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Individual author earnings tracked across 7 quarters, Feb. 2014 – Sept. 2015

23 September 2015

From Author Earnings:

Seven quarters.

Seven Author Earnings reports.

Seven times we unleashed our software spider and took a detailed X-Ray of the majority of the US ebook market. Each time, we captured between 35% and 50% of all ebook sales in the US that day.

Over 200,000 authors, and close to a million different books.

Title-level data spanning half a billion ebook purchases, nearly $3 billion in consumer ebook spending, and a billion dollars in author earnings.

Quarter after quarter, we’ve tracked the fastest-growing and most volatile sector of the US publishing industry, and watched how it has shifted. And seen how the different sectors of the industry — from the Big Five traditional publishers and their smaller traditional-publishing peers to Amazon publishing imprints and self-published indie authors — have competitively fared.

But each of our quarterly snapshots, no matter how comprehensive, is only an X-Ray of the US ebook market at that exact moment. It’s what’s called a cross-sectional study. Like a freeze frame photo, it can only tell us how the ebook market is faring as a whole, rather than predicting the future prospects of any particular author along any particular publishing path. Because although every AE snapshot captures the sales of tens of thousands of authors — even hundreds of thousands of authors — each data set can only tell us how each individual author’s books happen to be selling at that precise instant in time.

The picture painted by each quarterly report, taken on its own, is thus necessarily incomplete.

They tell us nothing about the consistency of those individual authors’ earnings over time.

And if I’m an author deciding which publishing route to pursue, isn’t that what I’m really most interested in? Rather than broad comparisons of each publishing path’s total collective “market share”?

Publishing professionally, after all, is about building a readership and a long-term, decent-paying writing career. As an individual author, that’s really all I care about, regardless of which publication method I choose.

And that’s why single-quarter snapshots of the market, no matter how comprehensive, don’t tell me what I need to know.

Let say you’re a writer holding a completed manuscript, on the fence about which publishing path to pursue. The traditional path is undoubtedly the slower one — countless authors end up querying and submitting their work for decades, without ever landing a publishing contract. But for the relative few traditional aspirants who do, does that patience get rewarded with higher long-term stability than indie publishers see? And greater long-term income?

Does slow and steady actually win the race?

What if, for example, it turns out that traditionally published authors — as a result of their publishers’ superior marketing muscle — end up being steadier, more consistent earners quarter after quarter, just like the proverbial tortoise? And what if their bestselling indie peers are by contrast more like the proverbial hare, each of them briefly surging up the charts to be captured by our spider during their single fleeting moment of glory, only to be churned under once again and languish in non-selling obscurity thereafter, overwhelmed by the sheer teeming numbers of other indie hopefuls? What if each indie you see on the best seller charts is only king or queen for a day, or even a month or two, before their brief place in the sun is taken from them by the next lucky — and equally short-lived — indie contender?

Imagine that I’m an author deciding which way to publish my first book… or even my tenth book.

I’d kind of want to know that, right? And so, most likely, would you.

The thing we’d both really like to see is called a longitudinal study of author earnings, rather than a cross-sectional one. A study that tracks the earnings of those same individual authors over a longer period of time. And we’d especially like to see such a study done with a statistically well-defined and economically representative sample of authors — such as all authors whose books appeared on any Amazon best seller list over a seven-quarter period — rather than done based upon the self-selected responses of a handful of narrow-demographic, association-dues-paying survey participants.

Eighteen months ago, back in early 2014, at Author Earnings we took our first stab at tracking same-author earnings over time. With only two quarterly cross-sectional snapshots available to compare, the results were suggestive, but hardly conclusive.

We simply didn’t have enough data to work with, back then.

We do now.

A Longitudinal Study of Individual Author Earnings Over a 7-Quarter Period, from Feb. 2014 – Sept. 2015

By matching up author names across all seven of our quarterly snapshots, we were able to create a single, merged data set. It included over 200,000 authors and their cumulative seven-quarter sales and author earnings from the subset of their Kindle books which appeared on any Amazon best seller list or sub-list during any of our snapshots. It also included their Kindle best-seller sales and earnings broken down by each individual quarter.

