Publishers Weekly posted an interesting article this morning, and it got me thinking. “E-book Sales Fell 10% in 2017,” it reported, noting that sales of ebooks (I’m going without the hyphen, fyi) in the adult fiction segment dropped 14% from 2016, to 108 million units. The article also notes that “Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said that more than 1,000 authors using Amazon’s KDP platform had royalties of over $100,000.”

Adult fiction is by far the most popular segment for ebooks. Ebooks also are an  especially popular format for self-published authors. And so all of this got me wondering: What does this mean for indie authors who self-publish their novels?

Well, let’s look at some facts and figures.

It sounds pretty exciting when you read that more than a thousand authors who use Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (i.e., one of its self-publishing platforms) are earning more than $100,000. Wow! That’s a lotta dough. $100,000 in royalties! Who wouldn’t like that?

But let’s get some perspective on this: Amazon accounts for more than half a million self-published authors, most of whom use KDP and some of whom use CreateSpace. That means that about 0.2% of Amazon’s self-published authors are earning six figures. So let’s not fool ourselves into believing that self-publishing an ebook is the route over the rainbow to the publishing pot o’ gold.

Of course, Amazon is but one self-publishing platform. And a lot of indie authors are finding those platforms. A lot a lot a lot. According to Bowker, “a total of 786,935 ISBNs were assigned to self-published titles in 2016; in 2011, that number was 247,210.” Bowker further reports that “for 2016 vs. 2015, the numbers indicate a continuing growth trend for print (+11%), though at a slower rate than a year ago (+34%). Ebooks show a slight decline in the number of title registrations (-3%)”

Couple this with the facts that the average book, whether self-published or published traditionally, sells about 2,000 to 3,000 copies over its lifetime and that the average self-published ebook sells about 250 copies during its first year (indeed, the figure is closer to about 200 copies considering that 162 million ebooks were sold last year and nearly 787,000 ISBNs were issued, although, of course, not all issued ISBNs result in books) and we’re looking at what some might consider to be—ahem–er–well–uh—challenging conditions for self-publishers and indie authors.

Add to the mix that fact that indie authors can easily wrack-up a helluva lot of expenses with their self-publishing ventures—i.e., the costs of editing, typesetting and formatting, cover design, marketing, sales and distribution, etc.—and self-publishing could easily turn into, well, an even bigger challenge.

So with ebook sales dwindling and self-publishing ISBNs mounting, is it worth it for indie authors to launch with ebooks?

Maybe not.

Self-publishing is not for everyone. There are all sorts of pros and cons, and we could get into that in another post that isn’t this post because that’s a big topic that deserves its own post. Some indie authors might possibly maybe make more money by self-publishing rather than publishing traditionally. Most indie authors usually get better royalty schedules, but whether their royalties will cover the costs, time, and resources associated with publishing themselves can be awholenother matter.

Money aside, if ebooks are the most popular format for indie authors, and if ebook sales are dwindling at a fairly sizeable pace, is it still a good idea to self-publish?

Maybe not.

Times they are a-changing—just like they always are. Two decades ago, everyone thought ebooks would destroy print books and take over the entire industry, like a giant Pac-Man book-eating blob devouring its way through the corridors of the Big Five. That didn’t happen. A decade ago, it looked like ebooks would at least make up the bulk of book sales. That hasn’t happened, either. In fact, today, as PW reported, ebooks account for only 19% of total book sales (i.e., both print and digital formats) in 2017, down from 21% in 2016. In contrast, sales of print books rose 1.9% in 2017, over 2016, also according to Publishers Weekly.

But print isn’t the only format that’s still hanging on. Indeed, today what we’re seeing is the resurgence of audiobooks, which were wildly popular in the 1990s (as cassettes and CDs). According to the Audiobook Publishers Association, “audiobooks are the fastest growing segment in the digital publishing industry.” Hitting more than $2.5 billion in sales last year, the industry saw year-over-year growth of nearly 34% in the number of audiobooks published.

Audiobooks are hot. Print books are still in demand. Ebooks, despite slipping in sales, remain popular. This means that indie authors have to think beyond ebooks and beyond print to a publishing strategy that incorporates multiple formats: print, digital, and audio. If indie authors want to reach their readers, they have to find them where they are—whether listening to audiobooks, whether reading on the digital device of their preference, whether reading an actual book with real pages and a front and back cover and everything.

What the decline in sales of ebooks means is that format is an important thing, but it’s not the only thing. Publishing in the right format for your audience always will be important. But it’s really difficult to predict which format will have the upper hand at any given moment in time. So even more important than format is content. The content has to be great or the format won’t matter.

This is true for all books in all formats in all genres, whether self-published or published traditionally or published through a hybrid format. But it strikes me as particularly important for indie authors who might not have behind them the wisdom or insight that authors who publish traditionally might have (of course, that’s debatable, and another post for another day, because I know there are countless authors out there who have published hybrid, self, and traditional and have all sorts of opinions about which way is best).

What the decline in sales of ebooks means is that perhaps the green light has changed to yellow and that indie authors should proceed with caution, carefully studying their readers’ preferences and choosing the best format for their particular title accordingly before simply publishing an ebook and expecting to reap six-figure royalties.

Traditional houses spend a lot of time and resources determining format, specs, price, title, internal design, cover design, sell copy, etc., etc., using their institutional knowledge and collective wisdom to ensure that they’ve got the right package for the right book in the right format. At a time when ebooks, the most popular format for indie authors, are facing some challenges, it is crucial that indie authors spend just as much time ensuring that the format they choose is right for their readers. Only then can they hope to compete with the hundreds of thousands of other titles fighting for the attention of readers who have their own preferences when it comes to format.

Because, in the end, it’s not about which format you prefer as an author, but which format your audience prefers as your readers.

April 26, 2018


“There’s nothing like a printed book; the weight, the woody scent, the feel, the look.”
—E.A. Bucchianeri

“Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food.”
—Douglas Adams










Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: