Individual author earnings tracked across 7 quarters, Feb. 2014 – Sept. 2015
Seven Author Earnings reports.
Seven times we unleashed our software spider and took a detailed X-Ray of the majority of the US ebook market. Each time, we captured between 35% and 50% of all ebook sales in the US that day.
Over 200,000 authors, and close to a million different books.
Title-level data spanning half a billion ebook purchases, nearly $3 billion in consumer ebook spending, and a billion dollars in author earnings.
Quarter after quarter, we’ve tracked the fastest-growing and most volatile sector of the US publishing industry, and watched how it has shifted. And seen how the different sectors of the industry — from the Big Five traditional publishers and their smaller traditional-publishing peers to Amazon publishing imprints and self-published indie authors — have competitively fared.
But each of our quarterly snapshots, no matter how comprehensive, is only an X-Ray of the US ebook market at that exact moment. It’s what’s called a cross-sectional study. Like a freeze frame photo, it can only tell us how the ebook market is faring as a whole, rather than predicting the future prospects of any particular author along any particular publishing path. Because although every AE snapshot captures the sales of tens of thousands of authors — even hundreds of thousands of authors — each data set can only tell us how each individual author’s books happen to be selling at that precise instant in time.
The picture painted by each quarterly report, taken on its own, is thus necessarily incomplete.
They tell us nothing about the consistency of those individual authors’ earnings over time.
And if I’m an author deciding which publishing route to pursue, isn’t that what I’m really most interested in? Rather than broad comparisons of each publishing path’s total collective “market share”?
Publishing professionally, after all, is about building a readership and a long-term, decent-paying writing career. As an individual author, that’s really all I care about, regardless of which publication method I choose.
And that’s why single-quarter snapshots of the market, no matter how comprehensive, don’t tell me what I need to know.
Let’s say you’re a writer holding a completed manuscript, on the fence about which publishing path to pursue. The traditional path is undoubtedly the slower one — countless authors end up querying and submitting their work for decades, without ever landing a publishing contract. But for the relative few traditional aspirants who do, does that patience get rewarded with higher long-term stability than indie publishers see? And greater long-term income?
Does slow and steady actually win the race?
What if, for example, it turns out that traditionally published authors — as a result of their publishers’ superior marketing muscle — end up being steadier, more consistent earners quarter after quarter, just like the proverbial tortoise? And what if their bestselling indie peers are by contrast more like the proverbial hare, each of them briefly surging up the charts to be captured by our spider during their single fleeting moment of glory, only to be churned under once again and languish in non-selling obscurity thereafter, overwhelmed by the sheer teeming numbers of other indie hopefuls? What if each indie you see on the best seller charts is only king or queen for a day, or even a month or two, before their brief place in the sun is taken from them by the next lucky — and equally short-lived — indie contender?
Imagine that I’m an author deciding which way to publish my first book… or even my tenth book.
I’d kind of want to know that, right? And so, most likely, would you.
The thing we’d both really like to see is called a longitudinal study of author earnings, rather than a cross-sectional one. A study that tracks the earnings of those same individual authors over a longer period of time. And we’d especially like to see such a study done with a statistically well-defined and economically representative sample of authors — such as all authors whose books appeared on any Amazon best seller list over a seven-quarter period — rather than done based upon the self-selected responses of a handful of narrow-demographic, association-dues-paying survey participants.
Eighteen months ago, back in early 2014, at Author Earnings we took our first stab at tracking same-author earnings over time. With only two quarterly cross-sectional snapshots available to compare, the results were suggestive, but hardly conclusive.
We simply didn’t have enough data to work with, back then.
We do now.
A Longitudinal Study of Individual Author Earnings Over a 7-Quarter Period, from Feb. 2014 – Sept. 2015
By matching up author names across all seven of our quarterly snapshots, we were able to create a single, merged data set. It included over 200,000 authors and their cumulative seven-quarter sales and author earnings from the subset of their Kindle books which appeared on any Amazon best seller list or sub-list during any of our snapshots. It also included their Kindle best-seller sales and earnings broken down by each individual quarter.
Next, because we were only interested in comparing longer-term performance, we excluded “one-hit wonders” — i.e. authors whose author earnings from Amazon-bestseller-listed Kindle ebooks were not above a $10,000/year run rate in at least 2 different quarterly snapshots out of our 7. Perhaps some of these single-snapshot earners were indies that just happened to have their books captured on “Bookbub day”, or maybe some of them were traditionally-published authors whom Amazon happened to be deeply discounting for a few days, giving them a brief pop in sales. Either way, it means that we caught those authors on a particularly good day in one of our snapshots, which was not representative of their longer-term earnings.
That left us:
5,643 authors in our longitudinal data set — or roughly 2.8% of the original 200,000 — whose Kindle best-selling ebooks appearing on Amazon best seller lists were consistently earning them $10K/year or better.
Lest anyone get discouraged by that 5,643 number, keep in mind that it is only the visible tip of the iceberg: there are many, many other strong-selling authors and books that never appear on any of the Amazon Kindle best-seller lists. Those other writers don’t appear on Amazon’s best seller lists — and thus don’t appear in our data sets — because they happen to write in highly competitive genres where even dozens of sales per day are insufficient to allow a book to reach position #100 on any sub-genre best seller list. Thus those other books and authors are invisible to our spider. (Anecdotally, we’ve spoken to many of these “non-best-selling” mostly-indie authors who are earning five-figure incomes — sometimes six-figure incomes — from ebooks that never appeared on any Amazon best seller lists.)
