A Year at a Glance: The Best of Self-Publishing in 2023

Shannon Clark
January 30, 2024 | 11 mins

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What a year for self-publishing! There were more twists, turns, and surprises than a best-selling mystery novel. Let’s take a look back at what made 2023 memorable. 

The AI revolution

The year started with an artificial intelligence bang. The ChatGPT whispers of late 2022 became a category 5 hurricane by the time January rolled around, and writers everywhere quickly took sides. The palpable excitement over the potential of AI locked horns with writers calling foul as fears of AI squeezing them out of their jobs came to pass. Content creators everywhere were laid off as companies tested ChatGPT, Bart, and other AI platforms to streamline their workflow and save money. 

From TV and film writers to authors, journalists, and copywriters, the impact of artificial intelligence has been far-reaching. Whether you embrace it or take a stand against it, the consensus is that it’s not going anywhere. If we’re going to coexist peacefully with it, we’ll have to determine who holds the reigns. 

In a December 2023 Publisher Weekly article, author Thad Mcllroy reminds us that although artificial intelligence may feel new, the technology has been around for decades. It’s only recently that we’ve been able to understand its potential across multiple industries. According to the author, the recent surge in interest over the last year can be attributed to three things, “First, it’s free. Second, you don’t need to buy a new device to use it. And third, you don’t need any training to access ChatGPT.”

Mcllroy also had great insight to share with Selfpublishing.com readers in this article on using AI editors. You can find his comments at the end of the article under “Final Thoughts”. 

The good news is that companies are starting to put policies in place that protect the work of creatives including Amazon that now limits book uploads to 3 a day and during the book-upload process, you are now required to inform Amazon if AI was used. 

Along with Amazon, other companies have committed to doing their part to manage AI risks.

YouTube video

BookTok Mania—no sign of slowing down

Just when you think things couldn’t get more bizarro in the land of publishing, BookTok, the subcommunity on the social media platform TikTok disrupts the world of book marketing and flips it on its head. 

Unlike the me-centered promotions of social media in general, the beauty of BookTok is that it’s the fans who promote their favorite authors and books. The number of fans that get behind books they love and then shout it from the rooftops along with the impact on book sales can be jaw-dropping.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Lloyd Devereux Richards’s video for Stone Maidens posted by his daughter currently sits at 11.8 million likes and 46.1 million views. Not bad for a video that posted in February of this year. The 11-year-old novel saw an immediate surge in sales on Amazon and currently has over 8k reviews.
  • Colleen Hoover who began her writing journey as a self-published author has sold more than 20 million copies of her books and credits her BookTok fans for her success. 
  • Rebecca Yarros, who wrote Fourth Wing, and Carley Fortune who wrote Meet Me at the Lake both sold hundreds of thousands of book copies within the first two months of release. 

Things became more interesting earlier this year when TikTok’s parent company ByteDance entered the publishing game with its subsidiary 8th Note Press, a potential challenge for traditional publishers. 

With BookTok, traditional publishers already experienced first-hand what it was like to wrangle the flailing tentacles of the social media platform that seems to have a mind of its own— moving in waves over one author, then shifting unexpectedly to embrace another. How can a traditional book marketing campaign stand up to an unpredictable sea of raging fans?

According to Industry Leaders Magazine

While TikTok’s foray into publishing holds promise for authors and self-published works, it also poses a threat to traditional publishers. If the TikTok algorithm prioritizes videos featuring books from its sister company, it could hinder the organic virality of lesser-known titles. Moreover, the promotional advantages of 8th Note Press could give it an edge over traditional publishers when it comes to signing self-published authors with existing audiences.

Bottom line? With over 180 billion viewers, when you’re creating a book marketing strategy, BookTok is not the platform to ignore. 

Review bombing, the “favor economy”, and fake books

As if writing a book wasn’t already a massive undertaking, “fake news” or in this case, fake reviews and blurbs have wormed their way onto the long list of things authors have to consider when publishing. 

