Only 40 Self-Published Authors are a Success, says Amazon

The cat is out of the bag, finally we know exactly how many self-published authors make it big: 40.

Yes, that’s not a typo.

40 self-published authors “make money”, all the others, and they number in the hundreds of thousands, don’t. This interesting statistic, recently revealed in a New York Times article, applies to the Kindle Store, but since Amazon is in fact the largest digital publishing platform in the world, it is a safe bet that self-published authors are not doing any better elsewhere.

“Making money” here means selling more than one million e-book copies in the last five years. Yes, 40 authors have managed that, and have even gone on to establishing their own publishing house, like Meredith Wild. Her story is fully reported in the New York Times, here, and well worth pondering over.

That story reveals some further nuggets about the current fluctuating state of the publishing industry: it seems that last year, a third of the 100 best-selling Kindle books were self-published titles on average each week. Conversely, that means legacy publishers only raked in two-thirds. Perhaps this is not such a surprising result, given their habit of pricing e-books at stratospheric levels, from $12 to $16 or more compared to self-published authors who deem that $3 to $5 is the “right” price…One has to wonder why publishers do this, even at times pricing e-books more than their own printed versions of the title. Perhaps they are afraid of digital?

The digital market is indeed scary, primarily because of its dimension: over 4 million titles today in the Kindle Store, compared with 600,000 six years ago (again, the data is from the same article). This means “book discovery” has become the number one problem. How can your book stand out in such a vast crowd?

There are many answers in the industry (and savvy marketing certainly has big role), but some of the more ground-breaking solutions come from the successful self-published authors themselves, like Meredith Wild and a few others that have (more or less) followed her example, like Bella Andre, Barbara Freethy, H.M.Ward, C.J.Lyons. They have struck deals with Ingram Content Group, a major book printer and distributor, thus getting their novels in bookstores, big-box stores and airports. Because,let’s face it, when you’re selling big in the digital market, you don’t want to lose out in the printed one: 36% of book buyers still read only print books (according to a 2015 Codex Group survey – for more about how print books hold their own, see this article).

What does this mean in terms of the future of the industry?  According to David Montgomery of Publishing Technology:

“There isn’t one book market anymore: there are two, and they exist in parallel. One continues to be dominated by major publishers, and increasingly uses agency pricing as a strategy to support print book sales. The second publishing market is almost exclusively made up of e-books, and is driven by Amazon-published and KDP content sold at a substantial discount to the product produced by traditional publishers.”

And he foresees a growing divide in 2016 between the two markets. Yet the success of Meredith Wild and the other authors like her suggests that something else might be happening: self-publishing could be encroaching in a territory that used to be seen as exclusive to legacy publishers.

Time to celebrate? Not yet. There is a caveat and it’s a big one: only 40 such authors are likely to bridge the divide. In fact, writing is a poor man’s occupation. As Publisher’s Weekly noted in an article published last year: the majority of authors earn below the poverty line. The statistics are grim:

Given that a single person earning less than $11,670 annually sits below the poverty line, 56% of respondents would qualify, if they relied solely on income from their writing. The survey also indicated that not only are many authors earning little, they are, since 2009, also earning less. Overall, the median writing-related income among respondents dropped from $10,500 in 2009 to $8,000 2014 in 2014, a decline of 24%. (highlight added).

That’s way below the poverty line! Small wonder that most authors depend on another job to survive…

So if you’re not selling your books, take heart, you’re not the only one. If you’re considering becoming a writer, think twice, it won’t make you rich. To be honest, if I could do my life over, I wouldn’t go into writing (though I love story-telling), I’d go into…film making! That is the art of the future, people don’t read books, they go to the movies, they binge on TV series, they play video-games. And in all these – movies, TV, games –  good story-tellers are more needed than ever

No, the art of writing is not dead, it is just undergoing a change of venue!




