Self-published authors earn more than traditionally published counterparts, according to ALLi report

From The Bookseller:

New research by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) claims authors who self-publish currently earn more than traditionally published authors.

ALLi circulated the survey to its members and subscribers, as well as “through other key self-publishing and author organisations” in February 2023. It was answered by more than 2,000 respondents – 60% of whom were in North America, with 21% from the UK and 8% respectively for Australia/New Zealand, and Europe. It found the the median revenue for independent authors in 2022 stands at $12,749 (£10,229).

This compares to the findings of a report into authors’ earnings commissioned by The Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS) and published in December 2022, which showed that median earnings from writing alone for authors with third-party publishers stands at approximately $8,600 (£7,000).

The ALCS’ report showed “a sustained fall in professional writers’ real terms income from writing over the past 15 years of around 60%, pushing median earnings down to minimum wage levels,” a trend which ALLi suggests self-published authors are “bucking” in light of its survey’s findings, which suggest average incomes of self-published authors are rising, with a 53% increase in 2022 over the previous year.

By contrast, its report goes on, “previous author income surveys, which have focused on revenues received by authors with third-party publishers, have repeatedly reported falling incomes.”

. . . .

ALLi has commissioned the UK Copyright & Creative Economy Centre, CREATe – which conducted the ALCS’ survey – to expand analysis of the findings, particularly in relation to “key demographic groups and factors that contribute to higher incomes.” ALLi will publish the full report including demographic data in June 2023, together with a collection of insights from several peer self-publishing organisations, as the Big Indie Author Data Drop. This compilation and final 2023 report will be presented at the Self-Publishing Live conference in London in June 2023 and will repeat as an annual event, which the organisation says will fill “a notable gap in author income research”.

Orna Ross, ALLi director, said of the findings: “ALLi has always believed that authors are financially better off self-publishing. Now that the results of this survey confirm that belief, we want to make sure all authors know that they can make a living as an author, if they do the work and acquire good publishing skills, alongside good writing skills. And that they are not alone. There is full support for talented and dedicated authors at ALLi and throughout the self-publishing community.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG notes that Orna Ross, the founder of The Alliance of Independent Authors, has been doing good things for indie authors for a long time (ALLI was founded in 2012).

Those who recall 2012 (including PG, just barely), will remember that this year included a notable antitrust suit filed by the U.S. Justice Department against Apple, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster for trying to fix prices for ebooks, and strangle Amazon’s ebook business in the crib.

Basically the five big publishers agreed to refuse to sell ebooks to Amazon unless Amazon sold their ebooks at the publisher’s list price. The agreement was made at the instigation of a top Apple exec and provided that Apple would sell the majority of e-books between $9.99 and $14.99, with new releases being $12.99 to $14.99.

Apple also adopted the agency model which it used in its App Store for distribution of e-books. This let Publishers control the price of the e-books with Apple receiving a 30% commission. The joint agreement provided that the Publishers would establish ebook prices on Amazon so ebook prices on both platforms would be identical.

On the day Apple launched its ebook store, a Wall Street Journal reporter asked Jobs why people would pay $14.99 for a book in the iBookstore when they could purchase it for $9.99 from Amazon. In response Jobs stated that “The price will be the same… Publishers are actually withholding their books from Amazon because they are not happy.”

As PG has opined on more than one previous occasion, doing this reflected the rank business and legal stupidity of the major publishers. What Jobs and the publishers agreed to do was a classic example of illegal price-fixing that was (and still is) clearly prohibited by US antitrust laws.

Jobs was a highly magnetic and innovative individual who built Apple from nothing into a major world-wide computer brand, a wonderful American business success story.

However, Jobs was dying of cancer at the time, kept this information secret and (PG suspects) decided to propose this agreement without any input from Apple’s lawyers at all. A law student who had taken a single antitrust class would have recognized this was prohibited conduct.

After being sued, the publishers quickly caved, took their financial licks from the Justice Department and some state attorneys general who joined in the suit, and went back to business as usual. Apple lost at the trial level, lost at the United States Court of Appeals. The US Supreme Court declined to take the case.

Amazon kept pushing ebooks, including more generous royalty terms than authors could get from traditional publishing, and never looked back. PG has suggested on numerous occasions that traditional publishers missed a wonderful opportunity to earn a lot of money from ebooks because they didn’t want to harm their printed book sales or relationship with traditional bookstores.

