Want to Self-Publish Fantasy? Think Again.

How do you prefer to enjoy a good book?

Are you someone who likes the crisp, dry feel of paper between your fingers as you turn a page? Do you relish the ability to toss a book on a beach chair and not care if it falls in the sand?

Or are you someone who prefers the ease and convenience of downloading the latest book of their favorite author without ever needing to change out of their pajamas? Someone who loves having a virtual library at your fingertips?

For book lovers the world over, this is an interesting time. The industry responsible for providing readers with countless hours of enjoyment is in flux. Digital publishing arrived on the scene with the swift fierceness of a Category 5 hurricane, battering the traditional publishing world, and laying waste to the decades-old ways things have been done. Physical book sales fell, bookstores closed. For the moment, the dust is still settling, the full ramifications of what the industry will look like in five, is a hotly debated issue amongst many.

Yet while this sea change has surely affected readers and publishers, it has arguably had an even larger impact on another group of individuals: self-published authors.

Digital publishing has made it incredibly easy for an author to choose a route that, fifteen years ago, was unthinkable.

Print on Demand Printer

When print-on-demand (POD) companies such as Lightning Source (1997), Lulu (2002),and CreateSpace (2005) entered the scene, they provided authors an avenue to print their work on their own, without the need for a traditional publisher. This was—and still is—simultaneously a good and bad thing. Good in the sense that anyone can get his or her work out there. Bad in the sense that…well, anyone can get his or her work out there. Poorly edited, typo-ridden work was prevalent, unfortunately coloring many people’s opinion about self-publishing and drowning out the real gems.

POD companies earned the derisive term ‘vanity press’ in that they were only good for one thing: feeding an author’s ego to get his or her book in print.

The problem with all POD books—good or bad—was distribution. People could buy direct or, in the case of CreateSpace, via Amazon. But it was all online. An indie author would never see his or her book on a bookstore shelf unless they either, a) successfully lobbied the individual store to purchase a few, or b), snuck in a copy tucked in your waistband and placed it on the shelf yourself. A rather ineffective strategy, yes?

Some, like Christopher Paolini, made it big pursuing the print self-publishing route, but only through an incredible amount of work and sacrifice. He and his family spent well over a year putting every bit of effort toward marketing Eragon, calling schools to set up presentations, contacting individual bookstores, going to book and renaissance fairs. Not an easy path to take.

Ah…but then came the eBook and things quickly changed for the independent author.

Just some of the devices available

With the advent of the Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo, and dozens of other ways to consume eBooks, the difficulties for self-published authors shifted. Distribution was no longer the problem. In seconds, a reader could have your book in his or her hands.

The new issue? Exposure. If no one knows who you are, it does not matter how easy it is to acquire your work. There have been a number of great successes in the self-published ebook realm. Amanda Hocking. John Locke. Barbara Freethy. Michael Prescott. E.L. James. But they are the grand exception to the almost-depressing rule.

The stark truth of self-publishing is this: while it has never been easier to do it, do not expect to make much of a living doing so. The odds are against you.

Taleist, a blog dedicated to helping writers become published authors, conducted a survey of 1,007 self-published authors in February 2012 and recently released their findings. Not a Gold Rush (available exclusively at Amazon) has the full set of findings, but a few things stand out.

· Less than 10% of self-published authors are making 75% of the money.

· The average annual income of self-published authors in 2011 was $10,000

· Half made less than $500

Read that last one again. Less than half made a total of $500 last year.

When breaking down the different types of fiction, the results are even more startling.

· The Romance genre earned 170% more than everyone else

· Science-fiction writers averaged $3800 (vs. the $10,000 overall)

· Fantasy authors fared even worse, earning on average $3200

Tales of those who have achieved great success can be inspiring. Their stories are the fuel for dreams and hopes, much as a lottery ticket is for the next big jackpot. It is possible, it will happen to someone, but it is best that most self-published authors keep the reality of the situation in mind.


All is not doom and gloom. There is a very real, very tangible benefit for new authors who choose to go the self-publishing route. It offers one a chance to prove himself or herself, to build a loyal readership—slowly, mind you—, and to prove the work itself is viable, marketable, and has an audience. If an author accomplishes this, doors open that would have remained forever shut had the manuscript languished on a hardrive for eternity.

