May 2016 Author Earnings Report: the definitive million-title study of US author earnings
Data in the publishing biz is hard to come by. Without widespread sharing of data by retailers, publishers, agents, and authors, we are all left like the blind to describe different parts of the same but seemingly disjointed elephant. Two years ago, AuthorEarnings released its first report on a new part of this elephant: E-book sales on Amazon.com. Our report stirred controversy, as it described a formerly unseen world of publishing data.
Over the past two years, we have worked with industry insiders and data-savvy authors to refine our approach. This year, our up-to-date methodology and conclusions were presented in a Digital Book World 2016 keynote to an audience of prominent traditional publishers, agents, and retailers — many of whom deemed the AuthorEarnings keynote and hour-long Q&A with Publishers Lunch to be a highlight of the show. (The complete DBW slides can be found here).
Nowadays, even those who still fundamentally disagree with our conclusions generally acknowledge the accuracy of AuthorEarnings’ numbers. Their objections, these days, focus on what our reports *don’t* cover, rather than what they do. There is much more of the elephant to describe, and we relish that opportunity. Slowly but surely, the overall picture is being filled in. With each report, we uncover something new. This report is no different. In fact, it may be our most shocking.
Our methodology employs a software spider that crawls across Amazon’s bestseller lists. The 200,000+ titles on those lists make up roughly 60% of Amazon’s daily sales. This leaves an appreciable number of titles and sales unaccounted for. There’s more elephant here to uncover! We’ve long heard this might be the case, as independent authors familiar with our data have claimed to be making a livable wage without a single one of their books appearing on any Amazon bestseller list. These are the truly invisible among the already difficult-to-discern. We wanted to see if they could be found.
So for this report, we went deeper. Instead of just looking at Amazon’s bestseller lists, we had our spider follow links to also-bought recommendations and also through each authors’ full catalog. This resulted in a million-title dataset, our most comprehensive and definitive look yet at author earnings. We were able to tally up precisely how many indie authors, Big Five authors, small/medium press authors, and Amazon-imprint authors are currently making enough from Amazon.com sales to land in a number of “tax brackets”.
But first, with our shiny new May data included, a quick look at the prevailing trend-lines. Over the last 27 months, how has the distribution of ebook unit sales, gross consumer $ spending, and author earnings changed among publisher types?
Ebook Market Share: 27 month trend lines
The only noteworthy highlight here is that the Big Five’s year-long plummet in overall ebook unit sales appears to have finally leveled off, leaving them with roughly 23% of Amazon’s ebook unit sales. A factor in this leveling-off *may* be lower Big Five ebook prices (the average price of a Big Five ebook dropped from $10.31 in January 2016 to $8.67 in May 2016, which warranted a closer look.). But on the other hand, the Big Five’s loss of market-share in gross consumer dollar terms — and, more importantly, the ongoing decline in Big Five authors’ ebook earnings — have both continued relatively unabated.
Also-boughts… and Author Pages, Too!
For this report, we didn’t stop at 200,000 listed category best-sellers. Instead, we also had the AE spider crawl through each of their also-boughts, and pull data on every single one of *those* titles, as well. And then we had it crawl the Amazon author pages for all of those books, too, and pull data on every single other title each author had for sale on Amazon. We ended up with daily sales data on a million of Amazon’s Kindle ebooks — nearly a third of all titles listed in the US Kindle store. We captured practically all of the titles selling with any frequency whatsoever, the vast majority of the infrequently selling titles, and many, many of the non-selling. Our dataset includes:
- Nearly every single Kindle book selling 1 or more copy per day. (98.5% of them)
- 90% of all Kindle titles selling at least 2-3 copies a week
- 81% of all Kindle titles selling 1 or more copy a week
- 64% of all Kindle titles selling 2 or more copies a month
- 32% of all Kindle titles listed in the Amazon US Kindle store.
With this report, Author Earnings is now capturing and breaking down a full 82% of daily Amazon Kindle ebook sales. Even better, we’ve been able to capture the majority of the previously unmeasured “dark matter” sales — whose composition we had before only speculated about. Well, now we know.
Only 18% of Amazon’s daily ebook sales remain unaccounted for in our data — and every last bit of that remainder is coming from titles selling less than a copy a day, the overwhelming majority of it from titles selling less than a copy a week, and most of *that* coming from titles selling less than a copy a month. Even more notably, all of the remainder comes from the very lowest-selling authors on Amazon, who have no other titles making any significant sales either.
