“Can self-publishing be profitable?” is one of the most frequently Googled questions on the topic of book publishing, and we’re going to answer it for you. Yes. Yes is the answer. Self-publishing can definitely be profitable. If that was all you needed to hear before buckling down and finishing that book you’ve been meaning to write, great—see you in a bit. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a more elaborate answer, keep reading.
Self-publishing: deconstructing some misconceptions
Despite ever-increasing evidence to the contrary, self-publishing tends to be seen as a less-respectable route to becoming an author. Even when self-published authors produce bestsellers like Still Alice, The Martian, or The Tale of Peter Rabbit, these are treated as exceptions in an otherwise talent-less field. However, this perspective can easily be applied to traditional publishing as well. Bestsellers are generally the exception – otherwise, the term would be redundant.
For example, while every person on the planet has heard of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, we’re willing to wager that most of you probably haven’t heard of Red Sky at Night, Lovers’ Delight. Nevertheless, both of these books are published by Bloomsbury, a major publishing house. The fact of the matter is that there are far more Red Sky at Nights than there are Harry Potters, whether traditionally published or not.
Can traditional publishing be profitable?
Of course, we all know that traditional publishing can be profitable. Most people asking whether self-publishing can be profitable do so because they’re curious as to whether it could be a viable alternative to the traditional route. This begs the question: can traditional publishing be profitable?
At the end of the day, most traditionally published books don’t sell more than 2000 copies. In total. We’re talking long-term sales here. With the average price of a physical book in the UK hovering at around £7.50, and the average profit margin for authors being 10%-15% of the retail price, that doesn’t really amount to much. It’s still some nice pocket money, to be sure, but it means that even some career writers struggle to live off their craft.
Also, while the publishing house will take care of the annoying bits like editing and printing, they’ll probably still do the bare minimum when it comes to marketing, which is one of the key success factors for any book. So, in the end, you’ll need to sell far fewer self-published books to make the same money as you would through a traditional publisher.
Nevertheless, it’s important not to underestimate the legitimising effect of publishing the traditional way. If you can say that a major publishing house has published your book, people tend to be more inclined to give your book a try. If you can leverage this effectively enough in your marketing, you might be able to sell enough copies to convince your publisher to publish more of your books.
Can self-publishing be profitable?
As mentioned above, it’s vital that we establish a realistic interpretation of the word “profitable” when discussing this topic. If you’re looking to write the next Da Vinci Code and go live in a giant mojito on a Caribbean island, you might want to set your sights a tad lower. Or get into something like hedge fund management. Book-writing is not a get-rich-quick scheme. In fact, it’s a detrimental career choice for most people, as the Guardian article we linked above illustrates.
However, if you want to write books because it’s something you’re passionate about, and like the idea of that passion providing you with a decent revenue stream, then you’re in the right state of mind.
Many people who are skeptical of self-publishing will point to the fact that the overwhelming majority of (good) books have been published by a publishing house. But that’s a bit like someone in 2005 saying that the overwhelming majority of good serials were broadcast by a major TV network, back when Youtube and Netflix were in their infancy and Amazon Prime Video was just a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’ eye. Things are very different now.
Self-publishing writers have more power than ever
These days, you don’t need to buy a press and set it up in your living room to print the books your write, as Virginia Woolf did back in 1917. Neither do you need to pay some vanity press upfront to get your book printed. Digital reading and distribution technologies combined with print-on-demand have made it possible for writers to get their work published, sold, and into the hands of voracious readers with zero upfront investment. Needless to say, the less you have to invest, the fewer books you have to sell before you turn a profit.
Now – don’t get us wrong – self-publishing is still really hard. Unless you do some really good groundwork and make serious marketing efforts, you won’t be able to compete with even the most obscure traditionally published book. Even with profit margins over 50%. Not only do traditional publishers still have the infrastructure required to sell large volumes of books, but the self-publishing market is becoming more saturated by the day.
Nevertheless, it is entirely possible for you to make a profit selling your self-published books
3 key factors that determine profitability (that you can control)
As such, there are three things you need to make sure of in order to maximize the profitability of your book:
- First off, you should make your book look like it’s traditionally published. That means an aesthetically appealing cover (here are some tips from a professional cover designer) and a captivating blurb.
- Secondly, you’ll want to price your book strategically. We have an in-depth article on book pricing, but the short version is to make it cheap enough to attract genuine interest, but not so cheap that the book doesn’t look worth spending time on. You also want to make sure to maximize your profit margins with regard to the sales channels you plan on using.
- Develop a clear marketing plan for your book. Ideally, you should start promoting your book before it’s even published. Consult our introduction to book marketing for inspiration.
These are the three primary success factors that are within your power to control. We’re assuming that writing a good, technically sound manuscript is something that goes without saying.
How Much is Your Time Worth?
So you know the lay of the land. Now, one of the main things you need to consider when trying to figure out whether self-publishing can be profitable for you is how much your time is worth. What do we mean by this?