It was a classic example of one bad decision after another.

Orna Ross and ALLI have provided a lot of help for indie authors ever since the Apple antitrust case was still roaring along, so she’s seen the thick and thin of indie authors. You may want to check out the membership benefits the organization offers.

10 thoughts on “Self-published authors earn more than traditionally published counterparts, according to ALLi report”

  1. One minor correction regarding the Wormyfruit matter:

    On one hand, Random House (not then Random Penguin) was never named as a defendant; that means that, in lawyer parlance, it was a “cooperating witness” who had successfully “withdrawn” from the price-fixing conspiracy at an early enough point to evade liability. Good for them.

    On the other hand, Macmillan did not cave and fought all the way to the end as a loser. And Judge Côte made her displeasure at exactly how Macmillan chose to fight quite clear, both in the body of the opinion itself and in the footnotes (which are particularly satisfying reading, as to both Macmillan and Apple; if you like eminently civilized smackdowns of lying bullies, footnote 66 is highly satisfying).

  2. Oops, forgot the links to the opinions:

    United States v. Apple, 952 F.Supp.2d 638 (S.D.N.Y. 2013), aff’d, 791 F.3d 290 (2d Cir. 2015).

    Judge Côte’s opinion (the F.Supp.2d part) is a masterful example of “judicial opinion as storytelling” and use of factfinding to make the opinion virtually unappealable. That’s not to say that the loser wouldn’t try — just that the possibility of success was under five percent. It’s highly worth reading; although she doesn’t neglect the technical legal terms and analysis, neither does she rely on technical language to hide anything from nonlawyers.

    • Thanks for those links. As a layman I particularly enjoyed the clarity of Judge Côte’s opinion. It does raise doubts apropos PG’s suspicions about a lack of input from Apple’s lawyers: it seems that Kevin Saul was involved throughout the negotiations/conspiracy (and was one of the “other witnesses who were noteworthy for their lack of credibility” according to Denise Côte’s smackdown in footnote 66). I also enjoyed the Appeal Court’s put down of the dissenting opinion.

      • There’s a difference between “input from the General Counsel/Associate General Counsel” (who is almost always a golfing buddy of the good ol’ boys in the C-suite, and acts as a corporate officer and manager more than anything else) and “input from lawyers with actual expertise in the subject area(s) that matter.” Let’s just say that Mr Saul was not one of the latter; he was a dealmaker and negotiator. Echoes of McCoy’s laments to Kirk are intentional.

        Bluntly, the screwups all around in US v. Apple epitomize the legal profession’s arrogance in fundamentally saying that with the singular exception of patent prosecution, all attorneys are generalists who — with a little library time — are competent to handle any legal matter. That’s what their license says. There’s a good reason that medicine sneers at lawyers’ claims to “professionalism” and “self-regulation”! It’s along the lines of looking at the eagles on the collar of the nearest military officer and getting advice on an infantry-led defense of a high-desert outpost; too bad those eagles were on the collar of a Navy Captain… in the Supply Corps…

  3. Author earnings: First off, we really need the details of the methodology used. There is huge opportunity for selection bias. But even beyond that, there is the apples and oranges issue. Indy writing centers on commercial genre fiction. It is pretty clear that for most writers working that field, self-publishing is more lucrative. It is not at all clear that this translates to, for example, general nonfiction, making the comparison facile.

    • Agree. I have never seen one of these that has a statistically valid sample set. If average earnings are $12K, I’d add a question asking how the author eats and pays for a roof.

  4. It should be noted that while the OP tracks tradpub authors’ revenue decline back 15 years, the trend is much longer. The entire trade book industry has been stagnant all century and in fact has been under stress and consolidating since the 1970’s and its core business model–based on B&M storefronts and control of market access–is unchanged since the 19th century.
    It has never neen author friendly but beggars can’t be choosers.

    The use of a median benchmark instead of a plain average by the OP is quite appropriate since tradpub purposefully hides behind outliers like Patterson, King, and Rowling to lure in the unwary.

