Home » Amazon, Author Earnings/Vanity Presses, Big Publishing, Ebooks, Royalties » The Tenured vs. Debut Author Report

The Tenured vs. Debut Author Report

26 May 2014

From Author Earnings:

In our most recent earnings report, one chart jumped out at us and begged for deeper analysis: It was a look at daily author earnings according to publication date, and it revealed the heavy reliance Big 5 publishers have on the sale of their backlist titles. The same chart showed, less surprisingly, that self-published authors are making the vast majority of their earnings on recently published works. In a single chart we were witness to the economic effects of new participants entering an industry in which they were formerly uncompetitive. The same chart made it apparent that the effects self-publishing will have on the trade book industry have only just begun.

Because of this chart, we began looking more deeply at authors from two different camps: those who debuted prior to the explosion of self-publishing and those who debuted after. Authors getting their start today will of course be joining the latter camp. And we believe those authors will want to know the following:

• Big-5 publishers are massively reliant on their most established authors to the tune of 63% of their e-book revenue.

• Roughly 46% of traditional publishing’s fiction dollars are coming from e-books.

• Very few authors who debut with major publishers make enough money to earn a living—and modern advances don’t cover the difference.

• In absolute numbers, more self-published authors are earning a living wage today than Big-5 authors.

• When comparing debut authors who have equal time on the market, the difference between self-published and Big-5 authors is even greater.

In this report, we will also reveal how e-book earnings represent roughly 64% of a traditionally published fiction author’s income, and therefore why authors should focus less on statistics geared toward publisher earnings and trade bookstore sales and consider their own incomes instead. Finally, we will tackle the difficult question of just how many authors are earning a living wage today. The results are sobering. I’ll spoil it for you and say that there aren’t many.

. . . .

If the Big 5 hadn’t signed a new author since 2009, and simply released new works from their long-established authors, they would still be making 63% of the e-book revenue that they are making today. Ownership of backlist and long-tenured authors is quite clearly big publishing’s most powerful commodity. This goes a long way toward explaining ever more restrictive reversion and non-compete clauses in publishing contracts. It also lends credence to rumors that some top-name authors are already receiving ebook royalties higher than 25% of net. Publishers rely heavily on these established authors and may be willing to violate their own most favored nation clauses in an attempt to retain them.

. . . .

Roughly 46% of traditional publishing’s fiction dollars are coming from e-books, while the other 54% comes from print sales, audiobooks, and other formats. On the non-fiction side, e-books make up a far smaller fraction of gross dollar revenues: only 20%.

. . . .

For the average traditionally-published fiction author, this means 59% of unit sales are now e-books. But what percentage of their earningscome from e-books? Remember that industry numbers are usually focused on how the corporations are doing.

. . . .

While only 32% of the publishing industry’s gross revenue currently comes from e-books, nearly 64% of the average traditionally-published fiction author’s earnings is coming from their e-books. Earnings for the average genre-fiction author will skew even further toward their e-book sales.

. . . .

[T]here are far more indie debut authors from 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 who are now holding spots on the Amazon bestseller charts than Big-5 debut authors. Even more striking, the number of today’s bestsellers from these “New” indie debut authors increases steeply year-over-year, while the number of today’s bestsellers from “New” Big-5 debut authors stays flat. The number of today’s bestsellers from small to medium publisher debut authors is also growing year over year, although not at the same explosive rate with which indie debuts are grabbing and holding slots on the charts.

. . . .

Taking all of the above into account, let us now pose two frequently asked questions facing new authors today: What are my chances of being able to earn a living from my writing? And which publishing path gives me the best shot at eventually being able to do so?

For the first time, we can look at a large enough cross-section of author earnings data that, despite its acknowledged limitations (Amazon-only, e-books only), can help light the way to some answers.

. . . .

Of the 500 or so Big-5 debut authors in 2013, only 245 (fewer than half) are today earning $10,000 or more from their Kindle e-books.Surprisingly, despite having more books published and on the market, even fewer of the roughly 1,500 Big-5 authors who debuted in 2012, 2011, and 2010 are earning $10,000 or more. Referring to the earlier blue-and-orange pie chart showing what portion of the average traditionally-published author’s earnings is from e-books, we might convince ourselves that print and audio (as well as other e-book retail channels) could on average double this author-earnings number. But few folks would consider $20,000 per annum a living wage, and fewer than a third of the Big-5 debut authors from the last 4 years are earning that much today.

