More Terminology In Self-Publishing’s Winter Garden: Are They ‘Royalties?’

iStockphoto / Rrrainbow
iStockphoto / Rrrainbow

Another Day, Another Ill-Used Term

In the strictest sense, there really is no such thing as royalties in self-publishing!

Mick Rooney is a little kinder than I am, warning you to sit down before you read that line about there being “no such thing as royalties in self-publishing.” Me, I prefer to dump the ice over your head first. The better to get your social-media-challenged attention.

Rooney goes on:

You are the author. If you are a true self-publisher, then you are also the registered publisher of origin. Authors get royalties. Publishers don’t!

In our last article, In The Hothouse Of Publishing, Our Terminology May Need Pruning, we looked at how the term hybrid is being used in publishing at times to mean something other than an author who both self- and traditionally publishes. When we snap up phrases and use them to mean more than one thing, we unnecessarily invite confusion. As if we didn’t have enough of that here in bookish country, right?

Mick Rooney
Mick Rooney

Rooney is going on to explain why those “self-publishing royalties” really aren’t royalties.

“Stay sitting down!” he instructs us in his Royalties: The Seduction of Self-Publishing.

Publishers receive revenue and work out their profit on every single unit sold. Ideally, the publisher sets out to cover their initial investment (once all the production and marketing costs are paid for) and earn a little or a lot on top to make the endeavour worthwhile.

In fact, he writes:

A royalty is the total amount paid to an author. In royalty universe, there isn’t any such thing as 10 percent, 25 percent, 50 percent, or even 99.9 percent of an author royalty.

A royalty is 100 percent of whatever is paid to the author! The only exception to this is when two or more authors have co-authored a book, or an author has agreed to split his/her royalty with an illustrator or translator directly contracted in the book project.

Troubled Terminology, Troubling Expectations

The author Hugh Howey touched on this in one of his writes in late December, Are Indies Treated Like Second-Class Citizens?

In that one, he’s looking at the controversial Kindle Unlimited program at Amazon, which requires authors to participate in the exclusivity of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select, and how it pays self-published authors “from a shared pool of ebooks borrowed through KU, while traditionally published titles receive the same payout they would get for a regular sale.”

In the course of that essay, Howey advances the bold notion that “As a whole, I don’t think we indies treat Amazon as well as trad publishers do.” It’s an interesting perspective, well worth reading if you missed it. More:

Not that it’s cut and dry. I mean, we don’t charge ridiculously high prices for our ebooks, which Amazon appreciates. But then, trad publishers don’t employ perma-free on the scale we do, and free ebooks tax Amazon’s infrastructure without earning them a penny (they lose money, in fact, as they have to pay AT&T to deliver these works, provide customer service for these works, storage, etc.). In all the arguments I’ve seen of Amazon treating indies as second class citizens, I’ve never once seen indie authors own up to the cost we foist on Amazon with perma-free. Not once.

This week, the author Hugh Howey ran this photo of himself in his Twitter stream: He's with the builder of a new catamaran he has ordered. Former yacht captain Howey will return to living at sea in July, and he'll call his new boat 'Wayfinder.'
This week, the author Hugh Howey ran this photo of himself at an exuberant moment in his Twitter stream: He’s with the builder of a new catamaran he has ordered. Former yacht captain Howey will return to living at sea in July, and he’ll call his new boat ‘Wayfinder.’

Howey’s pragmatic, quiet think-through is the sort of thing that might not have been possible until this winter in the self-publishing world. So vehement and defensive was the general tone of the sector for years that lines like this would have been ripped to pieces by blog commenters.

As it turned out, two comments, one from Christopher Wright, and one from Howey, distilled the discussion to simple terms.


This is a kind of tortuous argument that in the end can be summarized as “yes, we are second-class citizens, but we deserve it because we make life hard for Amazon with our wacky and occasionally infuriating self-publishing antics.”

And Howey:

Not saying we should be content. But I don’t see much nuance in the discontentment. Indies act like Amazon should put them before the readers, which is crazy. And they also act like Amazon has unlimited resources and money, which is a little less crazy but still crazy.

And along the way, Howey had pointed out, as Rooney is doing this week in his new post, that what are commonly called “royalties” in self-publishing normally are not. It gave Howey a chance to make a subtle point that may have been lost on many of his readers: in the maturing self-publishing scenario, so complicated by platform demands for exclusivity and variances in how independent and traditionally published authors are paid, the part of the phrase that needs emphasis is not “self” but “publisher.”

Howey wrote, emphasis his:

Wait, you say, we aren’t just authors. We are publishers! We pay for cover art and editing. We upload a finished product, ready to go. These aren’t royalties we’re earning; they are a cut of proceeds. So comparing our income as authors to other authors isn’t fair. We should compare our income as self-publishers to other publishers.

And once he began that comparison, he came to an early pause: “Self-published authors treat Amazon’s customers like second-class citizens” — an artful and insightful turn of the tables.

Rooney’s ‘Royalties’ And That Regal Term

In his new article, Mick Rooney doesn’t take on the questions of self-publishing authors’ relations with Amazon and other publishing platforms as Howey did, but he does remind us that even our use of terms has at times been incorrect. And I have to think that most of us are guilty of this. I know that I’ve used “royalty” incorrectly in this regard at times.

No one is saying that there was ever a conscious effort to use the wrong phrasing. “Royalty,” in fact, is a term frequently appropriated by the self-publishing platforms before authors do, as a matter of convenience and, says Rooney, a certain seduction of what James Scott Bell has recently termed “anxious writers.”

But writers are people who generally see the correct use of words as a fundamental key to producing their work. So it’s well worth joining Rooney in revisiting that long-ago moment when you first heard something about “self-publishing royalties” and a question dashed through your mind — vague and hard to catch — about whether that term was right.


In the strictest sense, royalties or a royalty paid to an author is a percentage of revenue earned on book sales. Most traditional publishers pay royalties to their authors based on a percentage of the listed retail price of a book.

He reminds us that the “advance” is paid “against expected royalties.”

It’s not a publisher freebie or a loan that never has to be paid back! Think of an advance from a publisher as a loan to an author it is obliged to write off should a book not match its sales targets over time.

And however accustomed we all may be to talking about “self-publishing royalties,” Rooney is right to remind us that the phrase has been inaccurately co-opted:

When it comes to self-publishing service providers, vanity presses, and DIY self-publishing platforms like Amazon KDP, you will still see this word bandied around in ways it was never meant to be used. The word royalty — in terms of the book industry — originates from a traditional model of business centuries old and it really has little place now outside of those businesses adhering to this model. Cast an eye on the websites of many self-publishing service providers and you will quickly see phrases like ‘authors earn X% percentage of royalties’ or ‘we split royalties on a 50/50 basis with our authors.’

In the end, Rooney notes, “The term royalty used by self-publishing providers is something of a misnomer. It is a hang-up from traditional publishing and really doesn’t belong in any paid-publishing model of business.”

It can comfort a self-publishing author, of course, who may feel the need to share the term with his or her traditionally published colleagues. But in the end, as Rooney notes, “royalties” is a word taking a good bit of “abuse and misuse” and its usage in the self-publishing context can help contribute to some of the confusion that you find in parts of the sector. Like Howey, he seems to want authors to find their emphasis on their roles as “publishers” — a more reliable anchor on which to depend than the more easily distracted “self.”


The word [royalty] creates a connotation of status, power and entitlement. It’s a charming word self-published authors can too easily become seduced by. In future, treat what you make from every book sale as revenue or earnings, and always see it in light of what you have invested to be published. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

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