Author Earnings January 2018 Report: US online book sales, Q2-Q4 2017

From Author Earnings:

It has been nearly a year since our last Author Earnings report, which is probably far too long between updates. But while we haven’t said much publicly during that time, behind the scenes we’ve been super busy on the commercial side, and as a result we’ve taken our industry data and analytics capabilities to a whole new professional level.

For large publishers and other scaled industry players, this has led to a brand new source of real-time business data: a perfect complement to Bookscan, covering digital and online book sales. For authors, it means that we can now provide a far greater depth and accuracy of analysis here, pro bono, under the AuthorEarnings banner. So it’s a win-win for everyone.

But why did traditional publishers and publishing-industry analysts become so interested in our data in the first place?

Two reasons: Full-market coverage. And timeliness.

Over the past few years, traditional publishers have largely been able to navigate the digital disruption and adapt their businesses to the changing bookselling landscape with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, the industry’s legacy sales-reporting providers, upon whom those publishers rely for data… haven’t.

Which has caused problems industry-wide.

For some book formats, these providers were still able to give decent visibility into overall sales. Print sales data from Bookscan, for instance, captures somewhere between 70%-80% of all US hardcover and paperback purchases at point of sale, giving publishers a reasonably accurate and statistically meaningful picture of which books US readers are buying in hardcover and paperback formats. And more importantly, Bookscan sales numbers for last week are available this week, to support publisher business decisions for next week.

Data reporting on the digital side of the market has been a whole different story.

Legacy data providers like PubTrack Digital and the AAP are effectively blind to vast sectors of the consumer ebook & audiobook market. And those non-traditional sectors are precisely where ebook sales have continued to grow, year after year, even as PubTrack-and-AAP-reporting publishers have seen their own ebook sales dramatically shrink. As a result, what was once a small blind spot in the industry’s online-sales numbers now blocks half the view. Data from PubTrack and the AAP is now missing two thirds of US consumer ebook purchases, and nearly half of all ebook dollars those consumers spend. (And reporting is so long-delayed–often by 4-6 months–that even if the data were more complete, it would still be useless.)

. . . .

While these commercial efforts have been kept wholly separate from AuthorEarnings, they’ve put us in a unique position, data-wise. In the past, even when we analyzed a million top selling titles at a time, we were still only looking at a single day’s sales. But no longer.

Now we capture over a million top selling titles a day. Every day.

Our analytics run in real-time, 24/7.

Which means that if a book sold even a single online copy since April 2017, no matter whom the publisher or author, we can probably find it in our ever-growing dataset. Whether that title sold two copies yesterday or two thousand, we can see those sales. We can total them up in our dashboard. And for next week’s unreleased titles–or next month’s–we can tally up their accumulated online preorders, too.

. . . .

During the last three quarters of 2017, we recorded $1.3 billion in individually tracked ebook sales, $490 million in individually tracked audiobook sales, and $3.1 billion in individually tracked online hardcover and paperback purchases. While this is not quite 100% of online sales during the period, it comes pretty close — we ramped up from a much smaller share in April, to where we are capturing more than 90% of all US online sales for Q4 2017 and beyond.

. . . .

The above two pie charts show 2017 US online book sales by format: on the left, total units purchased, and on the right, total consumer dollars spent.

(It’s worth noting that even print sales have, by now, moved mostly online: in 2017, we show a full 45.5% of Bookscan’s reported 687 million total US print book sales coming from Amazon alone. By our measurement, Amazon’s share of the print market has been steadily and continuously climbing, from “only” 41.7% in 2016 and 37.7% in 2015, while sales at bookstores and other brick and mortar outlets shrink — a fact obscured by Bookscan’s lumping of Amazon online sales and brick and mortar bookstore sales together in a single combined category called “Club & Retail.” So the red online “print” share shown here represents roughly half of all US print sales, period. ).

Unsurprisingly, when we look at the above pie charts, most online book purchases in 2017 were ebooks (55%), while audiobooks made up a small but fast-growing share of units (6%), and print books accounted for the remaining 39% of units. In dollar terms, ebooks–with their generally lower purchase prices–made up a far smaller share of total online dollar spending, while 63% of online book dollar spending was for print.

But that doesn’t mean adult fiction dollars split that way. Nor even trade adult nonfiction dollars.

