Self publishing

The market for self-published books is booming. Of the fifty top-selling Amazon eBooks as of February 22, 2022 at 9:00pm (and yes, the list is updated hourly,) 19 are self-published. Another 11 are published by Amazon in-house imprints Montlake, Lake Union, and Thomas & Mercer. Just 20 are from traditional publishers like Penguin or Harper Collins. KDPRocket reports that the best-selling of the indie books (The Rake, by L.J. Shen) has $418,471 in monthly ebook sales, and the last of the indie books (The Plains of Laramie by C.J. Petit) has $42,093 in monthly ebook sales. Each book is also available in softcover formats, as well, so the total is actually higher.

Edwin Cole

First, a disclaimer: this isn't a post advocating for self-publishing over traditional publishing or vice versa. If you don't have the inclination to self-publish, or if the recognition that goes along with traditional publication feels important, then self-publishing is not for you. If you're interested in self-publishing or you're on the bubble, then I hope there's some information here that's useful. In this post I'll do a quick overview of self-publishing, walk through the financial incentives on the Amazon platform, and close by talking about some costs. I've self-published a few books so far, but there are plenty of writers here and elsewhere with more—or just different!—experience than me, so I'd love it if you all could share your experiences in the comments, and I can learn along with the group.

Sales Information.

With that said, the market for self-published books is booming. Of the fifty top-selling Amazon eBooks as of February 22, 2022 at 9:00pm (and yes, the list is updated hourly,) 19 are self-published. Another 11 are published by Amazon in-house imprints Montlake, Lake Union, and Thomas & Mercer. Just 20 are from traditional publishers like Penguin or Harper Collins. KDPRocket reports that the best-selling of the indie books (The Rake, by L.J. Shen) has $418,471 in monthly ebook sales, and the last of the indie books in the top fifty (The Plains of Laramie by C.J. Petit) has $42,093 in monthly ebook sales. Each book is also available in softcover and audiobook formats, so the total is actually higher.

In my opinion those numbers are probably overstated. KDPRocket usually overreports my own sales when I check them, though they're close, so I feel like it skews high. What's more, both The Rake and The Plains of Laramie were published in the last month, so downloads are probably artificially high because of pre-orders and readers who've been waiting for the next book in the sequence. Their sales will likely trickle off over the course of the next few weeks, and they'll eventually fall off the top-100 list. There are exceptions to that rule, though: Number 35 on the list, Meghan Quinn's A Not So Meet Cute has been out for three months, and KDPRocket reports, today, that it's still earning $229,540 per month in ebook sales alone. Long story short: take the dollar figures from KDPRocket with a grain of salt but, even adjusted for time-on-the-market and KDPRocket's margin of error, it's clear that indie authors can do well in the Amazon store.

There are literally hundreds of details that go into self-publication through Amazon alone, ranging from formatting peculiarities and category selection, to the mechanics of uploading your manuscript. I won't get too deep in the weeds, both because it's hard to explain Amazon's user interface without a walk-through, and because the details change frequently enough that the content would quickly get stale. In its broadest strokes, though, Amazon's self publishing system is called "Kindle Direct Publishing," or "KDP." Manuscripts uploaded to KDP are available for download to Amazon's Kindle devices, as well as any device with a Kindle App. Manuscripts uploaded to KDP can also be printed and bound into both hardcover and softcover books on-demand, so readers can purchase a physical book as well as, or in addition to, a digital copy. Amazon offers an expanded distribution service for physical books, too, so you can see your book in print at the local Barnes & Noble if that's important toy ou. I've heard that other print-on-demand services like Ingram Spark do a nicer job making the physical book; the samples I've bought of my own books from Amazon KDP have always been good enough that I haven't experimented with other platforms, though. Amazon doesn't charge a fee to upload the manuscript and start selling your book—there's literally no barrier to entry, other than a few days of cursing while you try to figure out formatting problems in your manuscript.

Amazon offers two different sales platforms within KDP. Standard sales offer a 35% royalty for ebooks prices between $0.99-and-2.98 and from $10.00-up; books priced between $2.99-and-$9.99 are eligible for 70% royalties. Sales work just the way you'd expect: a reader buys your book for the price you set, your receive royalties, and the transaction is complete. For physical books, you need to pay for the costs of printing first, and then receive 60% of the remainder.

