Wendig. At the very least, readers are clearly finding the good stuff.

And there's a lot of good self-pub ebooks to find, as you can see from this next chart:


Isn't it interesting how Donald Maass would relegate self-pub authors to steerage, but readers would give them greater prominence on the best seller lists than titles published by the Big 5?

I don't know about you, but this makes me wonder whether all the recent criticism of self-published authors has any basis at all. I know that I never agreed with the criticism, but TBH part of my disagreement grew out of a dislike for the condescending (steerage) and insulting (shit volcano) words used to describe self-publishing.

But now that we have evidence to show that readers don't agree with the rhetoric either, I think it's safe to say that it's baseless.

Or did I miss something?

About Nate Hoffelder (11463 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader: "I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

62 Comments on Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings Report is Going to Cut the Anti-Self Publishing Rhetoric Off at the Knees

  1. The issue has always been that the traditionalist establishment and their apologists insist on comparing the best traditionalist books to the worst indie titles and run their financial comparisons between the gatekept authors (1-2% of those that submit manuscripts) against every last published indie title.
    Howey’s data and analysis isn’t exact and shouldn’t be taken as gospel but the magnitude of the difference is too big to wave off.
    The methodology is pretty clean: he simply tallied how Amazon customers voted their wallets.
    Even the naysayers are saying nothing about the data, only complaining about some of the marginal observations or trying to make it go away by saying it’s only Amazon.

    Problem is, the data speaks for itself.
    For example: Amazon publishing titles make up 4% of the top 7000 titles yet capture 15% of the sales and revenue and, most telling, deliver to their authors about as much total income to their authors as the much bigger pool of traditional publisher titles.

    Or there is the fact that audiobooks outsell hardcovers.
    Or that not only do ebooks greatly outsell print formats in unit sales but also in dollar terms.
    Or that either ebooks make a much bigger portion of genre book sales than generally reported or else the other ebookstores have much lower ebook sales volumes than reported. (Which puts Amazon in dangerous market power territory).

    There is a lot to be found in there.
    And he’s been updating the site with new reports. Like one comparing Amazon’s ebook business to the entire pbook business (including Amazon’s pbook sales).

    Howey has made a lot of “emperors” unhappy.

  2. I think you’re right on. I’ve been confused about what really comes across as a kind of hatred and anger about self-publishing being disguised as concern for “poor” readers having to sort through junk or deluded writers who should just keep their books in the drawer and give up their dreams. I mean, both of those can be solved by some quick “buyer beware” and “don’t quit your day job” advice. All the moaning and hand wringing about that this means for literature seems weird.

    And I’ll tell you want I think. Traditional publishers don’t want the completion and they’re scared, really scared. Not just because they might lose money, or have to pay writers better. But because they don’t want readers to have so many choices. It would be pretty simple for Trads to compete with self-publishing. Just pay writers a little more in advances, give them a little bit of a bigger cut of ebook sales, and generally treat them nicely. Hell, what writer wouldn’t sign a deal, even a pretty bad one, with a big publisher if it wasn’t plain out horrible, which most of the deals apparently are.

    But the problem for Trads is that it isn’t just about money, or learning to compete in a new world. It’s about their old world crumbling. It’s about three things that have nothing to do, at least directly, with money:

    SNOBBERY: They don’t like genre writing, and hate the idea of promoting it. They want to invest all their resources in “literary” fiction. Genre is supposed to be in the back of the bookstore. The want to sink their money and into trying to win big book awards and hob nobing with “serious” writers.

    ELITISM: They want to pick who is allowed to be a writer. They don’t want a bunch of high school drop outs from Bakersfield getting rich in “their” business with fast clever genre writing. If you want to be a “writer, “you’re supposed to go to the right college and suck up to professors for six years.

    INFLUENCE PEDDLING: All the big five are huge corporations with a lot of political and financial interests beyond straight publishing. They can offer a lot of quid pro quo by signing deals with politicians, the wives of politicians, famous people, Ivy League types, Military, etc. They promise to push a marginal book onto the front shelves and can calculate that at least some people will buy it and they can call it a “bestseller.” But if everything is a level playing field, if anyone can write a book and publish it, and then the readers decide what they like, the big Trad’s loose something more valuable than money. The ability to anoint “published” and “best seller” status on the chosen few.

    Of course, as Hugh’s statistics prove, all the real money is in genre. But those writers are supposed to just work the coal mines for nothing so the country club types have plenty of power for their golf courses.

    So the dilemma for the Trads is not how to they compete to get those self-published authors to work for them. The fact is, they don’t want them to exist. They don’t want them publishing at all. As far as they are concerned, there are already too many writers.

    It’s not just that the gatekeepers want to decide who gets in and who doesn’t. They don’t want a lot of people in, period. That’s what gates are for. To keep out the riffraff.

    • Spot-on, Mackay Bell! I applaud you!

    • Totally agree. I politely defended points from The Author Report on a publishing industry blog the other day, and the blogger (who claims to be objective) got quite nasty. Made me feel pretty sure that a lot of people are running scared. You don’t react like that if you merely disagree.

      • Their livelihood is at stake.

      • Some of the angry spin is coming from people who are invested in the old dysfunctional system. Particularly literary agents or people who work closely with them.

        Some of it is jealously. Like a struggling artist who went to the most expensive art schools, can’t get work and is upset his low rent uncle is making a fortune painting dogs playing poker on velvet.

