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Here’s How You Should Look at The Taleist Self-Pub Survey

Taleist released the results of a survey of self-pub authors today. If you haven’t seen it yet, then you probably haven’t heard the statistics.

Good. That gives me a chance to explain my viewpoint. I read the results this morning, but it took me until this evening before I placed them into context.

Update: The Guardian has an article on these survey results and it’s an excellent example of not considering the context.

The thing is, no matter how little those authors made while self-publishing their ebooks, on average they are almost certainly better off than if they did not have the option of self-publishing.

Just over a thousand authors responded to the poll, and they made up a diverse group  (age, gender,and location). The results are only available as a Kindle ebook, so I went out and bought it. BTW, you can read it for free if you have a Kindle and an Amazon Prime membership.

Here are the highlights:

  • 72% of respondents lived in the US
  • 75% were between 30 and 60 years of age
  • Better than 65% had a college degree (BS, BA, or above)
  • One third work full time
  • Authors who got outside help earned 34% more on average
  • 53% self-published for the first time in 2011, with 20% having gotten a start in 2010
  • the 29% who went from a traditional publisher to self-publishing earned twice as much on their own as they did from their publisher
  • Only 60% of authors either could or would answer questions about their earnings
  • Average earning was $10k per author
  • Half of the authors earned under $500 in 2011 from their books
  • 10% of authors earned over 75% of the revenue
  • 97 authors indicated that they could live off of their ebook sales

The $500 median is probably the detail that will be repeated the most, and that is the one which I wanted to really understand before I  posted this. I expect those who need to defend traditional publishing will point to it as a sign that self-pub is a dead end and proclaim that traditionally published authors make more than that so it’s clearly the better system.

I see it differently. Over a third of the respondents couldn’t get a traditional publishing contract. If they earn so much as a dollar, it’s more than they would have under the old system.

While the published author might make more on average with a traditional publisher (disputable), I would bet that half or more of the 1,007 self-pub authors in the survey would never have been given the chance by a traditional publisher.  (In fact, 40% had tried to go the traditional route and still have the scars.) There’s a reason why we call them gatekeepers.

On the other hand, there is one point which I don’t mention above that I think is worth mentioning here. There might be a reason why those rejected authors were rejected. The indie authors who never tried to go the traditional route made an average of 41% more, suggesting that some of the rejections may have been justified.

All in all, it’s a fascinating read. You should go get it.


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Steven Lewis May 24, 2012 um 9:51 pm

Hi Nate,

Thanks for pulling out the survey, and for highlighting how many respondents work fulltime. In the online discussion of the report I think this hasn’t been properly factored in. The authors who responded are mostly writing around a fulltime job that has nothing to do with being an author, and I think more should be read in that context.

Robert Nagle May 24, 2012 um 10:58 pm

Just a quick question. How many words is this report? How many pages? Judging from the preview, it looks to be no more than 5000 words.

Robert Nagle May 24, 2012 um 10:59 pm

Ah, never mind, it says 12,000 words. Sort of like a longer-than-average short story.

Stumbling Over Chaos :: Linkity leers May 25, 2012 um 3:02 am

[…] Results of the Taleist survey of self-published authors. […]

fjtorres May 25, 2012 um 7:50 am

The traditionalists will highlight the median number in their smokescreening but the number to consider most of all is that 29% of the self-pubs are from (previously)traditionally published authors.
And those folks doubled their take.
Anybody with a backlist is going to have to take self-pub seriously now, even if they were drinking the kool-aid before.

The rest of the numbers sound quite credible: 10% of authors taking in 75% of the revenue is as one would expect in a visibility-driven business–good stories will get good reviews which lead to more sales and higher ratings/better visibility.

The comment that 9.7% of the authors think they can live off their self-pub revenue matches up with the revenue numbers *and* with Sturgeon’s law so it is pretty clear that, all-in-all, the self-pub marketplace quality distribution is *not* terribly different from the traditionalist marketplace.