After years and years of querying and jumping through gatekeeper hoops, it appears that even the less-than-1% who are lucky enough to land an agent and a Big-5 publishing contract can’t manage to quit their day jobs. (This is an observation in the data that matches what we have seen anecdotally in the publishing and bookselling trenches).

By contrast, we see over 700 Indie-published authors who debuted in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 who are today earning more than $25,000/year from their Kindle e-books alone. For these authors, e-book sales on other platforms and POD print sales will add another 20%-30% on average to this total. It’s easy to see that, for the past 4 years, and even taking lost print sales into consideration, far more Indie authors than Big-5 authors are earning a living wage from their writing.

. . . .

The picture that is emerging from our data collection and our look at bestseller churn is that the number of Big-5 debuts at each earning level is relatively flat, year over year, while the number of living-wage-earning indie author debuts is growing exponentially year over year. Even ignoring the hurdles and roadblocks that are a built-in part of traditional publishing’s drawn-out querying process, it’s easy to see which method of publishing represents the greater and faster-growing opportunity to earn a living wage as a writer.

Link to the rest at Author Earnings

PG would like to issue a warning: Be prepared for an explosion of innumeracy from traditional publishing enthusiasts attempting to rebut this report.

On an anecdotal basis, PG frequently hears some form of the following from indie authors: “I didn’t make much money from my first books, but I kept writing and publishing and learning how to market my books. Over time, my sales went up. First I replaced my salary and quit my day job. Then I replaced my spouse’s (usually husband’s) salary and we decided it would be better for both of us to focus on writing and promoting my books.”

Amazon, Author Earnings/Vanity Presses, Big Publishing, Ebooks, Royalties

79 Comments to “The Tenured vs. Debut Author Report”

  1. What about Amazon authors? By that I mean authors who are marketed by Amazon. Thomas and Mercer authors for instance. Believe me when I say, that about the time Amazon starts selling your books in earnest, you’re sure as hell earning a living.

    • What about Amazon [published] authors? …Thomas and Mercer authors, for instance. Believe me when I say, that about the time Amazon starts selling your books in earnest, you’re sure as hell earning a living.

      Not necessarily — see the report and the data.

      Amazon publishing imprints (Montlake, Thomas & Mercer, 47 North, etc.) do provide their authors proportionately more boost (on Amazon) than other publishing methods do. But the author-earnings bell curve applies to Amazon-published authors just as it does for other publishing types. Not all Amazon-published books are selling well — many are selling less than a copy a day.

      There are no magic bullets. Earning a living from your writing is tough, no matter what publishing route you choose. But thankfully, due to the better options we now have, vastly more folks are able to do it than ever before.

      • Patricia Sierra

        Several days ago Amazon featured one of my books in a promotional email (to my surprise). It was the only day this month that I didn’t sell any copies of the promoted book. Go figure.

  2. I have to admit even I’m surprised how fast and how steep change is happening with indie incomes.

    And you’re right, PG. There will be an incredible backlash from trad publishing. They’re already up in arms over the Amazon-Hatchette negotiations. Throwing gasoline on burning charcoal would be less incendiary.

    • It doesn’t fit the narrative they’ve constructed. I suspect they might try to pretend these newest reports don’t exist unless there’s enough chatter that they can’t pretend not to see.

  3. I haven’t replaced my income yet, but expect to within about 18 months with my normal output. If I can keep up for to more years I should be able to do the same for my wife’s income too. And all this without ever once looking at a publishing contract or writing a query letter.

  4. Most first-time indie writers won’t have their best cover art-work, their best writing, the best editors and certainly not the biggest platform that they will have down the road.

    So, the fact that indie authors are beating the folks with professional editing, marketing and distribution says quite a bit.

    I’m waiting for the time when it begins to look obvious that Big Pub is rearranging the deck chairs to accommodate their biggest-grossing earners.

  5. Let me preface this question with the confession that statistics make my eyes cross. (And I might have missed where this was mentioned.)

    Is this based on one book a year? More?

    I suspect Indie authors are more prolific than Big 5 authors due to the long turnaround times and publishing schedules of traditional publishers.

    It seems to me the number of books published would definitely affect the earnings potential of an author.

