New Author Study Shows Preference for Traditional Publishing

An interesting study about publishing and writers recently came out, and one thing is clear: writers are not a happy lot.

The study, called the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Study, is based on responses from 9,210 aspiring, published and self-published writers to a survey conducted in the fall of 2013. The lead researcher was Dana Beth Weinberg, professor of sociology at Queens College in NYC. You can download the report in full from Digital World for a mere $295; if that seems a bit steep, you can get the gist of the results from Digital Book World’s post and this one by Dr. Weinberger herself.

A survey based on responses from over 9000 writers sounds quite impressive; however, the numbers are deceptive. The majority of responders are aspiring writers who have not published in any form; most have not yet completed a draft of a book. Their opinions on the advantages of publishing versus self-publishing are not informed by experience and I couldn’t see the relevance of including them in the study, unless (a cynical thought – put it down to my having the world’s worst cold) it is to increase the likelihood of their buying the complete $295 report. Among the others, 1636 were self-published, 774 were published commercially, and 598 were hybrid authors– that is, writers whose work is both published and self-published. Respondents were recruited through notifications from Writer’s Digest about the survey, which accounts for the preponderance of unpublished writers: the magazine is geared to aspiring rather than published writers.

The author of the report herself calls it unscientific, since it is based on voluntary responses rather than a random sample. Nevertheless, the results were interesting. A few things popped out at me.

discontented writer1. Writers are discontented lot. I said that before. It bears repeating. My advice to aspiring fiction writers is and has always been that if they can imagine themselves happy doing anything else, they should do it. Almost nobody makes a living from writing; and those who write well enough to be published commercially could generally make more money doing almost anything else. Of course, if you are independently wealthy, money need not be a factor. But writing is frustrating and difficult in many ways, not just monetarily. The world is not clamoring for new writers.

For those who cannot imagine themselves doing anything else but writing, despite the difficulties and lack of clamor: welcome to the fold, and the best of Irish luck to us all!

2. Unless you’re one of a small group of perennial best-selling writers or you write salable stuff incredibly fast, the money is absurd. This is true for both trade-published and self-published writers, although trade-published writers make more on average. According to the survey’s data, the median income for unpublished writers is under $5000, with a significant number earning nothing at all. Commercially published writers had a median income between $5000 and $10,000. On the higher end of the scale, the differences  are even more stark. Only 1.8% of self-published writers report an annual income of over $100,000, compared to 8.8% of trade-published writers and 13.2% of hybrid writers.

One advantage of this report is that it refutes the exaggerated claims of many self-publishing advocates. The trope I hear most often among aspiring writers is that publishing with a commercial house is confers prestige, but the real money is in self-publishing. According to the figures in this study, the percentage of writers who earned over $100,000 last year is five times greater among published than self-published writers.

3. If you must write, it pays to be a hybrid writer. Hybrid authors did best on the median income scale, between $15,000 and $20,000. They also scored highest in satisfactionhybrid with many aspects of their career. They were the most likely to be happy with their book’s pricing (44.4% compared to 24% among traditionally published writers) and most likely to be satisfied with sales figures: 9.7% compared to 8.2% among commercially published writers and 4.6% among self-published writers. This tallies with an earlier study conducted by Taleist magazine that showed hybrid writers outselling exclusively self-published writers by a large margin.

Still, it’s clear that even among hybrid writers, 90% are disappointed with their sales. Of course any number can be disappointing if your expectations were higher. In the case of self-published writers, I fear that many of them drank the Kool-Aid dispensed so liberally by self-publishing zealots with get-rich-quick promises. The truth is, it’s very hard for unknown writers to get noticed and to sell books in any quantities, even with the might of a Random House or Simon & Schuster behind them; and it’s far harder for do-it-yourselfers. But published writers, too, are disappointed with their sales; only 8.2 reported themselves “very satisfied” with sales, and 10.4% said they were happy with their publishers overall marketing and promotion of the book.

In fairness to publishers, I will interject that based on my years as a literary agent, there is never enough marketing from the writer’s point of view. However much the publisher does, writers tend to focus on what they haven’t done.

4. Across the board, writers still prefer commercial to self-publishing. That preference emerges clearly in this study. Only 35% of self-published writers would prefer to self-publish their next book; among hybrid authors, who’ve tried both methods, 30% would self-publish by choice. Among published writers, the figure is 7.5%, indicating that despite their dissatisfaction with the industry, the vast majority would still choose it over self-publishing.