How much of a boost do non-listed titles add to a best selling author’s bottom line?
The answer varies by publisher type. Indie authors and the Big Five are the disproportionate beneficiaries of these non-bestseller-listed additional sales. A straightforward way to depict their contribution is in terms of the incremental percent of author earnings they add to those authors’ bottom lines. We can see that view below:
What’s interesting here is that indie authors with one or more bestseller-listed titles are, on average, receiving a significantly higher increment of additional revenue — 30% more — from their other, non-bestseller-listed titles than Big Five authors who have listed best sellers, for whom their other titles add only 21% to their bottom line. For small or medium publishers who have listed best-sellers, the additional contribution from their non-bestselling titles is even less significant: only 13%. And oddly, for Amazon-Imprint Published authors with listed best-sellers, their other non-listed titles only contribute an additional 5% to their bottom lines. Perhaps this simply reflects the small number of both authors and titles that Amazon Imprints publish. Or perhaps, greater Amazon marketing adeptness, which keeps a higher percentage of their titles visible on the best-seller lists to begin with.
What about Print and Audio sales?
While we were at it, we pulled accompanying Amazon sales data on 900,000 top-selling print titles and 67,000 top-selling audiobook titles, too — including every format of every single title by any author who had even one title of any format on any Amazon bestseller list.
The significance of that — of capturing each author’s entire sales catalog: all books they have for sale, in every format — cannot be overstated. It means that this is not just our deepest and most comprehensive cross-sectional look at author earnings ever. It is…
A Definitive Study of Amazon Author Earnings
This is the definitive study of what authors from all publishing paths and all levels of sales success are earning right now from Amazon.com, the largest bookstore in the world.
It captures a complete picture of Amazon author earnings — ebook, print, and audio sales combined — for every single author, traditionally published or indie, who is making any significant Amazon sales today whatsoever.
This picture does not include non-Amazon.com income, from:
- Print sales through brick and mortar bookstores & other mass merchandisers
- Ebook sales through Apple iBookStore, barnesandnoble.com, Kobo, and Google Play
- Audiobook sales through iTunes
- Print books sold online through non-Amazon.com retailers
- Library sales
- Publisher-direct sales
- Author-direct sales
- Non-US digital and online print sales through other Amazon stores (Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, Amazon.au, etc.)
- Other foreign sales
But despite the apparent length of the above list, the hard numerical reality of US bookselling today — the rarely mentioned elephant in the room — is this:
More than 50% of all traditionally published book sales of any format in the US now happen on Amazon.com.
That’s just the traditionally published books, though.
In addition, roughly 85% of all non-traditionally published book sales of any format in the US also happen on Amazon.com.
In other words, a comprehensive cross-sectional snapshot of Amazon.com’s sales, like the one we are describing here in our May report, is a definitive look at more than half of all daily US author earnings, period.
With that in mind, let’s take a look now at how many authors are currently earning how much, from the combined US Amazon sales of all of their books: hardcover editions, paperback editions, ebooks and audiobooks put together. And then let’s see how those author counts in each “tax bracket” vary by choice of primary publishing path, and by author tenure.
And for those concerned that we’re leaving out almost half of traditionally published author earnings from non-Amazon sources, hold that thought. We’ll factor those earnings in, too, below.
A New Census of Author Earnings by “Tax Bracket”
Our September 2015 7-quarter longitudinal study of author earnings was only based on income from Kindle ebook sales, and even then, from only the subset of titles appearing on some category bestseller list.
This time around, our census of author earnings includes author income from Amazon hardcover and paperback sales, too, as well as audiobook sales. And it includes revenue from every single title each author has for sale: best-selling and barely selling alike. Unlike our September 2015 census, this is a cross-sectional study rather than a longitudinal one — it’s based on a single-day snapshot of Amazon author earnings. But having done the longer-term study back in September, we can now say with confidence that a million-title, 200,000-author cross-sectional snapshot such as this one will give us a statistically reliable proxy for the average distribution of author incomes throughout the quarter, i.e. for Q2 2016.
