Author Know Thy Business: Self-Publishing By The Numbers, An Informal Survey

By: Marie Force
NYT, USA Today and Wall Street Journal Bestseller, thanks to self-publishing

I'd intended to write about the importance of social media to authors this week, but a discussion we had on the Self-Pub Loop that I moderate changed my plans for this post, so we'll do social media next week. (Incidentally, the loop is open to all, so click on the link to join.)

We got to talking about how many authors are making a living on their writing now that they can self-publish and how many of them may not necessarily be "name" authors who everyone is familiar with. Hugh Howey, the acclaimed self-published author of Wool, wrote a great piece for Salon about how success stories like his are not THE STORY of self-publishing. According to Howey, the unknown authors who aren't selling enough to be in the headlines but who are selling more than enough to support themselves are THE STORY of this revolution. And what a great story it is! Who cares about acclaim when you can quit your day job to follow your passion and make enough to pay the bills, too? A few years ago, such a concept was reserved for the top 1 or 2 percent of authors and was limited to pipe dreams and somedays for the rest of us. Now someday is here, and look at us go!

The conversation on the loop led to me post an informal survey to get an idea of how our members and their self-publishing friends are really doing. I didn't ask people to give dollar amounts, but rather just their number of sales in 2010, 2011, 2012 and so far in 2013. I asked them to list their most successful book in 2012 and how many copies it sold. At the outset, I want to say that this survey was informal. There is nothing scientific about it, but it does provide an interesting snapshot of how self-published authors are really doing.

To give context to the numbers, I wanted to also provide a guide to what the most popular price points translate to in actual dollars. Using Amazon's conversion chart, here it is:

0.99 (35 percent royalty): $0.35 per sale
1.99 (35 percent royalty): $0.70 per sale
2.99 (70 percent royalty): $2.04 per sale
3.99 (70 percent royalty): $2.74 per sale
4.99 (70 percent royalty): $3.44 per sale

While I didn't ask authors to list their most common price point (which I will add to the survey next time), I thought the breakdown above would be enlightening to the authors out there who might be waffling about whether they ought to try their hand at self-publishing. If you are thinking about whether or not you should dip your toe into the revolutionary waters, ask yourself these questions: When was the last time I made $3.44 on the sale of one book? When was the last time I made even $2.04 on the sale of one book?

Those who like to poo-poo the self-publishing revolution (often those who are most threatened by our success), love to offer quotes such as "The average self-published author sells about 57 copies of each book." Really? Hmmm.... Then there are those who say it's impossible to build a self-published platform unless you have been traditionally published in the past. If you believe that, I direct you to author Liliana Hart's results below. She sold 441,069 in 2012 without ever having been traditionally published. It can be done. It's BEING done all the time. 

If you think this path is not for you, that's totally fine and no one should do something that doesn't feel right to them. But if you feel like you could and should be making more than you are on your writing, read on. The numbers shared by your colleagues are telling, and they cover the full range—from no success to marginal success to runaway success. Regardless of where they fall on that spectrum, many authors who wrote to me to report their numbers expressed exhilaration at having control over their own destinies. That, in and of itself, is priceless.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from authors who participated in the survey:


"I've been supporting myself solely through my self-publishing income since mid-2011." —Catherine Gayle, author of Regency-set historical romance

"I've been traditionally published for four years and my income comes primarily from my self-published titles, NOT my traditionally published titles." —Elisabeth Naughton, NYT and USA Today bestselling author of romantic suspense and paranormal romance

"Since self-publishing, I have paid more in federal income taxes than I made in 10 years of New York publishing 10 titles." —Cheryl Bolen, author of English-set historicals and romantic suspense

"Thank God for self-publishing." —Kathryn Shay, author of contemporary romance

"I have what I consider to be a modest indie career at this time…yet last year (my first year self-publishing) I made four times the money Penguin paid me in my best year with them." —Lauren Royal, author of historical romance

"Using a freebie as a marketing tool is the reason I have made 75k in three months this year." —Juliana Stone, author of contemporary romance

I hope to add to this survey in the future, perhaps on a quarterly basis, to keep a finger on the pulse of how we are doing. I thank everyone who was brave enough to share their numbers, and I applaud ALL of you, no matter where you fall on the so-called spectrum of success, for taking control of your own careers. Remember, success if often measured in the chances we take rather than those we don't take, so give yourself a pat on the back for being willing to take a risk in the first place. 

