Self-published ebooks: the surprising data from Amazon


Cory, I’m glad you mentioned the second point about going it alone. All too often in these discussions, the basic argument ends up being:

  1. Write book
  2. Self-publish
  3. ???
  4. Profit!

“Who needs publishers at all?!” is usually the conclusion. I do music reviews (often for unsigned, underground bands), and I often see the same discussions about record companies. It’s true–going with a publisher (or record company) by no means guarantees success either, but you’ll definitely be relying on no one but yourself for a lot of work if you go the self-publish/self-release part. I suppose we all want to assume our work is brilliant and will catch the world’s attention just on its own merits, but throwing a book out there on Amazon among millions and just posting about it to your Facebook isn’t likely to catapult you to the status of phenomenon. I have a bandcamp page, and in spite of a decently sized social network and appreciative listeners, my stats are nothing to get excited about. (Granted, I just put music up there mostly so distant friends and family can hear it easily, so I’m not chasing fame or any kind of a career.)


Grrrr: why make a pie chart with cyan and light blue as two of the colours? If you need six easy-to-tell-apart colours, use the primary and secondary colours, but please don’t try to make them roughly the same visual ‘density’.

And what’s with the tiny squares in the legend? Has the spot price for sRGB pixels shot up this week?


Interestingly, this is more of a difference between small publishers and their acceptance of e-publishing. Publishing has historically been a widely popular field for small publishers since you can create a small, specialty press easily, print off some books, and have a nice little business. Perhaps your authors can’t quit their day job, but you’re publishing. Yay!

Most of these publishers are not very tech savvy, in the sense of computers and outsourcing and so on. They’re very tech-savvy in the sense of book creation, of course.

Music publishers, I feel, quickly embraced digital, probably because it solved many problems for them. One, it allowed them to actually get “shelf space” without worrying about a distribution model. Two, it let them handle this portion of production directly, since any computer can create MP3s – no shipping off to India for epub conversion required.

For e-publishing, though, the publishers have lagged behind. There are very few small publishers who are exclusively (or near exclusively) e-book, and few that will add e-books as a simple part of their contract. Yes, if you’re expressly interested in e-books, you can find one, but most will try to pass those costs down to the author, especially if the author is not established.

Not that I blame them; I worked a job for about 18 months where a lot of my responsibilities involved explaining to smaller publishers just how fractured and weird the e-book market was, thanks to the proliferation of different devices, all of which interpret epub differently.

That being said, I think the “doing it yourself means your job turns into production and marketing” isn’t as bad as it sounds. Readers prefer authors who are not aloof and actually interact with them. Some of the most popular indie e-book-oriented authors, like Mr. Howey, are popular because they interact with their audience, rather than sit in a Big Publisher ivory tower.


More quickly than book publishers sure. But music labels had to be dragged kicking and screaming into distributing music online.


Do you feel that that’s the case for the smaller music labels, though? The big guys were scared off by “piracy,” but I feel like small labels like Warp opened their own stores and sold DRM-free music relatively early on.

Yeah, it looks like opened in 2004

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“Going the traditional route makes sense for writers who can earn more by writing another book than they can by spending that writing time being a publisher”

For the 90% of writers with day jobs, they have to decide if they want to write, or spend all their spare time being a publisher. For writers who freelance to make ends meet, every hour spent being their own publisher is an hour they aren’t working on a paying gig.


The smaller music labels took less time than the major ones, but Winamp came out in 1997 and Napster came out in 1999. Portable MP3 players started becoming a thing then too. By the time Napster was nuked from orbit, it was pretty obvious that people wanted to buy music online. 2004 is an eternity from then.

Ebooks were adopted by some publishers fairly early on. Baen started their free library in 1999. Fictionwise started in 2000.

MP3 players were useful even if the major labels wouldn’t sell you music. You could rip your CD collection or obtain MP3s in other ways. Ereaders weren’t quite as useful unless your preferred reading material was published as an ebook. If you liked military science fiction, great. If you wanted something not available, someone had to scan and OCR their copy or type it in.

I’ve written three books, all nonfiction and all for a major publisher. My next book will be fiction, and I’ll probably self-publish. Will it make me any money? We’ll see. Will I keep writing articles and making videos for tech-oriented websites? I can’t think of any reason not to. Other writers may chart different career paths, but this is the one I’m choosing. I have one major advantage over most people: I now collect Social Security, so if I have a few months of little or no writing income my bills will still get paid.

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In a way, the move towards a digital market created as many problems as it solved for some of us in the small music publishing game. In the physical only era, I may have had less “shelf space” and less of a global reach but OTOH I sold more units in part because I knew who I was talking to at the distributors I dealt with and the retail outlets I serviced directly or my mail order customers.

The people I dealt with knew their markets and would promote releases pretty well based on this knowledge. This is no longer true with any of the digital music distribution outlets. Now there is pretty much zero chance I’ll get something pushed by a retailer as I’m just one of thousands of others they deal with.

There’s also a new part of my workload on the production side since for what I do most of my sales are still physical copies. In some genres, your end consumer isn’t primarily the end listener, its people doing what is broadly covered by the term DJ and many of them still want a physical copy of the music. This means that I have to mix and master twice, once for digital and once for physical. This may not sound like much work but it often really does double part of the time required to take something to market.