Next, because we were only interested in comparing longer-term performance, we excluded “one-hit wonders” — i.e. authors whose author earnings from Amazon-bestseller-listed Kindle ebooks were not above a $10,000/year run rate in at least 2 different quarterly snapshots out of our 7. Perhaps some of these single-snapshot earners were indies that just happened to have their books captured on “Bookbub day”, or maybe some of them were traditionally-published authors whom Amazon happened to be deeply discounting for a few days, giving them a brief pop in sales. Either way, it means that we caught those authors on a particularly good day in one of our snapshots, which was not representative of their longer-term earnings.

That left us:

5,643 authors in our longitudinal data set — or roughly 2.8% of the original 200,000 — whose Kindle best-selling ebooks appearing on Amazon best seller lists were consistently earning them $10K/year or better.

Lest anyone get discouraged by that 5,643 number, keep in mind that it is only the visible tip of the iceberg: there are many, many other strong-selling authors and books that never appear on any of the Amazon Kindle best-seller lists. Those other writers don’t appear on Amazon’s best seller lists — and thus don’t appear in our data sets — because they happen to write in highly competitive genres where even dozens of sales per day are insufficient to allow a book to reach position #100 on any sub-genre best seller list. Thus those other books and authors are invisible to our spider. (Anecdotally, we’ve spoken to many of these “non-best-selling” mostly-indie authors who are earning five-figure incomes — sometimes six-figure incomes — from ebooks that never appeared on any Amazon best seller lists.)

And even for those 5,643 authors whose visible earnings from Kindle best sellers in our data sets exceeded $10K/year, many of them also had other Kindle books, too, which were NOT visible on the best seller lists. And thus their true overall Kindle ebook author earnings were higher than we show… to say nothing of their additional earnings from ebook sales at other retailers, audiobook sales (10% of the audiobooks on Amazon’s best seller lists are indie), and print sales (offset or POD).

But even so, it’s a meaningfully large and statistically representative sample, so without further ado, let’s jump in and take a look at the (best-selling) Kindle mid list.

The Kindle Mid-List

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We’ll start with the steady $10K-or-better earners. Again, keep in mind that this is by no means all authors who are earning more than $10K+/year, nor even all authors earning that much just from their US ebooks, nor yet even all authors earning that much from only their Kindle ebooks. These are authors earning $10K+/year consistently from only that subset of their Kindle books that appear on the Amazon best seller lists.

For now, we’ll focus only on the leftmost set of bars, which include all authors regardless of how long they’ve been publishing.

The first thing that stands out from the chart is that there are many thousands of such consistent five-figure-earning “Kindle Midlisters” visible in the data — both traditionally published (purple) and indie published (blue). And as we’ll see in the charts that follow, almost half of these 5,600 authors — over 2,200 of them — are consistently making $25K/year or more on their Kindle bestsellers, and more than a fifth of them — over 1,200 authors in the data set — are making $50K/year or more on their Kindle best sellers alone.

Once earnings from their other non-bestselling Kindle books, other ebook retailers, and other formats such as audio and print are factored in, it’s safe to say that most of these 5,600 writers in our longitudinal data set are making a living wage from their writing.

The two bar charts below tally up the numbers of authors making $25K/year or more, and those making $50K/year or more, from best-seller-listed Kindle ebooks alone. At each of these higher income levels, we further tightened up our requirements for observable earnings consistency. To be included in the charts below, each of these authors not only had to have total 7-quarter earnings at that yearly level or above, their earnings each quarter also had to exceed that of the previous level in at least 4 of our 7 quarterly snapshots.

Let’s take a look:

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The leftmost set of bars in every chart includes <i>all</i> authors earning at or above a given level, regardless of their earliest publication date. The left-most purple bar is thus where we’ll find traditional publishing’s longest-tenured and highest-selling authors: names like James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Lee Child, David Baldacci, Janet Evanovich, John Grisham, and Stephen King.

