After I completed my first novel, I had dreams of a beautiful black book, its ivory pages sewn into the binding, the title embossed in gold leaf, a single red ribbon denoting the place where a reader might pause in their reading, adrift in another world.
Perhaps, if I was lucky enough, more than a few readers would love it. Perhaps, in my wildest dreams, Reese Witherspoon would even recommend it to her book club. Perhaps it would go on to become a New York Times bestseller and Hello Sunshine would adapt it into a series for HBO. Perhaps I could spend my life as an author, writing books from the far corners of the world.
Yes, perhaps. The unicorns of the publishing industry—Dan Brown, Anne Rice, Stephen King, Paulo Coelho—allow us to dream that maybe, just maybe, our books will make it too. If we just write well enough and persist long enough, by some miracle our books will make it onto Oprah’s nightstand and our dreams of being an author will be realized.
Alas, that’s all it is. A dream.
No one will read your book
“One of the biggest ironies about this business is that there are lots of people who want to become authors, but that doesn’t necessarily equate with the number of people who are voracious readers,” says Rachel Deahl, news director at Publishers Weekly. “There is a disconnect. Not enough people read enough books.”
Deahl, who has covered book deals for more than a decade, tells me the problem is a supply and demand one. “If you ask people how many books they read in the past year, they’ll say four. Or two,” she says. “There are lots and lots of people eager to become writers. But we need more readers. We need more people who are readers than we have writers.”
Almost a third of Americans don’t read books at all. And, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the ones that do spend only 16 minutes per day reading. Compare that to the average Netflix watcher who spends close to three hours per day consuming video content. At that pace, a watcher might get through 681 movies in a year while a reader gets through only 16 books—and that’s presuming those 15 minutes are spent reading books.
In reality, books compete for our reading time alongside newspapers, magazines, and other online publications. Even this year, when leisure time increased as a result of the pandemic, novels saw only a subtle increase in sales over last year—by 2.8 percent. News consumption, however, saw an increase of 215 percent with most of that time taking place on Facebook (23 minutes per day), Google (14 minutes per day), and MSN (five minutes per day).
If the market for our attention is intensely crowded, the sliver of that market devoted to reading books is very, very small. And if the demand for books is small, the supply of books is great. To make it onto a reader’s nightstand, an author will have to compete with the roughly 3 million books currently in print to get there—and a seemingly endless supply of ebooks.
And how a reader chooses those carefully selected few is a rather convoluted (and heavily commercialized) system. It has more to do with what Amazon recommends, what’s trending on The New York Times Best Seller list, and what a friend is obsessed with on Audible—and those algorithms are heavily dictated by what is already selling.
“People tend to buy the books that are already really popular,” Deahl says. “They look at the bestseller list to see what they want to buy and that reinforces this tiny amount of books at the top. It’s a very top-heavy system. The tricky thing in publishing is success begets success. But it’s really hard to create that spark.”
Your book will not make The New York Times Best Seller list
The “Big Five” publishing houses—soon to be the “Big Four” as Penguin Random House announced the acquisition of Simon and Schuster this winter—are so-called because they own about 75 percent of the book publishing market. They are the big conglomerates of the publishing world and they account for every book that has topped The New York Times Best Seller list—at least in the past five years.
Because of this, it is commonly assumed by authors that their best odds of publishing success will come from securing a contract with a Big Five house—and they might be right. But winning a Big Five contract is no guarantee of success—far from it. Publishing houses make money by adhering to one simple strategy: Spend $5,000-$10,000 on thousands of author advances, and hope that one of them will go on to become a huge bestseller and earn the company enough money to pay for all the rest.
It’s basically tech investing: Throw all your money at a bunch of startups then hope for the unicorn.
“There’s a saying in publishing: 80 percent of authors fail, and the 20 percent that succeed pay for all the failures,” Deahl says. “It’s about building up big bestsellers. They are the people who pay for all the people who don’t make it.”
