Everyone’s Buying Books, and Everyone’s Writing Them, Too

How Self-Publishing Changes the Math

5 min readApr 27, 2024
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A recent blog post by Elle Griffin went kind of viral with an analysis of the US book publishing industry based on the voluminous public testimony published by Publishers Lunch about the DOJ’s successful antitrust case against Penguin Random House’s attempt to buy another book publishing company, Simon & Schuster.

One reason the post went viral was its title, “No one buys books.”

What the Business of Big Trade Book Publishing Companies is Really Like

Basically, Griffin highlights what book publishing industry insiders have long known, but what the trial made public: very few books published by the big publishing companies actually sell a lot of copies.

Here’s an excerpt that even many industry insiders may have found surprising, though:

The singer Billie Eilish, despite her 97 million Instagram followers and 6 million Twitter followers, sold only 64,000 copies within eight months of publishing her book. The singer Justin Timberlake sold only 100,000 copies in the three years after he published his book.

There are a lot more interesting numbers in the post, which anyone curious about the nature the book publishing industry should read.

And if you really want to know how bad things are for authors of conventionally-published trade books, just consider the fact that authors typically only take home a small fraction of the sticker price that you pay for their books.

For example, when you pay $20 for a book, it would be a pretty good contract that meant the author got even $2 from the sale. And that’s after waiting six months or longer to get paid.

But what we shouldn’t do is generalize from this very specific slice of the book world to draw conclusions about book publishing and reading in general.

The segment of big companies that pay already rich people big advances so they can cross their fingers and hopefully make a lot of money from unpredictable hit books (one of these companies is not called “Random House” by accident) just isn’t representative of the book world as a whole.

The Dark Matter of the Publishing Industry

I have a joke that the only industry reporting more wilfully obtuse than automobile industry reporting is book publishing industry reporting.

When I say “wilfully obtuse”, I’m not exaggerating or simply looking to insult anybody. It’s a serious issue that gets to the heart of our cultural self-understanding, and especially the nature of institutionalization.

Take this recent example from The Atlantic:

To understand why, you must understand publishing. Its core task is to connect writers to an audience. Publishers work as gatekeepers, filtering candidates and then amplifying the chosen ones.

SMH. If you want to “understand publishing” and the outrageousness of this “chosen ones” nonsense, just call up J. Jonah Jameson to your imagination, or maybe this publisher, if you’re a fan of real-life comic book characters.

The short explanation for the issue specifically at stake here is that basically, for largely unexamined ideological reasons, a lot of people desperately want the world of books to be limited to the manuscripts selected by a few publishing companies for publication.

So, when they look for numbers on the book industry, they limit their scope to the numbers they can find related to those companies, with respect to both the number of books sold, and authors’ remuneration.

But as I wrote years ago, that cuts out huge areas of book publishing, including, of course, self-publishing.

Books Can Make Money, Because Self-Publishing Completely Changes the Math

One feature of the hit-driven BigCo book publishing model is that publishing companies typically won’t publish manuscripts with very limited potential reach.

If you pitched a publishing company with a book idea for something you know a lot about, are passionate about, and want to write about, and they asked you what the target market was, and you said 20,000 people worldwide, they’d show you the door.

Indeed, if you considered the possibility that even if you could reach 25% of that entire audience, but you were only going to make $2 per $20 sale, you might show yourself the door on the project, too. $2 x 5,000 readers = $10,000, and would probably add up to about $10 per hour of work at most, if you wanted to look at it that way.

But with self-publishing, that math completely changes.

For example, at Leanpub we pay authors 80% royalties on every sale. If you could reach 5,000 of those readers at $20 per sale, you’d make $80,000 from the book — an amount that would make pretty much any book project financially worthwhile.

Now imagine your subject matter isn’t quite so niche, and there are millions of potential readers for your book. You’d only need to reach 6,250 of them to earn six figures from your book — the conventional benchmark people use for a financially successful book.

Everyone’s Buying Books, and Everyone’s Writing Them, Too

Sure, there’s a sense in which people aren’t buying a ton of big-ticket books from the big publishers, and most books they publish don’t sell many copies.

But just look into the world of self-publishing, and you’ll find people are buying tons of books that aren’t tracked by the big sales aggregators.

(And as many people pointed out on Hacker News, these numbers pretty much leave out library reading.)

Take platforms like Wattpad, where not only tons of people are reading books, but tons of people are writing them, too.

The world of books and reading is thriving like it never has before, because authors can finally make money even if they only reach a notionally limited number of readers — or they can just enjoy the fun of reaching hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of readers in some cases, by setting their book’s price to free, or writing fan fiction.

There are billions of readers out there, and they’re almost all reachable now through online platforms, with no P&L - sorry, “gatekeeper” - in the way.

None of that activity shows up in the big publishers’ numbers because that’s just not the business they’re in.

The fact is that you only need to reach a few thousand of these potential readers, or, as the numbers from Griffin’s post show, even a few hundred of them, to be a bigger success than most of the chosen ones who get picked up by a big publishing company hoping for a hit, and who get dropped like hot potatoes if their book doesn’t take off.

Len Epp, Leanpub Cofounder

April 26, 2024




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