The left-most blue bar is also worth a mention. Prior to 2009 indie authors were a niche phenomenon, with very limited access to mainstream readers. Six short years later, there are more than half as many indie authors earning steady midlist-or-better incomes from their Kindle ebook bestsellers as there are among ALL traditionally-published authors — even with all of those perennial traditional-publishing name-brand heavyweights, who spent decades atop the old-media best seller lists, also tipping the ebook scales.

So let’s take a look at the other sets of bars, moving across the charts from left to right, because that’s where things start to get really interesting.

When you look only at authors who started publishing less than a decade ago — in 2005 or later — the gap between the numbers of indie and traditionally published authors earning midlist-or-better incomes nearly disappears. Fast work, considering that none of those indies had widespread access to readers until 2010, giving their traditionally-published cohort-mates a five-year head start.

In fact, if we look at only authors who debuted in the “ebook era” — i.e. in 2010 or after — we see a reversal. At each annual earnings level, we find far more indies than traditionally-published authors who debuted in the last 5 years and are now earning that much or more.

If we look at the most recent debuts — authors whose first Kindle book was published in the last three years or so — the disparity grows:

There are fewer than half as many traditionally published authors as indie authors who debuted in the last 3 years and are now earning consistently at the $25K/year level or $50K/year level from Kindle ebooks.

This, then, is the world that all new entrants — whether traditionally published or indie — face in 2015. If you’re a debut author in 2015 with a manuscript in hand, or even an experienced author regaining the rights to your backlist or starting out with a fresh pen name, when choosing your publishing route it’s that right-most set of bars in every one of these charts that is today most relevant to you.

But what if you are destined to be more than a mid-lister? You don’t want to sell your work short. Isn’t it still worth being patient and pursuing the traditional route, to have a better shot at truly stellar earnings?

Surprisingly, as we move into six-figure-earning territory and beyond, the contrast between indie ebook earnings and traditionally-published ebook earnings becomes even more stark.

Link to the rest at Author Earnings

PG says you’ll be interested in the comparisons between trad pub and indie authors earning $250,000, $500,000 and over $1,000,000 per year from Kindle bestsellers. It’s not a pretty story for trad pub.

PG will also note that AE used a very conservative methodology to calculate earnings for indie authors. The true numbers and incomes will be higher in each of the earnings categories.

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Amazon, Author Earnings/Vanity Presses, Big Publishing, Ebooks, Self-Publishing

36 Comments to “Individual author earnings tracked across 7 quarters, Feb. 2014 – Sept. 2015”

  1. Why do people publish important, ground-breaking articles on the days I can’t take much time to read? Whyyyyyy???

    *shakes paw at Data Guy, grumps off to finish working on work stuff*

  2. Simply astonishing. Since I know a number of indie folks in the six-figure per year category, and even two or three in the million dollar category, I was certain this was the case for indie authors. What I didn’t know was how few new trad authors are making those figures.

    Awaiting the rebuttals from those who will deny the results. Coming in one, two, three…

    • Well, they HAVE been claiming it’s been hard to make a living…

    • Not really a surprise with trad-pub offering some new authors ebook only contracts — which they overprice, never mind the 1-2 year delay getting additional well ‘nurtured’ ebooks out …

      The tide is rising, and those that built their kingdoms on shifting sand are slowly watching them settle lower and lower — some will soon be out of sight …

  3. Whoa! Best lay in some popcorn folks. There will be reaction to this one I bet!

    • Thanks. Just reading the word popcorn makes me want some. With lots of butter. And chocolate. (not on the popcorn, but in the form of Snickers bar eaten in conjunction.)

  4. I wonder how long it’ll be before the most important question isn’t about tradpub vs. indie, but rather Amazonpub vs. indie.

    • Precisely. The green part on the graphs is Amazon imprints – and the original report mentions that this is due to ‘a few thousand books’ IIRC.

      THAT is the scary part.

      Now we have to figure out whether Amazon’s huge marketing ability (they HAVE the data others only wish for) makes up in volume for whatever their terms are.

      And to remember that they accept submissions only from agents, or go looking for you themselves.

      Is this the new brass ring?