That last bit should give traditionalists pause as it suggests the added value from their gatekeeping is either non-existent or (more likely) overwhelmed by the visibility limitations of the market.
I would argue the latter but I’m sure there are many who would argue otherwise.

All in all, I don’t think traditionalists will find much comfort in this report.

Bob Mayer May 25, 2012 um 8:31 am

It’s understandable we want some sort of data, but every author’s situation is so unique, the data is almost worthless.

Let’s look at two sides: Scott Turow, Malcolm Gladwell, and Richard Russo all publicly blasting Amazon and siding with the Big 6. Of course they would. They’re in the elite 5% that’s taken care of.

Then you’ve got Barry Eisler, Joe Konrath and myself, all touting going indie. Of course we would. We’re doing well. But the reality all three of us have backlist from trad publishers. Without that backlist, we’d be singing a different song. So our success as an "indie" is a bit deceptive.

The vast majority of writers fall somewhere in the middle.

BTW– I do believe Turow, Gladwell and Russo need to get all their titles off of Amazon ASAP since they believe it is so evil. Just saying.

fjtorres May 25, 2012 um 9:53 am

Actually, the Traditionalists blasting Amazon are doing it for a very valid reason: their contrats give them excellent terms on print sales but near-zero income from ebooks.
As far as their bank accounts are concerned, their books *aren’t* on Amazon–all the profits go to Amazon and the publisher and they get table scraps. 🙂

And since Amazon is growing ebooks at a time print sales are dropping and the definition of what constitutes a bestseller is getting downgraded, they see Amazon as taking money out of their pockets to give them to "newbies" who haven’t been "vetted" by the traditional structure.

Their (very long term) contracts were structured for a market that no longer exists and they feel the pain directly in the bank accounts.

So it’s not just that they are comfortable with the ancien regime, it is that they and their friends are getting guillotined.

Makes their griping more understandable though not at all sympathetic.
They made their comfy pbook bed, now they get to sleep on the ebook nails underneath.

Peter May 25, 2012 um 12:41 pm

The audience for this report is not traditional publishers or their critics- it’s people who are considering self-publishing. Which is good because people who are considering self-publishing greatly outnumber people who are publishers.

So I think the $500 median, the fact that edited works sell better, and the fact that only 97 authors out of 1000 could make a living are the key takeaways and it’s what people need to hear and comprehend.

Writing is a hard way to make a living, and digital does not change that. A lack of publishers does not change that. Just because you CAN publish drivel- self or otherwise- doesn’t mean you SHOULD, and it certainly doesn’t mean you’ll make money doing so.

Get an editor, revise, perfect your work and the craft, market yourself instead of expecting someone else to do it for you, and don’t quit your day job. If you don’t want to put the effort in to making writing a career, then consider doing something else with your time.

A lot of people need to hear this message, and unfortunately far too often fingers are pointed at the "evil publishers", who are simply in a rotten situation one way or the other- for the failures of lazy authors, many of whom actually could improve if they thought about it.

Ebooks really need a Simon Cowell.

Catherine M Wilson May 25, 2012 um 1:41 pm

If half the authors they surveyed published in 2011, the $500 figure is very reasonable. It takes time for a self-pubbed book to find its audience. I’d like to know what those same authors will make going forward.

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[…] Nate Hoffelder offers some context on the Taleist survey of self-published authors. […]

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Michael J. Sullivan June 8, 2012 um 5:51 am

I agree. But the biggest problem I have with this survey is it doesn’t compare / contrast with traditionally published authors. To that end…I’ve created my own survey…designed for ALL Authors: Self, traditional big-press, traditional small-press, hybrid. Even for those who have not publihsed yet – as I want to know what "route" they are anticipating going.

If you are an author – please help contribute to dataset by taking the survey at:

BTW: I will make the raw data (minus identifying informaiton) to any and all who want so that they can "slice/dice" the way they wish to.

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