    • We thought the same thing. But our first report showed that top-earning indies are making a living with fewer books than top-earning traditionally published authors.

      Or, as some would say more poetically than I can, “making a living with less books than top-earning traditionally published authors.”

      • So, yes, we know that going indie is a much more profitable business, Hugh but here’s what I want to know: How can we use this data to sell more books?

        These are the questions I’d like to know: (I’d be willing to pay for this info)

        * What page count range generally sells more?
        * What genres and subgenres sell more?
        * Do books written by pen names with female authors sell more than male? What about androgynous named authors that use their initials instead?
        * Do books that include an author bio on the Amazon page sell more than those without?
        * Do books that debut on Wednesdays do better than those that debut on Fridays for example?
        * Titles: Do titles with 3 words work better than 5 words? Titles with verbs or no verbs sell better?
        * Do first person or third person titles sell more?
        * It seems some hugely selling books are written by authors with hardly any social media following. Does that have an impact on sales?
        * Do books with a male lead do better than books with a female lead?
        * How well do books with a short Amazon description sell vs a longer one? What’s the ideal length?
        * What color covers sell the best?
        * What color font on the titles sell the best?

        Contact me, Hugh: JamieLakeNovels AT gmail DOT c-o-m, if you’re not going to do this info publicly and you’re willing to sell it.

        • While I know your intentions are well-placed, I think the data Hugh has been reporting is best for informative, rather than prescriptive, purposes. I think it’s a great way to get a better snapshot of the industry, but to get more granular, I’d fear that answering your questions would encourage responses advice like, “Well, the data indicates that first-person stories written by authors with female pen names and 4.7 words in the title (so use a preposition!) sell best. Plus, make sure you have some green in your cover (it does better than red or blue), and keep your font in Goudy or Bookman Old Style. Also, shoot for 74,652 words.”

          On the other hand, it might discourage authors from using Papyrus! 😉

          Seriously, though, I think some of the most useful data authors could possibly use is data Hugh and DG unfortunately can’t get access to: what pages sent people to the Amazon page? How many people who downloaded/purchased the book/sample opened it? How many read it? How far did they read? For people who purchased and began to read, what percentage of readers finished? For people who didn’t finish, where did they stop?

          • Thanks, Will but knowing that “the data indicates that first-person stories written by authors with female pen names and 4.7 words in the title and prepositions sell best” would actually be incredible and valuable data indie authors can actually use.

            We already know from the 3-4 previous author reports that indie publishing is the most profitable way to go. That’s been rehashed quite a few times. I’d rather know things that we can use to our benefit.

            • God no. That would be terrible information to have. We authors chase success enough as it is. Knowing that the bestselling books are first person romances with three word titles would only lead to a proliferation of such books by indie authors trying to cash in. This is exactly what the publishers do. Harlequin, for example, has it down to a science.

              When I was writing for Harlequin under a pen name, I was told that I couldn’t do X type story set in Y with Z type characters because their test audiences don’t like them. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this approach, but it’s extremely restrictive.

              I think too much marketing information kills innovation, because we’re afraid that if we stray from the norm, we’ll lose sales.

              Screw that. I’m writing books, not designing widgets.

              • Word!

              • There is everything wrong with that approach!

              • Yeah, I’d rather sell slightly fewer books but have a better time writing what I enjoy writing than try to tailor every single aspect of my writing to maximize income as much as possible.

                I mean, I’m already making enough to quit my day job as it is, without knowing how to hit the exact center of the bull’s-eye on all points of popularity. In fact, this is my last week sitting at somebody else’s desk. More money is always great, but I don’t want it badly enough that I want to strip all the creativity and fun out of my work.

                I appreciate that some folks DO want to design widgets, and there’s surely a market for widgety books, so that’s fine. But I don’t feel any great urgency to see Author Earnings drill down to specifics as detailed as which tense or perspective or cover color sells the most books.

            • What Robert said. That’s one of the main reasons indies are doing so well. We aren’t copying each other, which is the big mistake trade publishers have made over the last couple of decades.

              We also need to take into account what Joe Konrath refers to as “sheer dumb luck”, or what I call being in the right place at the right time with the right book.

              Three examples specific to me:

              1) I released my first BDSM February of 2012. E.L. James’ FSoG came out the next month. I was the recipient of a ton of her spillover.