And the unicorn in the publishing industry is exceedingly rare. According to an EPJ Data Science study that used big data to analyze every New York Times bestselling book from 2008–2016, there are 100,000 new, hardcover print books published each year—of which, less than 500 make it on to The New York Times Best Seller list (that’s 0.5 percent).
And most of the books that make the list are written by already famous authors. Read through the list on any given week and you will see a handful of well-known favorites. As I write this article, John Grisham, James Patterson, Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Danielle Steele, and Nora Roberts are all topping the list—the same cast of characters who have been there since I was in high school. As the investigation concludes: “The success of a book is deeply linked to the previous success and the name recognition of its author.”
Surely there are some debut authors who make the list. Yes, that is true—according to EPJ, 14 percent of bestselling fiction authors wrote only one book during the time studied—but the rest had two or more. In fact, the 2,468 fiction books that made the list were written by only 854 authors. (It’s worth mentioning that 51 of those books were written by James Patterson, 31 were by Clive Cussler, and 25 were by Danielle Steel.)
Not only that, but most fiction novels (26 percent) appear on the list for only a week. They surface briefly because they surpass the selling threshold required to make the list (generally 1,000–10,000 copies per week, depending on what’s on the list, according to the EPJ study), then they peter out just as quickly. Most books peak in the first 10 weeks after their debut, then exit the market.
There are exceptions, but they are rare. During the period of time studied, only 10 bestsellers remained on the list for more than a year, and those were helped greatly by their adaption into an award-winning film (The Help, for instance, which was on the list for 131 weeks) or a hotly followed series (the fifth book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series).
That being said, the list is not the end all be all. It tracks sales, not reads, and sales numbers can be inflated by industry practices such as requiring that a bookstore buy a certain number of copies in order to secure the author for a reading, or mass purchasing a certain book to wind up on the list. This is the reason behind the list’s infamous “dagger”—a line item that appears next to books on the list whose sales numbers might be artificially inflated.
Not to mention, “The New York Times Best Seller list is a scam and is also just super racist,” says L.L. McKinney, author of the YA novel A Blade So Black and founder of the hashtag #publishingpaidme. “It’s not a surprise. There’s not a lot of us on there. And when I say us, I mean Black authors, Black women authors in particular.”
McKinney’s hashtag started trending during the summer of 2020 when authors began to break the silence around author advances, highlighting some of the disparities between what one book sells for vs. another. Comparable author advances reported ranged from $25,000 (science fiction writer N. K. Jemisin) to $3.4 million (science fiction writer John Scalzi). “It revealed just how staggering the bias is towards not paying Black authors as much as white authors are paid in publishing,” McKinney says.
But advances are not earnings—they are a guess on the part of the publisher what an author will earn in book sales. Though there may be disparities in how one book is favored to sell over another, and what marketing dollars are earmarked to promote it, the book still has to sell—whether it goes on to underperform that advance, sell it out, or far surpass it. And whether it sells enough copies to make The New York Times Best Seller List is a longshot no matter what.
“Even if you’re bought by a big publisher, and even if they spend a decent amount of money on the book, publishers don’t have the ability to do a huge amount of marketing for their titles,” Deahl says. “So a lot of the books they buy don’t get the money and resources they need to get attention. There are a lot of wonderful books that are published that never find an audience.”
Molly Barton, who spent the better part of a decade at Penguin Random House, agrees. “From my own experience as an acquiring editor inside a major publishing house, you have to go through a pretty significant gauntlet of approvals in order to make an offer on a first-time fiction writer,” she says. “The novel that I first acquired, I think I had to get 16 people to read it and say, ‘yes, we think we should publish this for a very modest sum of money.’ And then it was a battle at every step of the way to get attention.”
You will not become a millionaire from your book
If, by some chance, a novel is the outlier that reaches The New York Times Best Seller list, what does that mean financially for the author?