Let’s start with those authors currently earning at a run rate $10,000 a year or more from all of their Amazon.com sales combined:
The 4 leftmost bars include every author who debuted anytime in the last century and is currently accumulating income at a rate of $10,000 a year or more from their Amazon US sales alone. The good news here is that we can see almost 9,900 such authors, although a small fraction of that represents multiple appearances by the same authors under different pen names, and another small fraction ascribes revenue to a single author that in reality gets shared with one or more co-authors: as in James Patterson’s case, for instance.
Comparing this 9,900 number to the roughly 5,600 authors earning 10K+/year that we found in our September 2015 7-quarter longitudinal study is a bit of an apples-to-oranges proposition. This is a cross-sectional study, after all, rather than a longitudinal one, so we have to take any like-for-like comparison with a slight grain of salt. But even so, that September study only considered each author’s best-seller-listed Kindle titles. The inclusion here of each author’s non-best seller listed titles, too, and all of their Amazon print sales and audio sales as well, appears to have nearly doubled the count of authors currently earning in this $10K/year “tax bracket”.
(The very small number of Amazon-imprint-published authors appearing in this tax bracket simply reflects the short depth of the A-Pub roster: there are probably fewer than 3,000 authors in total who have been published by Amazon imprints to date. Which makes the fact that over 300 of them are currently earning at a $10K-or-better rate relatively impressive.)
While $10,000/year is hardly a living wage in the US, it’s a nontrivial supplementary income. Especially for doing something you love.
And don’t forget this is a tally of 9,900 authors who are making that much or more on Amazon. Almost half of those 9,900 authors also appear in the $25000-or-better bracket above, and some of them in the brackets beyond that. So, onward.
Let’s take a look at publishing’s much-decried mid-listers next, to see how they are actually faring on Amazon.com.
The Size of Publishing’s Midlist : Traditionally Published vs Indie
Once again, when we look at the leftmost set of bars, it’s encouraging to see a sizeable, healthy midlist represented there — more than 4,600 authors earning $25,000 or above from their sales on Amazon.com. 40% of these are indie authors deriving at least half of their income from self-published titles, while 35% are Big Five authors deriving the majority of their income from Big Five-published titles, and 22% are authors who derive most of their income from titles published by small- or medium-sized traditional publishers.
But this includes traditional publishing’s longest-tenured and most recognizable names, including thousands of authors who have been actively publishing for the last several decades. When we consider only those authors who debuted sometime in the past ten years — who appear in the second set of bars in each graph — a sharp dichotomy starts to become apparent.
The vast majority of traditional publishing’s midlist-or-better earners started their careers more than a decade ago. Their more-recently debuted peers are not doing anywhere near as well. Fewer than 700 Big Five authors and fewer than 500 small-or-medium publisher authors who debuted in the last 10 years are now earning $25,000 a year or more on Amazon — from all of their hardcover, paperback, audio and ebook editions combined. By contrast, over 1,600 indie authors are currently earning that much or more.
The gap becomes even more pronounced when we look at those authors who first debuted in the last five years, or during the “ebook era.” And when we look at just the most recent debuts from each publishing path, only 250 Big Five authors and 200 recent small or medium publisher authors who debuted in the last three years are earning a midlist-or-better income from their Amazon sales.
By contrast, there are over 1,000 indie authors who debuted in the last 3 years who are doing so.
We see the same dichotomy play out in the $50,000/year “tax bracket”, which tallies up authors earning what would be a living wage in most parts of the US:
On the one hand, it’s fantastic to be able to count over 2,500 authors who are currently earning at a living-wage run rate — $50,000/year or more — from just their Amazon sales. But once again, among the traditionally published contingent we see predominantly authors whose careers began decades ago, including all of traditional publishing’s longest tenured best sellers and most recognizable names.
Out of more than 10,000 Big Five author debuts in the last five years, fewer than 220 are currently earning $50K/year or more on Amazon. Despite all the countless small and medium publisher debuts over the past five years, the tally of those authors earning a living wage is even more discouraging: barely 100 non-Big Five traditionally published authors launched in the past 5 years now earn $50K/year or more from all of their books on Amazon.
But, wait! How about all those other non-Amazon sales? Don’t they make a huge difference here?