        But a lot of it, I suspect, is coming from paid sock puppets. There are comments that don’t pass the smell test. They don’t sound like they’re coming from real people. Especially a lot of the “I’ve bought dozens of crappy self-published books and now I refuse to buy anything self-published” or “I feel honored to submit to agents to prove that my work following in the spirit of Hemingway…” Or my favorite spin, “If you calculate the cost of $300 proofreading, or your hourly rate for proofreading yourself, against the cost of cover design, or buying software to design your own cover, if you invested that money in a money market account and instead submitted your book to a publisher who would absorb the upfront costs, in the long run you would probably be better off than if you self-published…” Doesn’t seem like real people talking.

  3. “Or did I miss something?”

    Using bestsellers to describe the entire industry is flat out wrong. For starters.

    • I didn’t use it to describe the industry. I used it to point out a flaw in other people’s claims.

      And BTW, I would argue that regarding self-publishing as a separate industry is itself erroneous.

    • Hugh breaks it down, transparently, using both the top 100 and the top 2500. There isn’t a huge difference in the basic conclusions. I’m sure later someone can also come up with information about the top 10,000, which probably also isn’t that different. I’m not sure the top 2,500 qualifies as using “bestsellers” to describe an industry.

      Seems he’s looking at exactly the right numbers in terms of what authors want to know. The focus of Trad loyalists on the obvious fact that there are tons of self-published writers who have little or no sales, is irrelevant to a writer trying to decide whether to make a deal with a publisher or not.

      The issue for any wanna be writer is, am I better off with a Trad or Self-publishing? His figures provide a general answer for most writers in most cases.


      • Amazon, by it’s own admission, carries some 2 million titles for Kindle. 2500 is .125% of 2 million. Yes, these are all totally “bestsellers”.

        On top of that what you have is a biased sample. All of the books surveyed here are (at least) relatively successful. It doesn’t take into account that thousands of self-pubbed and traditionally published books that only sell a few dozen copies a year. .125% can be a statistically relevant sample for a population, but not here, because it pulls only from the very top echelon of sales. It would be like generalizing for the US population by looking only at the financial records of hedge fund managers.

        As for your question, the answer is *not* an easy one for most people. Yes, if you self-pub a bestseller you may get more in raw royalty receipts. But how much are you out for editing costs? Marketing? Artwork? These are all costs that a publishing house provides pro bono that a self-pubber has to account for. You’re getting way too caught up in the “omg royalties” aspect of the costs of book production.

        And it gets far messier when you go down the totem pole. That author who only sells a dozen copies a month won’t be making much from their KDP royalties. Hell, after the production costs they’re probably deep in the red. By contrast, traditionally published mid-list author who moves the same number of units will have a a much larger return. Not only do they avoid having to pay for the production costs of the book, they get to cash an advance on royalties, probably far in excess of what they could have expected to make on the book in a reasonable amount of time.

        Again, my problem is not with the data, it is with the way people are drawing conclusions from the data far too broadly. This data *might* indicate that a self-pubber who can churn out bestsellers could do better than a traditionally published author on *Amazon’s* ebook store in *specific genres*. It does not herald the end of the Big 5 and the rise of the masses. The people who try to distill it down into that soundbite, like yourself, are *harming* potential authors by not giving them all information. In some cases, self-pubbing is a better option. In others, going with a traditional publishing house is. Sometimes a combination of both is the answer. THIS ISN’T A SIMPLE THING THAT YOU CAN WRITE IN A SINGLE SENTENCE. Stop treating it like one.

        • “traditionally published mid-list author who moves the same number of units will have a a much larger return”

          I doubt that is true, not if we assume 70% of net vs 25% of net. Also, mid-list authors are now considered to be unprofitable for the major publishers, so they are likely to be left out in the cold.

          “Yes, if you self-pub a bestseller you may get more in raw royalty receipts.”

          And if you take that same title the traditional route, the odds are very good that you’ll never get published at all, thus earning nothing.

          BTW, I don’t like the finances comparison either, but my issues stem from the many peculiarities that render any useful comparison moot (contract terms, payment schedule, publishing schedule and more).

          • “I doubt that is true, not if we assume 70% of net vs 25% of net. ”

            You’re still getting too hung up on “omg royalties”.

            A self-pubber will have to pay for editing out-of-pocket (hundreds if not thousands of dollars), do all their own marketing, etc. All of that has to be made up before the author even turns a profit on the work, and if you’re only selling a few dozen copies at the low low prices Hugh Howey demands, you’re pretty much in the red for a decade or so.

            The traditional author, meanwhile, not only doesn’t have to pay for any of that production, but also got an advance on their royalties (often far in excess of what they would actually make on the book — a large number of mid-list titles never make back their advances to this day). That’s money in the bank right at the get-go, making it that much easier to keep working on the next novel.

            And then there’s the intangibles, like the fact that getting a self-published (physical) book into a bookstore is pretty much impossible. It’s actually a huge competitive advantage, as the majority of books in the US are still physical, and still bought in stores. But that’s very difficult to quantify and far beyond the purview of this data.

