First, a disclaimer: this isn't a post advocating for self-publishing over traditional publishing or vice versa. If you don't have the inclination to self-publish, or if the recognition that goes along with traditional publication feels important, then self-publishing is not for you. If you're interested in self-publishing or you're on the bubble, then I hope there's some information here that's useful. In this post I'll do a quick overview of self-publishing, walk through the financial incentives on the Amazon platform, and close by talking about some costs. I've self-published a few books so far, but there are plenty of writers here and elsewhere with more—or just different!—experience than me, so I'd love it if you all could share your experiences in the comments, and I can learn along with the group.
With that said, the market for self-published books is booming. Of the fifty top-selling Amazon eBooks as of February 22, 2022 at 9:00pm (and yes, the list is updated hourly,) 19 are self-published. Another 11 are published by Amazon in-house imprints Montlake, Lake Union, and Thomas & Mercer. Just 20 are from traditional publishers like Penguin or Harper Collins. KDPRocket reports that the best-selling of the indie books (The Rake, by L.J. Shen) has $418,471 in monthly ebook sales, and the last of the indie books in the top fifty (The Plains of Laramie by C.J. Petit) has $42,093 in monthly ebook sales. Each book is also available in softcover and audiobook formats, so the total is actually higher.
In my opinion those numbers are probably overstated. KDPRocket usually overreports my own sales when I check them, though they're close, so I feel like it skews high. What's more, both The Rake and The Plains of Laramie were published in the last month, so downloads are probably artificially high because of pre-orders and readers who've been waiting for the next book in the sequence. Their sales will likely trickle off over the course of the next few weeks, and they'll eventually fall off the top-100 list. There are exceptions to that rule, though: Number 35 on the list, Meghan Quinn's A Not So Meet Cute has been out for three months, and KDPRocket reports, today, that it's still earning $229,540 per month in ebook sales alone. Long story short: take the dollar figures from KDPRocket with a grain of salt but, even adjusted for time-on-the-market and KDPRocket's margin of error, it's clear that indie authors can do well in the Amazon store.
There are literally hundreds of details that go into self-publication through Amazon alone, ranging from formatting peculiarities and category selection, to the mechanics of uploading your manuscript. I won't get too deep in the weeds, both because it's hard to explain Amazon's user interface without a walk-through, and because the details change frequently enough that the content would quickly get stale. In its broadest strokes, though, Amazon's self publishing system is called "Kindle Direct Publishing," or "KDP." Manuscripts uploaded to KDP are available for download to Amazon's Kindle devices, as well as any device with a Kindle App. Manuscripts uploaded to KDP can also be printed and bound into both hardcover and softcover books on-demand, so readers can purchase a physical book as well as, or in addition to, a digital copy. Amazon offers an expanded distribution service for physical books, too, so you can see your book in print at the local Barnes & Noble if that's important toy ou. I've heard that other print-on-demand services like Ingram Spark do a nicer job making the physical book; the samples I've bought of my own books from Amazon KDP have always been good enough that I haven't experimented with other platforms, though. Amazon doesn't charge a fee to upload the manuscript and start selling your book—there's literally no barrier to entry, other than a few days of cursing while you try to figure out formatting problems in your manuscript.
Amazon offers two different sales platforms within KDP. Standard sales offer a 35% royalty for ebooks prices between $0.99-and-2.98 and from $10.00-up; books priced between $2.99-and-$9.99 are eligible for 70% royalties. Sales work just the way you'd expect: a reader buys your book for the price you set, your receive royalties, and the transaction is complete. For physical books, you need to pay for the costs of printing first, and then receive 60% of the remainder.
In addition to the standard model, however, Amazon runs a program called KDP Select, which operates differently. Books enrolled in KDP Select are eligible for free download to readers enrolled in Kindle Unlimited program in exchange for a fixed monthly fee—basically it's Netflix for books. A download of the book counts as a 'sale' for purposes of the book's rank, but authors are paid a pro-rata share of the Kindle Unlimited program's earnings on a per-page basis. In January of 2022, the per-page value was about $0.0043. To enroll in KDP Select, authors are required to commit to keep their book Amazon-exclusive for a three-month period; KDP Select enrollment renews every three months, so you can opt out after three months or re-enroll.
To give you a concrete example, my own book, Shards of Osiris, is listed for sale at $0.99 and is enrolled in the KDP Select program. It's not eligible for a 70% royalty because the price is too low, so each sale nets a royalty roughly between $0.30-$0.35, depending on the country where it's downloaded and the transaction costs and taxes. The same book has 461 "Kindle Edition Normalized Pages" (or KENP), though, so if a reader downloads it through Kindle Unlimited and reads it through to the end, I receive about $1.98. It costs $4.09 to print and is listed for $7.99, so my royalty for a physical book is $0.70.
These pricing systems give rise to some pretty stark incentives. Most transparently, self-published ebooks cluster between $2.99-and-$9.99 because of the royalty breakpoints; a book sold for $9.99 receives a royalty of $6.99, while the same book sold for $10.00 receives a royalty of just $3.50. Nobody indie-publishes an ebook for $10.00. For books enrolled in KDP Select, on the other hand, the incentive is to run long, since each additional word in the story means additional royalties; authors who write in series are 'boxing' their series into multi-book 'bundles' that run to tens of thousands of pages in order to take advantage of the per-page payments.
Above I said there were no barriers to entry and, technically, that's true. You can edit your own book, draw your own cover, and then slap the book online. In reality, though, a successfully self-published book has probably spent some money up-front for a cover and an edit, at least.
My own experience with cover expenses has been varied. For Shards of Osiris, I purchased a custom cover and it cost about $800; the cover for its companion novelette, Codex of Serket, was a pre-made cover and only cost about $400. There are plenty of other pre-made covers that you can purchase in the $80-$120 range, and a few you can buy for less—although quality generally diminishes with price, and at especially low price points I would worry that the cover art may be copyrighted by a third party.
There are also hundreds of free-lance editors you can hire for developmental, line, and copyediting, as well as proof-reading. The line edit for Shards of Osiris was about $1,000 and, because I made some revisions after the edit was finished, I'm putting it through another round of edits—yes, even though the book is already 'published,' it can be revised at any time. If an author were to put a book through all four stages of editing, with four different editors, it'd probably cost somewhere around $5,000 based on my own experience, although there are certainly some budget options, or superstar editors who will charge you more than that.
The biggest cost, though, is probably promotions. You can pay anything you want for advertising, across a lot of different platforms. Online, you're generally either buying real estate on websites (impressions) or clicks. I budget about $20 per day for advertising through Amazon; yesterday I got 20,463 impressions, 158 clicks, 9 KENP pages read, and one order. In general, my books make around $75-$100 per month, so yesterday wasn't a great day even by my own modest standards.
Remember, though, that those statistics only apply to the specific book being sold; everyone who buys a copy (an "Order") or downloads a copy and reads it through Kindle Unlimited is that much more likely to read through the series so, even if I'm paying two-or-three dollars per order, I can still come out ahead as the series gets closer to completion. Also important is the fact that someone who downloads the book through Kindle Unlimited probably won't start reading it the same day, so I might be getting a dozen downloads through Kindle Unlimited, but only get pagereads starting days or weeks later. My plan is to publish the next two books in the series mid-year and check the effect on sales; I can course correct after that.
As I said above, there's a ton of additional information that's worth taking a deep dive into for Amazon KDP alone—and that doesn't even begin to touch on competitor services, like Barnes & Noble's Nook, the Kobo eReader, Apple Books, and plenty of others. And, of course, self-publishing isn't for everyone. If you have additions, corrections, or questions, though, please chime in in the comments!