An NPR article earlier this year highlighted what’s known as review bombing—the practice of writing fake negative reviews on competitors' books to give a new release a sales advantage. In the grand scheme of things, this is no better than leaving positive fake reviews to boost sales, but as the article pointed out, the consequences can be dire. More than a few authors have been called out for the practice and consequently dropped from their publishers and shunned by fans. 

“Favor economy”

On the flip side, there’s the “turn a blind eye” practice of some authors to inflate blurbs for books that they haven't read.

In the Esquire magazine article, A Plague on the Industry’: Book Publishing’s Broken Blurb System, author Sophie Vershbow uncovers the deeply disturbing practice of “fudging” blurbs as a courtesy. 

Vershblow  interviews several industry professionals including authors and agents to which she shares, “My sources consistently acknowledged that submitting a glowing blurb without actually liking the book was commonplace in the industry.”

In an industry where social proof means everything to book sales, it’s unfortunate when we have to sift through so much noise to find the truth. 

Fake books

Why people? Why?

Publishing professional and author Jane Friedman announced earlier this year that someone was publishing books on Amazon in her name that didn't belong to her.

A Bloomberg Law interview with Friedman had this to say about fake books:

While scam books have existed almost as long as publishing and online booksellers have had to combat the phenomenon, generative artificial intelligence presents uncharted territory. People can now use the tool to almost instantly produce large swaths of text in the writing style of existing authors—and list them for sale on sites like Amazon.com Inc. and its Goodreads Inc. unit.

Although Friedman was able to get the books taken down from Amazon, in the article, she credited her high-profile platform and knowledge of IP Law as the catalyst for action on Amazon's part. She also shared her concern that other authors may not be prepared to deal with such an issue. 

Another author, British Journalist, Rory Cellan-Jones stumbled onto what looked like his memoir on Amazon only to learn that it was a fake book created by AI under his name. The book was eventually removed from Amazon like others, but are the gatekeepers doing enough?

More news:

  1.  In October Amazon filed a lawsuit against scammers claiming to be a part of Amazon Publishing and KDP. The individuals lured authors in with fake websites that coerced them into spending money for subpar services
  2. Fake “verified” reviews on AI-generated travel guides dupe buyers into buying scam books on Amazon. 

Self-publishers level the playing field

In the early days of self-publishing, anyone caught outside of the traditional publishing circle was laughed under the table. Vanity publishing had the reputation of publishing books without regard to quality just to make a buck, while anyone choosing to DIY their project had limited access to sales and distribution channels, publishing data, and book professionals. Without the proper tools, self-publishers couldn’t compete for sales with big-budget traditional publishers. 

But, oh, how times have changed! Fast forward a few decades and self-publishers not only have access to what traditional publishers do, but in many areas, including outreach, they can outperform them. 

Author earnings

Earlier this year, the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and the Authors Guild (AG) released shared author income surveys.

ALLi received 2,539 responses to their survey of which 2,261 (89%) met the criteria and 1,843 (82%) completed the survey. Here are a few standout findings from their surveys:

  • The median writing and self-publishing-related income in 2022 of all self-publishers responding was $12,749, a 53% increase over the previous year. Average (mean) incomes skewed much higher: $82,600 in 2022, a 34% increase. Removing from the analysis the respondents with no income and those with over $1 million in income resulted in a lower average income of $65,482. (ALLi)
  • 60% of self-published authors had published their first books within the past 8 years, and 25% since 2020, indicating the ongoing vitality of this community (ALLi)
  • Over half of the respondents had published more than 10 books, and 20% had published over 30 (ALLi)

According to the Author’s Guild survey, “A total of 5,699 published author[s] participated, and the survey sample was meticulously divided, with representation from both traditionally published and self-published authors, making it the most representative author income survey to date as well.”