              2) One of my readers was an aspiring writer and asked for some advice about a year ago. (I pointed her to TPV, of course. 😉 ) She’s released a trilogy since then, and I’m very happy to say she’s doing a ton better than me. So well, she’s writing full-time and hired a personal assistant. She recommended me to her PA, who then recommended me to a reviewer, who is now pimping the hell out of me. A NYT bestselling author read my book based on the review and contacted me about contributing to an anthology she’s putting out this year.

              3) Nora Roberts, or her publisher, gave her October 2014 release the same title as the first book in my urban fantasy series. People are downloading my book simply because I’m showing up on the first page on Amazon and B&N while readers are looking for Nora.

              The point of my rambling is don’t just look at market statistics because they don’t tell the whole story, and in the case of any type of art, statistics can’t forecast what people want to buy and read accurately.

              • those are wonderful examples of ‘luck.’ Some peeps seeme far more ‘lucky’ than others it seems… and youre right, be READY with books -something– anything book-ite –when luck might come drunkenly staggering up one’s sidewalk after a long night out and with pockets spilling coin left and right… and ringing YOUR doorbell– when luck’s house is …next door. That’s luck. lol

                • A quote attributed to a number of different people seems appropriate here – “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

              • Sounds great, Suzan. Don’t spend it all this summer.
                Ya gotta work hard to be around to be lucky !

        • I don’t think many of these can be scraped from the Amazon website. They would require human judgement of the metadata(e.g. female vs male vs androgenous author names, color of cover) or focussed reading of the text itself (e.g. male vs female lead character). But they are all interesting, and Data Guy/Hugh Howie have managed to produce some remarkable results, so who knows?

        • I’d be curious to see this info as well. We make the data available for others to play with. I’d love to see people parse the data to look for trends like this. My answer to “How do we sell more books” would be that you already decided to sell more books when you self-published.

          My primary goal is to educate aspiring and existing authors to the benefits of owning and controlling one’s art. Maximizing earnings afterward is an entirely different goal. Personally, it’s not one that interests me as much. I don’t do much to maximize my own sales.

          • When “authors” write to a formula, it sells *once.* If you want to “make a living,” sell *more* than once. Readers can tell if it’s C–P, and refuse to buy anything else from you.
            That $5 book (e or otherwise) represents about *1 _hour_ at minimum wage* (after taxes). Fail to provide entertainment worth that much to them, and they won’t buy any more.

        • Jamie Lake’s questions are excellent. I have said for a long time that some genres (romance for example) has a huge market share for cheap e-books. This market is not open to writers who do not write such books.
          Similarly, the other questions are also interesting and relevant.

          Perhaps we should remember that people buy recent releases more readily than older books. This will impact the comparison. Many of the self-pubbed books are first releases or recent ones. And price matters hugely!

          • Suburbanbanshee

            Actually, there’s a huge potential market for Japanese-set stuff like yours.

            Books a lot less than anime and manga, yes, but anybody who will struggle through a stochastically-fan-translated “light novel” will buy something written in good English. The main problem is that kids don’t have credit cards or incomes (well, most kids), but kids become adults too.

            Yooouuuu strike me as somebody with a lot of the “good stuff” that fannish kids want. Although mystery isn’t the most popular genre among YA and college age readers, there have been a fair number of Japanese-set mystery series for kids, and that eventually sucks people in. Heck, I read Judge Dee in 6th grade and remembered it into adulthood. (Albeit there weren’t any nekkid people in the Scholastic kids’ book of Dee short stories! I think they picked out every last non-scandalous story in the man’s canon. But it worked!)

            One thing I think you might want to do — talk to the various anime and manga publications in the US. They often are looking for articles or interviews. If you wanted to talk about, say, the state of Japanese-set mysteries, or how to research Japanese topics when you’re not Japanese, that might be helpful and it would get your name and links out there.

            I think a lot of writers would benefit from interdisciplinary promotions like this….

            But anyway… yeah, in the past there was plenty market for cheap bulk amounts of stories in all genres, but particularly mystery, crime, and thriller pulps, Western pulps, romance pulps, and Western romance pulps. Whenever times are tough, people like exotic and historical settings because they are a free vacation trip. (Albeit with non-risky excitement! intrigue! danger!) Western romance is making money hand over fist, so I’m pretty sure that the market for cheap and plentiful mystery (or Japanese historical adventure with mystery in, which would probably be a lot of your potential younger readers) is out there somewhere.

