Author’s Earnings: Part 2

As I wrote about in my last post, the data that Hugh Howey and “Data Guy” are extracting from Amazon is quite interesting. With it we can see how authors who have taken various routes are selling at the world’s largest bookstore. Amazon is of course just one venue, but if authors are able to earn full-time livings off of it alone, than it really doesn’t matter (to some) that they don’t have books sitting on a shelf at Barnes and Noble.

Data Guy was nice enough to provide me with a data pull of just fantasy titles (as that is the genre I’m most concerned with). And I’m going to share some of the things I found from it. So let me tell you a bit about the data set:

  • Taken on 2/7/2014
  • Consists of 1,452 Fantasy Titles
  • Rankings range is 17 – 556,100

I like this pool of data because it represents a large range of different types of authors, including the mid-list. I took this data set and divided it into 7 groups:

    • Extreme Best Sellers (Rankings 1 – 100): Most authors will never have a book that hits this range, and if they do it may be very short lived. It usually occurs when a highly anticipated book is first released or (more often) when a well selling book becomes heavily discounted or is picked for an Amazon promotion such as the Daily Deal. To give people an idea of the sales at this level, I broke the top 100 on two occasions with Theft of Swords (both due to a Daily Deal). One was in December 23, 2012 the other was June 29, 2013. In both cases I hit #17 and the rise and fall from that rank showed similar patterns. One day sales on Dec 23rd  was more than 4,700 copies and on June 29th the sales were 3,400.


    • Bestsellers (Rankings 101 – 1,000): Any author selling in this range should be a pretty happy camper. They will be selling about 100 to 1,000 books a day or 3,000 to 30,000 books a month. Considering a solid mid-list trade paperback will sell 5,000 -10,000 copies over its entire time in print, this level of sales is a good place to be. Also because there are 900 potential slots, the likelihood of reaching these levels is more obtainable. I even know of books that have spent months or even more than a year at these levels. Still, while easier than the Extreme Best Seller status, I’m going to consider people in this category as close enough to the top of the pool that I don’t want to spend much time with them, as few will reach this standing.


    • High Mid-list (Rankings 1,001 – 3,000): At this range authors are selling 80 – 100 books a day and hitting some of the secondary bestsellers list (such as Epic Fantasy or Sword & Sorcery). Top ranking at the time of this article for Epic Fantasy was 5,551 although in the past I’ve seen this as low as 3,000).  People with ranking as this level are doing very well and can be considered successful authors if their appearance at this (or the next level) isn’t a momentary blip of just a few days.


    •  Mid-list (Rankings 3,001 – 10,000): This is a range I’m very familiar with as my books have been there for more than two years. Sales are generally 15 – 80 books a day which still produces 5,475 – 29,200 books a year. At this level of sales it only takes a few released titles that are priced well to earn a living wage. I think this is an obtainable level that “a good” author can obtain. What do I mean by “good” – a book that gets good ratings and is recommended by those that read it. Because there are 7,000 slots, this range represents a band that allows for a good number of authors.


    • Low Mid-list (Ranking 10,001 – 25,000 range): Those selling in this range will sell a “respectable” number of books over the course of its time in print only 5 – 15 books a day but they will add up: 1,825 – 5,475 over the course of the year. Authors at this ranking aren’t paying all their bills (unless they have many titles out), but they have some nice extra money for a trip or to pay some of their expenses. They can hang their head proudly by producing a book that isn’t a failure.


    • Low Selling (Ranking 25,001 – 100,000): Those at this level sell 1 – 5 books a day. No one is making any serious money at this ranking level, and generally it is a level that books fall to after they have seen their peaks, but are still generally well regarded by readers. If this level is the height of a book’s ranking it would have generally been thought of as a failure by traditional publishing standards and would only sell a few hundred (or thousand) over its time in print.


  • Not Selling (Ranking 100,001 – 500,000): Books at this level are selling a book every few days or maybe once a week. More often than not, they will be: poorly execute books; those written by inexperienced authors; or books that have fallen off the radar even if they had some popularity at some point. For those with rankings over 500,000 they might only get 4 or 5 sales in a month. These are books that are generally thought of as “self-published dreck” who fall into the abyss of obscurity. From an income perspective these books are pretty much non-existent.


A lot of articles and surveys seem to focus on the very top or the very bottom. For me, I could care less about either of them. For the very top, few will reach this level and those that can already have their acts together. The ones at the bottom, are “not ready for prime time” and probably published prematurely or had a poorly produced book. Authors operating at this level have little chance of success no matter which way they attempt to publish. To me, the important area to focus on is the mid-list. As by definition it is a level that is (a) achievable (b) has room for a large number of authors and (c) produces a good number of sales, such that based on pricing can generate a nice income. So for today’s deeper dive, let’s look at the numbers for those in the 1,000 – 10,000 range raking.

High Mid-list (1,001 – 3,000)

Of the 2,000 slots available 150 of them were taken up with books in the fantasy genre. That’s 7.5%. If we look at the breakdown between the various publication paths here is what we find:


I must admit I found this pretty eye-opening. Anecdotally I knew that many self-published authors were selling well, but I really expected a pretty even division between the big-five and self-published. To see that there are over 2.5 self-published titles for each big-five was quite a surprise. I also expected the Amazon % to be higher than it was. Upon further reflection, however, given the relatively few titles in that group that is a good showing for them. In the future I would like to look at their titles over the whole gamut.

Mid-list (3,001 – 10,000)

Of the 7,000 slots available 256 of them were taken up with books in the fantasy genre. That’s 3.7%. If we look at the breakdown between the various publication paths here is what we find:



Again I was expecting a one for one sharing between big-five and self and while the gap narrowed, we are still seeing 1.5 times more self-published titles than big-five.  The small presses did better than I thought they would. I really anticipated about 10-15% of the titles would come from this group so they did twice as much as I would have expected.

Combined Group (1,001 – 10,000)

For those interested in seeing this group in aggregate.  Here you go:



I find it really interesting that nearly 50% of all titles are coming from the self-published authors.

In conclusion

Many will be quick to point out that this represents just a single data pull and therefore a snapshot in time, and I agree. As time goes on we will get more of these snapshots and be able to see things as a motion picture rather than a still photo. I would like to point out, however, that I think the data in this middle range is pretty static.  Amazon’s algorithms tend to have a degree of elasticity to them and while a low selling book might get into this data with a few well-timed sales, in general books at this ranking range don’t vary wildly like they do when at the lower sales levels.

In the next post, I’m going to look at income for these titles, as if a large number of the self-published titles are very low-priced this may be that those authors are trading off readers for income.  Not that this is a bad thing, but I think it is something that we need to explore in more detail…but that’s for next time.

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  1. I would add that of course these figures change if you have more than one book for sale. For example, my wife and I together have about 20 books for sale on Amazon. We have been as high as the top 100 and yet currently all of our books are in the “low-selling” category with a few dipping into “not selling” territory. In spite of these lower rankings, we are selling 25-50 books a day in total on Amazon which effectively bumps us up to the mid list category. And sure enough, we make about $2000 a month on Amazon sales. When you add in POD, audiobook and other channels, it adds up to about $4000 a month with occasional spikes when we sell foreign rights or when one of our books’ sales rises much higher for a bit.

    Anyone who is in this game for the long haul can get there just by publishing many titles.

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