According to the EPJ data, 96 percent of a fiction book’s sales take place in the first year, and the majority of New York Times bestselling books sell between 10,000 and 100,000 copies in their first year. Presuming the average royalty check is 12 percent and the average hardcover fiction book retails at $15, that means authors are earning roughly between $18,000 and $180,000, as a bestseller. Non-bestselling authors then, as a rule, earn comparably less.
“The fantasy that you’re going to become an author and get rich doing it is misguided,” Deahl says. “Very few people become rich, and very few people even earn a living doing it. Most books don’t succeed. When you think about it, it takes some people 10 years to write a book. Even at $15 an hour, over 10 years you will be paid more at minimum wage than you will earn on the book.”
That’s not to say authors can’t make a living at it. McKinney, who shared some of her story with me, says she received an advance of less than $45,000 signing with Imprint, an imprint of Macmillan, and is able to earn a modest living from sales of her book series. “I am not living some lavish life in New York or on the West Coast or anything like that,” she says. “I am able to pay the rent and pay bills and be just outside of paycheck-to-paycheck. So I’m still able to live off of my traditional publishing.”
Rachel Hawkins does the same. As the author of more than 10 paranormal YA fiction novels, she has been a full-time author for 12 years. “I was very, very lucky that I got into YA right as it was the Gold Rush years post-Twilight,” she says, “so I was able to make a living as a writer right away. Before that, I’d been a teacher so it wasn’t like I was making a huge amount of money. Unfortunately, we don’t pay teachers nearly enough, so [the pay as an author] was comparable to what I’d been making before.”
Both McKinney and Hawkins published their novels with Big Five publishing houses. Hawkins’ first series was with Disney Hyperion, then everything after that was with Penguin Random House, with her adult thriller now at St. Martin’s, an imprint of Macmillan. “It’s like anything, sometimes there have been years where that’s been easy,” she says. “And sometimes there have definitely been lean years where you get a little more creative and look around for different streams of revenue.”
“The books that sell for half a million and up, those are outliers,” Deahl says. “Only a handful of those books sell every year. It’s not a lot. Those are like the Cinderella stories. People see that and think ‘I can make a lot of money.’ It’s possible, but it very rarely happens that way.”
Self-publishing is not the answer
Having explored what happens to books that are published traditionally, an author might be tempted to go the indie publishing route, or even self-publish. And I have to admit this is something that both speaks to and terrifies me.
The draw here is that authors get to keep 70 percent of their book’s earnings while maintaining the rights to their book. The trouble is that Amazon is the largest publisher of self-published titles, and Amazon doesn’t share their statistics. This means authors who wish to publish their book via Kindle Direct Publishing have no data available to them as far as how many books the behemoth publishes each year, how their book will be promoted alongside competition, and how many of their books will be sold.
What we do know, is thanks to Paul Abbassi, CEO at Bookstat. His company aims to achieve what thus far no analytics company has been able to: to find and report data on the ebook market as a whole. Until Bookstat came along, NPD Bookscan and other reporting outlets were able to report book sales from every retail outlet except Amazon. But with 49 percent of print sales, without Amazon, we’re missing half of the data.
Even then, according to Abbassi, “no accurate industry data exists on the total number of ebooks published each year,” which means self-publishing an ebook is like screaming into the void. There’s a gaping black hole into which those books go, and only Bezos knows where they’ll fall on the endless scrolling pages of Kindle Unlimited—may the algorithm be ever in your favor.
Though it’s no longer possible to track exactly how many new ebooks enter the market each year, Abbassi says that from 2015 to 2018, the number of Kindle titles available on Amazon increased by 1.2 to 1.4 million ebooks each year—which should give us some indication of the market. He also estimates that 65–70 percent of new books each year are self-published.
If there are up to 1.4 million new book titles entering the market each year, and up to 980,000 of them are self-published, then the traditional publisher acts as a filter. “For every traditionally published book that gets accepted and published by a publisher, there are dozens of other manuscripts submitted by aspiring traditional-route authors that publishers reject—the slush pile,” Abbassi says. “With self-published books, that entire slush pile gets published, too.”
