« Digital, Resources

The New Midlist: Self-published E-book Authors Who Earn a Living

Everyone knows the superstars of self-publishing, but many others are earning a living, selling foreign rights, and being courted by traditional publishers.

By Robin Sullivan

The author's husband, Michael J. Sullivan, self-published on Amazon and went on to sign a six-figure contract with Hachette.

There have been many articles about self-published superstars like Amanda Hocking, Joe Konrath, and John Locke. While these success stories are noteworthy, we should look at them for what they are — outliers in the self-publishing world just as Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer are outliers in the big-six publishing industry. Most authors can never hope to reach sales in the hundreds of thousands for a single month, but there are more than a few who sell anywhere from 800 to 20,000. While selling books at this level would seem extraordinary by traditional publishing standards, the mere fact that so many self published authors have achieved this goal (with more being added each month), indicates that it is not an unusual occurrence.

Not only are these new mid-listers selling a lot of books, but they are also receiving significantly more money from each sale (the industry standard is a 25% royalty of net sales for e-books under contract by a big-six publisher). If a self-published author sells their book for $2.99 – $9.99, then Amazon will pay 70% ($2.09 – $6.99). Compare this to the $1.22 per book income (which needs to be shared with an agent) for a $6.99 e-book sold through a publisher. High volume combined with good revenue is providing self-published e-book authors five and six figure yearly incomes allowing them to quit their “day jobs” and make a living by doing what they love most–writing.

The Tipping Point

I regularly give lectures on the different options for publishing and up until recently my main point about self-publishing was the unprecedented control it provided. Recently I’ve had to change my presentations to also acknowledge that if you wish to maximize income then self-publishing, if done well, could provide the best revenue potential. A year ago I was definitely not making that statement — but a watershed moment occurred in October/November 2010. It was at this time that sales of e-books from previously unknown authors skyrocketed.

To illustrate the dramatic rise in sales for these e-book mid-listers, let’s look at some real data that I’m intimately familiar with: Michael J. Sullivan. He is my husband and has five of six books of the Riyria Revelations published through my small press, Ridan Publishing. The release dates of them were: The Crown Conspiracy (Oct 2008), Avempartha (April 2009), Nyphron Rising (October 2009), The Emerald Storm (April 2010), and Wintertide (October 2010). In nine months, from January to September 2010, his income averaged just over $1,500 a month or around $10,700 in total (Amazon US Kindle sales only). Certainly not a wage we could live off of. After the tipping point occurred he earned more than $102,000 in just five months. For details on his monthly income see the following chart:

Michael J Sullivan Amazon Sales

If it hadn’t had been for Writer’s Café (a section of the Kindle Boards forums), I would have thought Michael’s sales increase had been just an isolated occurrence. But from postings there I found many authors who were experience the same rise. The following chart and graph shows the number of authors who sold books in various quantities (Data provided on Kindle Board):

Amazon author sales data

Amazon author sales over 800

Because authors on Kindle Boards were sharing sales figures and book prices, I was able to calculate March income for the following:

  • Michael J. Sullivan — $16,648
  • Ellen Fisher — $3,915
  • Siebel Hodge — $15,425
  • N. Gemini Sasson — $4,222
  • David McAfee — $6,085
  • David Dalglish — $12,132
  • Victorine Lieskie — $7,281
  • M. H. Sergent — $4,211
  • Nathan Lowell — $9,296

Of these authors, only Victorine Lieskie ever had a book that made the Amazon Top 100 Bestseller List. Most of the authors selling at a rate of 800+ books a month tend to have rankings from 300-6,000. (A ranking of 1001 indicates that 1,000 kindle books are selling better than yours).

You Can Sell Foreign Rights

Many detractors of self-publishing point out that by doing so you close the door to foreign sales and any chance of ever seeing your books on a bookstore shelf. Again, this was true in the past, but times have changed and now being successfully self-published actually opens the door to foreign sales and provides a better chance of being signed by a major publisher since you already have an established audience which is so important in publishing today.

Let’s return to Michael as he is an example that I have real data for. The Riyria Revelations produced $154,000 in foreign translation rights sales in just the last six months. Deals are already finalized for: The Czech Republic, Russia, Germany, France, Poland, and Spain. Active negotiations are ongoing for Holland and Italy. Once more, the Writer’s Café forum demonstrates that this has not been occurring just for Michael. The following are authors who have announced either signing a foreign deal, or being approached by an agent or publisher for foreign rights translations: David Dalglish, Shelley Stout, M.G. Scarsbrook, Tina Folsom, Melanie Nilles, Dawn McCullough White, Victorine Lieskie, Imogen Rose, Lucy Kevin, Margaret Lake, Terri Reid, and Beth Orsoff.