            I’m a huge proponent of self-publishing. I think it’s awesome. I’m also a huge proponent of traditional publishing. I think it’s also awesome. Both can coexist, but this kind of zero-sum deathmatch that certain people like to paint the industry as requiring is harming everyone. There is no simple answer here. Each situation is unique. Some authors will do better self-pubbing, some will do better with a major publisher. Instead of this militant “self-pubbing is the best die big 5” crap, we should be trying to educate potential authors to the advantages and disadvantages of each system and so that they can make a logical choice for what works best for them.

          • Uneducated Guess // 14 February, 2014 at 12:21 am //

            If you’re only selling a few dozen copies then there’s no way you’d have gotten a publishing deal. Moreover, if that’s your sales rate then sinking much money into design and editing is a mistake you won’t make again. (Unless you’re a vanity author, in which case you’re both unpublishable and an irrational actor.)

          • And the definition of “net”.
            Just ask the Harlequin crowd how well tradpub “net” worked out for them.
            Even Hollywood accountants are appalled.27

          • Exactly. Most authors, even some very good ones, never get “chosen” by traditional publishing. Most writers don’t make a living from their writing. If you think about it as a hobby, then laying out $500 or even $2000 for a hobby that might actually make you back the money over time isn’t such a bad deal. And for those who can actually give up their day job, they aren’t losing anything.

        • “But how much are you out for editing costs? Marketing? Artwork? These are all costs that a publishing house provides pro bono that a self-pubber has to account for.”

          I find your use of “pro bono” interesting. I would argue that publishers taking most of the book’s revenue when the author does the bulk of the work suggests that the author is paying for these “pro bono services” many times over.

          SP authors pay only once, and the savvy professional ones usually manage to outsource for these services at a lesser cost while achieving the same (or better) quality & value.

          I don’t subscribe to the Us or Them thinking either, but let’s bet clear about how things work in BOTH sides of publishing.

      • Our next report looks at the top 50,000 titles across all e-books. This gets well outside the bestsellers and down to books that sell less than one copy a day.

  4. This encapsulates traditional publishing in a nutshell.
    (Comments, too.)’

  5. Statistics are suspicious and malleable and used by both sides to argue flimsy technicalities that don’t mean diddly to writers in the trenches. The easily observed reality that every writer, editor, and publisher can see and has seen for years and will continue to see is this: most books don’t sell to a broad enough audience to earn anything resembling a taxable income for the author, whether published by a big publisher or self-published. Surveys have consistently shown that for decades. Nothing new. Big publishers aren’t afraid of self-publishing. They couldn’t care less. Hybrid authors are smart enough to walk in both worlds. The rest are probably lucky to sell a few dozen copies to the family. A few exceptions will be written up in the media. And so on. The rest is rhetoric and hype. The big news is how many predators are angling to make money off gullible writers looking for goldmines. That’s the real story.

    • The key distinction is that 99% of the authors who pursue the traditional road collect nothing but rejection slips while even “failures” at indie publishing are making hundreds or thousands a year per book.
      It’s a crappy business for the bottom 99% anyway but it is less crappy for the indies.
      And the top 10% of indies get to make a living out of it, whereas the 90-99% percenters still get nothing.
      That is what Howey’s raw data shows.

      • “while even “failures” at indie publishing are making hundreds or thousands a year per book.”

        I don’t think this is quite accurate. There are many, MANY SP authors who make very little or don’t earn back what they invested into publishing their book. It’s not all cake. That said, I am guessing the amount of SP people who don’t earn enough revenue to make a difference are much less than those seeking traditional publishing who are turned back at the gate. 😉

  6. P.S. Controversy sells articles and books and programs and conferences. I hope writers recognize what this Us Vs. “Traditional Publishers” campaign does for the folks who make $$$ from it.

    • As someone who just walked into this debate a few months ago, barely having thought about self-publishing vs. Traditional (other than being afraid of rejection letters), it’s pretty clear it’s the traditional publishing supporters who picked the fight.

      I’m like that kid who was told to “Go West, Young Man.” Then I end up at the OK Coral for the big gunfight. The problem for traditional publishers is that they have the bumbling Dalton gang representing them (Donald Maass, Chuck Wendig, George Packer) up against steady hands like Dean Wesley Smith and Joe Konrath (the Earps) and now Doc Holiday (Hugh Howey) just joined them. It’s not a fair fight.

      As someone who is thinking about publishing my first novel, I just thought self-publishing seemed like fun. I don’t expect to get rich. I take it for granted most self-published books don’t sell. But suddenly people like Wendig are attacking the growing shit volcano (i.e., me if I dare publish something), Maass is trying to say I’m settling for freight class (when I couldn’t care less) and Packer is warning that if I dare pick the wrong side I’m going to end up like a Vichy loyalist and ruin any future I might have as a writer.

      It’s starting to feel a little personal to me, and I haven’t even published anything.

      • Insecurity is so ugly, isn’t it?

      • This is what I hate seeing. Mackay, it’s all about new writers. You know, some would say, you think publishing would be FUN? Sacrilege! How dare you! But you know what, when I’m writing and in the zone, I’m having a blast! What’s better is not only do I enjoy it but I can share with others and they enjoy the stories too. I don’t know what you’re working on but have worked with new writers for almost 20 years (no, I’m not an agent, just had folks who helped me when I started so I try to pay it forward). Anyway, bookmark my blog if you need anything, happy to help.