Filed under Publishing, Uncategorized

54 responses to “Only 40 Self-Published Authors are a Success, says Amazon

  1. Reblogged this on Bookshelf Battle and commented:

    Partially, it is discouraging. When you see a low number like 40, why bother?

    Partially, it is validating. I always beat myself up for not fully going for it as a writer – i.e. I tell myself “If you’d of just thrown caution to the wind and gave writing your all instead of playing itself and getting a day job…”

    Then another part of me asks what is the definition of success? If I can take in an extra $10,000 in income, that’d probably be enough to motivate me to write in my spare time into perpetuity.

    I hope there will be a rise in middle class writers – i.e. people who are able to take in 50,000 a year with their writing. They won’t get rich but they won’t be in the poorhouse either. Writing seems like a rich or poorhouse proposition without much middle in between. Hopefully that changes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • $50,000/year with one’s writing? Wow, that would be great! Alas, it’s not like that at all. Writers in the UK take less than £4000/year on average…As to self-published writers, nobody knows, but I bet the “median” writer (not the average, mind you, I’m speaking of median: the guys who’s standing on the bell curve with 50% of the people above him and 50% below) takes in something like $1,000 or $2,000 a year…Just guessing!


      • The median is irrelevant when it comes to indie writers, since self-publishing runs the gamut from someone uploading their eight year olds first book through books as professionally produced as any NYC press. It’s like comparing YouTube with Hollywood – many youtubers have incomes which exceed that of the average Hollywood actor, but the mean is impossible to calculate and meaningless, since most of the work is not attempting to be professional. Ditto publishing.


      • I beg to disagree. But honestly, we are not going to get into a discussion about statistics, are we? Median and mean are not the same thing. And all this has nothing to do with Hollywood and YouTube…


      • I’m not really quibbling about which statistical term you used. The one you used was fine. 🙂

        What I was saying was that an analysis of average/mean/median self-publishing success is poorly informative if one is looking for information about how one might expect to earn as a *professional* indie writer.

        Right now about 100k new ebooks are uploaded to Amazon every month. Of those about 30k are trad pub (which earn their writers an average of about $4k each). The remaining 70k or so are self published.

        Of those 70k, a few thousand are professionally written, edited, and produced, and MOST of those will earn out better than the average trad pub book. Most of the remainder will earn out much worse than the average trad pub book, because they have poor editing, novice writing, bad cover/blurb, or some combination of the above.

        On average an indie writer who is producing professional quality work will significantly out-earn a writer whose work is being published by someone else.

        But *either* route requires a LOT of work. People unwilling to put in the work will likely earn little if anything through either path.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on Charlotte Howard – Romance Author and commented:
    Having tried self-publishing before going into erotic romance and finding a publisher, and then re-considering self-publishing, I found this rather interesting to read.


  3. So I’m not “making money” unless I sell 1 million copies? Haha. Still seems like money to me.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You roasted the writer, very well done.


  5. It depends how you define, making money. Here its selling over 1 million e-books in five years so yes, according to that criteria.
    The real problem here is that publishing is made too easy and this ease of publishing lets authors take this step without considering what all mainstream publishers consider before publication, the market. What is the market for this book? Where will it sell? What format will achieve the greatest sales? And more. It’s all about selling and depending on the answers, choosing a method and cost of publishing that will achieve a profit.
    Oh yes, and every other book out there is competition for sales of your own book. The easier it is to publish, so anyone can do it, the more competition you face. Nobody makes any money, except Amazon and all those others who run around saying they’ll publish you book – for a fee. Publishers that make their money from publishing books instead of from selling books are Vanity Publishers. No ifs, no buts!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bookmanpete, you’re absolutely right! Publishing is indeed made too easy (one million new titles/year in the Kindle Store!)and so it boils down to a marketing question. It’s not: how good a writer are you? But how good a book promoter are you?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m going to suggest it’s actually both – and that’s not really new. 🙂