Should an author choose to self-publish, be sure to do it right. Contract professional help: an editor, designer, and a copyeditor. An author who goes it entirely alone is begging for obscurity.

Have the dream, hold onto it, refuse to let it go. However, never forget the very real truth: it’s a hard road to take.


By R.T. Kaelin

R. T. Kaelin is a loving husband, father of two, and a lifelong resident of Ohio. While writing for a local gaming group, some suggested he try his hand at something a bit more ambitious. Committing to the undertaking, he wrote, Progeny, the first volume in The Children of the White Lions series. The book has garnered critical acclaim and reached #34 bestselling at Amazon for Epic Fantasy. He has also published the Terrene Chronicles, a series of twelve short prequel stories and is currently editing book two in the series, due out in the fall of 2012.

38 thoughts on “Want to Self-Publish Fantasy? Think Again.”
  1. Absolutely wonderful article, Ryan. Although I’m against quashing people’s dreams – the realities do need to be realised. YES there is money to be made in self-publishing, but please-please-please DO NOT write a book and stick it on Amazon expecting to retire in a few weeks time.

    My advice to people who want to write has always been ‘write for pleasure’. If you write expecting to be published you are likely to be disappointed. If you write because you love writing, if your book one days gets picked up and you make some money – you’ve got yourself a nice little bonus 🙂

  2. I’m enjoying seeing that “half of self-published authors made less than $500” figure quoted everywhere. But if you investigate that survey a little you see that the survey was taken in January 2012, and 50% of the respondents answered 2011 to “When did you start self-publishing”. So 50% of the respondents of that survey, 50% of the people whose income was used to arrive at that $500 figure, had been self-published anywhere between 1 week and 12 months.

    Puts a different spin on those figures, doesn’t it?

    Look at it this way. 100% of self-publishers made more off their work than they did when it was sitting in a drawer.

    1. Interesting conclusion – but if you are writing for money in the majority of cases you’d be better off applying for a part-time job. 3 hours a day over the course of a year writing a novel sounds about bottom line to me. That’s around 1050 hours invested. Even on £6.00 an hour (below minimum wage) you’d be far better off.

      I don’t think Ryan’s point was there is no point you writing bacause you won’t make a penny *insert evil laugh*. It was – be realistic and prepare yourself for the long haul. If you are doing it to get your work out there and for your own enjoyment, who cares how much you make and as you say – every £/€/$ is an extra 🙂

    2. Shan –

      Perhaps the more important figure then is the $10,000 average. If that is supplemental income, great. But if you hope to make a living as a self-published author, that is not much of a living.

      Or look at the 10% of the authors are making 75% of the money. Let’s play with numbers to illustrate what that really means.

      1007 authors in the survey * $10,000 average = $10,700,000 for the group.

      101 of the authors (10%) are making $7.5 million of that sum. And, if I had to guess, I would say probably the top 10 are making a good chunk of that.

      Regardless, that means the other 906 authors are—on average—making about $3474/year. Again, if it’s supplemental income, great. But that’s not a living.

      The entire point of all of this is that if someone thinks that by throwing a book up via Amazon’s KDP or B&N’s Pub-it that they will become an overnight sensation, they should be aware of the reality of the situation.

      1. Sadly, average incomes for published authors (as opposed to self-published authors) are not much higher!

        Writers write. That’s what they do. They’ll write even if there’s not a cent in it. But for people with a stack of manuscripts which were too niche, or which the industry couldn’t figure out how to sell, and so wouldn’t buy…why NOT self-publish?

        [People who write novels purely as a money-making venture…well, they should definitely be calculating the time benefit of it.]

  3. Ryan,

    Excellent article. I couldn’t have said it better myself. May your self-published story be one of the rare success, and a hope that you venture into the traditional published arena and get all that exposure you so richly deserve.

    ~T.L. Gray

  4. My first choice was the Agent/Publisher/Hard-PaperBack/Retail-BricksnMortar path, however I had limited time/resources and the cost per submission was a lot for me from here in NZ.

    So, I have needed to go direct to SmashWords and they have four of my eight novels. Their conversion algorithms are superb for me and their site clean and obvious. For example, their conversion to the Kindle format was vastly superior to Amazon’s with the same file.

    As for income, that is negligible but I am free to do my part, and that is the part I enjoy: write. The current book always being the one that does it all for me, says all that I wanted to say in this crazy way of life I must follow.