It turns out that including print sales from brick and mortar bookstores doesn’t change the relentless calculus of the traditionally published midlist significantly. Here’s an easy way to see that:
Remember that more than 50% of all traditionally published book sales happen on Amazon. To account for the remainder — traditionally published earnings from all of those brick-and-mortar bookstores and other non-Amazon online retailers — we can simply shift the purple Big Five bars and red Small-or-medium-press bars, which tally the traditionally published author count in each “tax bracket,” up into the next higher tax bracket instead — i.e. from $10K up to $25K, from $25K up to $50K, etc. Doing so will more than account for the almost-half of traditionally published book sales which don’t come from Amazon.
So here’s what those tax-bracket-shifted comparisons, which now require the indie authors to be earning double what their traditionally published counterparts make from Amazon sales, end up looking like for the $25K and $50K tax brackets:
Even applying a 2x to 2.5x handicap to indies and Amazon-published authors, to account for all those brick and mortar print sales and other non-Amazon sales they might be missing, doesn’t really alter the picture much.
When we look at authors who debuted anytime in the past decade, and apply that handicap, we still find more indies now earning at a $25K and $50K run rate on Amazon than either Big Five authors or Small/Medium Publisher authors.
When we look at just debut authors from the past five years, we find more indie authors now earning a $50K-or-better living wage than all of their Big Five and Small/Medium publisher peers put together… even after we throw in that overgenerous 2x multiple for traditionally published non-Amazon revenue.
But why is a two-fold traditionally published earnings multiplier overgenerous?
For a couple reasons. For one thing, many indie authors also have significant non-Amazon revenue from titles they leave “wide” in the iBookstore, Nook store, Kobo, GooglePlay, etc. This is particularly true of higher-earning indies.
But more importantly, that 2x multiplier is especially generous because we’re looking at the midlist here. Few indeed of these traditionally published debut midlisters would have received any publisher-purchased bookstore co-op placement: those paid-for front-table and aisle end-cap displays only go to a select handful each year, who then receive a disproportionately high share of all bookstore print sales. By contrast, most traditionally published midlisters are lucky to see a few copies of their books placed spine-out on bookstore shelves, and even that for a couple months only, before those titles get cycled out to make room for the next batch of hopeful traditionally published debuts. They get cycled out because that bookstore shelf space is already full: decades worth of traditional publishing’s favorite authors and their latest releases have laid prior claim to it. The brick and mortar bookstore model has always been one of finite shelf space and enforced scarcity; there are a shrinking number of seats on that bus now, and most of them are already taken.
On the other hand, digital shelf space is unlimited. And the brand new, living-wage-earning indie author midlist that now dominates that digital shelf space is thriving.
In the past year, we’ve seen a rash of media articles decrying the shrinking prospects and worsening incomes of authors. Most of those articles are based on self-selected surveys, which solicit data exclusively from society-dues-paying traditionally published authors. Those articles are only reporting half of the picture. Here’s what they aren’t saying:
More than 1,080 indie authors, most of them brand new debuts from the last five years, are currently earning at a $50K/year or higher run rate from just their Amazon sales.
It’s not the death of the midlist that these one-sided “author poverty” surveys are measuring, and that the publishing media is lamenting. Rather, it’s a changing of the professional-author guard.
Over 1,000 indie authors are already making a living wage from Amazon sales alone…
And even better, more than half of those thousand are earning six figures or more.
The $100,000+ Club: Authors Earning Six-Figures or More
1,340 authors are earning $100,000/year or more from Amazon sales. But half of them are indies and Amazon-imprint authors. The majority of the remainder? They come from traditional publishing’s longest-tenured “old guard.”
Fewer than 115 Big Five-published authors and 45 small- or medium-publisher authors who debuted in the past five years are currently earning $100K/year from Amazon sales. Among indie authors of the same tenure, more than 425 of them are now at a six-figure run rate.
The author earnings gap between publishing paths is so wide among these six-figure-earning authors that once again brick-and-mortar print sales and the like cannot significantly alter the picture.
Consider that these Amazon totals already include roughly 40% of all US print sales that the traditionally published authors are making anywhere, while many high-earning indie authors also have significant additional non-Amazon revenue from their “wide” titles. But even when we apply our overgenerous 2X multiple to the traditionally published authors’ earnings, this is what we see:
- There are twice as many indie authors who debuted in the past 5 years now earning a six figure run rate than Big Five authors who were first published in the same time period and are able to do the same.