Here’s a cross-section of results pulled from their report: 

  • The median income of full-time self-published authors in 2022 was $12,800 from books and $15,000 total from all writing-related activities. Full-time self-published authors who had been publishing since at least 2018 reported a mean income of $24,000 compared to $13,700 in 2018, a 76 percent increase
  • Full-time authors of romance and romantic suspense had the highest median gross income from their books, out-earning mystery, thriller, and suspense writers by over three times and literary fiction authors by a staggering nine times. They reported a median book income of $31,725, and their combined median income reached $37,000 when factoring in both book and other author-related income.
  • Graphic novelists ranked second, earning a median book income of $15,000 and a combined income of $25,000 when including other author-related income.
  • Mystery, thriller, and suspense authors had a book income median of $10,000, with their combined median book and author-related income totaling $15,010. Literary fiction authors earned a median book income of $5,000 and a combined median book and author-related income of $13,500. Biography authors reported a book income median of $3,500 and a combined median book and author-related income of $9,200. Lastly, authors focusing on literary works had a median gross book income of $2,800, and their overall income, inclusive of other author-related sources, was $10,100.

Let’s play fair

This year saw self-published authors taking a stand on issues that matter most. With so much skin in the game and enough of an impact on the book sales for others to take notice, many voices rang out loud and crystal clear. 

The Hollywood writer’s strike might feel removed from the self-publishing world; however, two specific wins set a precedent that can have ripple effects across the publishing industry—artificial intelligence and streaming.

Under the Summary of 2023 WGA MBA contract, Section 5 under Artificial Intelligence covers:

  • “AI-generated material can’t be used to undermine a writer’s credit or separated rights.”
  • Writers can't be required to use AI software.
  • Companies must disclose to writers if AI has been used in any materials supplied.
  • The WGA (Writer's Guild of America) can assert that using writer's material to train AI is prohibited.

Section 7 which covered streaming services promised an increase in foreign streaming residuals, a viewership-based streaming bonus, streaming data transparency, and a premium for pilot and backup scripts. The benefits for publishing are not immediately apparent, but writer and editor Dan Holloway does a great job explaining why the positive outcome of streaming services policies matter.

One of the things that has happened with the advent of streaming is it has become harder to keep a track of what payments are owed to the original creators of material that is then streamed and repeatedly streamed. It's not like a repeat showing on mainstream TV where you get paid per repeat, and there was a worry that the whole streaming industry was leading to lower and lower rewards for writers over a longer period of time. This obviously matters to us because streaming is increasingly the way that people like to consume creative works of all kinds, whether that's audio or whether it's reading.

Authors vs. Amazon

As the largest book retailer in the world, Amazon has provided many authors with a secure full-time income from its platform alone. For many authors, Amazon is a no-brainer when it comes to launching their books because of their retail market share; however, everyone is not on the same side of the Amazon coin. 

On August 16, 2023,  the Authors Guild (AG), American Booksellers Association (ABA), and Open Markets Institute sent a letter to the chair of the Federal Trades Commission (FTC). In it, they asked that the FTC “open an antitrust investigation into how Amazon used and continues to use unfair methods of competition to gain and maintain a monopoly in its role as a seller of books to the public and a monopsony in its role as a buyer of books from publishers.”

In the 12-page letter, they argue that “The open access to the free flow of ideas is essential to a well-functioning democracy. The government has the responsibility to ensure that actors with oversized power cannot control or interfere with the open exchange of ideas because allowing them to do so would undermine our First Amendment rights.”

No matter which side you sit on, as self-publishers, knowing what’s going on in the industry is essential to being an informed business owner so you can make the best decisions for your book business.

More author news:

The end of an era

The Wall Street Journal Bestseller list is no more (sniff!) and USA Today's bestseller list is now automated and has lost its oomph. How many authors have dreamed of rubbing virtual shoulders with the kings and queens of the bestseller club? Probably a lot, but alas, we must find other motivations to keep us writing when the words start to merge on our computer screens, and we’ve read the same paragraph 14 times. 

Final thoughts

Authoring and publishing a book will definitely show you what you’re made of, but ultimately, it’s about the journey. There’s a lot going on in publishing, and as we move into 2024, more will come our way, but if we keep ourselves laser-focused on the goals we’ve set, we'll often find that the noisy stuff is just that—noise.

Do you want help staying on your book publishing track in the new year? Chat with one of our amazing book professionals who can help point you in the right direction. 

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