The Amazon Self-Publishing Myth

Updated: Aug 16, 2020

Note: This article also appears in Medium's publication: The Startup.

Can you make a decent living from self-publishing on Amazon? Thousands of authors have done it, so it’s possible, right? Hugh Howey did it without any additional marketing other than the episodic fiction he published on his own website. J.A. Konrath has published a zillion titles with everything from kid’s books to erotica and shows no sign of stopping. Meredith Wild built an entire publishing empire, complete with her own imprint, from the humble Kindle platform of 2011.

But what about you?

If you’re not already established, do the opportunities of 2010-2012 still exist for you? A lot of people will tell you that they do, especially if they’re trying to sell you on marketing services, but it’s a claim you need to weigh carefully before investing your time and money into self-publishing. The future of publishing itself—especially on Amazon—may not be what you think.

According to recent the study conducted by the Author’s Guild, all author incomes have declined by 42% in the last decade, with the average now standing at $6,080 dollars per year. Considering that, on average, self-published authors invest between $2000-$5000 on publishing and marketing even one title on Amazon, the math doesn’t exactly work in your favor.

There are, of course, many ways to interpret this data. Some of the author bloggers I follow have argued that this math doesn’t apply to them because they’re just too damn good, and the industry is filled with people who aren’t really writers, and can’t manage to write compelling sentences or write about anything that people care about. But that’s not really helpful, is it?

True, there might be a lot of subjectively substandard work out there, but we all know of authors who skyrocketed to millionaire status without dazzling prose or mind-bending plot work. So, what are our lofty judgments of quality worth? Not much. Readers decide what is worth reading, not writers.

And for most writers—good, bad and magnificent—the readers just aren’t showing up. Back in 2012, an author could run a free promotion on Amazon and get thousands of downloads and a hundred favorable reviews. I know because I did that, and in the writing sphere, I’m no one special. Today, you might have a hard time getting 50 downloads of the exact same book and receive almost no reviews.

There are a little over 4.5 million titles in the Amazon Kindle store, and yet—by Amazon’s own admission to the NYT a few years ago—there were only 40 self-published authors on the platform who had sold over a million books and were therefore ‘making good money’ in 2016.

More recently, Jeff Bezos suggested there were around 1000 authors making over $100,000 a year on the platform, and a few thousand more that were making $50,000. If we were to say (generously) that the average author on Amazon publishes 4 books on the platform before becoming successful or giving up, then the percentage of authors earning $50,000 per year or above would still be less than .03%.

Great writers may be rare, but sellable authors are not—at least not the .03% kind of rare.

This dismal metric is caused by a number of converging factors. Reader behavior is changing. The average price of e-books has been rising. Stress is making it more difficult for readers to commit time and attention away from their mandatory daily routines. Our multi-channel world now offers much more dynamic distractions than written content alone can provide.

These are the pressures reshaping storytelling, and they present real and solid opportunities for authors who want to take advantage of them—but more on that later. For now, I can say that Amazon’s bad tech and predatory marketing practices are hurting authors more than they’re helping them. In short: Amazon is selling you a dream and profiting off of your willingness to believe it.

Predatory Marketing

Everyone wants to sell you a formula for becoming a bestselling author. Certainly, it helps to be true to genre. It helps to have ‘the look’ of whatever genre you’re writing in. It helps to know about keywords and advertising algorithms, and how the blurb should read, and how to compare your work to the work of others without being annoying. Having said that, nothing is going to promote you on Amazon above those who can blatantly outspend you.

Currently, Amazon’s pay-per-click advertising scheme can cost authors up to $3—or even $5—per click for targeting certain keywords and successful author names.

If I want to add Stephen King to my search engine words for an Amazon ad featuring my book, I’m forced to pay insane prices for any clicks that come from that. Do you think Stephen King sees any money from the clicks that come from his name powering my ad? I’m guessing, no, because this would be consistent with Amazon’s current publishing culture.

The company has gone from helping authors to publish their work to preying on authors in any way they can. If you want to sell on Amazon, you have to pay, and it’s not cheap.

One author recently admitted that he is spending over $7000 per month on Amazon native advertising. That doesn’t include editing, artwork, or marketing off-platform. This is an author with an established name and long list of favorably reviewed titles—the two things that are supposed to guarantee book sales on their own merit.

Faulty Tech

Amazon’s publishing platform is either designed to let you sink like a stone without constant advertising spend, or conveniently acts that way anyway. It excels at making you disappear and fails in every other respect. Why so angry? There’s no ethical reason for this.

It’s not beyond our technical abilities to incorporate a list of data points and automated assessment procedures into the process of uploading new novels that can help an AI model fit the book to a specific reader’s preferences almost perfectly — including story arc, main character personalities, pacing, length, grammar, ending, and style of prose.

Wattpad is developing such a system right now. To my knowledge, Amazon has no intention of doing the same. In fact, it seems they plan on sticking authors with the same lame keyword restrictions and limited categories because it makes paying hostage ransoms for advertising on their platform necessary.

Archaic much?

Can we even imagine how a near-future version of AI technology would change book publishing and purchasing forever?

If readers could be matched with their perfect books for free — or for a small subscription fee per year — why would authors pay extra for advertising? There is an entire industry of cheeky book marketeers, pay-for-review services, and dodgy book advertising websites dreading t