            Of course, I’m crazy enough to think anime about prettyboy ventriloquist Japanese detectives are awesome, so I’m pretty much not a typical anime or mystery fan…. 🙂

            • That was very kind of you, Suburbanshee. I’m aware that there is a lot of interest in a certain kind of exotic/Japanese book. The Martial Arts crowd, for example, loves all things Samurai. I have one title, THE SWORD MASTER, that sells rather well, but the reviews tend to complain that the sort of stuff that belongs in novels interferes with the action parts. 🙂 I’m afraid, I cannot write the kinds of books that appeal to a very wide spectrum, including boys. I write for adults, though of both genders. That means fewer sales, but so be it.
              As it is, the numbers are slowly climbing.

      • I just wanted to high-five you for specifically this sentence:

        Or, as some would say more poetically than I can, “making a living with less books than top-earning traditionally published authors.”

  6. Yes, I expect a lot of backlash posts against the report this coming week. We saw this a few months back when the first report was released.

    So will this be a trend then, where every couple months a new report comes out and then a round of rebuttals and counter-rebuttals?

    As a self-published author not interested in big publishing, how does this help me?

    • It doesn’t help you unless you find yourself needing something to point to when others are on the fence. We are trying to help authors who we believe would be better off if they turned down traditional publishing contracts until those contracts offered higher digital royalties, price ceilings for e-books, promotional pricing flexibility, no non-compete clauses, and sane terms of reversion.

      If the trade market continues to move toward self-publishing, the Big 5 will have to capitulate on these sorts of terms. That would be good for all authors.

      • If the trade market continues to move toward self-publishing, the Big 5 will have to capitulate on these sorts of terms. That would be good for all authors.

        Frankly, Mr. Howey, I don’t think they can capitulate, even if they want to. It would upset too much of that backlist business and violate too many of those contracts with old established authors. (Most-favoured-nation clauses can be such a poison pill.)

        I’ve been studying various disruptive innovations in various industries for over 30 years – long before Clayton Christensen coined the term, though I never had anything like his academic chops or his access to high-quality data. This particular disruption keeps reminding me of the mainframe computer industry in the early 1980s, after the PC had already begun to eat the mainframes’ lunch.

        Mainframe computing was almost entirely in the hands of IBM and the so-called BUNCH (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data, Honeywell). In 1980, the BUNCH all thought that PCs were useless toys. By 1985, they had all (except, I think, Control Data) released their own PCs in an attempt to co-opt the new technology. By 1990, all these companies had failed in the PC business, and by 2000 they were all out of the mainframe business as well.

        IBM did better, but IBM created a separate PC business unit that did not have to answer to corporate headquarters. None of the Big Five have the foresight, the technical knowhow, or the organizational flexibility to do that with the ‘new’ publishing; so I expect them to fail in much the same way the BUNCH failed with PCs. Probably there will still be companies called Random House Penguin, Macmillan, or Hachette in another decade; but if so, they probably won’t even be in the publishing business as we know it now.

        (By the way, I finally bought a copy of Wool the other day and devoured it. You may consider me suitably impressed.)

        • Agreed, Tom, and one of the many good comparisons of another disrupted industry with what’s happening to Big Publishing.

  7. Data Guy or Hugh (or someone)–First, thank you for your work. You are equipping many authors. My question: what is “uncategorized single author publisher” vs. an indie author? Sounds like the same thing to me. Many indie authors use the name of a “press.”

    • Most of the Uncategorized Single-Author Publishers are probably Indies in disguise, but we didn’t want to overstate Indie market share.

      For an explanation of how we categorized publishers in the data:


      • Those of us who set up our own publishing entities (registered as a business in my state and all that) do so for various reasons. In my case, when I started in 2009, self-publishing was considered the worst of the worst, so I hid behind my own publishing business. It had advantages for recognition and distribution contracts. Now, it doesn’t make any difference, but it does help to separate business expenses from personal for tax reasons.

      • I had been wondering that too, especially since that category seems to be performing consistently worse than the others. I guess this would include book mills that strip public information and package it as original titles, though, so that might skew the numbers.