For more on the hybrid route, see this eye-opening interview with bestselling author Lorraine Bartlett. Subscribe to this blog via links at right for irregular but, I hope, interesting stuff about the writing biz. Or read A DANGEROUS FICTION, which is both a mystery and an insider’s guide to publishing.



19 thoughts on “New Author Study Shows Preference for Traditional Publishing

  1. This blog consistently delivers thoughtful, intelligent, and rational commentary. I found this post to be of special interest because several of my friends and acquaintances have self-published and had these results Ms. Rogan describes. It’s good to have a writer as skilled as Ms. Rogan sharing her expertise with us.

  2. Although I am a fan of Ms. Rogan, I find this post to be misleading (and no I have not partaken of the self-publishing kool-aid to any great degree). Any self report study is suspect, as pointed out in the post (and as someone with a master’s in psychology I had this fact drilled into my head during college), so anything revealed here should be taken with a pound of Morton’s finest.

    It appears, from the post, that the largest discrepancy is time. Ask yourself, “How long has self-publishing been en vogue as compared to publishing using the traditional route?” The fact that more people are making scads of money traditionally or by being hybrids (which is a cleverly disguised way of counting traditionally published authors who are hedging their income by doing a little self-publishing) rather than via self-publishing should be no surprise.

    Of course, few make a real living as an author, but the same can be said for any profession (especially one in which you try to financially leverage your creative soul). I have been a freelance writer (making a very good living) for more than five years. But, I get few bylines. I prostitute my creative ability to earn enough for bread. However, I will be self-publishing in a few months and I would never even attempt the traditional route. I enjoy freedom too much.

    So please take this offering for what it is worth and that goes for the “study” also.

    Gaines Irving Arnold

    • Arnold, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree that the study is unscientific, but I think it’s interesting and indicative anyway. I don’t see what time has to do with the discrepancy in sales of trade-published vs. self-published books. Readers will never trust self-published work by an unknown writer the same way they would, say, a similar book from Random House, because anyone at all can self-publish, regardless of literary value or even literacy. The lack of any gatekeepers is the great advantage of self-publishing, but also its greatest disadvantage.

      That said, I think there are wonderful applications for self-publishing, including genre series, niche non-fiction, backlists, short stories and novellas. But self-publishing a first novel is not one of them, IMO. I hope you’ll prove me wrong, but I’m afraid you’ll find it an uphill battle getting a self-published first novel noticed.

      “Of course, few make a real living as an author, but the same can be said for any profession…” Er…not really. I love my profession, and if I had it to do over again, I’d still choose writing. But when you think how much time and effort goes into each book and calculate what you’ve made on an hourly basis, most writers would make more waiting tables, let alone pursuing a real career like law or medicine.

      • I do appreciate the response Barbara. By the way, my first name is Gaines. I do believe that many other professions have a similar or much more pronounced attrition rate. My error in the original comment was to say all. Sure you can make money as a waiter or retail clerk or in any number of professions, but you can also do so in writing. As I said, I make a good living writing for a living and many freelance writers do as well or better than I.

        I was a nuclear engineer in the Navy; a profession with a 95% attrition rate. I spent 9 years in school and doing internships to achieve a license as a counselor, a profession in which the attrition rate is greater than 90%. Those are just two professions in which aspirants struggle more than writers wishing to be published.

        Also, I have been published before, but not as a writer of fiction and believe me professional journals have much higher standards than any traditional fiction publisher. My point is that if a person is driven and willing to be a self starter they can make a good living in any field, no matter how closed.

        I pointed out the relevant time issue because self publishing still has a stigma attached. People are more likely to buy books from a traditionally published writer, but that will likely change. It is already changing. I also love the talk about gatekeepers. As a reader, I should be the gatekeeper not someone who styles themselves an expert. I agree that some writers (possibly many) will slip through the cracks with shoddy work, but the flaws in the system are worth the freedom. So, I guess we agree that we need gatekeepers. I would say we need more–millions more.

        As for getting my first self-published novel noticed, Barbara everything worth doing is worth fighting for. Yes, that is a bit cliche, but true regardless. I have no doubt it will be difficult, but I relish a challenge.