The survey results, in no particular order....


Anonymous
Primary Genre: Paranormal romance
Total number of self-published titles: 17 English, 21 in foreign languages


Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 29,000 units


Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 290,000 units


Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 270,000 units


Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: Jan-Mar 80,000 units


Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: approx. 35,000 units


MJ Fredrick, also writing as Emma Jay
Erotic and non-erotic romance
Total number of self-published titles: 12
Total number of self-published sales in 2010:
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 36,569
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 46,413
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013:12,069
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Eye of the Beholder, with19,798 sales.

Stephanie Rowe
Paranormal Romance
Total number of self-published titles: 14


Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0


Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 61


Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 104,727


Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 35,000


Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Darkness Seduced (Order of the Blade #2) sold 21,000


In my opinion, four things made my sales take off:
1. When I put up my very first books, they got downloads immediately, which I attribute to the fact that I had already published more than 20 books with traditional publishers.
2. I released 12 books in 2012—one per month. In the two months when I didn’t have a full-length novel to release, I released a novella so that I would still have momentum.
3. My best-selling series (the Order of the Blade) took off when I released the first three books in back-to-back-to-back months.
4. Things took off further when I put the first book of the Order of the Blade on perma-free status. Free has done very good things for me.

Anthea Lawson (also writing fantasy as Anthea Sharp)
Historical romance
Total number of self-published titles: 11
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 3,126
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 11,796
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 840
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Five Wicked Kisses (a short story) 4,517

Don't be afraid to write and publish short fiction! Just price it right (not too high, especially in Romance).

Zoe Dawson
Romantic comedy with light mystery
Total number of self-published titles: 2
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011:  0
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 56
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 742
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Leashed 56 copies

Jessica McBrayer
Paranormal Romance
Total number of self-published titles: 4 
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 12*
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 1496*
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 1550*
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Stained  1048*
* These are only my Amazon numbers.

Publishing a series has helped me immensely. Also having Amazon price match my novella for free really set my sales soaring.

Courtney Milan
Historical romance
Total number of self-published titles:  7
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011:  100,970
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 167,503
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 105,904
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold:  If you go by number sold, I sold 55,050 copies of The Governess Affair in 2012. Since this was a 99-cent novella, though, the book that made me the most income in 2012 was The Duchess War, which I released on December 7, 2012, and (again, this is 2012 numbers only—so we are talking barely three weeks of sales) sold 25,855 copies.
At this point in 2013, I've sold more than twice as many copies of that one book—and in fact, when I looked at this list of the bestselling ebooks of 2012, not one single historical romance from the reporting publishers sold as many copies in 2012 as I have sold in the 4 months that that book has been out.
Of course, this isn't an apples to apples comparison—I'm including 3 months in 2013—but some of those books were out for 7 or 8 months to my 4. It makes me think that there's nothing a publisher can do for my digital sales that I can't do better myself.
I don't write as quickly as some people do, unfortunately, although I often fantasize about being able to do so. I've found that writing shorter works is a good way to make sure that I have new content out on a regular basis. More importantly, people say to write fast, and if you can, that's good, more power to you...

But if you can't write fast (I'm at the two full-length books a year club—so I'm not as fast as some, not as slow as others), I believe that the number of books you have out, and the number of books that you're actively managing as part of your portfolio that you use to continually draw in new readers, is more important than the speed that you put them out at. Someone who writes fast will reach that magic threshold of number of books faster. It might take a slower writer more time to get to the same place, but you can still get there.