  5. What an excellent post. It’s always important, however, to remember that not everybody sets out to make money from publishing their work, but, however, just wants to have their work readily available to those who would read it on the side. 🙂

  6. Every day, I make $42,000 in e-book sales on Amazon.

    And then I wake up. A frantic check of the sales ranks of my various titles shows I’ve sold maybe half a dozen books. On a good day. Most days aren’t good days.

    So I have a good cry, take a shower, and shuffle off to work.

    That is the sad lot of the 90%. Now, all my titles are NOT self-published ones. I only self-published anthologies of short stories I sold back in the prehistoric 1990s. My titles put out from my two small press publishers do a little better.

    But even with those titles, I’m hardly out shopping for Lear Jets and gold-plated thigh boots. Mainly because thigh boots chafe, but I’m getting off-topic.

    Writing is a tough business. The competition for the reading public’s dollar is fierce. And as a fantasy author, I know that all too well.

    Now, if you’ll pardon me, it’s that time of day when I sit in a corner and sob while rocking back and forth.

  7. While your statistics are drawn from what have generally become the talking points of the recent Taleist survey, I think the conclusions being drawn from them are incomplete at best. For example, “Half make less than $500,” but the corollary would be that half make more. That’s what half means.

    I read the survey. I wish there had been more discussion. It’s nice to see people on the Internet furthering that discussion, but if the foundation of that discussion is flawed–and I’m not saying it is, but I think one could make that argument–I fear the continuation of discussion will be, too. For example, this comment thread has picked up the “10% of authors make 75% of the money” element, but is that really unique to independent publishing? Wasn’t there a statistic the other year that 1 in 7 books purchased was by Stephenie Meyer? Don’t approximately 1% of all authors published by corporations make 95% of the money taken in by corporate publishers? Aren’t most authors, regardless of their publishing companies, working writers, where working means not “full-time writers” but “writers who also teach (and et cetera)”?

    I think one of the problems with the discussion is everyone seems to be repeating the same statistics (without any deviation. I think the Guardian ran with precisely the elements discussed here). Still, I’m glad people are furthering it. I’m an independent author who founded an independent digital publishing company, and one of the points you end with is spot on: “Should an author choose to self-publish, be sure to do it right. Contract professional help: an editor, designer, and a copyeditor.”

    Also: “slowly, mind you” is really important. Digital publishing is a long game in a way that publishing with corporations never was. There’s no such thing as shelf space anymore. A book doesn’t need to hit the ground running to become successful.

    Finally, I don’t think the genre factor is so gloomy as the Taleist indicates. From my experience publishing, fantasy performs fairly well, in fact, and slightly better than literary fiction might. I wish I had more experience with romance, as a genre, but my experiences indicate that genres–science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, etc.–fare better than “general” fiction. I think one key is diversity; right now, we’ve got almost 30 titles, including novels, novellas, short stories, and poetry collections in various genres available, and we’re experimenting and growing more quickly than I ever anticipated.

    1. Nice balance, thank you.

      I personally don’t care … there is a glut in the product I’m involved with … of course there is, it’s fun. That’s where it is for me.

      “If farming is not done for its own sake it’s difficult to make anyone profit” – Tibetan.

  8. It’s also interesting comparing these earnings to those who are small-press published and big-press published. I suspect ‘most of the money is earned by the top 10%’ is true across the board, along with ‘you can’t make a living at it’.

  9. The argument that, however little a self-published book makes, it makes more than if it’s unpublished, only really applies if you take the DIY approach that contributes so much to the low quality side of self-publishing. If you do it properly, using professional editing, design etc, that represents a considerable initial outlay – unless you’re one of the more fortunate authors, you probably wouldn’t even recoup your costs in the first year.

    Of course, if you have that money available to spend (a good many of us don’t) it’s certainly no more wasted than a season ticket for your local premiere league football team (a good deal less in my accounting). But be clear about the figures.

    Incidentally, I’d just like to clarify that POD doesn’t equal self-publishing. It’s a printing technique that’s used by small presses, self-publishers and vanity presses, but it isn’t any one of them.

    1. Nyki –

      Excellent point. A lot of small presses do use POD to do print runs.

