Print vs. Digital Report

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In our initial Author Earnings report, we revealed some amazing data on the health of self-publishing on the Kindle Store [link]. We included several caveats that this was only a look at Amazon, as there’s simply too much to discuss about publishing today without tackling it in bite-sized chunks. Today we’re bringing print into the mix, as Amazon is said to represent only 30% of the publishing market. Using a Bookscan snapshot of weekly print sales, we compared the top 100 bestsellers in print with the top 100 bestsellers in digital. Since our digital data is a daily snapshot, we simply divided the units sold on Bookscan by 7. It gives us the same time period during the same week (there was even overlap with some titles, though this was not important). What we are asking of the data is market share. How much money is being spent on print overall and how much on Amazon’s digital storefront? Before we got to money, we looked at actual unit sales, which came out to be 61% digital and 39% print:  evp-1-unitsales A couple things to keep in mind: A lot of the print sales on the right of the graph above are occurring on Amazon (more occur there than any other single source). Also: We aren’t including other digital distributors. We are doing two things to weight this toward a print share of the market, which is fine. As further reports are run, we will eventually put more of the puzzle together. For now, we’re giving any advantage we can to print. Despite the fact that digital outsells print in terms of units (again, this graph is conservative, as we are only including Amazon digital sales but all of Bookscan’s print sales), print brings in more revenue: evp-2-grosssales We laughed when it came out right at 70/30. A coincidence, as we aren’t looking at Amazon share overall, remember. A future question will be whether non-Amazon digital is greater than or lesser than Amazon print (this would give true market share). What we want to ask here is whether authors should care about giving up such a large piece of the money pie. That’s a big chunk, that 70%. Authors are warned not to self-publish, because they are leaving all of those earnings on the table. It turns out they are only missing out on the crust: evp-3-tradpub-print-split Bookstores typically get a 40% – 50% discount off retail price from publishers. That’s their discount, and so their share of the profit. We used an average of 45%, which was typical at my bookstore. That money is shown in green. That leaves 55% for the publisher and the author to share. The author gets anywhere from 8% – 15% of retail, depending on format, contract, and escalators. We used 12%. There’s your crust in blue. When people advise authors that they are leaving 70% of the market on the table by self-publishing, they are actually arguing in the interest of bookstores and publishers, not authors. Here at AuthorEarnings, we care about the content creators. We want them to be paid fairly. Speaking of fairly, let’s look at the digital side for traditionally published authors: evp-4-tradpub-ebook-split If you remember from our first report, we model publishers getting 80% of digital retail price. Amazon gets 20%. The author gets 25% of the publisher’s net. The questions we want to ask, as authors decide how they want to publish to maximize their chances of making a career is: Should authors worry about giving up bookstore sales by self-publishing? Or should they worry about giving up their digital rights if they sign with a major publisher? Let’s set aside what a traditionally published author hopes to earn by putting all of their blueberry pie off to the side: evp-5-tradpub-combined And now let’s look at the same scenario from a self-published author’s point of view. evp-6-selfpub-print-split Yikes. Look at all the money this author just gave up. This graph really captures the terror of self-publishing. That huge print market is lost, as wide bookstore penetration is very unlikely. In fact, it looks like I just gave up 70% of my earning potential. Or did I? What about my cut on the digital side? evp-7-selfpub-ebook-split There’s the 70% I get off the known digital daily revenue stream according to our snapshot. That’s a lot of money. More than five times what traditionally published authors make (though on lower prices). On the print side, I’m making a sliver off my print on demand books. So what happens when we total this up? evp-8-selfpub-tradpub-combined

It turns out that traditionally published authors give up more pie for their crust than indie authors give up for their crumbs. With bookstores closing and e-book adoption still rising, this is a trend heading only in one direction. And remember that we’re leaving out a lot of digital sales on other outlets; print has been given as many advantages as possible in this comparison. Also keep in mind that a lot of print occurs on Amazon, where print on demand books can account for a nice supplement of sales. As authors consider the print market they are giving up if they decide to self-publish, perhaps they should ask themselves how charitable they feel. Ignoring print distribution certainly hurts bookstores and publishers, but the blow on digital is much greater than what is gained from print royalties.

