Crunching the numbers on self-publishing

How much profit did four writers make from online publishing platforms?

Amazon, Atavist, Beacon Reader, Byliner, iTunes, Kobo, Medium. There are plenty of online platforms where writers can get longform stories and ebooks published, or even publish the work themselves. But while it’s easier than ever to get your work seen, it’s not necessarily easy to make real money. CJR asked some writers how much profit they made from their self-publishing efforts:

Craig Fehrman

Home Grown: Cage the Elephant and the Making of a Modern Music Scene

When Craig Fehrman pitched the idea to profile the young rock band Cage the Elephant, from its roots in Bowling Green, KY, to international fame, he had trouble finding a home for it in a magazine. Fehrman pitched the story as a Kindle Single and Amazon accepted, sending the writer to Bowling Green with no guarantees, but with the hope the finished book would sell. Fehrman doesn’t think there is enough marketing, or enough readers, for the program to make financial sense for journalists, calling the number of downloads “frustrating.”

Kindle Singles are ebooks published on Amazon, often at novella length.

Published Oct. 20, 2013

25,000 words

$1.99 on Amazon


$2,000 retroactive advance

$500 from Audible, which distributes audio books

$2,753 total

Anna Hiatt


Anna Hiatt reported and wrote Crash, a longform story about grief and blame following a teenage boy’s death in an accident in 2007, and found outlets willing to buy the story, but only if she cut it. Instead, she put her her faith in a new startup, where she is publisher: Crash appeared in 2013 as the Big Roundtable’s fifth story.

The Big Roundtable offers original longform nonfiction stories for free and encourages donations from readers.

Published July 8, 2013

6,565 words

5,304 pageviews

5:05 average time on page

26 donations

$323 total

Jennie Erin Smith

Cocaine Cowgirl: The Outrageous Life and Mysterious Death of Griselda Blanco, the Godmother of MedellĂ­n

Jennie Erin Smith was living in Colombia when notorious drug trafficker Griselda Blanco was assassinated in September 2012. Byliner gave Smith a $2,500 advance to pursue the story of the “Black Widow’s” cocaine trade. Though Cocaine Cowgirl fared well on ebook bestseller charts, Smith says sales were relatively modest. She believes epublishing was overhyped in the media at its inception, saying she “went into it thinking there was real money in it.”

Byliner offers handpicked stories and ebooks to subscribers through its mobile apps for $5.99 a month.

Published Sept. 2013

14,500 words

$1.99 on Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo


$3,878 total

Jacob Kushner

China’s Congo Plan: What the Economic Superpower Sees in the World’s Poorest Nation

Kushner wrote China’s Congo Plan as his master’s thesis at Columbia Journalism School with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to help fund reporting. The ebook brings readers to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Chinese companies have opened the largest mineral mine in the country to harvest the Congo’s resources and build modern roads in the war-torn country.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting supports ebooks on international issues.

Published Aug./Sept. 2013

10,000 words

$1.99 on Amazon

$2.99 on iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo


$270 total

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Nicola Pring is a CJR intern