        • I self-publish computer games. It’s my hobby, so saying “publish” feels grandiose. I give the games away, there are no ads, and I make $0/year doing it. I get a lot of satisfaction out of my kids liking my games, and chatting with people online who enjoy them.

          If you don’t need the money, and want to pursue writing novels as a hobby – do it! Don’t let some unfortunates stuck within a dying industry model ruin it for you. It sounds like you have the right attitude going in, so have fun with it. If you can get some money out of it, so much the better!

        • Yes, it is the new writers.
          The old ones are already vested in the old system; they survived the gantlet, the hazing, and the leeching. Why should the newcomers be spared the suffering?
          The rumblings I hear is that submissions and contact attempts are down. The agents are squealing like stuck pigs and last year’s meme of “indies are the minor leagues” and “we’ll swoop in and seduce the best of ’em” is already running into trouble: the best of the indies are the ones less likely to be impressed by the breathless offer of “a six figure contract!!!!”. Times have changed and you just can’t keep’em on the farm once they’ve seen Paree…

          Dr Evil eventually caught on but these folks, I dunno.

          The data in the report has two unassailable facts to offer to writers: people *will* buy indie titles if they are good enough, and good enough is achievable by dilligent authors. Neither is welcomed by the establishment.

          • That’s one of the things I’m trying to really drive home. Work hard, learn your craft, produce a better product for a lower price… it’s a prove model. It works. I really strive to make my next work better than the previous. Doesn’t always work.

            But this idea that indies are waiting for the money to roll in is an ancient myth that has been around since the blockbuster contracts started hitting the news – long before indie, ebooks or even Amazon.

            What I’m finding hilarious is many traditional proponents are accusing indies of giving formulaic advice. The one cited began with the legacy publishers using it for their marketability litmus test, and was promoted by agents at conferences. We’re not the ones who invented a lot of this – you guys did, don’t blame it on us. It just gets absurd sometimes. The publishing’s 19th century business model is just not going to cut it. (If I never seen Courier 12 again it will be too soon..) Anyway, I just hate to see new people intimidated and bullied.

        • If I knew for a fact that no one would buy a single copy of my book, I’d still probably publish it to know it was there in the cloud. That’s the most exciting part.

        • Thanks for the positivity, Kathryn! Here’s my work in progress:

          And own blog:

          Comments are always appreciated!

  7. Oh dear. The reason these figures were produced were to combat some of the anti-selfpub rhetoric that’s been doing the rounds the past year or so. And also, to actually bring out into the open some of the figures that have been kept quiet, particularly by Amazon.

    ‘Uneducated guess’ above has it right – a midlist author will have been writing books that sell far more than a few dozen copies. And there is the perennial problem of actually *getting* a trad deal. Trad proponents talk about it likes the author has a simple choice. Except it’s a hellishly difficult job to get a publishing deal, and so much of that decision is based on the particular requirements of the publisher at that time, or the particular likes / dislikes of commissioning editors. Do we really have to go through the list of famous authors who have been rejected many times? J.K.Rowling, anyone? Who only got her contract because the daughter of the boss (or somesuch) liked the first Harry Potter book.

    And yes, many authors don’t earn out their advances. But guess what? That won’t happen a second time. If you’re looking to get some cash in the bank NOW (or in 12 months when they finally get back to you), try for trad. Comparing advances to steady income is a totally erroneous argument.

    Hundreds, if not thousands, on editing? Yup, let’s just throw numbers into the air. There’s too much doom-laden, apocalyptic prophecy going on from the anti-self pub gang. We ain’t stupid. We know the chances of becoming the next Hugh Howey are slim. If we want to do this, why not?

    What I find insidious are people from the trad industry pointing rejected authors towards people who can ‘”help you get your book into the form where it can be published (for a fee)”. Neglecting to say that they have an ‘interest’ in this other party. We saw this recently.

    If you read these reports, and think “Wow! I can get rich quick with self-publishing”, then you’re either naive, stupid or money-grabbing. However, if you look at these reports, and think “I didn’t know self-publishing is an acceptable outlet for my writing, and lots of people seem to buy and read self-published books,” then you’re right on the money.

  8. And when faced with their own ignorance and fear, they attack. They leave professionalism at the door, and mock everyone.

    Hugh, they’re going to try to discredit you. They did it to Jimmy Thomas, reporting that he wasn’t who he said he was on FB. Of course, persona account removed, fan, page removed, and the conference event page removed.

    If folks don’t like romance that’s fine, if they don’t like indie that’s fine, but this is a school yard bully and they’re going after new writers.

    I don’t care what genre someone writes in, if they want to sell books, they need to learn their craft and care about the quality of work they produce. A top quality product, professional, and less expensive is the business model right now. One indies are obtaining and legacy can’t adapt to.

    But in order to help the industry new writers need to learn, they have to a handle on the business itself and understand what to expect when you self publish.

    RWA hasn’t taken the lead on this – indies are barely accepted into PAN and only recently were eligible to compete for the RITA award. They are the outcasts, the unknown. Well if RWA isn’t going to represent all authors equally, then someone else needs to step up and do it. Seeing a $1.4 billion dollar genre take a collective step forward, scared the beejezus out of them and they started the character assassinations. I’ve got the whole thing on my blog with links. Hugh, watch yourself and the FB page. 😉

    • Thanks for the support. I don’t care about my reputation. I’m fine being a lightning rod. These changes are coming, and the detractors are on the wrong side of history. That’s on them. I’m not concerned with them.