Commanding Larger Advances

As for seeing your books in the bookstores…it is true that most brick and mortar stores will not carry self-published printed books, however, major publishers are very interested in authors with an existing fan base. What’s more, they have to offer larger advances than those paid to debut authors in order to woo them. A self-published author already has a pretty good idea what they could make from the works if they continue to stay independent. For a debut fantasy author, several surveys indicate an advance of $5,000 – $10,000 is standard. So a three-book deal would warrant $15,000 – $30,000 advances. In comparison, Michael was offered a six-figure contract from Orbit (the fantasy imprint of Hachette Book Group). Other self-published authors who have recently been signed include: H.P. Mallory (six-figure advance from Random House), D.B. Henson (who was approached by agent Noah Lukeman -– that’s right she did not query him…he queried her) whose Deed to Death sold at auction, Stephanie McAfee’s Diary of a Mad Fat Girl, Jerry McGill’s Dear Marcus, R.J. Jagger, and a book by Quentin Schultze & Bethany Kim.

The publishing industry is certainly changing at the speed of light. There used to be only one choice if you wanted to make any decent money writing novels: spend months (or years) querying for an agent, waiting months (or years) while that agent shopped the project around, and then if accepted, waiting up to two years for the book to actually hit the store shelves. If your book wound up on the midlist (which by definition most did) then low volume and a small cut of the books total sales price made it financially impossible for authors to write full time as their sole source of income.

There was a time when self-publishing produced little to no revenue, and doing so was often the last resort for a project that had been rejected by everyone it had been put in front of. Now, in the post digital revolution, the model has been turned upside down. Authors are going to e-books first based on earning potential and a quick time to market. If they do well, then they leverage their sales for larger advances and favorable contract terms. Of course self publishing is not for everyone, but at least for those that decide to go this route, they won’t have to be that one in a million outlier—if they can achieve the e-book midlist status, they stand a good chance of telling their boss, “I quit, I’m going to stay home and write for a living.”

DISCUSS: Self-Published Books and Foreign Rights Deals

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  1. M. Chapman
    Posted February 22, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this advice. I myself am an aspiring young author who has started writing a Sci-Fi/Fantasy Novel and have so many great storylines and worlds I have developed, (All I need to do is physically write these books). I at first am definately going to self-publish the series I am currently working on (I have three unrelated series that I hope to produce). My original plan was to write these first set of books, get some experience, then get to work on my other series (which I have to say, is overall better, due to the countless months and years I spent dreaming up my perfect future, and the proper, emotionally-turning storyline), and send the manuscript to big names like Scholastic, which I have no doubt THAT series will stand a good chance of becoming popular. Being that I’m also a gifted artist I won’t even need to hire somebody to do the cover art, I can definately handle it. I predict my debut novel will be finished in two-three years, which is fine because I’ll be 18-19 by then and any legal issues that would exist now for me should be resolved. I plan to use Lulu.com to publish this first book, if of course I can’t have multiple sites publish it (I am getting the impression Lulu does not claim copyright of said author’s books it publishes, it just takes a cut. Though I doubt this is the case). Given this information, do you have any useful tips for a newbie like me?

  2. M. Chapman
    Posted February 22, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    @ James W. Lewis The Cover Art. I know it sounds stupid, but one of the most important parts of the novel is the cover art. The first thing that anybody usually sees is the cover, then the back description before buying a book, then maybe reviews. Get the first two right, and sometimes you can get away with selling a horrific novel. Still, as for the cover art, it should be eye-catching and very detailed if necessary, yet it should still find a way to be relevant in the book (i.e. a sacred item or something in which the book is based off of, or the protagonist and antagonist glaring at each other with said item in between). I’m personally going to go all-out with the cover, even if the story is not centered around only one said item. The description… all I have to say is don’t be afraid sugar-coat it a little, but don’t reveal too much (like Tunnels, where the authors basically gave away the first four chapters on the back! The authors was lucky the rest of the book was so good). This personally angers the reader, and if the first four chapters tend to be the most interesting part… well then the critics will tear you apart. Still, If you have an amazing cover, A description that effectively hooks you, and a moderately good story, you should at the very least achieve the Midlist. How do I know? Some of the most downloaded books are just ok.

  3. Philip
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this incredibly informative piece. Do you have the latest stats on self publishers? Like for 2011? I’m interested to see the growth pattern.

  4. John
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink


    The “200,000+ self-published ebooks sold” club:

