Author’s Earnings

Sorry to have been away for a while. Trips to Michigan, New York, an illness that knocked me off my feet for a long time, and some late minute responsibilities for the Hollow World release made it impossible for me to post…even though A LOT is going on! Several nuclear bombs have gone off, and as they are related to the same topic I thought I would introduce them here, but expand them in detail in future posts.

We’ve all heard the old adage, “Don’t quit your day job” when it comes to writing for a living. It’s true that there are far too many authors who have to squeeze writing around the dreaded “day job” to keep the bills paid. Also, there is no question that self-publishing, has proven itself to be viable for some…but exactly how many is always in dispute. There has always been secrecy surrounding how much income a traditional published earns, and when many self-published authors share their numbers it is met with skepticism.

In the past, self-publishing was a “fallback” position, the option many took when they couldn’t get a contract. But more and more authors are choosing this option, even turning down very lucrative offers. H.M. Ward turned down more than 1.5 Million in contracts to self-publish and she became the #1 Bestselling Kindle Direct Author over the Christmas season (even though she has NEVER traditionally published). Likewise Brenna Aubrey turned down $120,000 for a three-book deal and instead went the do-it-yourself route. I myself calculated that I would lose $200,000 – $250,000 by going traditional, but I thought it was a price I should pay to further my career. As it turned out, that didn’t happen, but it is in large part due to larger than expected audio sales and foreign contracts.

So the question that is on every author’s mind is, “Which path should I take?” For the record, I see benefits in both routes, and actually think there is a good argument to be made for hybrid authorship. Then there are the people who have no interest in one or the other. Entrepreneur authors who can’t bring themselves to signing contracts that are too weighted in the publisher’s favor, as well as those who don’t want anything to do with taking on all the responsibilities that the publisher does for them, have a pretty clear direction. But increasingly there are those who feel they could go either way and just don’t know which way to turn.

While money isn’t the only consideration, it certainly is a large one. The problem is getting good data on this is nearly impossible, as we shall see.

DBW & Writer’s Digest Survey

Recently DBW and Writer’s Digest teamed up to do an author survey, collecting data from more than 9,200 authors. I myself took it, and found the questions to be really well thought out. The best part was they divided up authors into four distinct types: Aspiring, Traditional only, Self-publish only, and Hybrids (who both self and traditionally publish), which is exactly the way I think about the pool of authors. The data has been analyzed by Dana Beth Weinberg, who is well qualified to take the mass of information and try to break it down to chunks that can provide insights.

It was an ambitious project, and generally well executed, but there are some significant problems. I should note that these aren’t introduced by Jeremy Greenfield and Dana Beth Weinberg, but problems with surveys in general.

  • First is the data set: 66% were in the “aspiring author” category which isn’t too surprising given that 78% came from Writer’s Digest. Many authors read Writer’s Digest when they are starting out, but I suspect the more professional ones have moved on. I think even the publishers would agree about their audience being more green than seasoned. When I look at this report, I think the sample turned out to be largely made up of people who have yet to “really make it.” In the survey creator’s  defense, they tried to get a broader set of authors. They contacted the Author’s Guild to advertise the survey to their members, but they declined. They were able to get the RWA (Romance Writers of America) to participate but these people represented only 4% of the data. The group I was most interested in, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America also participated but there were so few that their percentage came out to 0%.
  • Second, was the fact that the survey compared apples to oranges. When looking at self-publishing, all authors who have gone this route were counted—including those that are just doing it as a hobby, producing a family history for a reunion, or just checking off a bucket list item. This heavily dilutes the pool of “professional” self-published (those that treat it as a business) who are mixed in with a large number of hobbyists or “wannabes.” The traditional group, however, represented only the top of the authors going that route. The vast majority of this group are still riding the query-go-round, and by definition those that got a contract are at the very top. I’d estimate in the 1% to 2% range. This groups “hobbyists” have been moved to the aspiring group. So in self-publishing you have the slush-pile exposed whereas the traditional group didn’t have that burden dragging down their numbers.
  • Third, the data gathering was self-reported. There is no way to verify if people told the truth or lied through their teeth. There is just no way to verify the data or attempt to determine how accurate it is.
  • Forth, there were a number of questions I couldn’t accurately answer, either because the question was too vague or the multiple choice answers didn’t cover what I wanted to say. This is true of any survey devised by humans. I don’t think the problem was rampant, but it is worth mentioning.


Dana Weinberg has written a number of articles for DBW providing her take on some of the data analysis. Here are some links:

I think they are all worth reading and you should also go through the comments. I’ll actually be posting more about this survey, its results, and some of the things I found most interesting in future posts, but I feel that I’m already firing a fire hose your way as it is. I will say the one disappoint I have is the unwillingness of the creators to release the raw data. There are a number of “deep dives” I would like to do, but without access to the data I just can’t. There has been a lot of pressure to produce this, so perhaps they will change their minds.

Hugh Howey and Data Guy’s Author Earnings Report

In trying to sort this whole “which is best” thing for himself, a brilliant guy programmed a way to gather all kinds of data from the Amazon site. Not knowing how best to get the word out about what he had done, he reached out to Hugh Howey who picked up the gauntlet. Between the two of them they have gathered, crunched, and tried to provide their own perspectives to the whole author earning question. A site was launched to distribute their findings for both this and future reports. But the best thing about what they are doing is providing the data so that others can do their own analysis. You can rest assured that I’ll be digging into that data and I’m sure some interesting things will be found.