      I’m trying to bring about more transparency and dialog to help writers. What US publishers think about me and what legacy pundits think about me has nothing to do with me. That’s something they’ll have to sort through on their own.

      What we think about reality won’t change it. But until the facts become obvious to all, a lot of people are going to make decisions without all the information at their disposal. The goal is to help them until we get to a better place in this industry.

  9. Hugh, I certainly appreciate all this work and am encouraged to see the self published pull together to get their facts straight and understand the market.

    What I’m finding very interesting as this goes along, is not only are successful indie authors concentrating on craft and producing a good high quality product, most address it as a business.

    I write because I love it, I publish to make money. It’s a business and like any business, I need a plan, I need a freelance editor, but thousands? Really? No, like any business I looked at various people, their background, history and qualifications. I spoke with them at length, and how much they charge. Just like anything else, you have to shop around and make a practical decision. When you ya – you’re in the hole and digging out is tough. But I know my expense and can price my books accordingly but not charge an arm and a leg

    I did the same with the cover research, qualifications, communication and pricing. I then set the price of my book with projects to get where I needed. No one can forcast sales 100% but you can get a decent picture and judge how you’re doing.

    Marketing, there are so many free opportunities and they are good quality ideas. Indie authors get together and through a promotion and they each throw in $10 bucks for an Amazon gift card to be raffled off. It’s fun, it doesn’t break the bank and you’re networking with other authors and readers. There’s expensive stuff too, but it’s not all like that, make smart decisions, treat as a biz and watch the expenses vs. income.

    We’re not reinventing the wheel here. 😉

  10. Just for the record (I didn’t see a reply button to the specific comment I wanted to reply to flyingtoaster): Editing does not cost hundreds if not thousands… There are many types of editors (Storyline, copyedit, word smith/word choice editors). You can get all three of the types I mention for a few hundred dollars. You can skip some of the edits and go with copy editing only. Copy editing can be had for 200 dollars, flat rate for anything under 100k from several outfits. I use a word choice editor on some of my stuff and she charges 100 dollars. She specializes in picking apart over-use of some words, pointing out places where two characters sound too similar, and generally pushing me to be creative and make sure my “words” are the perfect ones for the occasion.

    Cover: These days you can buy the stock art and have a pro arrange it for you for a hundred dollars or even less in some cases.

    If you want to hire a NY editor, yes, it will cost you thousands. Big name artist, yes thousands. But there is a world in between. A HUGE WORLD.

    There are also trad published books that sell only a couple of hundred copies–that low sell- through is NOT only in the world of indie publishing. I know a few authors who sold very poorly even though they had a traditional publisher behind them. Many such authors get no marketing help, and no push from the big publishers. They sell to family members and a few oddball copies here and there and that is it.

    Overall, I thought the article was good–brought out some good discussion.

    There is no magic formula for getting published and selling books. It’s hard work. There is a LOT of competition. But the genie is out of the bottle. You’ll have to work for your 3 wishes–create them on your own and climb the hill.


      The suggested freelance copyediting rate for an EFA copyeditor is $30-50 an hour, at roughly 2500 words per hour. For a 100000 word novel, that means you’re looking at somewhere between $1200 and $2000. Just for copyediting mind you, no content or line editing.

      But sure, let’s go ahead and use your numbers for funsies.

      You state that there are outfits that will do anything under 100k words for a flat $200 (link please, I’d like to use this service if it exists). You also state that a cover costs $100. So we’ll say you’re putting in $300 into preproduction costs.

      Now, Mr. Howey states that that there is a direct correlation between price and how well a book does. I think it’s a load of hogwash for various statistical reasons, but we’ll go along with it and say you sell the book for the magic $2.99 price. After delivery fees (lol), Amazon is paying you about $2 per book sold. Thus, to make back the production costs of the book, you will need to sell 150 copies.

      At 12 copies a month, you’re then looking at over a year before you see any return whatsoever from the book. And mind you, this is before taking any marketing costs into account.

      Now let’s look at the traditionally published author. They’ve paid nothing in production costs, *and* they’ve got a $1000 advance on royalties. They’ve already turned the same profit as the self-pubber would get in **eight years**. They’ve also got those intangibles — the book in bookstores and other ebook vendors, that give them a lot more exposure than just a KDP author.

      AGAIN, I’m not saying that self-pubbing is a bad thing. I’m saying that this militant “fuck the big 5 only self publish!” movement is idiotic. There are authors who will do better with a traditional publisher. There’s no reason not to try for both.

      • Recommended rate? Who came up with that number?


        The market, supply and demand, competition determines the price. And it sure isn’t that recommended number.

        Also, with my editor, we discuss projects and length and talk price. Haggling, horse trading, closing the deal. Again, the market and system changes we have to change hand it hand.

        My editor charges me Copy edit is a $1 per page for me, double spaced and it’s usually Garamond or “reading format”. And she’s one of the best copy editors out there you’re gonna find. Trust me on this. She’s certified, she has fantastic credentials, plus I’ve worked with her over a year now.

        The quality of my writing has taken huge leap forward and even the grammar nazis can’t complain.