    Nonetheless, a word of caution is required: industry sales numbers are traditionally reported as raw currency, unadjusted for inflation. Which never went away but is now approaching 1970’s levels. (Thus the purchasing power of 2022 currency is significantly lower than that of 2012, to say nothing of 1970.) Also, it is “somewhat” suspicious that industry consolidation has its roots in the high inflation era of the ’70’s. A 19th century model that refuses to accept modern economics and the technologies underlying them is particularly at risk to inflation.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying that while Indies are weathering the times better than the their tradpub counterparts sooner or later they will have to reconsider their own economics, particularly pricing. Inflation attacks everybody, though not equally. The game is fluid and ever-changing.

    A second point of note: Indie, Inc predates even the Kindle but its modern form has its roots in that 2012 court case and its ripples (the four hour price war of ereaders, for one) and it has been reported by trade book industry veterans with some credibility that (outliers aside) “professional author” revenues historically require about a decade of output and a dozen or more titles in active sale to stabilize revenue. We are reaching that point for a lot of ebook Indies so the number of authors making significant revenues will likely go up, all the while inflation seeks to reduce it.

    The extra complication, looking forward, is the arrival of useful “AI” assisted creative tools almost certain to impact book creation processes, costs, and quality. Particularly in the areas of editing and graphics. (No, “AI” tools won’t be displacing competent authors, though some idiots might try, but Indies leveraging such tools stand a better chance of weathering the times. Hint!)

    Fluid and ever-changing.
    Interesting times.

    • Felix, there’s a secondary, noninflationary, 1970s change in law that contributed to the media consolidation (which necessarily included the publishing industries): The Borkian turn in antitrust law. The AT&T breakup was the real last hurrah; failure of US v. IBM was the canary in the coal mine.

      Had there been an attempt to begin building something like Gulf + Western that reached critical mass before 1977, it would have been smothered in infancy regardless of “inflationary pressures” or “economies of scale” or anything else. Instead, it did, and we’re seeing the delayed nuclear fission now… because one of the unstated premises of antitrust law is that getting “too big” has distinct, unique-to-bigness dangers for the dominant firm that will cause industry-wide disruptions magnified by extremes in market shares. US v. Apple illustrates it quite nicely (see Judge Côte’s opinion at 649–50 and ponder why there’s not one word there about the publishers attempting to develop their own direct-sales models).

      I’m not at all saying that “the inflation of the 1970s didn’t matter to industry consolidation.” I’m saying that the fundamentally changing legal environment mattered too. Then there was that pesky Copyright Act of 1976, and the Bankruptcy Code of 1978, that changed things, too…

      • At the consumer level, though: books (and MMPBKs in particular) went up in price tenfold+ in price in the ’75-85 decade and something a bit lower but still substantial in costs so that previously standalone imprints went from small sustainable businesses to marginal at best to one desk at a conglomerate. The same happened to comics: they went from million copies a month at newstands all over at $0.15-0.20 to comic shop niche at $1.25-2.00 in a decades. The BPHs may pretend price elasticity doesn’t apply to them but the evidence says otherwise.

        That the law allowed the mergers is secondary: it was sell or die. Without the mergers it would’ve been liquidation instead of consolidation. And the big multinationals woukd still own the content. Probably cheaper. Not toodifferent than what happened but with more layoffs.

        Wait a bit to see what hsppens to S&S now that they can’t pawn it off on Bertelsmann.
        I’m betting it won’t be pretty.
        (It never was going to go well.)

        Or look to the ongoing consoldation in gaming.
        A lot of smaller studios are *willingly* selling out to the big guys because the way the market has evolved, each release is life or death for a small studio whereas a big company is so diversified they can shrug off delays or outright failure.

        One of the most highly rated independents, OBSIDIAN, sold out to Microsoft and the CEO said he was tired of worrying about making payroll and having to say no to his creatives because he couldn’t find a publsher willing to take on a new IP. Two years after the sales, he’s doubled the staff, released three successful games, including one delightful oddball, and has four more coming. Everybody won.

        Times change and sometimes the changes favor the small and nimble and sometimes they favor scale and deep pockets.

        The trick is knowing which and when.

  5. In fairness, there is some selection bias here–this survey was distributed by the ALLi to members of the organization and others like it, who I suspect are more likely to be successful than independent authors as a group.

    That having been said, A. The same is probably true of the respondents to the ALCS survey–namely, that they are more successful than average among tradpub authors; and B. It’s still true that, thanks to how tradpub works, it’s much easier to get a halfway decent steady income stream from indy publishing than tradpub if you can actually write.

Comments are closed.