There are other advantages to being in bookstores, such as visibility, but this is offset by the 3-6 month window of said visibility when the 70% of digital earnings is forever. And as bookstores contract and digital gains wider adoption, this conclusion becomes stronger and stronger: More is lost in the decision not to self-publish than is gained from a contract with a major publisher. To balance this, publishers could pay authors a greater percentage of digital sales revenue. We think market pressures will force this decision. Until then, authors should consider what they hope to gain and what they stand to lose as they make the difficult decision to publish, and how.

Download the raw data used to generate the report:


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30 Responses to “Print vs. Digital Report”

  1. VIX says:

    It’s the little changes that will make the most important changes.

  2. thanks so much for sharing , I’m one of the best follower to your blog

  3. This makes interesting reading that I’d like to share. Would it be possible to put a date at the top of your reports? The raw data is dated 20140207. To some of us this is the 2nd July 2014 . To others it is February 7th 2014.
    Thanks for all the valuable work you put in to keep us updated.

  4. Glenn D. Gardiner says:

    How many of my book “Do You Now Believe?”, have you sold? G. David Gardiner?

  5. Pedro Stein says:

    What is the meaning of “Lost brick & mortar gross sales”? (I’m not a native English speaker). I only know that “brick & mortar” refers to physical stores and that “gross sales” refers to the total amount of sales, without subtracting the costs, so the “lost” concept is the one that confuses me. Thanks in advance!

    • Data Guy says:

      “Lost brick & mortar gross sales” refers to the sales of print editions (hardcover and trade paperback) in physical bookstores that indie authors are largely giving up when they self-publish.

      It’s a little misleading, granted, because it is quite possible as an indie to distribute your print books through bookstores as well. But to do so at scale using print-on-demand vendors is not economically effective. The industry-standard discounting and returnability requirements reduce the possible profit to negligible levels while exposing the indie publisher to a significant return cost liability.

  6. I’m confused about why you are looking at unit sales instead of dollars?

    And why are you looking at retail value instead of revenues? I grant that it requires a little more manipulation of the data, and a lot more data entry (you have to enter all of the list prices of the books), but when looking at which option is worth what, isn’t it important to actually look at the dollar values, as well as the audience share?

    • Data Guy says:

      We do look at all three measures: unit sales, gross $ sales, and author earnings.

      But from our perspective, gross $ dollar sales (or publisher revenues, for that matter) are the least important of the three; our focus is always author earnings, not publisher earnings.

      All the list prices came directly from BookScan. They were used in the calculations; check the spreadsheet.

      And again, keep in mind that a $30.00 hardcover earns an author $4.50… less than a $6.49 indie ebook does. Comparisons of “retail value” aren’t meaningful to authors in any way. We only care about the portion of the dollars we receive and the number of books we sell (and thus size of our readership).

  7. A couple of other questions:
    — Won’t most authors sell more copies of their next book(s) if their first book(s) are read by more people?
    — Won’t most authors’ books be read by more people if they are widely stocked in brick and mortar stores as well as online?

    And last, but not least: as I understand normal discounts to retailers, they work something like this:

    Independent bookstores:
    40% on hb, and trade paper
    45% on mass market

    Chains sometimes get those terms, and sometimes their orders qualify for RDC discounts. These vary more widely, but generally they’re about 5 to 10% of list better than retail.

    Unless your store is a chain store, I would doubt that their average discount is 45%, or that they get 50% on any books, other than remainders. OTHER merchandise is likely to offer them a 50% discount, though — maybe even a few percentage points more. That compensates for the lack of return privileges.

    • Data Guy says:

      Thanks – these are great questions to ask.

      — Won’t most authors sell more copies of their next book(s) if their first book(s) are read by more people?

      This is a very key point you make. It’s why we took a specific look at how indie and traditionally published debut authors were faring relative to each other in our Tenured vs Debut Author Report. What we found is that 63% of the Big Five’s 2014 ebook sales are going to their longest-tenured authors: those whose first ebooks were published 2009 and prior. The more recent Big Five debut authors (with first Kindle book published 2010 or after) were selling far fewer ebooks (and earning far less money on them) than their indie debut peers.

      When we look at debut authors from the last five years, the data shows the top 3,000 indie authors building their readership and fanbases far more rapidly than the top 3,000 of their traditionally published peers. By your logic (which I agree with), it’s a safe assumption that we’ll only see that disparity in fanbase size – and thus sales of each group’s next book(s) – increase over time.