        A good promoter who can’t write isn’t going to sell many copies. But an excellent writer with no idea how to promote is *very* unlikely to sell many either. That’s not new – that’s been true for centuries. History is filled with superb writers who died in poverty because they couldn’t get their work in front of an audience.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Brian

    One-million books? At first I thought I was reading a piece in the Onion. The yardstick by which indie and hybrid writers measure their success is by their earnings. There are thousands of indie writers earning six figures. The idea that volume trumps income is precisely the sort of antiquated, narrow thinking that has the large publishers on their heels.
    Of course there are still those out there who think the world is as it was prior to 2010. Indie writers craved recognition and acceptance. We wanted the same respect given to traditional writers. But then something remarkable happened. Our royalties came in. It wasn’t long after that we realized we were making more money than the people whose approval we desired. They were the ones struggling, not us. They were the ones constantly seeking validation from the corporate branch of the literary world. We found that the approval of our fans was all we had ever needed.
    My point in this response is not to insult you. It is to enlighten you. The literary world has changed. And though there are thousands of indie writers unable to make a living, there are thousands who do very well.
    To put this into perspective, I am part of a discussion group of fifty indies and hybrids. The mean income is $150,000-$250,000 per year. Very few of us have reached one-million copies – though some have. Our group is intentionally kept small, but we could easily swell the ranks. However, it would defeat the purpose of the group.
    In the time I have been a writer, I have provided my family with a home, and security for the future. I’m not what you would consider wealthy, but I want for nothing. If that’s not success, then I need to reevaluate my choice of profession.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re part of a very special group…AND you started when the going was good, back in 2010! I’m part of a group too and NOBODY is making that kind of money…Also, “hybrids” are very special people, able to make it in both worlds, traditional publishing AND self-publishing. They’re the best of the best. Small wonder they make all that dough!


  7. Thanks for sharing the info about Amazon’s report on self-published writers who “make money.” One million e-books is a high bar, and far from my definition of success. I think if you are able to support yourself from book sales, that is success. I’ve read inspirational articles of people who have been able to quit their day jobs and become writers. And they’ve been able to do that on fewer than one million book sales.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Of course, you’re right, it is a high bar and certainly not one I use for myself :)! But I do think we are coming up against a myth here, and it needs to be revealed and dispelled. Self-publishing, alas, for most people is a mirage – and it’s certainly not the road to riches. But if you enjoy writing and want to see your name on a book cover, then why not? Go ahead and have fun!

      Liked by 3 people

  8. Pingback: Another Anti-Self-Publishing Hit Piece | Michael Andre McPherson

  9. Cisco

    I’ll be clear cut about this. You are defining “success” as making writing a livable income source.

    That is not how *I*, or a lot of other people define success.

    Pure and simple.


  10. ‘self-publishing could be encroaching in a territory that used to be seen as exclusive to legacy publishers.’

    This is the territory I have my eye on, and I loved your post.

    Big publishers have carried the big books, the literary works, the developed and acclaimed authors (many of whom deserve the position they’ve earned by good writing).

    Indies have gone after the genre work, and have produced good work, adequate work, or competent work – and their pricing structure allows them to succeed.

    But I want to compete on merit with the big guys. I took a long time to get to published. I put in the work, the editing, the development of complex plots. I read all the good books on writing – Albert Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel (with its careful analysis of a Ken Follett book), and the Sol Stein books on writing, and all Donald Maass’ masterful books on writing well.

    It is a little scary: it would have been easier not to, and it is still hard getting going with the marketing.

    But I think we will be going there, we indies, and will be figuring out how to make it work.


  11. Before people start reposting this as if it’s scripture, do you have a link to Amazon’s million-book statistic? Where they say one needs to sell a million books to “make money.”


  12. Chelsea

    No one “chooses to go in to writing”. We write because not writing feels like drowning, we need writing to survive. I’d also like to know why having a job besides writing is considered a failure. I love both writing and my day job. I’m considering self-publishing because I just want to share my passion with the world, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    If you’re writing to become rich, not only are you doing it for the wrong reason, but you will never survive the publishing process, and honestly you’re not very smart (or at least well informed on the industry) if you thought writing would make you rich. We don’t do it for the money.


