Publishing: Let’s stop comparing apples and oranges

Ever since the Taleist Report (a survey of 1,000 self-published authors) came out I see it everywhere.  Online comments or articles saying most self-published authors don’t earn more than $500. When compared with the $5,000 average advance for a traditionally published debut author, this looks paltry at best. But here is the thing that really bothers me: people rarely mention (and may not realize) that they are comparing  apples to oranges.

The Starting Pool

Let’s first consider your “chance of success,” and in this case I’m going to set the bar pretty low and define “success” as that $5,000 debut advance.  In a true apples to apples comparison we should consider the total pool to be all the people who have written a novel to completion and have decided it is good enough to publish. The number of people who say they want to write a novel is actually pretty high.It’s very common that upon first meeting the inevitable question comes up. “So what do you do for a living?” When I say I write novels, it seems like 80% of the time the response is, “Oh, I want/plan/will write a book someday.”

The first “whittling”down of the pool is to determine how many of these people actually complete a novel.  While a MUCH smaller number, it’s still a huge pool. But most of those novels aren’t good enough to even bother submitting or self-publishing (I have 10 such “practice novels” in my past), so now we need to remove those and we are left with work that has been (presumably) well polished and is a work that the writer considers “worthy of publishing.”  While this is a VERY difficult thing to do, there are still huge numbers of book wannabes that meet this criteria.  This then is the pool we need to start with.

Dividing the Pool

Each of these novels have three potential paths:

  • The “large publisher” route which will generally require acquiring an agent first, using a standard query submission process
  • The “small publisher” route which can bypass the agent, but still uses the standard query (but sent directly to the publisher)
  • The “self-publishing”  route which we’ll define broadly as “becoming the publisher yourself”

For those going the traditional route (either small or large) only a very small percent will be accepted. I think a reasonable rejection rate based on agent and small press blogs I’ve read would be 98%. Of the 2% that are accepted, the vast majority will be by a small press (just because there are so many more of them, their bars are a little lower, and they release many more titles than the big presses). So let’s say 80% of that 2% go the small press route, or 1.6%. Small presses rarely offer an advance, or if they do it’s a small token ($100 – $250). I watch the Amazon rankings like a hawk and it is highly dominated by books that are either self-published or  from big-publishers. It is extremely rare for me to see a ‘well earning” title from a small press (maybe 1% – 3%) so the chance of success from a small press is now reduced to 0.05%.

But we still have those that go the agented route. Going back to our prior numbers, the percentage that are accepted by an agent was 0.4%.  But not every book signed by an agent gets a contract (though the odds are greatly improved).  Let’s say 30% – 50% will be signed t so that means the chance of a “finished and polished novel” getting picked up by a larger press is 0.12% – 0.2%.

Now the chances of selling well in the self-publishing path is small as well. Bad covers, poorly selected categories, uninspired marketing copy, lack of marketing, not to mention just plain “bad books” will mean that most will fall along the wayside. But in order to “match” the trackrecord of the traditional route they only have to have to succeed 0.05% – 0.2% of the time.  There is no real way to gather data on this, but it seems reasonable to assume that for every 10,000 books which are self-published 5 to 20 will find some reasonable amount of following.

The slush pile exposed

An important point that people overlook when comparing self to traditional is that self-published books have a fully exposed slush pile. The vetting process of traditional publishing will do the appropriate skimming so that only the cream gets “onto the market.”  Because the self-publishing releases include both “worthy” and “unworthy” titles, it’s no small wonder that many titles sell next to nothing.  The fact is they had no business being “out there” in the first place.  I object to comparing this very large pool (consisting of varying degrees of quality) of self-published books against “only the best of the best” from the traditional houses…an apples to orange comparison if ever there was one.

