Data released earlier this week provides stunning evidence that self-published authors in several popular genres are selling many more books and making a good deal more money than most of us had previously suspected. Their success in comparison to traditionally published authors may be a wake-up call for everyone in the publishing business, from first-time writers to the biggest of the Big Five publishers. (It certainly has been a wake-up call for me: I’m dropping prices on my e-books as we speak).
Until now, the only evidence for strong sales of indie vs traditionally published books has been anecdotal reports from individual authors, many of whom seemed to be making a disproportionately large amount of money compared to the rest of us. These authors were considered to be “outliers.”
Now Hugh Howey, one of those disproportionately successful authors — well known among avid readers and the publishing cognoscenti for his best-selling self-published fiction series, Wool — has made data available (and will continue to collect and update it, he says, at his own expense) that indicates that he may not be alone when it comes to successfully selling books online, particularly e-books. His report on author earnings (cleverly entitled Author Earnings: The Report) suggests that indie-published books are getting higher scores on reviews and selling more copies than those of small- to medium-sized presses, and that the gaps between positive review scores and sales are even greater when you compare self-published books with those from the “Big Five” publishers. The primary reason? Indie authors tend to publish e-books rather than paperbacks and other formats, and they tend to charge much less for them than traditional publishers do. And e-books are selling like hotcakes.
Howey’s figures are derived from an analysis of data collected by an unnamed writer “with advanced coding skills” who has created a program that can gather and break down data from bestseller lists at a speed that was previously impossible. The initial data collection and analysis looks at book sales on Amazon and includes three genres: Mystery/Thriller, Science Fiction/Fantasy, and Romance. These genres were examined first because they account for nearly three quarters of the top 100 bestsellers on Amazon, and more than half of the top 1000. Howey and his “data snoop” will look at the entire range of fiction titles in future reports, he says.
Among their findings so far:
- In these three genres, indie authors are outselling the Big Five publishers. “That’s the entire Big Five. Combined.” [Words and italics Howie’s]
- E-books make up 86% of the top 2,500 genre fiction bestsellers in the Amazon store, and 92% of the top 100 best-selling books in the listed genres are e-books
- Although books from the Big Five account for just over a quarter of unit sales in these genres, they take half of the gross dollar sales — and the authors of those books typically receive only 25% of that profit
- Indie authors, on the other hand, who keep about 70% of the purchase price of their e-books on Amazon, are earning nearly half of the total author revenue from genre fiction sales on Amazon
- Self-published authors are, on average, earning more money on fewer books than are those with traditionally published books being sold through the same (i.e., amazon.com) outlet.
A Few Conclusions
The Report is long and complex (but not complicated). I encourage all serious writer entrepreneurs to read it carefully — and to stay updated with future installments.
(It is also very pretty. I am including an image here from The Report, with proper attribution and an embedded link but used without permission, so if it disappears, you’ll know why. Whether it does disappear or not, I suggest you go and have a look at all the other pretty charts in Howie’s report. They are impressive and illuminating as well as colourful.)
For those who don’t have time to read The Report straight through right now, I’ll extract some conclusions that became clear to Howie, as they must to anyone who examines the data he’s presented:
- E-books from indie authors tend to be priced much lower than those of mainstream publishers
- Readers are more likely to buy and review books with lower prices than higher ones
- “Most readers don’t know and don’t care how the books they read are published. They just know if they liked the story and how much they paid. If they’re paying twice as much for traditionally published books, which experience will they rate higher? The one with better bang for the buck.” — Hugh Howey, Author Earnings: The Report
- Most traditional publishers are paying authors only 25% of e-book sales, despite the almost insignificant overhead associated with creating e-books
- Readers are buying many more e-books than they are paperbacks and other book formats, at least from amazon (which is the biggest bookseller in the world, by a huge measure — like it or not).
- Readers are not buying traditionally published e-books as frequently as they are indie published e-books, because indie-published books cost less. Therefore, traditionally published authors are getting read less often, and are making less money per book sold than indie authors are.
This is important news for traditionally published authors.
It is also important news for major publishers, who are going to lose their authors if they don’t smarten up.
We won’t go into the impact all this is having on good literature, but Howie believes that the data suggests that “even stellar manuscripts are better off self-published.”
A call to Action
In addition to publishing The Report, Howie’s new website, authorearnings.com, invites authors from all sectors to work together to help one another “make better decisions” when it comes to publishing their books.
Howie says that the site’s “purpose is to gather and share information so that writers can make informed decisions. Our secondary mission is to call for change within the publishing community for better pay and fairer terms in all contracts. This is a website by authors and for authors.”
When you go to the site you will be invited to subscribe for updates, contribute to a survey and/or to sign a petition.
I for one will be closely following the activity on that site — right after I lower the prices on my e-books.
Ah hah! Just as I suspected – authors are more likely to garner higher profits if they publish their own works than try to plow through traditional publishing houses. The only caveat, of course (especially for us introverts), is that we have to do our own marketing as well. But, I feel that’s a worthwhile investment for greater autonomy and respectability.
That is very interesting. I suspected that price of ebook was having an impact on traditionally published sales, but I didn’t realize those authors saw so little of the take.
I find that most traditionally published authors are pretty unaware of what a raw deal they are getting. When they realize, things will change — either they’ll start self-publishing (at least their backlist) or they’ll start demanding what they are entitled to receive.
You know, I looked at that report and thought: “See there WAS a lot of pent-up demand in the book market, blocked by agents.”
So much has changed since 2009 – it’s a whole new ballgame – and for the first time – Indie writers have fair market share.
Kat — totally agree! What an amazing time it is to be a writer!
“See there WAS a lot of pent-up demand in the book market, blocked by agents.”
I have yet to hear about even one instance of an agent barring the doors to a bookstore or staying the hand of someone about to click the add to cart button at Amazon.com.
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This is a eye-opener and I’m going to forward it to a agent I’m working with. Much appreciate your posting this, Mary. It’s an invaluable insight into the market as it is now changing.
Quite apart from the agent’s percentage.
Do literary agents actually have a future?
Some of my fellow authors who do have agents find them helpful in negotiating contracts with traditional publishers, but I think their role has already significantly diminished since I wrote my very first post on this blog: The Talent Killers: How literary agents are destroying literature, and what publishers can do to stop them