The Self-publishing Myths - Bust the Myths That Kill Your Writing Career

The Self-publishing Myths

We are in a whole new world of publishing—there has been a fundamental shift in how the business works and how authors make money.

The traditional publishing world is resisting this change, which is understandable. Many authors are also resistant; still willing to accept the constraints and conditions of a broken business model.

With authors though, I believe this resistance is not from an attachment to the old world, but from a set of fundamental misconceptions about what independent publishing is.

Out of the multitude of lies and half-truths about writing, I believe four core myths act as artificial barriers to authors being successful.

The four myths are:

  1. The Starving Artist
  2. Indie Books Don’t Sell
  3. You Must be Traditionally Published to be a “Real Author”
  4. Traditional Publishers Can Do Things You Can’t

I often joke I am the Jerry Maguire of nerds. Whenever I hear someone claim the truth of something, I am always saying, “Show me the data!”.

It doesn’t take much additional research to find data that expose these myths as the pile of nonsense they are.

Self-publishing Myth 1: The Starving Artist

The starving artist myth leads to a lot of assumptions, the most harmful assumption being that a career as a well-paid author is beyond the reach of all but a lucky few.

The simple fact is there is, and always has been, great gobs of money to be made in books.

In 2017, just under 4.5 billion US dollars’ worth of books sold online in the US alone. It’s obvious someone is making money somewhere!

The reason authors have always fed on the scraps of the book publishing gravy train is not that book publishers are a bunch of thieves, but because of the structure of the industry.

Traditional publishing works like this:

  1. The bookstore makes a profit selling to the reader
  2. The distributor makes a profit selling to the bookstore
  3. The publisher makes a profit selling to the distributor
  4. The publisher deducts production costs and gives the author 8–15% of what’s left.

The structure of the industry meant that the only way an author could make a good living from their writing was to sell a massive number of books.

The new publishing model is entirely different. It looks like this:

  1. You make your books available on Amazon;
  2. Amazon makes a profit selling to the reader; and
  3. You keep the rest.

This new model tips the business hugely in favor of indie publishers. There is such a vast gap that most indies are making 7 to 10 times as much money per sale as a traditionally published author.

Self-publishing Myth 2: Indie Books Don’t Sell

Did you ever hear the story that the average self-published author sells 500 copies, and the average traditionally published author sells 5000?

I bet that if you haven’t heard the above, you’ve heard several variations.

So, have you ever stopped to wonder where these numbers come from?

It turns out they come from old retail book sales statistics that are out of date and don’t cover the whole book market.

How much do you think we can trust these numbers?

Not at all would be the correct answer.

Lucky for us, in 2010 Hugh Howie (author of Wool) created Author Earnings—a site dedicated to collecting live sales data on all books sold on the Internet.

Unfortunately, Author Earnings shut down in early 2019, but the live data they published is still available, and it paints a very different picture of the market. So, let’s look at what that live data says:

  • Of the US$4.5bn in book sales in the US in 2017, US$1.3bn was in eBooks, with a mind-boggling 266 million individual unit sales.
  • Indies made up 42.6% of total online unit sales. The Big 5 were just under 26% of total unit sales.

Which kills the myth dead right there—indies are selling way more units than traditionally published authors. Close to twice as many in fact.

Self-publishing Myth 3: Traditional = Real Author

I believe that this is the most insidious myth of all—the assumption that to be a “real” author, you must be traditionally published.

There are two versions of the “traditional is better” myth:

  1. Indies don’t win literary awards, so traditionally published books must be “better”
  2. Anyone can self-publish, but it’s tough to get traditionally published, so by definition traditionally published books must be “better”

Version 1 of the myth infects many authors, even some of the best. Stephen King has lamented the lack of literary awards in his career, so did Australian author Bryce Courtenay.

It’s ludicrous that any writer, famous or otherwise, could value the opinion of a committee, over and above the millions (in King’s case, hundreds of millions) of happy readers who have devoured their work over the decades.

Version 2 of the myth is more dangerous to your career, as it contains a kernel of truth. So, ignoring that traditional publishers also put out a lot of crap: yes, anyone can self-publish—but this misses the point.

This myth is why I distinguish between self-publishing and independent publishing. Any fool who thinks they can write can self-publish. However, it takes quality work, a keen eye for detail and strong business acumen to be successful at it.

Real authors are authors who work hard to improve their craft, put out quality work consistently, and look after their readers. In the modern publishing world, if you nail these three things, you will succeed, regardless of whether you go with a traditional publisher or indie publish your books.

Self-publishing Myth 4: Traditional Publishers Can Do Things You Can’t

Let’s break this myth down. The most often cited benefits of a traditional publisher are:

  • Traditional publishing has more credibility
  • You will get an advance
  • A traditional publisher will market for you
  • You will get quality editing, covers, etc.; and
  • A traditional publisher will get you into bookstores

The first cited benefit is by far the easiest to debunk with a simple question:

“When was the last time you bought a book because you liked the publisher?”

Who published your book is irrelevant to readers. The only person likely to be pretentious about who published your book is a traditionally published author who just learned how much more money than them you earn.

What about advances?

First, there is almost zero chance a new author will get a large advance.

Second, you will also get nothing in your pocket until you earn out the advance. Before you get your hopes up about that happening, publishers expect that around 75% of the books they publish will never earn out their advance. Depressing stuff!

We can examine the final three benefits—marketing, quality, and coverage—with a simple example. For a new author, a traditional publisher will:

  1. Give the book to a professional editor
  2. Commission a cover
  3. Pass the edited work on to a typesetter/digital layout expert
  4. List the book on Amazon (and others)
  5. Add the book to distributor catalogs; and
  6. Leave all marketing up to the author

If you self-publish your book, you will:

  1. Give the book to a professional editor
  2. Commission a cover
  3. Pass the edited work on to a typesetter/digital layout expert
  4. List the book on Amazon (and others)
  5. Add the book to distributor catalogs (by checking a box on KDP); and
  6. Market your book

Remember, In terms of income, your traditionally published book would need to sell between 7 and 13 times as many copies as your indie published book to equal your indie earnings.

Hmm. You’re doing the same work, but have ten times the expectations?

Sorry, but that sounds crazy to me!

That’s it for the self-publishing myths. I hope I was able to banish any of your misconceptions about self-publishing and opened your mind to the opportunity that awaits you as an indie publisher.


Answer the following question(s):

  1. If you were to be honest with yourself, how much of these myths do you hold to be true?
  2. Assuming you do, how do you think holding these myths to be true can feed into limiting beliefs about your chances of becoming a successful author?
  3. What other myths do you think may hold you and other authors back?

Up Next…

Becoming a successful author comes down to your mindset. Do you have the five mindsets necessary for success? Find out on the next page.