Vetting in self-published

But there IS a vetting process for self-published books.  It is “the readers” they will act as judge and jury.  Finding the “creme” in self-publishing books is actually pretty easy…just look at the highly ranked (or highly rated) books on any of the genre lists.  A quick look at Epic Fantasy at the time of this writing (June 7, 2013) and we find authors such as:

  • Anthony Ryan (still self-published but soon to be traditionally released): Ranking 1,612
  • EJ Koh Ranking 51,259
  • Lindsay Buroker Ranking 2,214 – 59,018
  • Michael G. Manning Ranking 460 – 1,324
  • Chanda Hahn 1,052 – 3,146
  • Ben Hale 8,990 – 14,210
  • M. R. Mathias  2,273 – 33,731
  • David Dalglish (still self-published but will have some titles out through a big press soon); 10,722 – 51,807
  • Dylan Peters 5,937 – 7,447
  • Nathan Lowell 24,944 – 65,029
  • Michael R. Hicks 6,396 – 25,412
  • Joseph Lallo 3,835 – 4,125
  • Ben S. Dobson 151,935
  • Morgan Rice 340 – 5,901
  • Martin Hengst 503 – 721
  • Daniel Arenson 1,652 – 14,062
  • C. Greenwood 1,679 – 2,390
  • Casey Odell 1,770
  • Jack D. Albrecht Jr 1,714 – 3,044
  • Toby Neighbors 3,508 – 19,880
  • PMF Johnson 4,120
  • Brock Deskins 4,035 – 7,222
  • P.S. Power 4,343 – 16,892
  • Aaron Pogue 6,765 – 22,498 (soon moving to hybrid – 47 North)

There are many more I could list as well, but this list shows a pretty good diversity distribution. None of these are what I would call “huge bestsellers” on the scale of an Amanda Hocking or Hugh Howey. Rather, these are good, solid midlist authors that have “decent” but not “extraordinary” rankings.  To give some context I’ll provide some rankings for traditionally published midlist authors who have been publishing for similar lengths of time (some recently released and some starting around 2011):

  • Michael J. Sullivan 6,847 – 9,537  (Orbit)
  • Myke Cole 47,807 – 80,515 (Ace)
  • Douglas Hulick  26,965 (Roc)
  • N.K. Jemisin 27,850 – 51,170 (Orbit)
  • Mark Lawrence 3,566 – 4,253 (Ace)
  • Brian McClellan 10,312 (Orbit)
  • Saladin Ahmed 20,139 (DAW)
  • Jeff Salyards 253,955 (Night Shade)
  • Howard Andrew Jones 300,812 (Thomas Dunne Books)
  • Stina Leicht 177,296 – 297,246 (Night Shade)
  • Alex Bledsoe 4,884 – 35,720 (Tor)
  • Jo Walton 9,840 (Tor)
  • Jim C. Hines 25,024  – 63,821 (DAW)

These two groups are more of an apples to apples comparison.  Both groups have been vetted (traditional by the query-go-round,  self by readers). And I would venture that every one of these has passed the $5,000 threshold and many of them (from both lists) make $50,000 -$99,999. There are even some in each group that earn six-figures, but I’m going to suspect that none of them are into 7 figures….yet.

The “Real Comparison”

If we are to be 100% fair about the comparisons we should consider self-published titles that “could” have been picked up but were self-published instead. Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to get data on this. There are some, like Lindsay Buroker, who have blogged about getting offers and passing. Similarly David Dalglish had been getting offers for quite some time, and then eventually signed with Orbit. But the vast number of the self-published authors have forgone the query-go-round and  went right to market themselves. And yes there were some that tried, and became frustrated and then turned to self.

The bottom line, is if we are going to compare apples-to-apples. It should be books that are:

  • Well written, such that people will recommend their books to others
  • Professionally presented (good covers, proper categories, good marketing copy

Self to Traditional

It’s probably worth noting that there is a fair amount of “cherry picking” being done by the big publishers who see works that are selling well and sign them up.  Ironically, many of these (including my own) were repeatedly turned down and deemed “unworthy” by the traditional publishers,but their authors believed in their titles, put them out there, and found an alternative road that bypassed the query-go-round.  These certainly fall into the category of “could have been picked up” (as they were) but they also tend to be at the high end of the self-publishing so they are really only apples-to-apples among each other.

