Another well-written and researched piece. A few things from my own experiences...and keep in mind that I would be considered an outlier - but my success should provide hope because when I started out I had no audience and I'm now very successful.

1. Like Wier, I started out self, then signed with the traditional houses,but unlike him, I'm now back to self. Why? More money and greater control. I make about 2.5x more from my self-published books than I do from my traditionally published ones, and that's largely due to earning MUCH more on each individual sale.

2. N.K. Jemisin and I were released through the same publisher at roughly the same time (her debut was Oct 2010, mine was November 2011). Our advances were comparable (she actually got a little more than I did - $25,000 a book for her $22,500 for me. I'm a white CIS male and she is a black woman of color - so the outrage at her "small advance" may not be totally founded. I'm not saying there isn't a bias in publishing - I'm sure there is. But N.K.'s debut shouldn't be held up as proof of that point. The reality is BOTH of us had good debut deals -- most range around $5,000 - $10,000. Now, that said, N.K.'s subsequent deals were not very good (from an advance standpoint - she's earned out on them and has done very well now), but at the time she signed those deals her released books weren't selling well - which I think was a factor. As we both started at the same place at the same time, I used to track both of our Amazon rankings and for 5 or 6 years I did much better than she did from a "number of units sold" and our books were priced similarly. But I have to give Orbit (our publisher) credit - they "stuck by her" and it eventually paid off. Now her books rank much better than mine - and she certainly has more name recognition (three Hugos in a row certainly helped with that). But, I was earning a full-time income long before she did (mainly due to my self-published novels). She "should" have been able to make a living wage but the low payout of the traditional model meant she had to turn to Patreon in order to quit her day job. Nowadays, she is (I would guess) one of the top earners in our genre (fantasy). By using KDSPY (which takes Amazon ranks and the price per book to estimate author income (NOTE: I should note that my experience is KDSPY HIGHLY underestimates income but it does provide an apple to apple comparison) Anyway, according to KDSPY, N.K.'s Amazon ebooks earn $33,818 per month (her cut of that would be $5,038) and my KDSPY numbers are $8,844 but my cut of that is much higher (because many of my titles are self-published). But Amazon ebook is only one piece of the picture and I suspect she earns much more than I do on physical books, but based on audible rankings, I earn more than she does with audio. Bottom line. After a decade we are both earning well (several hundred thousand a year) and while we are both outliers, it's proof that it can happen.

3. I know a good deal about income in traditional and self (and I also know a good number of authors in each) and I agree 100% with this statement: “There are a couple thousand self-published authors currently earning six-figure incomes from their ebook sales, Abbassi tells me, and a couple dozen earning seven-figure incomes. In fact, some genres may see more success in the self-published world than they would elsewhere. “In certain fiction genres, such as romance, science fiction, and fantasy, there are far more high-earning, self-published authors than traditionally published ones,” Abbassi says.”

4. Regarding Barton's assessment of Weir's success: "In that particular case, we might be giving unfair credit to the traditional publisher piece of that career progression." I also agree 100% - Weir was successful because (a) he wrote a killer book (b) he got a following and then word of mouth spread and (c) by the time traditional publishing came along they poured gasoline on that fire and made it bigger - but (a) and (b) can't be understated.

5. For what it's worth, I've been on the New York Times twice: one for a traditionally released book (Age of War) and one for a self-published released book (Age of Legend). They were my 13th and 14th published novels - and they were both "one and done" - meaning they only were on there for one week. And in my case, it was the audiobooks that got me on the list - not physical sales. But given physical sales are for a "week" and audiobooks are for a "month" -it generally requires more sales to get on the NYT audio bestseller list.

6. One thing that is very important these days is audio rights. While I've had 3 traditional publishing contracts with six-figure advances (and one that was over half a million), my largest contract (seven figures) came from a three-book audio deal. At the present time, publishers are REQUIRING audio rights when signing a new title. And they aren't increasing the advances - they just expect them to be thrown in. But the audio right on its own is more lucrative than the print/ebook/audio in combination. That's the main reason why I've returned to self-publishing. I can get a larger contract for audio-only (and then earn higher income on the ebooks and print that are self-published). It makes no sense to sell a book for say $100,00 for audio/print/ebook when I can get more than three times that amount for audio-only.

