Whether or not self-published authors make more money is an ongoing debate in the publishing space right now, due to the increase in credibility (and quality) of self-publishing. When you’re deciding between self-publishing or third-party publishing, the consideration of potential income is a huge factor, especially if career author is the goal.
Do you want to pursue querying agents and the lengthy process of traditional publishing if it means a bigger payout? Or would you rather do it all yourself, including paying upfront costs if it means more income with self-publishing?
Here’s the truth:
Self-published authors often have a higher earning potential than if they pursue the traditional publishing route—unless they are an outlier.
An outlier in publishing is someone who has a debut novel that goes into a bidding war. This is what happens when multiple publishing houses (like Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, etc.) all want the novel or series and are putting in offers to out-bid the other. When you see stories of authors who got 6-figure book deals, this is usually what happens. But many wannabe authors think this is the norm.
Unproven authors (debuts) rarely make more than a $10,000–$15,000 advance and often still only sell an average amount of books because they still have to do the marketing themselves.
This means that the potential earnings for self-published authors are higher than traditional authors for several reasons we’ll dive into.
Let’s assume two authors sell the exact same number of books: 10,000 (which is a challenge no matter the method). The $ royalty rates$ , and therefore income, each author sees varies greatly.
Self-published royalty rate (paperbacks through Amazon): 60%
Traditionally published royalty rate: 10%
If each sells 10,000 copies and the list price is the same at $17.99 per book, here’s what each author will take home after associated costs (print costs for self-published and publishing house royalty for traditional).
Self-published author: $6.34 per book sold — $63,400 for 10,000 books
Traditionally published author: $1.79 per book sold — $17,900 for 10,000 books
This math makes it simple to see that all things considered equal, the self-published author makes significantly more money from their books. Keep in mind that the self-published author also has more expenses with book covers, formatting, and professional editing.
Those costs still lead to the self-published author making much more. Of course, there are more details that go into $ how authors get paid$ , but this is just an overview of $ royalties$ .
We know that publishing more books faster is the #1 method to make a living from books. The more books you have, the more money you can make from each reader. Because traditional publishing has a lengthy process that involves an editor, book production, and publishing timeline that are completely outside of your control, you don’t get to publish when you want.
A traditionally published author may publish one book a year—and that is fast. A self-published author can publish as many books as they can write in a year, with some publishing over 20 books per year in certain genres.
Self-published authors can compound their book income at a higher rate this way, making more money faster. This doesn’t even consider how having multiple entry points to their author profile can bring in even more new readers.
3. Access to sales data (to test, learn, & grow from)
Traditionally published authors don’t have access to their Amazon profiles in 99% of cases. Which means they actually don’t know how many books they’re selling or how their book is performing for weeks or months at a time. They have to ask and wait for the publisher to send them a report.
Less access to data makes it harder for an author to learn and grow, which slows down their ability to write better books that sell more. It also blocks them from planning effective marketing campaigns, because they have no way of seeing the real-time results from their strategies.
Self-published authors have instant access to their information whenever they want. They can run their own ads and see in real-time what they can tweak to get more clicks and sales. They can also test different keywords in their titles and test descriptions to see which is selling more. Traditionally published authors are not able to do this.
Self-published authors can also control their books' price points, discount sales, and promotional plans, while third-party publishers control none of it.
By now you get the idea that self-published authors answer to no one. They can do whatever they want with their books, including turning a series into a box set, updating book cover designs to see which perform better, bundling various collections of standalones, and even releasing special editions.
This can be done on a whim and easily implemented. But with traditional publishing, this is outside the author’s control. Most publishing houses will not spend much time or money to update these for authors that aren’t selling copies already. If it seems backwards, that’s because it is.
It’s easier for self-published authors to fix low book sales and ultimately figure out how to sell more than for traditionally published authors.
Self-published authors can greatly compound their income by repackaging existing books.
5. Self-managed merchandise
If a traditionally published author does end up selling enough books to warrant the publishing house creating merchandise, they don't get much say in what it is, the designs, or even how much they get to take home from those sales.
Technically, because you sold your book rights to the publishing house, they own the creatives related to it. You can’t just go and make sweatshirts with your book’s branding without the publisher’s consent, and you won’t often get it (you’ll need to draw up a new contract).
Self-published authors get to do whatever they want, once again. And they also get to keep all the profits.
6. Genre pivoting & writing to market
It’s highly unusual for traditionally published authors to write in a wide range of genres, which makes changing your genre very difficult. Most agents specialize in a certain genre and can have a harder time selling ones outside their specializations.
Many new authors are still discovering which genre is best for them to write in. It can take a few books to figure out where you can nail a story and bring in a readership. Self-published authors can pivot genre at will (though we recommend using unique Amazon author accounts for each—to please the algorithm gods, of course) in order to discover their strength.
This is also beneficial for self-published authors to write to the market. If Mafia Romance suddenly starts booming, a cozy mystery author can make a change and start writing and publishing those books quickly, earning the income based on a hot market. Traditional publishing isn’t cut out for writing to market because of the lengthy process to publish.
So to answer the question of whether or not self-published authors make more money: potentially. If you write quality books, know how to publish them correctly, and learn the basics of marketing, you have a much higher earning potential than if you’re an average traditionally published author.
Obviously, the Sabaa Tahirs, Stephen Kings, and Brandon Sandersons of the world are outliers who "made it" in the traditional publishing world. If you’re dedicated, are a strong writer, and want to pursue that path, you can make a lot more than self-published authors, but it might take a lot longer to get there.
The difference is educated self-publishing over a long period of time with multiple books.
But remember: selling a lot of books and growing an engaged fanbase as a self-published author can actually increase your chances of being published traditionally, like with previously self-published author $ Raven Kennedy$ who got a (big) publishing deal in the UK for her Plated Prisoner series and $ Andy Weir$ who wrote the book-turned-movie The Martian.
Publishing is a choose-your-own-adventure story, and you're never locked into one option. Don't be afraid to experiment and see what works for you!