  8. • Big-5 publishers are massively reliant on their most established authors to the tune of 63% of their e-book revenue.

    This doesn’t surprise me. I know as a reader I still buy some of my favorite established author’s books despite the higher prices, but when I’m on the hunt for new authors I look for indie authors. If I’m going to take a risk on something I’d prefer to drop $3-$5 than $8-$12.

  9. But…but…but…but… Amazon evil! Kills little puppies!

    Legacy pub is saving the culture. Doesn’t that count for anything in this cruel and selfish world of cold maths?

    Will no one think of the Children!

  10. Ha, PG’s comment is basically my career. I wrote a bunch of books, slowly gained a following, got better at marketing, quit my day job and starting making a living wage, now my husband and I are contemplating him quitting his job/staying home with kids if we have then while I continue to write.

    It’s a glorious time to be an author.

  11. Another way to look at some of the key numbers:

    245 of 500 Trad published debut authors earned > $10 K.

    Assume only 1% or less of those who submitted to trad publishers were accepted.

    That means about 245 of 50,000 people who submitted earned > $10 K. That works out to about 0.5% of writers who went the trad route earned more than $10 K.

    About 750 Indie writers earned > $10K. So, that means that Indies did about as well as trads (or better), even if there were 153,000 writers in the Indie denominator in an equivalent calculation (750/153000 = .0049).

    So, even if roughly one person of every 2000 in N.A. wrote an Indie book (150,000 out of 300,000,000), the chances of Indie success are about the same as the chances of Trad success.

    My take-away is that the sales advantages of going trad are offset by the very small chance of actually being accepted by trad publishers.

    • 245 of 500 Trad published debut authors [from 2013] earned > $10 K.
      About 750 Indie writers [debuting in 2013] earned > $10K.

      It’s worth pointing out that the numbers Daleo cites are last year’s debut authors (from 2013) only, to put it in context for readers who aren’t looking at the report graphs.

      In total, earning > $10K/year from Kindle e-books, there were:
      – 1,392 Indie-Published authors
      – 1,401 Big-Five-Published authors
      – 948 Small/Medium Publisher authors
      – 170 Amazon-Imprint-Published authors
      – 220 Uncategorized Single-Author-Publisher authors

      Naturally, the majority of the Big-Five authors were long-established ones, with Kindle debuts more than five years ago. They had, on average, more books each than the Indies.

      The Indies were more recent authors with fewer books each, on average, than the Big-Five authors. It’ll be interesting to see how this looks after Indies catch up in title count.

      • Yes, I suspect that there will be convergence between Trads and Indies over time. The name Trad publishing is indicative – over time the advantages of tradition (in any endeavour) wither away if they aren’t based in some real-life advantage or value added.

        • I think there will be more separation, with indies blowing past Big 5 authors. Right now, they are dead even or indies are slightly ahead. That’s with fewer titles and less time on the market.

          If we’re lucky, Hachette and the rest of the major publishing houses will get everything they want from Amazon, and their resulting $14.99 e-books will continue to drive readers to self-published titles. Maroons.

          • Separation is even better. 🙂

            And it makes sense that separation would happen over time, as the value added of trad publishing is really a value subtracted, when you compare a 70% (ish) royalty to a 25% (ish) royalty.

            Businesses with more overhead generally lose out to businesses with less overhead, all else being equal. But every transition takes some time. This one is well underway, though, as your evidence shows quite clearly.

  12. Check out KKR’s comment on that. It’s sickening how publishers are stealing from authors.

    • That practice is just…unconscionable.
      And here I thought Harlequin’s self-dealing was as low as they could go and…
      So, basically, if I understand correctly: the tradpubs can set an ebook list price at an outrageous value, say $30, and then wholesake it for a high market price and pay zero royalty by claiming “deep-discount”…?


  13. Terrence OBrien

    “As a self-published author not interested in big publishing, how does this help me?”

    I don’t know. But it helps me to know which market segments are growing and which are shrinking. Then I can decide what I am interested in pursuing.

    It appears eBooks now dominate fiction. If 46% of trad dollars come from eBooks, and the lions share of independent books are eBooks, then eBooks have won the field for fiction. Given my resources and interests, it’s reasonable for me to forget about print.

    And with the Hachette drama and these numbers, I see the perfect storm lurking on the horizon. I agree with PG. The next few weeks should be quite interesting.