- Recent small- or medium-publisher authors are even farther behind: there are four times as many indies earning six figures as small- or medium-press authors who also launched in the last five years.
The higher we set the author earnings bar, the starker that contrast between publishing paths becomes.
Here are the tallies of authors earning $250,000/year and $500,000/year on Amazon:
Once again, when we exclude traditional publishing’s longest-tenured household names, there are more recently debuted indies earning a quarter-million a year on Amazon, or even half a million a year, than Big Five and non-Big Five traditionally published authors combined.
And finally, let’s take a brief look at:
Authors Earning Seven Figures
We won’t belabor this one any further. But it is worth noting that the 28 Big Five authors in the leftmost purple bar include traditional publishing’s most recognizable and longest tenured mega-bestseller household names: James Patterson, Nora Roberts, George R. R. Martin, Diana Gabaldon, David Baldacci, Danielle Steel, Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, and the like.
As of May 5, 2016, only 3 Big Five authors who debuted in the past 5 years are currently making a seven figure run rate from their Amazon sales — print, audio, and ebook combined. On the other hand, 14 indies who debuted in the same time period are right now doing the same.
But what about those “invisible” authors earning $100,000+ per year…?
The ones we keep anecdotally hearing about (and hearing from), who don’t show up on any Amazon category best seller lists?
Well, we found them. They were hiding in plain sight, in our million-title May data set.
Turns out there were 43 of them lurking unseen in the dark spaces between Amazon’s bestseller lists, including one author invisibly earning more than $250,000 a year. Unsurprisingly, 30 of the 43 invisible six-figure earners — including the top earner — were self-published indie authors. Most were writing in the Romance Fiction genres, but there was also an indie author of editor’s-choice Cozy Mystery Fiction, and even more surprising, a traditional-award-winning indie writer of Literary Fiction. We happen to think that’s pretty cool.
When we lowered the author earnings bar to $50,000 a year, we found 142 invisible authors that were earning that much or more on Amazon.com, without any of their titles appearing on any category best-seller lists. 105 of those 142 were self-published indies.
We live in exciting times. Today it’s possible to be a full-time professional author, quietly earning $50,000+ a year — even six figures a year — without ever sending a query letter to anyone. On Amazon alone, the data shows over a thousand indie authors earning a full-time living right now with their self-published titles.
The only gatekeepers that matter now are readers.
APPENDIX I: The usual market-share pie charts, updated…
APPENDIX II: Geeking out on the invisible “dark matter” of Amazon’s ebook sales
By looking at 200,000 top-selling ebook titles scraped from the Amazon category bestseller lists, quarter after quarter, we’ve consistently been able to shed light on the majority of Amazon’s ebook sales — nearly 60% of the daily total, in fact. We’ve been able to paint a very clear and detailed picture of Amazon’s list-visible titles, and how *those* particular sales break down.
But just as our own universe is made up of both visible “light matter” and invisible “dark matter,” so too is the universe of Amazon’s ebook sales.
For the past year, our AE spider has been capturing the sales of all of Amazon’s list-visible titles: the entire “light matter” portion of the Amazon ebook sales universe. And from there, we’ve been able to draw meaningful inferences about the composition of the remaining 40% — from the nearly three million other very-low-selling titles that have thus far managed to dodge the attention of our best-seller-list-crawling AE spider, because they appear on no category best-seller lists at all.
In other words, the titles that make up the invisible “dark matter” of the Amazon ebook sales universe.
Some of that ebook-sales “dark matter” is comprised of lower-selling backlist titles belonging to the very same authors whose better-selling books already appear in our data sets. We could call that portion of it “shadow” dark matter, perhaps: an additional penumbra of uncounted author earnings that gets cast like a shadow from those authors’ bestseller-list-visible “light matter” sales. But the rest of the dark matter is “pure” dark matter, coming from a different and entirely uncounted group of authors — authors who have thus far remained completely invisible in the AE data, because even their best-selling titles remained wholly below our radar. How much of each type is there? The percentage breakdown of dark matter sales has so far been anyone’s guess.