Here is basically the approach they took:

  • Took a snapshot (1/28/2014 – 1/29/2014) of Amazon pages to determine title, author, publisher, ranking, rating, # of reviews, price, and category
  • They concentrated on the most popular genres: mystery, thrillers, suspense; science fiction and fantasy; romance
  • Gathered the top 7,000ish (6,886) titles
  • Based on what is known about ranking to sales number they estimated the number of books sold
  • Based on prices and numbers sold they estimated total profits
  • Based on profits and royalty rates they estimated the division of profits between author, distributor, and publisher

It’s an utterly brilliant idea, but not without its own problems…problems that they themselves recognize and will be addressing.

  • Problem #1: A snap shot is great but what we really need is a movie. In other words multiple data points. The authors earning site is an ongoing process and the dynamic duo plan on releasing more pulls over time.
  • Problem #2: The rank to sales conversion. Anyone who is self-published gets immediate feedback on their sales. Since rank is also available it is easy math to determine the ratio between the two, which anyone who has tracked this can tell you isn’t linear. The problem is this ratio changes constantly. Every day more and more books are posted and more importantly the numbers of books sold fluctuates. So the number of books sold at one rank will not equal the same number at a different point in time. For instance, I was the Kindle Daily Deal on two different occasions. In both cases I made it to rank #17 and the climb to that rank and fall from that rank were very similar. Given that I should have seen similar sales, but I didn’t. The first time was just before Christmas and it yielded me 4,700+ sales. The second one was (I think) in May and that same rank produced 3,400+ sales. Because of this, data for the big  bestsellers is going to be hard to get right. That being said, at lower levels I think the data will be more consistent. After all whether you are ranked at 3,400 or 3,450 your sales on a per day basis are pretty much the same. The good news is that in the raw data provided the ratios are provided in a nice yellow box that you can tweak based on your own observations of rank to sales ratio. Author Theresa Ragan has been doing a good job gathering and reporting on conversion numbers. You can find her data (which she updates regularly) here.
  • Problem #3: is that it is folly to try to project income on one day to a full year. Few books have the same ranking across such a long period of time. Going back to the whole movie rather than photograph thing we would ideally want to track a title across those snapshots. Currently the report has redacted titles and authors, which I think is good, but if each book and author have their own unique numbers they would retain their anonymity and calculate a better “per author” income as we know about multiple books and what ranking they were at over a period of time.
  • Problem #4: the data is just Amazon and just ebooks. There is just the facts, and while Amazon is the largest retailer and dominates ebook—we need to take this as a good representation of one piece of information. I think it is enough to say here are the earnings on Amazon for ebooks. For some, that in and of itself will produce a good revenue picture, particularly since Amazon leads the market in this slice of the pie. Still, to try and address this, the two have already run a report off of Bookscan data (which provides point-of-purchase sales for print books). I myself have been reverse engineering sales of what midlist authors are making based on a few factors that I know such as: Bookscan is 65% to 75% of actual sales…and e-book to print ratio in genre fiction is running 68% to 32% (my data). Brandon Sanderson  reported 67% to 33% at a Connecticon panel and Django Wexler reported 75% to 25% on reddit. Every author I’ve spoken to have reported at least 50% which is well above the reported industry standard of 25%.
  • Problem #5: As pointed out in Problem #4 we are comparing apples to oranges (again), and in this case it is traditional publishing who is being under reported. For the self-published, this largely means e-book sales and some print sales. But I’ve earned a significant amount of my income from foreign translations and audio books. Looking at just my US print and ebook sales tells just a fraction of my income story. And in fact it would probably show that my move to traditional was a financial failure. But when added in, I think I actually ended up earning more by going traditional then if I had stayed self-published. That being said, I’d say I’m probably an outlier in this respect, and past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, but it is something to take into consideration.

As I mentioned I found the approach to be utterly brilliant, and while many are jumping on the band wagon to criticize it, I think a better use of their time would be to see the potential for expanding and improving upon it. There are those like me who are doing just that—and more reports have already been generated. Here are the ones available now.

So what’s my take? If we look at just the raw data (which I don’t think anyone is disputing its accuracy) it proves what many have been saying for a long time…that self-published authors are running toe-to-toe with traditionally published authors in terms of books sold on the largest bookseller in the world. With higher royalties even if these authors ONLY get income from Amazon, they are making a really nice living wage. There are thousands of authors, without household names, that are making  five and six figure incomes. It proves once and for all that self-publishing can be a viable option for those with the entrepreneur spirit, and even those seeking traditional publishing should rejoice, since it shows publishers that they are not in competition only with each other, but with the concept of “going it alone.” In such an environment, publishers will have to adjust their contracts and “industry standards” to attract and retain authors.

More to Come

This is obviously just the tip of the iceberg for both of these reports, and attempts to shed light on author’s income. I would love to see some enterprising company make a database for agents to report advances, and royalty rates for contracts signed (anonymously is fine). But it’s good to see earnings coming out into the open. It’s a topic that has been veiled in secrecy for too long, and I think a lot of that might be due to the fact that authors (and publishers) are embarrassed by the low wages of the non-megasellers. To me, the most important part is the “midlist” a group that most authors will fall into. I’d like to know what they can expect. The good news, is Hugh’s and Data Guy’s data captures authors in that range. And because they provide the raw data  (THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU) I can do that deeper dig. Stay tuned. Lots more to come on this important topic.

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