Contrary to what most people say who write short blog posts or make YouTube videos about writing and self-publishing a book; it is actually a lot of work, a lot of hours, and you don’t really make any money from self-publishing.
According to Bowker the number of self-published books has increased year over year, and in 2017 over 1 million self-published books have been released. A 2013 article on Forbes referencing Digital Book World stated that the average median income for self-published authors is under $5,000 per novel annually. Yes, some people can stand out and make thousands per month on a book, but those are rare outliers in the self-published book market.
It has always been difficult for new authors to get their first book published. Traditionally, new authors would need to find an agent to represent the book, then the agent needs to pitch it to a publisher, who then might be interested in publishing the book. The process is long and difficult. Some writers would also send manuscripts directly to publishers, cutting out the agent. Publishers have stacks of submissions to go through so only a small number will make it to the point of getting a book deal while most go into the rejection pile. The author is then left with a pile of rejection letters and a feeling of discouragement.
Thanks to modern technology and e-readers, it has become easy for writers to self-publish their work. All a writer needs is access to something to write on such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs, and access to the internet to upload the book to a platform such as Amazon KDP. Book covers can be created for free or low cost, and once submitted, the book is available for people to purchase through the web.
There is no cost in writing a book, writers can write when they want, and self-publishing is free. That all sounds good but can be misleading. For example, I like to write in coffee shops which costs me a cup of tea or coffee. Not to mention that the time I spend writing could be spent getting paid working for someone else.
It is practically impossible to calculate the average hours it takes to write a book based on when and how people write, how many drafts they do, and other aspects of writing a novel such as time spent formatting the book for e-readers and cover design. Self-published author Andrew Shantos calculated his 77,270-word book Dead Star Island to have taken him 736 hours to write. The current minimum wage in the US is $7.25 per hour. If he had spent those hours working at a minimum wage job within the US, he would have made $5,336 dollars before taxes for 4.5 months work.
Post-publication there can be some additional costs. For example, since we are self-publishing, we are responsible for our own book promotions. Paid advertising such as Facebook ads can range from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars. There are companies and individuals who offer services such as promotion for indie authors. A friend of mine who self-published does trade fairs. For him, this means he has to cover the cost of the event and transportation expenses. He also sells branded items such as mugs at the event as a package with the book, so if he has a good day, he might make his money back and more. But on a bad day, he would be out that cost.
Controlling Your Schedule
As a writer, you set your own hours, which could be more than or less than 40 hours a week. You don’t report to anyone at the end of the day other than yourself. But also, when you have written a book and self-published it, you can decide how much time you want to spend promoting that book. Trust me — among the millions of self-published books on the market, you will need to promote. But you can also take a nice vacation, you can work on your next book, or you can go get a regular job if you want, and still make money from the sales of that book for as long as you have it on the market.
Is It Financially Worthwhile?
Most people who self-publish books don’t make money from it, or if they make money, it might only be a few dollars a month, not enough to live on. For example, as of this writing, I have self-published two books. One is an Amazon exclusive, and the other is available on multiple platforms. Having calculated my income from sales so far and deducting expenses with editing, ISBN registration, etc. I still have a long way to go before I make a profit. But I sell a few copies each month and will be in the positive, eventually. At that point, it will be straight income. However, probably only a few dollars each month. I don’t put a lot of work into promoting either book.
The flaw in the ease of self-publishing, however, is that since anyone can do it and there are often no checks to the quality of the writing, the thousands of books that are self-published each year add to the competition and the ability to stand out for a author.
When anyone goes into a creative field, it is not to make a lot of money. If someone wants to make a lot of money they go into real estate, banking, the medical profession, etc. Very few artists and writers make it big in what they do, but when they do, the reward is not financial, it is emotionally rewarding to know that we did something that people like and appreciate. And the emotional reward can last longer and feel better than the financial one.