The economics of self-publishing

As a subject, I hate economics. Now, to be clear, the reason I hate economics is because I have studied it. A little under ten years ago, at the age of forty, I made the decision to do a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics with the Open University. In hindsight a PPE was perhaps not the best choice of degrees for me to. My personal brand of optimistic cynicism doesn’t sit well when asked to accept some basic tenants of economics, such as the abstraction of the human element, or that growth is always good and people always want more things. My opinion is that these basic assumptions are wrong. An opinion not shared by economists.

But putting all that on one side, it has equipped me to understand the basic economics of self publishing, and some of the problems with the self-publishing industry. Problems which are exasperated by talented creative folks, who by there nature tend to be a little wide eyed, effused and have expectations that don’t always meet reality. I should mention I was as guilty of all that as anyone when I first started my journey into self-publishing a few years ago. Hindsight is ever mans undoing…

Here though are some thoughts on the subject, which while by no means complete, give an over view of what a few years in the industry has taught me.

Supply vs Demand

The self-publishing boom has opened doors to so many writers. Everyone who writes is able to put their work out there, find an audience, and dream of success.

The down side to this is everyone who writes is able to put their work out there, ‘find an audience’ and dream of success…

Something in the region of three hundred and fifty thousand books, and a million eBooks are published each year (and that is just in English) That is not a figure I’ve just plucked out of the air. These are industry figures. In very simple terms the market is flooded, and your book is a raindrop in a thunderstorm. Supply has quite simply out stripped demand, and so by the most basic law of economics, the price per unit has been driven into the ground.

No Premium for Art

While it would be nice to think that the cream rises to the top, and the best books stand out from the crowd, the simple truth is that this is not the case. No one knows how good a book is until they read it. It could be that you are a modern day Shakespeare, Bronte or Mary Shelly… You novel could be the best book that no one has ever read, but until someone reads it that is all it will be, and even after you grab that elusive reader who is not a friend or family member, you still have to find the next.

Art, the artist always feels, should command a premium. Instead in a clime of over-saturation, it commands no more premium than a tin of beans on a supermarket shelf next to a dozen other brands of beans.

The simple truth is selling books and selling tins of beans is much the same, except no one gives away tins of beans for nothing…

Piracy is not the Problem

To be clear here, I have huge problems with movie and book piracy. But piracy is not much of a problem for the self-published, because no one is pirating your book…

Piracy is the Problem

The flip side of that argument is piracy is a genuine problem for major publishing houses and established mainstream writers. There are a hundred ways to down load the latest Neil Gaiman or James Patterson for free (though why you would want to read the latter escapes me). The problem with this is that a significant segment of the audience for books has gotten used to getting books for free. Why then when, they don’t pay for big name authors as they can ‘acquire’ those books for free, would they consider paying to read yours? In the end this just drives the asking price for indie books further down.

Free Books…

Imagine, if you will, that your standing behind a market stall selling loafs of bread. You’re selling something people want, at a reasonable price. The guy at the next stall might be selling loafs of bread too, but if the prices are around the same, your still going to sell some bread. Then he starts giving his bread away…

A lot of self-publish authors are doing just that. Chasing the dream of success they try and build a following by giving some of their books away. Which is not an entirely bad idea for them as individuals, but is terrible for the market place. But the free book promotion is as saturated as anywhere else in the market and readers collect free books by the dozen and often don’t get around to reading them all.

It’s possible as a reader to never pay for a book in this day and age. Between free book promotions and the always for free market, a reader could read a new book every day of the year and never pay for any of them. And that is without them using pirate sites.

The Free Book Marketing Strategy

The problem with the free book marketing strategy is this. It doesn’t work unless the only book you give away is the first book in a series , or a novella of some kind that ties into other books. Even then its worth is debatable unless you have several other books that follow on from it. If you have one book and you give it away free you will drive it up the charts for a few days and as soon as the promotion ends it will drop back down. Worse you will have drained a large pool of your potential market for no return.

Often writers do this to get reviews, gambling that if you run a promotion that gives away say a hundred books , you might get one in ten of those readers leaving a review and reviews on amazon and else where lead to more sales in the long run. but, simply put, people who get a book for nothing often place exactly that much value on it. Free book readers are less likely to leave you a review than ones who have bought a copy (again this is not me say this but industry figures)

Where this leaves us

Frankly, most self-published writers often find themselves, for want of a better term, pissing into the wind. Selling books is harder, much harder, than writing books. For every hour you spend carefully crafting your grand opus, you cold spend ten trying to get readers interested in it and still get no where much.

Ultimately the best way to sell books is to get out there among your readership, either on line or in person. That and paid advertising, which has its own pitfalls… I’ve done better with sales in the last year than ever before but for every pound spent I am lucky if I have made a pound in return.

Don’t let this dissuade you. It doesn’t dissuade me. I know that the chances of quitting the day job any time soon are limited, but then I don’t write to make money, for me it really is art, not tins of beans. I cheer every sale as every new readers a boon, and maybe one day I will get some real momentum, if I find enough readers and they care enough to want to read the next book, and the next, but I doubt I’ll ever earn enough to quit the day job even then.

But if on the other hand you want to get into self-publishing just for the money, then please reconsider, go sell tins of beans or something, economically speaking we would all be better off that way.  Because there will be another million books next year, and the year after that , and the year after that… That’s simply the economics of it…


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4 Responses to The economics of self-publishing

  1. Name, address and shoe size (11) available on request says:

    Wow, I made $7200 ( 3d in old money) in one day! Don’t believe it? Then my name’s not Aardvark Finkeldink Saltholme. Act now and receive my free ebook “Sell beans not art”. By the end of month you could be driving a shiny new Zeppelin and/or hurling miscreants from that erstwhile balloon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • darrack1 says:

      call me suspicious, but I think that’s not your name…


      • Name, address and shoe size (11) correctly identified by the Author says:

        Dear Suspicious, you may be correct. An illuminating and thoughtful article. The value of art and creative content generally is doomed by these accessible platforms. That said Art and Creation has value beyond coin. Providing you have a good stock of beans that is.


  2. Hetty Crane says:

    Enjoyed your blog. These economic facts are of course, faintly depressing, but only faintly since I have been aware of these facts for some time. As they say, misery loves company so I will keep reading your blog. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

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