You're looking at it wrong

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Here comes another article on how very little self-published authors earn! Now, I love Jeremy and all he does at DBW. I’ve met him in person, and I’m the first to say that he’s a lot smarter than me and sports a much sexier beard. But I think we are looking at this question of indie author earnings the wrong way. Two wrong ways, in fact.

First, you have this from the article:

“At the high end of the spectrum, 1.8% of self-published authors made over $100,000 from their writing last year, compared with 8.8% of traditionally published authors and 13.2% of hybrid authors.”

But that compares ALL self-published authors and only a small fraction of people who go the traditional  route. I’ve been hammering this point home for years, but it still gets left out of these comparisons. When you look at earnings and sales figures for traditionally published books, you have to take into account the huge percentage of books that never make it out of the slush pile. Why? Because those are authors and books attempting to go that route. With self-publishing, ALL books and authors are counted. In traditional publishing, only a small fraction are.

Because these numbers are impossible to wrangle, we simply pretend the distinction doesn’t exist. A fair comparison would be to know (here’s the impossible bit) how many manuscripts are submitted to agents and how many of those are never self-published. These are part of the traditional equation. Period. If you’re going to count among the self-published works every copy/pasted Wikipedia article or rough draft that is just tossed out there with no love and no editing, then you’ve gotta lump the slush pile into the traditional tally. Plain and simple.

When you consider this, the 1.8% vs. 8.8% is pretty amazing. Especially considering the $100K traditional club are the people getting all the promotional energy and dollars from major publishers.

So that’s one way we’re looking at this incorrectly. Here’s another way:

How much do knitters like my sister make a year? How much does someone like my wife, who likes to strum a guitar, make in a year? What about my friends who play video games hours upon hours a day? What does your typical gardener make? Or someone who blogs regularly? Or all those people with YouTube channels who are always looking for more subscribers? What about serious home chefs? How much do they make?

Because this is how I look at it: Hundreds of thousands of voracious readers with a dream of writing a novel sat down and did just that. They wrote out of love and passion, just like a kid goes out and dribbles a basketball for hours every day or kicks a soccer ball against a garage wall. Of these hobbyist writers, thousands now make a full-time living from their work. Thousands more pay a huge chunk of their bills from their hobby. These are part time artists who have thousands of fans and hear from readers all over the world. Some of them go on to get offers from agents and publishers and score major deals. All because they are doing something they love.

Even better, this hobby costs nothing. Many of the other hobbies I listed above might cost you thousands of dollars. Everyone has access to a pen and paper. Most people already own a computer for other reasons. It just takes time and imagination. Some of us didn’t set out to become wealthy from doing this . . . it just happened. There are tens of thousands of authors out there now making $20 or $100 a month doing what they would happily do for nothing. In fact, if you told me I had to pay a monthly “writing fee” for the privilege of making stuff up and pounding it into my keyboard, I would do it. I would pay $50 a month to get away with this. Maybe more. Not earning a penny at this is a win for me. Many self-published authors are doing much better than not-earning-a-penny. And this revolution is only a few years old! Just wait until more and more talented writers forego the slushpile altogether and skip straight to self-publishing. Or when more authors jump from traditional to self-publishing. These numbers are going to look better and better for indie writers.

So, two things to keep in mind: The number of authors going the traditional route is not reflected by those who happen to land an agent and then go on to get published; their number includes those in the slush pile who do not go on to self-publish. This is a fact that must be dealt with.

The second thing to keep in mind: Not all of us are doing this to make money. We’d do it if it cost us money. Among the self-published  are those who published a memoir to share with a few family members. Or the young student who participated in a youth NaNoWriMo program and just wanted to see their work for sale on Amazon. These are valid reasons to publish. We shouldn’t lump everyone together in the “wanna be rich and famous” category.

I stand by this assertion, which bad data cannot dent: In the history of mankind, there has never been a better time to be a reader or a writer. Never. And tomorrow, things will likely be brighter still.

For Writers by Hugh HoweyWhere stories live. Discover now