When I ask how self-published books perform compared to traditionally published books, Abbassi says that’s a fundamentally flawed question. Comparing the average traditionally published book to the average self-published book, he says, would be like comparing the average earnings of only the winning lottery tickets (traditionally published books) to the average earnings across all lottery tickets (self-published books).
That being said, there are certainly success stories. 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.
Romance author H. M. Ward, for instance, self-published a novel in 2013 “to see what would happen” and found herself atop New York Times bestselling lists and earning eight-figure revenues without the help of a traditional publishing house. The self-published model lends itself well to these genres because books are typically written in a series, sold at lower price points, and consumed more quickly than other categories.
Romance novels, for instance, sell more than any other genre and readers in that category admit to consuming five books a week and spending $60 per month on books. That being said, the H. M. Ward’s of the world are still the outliers of the industry. In a sea of some 1.4 million new ebooks annually, those couple thousand that earn six-figures are still the minority (0.14 percent).
In the end, whether an author goes the traditional route or the self-published route, “in each case, the ‘average’ book will end up performing very poorly,” Abbassi says. “Financially successful careers in the creative arts are quite rare, and this is equally true for traditional-route authors as well as self-publishers.”
Serial novels are not a viable alternative (yet)
Whether a book is traditionally published or self-published, the author is at a disadvantage. Writing a fiction novel takes a lot of time and for most authors that time is unpaid. When the novel finally debuts, it has 10 weeks to sell, and by the end of the year it will have sold about all it will ever sell. At that point, only a few thousand people will have read it and the book will fall into oblivion.
But there used to be another way. When Alexandre Dumas debuted The Count of Monte Cristo it was published as a feuilleton—a portion of the weekly newspaper devoted to fiction. From August 1844 to January 1846 his chapters were published in 18 installments for The Journal des Débats, a newspaper that went out to 9,000 to 10,000 paying subscribers in France—and readers were rapt by it.
In the forward to a 2004 translation of the book, the writer Luc Sante wrote: “The effect of the serials, which held vast audiences enthralled… is unlike any experience of reading we are likely to have known ourselves, maybe something like that of a particularly gripping television series. Day after day, at breakfast or at work or on the street, people talked of little else.”
It was basically “Game of Thrones.” Readers could not wait to get their hands on the next chapter and that bode very well for the writer who was not only paid by the newspaper in real-time for his work (by the word), but also grew the popularity of his work over the entirety of the time it was being published.
“The ‘Presse’ pays nearly 300 francs per day for feuilletons to Alexandre Dumas, George Sand, De Balzac, Frederic Soulé, Theophile Gautier, and Jules Sandeau,” Littell’s Little Age, Volume 10 wrote in 1846. “But what will the result be in 1848? That each of these personnages will have made from 32,000 to 64,000 francs per annum for two or three years for writing profitable trash of the color of the foulest mud in Paris?”
That “profitable trash” earned those writers an annual salary of between $202,107 to $404,213 in today’s dollars—and the obvious disdain of that Littell writer who, even then preferred the merits of a bound and published book. The same volume goes on to say that Dumas earned about 10,000 francs ($65,743 today) per installment when he was poached from The Presse by The Constitutionnel in 1845.
There exists some modern precedent for the serial novel. The Martian was originally published as a series on Andrew Weir’s personal blog. When the pandemic struck in 2020 Lena Dunham published her novel Verified Strangers as a choose-your-own-adventure series on vogue.com. J.K. Rowling released a previously unpublished children’s book, The Ickabog, on her website inviting children who were following along to dream up their own illustrations for it.
But again, I am speaking only of the success stories which then, as now, make up only a small portion of writers. Even still, there is an argument to be made that serial content could perform better than static. An episodic television series, for instance, sees watchers for as many years as there are seasons, compared with a movie that might see watchers for one.