In addition to the standard model, however, Amazon runs a program called KDP Select, which operates differently. Books enrolled in KDP Select are eligible for free download to readers enrolled in Kindle Unlimited program in exchange for a fixed monthly fee—basically it's Netflix for books. A download of the book counts as a 'sale' for purposes of the book's rank, but authors are paid a pro-rata share of the Kindle Unlimited program's earnings on a per-page basis. In January of 2022, the per-page value was about $0.0043. To enroll in KDP Select, authors are required to commit to keep their book Amazon-exclusive for a three-month period; KDP Select enrollment renews every three months, so you can opt out after three months or re-enroll.

To give you a concrete example, my own book, Shards of Osiris, is listed for sale at $0.99 and is enrolled in the KDP Select program. It's not eligible for a 70% royalty because the price is too low, so each sale nets a royalty roughly between $0.30-$0.35, depending on the country where it's downloaded and the transaction costs and taxes. The same book has 461 "Kindle Edition Normalized Pages" (or KENP), though, so if a reader downloads it through Kindle Unlimited and reads it through to the end, I receive about $1.98. It costs $4.09 to print and is listed for $7.99, so my royalty for a physical book is $0.70.

These pricing systems give rise to some pretty stark incentives. Most transparently, self-published ebooks cluster between $2.99-and-$9.99 because of the royalty breakpoints; a book sold for $9.99 receives a royalty of $6.99, while the same book sold for $10.00 receives a royalty of just $3.50. Nobody indie-publishes an ebook for $10.00. For books enrolled in KDP Select, on the other hand, the incentive is to run long, since each additional word in the story means additional royalties; authors who write in series are 'boxing' their series into multi-book 'bundles' that run to tens of thousands of pages in order to take advantage of the per-page payments.

Cost Information

Above I said there were no barriers to entry and, technically, that's true. You can edit your own book, draw your own cover, and then slap the book online. In reality, though, a successfully self-published book has probably spent some money up-front for a cover and an edit, at least.

My own experience with cover expenses has been varied. For Shards of Osiris, I purchased a custom cover and it cost about $800; the cover for its companion novelette, Codex of Serket, was a pre-made cover and only cost about $400. There are plenty of other pre-made covers that you can purchase in the $80-$120 range, and a few you can buy for less—although quality generally diminishes with price, and at especially low price points I would worry that the cover art may be copyrighted by a third party.

There are also hundreds of free-lance editors you can hire for developmental, line, and copyediting, as well as proof-reading. The line edit for Shards of Osiris was about $1,000 and, because I made some revisions after the edit was finished, I'm putting it through another round of edits—yes, even though the book is already 'published,' it can be revised at any time. If an author were to put a book through all four stages of editing, with four different editors, it'd probably cost somewhere around $5,000 based on my own experience, although there are certainly some budget options, or superstar editors who will charge you more than that.

The biggest cost, though, is probably promotions. You can pay anything you want for advertising, across a lot of different platforms. Online, you're generally either buying real estate on websites (impressions) or clicks. I budget about $20 per day for advertising through Amazon; yesterday I got 20,463 impressions, 158 clicks, 9 KENP pages read, and one order. In general, my books make around $75-$100 per month, so yesterday wasn't a great day even by my own modest standards.

Remember, though, that those statistics only apply to the specific book being sold; everyone who buys a copy (an "Order") or downloads a copy and reads it through Kindle Unlimited is that much more likely to read through the series so, even if I'm paying two-or-three dollars per order, I can still come out ahead as the series gets closer to completion. Also important is the fact that someone who downloads the book through Kindle Unlimited probably won't start reading it the same day, so I might be getting a dozen downloads through Kindle Unlimited, but only get pagereads starting days or weeks later. My plan is to publish the next two books in the series mid-year and check the effect on sales; I can course correct after that.