  14. “The same chart showed, less surprisingly, that self-published authors are making the vast majority of their earnings on recently published works.”

    This is interesting. Does it mean that the value of binge publishing is simply putting more new titles in front of readers, but the value of creating a backlist is negligible?


    • Does it mean that the value of binge publishing is simply putting more new titles in front of readers, but the value of creating a backlist is negligible?

      Our interpretation is the opposite.

      Backlist titles comprise a significant chunk of traditionally-published author earnings, whereas self-published authors as a group have already achieved parity with the Big-5, despite not having had enough time to build comparable backlists yet.

      • Well, that’s even more interesting.


      • As I said earlier: customers prefer recent releases to older books. Backlists don’t sell as well.

        • Suburbanbanshee

          If I’ve never read it before, it is a “new release” as far as I’m concerned.

        • Do you have a citation? I’ve seen a lot of people give a try to a new-to-them author (often on the basis of a 99c promo or something) and then go and devour everything else available (meaning: backlist).

          While new releases often get the attention of popularity and high rankings, I think there’s way more at work.

          • Anecdotal, but I have watched this happen in more or less real time, as have other authors of my acquaintance. One benefit of being a slower-selling author is that you can watch your sales numbers for patterns that indicate individual action is taking place. If I get a new fan with one book, it’s not uncommon for me to suddenly see an increment to a large number of my titles within a few hours.

          • I watch my sales data. Releases from the past 18 months to 2 years heavily outsell the older titles. I’ve wondered at it, but there is no explanation for it but the release date and possibly some Amazon placement somewhere. It’s startling because it should not be that way. But even Joe Konrath has started preaching to keep new releases coming.

        • As I said earlier: customers prefer recent releases to older books. Backlists don’t sell as well.

          *shrug* My own experiences are not in line with that statement. It’s anecdotal only, I realize…but The Sekhmet Bed continues to sell at about the same rate it’s always sold for three years, and now that I have a complete series following it up, each of those books sells at near the same rate as the first in the series. I haven’t seen a big dropoff in sales (or any appreciable dropoff in sales, when you consider sales over months or years) since it picked up steam in early 2012, about four months after I first published it.

          Intuitively, I would have thought that readers would prefer new releases to backlist *from Big 5 publishers* due to marketing and social network buzz about newer titles. But this report definitely indicates otherwise.

          Interesting how it looks once you peek below assumptions!

  15. I am a 2011 Indie Author, and the following are my thoughts:
    1-Being traditional published is not a choice for 99% of writers, including me, therefore what trad-published authors make is irrelevant.
    2-What Indie Authors earn, living wages or not, is also irrelevant, because no two authors write the same exact book. Comparison is impossible and therefore not applicable to me.
    3-The relevant thing is that I know what is possible in general for Indie Authors. If I make less, I can concentrate on what will it take to make more. If I make more, what do I do right and how can I continue doing that.

    • Agreed. My thoughts on your thoughts:

      1) For the 1% who can choose, the majority of them should be choosing to self-publish. From everything and everyone we know, these authors would be happier, more productive, and far wealthier if they struck out on their own. They are paying middlemen a fortune to perform a service that is no longer needed. Instead of being saddled with cover art they don’t really like and an editor they didn’t choose, they could have complete control over both for a fraction of the price. (I know I’m singing to the choir here. It’s the agnostics in the pews we’re running these numbers for).

      2) Earnings show market potential. If we discovered that only 5 indie authors are earning a decent living, the legacy publishing pundits would be screaming our findings from the mountaintops. Remember when the dialog was all about how 95% of self-published authors don’t sell more than 100 books in their lifetimes? That’s the sort of thing we set out to check. What we are finding instead is that the chances of making a living from writing fiction is likely greater for self-published authors than traditionally published authors. Those findings include enough of a variety of books on both sides to be a meaningful conclusion. If you are weighing how to publish, the numbers from Amazon’s bestseller lists should tempt you into self-publishing.

      3) Exactly!

      • For the 1% who can choose, the majority of them should be choosing to self-publish.

        After seeing the data, I agree completely.

        And FWIW, I’m putting my money where my mouth is. 🙂

        I self-published as a first choice, without ever considering going the querying route.

        Since then, I’ve turned down offers from big publishers on my self-published books.