      • If so, it seems to me that reviews and sales are the key to getting their attention, which is far preferable to rewriting and resending the same query letter over and over.

        I’m sure there’s still bias and subjectivity to deal with, as there is with any system, but I’ll take a data-based meritocracy over the alternative any day.

      • I’d like to see a percentage number on each column. For example, it would tell us what percent of X-independents who started in the last five years are represented by that column.

        X-independents would be the total number considered by the study. X-Traditional would be the total number considered by the study

        Have to look at the data and see if I can get it.

      • “And to remember that they accept submissions only from agents, or go looking for you themselves.”

        Don’t forget Kindle Scout, where unagented submissions can apply.

        I’m working on a novel now that I’m considering submitting to it. What I lose in per book payment (75% vs. 50%) I would gain in Amazon’s support.

      • I can’t share specifics because of nondisclosure, but being an author with an Amazon imprint is not always a sales bonanza. It may be different in genre fiction, but they are still finding their way in selling non-fiction. I signed my deal back when they were launching my imprint with the idea that there would be full publishing support for both print and digital. Several changes in staff and direction later, they are focusing on digital only, and have not put much energy into my imprint because it isn’t easy money in digital. I also had an attorney look over the publishing contract, and while it was better than trad pub, it had its own tricks and traps. I still have faith that as the infrastructure evolves and Amazon continues to experiment (and I build a more stable output of my own indie pub works)that one day I will be reporting wonderful results with being with an Amazon imprint. I think it all depends on your genre, your goals, and your individual style. Amazon can be great–but it can also be not as good as publishing yourself.

    • Excellent question!

  5. Okay, DG; that’s just showing off. 😉

    And a tour-de-force.
    Sure beats self-selected questionaires and counting ISBNs.
    Kudos.

  6. Awesome.

  7. Dammit! My sales are going against the grain for indies, then. 🙂

    Well, book three in my series will be published next month. We’ll see if I stop bucking the trend.

  8. Wow. My take from all of that is that my choice to remain indie-only is a wise one. I want to earn money doing something I love, and it appears I am on the right track. Yay, me!!!!

  9. Data Guy just posted this in the comments on the original post:

    “Right now, I’m looking at the full, non-anonymized list of authors, rank-ordered by their total Kindle earnings. It’s pretty fascinating to see.

    Out of the Top 54 Kindle-earning authors — those making over seven figures a year from their Kindle best sellers — 13 of them are indies: #7, #11, #12, #17, #28, #29, #33, #42, #43, #45, #49, #50, and #53.”

    This is so amazing. At least 13 indie millionaires-a-year. Probably more when all titles are counted….wow.

  10. There are actually fewer indie authors than I expected making over 50K/year, but I do understand that they’re only talking Amazon ebooks and books in Top 100s. There are definitely categories where you can have a sub-10K or even 5k sales ranking and not chart.

    On the flip side, I wonder how many of those authors are the pen names of people who already appeared in the results. I know some indies who would qualify twice. 🙂

    • (points at Lindsay) 😉

      Remember, this is Amazon-only data. I have indie-pubbed friends who sell way better on iBooks. And some who float just outside the Top 100 lists and make a solid 6-figure income by having a lot of titles selling a steady amount each month, without bestseller spikes.

      I think the number of indies making more than 50k a year is a little bigger than the AE report indicates, since they are only looking at books hitting the Top 100 subgenre lists at Amazon~

  11. I always feel a twinge of discomfort when we talk about the very highest-earning indies. It’s great to know that, even though it has only been 5 years since self-publishing first allowed mainstream access to a wide audience, there are already indie authors earning millions a year and giving all but the very longest-tenured traditionally published megabestsellers, the ones who have been topping the charts for decades now, a serious run for their money.

    I think it’s important for all authors to see that, too, so that they know they won’t fail to reach their full earnings potential, or run into some kind of artificial ceiling in income, simply because they choose to publish indie.

    But… those million-plus-a-year earning outliers aren’t the real story here.

    The far more interesting story is the many thousands of indie authors who are now earning $10K, $25K, $50K, $100K, or even $250K a year — real living wages, earned by far more authors than at any previous point in history.