      And your point about investing money into the self-pub effort is key. In my mind (opinion only), that is an important distinction between indie authors and self-published.

      1. A good point about profits – the survey only gives income, not how much is left after paying for editing, cover art, etc. I may not be making much more than the average self-pubber in this survey at the moment, but it’s 100% profit – all the expenses are dealt with by my publisher, and I get my books in the bookstores.

    1. Don’t let it discourage you if you are considering self-publishing. The alternative route (traditional publishing) is no less difficult. I’d love to see the stats on traditionally published authors earnings as well, because at last check, I’d heard that most traditional authors get an average $2000 advance, and the vast majority of those never earn out their advance to get real royalties.

  10. I keep seeing this survey reported, but it should be noted there is a lot of room between 500 and making a living. A couple of fantasy authors I know have done well. Michael J. Sullivan was picked up by a publisher. So was the famous Amanda Hocking. Another one (sorry, the name escapes me) just sold film rights although he’s still self-publishing the book. C.S. Marks has sold VERY well in the UK and decent in the US (No idea if she considers it a living or not.) These are just the fantasy names I know of doing well. Karen Cantwell has sold over 30k of her first chic-lit book. The point being there’s plenty of room to make a decision and it shouldn’t all be based on one survey that doesn’t include what traditional published authors make in the first 5 years.

    LOTS and LOTS of authors who are with trad publishers don’t make a living either. The more interesting survey would show how many of them made 500 to 100k and compare THAT with self publishing. It might not be so different.

    Writing and making a living from it has always been hard. Self-publishing is not the delineating factor.

    1. I am not saying it is a delineating factor. You are correct. It is a tough business regardless. I am merely making the point that people need to understand what they are walking into. We all hear of the successes, but anecdotes are not something on which to base a decision. Unfortunately, many people do just that. This article is merely meant to be a cautionary tale.

      By no means am I saying “DON’T SELF PUBLISH!” Note what I said in the original article:

      “There is a very real, very tangible benefit for new authors who choose to go the self-publishing route. It offers one a chance to prove himself or herself, to build a loyal readership—slowly, mind you—, and to prove the work itself is viable, marketable, and has an audience. If an author accomplishes this, doors open that would have remained forever shut had the manuscript languished on a hardrive for eternity.”

      It can be a wonderful springboard to a career if done professionally and with thought. Both Michael Sullivan and Amanda Hocking STARTED as self-published authors yet have made the switch to the traditional model after their success. I met C.S. Marks at Origins last year and know that she and her agent are trying to make the move as well.

      I agree that a comparative study of authors in trad-pub would better inform this one. I would also like to see a survey of the ‘successful’ self-published authors (still doing it, mind you) and see what percentage of them would jump at a big-six deal.

      (PS – Check out the forums. I noticed Michael Sullivan himself has some great advice and details for those interested in going self-pub.)

      1. All true–and I’d also say that the window of opportunity is not as “open” as it once was. Going traditional after self publishing could be a means to open more doors–or further an author’s reach.

        There is not going to be a right path for everyone. And the road is gonna have some potholes!

    2. “Another one (sorry, the name escapes me) just sold film rights although he’s still self-publishing the book. ” Was his name Hugh Howey, the author of “Wool”?

      1. Yes, I believe that is the book I was thinking of!

        But there are others who I’ve seen listed after my post doing quite well–David Dalglish sold his book to a Spanish publisher (and it was then translated and released).

        I don’t dispute the article facts, but I think the information is presented…in a faulty manner.

        Add to that, I think there are plenty of fantasy authors doing quite well in the self-published arena. Since I read a lot of fantasy and UF, that could be why I recognize so many successful names there, but there are other genres where authors have seen success as well.

        Yes, there are plenty of authors who haven’t seen much success, and it’s always important to go into any career with your eyes and ears wide open. Learning and being informed are all part of the process.

        And as someone above said–if you compare self-publishing to your work “sitting a drawer” it has its pluses. There’s no reason why authors can’t go after more than one avenue at a time–submit some to agents. Self-publish others. Both avenues have low chances of huge success, but don’t let that stop you.

  11. The study, which is being requoted everywhere, is flawed on many levels. Including it’s conclusions. But even if we take the $10,000 for 2011 number that is actually very good considering most debut author’s contracts in fantasy are $5,000 – $10,000 a book and traditional publishers will put out books more frequently than once a year.

