Five years ago, printing your own book was stigmatized and was seen as a mark of failure.
"But now," says Dana Beth Weinberg, a sociologist at Queens College who is studying the industry, "the self-published authors walk into the room, and they say, oh, well, 'I made a quarter million dollars last year, or $100,000, or made $10,000.' And it is still more than what some of these authors are making with their very prestigious contracts."
Weinberg says there is still a strong financial case to be made for publishing books the old-fashioned way, but there are now many well-known independent authors who have made a fortune self-publishing online.
One of those authors, Hugh Howey, recently published a report arguing that self-published writers earn more money overall from e-books than authors who have been signed by the big five publishing houses. The report, which Howey created with an anonymous data researcher who goes by the name "Data Guy," uses Amazon's sales rankings and crowdsourced sales data to estimate authors' total earnings on e-books.
The report has been attacked by critics who point out the figures don't include cash paid to authors as part of book advances. And they say Howey is underestimating the money earned from old-fashioned print sales. He's also been called a tool of Amazon in that company's war against established publishing houses.
Trustworthy data is difficult to come by, and Amazon doesn't release detailed sales numbers.
Howey says he's just trying to point out that self-publishing can be a decent way to make a living even if you aren't selling millions of books. And he points out that self-published authors are able to keep 70 percent of royalties on all e-book sales. As a result, he says, many relatively unknown authors are making a decent living self-publishing their work.
One of those authors is Michael Bunker, who has a long beard, close-cropped hair and a wide-brimmed hat, and describes himself as an "accidental Amish Sci-Fi writer."
His latest book, Pennsylvania Omnibus, hit No. 19 earlier this month on Amazon's best-seller list. And Bunker's first book — about living off the grid — was an instant online success.
"It went to 29 on all of Amazon.com on the very first day," Bunker says. "And I got messages from agents and publishers. And I didn't know what I was doing. I had no clue what I was doing."
The first agent who reached him offered a $5,000 advance and a guaranteed publishing deal.
"I made more than that yesterday," Bunker says.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Romance writers of America are gathering in San Antonio for their annual conference, and the stage is set for drama. Though not a bodice ripper as Steven Henn from NPR's Planet Money Team reports, the debate animating the aisles at this year's conference is likely to center on a new study about whether you can make more money with a publisher or by going in alone.
STEVEN HENN, BYLINE: Five years ago, most romance writers shied away from self-publishing their work. Self-publishing - printing your own book was stigmatized. It was widely seen as mark of failure.
DANA BETH WEINBERG: But now the self-published authors walk into the room and they say, oh, well, I made a quarter million dollars last year.
HENN: Dana Beth Weinberg studies publishing at Queens College.
WEINBERG: And so now nobody really knows - you know, how do we measure success in this market?
HENN: She says Amazon doesn't release sales figures for e-books.
WEINBERG: What do we look at? - because it's not enough to think about the prestige anymore. We're really talking about the money.
HENN: But it is really hard to know how much self-published authors really make. Mostly, what we hear our anecdotal stories of big successes like Hugh Howey. He's the author of the sci-fi series "Wool." His books have sold more than a million copies, but.
HUGH HOWEY: Every conference I go to, I meet someone who I've never heard of who's making a full-time living as a writer.
HENN: Howey wanted to figure out how this was possible, so he tried to crack Amazon's code. He took Amazon's public sales rankings for books and then asked authors to send in their actual sales data. He created a database that allowed him to estimate how much money each author was likely making on any given day. This week, he released a report arguing that independent authors like him are actually earning more money from e-books than colleagues with traditional publishing deals. The reason - self-published offers may not sell as many books, but they take a larger cut of the proceeds, 70 percent of their total sales. Needless to say, people in the publishing industry went nuts. They pointed out that his figures don't include cash paid to authors as book advances. They say he's underestimating the money earned from old-fashioned print sales. Still, a lot of authors are looking at the big cut they'll get from self-publishing e-books, and they're deciding to go out on their own.
MICHAEL BUNKER: My name's Michael Bunker, and I am an accidental Amish sci-fi writer.
HENN: And even though you've probably never heard of Michael Bunker or the genre of Amish sci-fi, his book "Pennsylvania Omnibus" hit 19 earlier this month on Amazon's best-seller list. His first book about living off the grid was an instant online success.
BUNKER: It went to number 29 on all of amazon.com on the first, and I got messages from publishers and from agents. I didn't know what I was doing. I had no clue what I was doing, and the first agent that contacted me said, you know, I can get you $5,000 advance and a guaranteed publishing deal, and I said, well, I made more than that yesterday.
HENN: Self-publishing just made sense. And here's the interesting part. Michael Bunker is actually really Amish. His home and farm are off the grid. He uses solar power to get online from an office. He has a blog and a Twitter feed, and the elders in Bunker's community are OK with this new career.
BUNKER: Because a lot of what we're looking at now is - it goes back to Guttenberg, and a lot of our people were set free by the ability to produce and to distribute printed materials without going through the powers that be.
HENN: Bunker makes a living writing. He has not struck it rich. But Dana Beath Weinberg, the sociologist, says success stories like Bunker's and Howey's may give authors false hope. Howey only looked at the top 120,000 books on Amazon for his study, but there are many books way down that list where self-published authors make no money at all like Weinberg's own books. When she's not studying publishing, she writes novels about Russian gangsters in Brooklyn. The ranking for "Kings of Brighton Beach" - 368,000. Her profit so far - zero. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.