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.
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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.
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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%.
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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.
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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.
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[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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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.”