  13. Your headline is blatantly false. By your own admission, Amazon specifically listed people who had sold “more than one million e-book copies in the last five years” on Amazon alone.

    That number of units on Amazon alone is only pertinent for the definition of “success” if you’re only selling on Amazon and if your price point is $0.99 USD.

    The vast majority of authors I know (and, as I’m in the field, I know a lot of pros) define “success” as “making a full-time living”. For the sake of discussion, let’s define that as 6 figures, at least $100k per year, though I know some folks for whom the “success” number would be lower.

    One million units is significantly more than $100k per year at every price point except $0.99. If an author prices their stories at at least $2.99, then they’d need to total <280k units sold in 5 years. If $4.99, <170k units. If $9.99, <84k units.

    Perhaps you meant the headline as tongue-in-cheek, which would fit your redefinition of “making money”, but I’ve seriously seen your article cited to claim that only those 40 authors “made a profit” self-publishing over the past 5 years.


    • Read the latest news on – as I explained in another comment here (to Michiko) I know, it’s hard to take. But there it is…When there are so many authors vying for attention in the Kindle Store (one million new titles every year!), you can make it only if you’re truly good at book promotion (not at book writing – marketing is the name of the game!)


    • Of course we’re speaking of the tip of the iceberg here. But I’m amazed the tip is so narrow: 40 authors only? Wow! Doesn’t it surprise you? But since I wrote that, so many months ago, more information about how self-published authors are doing has come out from and the story is…well, sad. Confirmation of what I feared: self-publishing authors “normally” do not make money (however you define that)


      • So only forty people have become multi-millionaires through their self published Kindle titles over the last few years?

        THAT is the bar for success? Making seven figures a year?

        That seems like a pretty high bar. And it completely ignores the THOUSANDS of indie writers making five and six figures a year, earning a living wage from their work.

        Don’t get me wrong. It’s still hard work. Most people give up, or won’t put in enough effort to succeed. Most writers today making a living are writing 4+ books a year – EVERY year – in order to make rent. But many thousands of writers are doing just fine that way, either trad pub or indie.

        You don’t have to sell a million copies to make a living. Remember, a million copies means at LEAST $2 million in income for the indie writer! That’s not typical – that’s an outlier. Most of the writers I know who work hard at this are making mid five to mid six figures and are pretty happy.


  14. Go4theGoal

    I thought Hugh Howey’s data suggested the masses were getting rich off self-publishing. Only 40 in the last 5 years? That’s almost the odds of winning my state lottery.


  15. Lisa

    Umm… Go into filmmaking because writing is dead? You do realise you need a storyline for film?


  16. Joe

    Amazon is not the only source of data for self published authors – fan fiction is available on many other sites. 50 Shades of Grey started this way – not on Amazon. Plenty of self published authors make money, albeit perhaps not enough to replace a day job, but they do earn respectable part time wages.


    • Plenty used to. Not anymore, sorry Joe. See my answer above – to Michiko Tenno. Sad really, very sad. All I can say is this: to self-publish is generally speaking a bad idea unless you’re a whizz at marketing and self-promotion…


  17. Michiko Tenno

    I imagine more than 40 indies are successful… if we define success as being able to support oneself through writing as successful — in other words, earning >$50k/yr. I’d guess there are several hundred of them. If, ob the other hand, we mean by success earning >$1m/year, the number probably drops to a mere handful, though it’s probably not significantly smaller than the number of successful traditionally published authors. probably has some better information on this point.
    Misinformation on this point abounds, and leads to an underestimation of the success of indies. For whatever reason, we tend to think a traditionally published author who sells a few thousand books in a year is a success, but an indie who sells ten times that is not. It’s all quite confusing.


