A Theory on Self-Publishing Success

Here I am, wondering, as one does, just what it would take to make a living from writing novels, from self-published novels, and whether it is a goal I could possibly attain. The odds are bad, we all know that. And it’s premature, seeing as how I’m still struggling to get a decent draft of first book completed. But, you know, I like to dream, and I love to analyse, so here goes.

Oh, hang on, here’s the caveat: this analysis is based on no actual data whatsoever. Don’t believe it, don’t trust it, this is no prescription. What I’m trying to do is only this: to illustrate for myself (and anyone else who’s interested) how I think it might work. This is the contents of my head, transferred to the screen. Don’t stress on the numbers, consider it art.

So, here’s the secret to my imaginary success, and it’s oh so boring:

  1. Quality of product
  2. New product launches
  3. Marketing

And, without going into the detail of the modelling, here’s how these imaginary factors affect imaginary sales:

  1. Quality of product

Thinking wishfully, my books would be so knock-your-socks-off fantastic that every ten readers would generate a new reader through word-of-mouth. For such a book series, success is almost guaranteed. See my snowball factor at work in this wonderful, swooping, exponential curve:


But let’s not obsess on that. This is a self-published book we’re talking about – not good enough to land a publishing deal, and rather lacking in editorial input and development. What are the odds of a one-man back-yard electronics start-up developing the next breakthrough smartphone? It’s not going to happen.

What if the book is, let’s say quirky and misunderstood, and only one in a hundred readers generates a new reader. Then we get this:


See those spikes? Each of those is a new book launch, but even with four books published, we’re going nowhere. Time for a re-think of our life plan.

But let’s not dwell on that, either, let’s pretend this couldn’t happen to us, that our books are at least going to be mediocre. And why not? That sounds perfectly achievable.

Here’s where the surprise comes in. The numbers are telling me that even with a pretty ordinary kind of book, one in which you have to reach twenty readers just to pick up another one, it might be possible to make a few bucks.

  1. New Product Launches

The important thing is to have a whole series of books, ready to launch, one after another. Quantity counts. Here’s what I get with the second book launch six months after the first, and another book every year (ignoring the odd dip where I couldn’t be bothered refining things):


No way am I going to make any money on the first book. In fact, if you look at the figures and ignore the scales, the number of sales of my first mediocre book is the same as those of my first misunderstood book. Virtually exactly the same.

It makes me wonder if this is where people come unstuck. Maybe they self-publish a book, get no interest in it, think it’s a disaster and give up? Whereas really, there’s this beautiful compounding effect going on. With three years of perseverance and four mediocre books under our belt, we could be earning enough to pay the rent, at least.

Being only mediocre, we do need to keep going, churning out book after book, year after year, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We get to do what we love, for a living.

Time is a critical factor here. Suppose you only publish a book every 2 years. Here’s what you get (data courtesy of my entirely hypothetical model):


Within the same three-year period, you’ve got half as many books published, and only a quarter the monthly sales. It might take six years before you can give up your day job. Conclusion: we’ve just got to keep the books coming, one after another.

And there’s one more thing to consider:

  1. Marketing

I’m not going to talk about how to market a book, because right now I’m basically clueless. But what I can show you is how my model reacts to the number of readers you can get each book to on its launch.

If you were wondering what the ‘200’ meant in the title of the graphs, this is my assumption that you could reach 200 readers on your book launch. (If you’re really nitpicky, you’ll see that I’ve spread these as 100 readers in the first month and 50 in months two and three, just for argument’s sake). And no, I don’t have any advice on how to reach those readers – look, I haven’t actually attempted this yet.

So what happens if you get your book out to only (ha!) 60 readers instead of 200? This:


Basically, three years in, we’ve published 4 books, but total sales are no more than in our ‘two years between books’ model. And no, the royalties are not going to cover the rent. Mediocrity means we have to work a bit harder on marketing.

I think the reason for the difference between 200 and 60 is that the snowball effect needs a kick-start – we just have to get those early numbers of readers up, however we can. This is how discounts and free give-aways work – anything to build reader numbers in the early stages ought to pay off.

So, here we go, this is the graph for those who ‘get’ marketing and are going to nab a whopping 600 new readers over the three months after every book launch:


It takes a lot of effort, but see the way we’re starting to get that exponential curve going? And the actual numbers are not too shabby at all. Even if, on publishing your second book, you give away your first for free to get those reader numbers up, you’ll recover your expenditure in as many months. Within two years you’ll be earning a basic income. How hard can it be, finding 600 willing readers?

Well, yeah, I suspect the answer is: very hard.

But that’s that, the numbers have spoken. As daunting as this all is for someone like me, who would love to just stick my head down and write and leave all that marketing stuff to someone else, the prescription is clear. (Did I say at the start this blog was no prescription? My imagination and a few graphs have convinced me that it is, after all.) Here it is:

  • Write the best novel you can, and then another, and another.
  • Market the hell out of each (and give your books away – in the hundreds).
  • Persevere – it might take three or four books before the gamble really starts paying off

Now if anyone out there has any REAL data on this, I’d love to hear from you.

2 thoughts on “A Theory on Self-Publishing Success”

  1. You paint such a depressing picture with all this wonderful but clinical analysis. I don’t see it this way at all. I see it like this. You do it, you follow your dreams, you try to improve with every piece, and you don’t just talk about all the negatives, you live them and learn from them – you do it. You surround yourself with people that believe in you, and truly support you, and you keep pushing and working because you love it. I may be naïve but I believe that getting in there and doing what is necessary including the marketing makes you stronger and better.
    Self-publishing is not settling for less because you can’t get a traditional publishing deal, not these days. It is about being brave enough to make a choice and following through despite the hardships. I have a bias. I am a self-published author and I follow many self-published authors. They have gotten me through many a bad time with their stories. I have watched them grow. I am hoping to join them one day.


  2. If you’re looking for real data, have you checked out the kboards writers’ cafe? A lot of successful and not so successful indie authors hang out there, and some of them post some pretty good info, including hard data.


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