Wait Until You Hear THIS! The Taleist Self-Publishing Survey


Well today’s the day: after sitting on my copy of the Taleist Self-Publishing Survey for the best part of a week, I can finally share some of the juiciest bits with you and we can all get on with the business of discussing them. Hooray!

The Taleist Self-Publishing Survey, if you don’t know, was conducted in February by Steven Lewis (of Taleist) and Dave Cornford, and asked more than 1,000 self-publishers (including me!) 61 questions related to their self-publishing experience. With such a sizable pool of respondents, this is the first time we can really get an accurate snapshot of what the self-publishing world is looking like in 2012—something that’s extremely difficult to do when most of us are inside our little self-pubbed bubbles, clueless as to how well (or not) our peers are doing, and why they’re doing so well if they are. As Steven and Dave say:

We designed the survey to answer what we saw as some of the most common questions self-publishers have. “How am I doing?” is probably the biggest of  these questions, but it’s not been an easy one to answer, as there is little information available about average sales and earnings. The majority of the information out there is about the outliers, whose success is inspiring, but as we can now confirm, bears scant resemblance to the experience of most authors. Our aim was to give authors outside the Kindle Million Club some data against which to benchmark themselves. 

You can read the survey results yourself by buying a copy, but here are some findings that I’ve personally found intriguing.

Who is self-publishing?

From the outside, I bet it seems that hordes of people are suddenly dropping everything to sit down and write something longer than an e-mail for the first time in their lives, in the hope that by uploading it to KDP on Monday morning, they’ll be upgrading their car by Friday afternoon. When I first self-published two years ago, there was definitely a large sub-section of the self-publishing world dedicated to doing just this—and for people like myself who had dreamed of nothing but publication their entire lives, we died a little bit inside every time we heard of another Get Rich Quick Self-Publisher who couldn’t name the last book they’d read. But as time’s gone by, I’ve been encountering fewer and fewer of these types of self-publishers—and the results of the Taleist survey suggest that the majority of self-publishers are serious about their writing. 40% of respondents said they’d been writing seriously for more than 10 years, while 60% said they’d been at it for more than 5 years. Only 1 in 10 said they’d been writing seriously for less than a year.

Is self-publishing what comes after rejection?

Here’s what’s interesting though: respondents who’d had their work rejected by traditional publishing and then opted to self-publish it were among the lowest earners. Conclusion: if traditional publishing said it was bad (as opposed to not good enough, no market, bad timing, etc.), it probably was, and self-publishing it didn’t make it any better. But here’s where it gets a tad confusing: self-publishers who went straight to publication without submitting their work to traditional publishers earned 2.5 times more than those who submitted it and got rejected. What does that mean? I’m not entirely sure. Maybe those self-publishers had been published before, or had got other feedback that led them to believe—to know—that their books were good. But surely there’s a few in there that would’ve been rejected had they been submitted, so does that mean that ignorance is bliss? (Please, say it ain’t so.) Or maybe it reflects what happens with the majority of a self-published author’s books. For example, I submitted Mousetrapped all over town, but I knew I was self-publishing Backpacked before I even started writing it. Now I have work that I intend to submit, and work I know I’ll self-publish. They’re not the same thing.

Rejection isn’t all bad though. 32% of the “Top Earners” (the respondents who said they could live off their royalties) tried and failed to get a traditional publishing deal before self-publishing, but now make a living from selling their work.

Click here for more Taleist Self-Publishing Survey videos.

Does spending money make money?

In a word, yes. This was the most interesting part of the survey results for me–and of course it’s confirmation of what I’ve been saying all along, which is that every self-publisher needs to hire professional help, especially in areas such as cover design and copyediting/proofreading. But now here is proof that in doing so, you not only help the self-publishing side as a whole, but you actually help yourself as well, because you’ll sell more books and so earn more money from them. Respondents who hired help for things like story-editing, copyediting and proofreading earned on average 13% more than those who didn’t. Hiring a professional cover designer earned them on average 18% more. But not all paid-for services equalled a significant crease in earnings. Self-publishers who hired professional e-book formatters (i.e. those who return a completed e-book in .mobi or .epub format, not a MS Word document) only saw average earnings of 1% more. This is great news for me, because hiring someone else to build my e-books–as opposed to fixing the MS Word documents myself and then uploading them to get automatically converted by KDP and Smashwords—is something I’ve so far refused to do.