        Developmental edits are charged separately and we discuss those at length well because we talk plot, characters, you name it. We’re on Skype or Google Hangouts. When I get good basic draft with notes, my editor reads it makes notes and discuss and brainstorm. But then the fun begins. As I revise, I’m sending stuff back to her constantly But there is no further charge. Depending on manuscript length and this is single spaced, It’ will be anywhere for $125-$250.

        So if you need a proven editor that has great prices, I’ll send you to her. We also do a contract on Echo Sign (I love this feature) It states specifically when it will be done and what will be done and when money is paid (usually half up front, half on completion).

        My cover artist just raised her prices a little but she’s only at $100 bucks for great covers. I’m networked with several others, and there’s online sources for people to find editors, agents and promoters.

        My most recent novel release was longer thank my usual novels but between the cover (on this spefic image I bought exclusive rights to what would normally be royalty free image of the model. Royalty free is $10-$15. I can hire a cover model to have a specific custom shoot for $300. Then I own the photo I chose exclusively. In this particular case, he had one he hadn’t made available yet so I just purchased the exclusive rights for that. The novel is $3.99 for an ebook I make %70. In three weeks I was in the black. The print version is more expensive than I’d like but it’s really thick. But I have extended distribution (free) on my print book so it’s in stores and I think librarys lol! I get a separate royalty report from Create Space.

        There are delivery fees but the highest I have is $0.14, so the estimating is what’s the hiccup here.

        My old job was accountant/office manager. I crunched the numbers here. It takes some effort but there are perfectly qualified professionals out there that are reasonably priced. Folks just have to look and do their homework – just like any other business – buyer beware.

        And I am exclusively KDP (I’m not like picking on ya or anything – honest!) but here are the facts that are my direct experience. Because Amazon announces the KDP fund amount every month it’s usually 1.2 million. At the end of the month Amazon takes all of KDP and the author’s percentage of the total decides how much we get.

        Oh cool Amazon just put the Jan spreadsheets out early – they’re usually not out until the 15th. I’m going to go ahead and give you a set of real numbers, I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging – but it’s fact, not estimation. Last month, on alone (no other market) ebook only and those range from $0.99 to $3.99, I made a total of $4900.30 – For my latest novel, my KDP for borrows payment was $287.71 again only US. it was borrowed 149 times.

        So it’s really important to take a hard look at the numbers.

        • And shop around and find someone you enjoy working with. Not every editor works well with every writer out there. I loved my storyline editor (Same as developmental editor) but when her prices got too high for me, I looked for someone else. I WISH I could afford her, but she has moved to more like those “recommended” rates. It’s also not her full time job so she can be choosy about who she edits and how much she asks.

          There are a LOT of options. It does take homework. Some people hanging a shingle with “editor” on it do not really do the job. Some go above and beyond and do more than is required. Just like any other job!

      • I’m not hearing people say, “fuck the big 5 only self publish.” I’m hearing people say you don’t have to take a bad deal, or wait for one, when you can self publish. (Hugh certainly isn’t saying self-publishing is the only way to go. He over and over states it’s only one option.)

        And your own math disproves your own point. You say it would take 12 copies a month for a year to pay back $300 in production costs. Guess what, everything I’m hearing says it would take a least a year to get a book published by a Trad in the best case scenario, maybe two years. And that’s assuming you get a deal the first time you send it out. If it takes you two or three years to get a deal, money is thrown away. Not to mention your time.

        Moreover, in the long run, that $1000 advance is absolutely nothing compared to what you will lose in even modest success. So you lose in the short run, and the long run. Assuming you can even get a Trad deal.

        Also, are we assuming you should sign a long term publishing deal for $1000 advance without consulting a lawyer? Lawyers get $300 an hour. Looking over a simple deal would wipe out most of $1000. Oh, but right, the publishers won’t alter the deals, so better just signing your rights away without hiring a lawyer.

        And the harsh reality is that most writers considering self-publishing are NEVER going to get a Trad deal. So why should they waste a year sending out a manuscript when they can start generating some small amounts of cash (maybe), and start on the next one. If the book is good enough, it’s likely the Trads will come after them. Odds are with more than a $1,000 advance. If it isn’t so good, well, no harm done.

        Now, if you’re a great writer who is completely hooked up with the New York publishing scene, and have lots of offers from big 5 publishers to read, that’s a different story. But most people aren’t in that situation. What about the guy in Alaska who knows his writing isn’t the best, but has fun doing it? Why should he run around trying to get someone’s permission to publish? To save himself $300? Should he waste five years of his life trying and then spend $300? Or, is the real message your trying to send that he just shouldn’t self-publish. If the $300 is a real problem, have a friend proof read it and make your own cover. Dreaming about a $1000 deal to cover production costs seems crazy.

        This isn’t about money for most people. It’s about freedom. Freedom to control your own destiny. Freedom to pick when you publish, what the cover will look like, and know that you aren’t locked into some contract you might regret.

      • There’s a crucial piece you’re missing. We’re capitalists. Identifying what the customer wants, finding a way to deliver it using the least expensive methods, without compromising quality, are at the heart of what American businesses do every day. Indies are no different.

        I couldn’t afford the couple of grand that an EFA editor was going to charge so I had to figure something else out. I use the head of my local high school’s English department and an English professor from a local college to do my editing. Successful businesses innovate and so do I.