Anonymous
Romance, Historical and Contemporary
Total number of self-published titles: 6
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: n/a
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: (began December) 66
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 3,682
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 173
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: A Gentleman's Daughter: Her Choice, 1,896


Cherise Kelley
Non-fiction
Total number of self-published titles: 3
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: NA
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: NA
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 65
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 64
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: High School Substitute Teacher's Guide: YOU CAN DO THIS!  13 eBooks at $7.99 and 29 paperbacks at $16.99

I first published in August of 2012.

Shawn Inmon
Non-fiction
Total number of self-published titles: 1
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: NA
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: NA
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 5,000, Feels Like The First Time
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013:

Liliana Hart
Hot Romantic Suspense and Romantic Mystery
Total number of self-published titles:  21
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011:  76,527
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 441,069
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 131,721 (Jan-March)
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Cade: A MacKenzie Novel 76,246 sold, 2nd most was Whiskey Rebellion 61,916
I wasn't traditionally published before I put out my first books, so I started with zero fan base and built from there. 

Zoe Cannon
YA
Total number of self-published titles:  1
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011:  0
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 64 (started publishing in late October 2012)
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 285
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: The Torturer’s Daughter (64 sales)

My sales really picked up around the beginning of the new year; I went from selling a copy every few days to selling at least one copy most days. I don’t know whether it was the post-Christmas bump, the Goodreads giveaway I had running through late December and most of January, or some other factor I’m not even aware of.
Also, I only have one book out so far, and it’s been out for less than six months, so my sales numbers don’t really mean the same thing as those of someone who has been doing this for longer and has more books out.

Lynn LaFleur
Erotic Romance
Total number of self-published titles:  5
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0 (first book out in 2011)
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 8,478
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 18,000
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 1,464 (through March)
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: What are Friends For? 11,977

Amy Gamet
Romantic suspense
Total number of self-published titles: 2
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 865
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 4634
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Meant for Her, 465

Nicole Leckenby
(Little Liam Series)
Non-fiction – children’s books
Total number of self-published titles: 2
Total number of self-published sales in 2010:
Total number of self-published sales in 2011:
Total number of self-published sales in 2012:
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 5 each book (just put online 3 weeks ago)
I wanted to experiment with the children’s books – I have a few other bigger books in the works but wanted to see how this process worked…. It’s a very easy process… I think the hardest part is that all the promotion of the book lands in the author’s lap… which then affects sales… I have nothing bad to say about the process it’s been fun doing this and will do more in the very near future.

PJ Sharon
Contemporary YA Romance
Release dates: Heaven is for Heroes 9/24/11, ON THIN ICE 12/15/11, SAVAGE CINDERELLA 3/24/12, and WANING MOON 9/24/12
Total number of self-published titles: 4
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 641
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 5,135
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 380 (first quarter sales)
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: ON THIN ICE sold 1,907 copies in 2012
  
Like most authors, I’m finding that balancing promotion and writing the next book is daunting. If I averaged out my hourly wage, I would have to quit today, but I keep trying to focus on the long term and stick with it, hoping that eventually, something will catch on. My books all have favorable reviews so I don’t feel that my lagging sales have as much to do with quality of my product as the flooded market place and difficulty reaching my target audience. Last year’s first and second quarter, my sales were steadily building thanks to the KDP Select program, but by June, when Amazon changed their algorithms, sales took a fast and hard dive and have not recovered since.

Elizabeth Bailey
Historical romance (sweet)
Total number of self-published titles: 7 (of which 5 historical romance)
Total number of self-published sales in 2010:
Total number of self-published sales in 2011:
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 133
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 178
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Mademoiselle at Arms 47 (first out)

One problem is too many sites expect success with reviews and ratings before they will list, which reduces opportunities to get them - chicken and egg.