As I said above, there's a ton of additional information that's worth taking a deep dive into for Amazon KDP alone—and that doesn't even begin to touch on competitor services, like Barnes & Noble's Nook, the Kobo eReader, Apple Books, and plenty of others. And, of course, self-publishing isn't for everyone. If you have additions, corrections, or questions, though, please chime in in the comments!


19+ Comments

Marisaw

This quote from the article, for me, says it all:

I budget about $20 per day for advertising through Amazon; yesterday I got 20,463 impressions, 158 clicks, 9 KENP pages read, and one order. In general, my books make around $75-$100 per month,

This adds up IF you’re able to keep producing more books. You’re investing dollars now, in expectation of building a reputation so that your future books will sell bigger numbers without needing so much advertising, right?

For us slow writers, the chances of ever having enough books to recoup the investment are low.

May-01 at 00:37

Nathanj

So in other words, spending $600 per month to make $100 per month. Therefore they are paying $500 per month for the privilege of having the books self-published.

May-01 at 00:53

Marisaw

I did wonder whether that’s a total or whether it’s per book, which wouldn’t be quite so bad. But let’s not forget the hours of actual writing and edited which they’re not getting paid for at all.

I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done. I’m just saying that you’d need to have confidence in your ability to consistently produce novels at a fairly fast rate for the long term, to make it worthwhile.

May-01 at 00:56

Dste

That’s really quite discouraging… unless the author means they make $75 - $100 of profit per month? So the costs are already taken out of it? I’d be curious to know for sure.

May-01 at 01:35

Marisaw

Good point. I’m sure @3dwin will drop in to clarify at some point.

May-01 at 01:37

Trevose

The author did not clarify what their marketing plan is. That is, $20 a day is neither a lot nor a little without understanding their comprehensive plan (generating reviews, interviews, signings, other advertising, etc.). $20 a day for the first 10 days your book is out, for instance, is a reasonable spend for most of us. Not trivial, but $200 to kick start your sales is a credible (though modest) start. If you have deeper pockets, you could spend more per day. Or you could spend the same amount over a longer period of time. Unless you have a plan that synergistically integrates all your marketing activities (where it makes sense), then a reported spend $20 a day doesn’t provide much insight.

As an aside, $20 a day ($200 a day) for Amazon ads could be a total waste if you don’t know what you are doing and how to improve click-through rate and sales as you get your initial results. I spend a whopping ~$2 a month on Amazon ads for my novella, which, in its 7th year, is all I’m going to spend on it. But it is enough – along with periodic tweaking of how I target – to generate just enough in sales to pay for the advertising spend and a bit more, which in turn keeps it high enough on the sales list (in its niche) to get additional publicity from Amazon.

May-01 at 02:42

Jeff65

The success stories give a misleading impression of the typical reality of self-publishing. Yes, some authors do very well, but with millions of books on the Kindle system and a non-infinite number of readers, there is a very long tail of books that barely sell at all. If the Kindle sales rank of your book is around 1,000,000, that means two things - there are several million titles with a worse rank, and your book is not selling more than a few copies a year.
It is now ten years to the month since I first offered a book via KIndle, with high hopes, followed over the years by several other titles, and my conclusion is that it has been a failure. Yes, I did try to make the books look good, and yes I did try to publicise them, but it didn’t work.

May-02 at 08:58

Drorios

Back about 15 years ago, I learned some “tricks of the trade” that enabled me to sell quite a few copies (like maybe a thousand) several months in a row. I’ve heard that Amazon has since patched those holes. And I have to admit, these particular tricks—marketing toward a more lucrative genre, regardless of content, using keywords in a manipulative way—have an extreme cost down the line.

I would caution those who are considering publication options—if you’re entertaining traditional publishing, even in the slightest, exhaust all options there first. Because once you go the self-publishing route, there’s probably no going back. This is particularly true if you want to continue writing books in the same universe as your self-published books.

In hindsight, I wish I would have queried agents instead of immediately going the self-publishing route—even if the efforts led nowhere, at least until I learned to write books for a wider audience than myself. But now those options are gone.

May-02 at 12:47

Redredrose

How, exactly, do you tweak, @Trevose ?

May-02 at 17:50

Li1991

Are they really?