Additionally with digital I also have to get someone to do “cover art” which I did not need when I was only releasing on vinyl since my primary end consumers expect nothing more than a white paper sleeve.

I don’t have fancy charts to back this up, but I can tell you anecdotally based on my experience and what other small labels have told me is that that “piracy” has narrowed the sales window for a new physical release to about a week. If you haven’t sold enough units then to cover production costs you have to hope that “long tail” sales of physical and digital will cover costs eventually.

Warp was one of the biggest of the small and so had the cash to invest in their own digital distribution relatively early. Those of us who did not have that cash were beholden to the big digital distributors for the most part.

This still isn’t universally true or possibly not broadly true. Some people want to buy music online but that has not eliminated the demand for physical distribution.

I do agree with your point on formats though.

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Not eliminated entirely, but there is a hell of a convenience factor. If I want to buy the latest Justin Bieber album, I can get myself to the closest store that sells CDs, buy the CD online and have it shipped to me, or satisfy my Bieber fever as fast as my internet connection will download it off iTunes (or wherever).

If paying to download it right away wasn’t an option, I’d either have to wait a few days for it to be shipped to me or get to the mall (which if I want something by Bieber, probably means getting a ride there). Either way, I’ve got a fever and the only cure for it is a Bieber injection right away. Without the option to buy the album and download it, the Pirate Bay starts to look like a much better option.

E-book only publishing makes no sense to me. The one thing a mainstream publisher can offer that no-one else can is the ability to put your book in n thousand bookstores - you basically get your chance to be discovered. (Yes, the prize for being making that 1 in 100 chance to be published is you get a 1 in 100 chance to be popular with a large number of readers. Reason #1137 why I would never be a writer.)

If your publisher isn’t offering that, then you might as well publish it yourself and make 10x the royalties (70% vs 6%).

Still, I figure that if e-book publishing really takes off and the conventional publishers die, Amazon will get rich by demanding $5 or $10K to have your book show up under anything other than a direct search by title or author name.

After all, there’s no reason for them not to make money off both readers and writers, and there are good number of people who would easily spend that to give their book a chance. After all, it’s pretty small potatoes after spending $40K on a Master’s of Creative Writing to spend another $5-$10K making certain your opus gets the recognition it deserves.

After all, once there are no more bookstores, that’ll be pretty much only one way for unknown authors to get their books under readers noses in large numbers… Amazon.

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On the one band, I totally agree with you. On the other hand, for years the truth for first-time authors who go the traditional route had been:

  1. Write book
  2. Find a publisher
  3. ???
  4. Profit!

Over and over again, agents and publishers tell writers they want books which already have a “platform” – an existing fan base for the writer, who are eager for a book to be published. The easiest examples are the “blog books” where material already published on a blog is edited and added to, then sold in book form.

First-time, no-name authors are expected to foot the bill for and do all their own publicity, even with a publishing contract. You get the benefit of saying you’re being published by a known entity, but that’s about it.

As far as getting in bookstores goes: a lot of the major bookstores don’t even put out copies of all the books they carry. I’ve sent clerks to the back storage room more than once for a book I wanted that per the web site the store had 20 copies of. They did – in the back room. Not very good for discoverability.

And if you need to do all that yourself, paying for an editor and cover designer so you can self-publish doesn’t seem like that much extra work. And if you’ve had to do it once, you may as well apply all the skills and contacts you’ve collected to the next book too.

Charlie Stross has commented that if he were self-publishing, he’d have to spend half or more of his time doing the parts of the publishing business that are marketing and distribution, not writing (even if he contracts out the editing, copyediting, etc.) He’s good at writing, and likes doing it. He’s not interested in being a marketing professional or distributor-to-bookstore-bureaucracies. And spending half his time Not Writing would mean he’d be putting out half as many books a year.

If you know anybody who does book publishing or editing, ask them about their slush pile. The 95% of the books that don’t get published traditionally because traditional book publishers don’t think it’ll be profitable to publish them have reasons the traditional publishers don’t think it’ll be profitable to publish them. Occasionally that’s because they don’t understand the book, or because it’s not the kind of book they know how to market, or because it’s not the kind of book that’ll be easy to sell in a store that’s designed to sell books printed on dead trees (e.g. it’s really dependent on internal hyperlinks or whatever), or because they’re already handling all the books in that subgenre that they think they’ll get shelf space for. But usually it’s because 90% of everything is crap, including 90% of the stuff that does get published, and reading everything that gets thrown over the transom by people who can’t get an agent is like spending your whole day at an Eye of Argon reading, by yourself.

I think a point is overlooked. Yes, Amazon is big, but they also have 92 million visitors per month. With the big 5, in today’s market, you have to come to them with an audience before they will consider you at all, meaning on social media or a blog, or even with a self-published book that is selling. Second, all writers worth their salt have always had to do the book signings, speeches, etc (ie, marketing). The only ones who don’t anymore are like the 5 who have been publishing forever.
There are pluses and minuses to either route. The thing not to do is to cast one off completely. Amanda Hocking couldn’t get a publisher to look at her books before she sold a million dollars worth, then they thought she was the best thing ever. Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected by everyone, until they sold over a million copies. In other words, in this climate, results opens doors, and regardless of the route, it takes work on the author’s part.

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