What we do know about the dark matter with fair precision is how many daily sales all of those invisible titles generate in aggregate: around 40% of Amazon’s daily total. And we know that very few dark-matter titles individually sell in significant numbers. How do we know they don’t? Because once all of the visible “light matter” titles and their individual sales rankings have been accounted for, there simply aren’t many decent-selling sales-rank slots left over for the “dark matter” to occupy. But beyond those two inarguable facts, there’s little else about the dark matter’s makeup that we have been able to say for sure.
And so, despite our best efforts, the true nature of that dark matter has remained a mystery. We’ve speculated that it is most likely distributed among different categories of publisher in about the same proportions as Amazon’s “light matter.” But absolute certainty about it has continued to elude us.
So, what lies hidden in the invisible “dark matter” of ebook sales?
First, let’s look at how Amazon titles, authors, unit sales, daily revenue, and daily author earnings divide up between:
- “Light matter” – titles visible on at least one category best-seller list
- “Shadow dark matter” – non-list-visible titles from authors who do have other titles that are listed category best-sellers
- AE-tracked “Pure dark matter” – titles from authors without a single title on any category best-seller list, but whom our spider first discovered in the also-boughts of other authors’ category bestsellers, and then went on to pull the rest of their titles
- Non-AE-tracked “Pure dark matter” – titles from the lowest-selling authors without a single title on any category best-seller list, and whom our spider failed to find in any other title’s also-boughts, either
Note that, despite the large number of invisible titles and authors that lie in the “pure” dark matter, and which skew the first two pie-charts below, the vast majority of Amazon ebook unit sales, customer dollar spend, and dollar author earnings — around 75% of each — are going to the more “visible” authors, those with at least one title appearing on some category bestseller list. This can be seen clearly in the three pie charts that follow.
Causation or correlation? A bit of both, obviously. But the impact of author obscurity does appear to be very steep, while the career benefits of category bestseller-list visibility — which is part of discoverability — look high indeed.
How does each shade of Amazon sales “matter” divide up among various publisher types?
The list-visible “light matter” ebook sales are distributed basically the same way they were in January 2016. The pie chart does include a higher percentage of uncategorized single-author publishers, who are also mostly indies. But this simply reflects our recent laziness — the process of going through these single-author publisher names one by one and categorizing them is painfully tedious, and there are many tens of thousands of them in our million-title dataset.
So there’s nothing particularly new or striking revealed in the “light matter” — the fact that roughly half of Amazon’s daily ebook purchases are now going to indie authors has, in 2016, become rather unremarkable. Which is in itself rather remarkable. But we digress.
More interesting is the composition of Amazon’s “shadow dark matter” sales, below — the additional, non-bestseller-listed sales that contribute to the earnings of authors whose bestseller-list titles make up the “light matter”:
As described earlier in this report, indie authors and the Big Five are the disproportionate sales beneficiaries of this additional “shadow” dark matter.
And then there’s the “pure dark matter” — sales from entirely invisible authors who have no titles on any category best-seller list:
Once again, indies make up the bulk of these invisible sales and authors — an even higher proportion than in the other shades of Amazon sales matter. We even found a few dozen invisible authors here — mostly indies — who are earning six figures from titles that live entirely in this “pure” dark matter. But the majority of these 2,600,000 titles comes from the lowest-selling 750,000 authors on Amazon, and 900,000 of them belong to the lowest-selling 160,000 indies.
It might be discouraging to consider the 300,000 lowest-selling Big Five titles that we find here in the “pure dark matter”, belonging to 86,000 invisible Big Five authors. Or the 750,000 lowest-selling titles belonging to 240,000 authors published by small or medium publishers. While some of these authors are now retired or deceased, a full 60% of them were still actively publishing as recently as two years ago. Each of these authors successfully fought their way through the traditional-publishing slush pile, and secured themselves an agent and a publishing deal — even a Big Five deal. Those achievements appear to have granted them little career advantage, in either sales or visibility. Today, these several hundred thousand traditionally published authors find themselves earning even less than the very lowest-selling indies are.
Whether those 160,000 lowest-selling indies represent good news or bad news depends on your perspective: whether you view the glass as half-empty or half-full. In the past, when traditional publishing was the only real choice authors had, their manuscripts would have instead languished in traditional publishing’s slush pile, unpublished and unread. Instead, they are now collectively selling 150,000 copies a day, earning each of their authors, on average, $250/year — or roughly $100/title. And getting read, too, if not yet by many, and hopefully finding a few fans along the way.