      — Won’t most authors’ books be read by more people if they are widely stocked in brick and mortar stores as well as online?

      In theory. But as stated, it’s a false equivalence. Because to get wide brick and mortar distribution requires not only a traditional publishing contract, but also for that contract to come with a high enough advance (six figures?) that the expectation of large print runs and book-specific co-op payments to bookstores for your book are a given. It also assumes that your ebook edition will be priced competitively by traditional publishers, something which is not supported by the data.

      Oddly, the biggest traditional publishers seem to frequently price huge bestsellers a lot more competitively (Fault In Our Stars for $4.99?) in ebook form than debut authors or midlisters, who often get stuck with prices over $9.99. That puts them at a steep competitive disadvantage to indies, and thus they sell far fewer ebooks than they would have otherwise.

  8. Arka Basu says:

    When was this report published? Who is the author of this report?

    I require these details to utilise this data in academic work.

    Thank you.

  9. Gclub says:

    The JKS editors and editorial board welcome submissions year round for publication. The JKS is published bi-annually in the spring and fall.

  10. Hamura says:

    how efficient does the print works? is it economist enough?
    I think, digital is better, efficient, economist, go green, and also you can read it easily.

    That’s how my brain said.


  11. Brooks says:

    Just discovered your excellent forum!
    As an indie of two technical books sold on Amazon with their CreateSpace division doing printing and fulfillment, which works great and about 45% of selling price to me, I’m considering also selling a Kindle version. I think for Kindle Amazon takes 25% leaving me 75%? Is there a strategic ratio of Kindle price to paperback price? Like 50% of paperback price?

  12. It makes me a little sad that bookstores are closing and e-books are rising. I love both options. However, there is something very peaceful about book shops that I like.

    • Xex says:

      I totally agree with you Zequek, I would also like to add that holding a physical book is a really peaceful act in itself.

      You think the rise in e-book sales will undermine the physical sells?

  13. James says:

    I love the logic used to analyse the true cost vs benefit in your scenarios. The assumptions strike me as simple, fair and hits the key crunch points of profit vs revenue on the head.

    Some questions to build if you’d be kind enough to share quick fire answers?

    1) would we need to include cost of self-marketing / pay per clicks etc into the model – e.g. author earnings here are more like revenue than profit, we would need to deduct additional costs?

    2) any tips on where to look to build a plan on how to market a first time indie book without the help of a publisher?

    3) would there be any obvious barriers to indie publishing in print using a small batch runs and then self-sell as ‘New’ on Amazon to close the gap on lost print sales?

    4) are there any known rights issues with handing over publication to Amazon – I’m a little scared of losing copyright to an industry giant with a reputation for destroying the little guy? Can you remove the distribution and copyright from amazon in future?

    • Xo says:

      to answer 4)
      – there’s nothing to worry about there. Amazon acts as a vendor; your copyright is entirely unaffected.

  14. Bill Jones says:

    This is an excellent analysis, and I only see one flaw. An implicit assumption is that the volume of sales (not price per ebook) is undiminished for self-published ebooks vs. traditionally published ebooks, and I’m not sure that’s the case. While I’d agree the traditional publisher won’t do much for 85% of their clients in terms of marketing, there is some cachet behind being titled under a known imprint, and I wonder if the additional per-unit revenue from self-publishing isn’t more than offset by lower volumes as potential buyers have to wade through a sea of unknown titles to find gems.

    That was my personal experience anyway.

  15. Alka Talwar says:

    What is the significance of “Lost block and mortar net deals”? (I’m not a local English speaker). I just realize that “block and mortar” alludes to physical stores and that “gross deals” alludes to the aggregate sum of offers, without subtracting the costs, so the “lost” idea is the one that confounds me. Much obliged ahead of time!

  16. Darren says:

    Greetings…So is it safe to assume that for every 10 books sold….6 are E-Book and 4 are Physical soft/hard copies??? Thanks

  17. JodyScanlon says:


  18. I like to visit sites like yours. You generously share info what I and a lot of people can use in their essay, homework and just for knowledge.

  19. Great stats, and very helpful to understand one of the aspects of this decision. Of course, 70% of $0 is still $0. Plus, most traditionally published authors do not earn purely based on royalties, but are paid an advance, so percentage of sales only comes into play after the author has already been paid a contractually agreed amount.

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