And even for those 5,643 authors whose visible earnings from Kindle best sellers in our data sets exceeded $10K/year, many of them also had other Kindle books, too, which were NOT visible on the best seller lists. And thus their true overall Kindle ebook author earnings were higher than we show… to say nothing of their additional earnings from ebook sales at other retailers, audiobook sales (10% of the audiobooks on Amazon’s best seller lists are indie), and print sales (offset or POD).
But even so, it’s a meaningfully large and statistically representative sample, so without further ado, let’s jump in and take a look at the (best-selling) Kindle mid list.
The Kindle Mid-List
We’ll start with the steady $10K-or-better earners. Again, keep in mind that this is by no means all authors who are earning more than $10K+/year, nor even all authors earning that much just from their US ebooks, nor yet even all authors earning that much from only their Kindle ebooks. These are authors earning $10K+/year consistently from only that subset of their Kindle books that appear on the Amazon best seller lists.
For now, we’ll focus only on the leftmost set of bars, which include all authors regardless of how long they’ve been publishing.
The first thing that stands out from the chart is that there are many thousands of such consistent five-figure-earning “Kindle Midlisters” visible in the data — both traditionally published (purple) and indie published (blue). And as we’ll see in the charts that follow, almost half of these 5,600 authors — over 2,200 of them — are consistently making $25K/year or more on their Kindle bestsellers, and more than a fifth of them — over 1,200 authors in the data set — are making $50K/year or more on their Kindle best sellers alone.
Once earnings from their other non-bestselling Kindle books, other ebook retailers, and other formats such as audio and print are factored in, it’s safe to say that most of these 5,600 writers in our longitudinal data set are making a living wage from their writing.
The two bar charts below tally up the numbers of authors making $25K/year or more, and those making $50K/year or more, from best-seller-listed Kindle ebooks alone. At each of these higher income levels, we applied ever-more-stringent requirements for consistency in observable earnings. To be included in the charts below, each of these authors not only had to have total 7-quarter earnings at the specified ($25K or $50K) yearly level or above, their earnings each quarter also had to exceed that of the previous level ($10K or $25K) in at least 4 of our 7 quarterly snapshots.
Let’s take a look:
The leftmost set of bars in every chart includes all authors earning at or above a given level, regardless of their earliest publication date. The left-most purple bar is thus where we’ll find traditional publishing’s longest-tenured and highest-selling authors: names like James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Lee Child, David Baldacci, Janet Evanovich, John Grisham, and Stephen King.
The left-most blue bar is also worth a mention. Prior to 2009 indie authors were a niche phenomenon, with very limited access to mainstream readers. Six short years later, there are more than half as many indie authors earning steady midlist-or-better incomes from their Kindle ebook bestsellers as there are among ALL traditionally-published authors — even with all of those perennial traditional-publishing name-brand heavyweights, who spent decades atop the old-media best seller lists, also tipping the ebook scales.
So let’s take a look at the other sets of bars, moving across the charts from left to right, because that’s where things start to get really interesting.
When you look only at authors who started publishing less than a decade ago — in 2005 or later — the gap between the numbers of indie and traditionally published authors earning midlist-or-better incomes nearly disappears. Fast work, considering that none of those indies had widespread access to readers until 2010, giving their traditionally-published cohort-mates a five-year head start.
In fact, if we look at only authors who debuted in the “ebook era” — i.e. in 2010 or after — we see a reversal. At each annual earnings level, we find far more indies than traditionally-published authors who debuted in the last 5 years and are now earning that much or more.
If we look at the most recent debuts — authors whose first Kindle book was published in the last three years or so — the disparity grows:
There are fewer than half as many traditionally published authors as indie authors who debuted in the last 3 years and are now earning consistently at the $25K/year level or $50K/year level from Kindle ebooks.
This, then, is the world that all new entrants — whether traditionally published or indie — face in 2015. If you’re a debut author in 2015 with a manuscript in hand, or even an experienced author regaining the rights to your backlist or starting out with a fresh pen name, when choosing your publishing route it’s that right-most set of bars in every one of these charts that is today most relevant to you.
But what if you are destined to be more than a mid-lister? You don’t want to sell your work short. Isn’t it still worth being patient and pursuing the traditional route, to have a better shot at truly stellar earnings?
Surprisingly, as we move into six-figure-earning territory and beyond, the contrast between indie ebook earnings and traditionally-published ebook earnings becomes even more stark. Let’s look at:
Six-Figure-A-Year Kindle Best Sellers
In just our 7-quarter longitudinal data set, we are able to find:
Far more indies earning a consistent six figures a year or more from just their Kindle best sellers than traditionally published authors who debuted anytime in the past decade and are able to do the same.
240+ indie authors who are consistently earning $100,000/year or more from just their Kindle best sellers.
85+ indie authors who are consistently earning $250,000/year or more from just their Kindle best sellers.
40+ indie authors who are consistently earning $500,000/year or more from just their Kindle best sellers.
And finally, let’s take a look at:
Seven-Figure-A-Year Kindle Best Sellers
Even at the very highest levels of ebook author earnings, the pattern remains the same.
13 out of the 20 authors who debuted in the last five years, and 8 of the 10 authors who debuted in the last 3 years, and who are now consistently earning $1,000,000+/year from just their Kindle ebook best sellers are indie authors.
In closing, while these trends in our changing industry are exciting, it’s also worth reminding ourselves that the odds against an author being able to make a full-time, high-paying career out of writing are long indeed. They always have been. There are many hundreds of thousands of US authors publishing books each year, both traditionally published and indie. Only a few fortunate thousand from among them will end up earning a living solely from their art, no matter which publishing path they take.
The choice of how to publish is never an easy one. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that what works best for one author may not be what works best for another. All paths have their merits and downsides, and neither can guarantee anyone success. But today, our chances of achieving that success as writers are better, and there are more ways we can make it happen, than at any previous time in history.
And that’s a wonderful thing.