    Which is why I’m so ambivalent about focusing discussion on a handful of the highest-earning indies.

    That’s the exact same mistake the mainstream publishing media made, when indie publishing first became a thing.

    • The AG just reported that half their membership doesn’t make $11K from all revenue sources.
      $10K from ebooks alone is pretty good, especially for authors who haven’t been around anywhere near as long as the AG gang.

    • The most interesting aspect of the graphs is the switch in the pattern between the two left sets and two right sets. Something significant happened 3-5 years ago.

      • The conspiracy happened.
        Precisely during that window.

        • It was the Illuminatti infiltrating BP and Amazon both, using Elvis’s contacts with the Greys while the Mothmen distracted security. The Vatican Archivist is secretly controlling Random Penguine while the Templars and Masons and [redacted] and KGB are working with the other major presses. It’s part of an elaborate plot to lure Amazon into a trap and then [redacted] and [redacted], leaving only books by J———— S————, GRRRRM, and L. R—— H———— on the genre fiction shelves. But don’t tell anyone I told you.

      • That’s what’s got my attention too, because of what it suggests about how readers consume books now, versus 5+ years ago. I know how my buying habits have changed in just that short time… it is a little staggering to think that I might be one of the many.

    • The far more interesting story is the many thousands of indie authors who are now earning $10K, $25K, $50K, $100K, or even $250K a year — real living wages, earned by far more authors than at any previous point in history.

      Exactly. For example, my family and I live in Hershey, and we figure if we can earn $50K a year, we can support ourselves.

      Not handsomely, but get by and probably afford health-care (I say probably because Obamacare created a threshold where costs jump dramatically, and I haven’t gamed that part out yet).

      • What you said. We live in a small town. $50k+ puts us a nice distance above the median income here. The cost of living is lower. It works.

  12. Thanks for posting this DG. I agree with your comment above about real living wages, even if it’s not always six-figures.

    We know that on top of the authors represented in this data there are others who didn’t make the Top 100 in their categories, plus authors who:

    (1) sell books through other stores,
    (2) sell ebooks, especially non-fiction, through their own web sites (often at a higher price per book than at Amazon), and
    (3) have other sources of writing income outside of books.

    What a great time to be an author!

  13. I am very new at self-publishing so I earn coffee money, but I had no idea there were so many authors earning $100,000 a year. And a million? That just blows my mind. Five years ago who knew such a thing could happen? Ten years from now, Jeff Bezos may be hailed as a man who changed the world.

  14. For what it’s worth, John Scalzi makes some decent points in a comment he left to my TeleRead article about the author earnings study.

    Using himself as an example, he points out that only 18% of his income from Lock-In came from Kindle e-book sales, and the Author Earnings study only tracks those Kindle sales so it doesn’t show what other sources of revenue those traditionally-published authors have, which could be considerable.

    Which is a fair point. The AE data does show that indie-pub writers are earning a lot more from e-books than traditional-published writers, but there’s a danger in treating that as if it’s the whole pie when it’s actually just a slice.

  15. Scalzi’s results are surprising… because they mean the opposite of what he thinks they do.

    It’s actually shocking that Kindle *still* makes up 18% of Scalzi’s sales.

    Consider that his publisher is buying his books tons of coop placement in brick-and-mortar stores because they just committed $3.4 million to Scalzi in advances over the next 10 years and want to recoup their investment. And consider also that they are overpricing Scalzi’s front list ebooks enough to significantly depress his electronic sales.

    And yet, Kindle is *still* 18% of Scalzi’s earnings?

    I’ve talked to several high midlist traditionally-published authors in SF&F who are earning six figures a year from their traditionally published books. They aren’t Scalzi — they are the next tier down in popularity/income. And for them, ebook units and royalties outweigh print units and royalties by a significant margin — for them Kindle in 2013 & 2014 was more like 40%-50% of the total.

    But even those authors’ print books are getting more marketing push than the vast majority of traditionally published authors will ever see.

    If Scalzi’s numbers still skew this much toward Kindle, it tells us something. Just not what he thinks it does.

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