        There are plenty, tons really, of Indies out there selling 10 or 12 copies a month and conversely there are a few Indies like Hugh Howey making some big dollars. The story that is not being told is that there is a growing number of authors like me. I consider myself a ‘Midlist Indie.’ I’m selling between 500 and 800 books a month. I can’t quit my day job, but I’ll tell you I show a profit every month.

        I submitted queries to publishing houses and agents for 15 years. I looked at what kind of books agents were selling and focused on those agents/agencies. I attended at least one conference a year and did face-to-face pitches to agents and editors. I was willing to change my query/synopsis when it wasn’t working. Every once in a while someone would ask me for a partial and then I would wait the required 6 months to receive a no or find out they had never looked at it. I have an Excel Spread Sheet of rejections that would make you cry.

        You’re right, though. Authors should try traditional publishing, if they are so inclined, but at some point they also need to be realistic. I think winning the lottery is easier than getting an agent – does that make me a militant? When I finally gave up, just stopped trying to sell my work, my husband convinced me to self-pub. Two and a half years later, I don’t regret it at all because I’m certain had I not self-pubbed, no one would have ever, EVER read my books and I would have never had someone say to me, ‘I love your books.’

  11. Yes, there is no reason to not try for both. Agreed.

    My husband does copy editing (a two pass edit) for 200 to 250 dollars. I do storyline edits/rate varies. I can put you in touch with the wordsmith editor, but she is pretty busy at last check so I don’t know if she is taking on new clients right now.

    Red Adept editing used to charge 200 and I think still does have a fee around that price for copy editing, although I have not checked lately. I know one of the editors there–he does a STUPENDOUSLY good job and has done some of mine. I believe they also do storyline edits; I haven’t used them for that feature.

    There’s also a lady I know via GR…I have to find her link. Hang on.

    I have read books she edited, but have not used her myself. From what I can tell she does an awesome job, and when I have too many clients, I send them her way (her name is Leiah–feel free to tell her I sent you if you query).

    There are others I know of but they generally work by referral only. I usually only do referral only (meaning one of my clients puts me in touch with a new client).

    Yes, it can take a while to make back the initial money spent, but it’s pretty doable. I had no trouble making back my initial investments although my latest that came out Dec/Jan has yet to “earn out.”

    That said, self-publishing and finding the right people to work with takes time. It’s a fluctuating goal too. Sometimes I don’t pay for word smithing; I’m hoping I’m learning enough as I go along to not have to use all editors on every single work. The goal is to make sure I’m improving. I’ve done enough books now to have a feel for where I want to go with improvements and who I think can best get me there. I like to hire a new person now and then to get a totally new set of eyes on the work to see what a new person can bring to the table.

    With covers, there are LOADS of covers available in the 200 dollar range. Working with up-and-coming artists is best; the pro cover I had done for Under Witch Aura was had for 100–he won’t do covers for that price anymore! The pro storyline editing I had done for Aura cost me about 125–the editor doesn’t work anywhere nearly that cheap anymore!

    If you have other questions, feel free to email me at my blog: I’m happy to answer questions.

  12. Here’s a link to Red Adept–I don’t see that she lists the fees anymore so they may have gone up:

  13. This is such a strange feud. There is no either/or. There is no simple answer. It’s about what’s best for a particular author, a particular book and circumstance. that’s ALL. THERE IS NOT A DEFINITIVE STATISTIC that will guide the answer. I encourage authors to self-publish; I encourage authors to sell to my small press; I encourage authors to sell to Big 5; it depends on the author and the book(s.) GAH! Why is this such a panty-wad debate?

    • Ask the agents.
      Ask the paid consultants.
      Ask the tradpub execs.

      Howey himself has tradpub contracts and most of the more vocal indiepub advocates take pains that every author should choose for themselves. The merely want people to have data to make informed choices.

      Indies aren’t the ones talking of volcanoes of crap, of elitist class systems, of “pin money” earnings, of vague, ominous “agendas”. They aren’t the ones spreading demonstrably false numbers and outright lying.

      There is real bad blood building, though.
      People’s livelihoods are at stake and Howey’s datadump is subversive.
      I expect that when the data reaches the book-a-day level, when it offers data across months, when it (if) it lets you track a specific title a few months…
      Things will get loud.

      Amazon-based data has to be skewed towards indie interests–because Amazon needs indies to prosper–but it’s all we’re going to see simply because the tradpub data will never be released.
      They simply can’t release it.
      Their position is bad enough as is.

      Things will get worse: the schism can only get worse.

      • As I see it, a lot of self-published authors were nicely asking questions and sharing info. It’s the supporters of traditional publishers (probably mostly literary agents) who jumped into the conversation and started waving their hands saying “stop, stop, don’t do it!”

        If you’re discussing restaurant choices with friends, and someone leaps into your conversation and tells you you’ll get food poisoning if you eat out, then it’s really up to the person trying to stop you from enjoying yourself to prove their point. Or shut up.

        So far, those warning self-publishers to beware aren’t providing solid arguments. Seems like they’re the one’s that either need to back out of the conversation, or come up with something better to scare people with.

        Successful writers on the self-publishing bandwagon actually have every reason NOT to share info. Why invite competition? When they do, clearly they have pretty self-less intentions. Yet Hugh is being attacked like he’s doing something sinister by sharing info out of the goodness of his heart.

