Can Writers Realistically Make a Profit Self-Publishing?

Occasionally I get this question, “Did you ever consider self-publishing?”

And I have to honestly say that no, I never gave it a thought. Not only have I always had the goal of traditional publication, but when I first started querying I was naïve about the self-publishing process. I knew absolutely nothing about it, and therefore wouldn’t have known where to start even if I’d wanted to pursue it.

Most non-traditional publication gets labeled “self-publication.” Perhaps in one sense, when we choose to publish (versus having a publisher choose us), then we are self-publishing. We, ourselves, are taking the initiative and making it happen, rather than waiting for someone to give us permission.

For clarity’s sake, however, let’s define a few of the major publication options (this list is NOT all inclusive and there is overlap):

Traditional publication: A company pays an author to publish a book through advances and royalties. The publisher invests in the editing, marketing, and promotion of the book. These types of houses are usually closed to unsolicited manuscripts and require an author to work through an agent.

Small press: They're similar to traditional companies, but operate on a smaller scale and budget. Advances and royalties may be less. Like larger houses, they make their profits by selling books to consumers, rather than selling services to authors.

Subsidy press: The author must pay a fee to print a book under the company’s imprint. The company often offers paid services for cover art, editing, warehousing, and perhaps some degree of marketing. The books are owned and stored by the publisher, and the author receives a portion of sales in the form of royalties.

Self-publishing: The author takes the entire cost and burden of publication upon themselves. The author is the publisher. Other than using a printer, the author works independently to design, edit, store, and sell the book. All sales proceeds belong to the author.

I’ve known several people who’ve self-published in the truest sense. They have no company name on their books, no extra costs except the price of printing the books, and they had no help—except what they sought. Two of my family members published books this way—mainly for family and friends.

I’m also acquainted with authors who’ve used subsidy presses. A long time friend, Rebekah Freelan, used WestBow Press, a fairly new division of Thomas Nelson Publishers. WestBow describes themselves as “self-publishing company” (although they more closely resemble the description of subsidy press used above).

Rebekah used Westbow to print an Advent devotional: His Advent Still His Greatest Gift. I recently asked her about the pro’s and con’s of her experience, and here’s what she said:

Pro’s of Using WestBow:

• Being able to publish without having to secure an agent or a publisher.
• WestBow has affordable packages (Rebekah used the cheapest package and paid an upfront $700 fee, which included a 20% discount special at the time she initiated the process.)
• She liked the amount of input she had over design and content, and thought the staff was very proactive in helping her.
• She’s purchased a total of 750 books, and has sold enough copies to pay for the cost of buying those books as well as pay for her initial investment of $700.

Con’s of Using WestBow:

• Lack of promotion (if she’d paid more, they would have helped more). She said it’s been a struggle for her to promote the book because marketing isn’t something she’s good at.
• Lack of guidance in the business aspect of the process of publication.
• Hasn’t earned enough money to begin seeing a profit yet. She said she could make up to $3000 if she sells all her books.

In summary, Rebekah said this: “Would I try it again? I would. I would still like to try to publish traditionally but I had a good experience and would do this again. Some of my upcoming projects would go much more smoothly if I had the assistance of a traditional publisher, though, admittedly.”

I have another friend who’s used a subsidy press for her delightful children’s book. And she too struggles with the time and effort it takes to promote her book. She has to work hard for every sale she makes.

The more I learn about subsidy and self-publishing, the more I realize that writers need to carefully consider the financial aspect and ask themselves: Do I care about making money from the venture?

It’s already hard enough for most traditionally published authors to make a profit from publication—even with the backing of a publisher’s marketing and publicity departments. So, without any help (or with very little), a subsidy or self-published author must be realistically prepared for an uphill battle. They’ll have to make peace with making little to no money, as well as the possibility of actually losing money.

Recently, Eric at Pimp My Novel asked his readers to weigh in with self-publishing success stories. Interestingly, none of the writers reported making more than a couple hundred dollars. Granted, success isn’t always measured in dollars. But I think most of us, if we’re completely honest, would like to eventually see some financial compensation for the hours, weeks, and months we put into our books.

What do you think? If you’ve self-published or used a subsidy press, how hard or easy has it been to make a profit? And if you’re going the traditional route, did the possibility of making a profit play a role in that decision?