7. Aside from the advance disparity with audiobooks, there is an even bigger issue - and that is % of the audio sale that goes to the author when a publisher is involved. For my first two series (Riyria Revelations and Riyria Chronicles) Orbit sold those rights through "subsidiary deals" which means I earn about 3.5% of the income they produce. The standard royalty rate for someone who sells directly to Audible Studios is 15% 4.3 times more - so it's MUCH easier to "earn out" those advances.

Anyway - just some thought and data from someone who has done both self and traditional. Don't give up that dream - I never thought I would be where I am now, so it CAN happen.

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This is such a well-researched and helpful article. I wish I had come across it before self-publishing, so I wouldn't have wasted so much money. What do you think motivates people to pay a monthly fee for nonfiction but not fiction? Could it be that people support the person rather than the writing?

Additionally, based on the supply versus demand numbers, it seems that trying to write serialized television might be a better option. However, when I attempted to do that, I found it even more challenging to receive responses. In the literary world, agents and publishers often respond, sometimes providing advice that gives you hope. In the TV industry, producers never responded to my scripts unless they saw me on Ellen and wanted a nude.

I wonder how we, the Substack community, can break into the TV industry. Wattpad has achieved this to some extent, but there can only be so many books and TV shows about horny teenage werewolves.

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Thank you for this Elle. Such valuable advice..I'm learning it by heart. This article alone validates my price of admission! And your commenters throughout make fabulous contributions as well.

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harsh truths, but an honest assessment. writers don't need to be coddled, they need facts so they can make informed decisions about their work. thank you!

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Thanks for writing such a thought-provoking, insightful, and in depth look at the stark reality of the publishing industry overall. A perspective that takes an open and balanced approach looking at both traditional publishing and self-publishing honestly and without hyperbole is all too rare. Well done.

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I don't think I have read a more honest and well-articulated piece on not just the publishing industry, but the creator economy at large like yours! So glad to learn about you in Substack's Grow Fellowship! Please keep up the great work!!

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Hi, my name is Paolo Danese. I am a writer (epic fantasy), former journalist, and now tech founder. I am working with other writers and creators on the launch of storya.app, a next-gen publishing platform. I nodded my way through your article, and many of the reasons you lay out (troubles with traditional, self-publishing, serial novels) are what led me to start this project. Storya combines a social network with a multimedia publishing platform with a Patreon-style monetization option for creators. Sounds mad enough? Not yet! We use AI translation, AI art generation (and soon AI audio narration and more) to take everyone’s writing (but we will focus especially on circulating content from the Global South) and make it accessible to a global audience that, frankly, just does not care about books anymore.

Books are dead. Publishing (and self-publishing) are dead. I think writers need to look at where the world is (Instagram, Tik Tok) and learn from it, develop new forms of storytelling, experiment. As much as I love my pile of dead trees, it is not sustainable, it is not inclusive, it just does not work anymore. So writing needs to evolve. AI is one way to easily and cheaply break the barriers and make “words” into something more, something closer to what 21st-century eyeballs/brains like. Collaboration (something that sadly nobody ever talks about), is the other piece. Writer alone? Weak. Writer + illustrator + narrator: sky is the limit! So again, let’s open our minds, let’s experiment, let’s reinvent. We have the tools. Let’s be brave! Feel free to drop cheers and insults at paolo@storya.app! And do check us out at storya.app. Happy to continue the conversation anytime. :)

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I'm hybrid published (both self and trad), with a couple of dozen books (five genres: memoir, upmarket literary, thriller, romance, and nonfiction about writing). At the beginning of every year, I break down what I made and how I made it on my podcast How Do You Write, because I believe there should be more transparency around this. In 2021, I made $57k USD from books, most of that from my self-pubbed titles (even though I had a hardcover thriller come out from Penguin in 2021) and I made $14,500 from Patreon. My first book came out in 2010, and I've been writing full time since 2016. I pay my bills from writing (and also from teaching, like a lot of us), so it can be done! It just takes bloody determination, a gutful of hope, and the inability to stay down when knocked down. Repeatedly putting out well-written books does pay off in the end. It just usually takes longer than we want it to.

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Sep 5, 2021Liked by Elle Griffin

I think people should consider organically building an audience through publishing serialized material using RSS feeds & Patreon. There are multiple artists and writers making a living following this route, while maintaining full rights to their output.