Why? Because it turns out a huge chunk of those print dollars are actually going to textbooks and other academic/professional print titles (strangely, the DSM-5 Psychiatric Manual of Mental Disorders was a particularly high 2017 seller). Textbooks, which are generally priced in the $60-$200 range, skew the dollar total significantly toward print. As do children’s books (including Board Books), another huge category of book sales where almost all purchases are in print.

When we leave out textbooks and children’s titles, and look only at adult fiction & trade nonfiction, the picture changes somewhat…

. . . .

70% of online purchases of adult fiction & nonfiction are ebooks & audiobooks, and online consumer dollars skew mostly digital, too. In fact, most of the remaining online print share here is nonfiction; further narrowing the scope to just adult fiction, we see that online sales are even more digitally dominated.

. . . .

Romance readers are overwhelmingly buying digital now: 90% of all Romance purchases are ebooks. And we can see that Science Fiction & Fantasy, with roughly 75% of sales now ebooks & audio, is not that far behind. On the other hand, readers of Poetry are still buying 82% of those Poetry books as print, and 85% of Drama & Plays are bought in print, even online.

Link to the rest at Author Earnings

36 thoughts on “Author Earnings January 2018 Report: US online book sales, Q2-Q4 2017”

  1. The observation that there is no seasonality to ebook releases is one of those actionable items that’s invaluable.

    I LOVE these reports — I am so all about industry data.

  2. They seem to be dismissing the indie authors reporting a downturn in sales, while ignoring the fact that indie publishing volume has almost certainly been growing exponentially compared to trade pub.

    In other words, that there are now more and more indie authors chasing on the same slice of the pie, so that individual returns are getting smaller.

    • His inference was that the “lost” money has gone to other authors rather that just being diluted more or less uniformly among a bigger pool.

      With less evangelizing the new winners are preferring to be discreet. 😉

    • Some Authors yes. But not all authors. As they mentioned at the end of the article:

      “What it shows instead is a changing of the author guard.

      But the newest superstars of Indie, Inc., who have replaced the indie pioneers in the top rankings, are in general a quieter bunch than their predecessors were. They spend far less time evangelizing self-publishing, or giving advice to large groups of authors. And why would they? Indie publishing has gone mainstream.”

        • Or, with so many anecdotal reports of decline, they may think they are outliers and countering the online narrative would be seen as bragging.

          • Or they may have good business sense and judgement and realize that contradicting the narrative is counter-productive for them.

            The industry doesn’t need more quality indie writers to attract readers. The need for evangelization of indie publishing to lift all ships has… well, sailed. A new breakout author in your genre likely means your sales will slip a bit now, where before, a breakout just brought more readers to indie publishing and helped everyone out.
            The market seems to have stabilized. Its still growing, but at a much more predictable growth curve.

            • Whatever the reasoning, the likelihood of an Indie author making b-i-g money announcing it to the world isn’t high. Especially if they are newcomers or simply new to that bracket.

              Another point to consider: current wisdom is that it takes five years and ten-twenty books to establish an actual writing career. For pure indies (as opposed to hybrids and tradpub refugees) that window pretty much oppened around 2016 so if a new wave of high achievers were to arise from Indie, Inc. Now’s about the time we woukd start noticing them.

              As KKR delicately put it, today’s big names are going to start “aging out” eventually. It maybe their replacements are among those Indies.

              Last point: DG is listing revenue not units sold. With Indie titles running 3-7 times lower than their tradpub high performers, those blurred out 7-digit sales may be tbe equivalent of 8-digit grosses in the tradpub world.

              There be giants.

            • Or, you know, they might just like writing, and spend more of their time doing that. It’s not like “evangelizing self-publishing” is some great career movement upwards, or something that writers unconditionally aspire to.

  3. I wonder why two of the “Top 50 Indie Authors by Dollar Sales” authors have their names blurred out (#17 & #42 in the last table). Anyone care to speculate?

    • When I looked this morning, no names were blurred. Now several are. I’m guessing they asked DG to respect their privacy.

      • Of course, that’s a pointless exercise. Anyone can still see the names by viewing a cached version of the site. Nothing ever truly disappears on the internet.

    • Now even more blurred out. I thought the dung would hit the fan with the naming of names. Sales figures seemed to be the most guarded secret in publishing. Still, the cat is out of the bag. I’m sure the complete list is out there… And blurred out or not, the information is available for a price, so it is never going to be a secret again, for those who are willing to pay for it.