        Gaines Irving Arnold

  3. Fascinating, but about what I thought. You’d think writing for the love of the words instead of a pie-in-the-sky idea would make one happier. Of course, I’m not trying to feed myself with my writing (think goodness), but then, I have a secure retirement plan. 😉

    • Hi Zan Marie,

      When I was young I scoffed at the idea of pension plans and retirement schemes. Thought I’d be dead long before I needed to worry about that. Now, as my friends start retiring with comfortable pensions, I kind of wish writing DID come with some benefits. I guess there’s a price to be paid for doing what you want in life.

  4. Very interesting survey. You know, before my brother went to medical school he spoke with several doctors and was told the same thing “if you can be happy doing anything else, then do it.” He did go to med school and loves what he does despite the long difficult road. I guess if I compare my years of writing things that never got seen and then the rejections on things I queried to the years of med school and residency it doesn’t seem harsh. Now if I could make as much money as he does when I do break into the market….

    • I’ve heard that from doctors, too. A lot are burnt out and pissed off…sort of like writers. But you’re right—it is a sort of apprenticeship we go through. Good way to look at it.

  5. Interesting article, and thanks for the link to the studies. I agree the methodology is so suspect it’s of little value (even with the published author stuff, you are only getting responses from published authors who still subscribe to a “how-to get started” publication). In terms of the overall opinions of people in that category, though, I think it provides an interesting data point.

  6. While I’m still holding out for traditional publishing, I like the idea of a hybrid very much. Since a lot of marketing, especially on social media, is handled by the author anyway, it makes sense that they be allowed to release certain pieces on their own, getting them out quickly and with minimum fuss, while at the same time having the traditional side available for more full-length pieces.

    • If I wrote fast enough, and/or wrote shorts, I’d be trying out the hybrid way. But there’s a lot to learn. I know a lot of hybrid writers for whom marketing and promotion has become a full time job—writing’s the sideline.

  7. Great piece – While I cannot image myself doing anything other than writing, the promotion piece takes entirely too much time and energy, energy that I’d prefer to spend with pen (or keyboard) in hand. I can’t help but wonder if bypassing the traditional route and going it alone wasn’t a mistake.

    • Promotion takes time whether you’re published or self-published, but it sure helps to have a partner who can get your book into every bookstore in the country. As far as ebooks go, though, self-published writers have a much more even playing field.

  8. Pingback: What Sort of Publishing Is Right For You? |

  9. Speaking only as a reader, and a reader with limited time to read, I rely on the “Gatekeeper” concept of traditional publishing. I recently spent two years reading almost nothing except self-published and micropress ebooks on Amazon, and what I learned from that experiment was that the vast majority of books I read desperately needed editorial assistance. Many of them seemed like they might have been first drafts. Reading them was a frustrating and unrewarding experience for me, because by the time I got to the end, I resented both the book and the author for what I felt was wasting my valuable time.

    There is a prejudice against self-published books among readers — but that prejudice is justified by the fact that so many titles need a tremendous amount of work before they give the reader the same satisfaction that a well-edited book does. And who typically produces those books? The traditional publishers. They vet books for us readers, allowing us to make better time investments.

    Are there shining stars out there among the self-published works? Probably. Do I want to be the reader who slugs through 100 books just to find that star? Absolutely not. Amazon should not be my slush pile.

    I don’t see readers changing their minds and their feelings about self-publishing, in any near or distant future. Time is limited. The supply of books isn’t.

    Self-publishing is nothing new. It’s just substantially cheaper now. It’s the literary version of the garage band. It used to be that you had to pay to photocopy your manuscript and give it to friends. Later you could shell out $1000 and get nice bound copies of that manuscript. Now you can upload a word doc for free and send all your friends links to it on Amazon. I get several of these in my in-box every day. I no longer download the books, even the free or 99 cent ones. Too often reading them just makes me wish I had that time back.

    If anything, readers are becoming MORE savvy and more demanding of quality, and where we expect to find quality is not in the micropress/self-publishing arena. We don’t trust it. I hear writers lamenting this at conventions. At one time, if you offered your book for free on Amazon, you automatically got a lot of downloads because Kindle was a new technology and free is always good. Or so it was thought. But we readers wised up after the first few “meh” novels. When self-published writers put their books out for free or 99 cents, and they STILL can’t get people to download them — that should say something about the state of the “industry” of self-publishing.

Your thoughts?