Serial Box aims to capitalize on this idea, disrupting the static book publishing model by bringing back serial novels and giving them the popularity of a binge-worthy television series. They do this by hiring rooms of writers — much as is done in television writing—and releasing chapters on a weekly basis. The reader can buy a book for $9.99 then follow the “episodes” as they come out, choosing whether they want to read or listen to them through the Serial Box app.
“We typically conceive of a season that has eight or 10 episodes,” says Barton, now co-founder and CEO of Serial Box. “Our more successful series go on to have second, third, or fourth seasons. So we’re definitely thinking in the way that television writers do around story worlds that could lend themselves to later seasons.”
It’s an enticing model, especially compared with traditional models. After 12 years in traditional publishing, Hawkins became the lead writer for Serial Box’s Victorian, Gothic romance The Haunting of Beatrix Green. “So much of [publishing] does feel like a shot in the dark,” she told me. “What I really liked about Serial Box is that they have all the data. They can actually see, ‘we know that it can’t be any longer than this. Because our data has told us that people turn off an episode after X amount of minutes.’”
Holing up in an Airbnb with the other writers on the project, Hawkins and her team pored over the data available to them and mapped out the project together. “You can be like, ‘okay, this needs to be 3,000 words because that will be about 20 minutes, and 20 minutes is about where we want to hit for this episode.’ It’s very interesting to me because yes, so much of publishing just feels like, ‘oh, it didn’t sell a million copies. We don’t know why.’”
Serial Box declined to comment on the number of users they have or the number of purchases their books see, which means writers are still in the dark as to how their book will perform relative to other avenues. And writing with a room is an altogether different thing from working on a solo project—both creatively and financially speaking.
The deal is: “We’ll pay you X amount of dollars per episode you write,” Hawkins tells me. “And then because I was lead writer responsible for helping put the writing team together, writing the pilot episode, and working a little bit more on the synopsis, I got an extra fee on top of that. So you get a flat fee per episode you do and then if you are a lead writer, you get a little bit extra on top.”
With royalties effectively out, writers are paid as contractors. McKinney also worked on a Serial Box project as a writer for the Marvel series Black Widow, and she describes the compensation this way: “You’re contracted out on a project-by-project basis. So Serial Box would have to be my employer—like it would have to be a 40 hour a week type deal—for me to be able to make a living off of just Serial Box,” she says.
You will not make money from your Patreon or Substack platform
As a writer, I can only dream of working like Dumas. Writing with a weekly deadline, paid on one too. The creative freedom of writing fiction for a living paired with the financial stability of a regular paycheck.
I could live where my books take place, spending the afternoons wandering through jungles and drinking tea in pagodas, gathering inspiration for the chapters I would write the next day. I could stretch out under my masterpiece in the mornings like Michelangelo beneath the Sistine Chapel, chiseling away at the philosophies etched in my mind before sending them out polished to my readers each week.
I definitely romanticize the Renaissance for that reality—for the thing it did most beautifully was financially support people who would otherwise be poor, peasant farmers to become Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci. At the time, that financial support came from some wealthy financier, a patron who wanted to support an artist, so the artist could do the altogether time-consuming thing called creating a masterpiece.
After the Renaissance, the artist fell into obscurity. Masterpieces became the side hobby of a select few and the full-time job of an even fewer. Authors (and artists and musicians) required the support of a publishing company (or a gallery or a record label) to get in front of an audience, earning an ever diminishing sliver of the profits in the process.
Social media started to change things. With Facebook and Instagram and Spotify and Etsy, creatives could get their work directly in front of a devoted audience without the help of a publisher or gallery or record label to promote it. They only needed a platform on which to gather their fans and a product with which to sell to them.