The winners of The Preacher's Bride Christmas giveaway are: Lily Robinson & Tina Toler. Congratulations! Thanks to all who entered! I loved the enthusiasm of everyone!


  1. My best friend has been really successful going the self-published route. She started with a great platform, her parenting blog, Steady Mom, and from that launched her book.

    Check Jamie out! I'm really proud of her.

  2. When my book gets released by a traditional publisher i still plan to market it as actively as if it were self pubbed because they have a point there.
    If I self pub I will make sure I have a fan base first ie a gathering of people who liked my traditionally pubbed books and will trust me enough to buy my self pubbed book.

  3. I think if a blogger has like a 1,000 followers it's a more viable option for sure. I think with like books being seen on Amazon, esp the cheaper Kindle versions - self publishing isn't as expensive as it used to be when writers had to pay out of pocket for boxes and boxes of books.

    My dream like yours is to go the traditional route. It will be interesting to see how that changes over the next ten years.

  4. I think the only way I would consider self-publishing would be if I had deep intense passion for the subject matter I wanted to publish and a platform that promoted that subject matter. I don't really have an interest for self-publishing a fiction novel.

  5. Fascinating post. Lots of good information here. It's not the road for me. But I like learning more about it.

    Merry Christmas!
    ~ Wendy

  6. I never considered self-publishing. My goal was always to publish a novel with a traditional publisher. I think there are some special circumstances (particularly in nonfiction) where it might makes sense to self publish.

  7. And traditional publishing provides me with wonderful editors who catch my typos - like the one in my comment above. :) Oops!

  8. I know of one notable self-publishing success story. Harvest House editor Nick Harrison saw how well Linore Rose Burkard's self-published inspirational Regency romance, Before the Season Ends, was doing, contacted her, and ended up contracting that book and two others.

    Linore's experience is unusual. I've heard most self-published books don't sell many copies and that those low sales figures can work against an author if s/he attempts to publish a book through traditional channels later.

    I haven't considered the self-publishing route. I worked for a publishing company as an assistant editor years ago and saw firsthand how much work goes into getting a book printed, distributed, advertised, etc. I don't have the time or money to be my own publisher.

  9. It IS hard to make a profit as a self-pubbed author, but not impossible. I chose to self-publish my first book and went on to publish 3 more, plus books by other authors. Making a profit, however, was the farthest thing from my mind when I first made the decision. It was the challenge of actually publishing a book that excited me. But I did make a profit. I sold thousands of copies of that first book because I promoted it. I didn't sell as many of the others because I didn't promote them as much. Self-publishing also led to writing assignments with educational publishers, which was VERY profitable. It also led to paid school visits which, again, was profitable. And it led to freelance editing and typesetting jobs. So, yes, you can make a profit self-publishing, whether directly from book sales or indirectly from other opportunities.

    I don't promote my books as much these days, but that first book is still selling almost 9 years after having made that decision to publish it myself.

    However, I am now choosing the route of traditional publishing for various reasons: to get reviews from major reviewers, to get more exposure, to hopefully have the major powers-that-be stand behind my writing, and to hopefully not have to work so hard on the business side of writing. But I do have friends who are traditionally published, and I've noticed that they pretty much have to work as hard as I do on promotion. But at least I'll know HOW to promote my book when I do end up in the land of traditional publishing.

  10. I went the subsidy press route and have had a very positive experience. I started making a profit after I sold my 500th book.

    My novel, Salvaged, is a YA Christian novel. It got noticed by several YA bloggers, got wonderful reviews and was made available on the shelves at Mardel Christian Book Stores. I also just found out that I am a finalist (1 of 15) in the Goodreads Choice Awards in the Debut Author of 2010 category. While I realize the chance of winning the award is extremely small, I see it as a victory in and of itself. Not just because of the type of publishing company I chose, but because it is a Christian novel.

    My second novel, the sequel of the first, is due out in the spring (through the same publisher) and I just finished up my third novel.

    There is no doubt that if you go through a subsidy press you have to fight an uphill battle in getting your book to the masses. There isn't much marketing help. But, I don't mind doing the work myself and I don't mind if it takes time for my readership to grow. Going this route allows me time to build an audience. My publisher will print the books for as many years as I choose to get out there and try to sell them.