      • “Instead of being saddled with cover art they don’t really like and an editor they didn’t choose, they could have complete control over both for a fraction of the price.”

        Sadly enough that’s one of the reasons I decided to publish on my own. I’ve know too many authors, particularly in sci-fi, who get stuck with generic “military guy in power armor sans helmet, striking a heroic pose with their rifle raised in the air” for their cover art, even if the character in question wouldn’t be caught dead looking like that.

        • THIS was exactly what finally pushed me into self-publishing, too! (and thank goodness it did.) After The Sekhmet Bed had garnered a shiny rejection from every single Big 5 imprint (Big 6 at the time) that handled historical fiction, I was looking at small presses to query. At the time, I thought every single small press that handled historical fiction had absolutely atrocious covers. I couldn’t countenance putting such a bad cover on one of my books. I realized the only way to make the book look attractive to readers was to make the cover myself…which meant publishing myself.

          And the rest was history.

          Covers: SO IMPORTANT.

      • I agree Hugh. I just gave my personal opinion. The data is valuable to different authors in different ways. And if it is encouraging, the better for all of us Indie Authors.

      • And I get a paycheck every month instead of once every six months, with no reserves against returns. And I understand my royalty statements.

  16. Another “soft” issue that can’t be quantified easily: how many indie authors who “debut” in 2013 and 2014 and make $10K+ have actually had numerous failed pen names in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 — and used those failed names to work out their mistakes and rise in recent years having learned better what works and doesn’t?

    This report tracks by author name, so there’s no way to know, and most authors don’t connect older pen names to newer, more successful ones.

    • It would be interesting to know. But it wouldn’t be any different than all the manuscripts legacy authors have in various drawers.

      I’d love to see a crowdsourcing of our base data to hone our results. I’ve argued for releasing a non-anonymized dataset on Google Docs so people could help us categorize small publishers correctly and even link pen names, as you say. The reason we can’t is the inevitable lunacy that would arise when people mistook the power of averages and began looking up their books in a single snapshot, extrapolated their earnings, and claimed the total share of the pie was bunk because of the results.

      • good insight into the lesser of human nature. I wonder if there’s a way to fulfill your hope and somehow keep the drama llamas out of it.

    • Interesting point about pen names. The trouble with having different pen names is the marketing effort to create a brand name.
      Besides the pen name there are several elements that make a book:
      1-Author’s name
      6-Length of the Book
      8-First three Chapters
      9-Author’s Bio
      10-Author’s Picture
      12-How many Books Written
      13-Author’s reputation/Brand
      16-Anything else I didn’t list
      Considering all these elements it is hard to place a single importance on any one element, except for how good is the story and how well was written.

  17. Terrence OBrien

    They are paying middlemen a fortune to perform a service that is no longer needed.

    I’d say the middlemen are paying authors a pittance for a necessary service. The guy who pays is in charge. The authors aren’t in charge. They were, but they gave it up.

    • I’d actually argue the same thing but from a different angle. The authors weren’t in charge, and haven’t been since the invention of the printing press. They’ve been specialized skilled labor, and the key change with what our industry is going through is that for the first time ever the power balance has flipped. For all their talk publishers probably never really saw themselves as “providing a service”. No, they’ve been exploiting a resource, and authors had no choice but to accept the situation in they ever wanted to sell.

      We’re finally seeing a publishing industry where the author is in charge, and that’s what scares publishers. When an author can hire their own editors, fire them for shoddy performance, source out their own cover art, and source their own marketing/lawyers/website/etc the game has well and truly changed.

  18. Thanks Hugh for all the work that went into this, and the time. It’s nice to see facts.

    Also, the Kubs, the elderly writing team couple send their love to you; Mr Kub is a disabled vet and was recently hospitalized. But both say they are proud of you. We belong to same circle of teachers/writers.

    Anyway, look forward to more of all good things from and for you. And that agent of yours, aint she a feisty one!! Given most agents dont say squat, [or rather like the pub community and indie community and most any community, the same five speak, rant, yell, vow while others agree with aloud or disagree in silence] her assertions were like snow in miami. It was good to hear another voice.

  19. Mr. Howey, I really want to thank you and Data Guy for putting into verifiable numbers all the uneasy suspicions I have felt over the years. This has taken a lot of your time and I suspect not a little money. We owe you.

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