I mean, if you query an agent under the same name you have self-published with, they’ll probably Google and see the sales ranks and move on. But if you set up a new pen name and query under that, then you’re just the same as any beginning author (or even just use a different version of your name, depending how common it is - J.S Smith and James Smith could be the same person, but with nothing to confirm, you wouldn’t assume.)

Eventually, the agent will probably need your real name for tax documents and contracts and the like, but that will be once they are interested enough in your work to offer you a contract, so at that stage it’s probably fine to tell them.

May-02 at 19:34

Cambright

You don’t query under a pen name. You tell them your pen name, but they want a real name. After all, if you should get a contract, there will be papers to sign. It would be similar to not using your real name at a job interview.

May-02 at 21:18

Marisaw

I think most people would query under their real name, but I’m not sure it’s universal.

When I got the acceptance letter from my publisher, they asked me to confirm what my real name was, so they could prepare the contract. So clearly, they weren’t assuming I’d used my real name on the query letter.

Anyway, if you used a pen name for your original self-published novels, you can still use your real name to query the new book, and they’ll have no way of connecting them.

May-02 at 22:20

Timark

How long did the process take from when you submitted until they accepted your manuscript?

May-02 at 22:35

Marisaw

I submitted direct to an indie publisher, and acceptance took only a week or two. However that was only the editor. She wanted some changes and we back-and-forthed on that, and then she took the novel to the board with her recommendation. I think it took about a month to hear back.

I submitted to a couple of agents and a few other publishers as well. I was surprised how quickly I got some of the rejections, as I’d heard that you could wait for months. Some did take a long time. One of them emailed me to say I’d got through the first phase and it would take about three months for the full assessment.

I paid no attention to the idea that you should submit to only one agent/publisher at a time. It’s a ridiculous notion because if it takes months every time, you’d never get there.

May-02 at 22:43

Redredrose

That short a period of time is rare, I think.

May-02 at 22:46

Timark

Wow. That was swift.

must have been a huge vote of confidence. Having pros asses your work, I would imagine, is a different ballgame to having critters attack it.

Well done.

May-02 at 22:46

Marisaw

Thank you. Actually, that’s the reason I was so determined to go the traditional route. I felt I needed someone to tell me it was good enough to publish.

Actually, the rejection letter I got from one of the traditional publishers meant more to me than the acceptance from Wild Rose. The letter said, “This is not right for our list but please send us your next novel”.

I value that more because if that publisher had accepted, they would’ve paid me an advance as well as royalties, my book would’ve been a proper, printed book, and they get their books into high street bookstores.

Whereas with Wild Rose, I get no advance (just royalties) and although they do offer a printed book, it’s print-on-demand not sent out to bookstores. So it’ll be mainly Kindle and they don’t do much marketing. In a nutshell, it’s like self-publishing but getting all the groundwork done for me.

May-02 at 23:51

Trevose

Couple of things I do about once a quarter… I decrease the bid on target words that have high click-through but low sales (which means, the ad is prompting shoppers to look at the book, but for some reason, they rarely buy the book). I increase the bids on the ones that are having the opposite experience. I also add new key words, specifically, the titles of the best-selling books in the same niche as my book. So when people come to Amazon searching for that hot new book they have heard about, there is a chance that my book will show up as “sponsored” in what is presented to them, and a tiny chance they will buy it.

Again, I’m spending a trivial amount. My goal is to spend 50% of what I’m bringing home from book sales. Just enough to sell a couple of books a month at this point, which keeps my book high enough that Amazon also presents it from time to time which can generate another sale or two.

As an aside, my strongly held belief is that Amazon is attentive to the fact that they don’t just make money off your ad spend. They make money off both your ad spend and your sales. So even if you are spending a lot on ads but it is not resulting in book sales (or when you do sell it is at a low price), they (their algorithm) will be less inclined to show your ad (and charge you for it). Of course, I have not seen A9/A10’s code, but I’d be shocked if it was not written this way. So, not shockingly, selling books makes both you and Amazon happy, and inspires Amazon to keep your book visible.

May-03 at 00:09

Redredrose

Thank you for the information.

May-03 at 00:15
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