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Sep 5, 2021Liked by Elle Griffin

my very good and old friend, Dan Ladinsky has been rendering the works of Hafez, i.e., taking the poems{ghazals in Persian) and doing his own 'take' on the ghazal and publishing the book. As of now he is the world's leading poetic author in number of titles and sales(through Penquin).

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Sep 4, 2021Liked by Elle Griffin

Thanks. It's all so depressing, though. "Building an audience" is close to impossible for me. What with everyone taking selfies on Instagram (not an option, I photograph terribly) and everyone else pivoting to video (the same but worse) those of us with nothing but our wits are really and truly stuck.

Not as bad as musicians, though, who study for 20 years and cannot make a living at all.

We are living in the worst possible times :(

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Great piece. Loving your Substack. There is no formula to all of this. So much is luck after the blood, sweat, and tears. You have to be smart, clever, shrewd, talented (in whatever way, to whatever extent), have the right content, the right personality, the right look even (sometimes) and just immensely, immensely lucky.

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I am so glad to read someone telling it like it is!

Vehemently opposed to the book industry in Australia, I self published my first novel back in 2012 (in hardcopy only, small-run, as I had an aversion to Amazon) and was widely considered completely mad. I didn't do it for the money, though; the creative buzz from spending 5 years on the thing, and THEN getting to project manage the editing and design phase with a trusted production team (all friends) and THEN get to launch it to my community with a party that lasted all night was sufficient recompense for my 25 year old self.

The novella (literary non-fiction) that I'm currently publishing as a serial here [surrendernow.substack.com] is, once again, not intended as a money-maker. Why should it, when it is a labour of love? I'm sharing this story so that people can receive something in their inbox, on a weekly basis, that they look forward to and resonate with and maybe even find it healing. The discourse of monetization seems irrelevant when compared with the joy of sharing something meaningful with one's community. The qualitative, not quantitative, payoff of writing, so to speak.

Thanks for providing this food for thought, I look forward to reading more of your work!

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We have a 100% chance of dying. So that means not trying anything meaningful. But the .005% you have better odds of getting eaten by a shark are EXACTLY the stuff everyone should try.

I guarantee there are a bunch of people who can bench press 350 pounds, do the 40 in 4.3 seconds and throw a football 70 yards who are driving garbage trucks while Tom Brady does more with a lot less.

I remember, just starting my career, that they told me I would never win one single swimming match in my whole life.

I ignored the naysayers.

Jumped right in. I won the race. I heard my father yelling go baby. My mother was cheering also. You can do it.

The other 50 million sperm died.

Later on, I was in an airplane. A private plane. I got sick, had to visit the restroom. While waiting for me to recover my best friend took off again. He got killed.

For ten years I did not go near airplanes. Drove to California twice.

A psychiatrist hypnotized me, suggested I take flight lessons, pretend I was a member of Top Gun.

After starts and stops I got a private license.

Pilots laughed when I wanted to get an instrument rating. In two months.

One guy said, "John Glenn got his instrument rating in 6 weeks. You're no John Glenn."

He was right. I was not John Glenn.

I hired a former instructor in the Navy's Top Gun program and got my instrument rating in 6 days.

I agree that the odds of a big publisher making the average writer a millionaire is tough.

Self-publishing is tough too since no one knows who you are.

I bet no one ever thought about a zero-cost way to write a book and receive 100% profits.

I am pretty good at day trading. In 1987 was able to quit my job at Merrill Lynch and work for myself.

In 2006 I created an e-book that described the methodology. I partnered with a telemarketer who could sell Costa-DelSol vacations to Dracula.

We sold $8.3 million dollars worth of the $0 cost e-books at $1,995.00 each via the telephone.

So tell me why any of you could not write a book about your life, get a list of people from a list broker, call people for 4 hours per day (ya might make a few friends although 90% will yell at you), and sell that book for $19.95?


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This piece should be required reading for all writers and aspiring writers. Agents should send it to their clients upon signing, and it should be an appendix to publishing contracts. THANK YOU! You bring such clear-headed analysis to the frustratingly hand-wavey publishing industry. I will be sharing this piece far and wide.

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This is a great overview of the current author landscape! I think people go in knowing the odds of commercial success are low, but don't fully realize the extent to which the odds are stacked against the author. But if making art makes you happy, then success is completing the work.

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