Catherine Gayle
Regency-set historical romance
Total number of self-published titles: 16, including novels, novellas, short stories, and collections/box sets
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 42,850
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 63,749
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 11,156
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Twice a Rake, 23,469
I fully expect my 2013 numbers to increase in the next month or so, when I have a new release. All the big jumps in my sales tend to happen when new releases are available, but I also have steady sales throughout the year. I've been supporting myself solely through my self-publishing income since mid-2011.

Elisabeth Naughton
Romantic Suspense and Paranormal
Total number of self-published titles: 12
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 102,179
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: Jan-March 2013: 370,059
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: MARKED - 30,673 copies

I've been traditionally published for four years and my income comes primarily from my self-published titles, NOT my traditionally published titles.

Anonymous
Regency and Gothic, both sweet
Total number of self-published titles:  4
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011:  0
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 27
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 6
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Regency romance - 16
I'm still working!

Moira Rogers/Kit Rocha
Various subgenres of PNR; dystopian erotica
Total number of self-published titles:  17/2
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0/0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011:  0/0
Total number of self-published sales in 2012:  56,486/7,333
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 14,970/9,769
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Calling the Bluff
(by Moira Rogers), 9,015 copies

Cheryl Bolen
Romance mainly English-set historical, also romantic suspense
Total number of self-published titles: 18


Total number of self-published sales in 2010:


Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 118,000


Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 163,000


Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: Estimated 45,500


Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: A Lady By Chance sold an estimated 32,000 at 99 cents. It's a full novel first published in mass market paperback in 2000.


Since self-publishing, I have paid more in federal income taxes than I made in 10 years of New York publishing 10 titles.

Kathryn Shay
Contemporary romance
Total number of self-published titles: 36, put out over the three and a half years years


Total number of self-published sales in 2010: (starting in October) 1,213 
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 36,781 
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 62,273 
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 31,156  

Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: 9,104 of $.99 book; 8,444 of $6.99


1. I didn’t include free promotions.
2. I didn’t include HEART STEALERS, a four-book anthology with 4 authors, which came out in February 2013 (and we made the USA Today bestseller list for 3 weeks).

Thank God for self-publishing.

Linda Acaster
HistRom
Total number of self-published titles:  6 
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 150
Total number of self-published sales in 2011:  875
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 997
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 189
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Native American HistRom "Beneath The Shining Mountains" 780

Not all titles have been up from the start.
Amazon sales far outweigh anything from Smashwords (the distributor I use as I'm from the UK)
Learned lessons 1: series rather than standalones are needed to gain momentum
Learned lessons 2: promotion is an ongoing and time-consuming necessity, but new titles in the same genre help enormously

Elaine Levine
Romantic Suspense
Total number of self-published titles: 2
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 21,492
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013:13,466
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: The Edge of Courage 18,145

My 1st SP book is priced at $0.99, my second at $2.99. Prior to publishing these 2 RS books, I had published 4 historical westerns traditionally.

Lauren Royal
Total number of self-published titles: 13 (9 novels, 1 novella, 3 boxed sets)
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 69 (my first title was uploaded Dec 24, 2011)
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 40,588 paid (I have my novella on perma-free, so I'm not counting it here, but that would add another 87,753)
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 14,516 paid (plus 14,791 free)
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Violet, 7877 paid

I have what I consider to be a modest indie career at this time…yet last year (my first year self-publishing) I made four times the money Penguin paid me in my best year with them. What a difference it is to make a real living as a writer after 12 years in this business! In addition, for the first time I feel there's potential for me to break out. Not that I'm actually expecting it to happen—I'm well aware it would take the exact right combination of smart moves and good luck—but I feel there's a possibility, something I never felt while traditionally published. I was never given big enough print runs to hit a list, and my books went out of print way too quickly. Now my books are out there forever, which means anything could happen. I have never felt this optimistic about my writing career before. It's fun! :-)

Carrie Ann Ryan
Paranormal Romance
Total number of self-published titles: 14
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 7710 (I published in Dec 2011)
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 198,910
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 85,129
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: An Alpha's Path 52,147

I will say that as each month has progressed, the new release sales have increased so my 2013 already looks vastly different from 2012.

