One of the most common questions I get as a self-published author is “how much money can I make by self-publishing?”
This question is difficult to answer for a number of reasons, partly because it’s awkward to talk about money. But mostly because every situation is different and how much you will earn depends on a number of details.
That being said, I want to be transparent with you because when I was planning to self-publish I read dozens of articles online about what I might earn… only to realize (a year later) that the numbers and information they gave was way off.
This misinformation was a major source of frustration because my earnings ended up being drastically different than what I thought they would be.
Let’s say you have a (basically completed) manuscript and you want to turn it into a book. There are two routes you can take:
- Getting the book accepted by a traditional publisher
- Self-publishing the book yourself
Both have their good and bad points (of course). You can read this post on things I wish I would have known before self-publishing my book. Looking back, I wish I had gone with a traditional publisher (for many reasons that I can’t go into with this post), but since I went the self-publishing route, I’ve committed to it 100% and figured out how to maximize sales.
Let’s talk about money.
Before we can determine whether you are making a good deal from self-publishing, we need a metric to compare it to. In this case, the metric will be a regular, run-of-the-mill traditionally published book.
How much will you make with a traditional publisher?
Option number 1 (if a regular, traditional publisher picks up your book) can often get you more money and get your book into more hands compared to self-publishing.
As a first-time, virtually unknown author, you can expect to get a $5000 advance and 8% of the list price (or at least that’s what my friends got). This contract ensures you earn $1.20 for each book sold and once a bit over 4,200 books are sold, you will have paid off your advance and can start earning additional money.
The publishing company takes care of the general edits, structural edits, line editing, cover design, reviews (from newspapers, blogs, and “famous people”), getting the book into stores, and basically everything else.
This is why I wish I had gone with a tradtional publisher. As a first-time author, I knew NOTHING of the publishing world and had to hit the ground running.
What’s more, with a traditional publisher, you don’t have to pay anything. Publishing companies take care of the entire financial burden of publishing the book.
A publishing company takes a “good book,” turn it into a “great book,” and get it in front of an audience.
That’s traditional publishing.
Now let’s talk self-publishing (which is kind of like “no, company that specializes in doing This Thing, I don’t need your help making my book approachable. I can do everything myself.”)
So really, how much can you earn self-publishing your book?
Before we talk about how much you can actually earn self-publishing a book we need to talk about how much you will have to spend to get the book into print (because when it comes to self-publishing, you pay for everything upfront yourself).
I swear, I will get to the $$$ eventually.
To get a high quality self-published book, you should pay for general editing, structural editing, line editing, cover design, a barcode, and ISBN number, proof copies – all out of your own pocket.
- A professionally done self-published book can cost you $5,000 to $10,000.
- A moderately well-done self-published book can run from $800 – $2,000.
- A very poorly done self-published book will cost $150 – $500. It’s hard to go any cheaper than that.
And yes, the audience can tell pretty well how much money you spend. Keep in mind, these costs exclude the price of printing your own books.
I spent about $2500 on my first self-published book, plus another $1500 to print the first round of copies. Thankfully I sold everything in the first six months and made back everything I spent (plus a small profit!)… but I just as easily could have botched everything up and been left with boxes of books in my living room.
I had nightmares about boxes in my living room for the first three months of self-publishing.
Every subsequent book has cost me about $750 to print (mostly because my editors are wonderful amazing people who found me through my blog and edit my books out of the goodness of their hearts, in exchange for free copies of the books) along with hundreds of hours of formatting and fixing tiny problems myself.
If you do want to self-publish your book, I recommend reading this post I wrote about how to self-publish your book.
This brings us to the real question (and probably the only reason you’re actually here): How much can you earn self-publishing?
Answer: It depends on how many books you can sell.
Yes, captain obvious here.
The marketing strategy you come up with to get your book in front of an audience is what determines your earnings.
The biggest mistake self-published authors make is assuming that book sales will just… happen. These are other common mistakes self-published authors make.
Sales don’t “just happen.”
Really, they don’t.
Each sale needs to be planned for and earned. It’s not enough to get your book listed on Amazon and/or Kindle, you need to convince people that your book is worth their hard-earned cash and even more valuable time.
I polled some of my self-published author friends and we concluded that you can probably sell 1-3 copies a month (paperback) and 3-5 eBook copies from random, impulse buys online (if you’re lucky). You can get a lot more impulse buys if your book is stocked by a bookstore but many places are still hesitant to accept self-published books.
I got my comic books into their very first brick-and-mortar store (Austin Books & Comics in Texas! Go check them out) just last week, over a year after self-publishing my first book. Even that was luck.
Basically, you need to be responsible for every single sale.
Assuming your books are priced competitively, impulse buys translate to only about $10 – $25 a month.
I estimate 50% of self-published authors make less than $50 per month on their first book. This is the reality of self-publishing.
Unless, of course, you promote your book (very effectively) like crazy.
I decided on a marketing strategy that fit with my personality and my goals early on: giving away useful content for free and allowing people to buy a book if they are interested. It sounds counter-productive, but I post most of my book’s content on the internet for free, every week in the form of blog posts and comics.