Now we have Patreon and Substack—technologies that have been much aggrandized for their ability to monetize the creator. To allow thousands of fans (instead of one patron) to financially support the work of an artist. Substack leads the newsletter charge, offering writers the ability to write exclusive content for their followers, with those followers paying a monthly subscription fee to receive it.
Paid newsletters not only support the writers who write them, but allow the writer the artistic freedom to cater to a select few (see: niche audience) rather than a great many (see: mass appeal). In the fiction world, that is paramount. My book could best be classified as literary fiction, and unfortunately, that’s a somewhat abstract genre. Commercial fiction is the more read thing. It’s what you find on The New York Times Best Seller list. It’s the crime thrillers and romance novels, the kind of book that millions of people pick up at airports each year. Literary fiction, by contrast, is just the opposite. It’s strange and poetic and philosophical, it’s loved by a small but devoted few.
But if the literary sort are at a disadvantage when it comes to making it in the traditional publishing world, they might be ideally suited to the reader-supported world. Theoretically, an author could earn $5,000 per month from only 1,000 people—if each follower contributed $5 per month—and that idea is very enticing because… well, see dream scenario above.
Wired writer Kevin Kelley believes this is the future. In a since viral post, he states that the reader-supported economy no longer demands that a creator reach millions of followers, but only 1,000 true fans. Ones who are so devoted they will wind up paying the creator about $100 a year. “If you keep the full $100 of each true fan, then you need only 1,000 of them to earn $100,000 per year,” he said in the article. “That’s a living for most folks.”
Angel investor Li Jin calls this “the passion economy” and she thinks creatives could reach an even more niche audience. “I believe that creators need to amass only 100 True Fans—not 1,000—paying them $1,000 a year, not $100,” she said in an article for a16z, the blog of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. “Today, creators can effectively make more money off fewer fans.”
Certainly, we’ve seen some successes with the passion economy. As a devoted patron of the artist Jamie Beck, I immediately spent $100 when she debuted her Isolation Creation series to her 300,000+ Instagram followers during the pandemic. Many of her fans did the same as she pledged to donate 10 percent of her proceeds to charity and reported donating $15,000 only two months later—an estimated $150,000 for the artist.
Chance the Rapper, for another, famously opted to go label-less despite offers from nearly every record label in town—including Kanye’s. Having amassed a dedicated following on Soundcloud and Spotify, he turned his followers into concert attenders, eventually ranking fifth on a 2017 Forbes list of the highest-paid hip hop artists in the world—with $33 million.
Hamish McKenzie wants to see fiction do that too. As the co-founder of Substack, he once aspired to see it become a place for serialized novels. “I personally am excited about the potential for Substack to be a home for serial fiction,” he once posited on kboards, a forum for Kindle authors and users. “The idea of receiving book chapters by email is just cool to me. And I like the idea of subscribing to a writer individually, so that writer gets paid every month instead of only when a book is released.”
Feedback on the forum came back with a resounding “that will never work.” “Why would anyone pay for a subscription to a single author when they can pay a subscription to [Kindle Unlimited] and get a million authors?” one user asked. “Would you?”
That’s the million-dollar question—and it’s one without an answer. Thus far, there are no fiction authors currently on Substack (though there are a handful of nonfiction journalists who seem to be doing well). Patreon has quite a few, but very few success stories. Of all the fiction authors currently on the site, I found only 25 earning more than $1,000 a month, and only 15 earning more than $4,000 a month.
Not only are success stories on Substack and Patreon exceedingly rare, but neither function as a platform on their own. A Substack or Patreon writer will have to gain a following somewhere else (i.e. social media) before they can attempt to convert those followers to paid Substack or Patreon subscribers. And for writers, finding the right platform has historically been difficult.
Though photographers and fitness gurus have found success on Instagram, handmade crafters and artisans have found success on Etsy, and rappers and musicians have found success on Soundcloud, until recently there hasn’t been a good place to find and follow writers. Ev Williams tried to make a platform for writers when he co-founded Twitter—but we all know how that turned out.