  • Michael J. Sullivan (Riyria Revelations)
  • Anthony Ryan (Blood Song)
  • Hugh Howey (Wool)
  • H.P. Mallory (Jolie Wilkins)
  • Amanda Hocking (Trylle)
  • David Dalglish (Shadowdance)
  • Mur Lafferty (Shambling Guide)
  • Jeff Wheeler (Muirwood)
  • B.V. Larson (Unspeakable Things)
  • Stephen Leather (Nightingale)
  • Christian Cantrell (Kingmaker)
  • Aaron Pogue (Godlander’s War)
  • Robert Kroese (Mercury Series)

There are of course many more, but these are the fantasy authors that immediately pop into my head. On this list there are several who earn in excess of seven figures (Howey & Hocking), a number I know are in the six-figure ranges (Sullivan, Ryan, Mallory, Dalglish, Wheeler, Larson) and the few remaining do “quite well.”  So these hybrids who have had a foot in both worlds have essentially been “double vetted” once by the readers, and once by their acquisition editors and their success reflects this.

The Bottom Line

Here’s how I see the whole self verses traditional in terms of success and failure. They are pretty darn close to identical.

  • Most books will fail (not make it out of the query-go-round or sell very few copies)
  • Only a few will hit the bestsellers classification (Howey & Hocking in self and Sanderson &  Rothfuss in traditional)
  • A fair number will be good mid-list performers and in this midlist area, they will sell relatively similar number of books. The self-published sales will be lower priced and almost exclusively ebooks, the traditional will be a mix between print and ebook.

As to earnings…my take is this

  • The truly “unworthy books” hurt the self-published author as they are likely to incur out of pocket costs that will never be earned back, while those going the traditional route will only lose time (as they constantly flail on the query-go-round).
  • Books that are “good but not great” are probably better off self-published.  These are the ones that will earn a small profit $500 – $2,000.  Not enough to live off of but their investment costs will be recouped. The same book if sent the traditional route would probably be turned down by agents/large publishers but might get picked up by a small press which will sell a very few number of books and provide little in terms of royalty.
  • The books with blockbuster potential – will do the best in traditional.  It has the infrastructure to move the large quantity of books required and people like Rowlings, King, Patterson will do well even with their small percentages.
  • For those in the midlist (if considering a purely financial decision) self-publishing will do better in self than traditional.  The reason for this is the income earned per book is much higher even though the overall price may be lower. Also rankings of self-published books tend to be higher as it’s an easier to get someone to pay $3.99 rather than $6.99 – $9.99.

So, self or traditional has equal chances of success or failure. Which one an author should choose will come down to their goals and abilities. There is no universal “right” choice…just one that will best fit a particular author at a particular time, and as the hybrid movement continues to grow, I think we’ll find that what may have been the “right choice” at one point in time may mean “going the other way” later on. A savvy author keeps their eyes and options open and flexibility will be the thing that works the most in their favor.

Profile photo of Michael J. Sullivan
Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan is a speculative fiction writer who has written twenty-five novels and released nine. Eight of his fantasy books (The Riyria Revelations, and The Riyria Chronicles), were published by Hachette Book Group’s Orbit imprint. Hollow World, a science-fiction thriller was released by Tachyon Publications. The first four books of his new series, The First Empire, has sold to Random House’s Del Rey imprint, and the first book is scheduled to be released in the summer of 2016. He can be found on twitter, through his blog www.riyria.com, and on his facebook page and his publisher’s page for the series.

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  • Hey Alastair, Sory it’s taken me a while to respond to this. For some reason I wasn’t being notified about posts.