      • The sales figures themselves were blurred out, but I can see why authors would want their names blurred out too.

      • If you want your name to be private, you might not want to put it on a book and put the book up for sale.

        • Indeed. Anybody on the list probably qualifies as a public figure in their field of expertise, and their “right to privacy” is surprisingly limited.

          • Makes me wonder how people would feel if they really understood the breadth of data available to the three US credit reporting agencies and the banks and other customers they sell that data to.

    • I still had the tab open from when I read the report yesterday, so the names are all there.I don’t know why authors mind their names being there. I figure it’s a mark of honor to be in the top 50: shows your work is getting to its audience and they enjoy it and come back for more.

      #17 and #42 are both contemporary romance authors …familiar names for those who read the genre or indie romance review sites, initials LB and MF. ANd yeah, cached pages pretty much rips the idea of privacy. (Though I wish someone would explain to me why this is something that you gotta hide instead of preening over. I’d be preening if I were in the top 50. It’s like getting a trophy.)

      • Think of it this way: a lot of people online are reporting revenue drops and hardship. Some might think their losses are going to these 50. Even if it isn’t.

        (Most of the evidence is that ther gains are coming from losses by BPH tradpub authors. 🙁 )

        • Even if the losses were to the 50–though I agree with your assessment–that’s not the fault of the top 50 authors. Anyone who blames them for not having sales is kinda stupid.

      • People selling really well don’t necessarily care about impressing other authors by being on a list. Many prefer to fly under the radar……being on a list like this puts a spotlight on them…..and is bound to result in people trying to copy them, jumping into their exact genre. I don’t blame them a bit for not wanting to be outed publicly. I also think it’s pretty crappy to list their initials to try to out them again, against their wishes. What’s the point of that?

        • Good points, Pamela.

          Being on a bestseller list also results in lots of people asking you to read their manuscripts, teach them how to write and, in one way or another, asking you for money.

          • Hey PG,
            Do you know a good lawyer would could represent the authors who are ENRAGED to have been “outed” on a list like this without their permission or consent by someone who hides behind his anonymity? And then preaches privacy constraints when asked why he can’t just expose the top 2000 indie earners? What a hypocrite and a CREEP. His info is WAY off about a LOT of things. Anyone who uses this report to make decisions, good luck to you.

            • Do you know why people like JK Rowling, James Patterson and others don’t sue when Forbes publishes estimated earnings and total worth? Because they would have to submit their financial information during discovery.

              Doesn’t matter how accurate the estimate is, fighting it would be a nightmare.

              Welcome to the big leagues.

          • It is more than people who will email them. Scammers have been a *huge* issue on Amazon US. Guess who just gave them a list of 50 authors to aim at?

            And if trad pubs and other industry clients are being sold the actual sales numbers of individual authors (and the fact that Data Guy is deleting comments asking that question seems like odd behavior if he’s not selling that data), that opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms.

      • It’s not a trophy if you are extremely private about things like your earnings. It’s a violation of our privacy. We weren’t consulted or asked or in any way warned that this info would be made public. So I asked to have my name REMOVED and many others did too. The fact that it wasn’t is an issue that opens them up to even more liability.

        • Dean Wesley Smith has brought thihs up, as well, as I noticed on his blog. I assume they will have to address this, even if the earnings themselves weren’t listed, only the ranking.

  4. It’s interesting how well the old method of single day tracking correlates to the new method of constant tracking.

  5. I read the whole report, and what a huge amount of work Data Guy and co, did. Amazing. And helpful as a aerial view and up close buzzes too

    Thanks Data Guy/ cohort

  6. i’ve added to how I see this on the most recent post from DWS, which raises important questions about business issues re the authors. How complicated this quickly became.

  7. I was on the list. If anyone was surprised to see my name there, they haven’t been paying attention to the bestseller lists during the year. None of those names should surprise people who are paying attention to the business end of business. I don’t care that I was named. I believe knowledge is power and I have no issue sharing what I know. I was also one of those authors that told everything about my traditional publishing contracts.

    And for the record, I’m 100% introverted, so I don’t enjoy attention for attention’s sake. But business data is important and relevant. I have no issue with the data being public or how it was gathered.

Comments are closed.