    If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times…discoverability of a new author takes commitment by the author regardless of what route is taken (self or traditional). Any author who thinks that signing a contract relinquishes themselves of this responsibility is mistaken.

    I’m actually very impressed with the self-publshing pool of indie authors in science fiction and fantasy and the results they are seeing. Name such as myself (Michael J. Sullivan), David Dalglish, K.C. May, B.V. Larson, J.R. Rain, Nathan Lowell, Marshall Thomas, Debra Geary, Lindsay Buroker, Ben Dobson, Jason Teaser, Leslie Ann Moore, Lawrence P. White, Aaron Pogue, T.B. Christenson, Aaron Patterson, Hugh Howey, H.P. Mallory, and many many more are not only doing well, but many have been able to quit their day jobs and in many cases are out-earning traditionally published authors.

    My take…if you write well, and get enough people to know about your books such that they start spreading the word you’ll be a ‘successful” author. You can do that through either traditional or self-pubishing, or some (like me) are even doing both.

  12. “The stark truth of self-publishing is this: while it has never been easier to do it, do not expect to make much of a living doing so. The odds are against you.”

    I think the more important aspect is to simply strike the “self” from this statement.

    1. Ha! Brilliant 🙂

      I’m quite interested in setting up our own survey in regards to small press and self publishing. I think it’ll be impossible to get ‘accurate’ figures – but it’ll be interesting, I believe 🙂

  13. Michael posted this on Reddit, which I found interesting:

    “But it doesn’t have to be. You only need a small % of the overall market to be successful when you are earning $3.50 a book. Half of the Kindle Epic Fantasy Top 100 Bestsellers are self-published authors (well a little over – I think it’s 51/49 or 52/48). So there is “enough” market.”

  14. This is a route I’m investigating going down, and after reading this I’m glad I’m taking it small steps at a time. Recently completed three short stories that are out with readers at the moment – both of whom are published writers – for review and feedback. I’ve been published in small press anthologies but even with that under my belt want to get things right for my solo performance.

    Looking at the figures they’re not great, but then if you’re looking to supplement your income they’re not that bad – $3200 is about £2000 which works out as my car payments for a month, works for me!

  15. A wise man (hat-tip, Mr. Sullivan) emailed me with a very cogent point. One that I think deserves to be repeated here:

    “The thing of it is, that people use self-publishing for a wide variety of reasons. For instance some just want a few books for friends and family, others are just “throwing stuff up to see what happens,” still others are putting out backlists without any marketing or clue as to what sells and why. These subsets of self-publishing really shouldn’t be grouped with the subset of people who use self-publishing as a professional way of making money. When we take that subset and compare then with their traditional selling counterparts, they do very well for themselves.”

    I would like to see that same survey done with the sampled authors ones that are ACTIVELY working at making it into a career. I’m starting to think the results would be much different. Still not an easy road, but if you are dedicated to the pursuit (and you are a good writer/storyteller), you can do well compared to the ‘average’ self-pub’d author.

  16. Good article. It’s really funny how many people push the professionally edited route for self published, when I pick up traditionally published hardcover and paperback books all the time that are so poorly edited as to be almost unreadable, typos, wrong words, a paragraph that repeats (that last is almost unbelievable unless the editor were drunk or high. And for some of us who get the old “your work is good, you’re a good writer, this is an interesting idea” spiel from agents and publishers, it’s either self publish or let the work languish on the hard drive forever while we continue to work on giving the industry the next big thing that’s just like the last big thing, unless the last big thing has been done too much.

  17. wow…talk about covering all the bases.

    When I find typos in traditionally published books, I can’t help but think that big publishers are trying to trim the fat. I think they’re starting to throw in the towel. It’s pretty common to see bad editing, self published or not.

    I compare it to the ‘revolution’ that happened when indie bands went up against the big guns. Some bands did well, some did not, but the big guns fought harder to stay in control. Eventually, the music companies got their mojo back.

    I don’t think big publishers have that same drive. They’re overwhelmed and hanging on to an industry that is returning to it’s roots, self publishing, which is how publishing started back when the earth was still cooling.

    The next few years will be interesting.

  18. Thanks for this. It’s sobering, but at the same time offers encouragement and a little advice on how to proceed if you want to self-publish.

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