Thankfully, Williams’ second venture turned out more promising. In 2012 he founded Medium, this time focused on long-form articles. Medium is now a platform where readers can follow the writers and publications they love, and writers can develop a following for their work. Readers don’t need to pay every single writer they follow (à la Substack)—but just for one annual Medium subscription—and writers are compensated based on how well their articles are received.
“One of the things… people enjoy about writing newsletters today,” Williams recently wrote on Medium, “is the feeling that you’re publishing to a relatively consistent group of people who care what you have to say. Even if it’s a small group. This lets you write with more freedom and confidence… do so reliably and that readership grows.”
Whether a writer decides to build their platform on Patreon or Substack or Medium, thus far none have proved a successful home for fiction. There simply does not yet exist a market in which consumers pay a monthly fee to read an author’s book via email, and the author earns a decent living from it. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible in the future, or that building the platform isn’t valuable. Quite the opposite.
“I think one of the things that authors have mastery over is building up an audience,” says Barton. “Building up your superfans and the people who are following your blog, or subscribing to your Substack—or however you’re talking to people on a regular basis—doing that early work is going to make every other piece of your career easier, because you have a quote-unquote ‘platform.’”
The only thing a writer can do
Andy Weir first published The Martian as a serial for his own blog, then as a self-published novel on Amazon, then as a traditionally published novel with Random House.
“I had an email list with about 3,000 people on it, so, initially, the audience was roughly that much,” he tells me. “When I first posted it to Amazon, I didn’t do anything to market or publicize it. All I did was tell my readers it was available there.”
The book was on Amazon for five months, at a price point of 99 cents, and he sold 35,000 copies before Random House bought the rights in February of 2014. The book went on to become a New York Times bestseller and a blockbuster movie starring Matt Damon.
“The publicity and marketing machine of a traditional publisher can’t be beat,” he says. “They get your book into the hands of reviewers who have a lot of influence. The only con is that they get the lion’s share of the sale price. But considering the bulk of that goes to paying for the creation of the physical book, I’m not too worried about it—and their marketing engine makes it more than worthwhile.”
When I tell this story to Barton, she says Weir’s story doesn’t prove that the traditional publishing model works best, only that traditional publishers are trying to find some guarantee that a book will have an audience—and 35,000 sales in five months, with no marketing, meant they had a sure thing on their hands.
“I’m not sure that any of the traditional publishing success for [Weir] would be possible without those first two steps,” she says. “In that particular case, we might be giving unfair credit to the traditional publisher piece of that career progression.”
In other words: there is no algorithm that suggests that books about scientists growing potatoes on Mars will be successful. Even Big Five publishing houses are unable to predict which books readers will love and which books they won’t. The only thing they can predict with any certainty is whether or not the author has enough followers that will purchase their book—and Weir had 3,000 devoted readers. It all started because of them.
“You have this dichotomy,” Deahl says of the publishing industry. “You’re always looking for people with really big platforms. If Kanye West is going to publish a book, he’s got a big audience already, you don’t have to build an audience for him. So someone with a built-in audience, who can reach out to them and say ‘I’m publishing a book,’ that book can become a bestselling book immediately.”
It’s a gamble. “You will always have daydreams about why this book and why not that book,” Deahl says. “You will always have more books failing than not.” But the one thing we know for sure is that devoted fans make all the difference. Because whether a book is traditionally published, self-published, or serialized, alone its odds of success are next-to-none—but with a couple thousand devoted fans, anything is possible.
In his final advice to me, Weir offers this: “I would say to try the traditional route first. If you can’t get traction with agents or publishers, then consider self-pubbing. If your book does well as a self-pubbed ebook, you can go back to agents and publishers and say ‘look, it’s a proven seller.’”
Guess I’ll get to work.
Update: As an experiment, I decided to publish my gothic novel as a serial (just like Alexandre Dumas) using Substack. You can learn more about that here and you can subscribe here:
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.
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.