    • By now, I’m sure you’re read the news from Yip, the game is up and truth is finally coming out! Self-published authors do. not. make. any. money. Those who do are of 2 kinds:
      1. Those who were very lucky, they made a name for themselves early in the game, before the tsunami of self-published authors drowned everybody’s chances to survive (hey, there are one million new titles in the Kindle Store every year! Who do you think can read all that?)
      2. Authors who made some kind of best-selling list (NYT, USA Today whatever) when they were traditionally published a few years ago: they have a fan base so when they publish their backlist, those titles go like hot cakes…Trouble now, most of them have gone through their back list and so they are in a quandary. They better write something new fast! All of this explains the crash in the earnings of self-published authors!


      • A better way of putting this would be “writers do not make money”. Usually that’s very true.

        Remember, less than 1% of submissions are accepted, so 99% of trad pub submissions make $0.

        Of the 1% that make ANYTHING, the average advance is about $4000 right now, and 8 out of 9 books don’t earn out their advance.

        So basically, if you’re in the top 1% of all authors submitting work to traditional publishers, you will make an average $4k per book.

        Trad pub writers who make more than that are outliers. They’re people who worked especially hard at their craft, and their marketing, and wrote more books, struggling every day to excel at every aspect of their work.

        Luck doesn’t help. You can get lucky once, but that doesn’t make a career. It just makes a single event.

        Indie writers who make a living are also those who work hard: who strive to excel at their craft, who push, who learn marketing, who keep working and don’t give up.

        Most give up.

        I didn’t.

        Which person you want to be is up to you.


  18. Alan Millard

    If you were to recommend a publisher which one would it be?


    • Any of the traditional publishers would be fine – depends on your genre, where you live etc. You need to first get a literary agent to represent you – though some small presses that are perfectly good accept unagented authors’ submissions. To get a list of publishers, go to Anne R. Allen’s blog, she’s full of good advice!


  19. Kevin, I get your point but my whole article is an ATTACK ON THE AVERAGE! I think that one cannot assume as you write: “On average an indie writer who is producing professional quality work will significantly out-earn a writer whose work is being published by someone else.” How can you say this is true “on average”? On what basis could this ever happen?,

    We now know that ONLY 40 self-pubbed authors were “successful”: the amount they sold (according to Amazon data, not me!) strongly suggests that the distribution of sales is extremely SKEWED. Given the vast number of self-pubbed authors, probably some 500,000 (considering the number of new titles coming out each month) and perhaps even multiples of that number, the number of 40 successful authors seems incredibly small! It suggests that all the others are not selling, at least not anywhere near the “average” you are talking about…


    • You’re right of course. But I am shocked that out of a minimum 500,000 self-published authors (and perhaps even more – up to a million, who knows – the Kindle Store published one million new titles every year) ONLY 40 made it big! That’s an abysmal % that suggests the sales distribution is probably deeply skewed – not a bell curve at all, more like the Everest climb, with a few on the summit and all of us down on Base One…


      • Welcome to the world of making a living at the arts. 😉 I say that a little tongue in cheek, not to be deprecating (I was annoyed when all the email alerts about this thread appeared in my inbox, but I’ve begun enjoying this conversation), but to point out this isn’t really new.

        I mentioned YouTube before – because a handful of people are making millions from YouTube (just like Kindle!) but almost nobody is making money there at all (also just like Kindle). On the other hand, thousands of people are making a living from their YouTube accounts (again, just like Kindle).

        Most people who put up any sort of art, be it music, sketches, painting, video, or writing fail to make a living at it. For a variety of reasons – the biggest that it is simply a LOT of work.

        It’s not a bell curve. It’s never going to be. A few people break out very big, huge even. A bunch more make a decent living. A larger group makes some money. Most make nothing.

        Not new though…

        Liked by 2 people

  20. H. Bentley

    Good article! I’ll be sharing this via the indie ezine I run (with credit and link-back, of course!). Several indies I know struggle with their sales, and this would be a good read for all of us indies. 🙂


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