    One day I may look back and wish I'd done things differently. Or maybe wonder, "what if", but as of right now, I'm too busy to rethink my decision. I'm just hanging on for the ride. ;-)

    Good luck everyone and have a very Merry Christmas!

  11. I took a hard look at traditional publishing and decided that the costs of the traditional route did not offset the benefits.

    In 2009, I set out to self publish, primarily to satisfy an existing audiobook fanbase of about 10,000 people. Technically, the audiobooks were self-published in that I underwrote the entire development, production, and distribution effort out of my pocket. (That effort, spanning almost four years so far, has always turned a profit, although not enough to pay my mortgage.)

    On the road to self-pub, I was discovered by a small press and invited to submit my work there. The first book came out in May and we have an agreement to publish ten of my novels between now and 2005. I suspect we'll do more because I enjoy working with them and my books are setting sales records for them.

    Turning a profit in self-pub is relatively easy IF you have a platform.

    The barriers to entry are small ... a couple of hundred dollars will get you an ISBN number, a web host, and cover associated costs. After that, profit depends on sinking those minimum costs. Cover art is pretty cheap. Editing services are rather expensive if you are realistic about your sales numbers. Social media can help you a lot if you do it right. (Most writers don't, but that's another story.)

    If all you do is write a book, toss it into Create Space, and wait to be famous... That's a tougher call.

    One last word a la Mrs Robinson... not "Plastics" but "eBook." If you're still flogging paper and hoping to get into a brick-and-mortar? If you're not publishing in ebook? You're missing the market.

    That's my $.02.

  12. I think success will come back to the platform that has been established, the experience of the writer (in sales and marketing), connections in the industry, and the subject of the book.

    Other than that - self-publishing is a breeze. :D

  13. GREAT comments this morning, everyone!! I'm really enjoying hearing some of your success stories! Thank you so much for sharing!

  14. The line I was given, whether self-published or traditionally published, was "you will never get rich doing children's books". That was never my goal, so I am not disappointed and I am not opposed to either means of publication.

    Self-publishing, for me, was about believing in myself. My entire life I have written and tucked the work away in a drawer, never taking a risk and never believing. This was stepping out of the box, taking a chance, and advancing on a learning curve that I will never regret.

    Now, when I read to children, I am the biggest believer in the world. I won't give up my day job, but I will continue to write and to improve myself, as well as presenting only quality work when I do present something to the world.

    There is good and bad with everything. For me there is definitely more good that has come out of my experience over the past few years.

  15. Thanks for an informative post, Jody! As you know, I've self-published one novella and now I'm with a small publisher. I will never regret my decision to self-publish. It has give me confidence, a good name out there, and publishing contracts. My publisher doesn't mind if I still want to self-publish other books, but the amount of work which goes into it is too much for me at the moment.

    Indie authors CAN and DO make a living of their books, but it can take a long time to get to that point, just like any business.

  16. Michelle beat me to it, but I'll reiterate just because it bears repeating - self-publishing is *not* a get-rich-quick scheme. Just like with a traditional house, most authors need to develop a backlist before the real money starts coming my one self-pub novella isn't going to bring in any large chunks of cash just yet. I do know several self-published authors who are making a living from their work though, and as long as you treat it like a business and put out a professional-quality product, I believe you can make a comfortable living self-publishing.

    It's not for everyone, but I enjoy the business side of things, and I have no plans to pursue traditional publication at this point. I have a great cover artist, wonderful detailed editors, and I have a plan that involves publishing at least three novels next year (self-pub is much faster than traditional pub, in that it goes as fast as you can get books written/edited). Check back with me in five years - that's when I plan to be able to quit my day job, current projections being what they are. :-)

  17. Jody..I have no experience with anything other than traditional publishing.That's the route I took.

    Your post is very informative: thanks for alerting me to the different kinds of publishing.

    I feel self published authors have to work double as much as us( the traditional published ones). They have to look after each and every aspect: from editing, cover design, printing, marketing, getting them reviewed to selling them. I have only admiration for their determination.