    Barbara Freethy – over 2 million ebooks sold (April 2012)
    Amanda Hocking – 1,500,000 ebooks sold (December 2011)
    John Locke- more than 1,100,000 eBooks sold in five months
    Gemma Halliday – over 1 million self-published ebooks sold (March 2012)
    Michael Prescott – more than 800,000 self-published ebooks sold (Dec 2011)
    J.A. Konrath – more than 800,000 ebooks sold (April 2012)
    Bella Andre – more than 700,000 books sold (May 2012)
    Darcie Chan – 641,000 ebooks sold (May 2012)
    Chris Culver – over 550,000 (Dec 2011)
    Heather Killough-Walden – over 500,000 books sold (Dec 2011)
    Selena Kitt – “With half a million ebooks sold in 2011 alone”
    Stephen Leather – close to 500,000 books sold (Nov 2011)
    CJ Lyons – almost 500,000 ebooks sold (Dec 2011)
    J.R. Rain – more than 400,000 books sold (Sept 2011)
    Bob Mayer – 347 sold in Jan to over 400,000 total sold by year’s end (Dec 2011)
    Rick Murcer – over 400,000 ebooks in one year (May 2012)
    Tracey Garvis-Graves – 280,480 sold in the two months of April and May 2012
    Tina Folsom – over 300,000 books sold (October 2011)
    J Carson Black – more than 300,000 books sold (November 2011)
    Terri Reid – 300,000 sold (May 2012)
    Marie Force – 300,000+ sold (June 2012)
    Liliana Hart – “my total sales for one year have now exceed 300,000 books (June 2012)
    T.R. Ragan – 293,202 books sold (May 2012)
    B.V. Larson – over 250,000 books sold (Dec 2011)
    Kerry Wilkinson – more than 250,000 books sold (Feb 2012)
    M. R. Mathias – “I’m up to nearly 250k (in just two years) (June 2012)
    H.P. Mallory – more than 200,000 ebooks sold (July 2011)
    Scott Nicholson – Just guessing, I’d put my worldwide sales total between 200k-250k
    David Dalglish – more than 200,000 (May 2012)
    Antoinette Stockenberg – total sales stand at 216,686 (June 2012) – private email
    Cheryl Bolen – 200,000 sold (June 2012)
    Jennifer Ashley/Ashley Gardner – 200,000 sold mark in early June 2012 – private email
    Nick Spalding – “I’m lucky enough to be in the 200,000 + total sales club now (June 2012)”

  5. Jay
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    You mentioned about selling foreign rights & getting translations etc…how do we go about this? Would we need an agent if we ever get to such a stage, or are there online guides available to help with negotiating a good deal for us when we sell such rights?

  6. masonxhamilton
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    I’m in the process of developing what other industries would call the economic feasibility and risk/reward analysis study (something not readily available – if at all for self-publishing). I have done these professionally numerous times in other industries. I’m not close to completion of my research and frankly I’m already discouraged simply by the success/failure ratios comparing it to other business ventures. One of the most risky “typical” businesses are restaurants with over 50% failing in their first year. Pursuing a career as a successful self-published book author makes – the avg. restauranteur success odds look like a “slam dunk.”

    I am far enough along to tell you that looking at a particular authors sales (as above) is relatively meaningless without knowing how many books they have written prior to that, in order to know the readership base from which their current book sales are spring-boarding. For that matter the above sales records don’t even include how long the books have been for sale. While new Ebook readership is growing (mostly at the expense of traditional publishing), the self-publishing promotion industry isn’t going to tell new-bee self publishers that the number of regular readers is on the decline because of competition with other forms of pastimes. Consequently with literally millions of new titles each year, authors are dividing what over the long term is projected to be a shrinking market pie of regular readers – the ones that are the core of all publishing business.

    I can also tell you if you take the time to sort through Bowker’s near unnavigable publishing industry reports, you’ll see that the above “success story” authors represent a fraction of a fraction of one percent of the 2011 self-published authors – of which there were 1,185,445 self-published titles in 2011. Apparently, nearly everyone wants to write a book now, and good old American capitalism isn’t going to let them down. In the last few years a very aggressive self-publishing “support” industry has sprung up to feed off of would be and especially new-bee self-publishing authors. And of course near none will tell those authors that in only the rarest circumstances will a first book self-publishing author make enough money to come close to paying of typical professional service costs (proofing, editing – grammar, copy, flow, logic, and of course cover graphics).

    The marketing and advertising business has an expression for circumstances like this – “Farming the farmers.”- or writers in this case. It’s true writers have never had more opportunity to publish their passion than they have today, but it’s also equally true that most (99.9%) will end up disappointed rather than finding gainful employment – much less fame and fortune as an author.

  7. Posted December 6, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Just to answer the comment above from masonxhamilton: I agree that it’s not easy, but it can certainly be done. I write in a genre (romance) that does well in ebooks. I published the first three books in a series for the Kindle only, all together, three months ago. Was in solid “midlist” territory from Week 1, and yes, I’ve quit the day job. BUT I will say: (1) I have 20 years in the publishing industry; (2) I was a professional writer and editor (though not fiction); (3) I was a marketing professional; and (4) I write very fast. There’s no doubt that all those things helped me. You DO need to have a good product. (Not necessarily the very BEST product–have you looked at what is traditionally published? Believe me, it ain’t all great.) But if you do, and if you either know how to edit/market your work, or you get professional help to do those things, it can certainly be done. So far, so good, anyway!

    And thanks for a very informative article. Yes, it’s a minority of authors making a living at this. But it IS possible.

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    I’ve been making my living from my self-published books since 2010, and I couldn’t be happier. I may not be always on the best-seller lists (though my books do pop on from time to time) but I’m making a steady income and earning far more than I would if I were working a regular nine-to-five job.
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