What is the Measure of Success for Self-Published Authors? The Numbers are Shocking

A while back someone asked me: What would you consider a success? I had contacted the woman in mid-January after I published my book Living in the Heartland: Three Extraordinary Women’s Stories. She was local, and had a social media consulting business. Carole was eager to help. As she’d never used social media to promote a book Carole contacted a colleague for advice. The contact wanted to know if I’d only view myself successful if I reached my stated goal of 100,000 book sales (something I thought at the time was reasonable given the power of the Internet) or if I’d be satisfied signing with a traditional publishing house.

I suggested a third option. After some thought I decided I’d feel successful if Living in the Heartland was picked up by a publisher who also offered me the opportunity to do additional books about extraordinary women living in America’s heartland.

It’s approaching three months since Living in the Heartland appeared on Amazon.com. Has my personal measurement of succession changed? In a pie-in-the-sky world I’d say ‘No.’ I’d love to sell lots of books. I wrote Living in the Heartland because I wanted people to read about these extraordinary women, and because I wanted to promote dialog about issues faced by contemporary women and about diversity.

If I can’t lay claim to 100,000 book sales, I am willing to redefine my personal success in terms of securing a publisher for Living in the Heartland with hopes of future contracts to write more books.

Am I giving up on self-publishing? The answer is, “No and yes.” At the moment, I am not actively pursuing a publisher. Unless one reaches out to me, which isn’t likely until I sell enough for them to consider me a success, I’m committed to working to make my book a success. I believe that the future for books lies in social media especially as more books are sold in digital format. One thing I can say for certain is that I am positioned for the future, and ahead of authors who aren’t developing knowledge and skills in using social media.

Why then would I be happy to embrace a traditional publisher if one came to me and asked to handle my book? This blog presents some of my experiences in self-publishing. In doing background for some of my posts I’ve also come across some unsettling data. I’ve used excerpts from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of American 2-1-2010 article Print-On-Demand Self-Publishing Services below. See if you don’t reach a similar conclusion.

E-commerce currently accounts for approximate 20% of book sales. Brick-and-mortar bookstores, especially the large chains, represent the most significant single sales source, and most of these don’t like dealing with print-on-demand self-published authors. Most books require a balance of online and offline presence to have sales of any significance.

Here are the eye-popping, gut-wrenching statistics that the article present: “The average book from a POD service sells fewer than 200 copies, mostly to ‘pocket’ markets surrounding the author–friends, family, local retailers who can be persuaded to place an order–and to the author him/herself. According to the chief executive of POD service iUniverse… 40% of iUniverse’s books s are sold directly to authors.

POD services’ own statistics support these low sales figures. AuthorHouse’s..reveals that it has signed up more than 40,000 authors, and issued more than 60,000 titles… AuthorHouse reports selling more than 2.5 million books in 2008–which sounds like a lot, but averages out to around 41 sales per title…

Stats for Xlibris were similar. According to a Wall Street Journal article, 85% of its books had sold fewer than 200 copies, and only around 3%–or 352 in all–had sold more than 500 copies. Things looked up in 2007: according to Xlibris’s own internal reports, obtained by Writer Beware, 4% of its titles had sold more than 1,000 copies. However, the averages still aren’t good. As of mid-2007, Xlibris had 23,000 authors and had published 23,500 titles, with total sales of over 3 million–around 127 sales per title.

Once independent companies, AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris, and Canada-based Trafford Publishing are now all owned by Author Solutions Inc… the average sales of titles from any of the company’s brands at around 150.”

Wish I’d read these numbers before deciding after only about two dozen rejections − some were actually handwritten and supportive – from agents and publishers. If I known what I do now I think I’d still be sending out manuscripts as opposed to complimentary copies of my book trying to establish a foothold in the market.

Read more at Amazon.com.

Click video preview to see the YouTube video of my book Living in the Heartland: Three Extraordinary Women’s Stories.

My other blog is Living in the Heartland.

Click here for subscription to blog on Kindle Out of the Box Publishing Blog on Kindle



Filed under agents, book, distribution, dreams, editors, frustration, indie writer, media, on demand publishing, pay-to-publish, publishing, self-publishing, social media, statistics, success

6 responses to “What is the Measure of Success for Self-Published Authors? The Numbers are Shocking

  1. Great article expalining both sides of publishing and the reality, backed by statistics, concerning self publishing. I am going to add the URL for this blog to a similar blog I am doing, PLAN A vs PLAN B.

  2. These statistics speak more to those books that carry the imprints of these companies. Those books are not “self-published” at all; rather, they have used the iUniverses as a publisher–and this is subsidy publishing. Books that have those company names on them have little chance for success because they tend to be poorly edited, badly designed. Reviewers shun them; book buyers ignore them.

    When authors self-publish properly (meaning they obtain their own block of ISBNs and publish under their own imprint), they generally sell more books–as long as they have a good platform and a solid marketing plan. If their books are well done, they shouldn’t even be recognizable as self-publishers, but rather independent publishers.

    I advise authors to not advertise the fact they’ve self-published. Why should they? They’ve done their work well and their books look just as good as any other on the bookstore shelf.

    You have clearly done it the right way; sounds like you’ve got a manuscript that was well received and you’ve published under your own imprint. I wouldn’t let these statistics phase you one bit. They really don’t pertain to “indie” books.

    • Pam

      I am glad to have your comment. A ray of hope is most welcome. I particularly like your statement about being an independent publisher rather than a self-published author. What has been lacking for me thus far is a conduit on to the highway that publishers use to gain interest by book purchasers. I’ve been courted by companies and people who are charging top dollar for resources that don’t offer any real potential for gain. I will definitely check out your site. I am but one woman, working as hard as I can to gain notice for a book that I passionately believe in and which was written to share with others. My problem is not that people aren’t buying it, it’s that people don’t know it’s available. This, hopefully, will change soon. A feature article is coming out next month in a newspaper, and I’m doing some book signings in association with charities. Please keep visiting my site. Please visit my other blog LivingintheHeartland.com I’d also like to hear what you have to say about my book preview and, of course, view my book Living in the Heartland: Three Extraordinary Women’s Stories

      • Pam–Nice book trailer! And both of your blogs are full of great content. But I’m noticing that neither has any Google page ranking. Also, you’ve got this one parked at WordPress, so you are losing any advantages as far as SEO.

        What are you doing to drive traffic to your sites? As you say, the problem isn’t that people aren’t buying it–it’s that they don’t know about it!

        I do have some good info on my site…please feel free to contact me directly via email. We offer a free 15-minute consult…perhaps I can offer you some suggestions for improving site traffic. =)

  3. Hi Pamela,

    Good post!…I have two things to give you today:

    First- You can STILL query and pursue traditional publishers/publishing while you also self-publish…DON”T wait for some magical self-publishing number to happen before you send out your manuscripts to book proposals…It won’t make any diff…If a big publisher likes your work & it’s a fit with them they WILL buy..
    After all, making a few dollars in self-publishing (& maybe more) is better than nothing while waiting for less-than-perfect publishers to realize your talent.

    Second- I posted some really detailed stats about the figures you talked about today back in Oct 28, 2008…Walt Shiel was my source and he is REALLY into this stuff http://alturl.com/g478 I know you will get a lot out of the data.

    P.S. Your are especially right about positioning yourself, for what I think will be a big bump for authors, in the near-future digital world of self-publishing due mainly to a huge demand for new content to support all the new e-readers plus coming gadgets…Reading is experiencing a BIG BOOM right now…

    • Pam

      Thank you for the link to additional statistical information. I think it is important that writers have their eyes open before they make a decision on how and where to publish. So many places make promises. There are no disclosure laws, and unless a writer is familiar with the publishing industry they may not know what questions to ask. Your suggestion to pursue traditional publishers while continuing along the indie author route has merit; however, not having followed this path I cannot speak about what may be lost in acquiring a publisher. I definitely agree that if the goal is to be accepted by a traditional publisher then continuing to pursue this avenue is important. Publishers aren’t likely to come looking for a writer unless the author has proven their success.

      As for me, I am pursuing a lot of avenues at the moment. I am looking for places where I can reach readers en masse. I will discuss these at the appropriate time.

      I am very glad to have others leave their comments so we can share experiences and learn from each other. If you want to see what has caused me to embarked on this journey buy a copy of my book Living in the Heartland. After you’ve read it let me know what you think.

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