Well, you’ll be putting in a lot of work that traditionally published authors don’t have to bother with (once they’ve gotten a publishing contract at least). This includes editing, cover design, and marketing, as mentioned above. If it’s your first time attempting any of these things, it’s probably going to take some extra time. That’s time that could potentially have gone into something else. Assuming you have a day job, this could be a strong argument for outsourcing some of the labour involved in making your book.
Additionally, you ought to consider whether the time you invest in these activities will yield quality results and actually boost your sales. For example, while we firmly believe you don’t have to be an artist to make a solid book cover (our cover designer is built with that in mind), the fact remains that there are a lot of covers out there that do more harm than good. If you want to make book-writing a profitable hobby, consider your strengths and weaknesses and whether outsourcing some of the work involved is worth the increased quality of the final product, as well as the time you save in the process.
Having a professional editor or graphic designer work their magic on your draft can make a world of difference when it comes to sales. And since you don’t have to pay printing costs in advance, or hire an agent to pitch your manuscript to publishers, paying a one-time fee for design and/or editorial services is usually affordable. However, this isn’t the case for everyone of course.
Should you choose to invest money in the creation of your book, you will of course have to actually sell a few copies before you turn a profit. Luckily, you can use our price calculator to determine how many copies of your book you’ll need to sell to do so. That way, you can easily weigh the pros and cons of hiring professional help. We suggest making a clear plan for what/if you’re willing to spend on your book, how much it will affect the sales price, and how many copies you will need to sell to break even. This will give you clear objectives on which to base your sales and marketing strategies.
Even if you decide to hire a professional to help with your book your profit margins will be much higher than they would be with a traditional publisher. You’ll still have to work harder for each book sale, but on the other hand, you’ll need roughly half as many to make an equivalent amount of money. It’s all about what kind of trade-offs you’re willing to make. Will you invest in professional design and/or editing services to make your book more attractive to readers? Is the time you save on doing so worth the cost? Maybe you even want to put some money into advertising? The freedom and control you have can seem overwhelming, so having a plan is crucial if you want to make your writing profitable.
In short, setting clear goals for what you want to achieve with your book is important. In so doing, you can make a realistic evaluation of whether you have the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve those goals. We can’t stress the importance of being realistic enough. Don’t compromise on the quality of your book unless you really have to. But also, don’t sell yourself short. You’re fully capable of creating a great book cover if you put some time and effort into understanding basic design principles for example.
Similarly, you shouldn’t discount the value of having friends and family proofread your work. Even if they aren’t professional editors, they will catch errors and sloppy writing simply due to reading your book with fresh eyes. These are just two ways you can squeeze more quality out of your book without spending anything except time.
While we could throw motivational cliches at you all day, sometimes you just want cold, hard numbers. We get it, no problem: we’ve got numbers for days.
Let’s look at an example:
This is our default book format: a medium-size paperback in B/W. We decided that this particular book would have 200 pages in it because that seemed like a reasonable amount for the average novel.
Once you’ve decided on a format, you can decide how much you want to sell your book for. For this example, we chose £9.99; a fairly normal price point for fiction books. As you can see in the screenshot above, this would net you £2.90 per sold book in our own store, and £1.63 via Amazon. Using this tool, you can easily get an accurate idea of how many books you need to sell to make it worth your while. Similarly, if you were thinking of hiring professional help, you can figure out how many copies you need to sell to break even.
If you just want to publish your book and make a bit of money doing it, that’s all well and good. You probably won’t need to use the price calculator more than once. If, however, you want to seriously commit to making your writing a decent revenue stream, then use this tool to make a plan. Explore different pricing and sales options to find what aligns best with your goals.
For example: how many books do you need to sell every month in order to make the kind of money you want to make? What do you need to do to reach these numbers? Do you want to rely more on Amazon’s reach, or the profitability of the Mybestseller store? Will a professionally designed cover increase the number of books sold, or can you achieve a similar result with a cover you’ve designed yourself? Should you invest in ads to get the word out? If so, how many more copies will you need to sell to make up for advertising costs? These are the kinds of questions you should ask yourself when getting serious about writing books.
To Sum Up
So, can self-publishing be profitable? To answer the original question a second time: yes, self-publishing can indeed be profitable. If you’ve made it this far into the article, you should also have a pretty good idea of what you can do to increase the chances of that happening. This includes the following:
- Make sure your book looks professional. This includes having a well-structured manuscript, a professional-looking cover (you can learn how to use our cover designer or Canva to achieve this), and a well-written blurb.
- Price your book strategically – not too cheap, not too pricey! Consult our pricing guide for some tips.
- Start marketing your book early. Our beginner’s guide to book marketing is a good introduction if you’re not sure where to start.
- Consider what your financial goals are. At what point do you reach profitability? Will hiring professional help be beneficial for you in this regard? If so, how will it affect the aforementioned financial goals? Consult our price calculator to explore your options.
By making these efforts and thinking strategically about your writing project, self-publishing your book can absolutely be profitable, and a solid alternative to the traditional approach. Be sure to make use of all the great tools and information we’ve collected for you on this site when embarking on your self-publishing journey. For example, if this article hasn’t convinced you that self-publishing is a viable option, start by checking out our list of successful self-published authors to get some inspiration!