        The people arguing that you shouldn’t self-publish, well, what are their intentions? Do they really think you’re bound to get a great Trad deal if you just wait? Are they really concerned some marginal writer is going to waste $300 in proofing? Do they really believe the “shit volcano” is going to hurt literature? (It seemed to survive other crises over the last few thousand years.)

        The simplest answer is they are only concerned about their own interests, and those are not in the interests of the vast majority of writers. Traditional publishing was a closed world to the vast, vast majority of people who love writing. Why on Earth should we listen to people from that world tell us we can’t go off and have our own little planet?

  14. The weird thing about this debate? It’s one-sided. It’s indie authors trying to defend themselves against unfair and untrue criticism. We should all just lift our hands from our keyboards and say: “you know what? Fine. You don’t like self-publishing? Fine. We’re just off to write and publish some more.”

    I’ve published two of my own works. My wife edited, I made the covers. I’ve made a few dozens of £ from it. And the best thing? I’ve had some great feedback. For me, just one positive review is worth the effort of publishing. As someone said upthread, for some of us, it’s a great hobby. And I bought a meal at a restaurant with the money I made. How absolutely fantastic is that?

    And then, there’s the two books I edited and published for a dying friend of mine. Total outlay? £0. Okay, a bit of my time, but it’s my time, and I can choose to give it. Total income? £1,200 or so and counting, all going to her charity. How absolutely fantastic is that?

  15. The argument that readers need filters is something of a shibboleth. A bottom of the barrel self-published book is probably NOT going to show up on Amazon in a customer’s recommendation or listings of “customers who bought _____ also bought ______.” Most readers will never know of those books. Readers almost never come across the really bad books unless they look for them. “Word of mouth” goes digital as readers network on sites like Goodreads or become reader/reviewers.

  16. I think as long as self-publishing unfairly bashes literature as elite, the Trads will have ammunition against many of the otherwise good points in this thread. Classic novels are classics for good reason. The authors. I started an ebook publisher that only is looking to publish literary or excellent or whatever label you choose fiction. Works that challenge the reader. The traditional publishers and media mostly dismiss my company Publerati as well. I believe the truth is not in the type of work published but in who replaces the publishing done by the Big Now Five. Consolidation always is a harbinger of decline. Millions of small startups indicate new growth. Ironically I believe the Trads whoring out to easy celebrity publishing versus driving tastes is why they are in decline. TV and Netflix can feed those tastes far better than the printed novel.

    • As a number of people have said–there is room for both trad and indie and there’s no reason an author shouldn’t look at both. The classics certainly have a place (although I would argue that Wuthering Heights need never be republished anywhere…please? :>) ) Readers shouldn’t have to care who published a book and many don’t. I’m a mod on a goodreads group that is set up to specifically discuss small publisher works and indies. A number of readers joined–but I often hear, “I don’t know whether to talk about this book because I have no idea if it’s indie.” The threads don’t get a lot of participation, in part, because the readers not only don’t know, they don’t care. They don’t WANT to have to know or care. I get emails now and then asking if a book is indie. I encourage the people in the GR group to just talk about whatever book they want because it’s too much trouble to worry one way or the other.

  17. All books, whether Traditionally or Indie published, are nickel & dime garbage. Everybody in that industry is wasting their time & energy. And they’re constantly bickering back & forth when nobody is making a dime. All of you live in fantasy land. Chuck Wendig has said positive things about self publishing, but he’s been levelheaded & not delusional about publishing in general. He doesn’t gush about traditional publishing either. None of it is anything to gush about.

  18. Caleb, self publishing doesn’t bash literature as Elite, that’s traditional publishing that does that.

    • I agree but earlier on in this thread some of the self-publishing voices were taking shots at the elitism of the establishment in publishing. I think that serves no one well. I mark the decline of literary publishing with the Time Warner merger followed by Murdoch bringing tabloid celebrity publishing commercialism to books. I am hopeful a healthier more diverse digital publishing landscape will allow original non-formulaic works of fiction to find their way to readers, books that the current declining print business models simply cannot support based on popular tastes alone. Quality fiction is a bit like the piano sonata, an important artistic form well worth teaching and enjoying. And yes, that just was an elitist comment but I drink lattes, drive a Volvo, and think a challenging education is important for our civilization to flourish. Books should teach tastes and not solely feed them.

  19. Well, as a reader and ebook convert since 2008, I’ll tell you we don’t care where the book comes from. Only if it’s good and the right price.

    I’ve purchased thousands (yes thousands) of ebooks since the elease of the 1st Kindle and looking back, have realized a few things.

    1. I’m no longer concerned whether a book is self-pubbed after reading a quite good self-pubbed 99 cent per book trilogy.

    2. I’ll purchase a $2.99 ‘maybe’ book that was 3 starred on Goodreads (by my friends) over a $12.99 “Brilliantly written” or “Compelling” 3 starred book EVERY time.

    3. I’ll pass on a 99 cent self-pubbed book that has been tagged multiple times for misspellings and/or needing editing.

    4. I appreciate and will take a 2nd look at a book lacking DRM. So far that’s only Tor Books and self-pubbed.

    Maybe it’s because I only read ebooks, but the only folk I know who are still purchasing physical books are parents with small and young children. Everyone in my immediate and extended family who does a lot of reading have switched to ebooks–from my 80-something father to the kids in college. I think that physical books will eventually be relegated to specialty books, making self-pubs more important.

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