The message seems to be getting through about the importance of cover design, with 41% of respondents paying for help in that area. (A shocking 49% did it themselves.) But proofreading—the bare minimum a book should get before publication—isn’t faring so well, with only 29% of self-publishers hiring someone to do it. What’s also interesting is that generally-speaking, more self-publishers were willing to pay for professional help on their next book, even if they hadn’t done so on their last. Maybe acidic Amazon customer reviews has something to do with that…?

How much money are self-publishers spending? To get their books to market, respondents said they had spent, on average, $685 on direct costs (which seems a bit low to me; I’d say you’d want a budget of $1,000, minimum). But 54% of authors had already recouped their costs and if sales continued at their present rate, 68% could be expected to be “in the black” within 12 months of publication.

How much money are they making? The average respondent said they were earning around $10,000 a year from self-publishing.

What are the most successful self-publishers doing differently?

Of 1,007 responses to the Taleist self-publishing survey, 97 self-publishers said they could live off their earnings. These became the survey’s “Top Earners” and the insights we have into what they do differently are utterly fascinating. I’ve picked two practical things they do that we can do too: spend more time writing, and make more of an effort to actively seek reviews.

This is the result that stopped me in my tracks: the average Top Earner spent 69% more time writing than the average author outside of the Top Earners group—2,047 words per day as opposed to 1,557 words. Now you might argue that (i) they can do that, because they’re already living off their earnings and (ii) with Top Earners generally having multiple titles, maybe they’re just cranking them out. But it ain’t so: Top Earners aren’t just writing more, they’re spending more time doing it. They write on average a third more words than their non-Top Earning counterparts, but they also spend an average of 24% more time on those words. 

What makes their books sell better than everyone else’s? Reviews, it seems. Top Earners had almost four times as many reviews for their most recent book than authors outside of the group, and those books were earning those Top Earners six times as much revenue—and these books had only been on the market for an average of six short months. (Jealous? Me too!) But it gets even better for the Top Earners as time goes on. Read this bit very carefully: for those who reported the figures for their second most recent book, the Top Earners still had about the same amount of reviews—about four times as many—but the revenue gap rose to fourteen times the income of other author’s second most recent books, which had been on the market for about 14 months.

The most effective single tactic, however, was the least used: submitting to popular reviewers on Amazon. Authors who used this strategy received 25% more reviews than average, and more importantly, 32% more revenue for their latest release. Clearly this is a successful strategy, but I’m not sure how I’d go about implementing it. How do you contact Amazon Top Reviewers? Wouldn’t cold-emailing them be considered spamming? What do you think?

Finally, the Top Earners group spent more time writing than they did marketing, and those in the group who spent the least time marketing were making the most money. This might be a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, as surely if you’re already selling oodles of books, you don’t need to spend as much time marketing. But overall, out of all respondents, those who spent the most time marketing earned the least. So clearly, spending more time writing better books is a fair better use of your time than trying to sell them.

The survey’s subtitle says it all: not a gold rush. The majority of self-publishers have been dreaming of publication long before the Kindle was a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’ eye, and don’t view this as a get-rich-quick scheme. The self-publishers who do best spend most of their time writing, and invest money in their self-published books. Seeking out Top Reviewers on Amazon is the most effective strategy for increasing your sales, but it’s the least popular method used by self-publishers. (If you’re an Amazon Top Reviewer, I’d recommend you brace yourself for an onslaught of new review requests over the next few days…) And it’s better, apparently, to skip submitting to agents and editors altogether—but if someone says no, you should listen to them.

All in all, a fascinating insight into the world of self-published authors—and that’s just a handful of findings I chose to highlight here. You can purchase the full survey in e-book. Visit Taleist for more information.

NB: Kindly spare me your thoughts on how all three members of your writing group loving your work is a greater achievement to you than earning money from your work. The only success this kind of survey can measure is financial.