If people like my comics and want to read them at home (instead of the internet), they buy my books. Or if people want to support the creation of said free content on the internet (blog posts, comics, YouTube videos), they can choose to buy my books.
In case you’re wondering my “conversion rate” from this type of marketing strategy is about 0.025% (quarter of a percent). I do not recommend this type of marketing strategy unless you already have an established fan-base (like I did) and have a secondary source of income (in my case, freelancing).
Other self-published authors sell their books at speaking events, contact book stores directly to get their books on the shelves, or use their books to promote a class or workshop (where they make their money).
Money is tight – it’s hard to get people to part with their well-earned cash and take a chance on your book (especially if your book is self-published). It’s a very understandable reality. The bottom line is unless you have a way to effectively promote your book, you won’t sell copies and you won’t make money.
Well, how much do I earn from self-publishing?
I talk a good game… but can I actually back it up? Kind of.
Through my chosen marketing strategy, my sales come from four main channels: Amazon.com, Kindle, my Etsy shop, and speaking events.
I have three comic books and am able to keep 100% of the profits (minus a 6% listing fee for books sold on Etsy, a ~30% – ~45% download fee for books sold on the Kindle, and a 40% – 55% fee that most bookstores and events charge).
Naturally, when I only had one book out, I was making about ⅓ of the money I make today. The more books you publish, the more you will earn.
Right now, my monthly sales are:
What is it? Amazon.com is one of the largest online shopping marketplaces in the world. Amazon.com owns a print on demand company, Createspace, that allows users to self-publish and list their books on Amazon (for free). Every time a book is ordered, Createspace prints and ships the book to that address.
- 100 books – 200 books sold
- List price is $14.50
- I earn $5.3 per book sold (except when bookstores and libraries order it, then I only get $2)
- Profit: $350 – $1000 per month
Kindle (paid downloads)
What is it? Kindle is an eBook reader by Amazon. Using a Kindle, users can download and read books, magazines, and newspapers.
- 300 – 400 books sold
- List price is $3.85
- I earn $1.35 per book sold (I have to pay 30% – 65% of the list price per download to Amazon)
- Profit: $200 – $550 per month
What is it? Kindle Unlimited is a monthly subscription program where users can download and read as many qualifying books on the Kindle as they want each month, for free. The proceeds are split among the authors depending on how many pages users read that month.
I recently quit Kindle Unlimited because they changed how they paid their authors (by number of pages read vs number of downloads, something that punishes books with less than 300 pages).
Before they made the switch, I was making about $400 – $800 per month. After they changed, I made $75 – $200 (35,000 – 120,000 pages read) per month.
Now that I am no longer a member of Kindle Unlimited, I can list my book all over the internet (which is something I am working on right now).
What is it? Etsy is an online shop for creative entrepreneurs. You can sell hand-crafted clothes, trinkets, decorations, jewelry, and yes books. Since my books are self-published, they fall into this category.
- 20 – 60 books per month
- Profit: $100 – $550 per month (depends on number of books sold, number of packages sold, if any packages get lost in the mail, and what countries I ship to)
What is it? I’m using the term ‘event’ loosely here. To me, events are speaking gigs, presentations, and fan meetups where we sell books on the side. A lot of people want to buy a signed book from us directly (as well as take selfies), so events are a great place to sell books.
If you’re a specialist, you can get paid to give a speech and sell books after – it’s great for self-published people.
- 10 – 140 books per event (I don’t do large events because they’re too overwhelming)
- $6.50 profit per book, paying between 0% – 40% of the list price to the bookstore/event hall
- Profit: $35 – $550 per event (minus cost of getting there, booth supplies, etc)
Total I make from self-publishing a book (excluding 15.3% – 30% taxes) per month: $370 – $950
Combined total I make from self-publishing all my books (after taxes) each month: $1050 – $2200
(but most months it’s around $1600)
So is this a realistic amount of money to be making, if you decide to self-publish?
Like I said before, I have a distinct advantage that most other self-published authors don’t have: an established readership. Between my YouTube channel and my blog, I get about one million views every month. That’s where a lot of my sales come from.
I also have 200+ glowing reviews for my books on Amazon.com and tons more on Goodreads. That helps a lot.
Sales perk up for the two months after I publish a new book and the month before Christmas. I’ve had months where I’ve made a lot of money and months where books sales don’t even cover rent. The whole thing is incredibly unpredictable.
What’s the point of this article?
Basically what I’m trying to say is this:
Your monthly earnings as a self-published author depends entirely on what your marketing and promotional strategies are. And most self-published authors grossly overestimate how many books they will sell (leading to bitter resentment, frustration, and embarrassment when they only sell a fraction of what they thought they would).
Even if you write an amazing, thought-provoking book, if you don’t have a good strategy, you probably will NOT make money or sell copies.
And even if you have a good strategy and your book is crap, you probably won’t sell very many copies either.
If you want to make money self-publishing, first list out all the places you can promote your book and how many sales you think you can realistically get. For the sake of this argument, assume that every single sale will come from direct promotion and that word-of-mouth won’t magically drum up anything.