    As far as price. When I was self-published I sold my books for $4.95 – $6.95 and they sold well – I’m not sure if you consider that “high”or “cheap” I thought they were a nice balance. M.R. Mathias has sold some of his books far as high as $8.93 (iirc) and they were ranked on the bestsellers lists so that has worked for him. A number of self-published authors have sold collections (David Dalglish and Daniel Arenson come to mine) in the $7.99 and $8.99 level so I don’t think you have to just give it away for nothing. In fact, I think self-published authors are forming their own self-imposed ghetto by pricing their books at $0.99 and $2.99. I’ll be returning to self-publishing in January with the release of Hollow World and I’m going to go for $5.99. I think that is a fair price…we’ll see whether the readers agree or disagree with that.

    As to your question about self to trad. I would say this is probably not the case. I know many self-published authors that have turned down contracts…some in the six and even seven figure range because they are self because they like their freedom, keeping all their rights, and having complete control. That being said…I think there is something to be said for doing at least one traditional deal…In the long run the hybrid author outperforms either self or traditional.

    As for who the readers are. I’m sure there are a wide range of demographics. But I think a large portion may be voracious readers who consume very large numbers of books. These people stretch their book buying dollar because they can get 5 – 10 self-published books for the same price as a traditionally publisher book. I also see a fair number of “mainstream’ readers that cross over to self-publishing when the exposure of that self-published author gets to a certain level. Authors that immediately come to mind that are well read by those that generally stick to traditional are: Athony Ryan, Hugh Howey, David Dalglish, Myself, Lindsay Buorker, P.S. Power. Interestingly the first 4 have also taken at least 1 traditional deal Lindsay was offered one but decided to remain indie, and I’m not sure about P.S.

    In general I don’t think that it’s a lot of “echo chamber” buying – (i.e. self-published authors buying other self-published authors) sure, they may be more willing to give a SP title a try, but in general they are too busy writing to do mass reading of their peer’s work. Yes, they will buy some here and there – but I think that is generally because they’ve heard a lot of good things about a particular book and are genuinely interested in seeing if it lives up to what is being said about it.

    I do think for the people who often frequently buy self-published books they tend to read samples and that is one of the reasons why it is important to have a really strong start and flawless editing.

    I’m glad you are enjoying the posts.

    • Thanks Michael! It does seem to me too that the ‘hybrid author’ is the real winner in the new digital world. Certainly, publishers seem to be thinking the same way because they keep a very close eye on trends in self-publishing to see what will be ‘hot’ in the future.
      Personally, I think $5-7 is a fair price for self-published book. It’s very interesting to think of lower-priced books being in a ‘self-imposed ghetto’. I guess people lack the confidence to put a higher price on their work.

  • Really interesting post, Michael, and I think’s absolutely right to say that this is a case of apples and oranges. The first big question is one that goes beyond the actual sales figures, which is: what is the maximum price that a self-published novel can sell for? Sure, a superstar novelist can self-publish and put a hefty price on their work, but that is only because they are building on all the hard work done in previous years on their behalf by the sales and marketing departments of the major publishers. Most people are almost forced to give their work away to get readers.
    Secondly, isn’t the objective of most self-publishers to get a contract with a major publisher, rather than remain self-published?
    Finally, I’m wondering who are the readers of self-published novels? Is it a select group who are just reading each other’s work, or does this have a breakout effect and large numbers of readers from the ‘general public’? In his interview with me, David Abaddon describes a special type of reader, ” who isn’t particularly sensitive to the quality of the cover art and who doesn’t mind taking the time poring through a hundred poor or mediocre works to find the one gem (and those gems are there, I’m not denying that for a moment).” What’s your feeling there?
    I’m really enjoying your posts. It’s great to see someone taking a strong, informed stance on this issue.

    • Sorry, that should have been ‘David Moore of Abaddon Books’. I can’t edit my comments!

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