Laura Hunsaker
Paranormal romance
Total number of self-published titles: 1
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011:  0
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: I released my first self-pub in Oct, so all sales are from Oct-Dec 2012: 221 sales, 1 return
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 193
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Just the one, Highlander Reborn
I've found that while my sales are steady, that the more I promo, the more I sell, obviously, but I walk that line of not wanting to spam my readers. Finding new ways of promoting my book other than just tweeting "buy my book" is hard, but fun. I like to offer my book free for a short time on Smashwords, and I've found that my sales on other venues go up that same month as well. Maybe not everyone wants to buy from Smashwords? Not sure.
It's an adventure, and I'm continuing on with it. I have another self-published book coming out in a few months :)

LL Muir
Time Travel Romance (Regency comes second, then YA and children's)
Total number of self-published titles: 8
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 323
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 13,853
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 4,910
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: GOING BACK FOR ROMEO sold 4,711

Juliana Stone

Contemporary Romance
Total number of self-published titles:  3 (1 in late 2012, 2 in 2013)
Total number of self-published sales in 2010:
Total number of self-published sales in 2011:
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 1,678
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 19,427
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold:  Offside, only title up, sold 1,678 (3 months)
I've learned by listening and paying attention to the good people who share info on some of the loops I follow, including this one.  I learned that using a 'freebie' was invaluable in pushing sales toward the second book in my series. For that reason alone I sold 9,000 copies of book 2 on ITunes in February. Using a freebie as a marketing tool is the reason I have made 75k in three months this year.

Lisa Mondello
Contemporary Romance but also do romantic suspense
Total number of self-published titles: 11
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 0
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 12,014
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 124,234*
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 46,203*
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Most titles sold Her Heart for the Asking 32,004 copies sold, Most profitable His Heart for the Trusting 15,463 copies sold, earned over $43,000
* My best guess based on my rough spreadsheet. Not 100 percent accurate.
Free works. Series work. Select advertisement works and has helped my books hit the USA Today Bestseller's list twice as a self-published author.

Meredith Bond
Regency-set paranormal romance 
Total number of self-published titles:  four individual and one group anthology (numbers not included here)
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: None (hadn’t published then)
Total number of self-published sales in 2011:  23 (one book published – but it was a writing text book which I use in my writing classes)
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 259 (the text book & a romance)
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 140 (three novels and the text book)
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Magic In The Storm (the romance) – 190 sold

I think I’m doing pretty well for an unknown (I traditionally published four Regency romances with Kensington, but so long ago that no one remembers me or them, so I essentially started out my self-publishing career from scratch). I’m not doing fabulously, but not too too bad, and I expect that my numbers will grow the more books I publish.

And since I wouldn't ask others to share their numbers without being willing to share mine...

Marie Force
Contemporary Romance
Total number of self-published titles: 16
Total number of self-published sales in 2010: 2,052
Total number of self-published sales in 2011: 159,653
Total number of self-published sales in 2012: 646,908
Total number of self-published sales so far in 2013: 225,000
Most successful book in 2012 and how many sold: Fool for Love, book 2 in the McCarthys of Gansett Island Series, 111,921, as a result of the free offering of book 1, Maid for Love


My self-publishing story goes something like this: I made very low four figures for my traditionally published books in 2010, six figures from my self-pubs in 2011 and seven figures from my self-pubs in 2012. This year is on pace to outdo last year by June or July, with fewer new books planned. Thankfully (I say now--every day, in fact) Maid for Love was rejected by EVERY romance publisher in the business, and book 2 sold 111,921 copies last year at $4.99 a piece. 3.44 x 111,921 = $385,008.24. For one book, in one year. I can live on that.

Anyone who wishes to share their numbers in the comments section is welcome to do so. This is about sharing information and offering encouragement to each other. Thanks again to everyone who participated. 

What do you think of the results and what do they say to you about the state of self-publishing?