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Self-Publishing a Best-Seller

Digital Book World have just put out a list of the 2013 ebook 'best sellers', and it has been making the rounds since being picked up by Forbes (with a slightly misleading title). Proponents of indie publishing are especially delighted as "self-published" ranks four on the table.

1 Penguin Random House 478
2 Hachette 258
3 Self-published 99
4 HarperCollins 91
5 Simon & Schuster 72

(Complete numbers here.)

The methodology of how DBW calculates a best-seller is here. It includes all six major online ebook retailers and is US focused. 

My criticism isn't with the methodology. It is with the conclusion that these figures demonstrate the "success of self-publishing". And many of the more vocal proponents of indie publishing have been making hay of that conclusion - erroniously.

However, if we compare these to the available publication statistics, conveniently provided by Bowker, we get a different story...

Sadly, 2013 numbers aren't out yet, but we can use 2012 as stand-ins:

  • 2012 US self-published titles: 391,000 total (234,000 hard copy only; leaving 157,000 ebook-only or ebook/print)
  • 2012 US traditionally published titles: ? (301,000 hard copy only) 

Let's make another assumption and use the same proportion across both publication methods, which gives us 503,000 traditionally published titles and 202,000 ebook-only or ebook/print titles.

If we aggregate the traditional publishers from the top five:

PublishereBest-SellersTotal eBooks% eBest-Sellers
Traditional 899 202,000 .45%
Independent 99 157,000 .06%

And if you include the rest of the top 10, in search of a slightly more precise number...:

PublishereBest-SellersTotal eBooks% eBest-Sellers
Traditional 1069 202,000 .53%
Independent 99 157,000 .06%

It tails off pretty dramatically after that, so I'll stop there. 

Still the odds look a bit like this:

USA winning the World Cup 1 in 160
Having an eBest-Seller by traditional publishing 1 in 191
Houston Astros winning the 2014 World Series 1 in 200
Iran winning the World Cup 1 in 1,000
Swansea winning the Premier League 1 in 1,250
Having an eBest-Seller by self-publishing 1 in 1,586

Go Swans.

This also excludes the chances of having a print best-seller, and all of those are traditionally published. "Best-seller" is an annoying phrase, but, no matter how you define it, you seem more likely to achieve it with the marketing, distribution, rights, negotiation and sales power of a traditional publisher behind you.

I'm sorry to rain on any parades. The growth of self-publishing might very well be the story. But the "success" isn't. Based on these rough numbers (which we can replace as soon as the 2013 stats are out), a book is over 9 times more likely to become a best-seller if you don't self-publish it.