  18. I think if I was going to self-publish I'd just offer it in e-book format to the people I wanted to send it to and save the $$ :)

  19. Your posts always generate such great comments, Jody. I always feel like I've really learned something when I leave your blog. Thanks! :-)

  20. I have a number of online friends who have successfully self-published, not because it was their first choice but because getting an agent was too difficult. I don't know that any of them have made money, but they sound satisfied with what they've accomplished.

    My intent is to go the traditional route. I ran my own business for enough years that I'd rather let someone else be responsible for the decision-making now. I expect to do lots of marketing, of course, but my abilities are as a writer, not a publisher.

  21. Subsidy/self-publishing has its place: 1) niche books that traditional publishers won't look at, IF the author has a significant speaking or on-line presence. 2) memoir-type books when the author only wants them for family & friends. Also I have a talented poet friend who published her poetry books for family and friends. There is no market for poetry.

    For traditional fiction, nothing beats the production, distribution, and marketing of a traditional publisher. My husband's uncle subsidy-published several novels - and sold only about two hundred copies of each - all to friends and acquaintances. He couldn't get them in bookstores - even in the bookstore in his own small town where everyone knows him.

    Yes, it takes long, rejection-filled, learning-filled years, but it's worth it to aim for tradtional houses.

  22. I've been told twice that my only chance at publishing my non-fiction manuscript was self-publishing. I've yet to want to take that route.

  23. I've come to realise that you have to get good at marketing yourself.
    But even more so when you self pubish... I'm hoping to go the traditional route

  24. I've published a print-on-demand book, Junction 2020, via Amazon's Create Space, and have not worried about making a profit (but I think it's easier to do so with POD than with some forms of self-pubbing). All I wanted with this book is to share it with more people than I would have if I'd shelved the book. And that's happening! Rah!

  25. I've self-published a small booklet for homeschool parents. The profit is minimal, but I've not gone to extensive lengths to market it, either. But I've been choosing my projects, so that has fallen farther down my to-do list. I've thought about making it available as an ebook, too.

    I do know authors who have self published; they are happy with that route. As for profits, it varies, but none of them have homes on the Riveria either. That I know of, anyway! :)


  26. Hi Jody -

    I know several people who self-published and experienced frustration with the marketing. A large speaking platform helps, but how many authors have that kind of influence?

    Susan :)

  27. A friend of a friend went into serious debt self-publishing her book. I'd be nervous about that!

  28. I haven't really given the self-publishing route much thought, but I do applaud those who don't give up on themselves and proceed with self-publishing.

  29. Jodi

    I went with a small press and I'm ecstatic...Although I have a long term attitude toward it. I'm working on a piece for my blog about my experience. I can share it with you if you like when I'm done.


  30. I believe that selfpublishing will become easier in a decade when most people will use digital device to read their books.
    The costs will be much lower. But also we will have writers who are lacking, and it will be harder to choose between good book or bad.

  31. @anonymous - I think choosing among ebook offerings will be relatively straightforward. Get the sample chapter. If you like it, buy the book. If you don't (or if there's no sample), move on.

    The costs are slightly lower for ebooks than paper, but realistically? It costs about $100US to do both and the incremental work required to do both is relatively minor. At the $2.99 price point, the break even point is about 50 copies.

  32. Interesting article for sure! I am considering the road of self-publishing, but when I think long and hard about it, I always come to the "conclusion" that I have already invested a lot of myself and my time in my writing. If the result of my work is to be distributed it's only fair that a "real" publisher takes over that part of the process. But then again, who knows what I'll do once my novel is finished. A company such as does sound professional and tempting to try out.
    The thing is that if you want to publish traditionally you definitely need an agent, and finding a good one is probably harder than finding a small press that is willing to take a chance on you.

  33. I've had two poetry chapbooks published. The first I published myself, paid a printer to print it, did all the publicity and distribution myself. Within 18 months I'd raised £200 or so for charity. The more recent book was published by a local publisher, sales have gone well apparently, but I still (after about 9 months) haven't recouped the money i spent on buyimg copies (at a reduced rate) to sell myself at events etc.

  34. I was looking for something like this.. really a nice and interesting post..

    Some information about China Bücher


© All the articles in this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without prior written consent from the author. You may quote without permission if you give proper credit and links. Thank you!