February 2014 Author Earnings Report
Written by: Hugh Howey
One week ago, we released our initial Author Earnings report on the prevalence and breakdown of nearly 7,000 genre e-books on Amazon’s bestseller lists. We only looked at three categories of genre fiction. Since that time, our spider has been hard at work gathering data on a wider variety of titles as it probes deeper into the lists. This time, over 54,000 titles were collected, practically every book on every Amazon bestseller list.
For you techies out there who geek out on methodology, the spider works like this: It crawls through all the categories, sub-categories, and sub-sub-categories listed on Amazon, starting from the very top and working its way down. It scans each product page and parses the text straight from the source html. Along with title, author, price, star-rating, and publisher information, the spider also grabs the book’s overall Amazon Kindle store sales ranking. This overall sales ranking is then used to slot each title into a single master list. Duplicate entries, from books appearing on multiple bestseller lists, get discarded.
As before, our spider is looking at a snapshot of sales rankings for one particular day — in this case February 7, 2014. Extrapolation is only useful for determining relative market share and theoretical earnings potential. Our conclusions assume that the proportion of self-published to traditionally published titles doesn’t change dramatically from day to day, and the similarity of this dataset, collected 9 days after the previous one, lends that assumption some support. By comparing successive reports over the coming months, we will be able to answer the day-to-day variance question more completely.
Of the ~54,000 titles sampled, ~11,000 (or 22%) were genre fiction. ~30,000 (60%) were non-fiction. ~900 (1.8%) were literary fiction. And ~10,000 (20%) were children’s books (young adult is not included in this last category). The preponderance of nonfiction in this sample does not reflect market share. Rather, it reflects the many hundreds of detailed Amazon sub-sub-sub-category bestseller lists for non-fiction (Health, Fitness & Dieting > Alternative Medicine > Holistic, for example), that make lower-selling nonfiction more visible to the spider than equally low-selling fiction.
In order to better understand where and why this data differs from the three genre categories of our original report, let’s look at four different segments: Genre fiction, literary fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books. Here’s how daily unit sales and gross dollar sales divide up among them:
As with our previous report, daily unit sales and dollar sales estimates are based on crowdsourced sales rates by overall Amazon ranking. Adjusting these sales rates does not greatly alter any of our conclusions, as all titles are affected. What these graphs represent, then, is a snapshot of Amazon bestseller rank—which has been observed to correlate neatly with daily sales figures—and price.
With all of genre fiction lumped together, the previous estimates of 70% market share still hold. Future reports will break these genres down further. The goal of this report is to look at all e-books, rather than a single subset.
Genre Fiction (All Genres)
The roughly 11,000 genre titles from our 54K sampling look very similar to the previous dataset of Mystery/Thriller & Suspense, Romance, and Science Fiction/Fantasy. These 11,000 genre books now also include Action & Adventure, Horror, Historical Fiction, Erotica, and the like. Here is the breakdown of how these 11,000 genre titles were published, and we can see that including all genres has given a boost to small publishers when compared to our initial report:
This breakdown is very similar to our original report, with self-published authors commanding roughly the same share titles on bestseller lists as the Big 5 combined. Ah, but where on the lists are these books? By estimating daily sales according to rank on the overall list, we can get a clearer picture:
Not to belabor the point, but no matter how the unit sales by rank figures are adjusted, all titles are impacted equally, so the share of the pie remains largely unchanged. The above graph is a neat visual indicator of relative strength across Amazon bestseller charts. We can see that small publisher titles are well-represented on the lists but that the sales are relatively muted. As with our first report, self-published and Big 5 published genre works are roughly equivalent.
Gross sales and author earnings come next, where we anticipated a fall-off for self-published authors as we included all genres, but we’re seeing just a few percentage points difference from our earlier report:
Again, because of the higher royalties for self-published works, this daily snapshot of earnings reveals indie authors as a group making more than traditionally published authors:
See our 11K genre spreadsheet at the bottom of the report for more graphs and the full data set. It would be a lot to include everything here. People can only take so much pie.
Let’s move to non-fiction, where we see that the abundance of sub-sub categories favors small publishers :
Surprisingly (to us at least), self-published authors capture 22% of the total share of earnings in non-fiction. Breaking this out by individual publisher might show that self-published authors—as a group—are the top publisher of non-fiction e-books on Amazon:
Literature and Fiction
Next are the results for literature and fiction, which remember account for 5% of sampled titles out of our total ~54,000:
The lesson from these graphs and the overall genre breakdown at the very beginning of this report is that e-literature and e-literary-fiction do not make up a large market share, not as an overall share of all e-book sales. But they do pay better for self-published authors than the traditionally published. This is not a trivial observation. It is well known that self-published authors make 5.6 times the royalty rate as their traditionally published counterparts. But these graphs capture more than that. They also take into account the lower average price of self-published books plus the variable royalty rate that occurs below the $2.99 price point. More crucially, these charts capture the relative strength in number and ranking of self-published and traditionally published works. It is one thing to know that self-published authors make more, sale to sale. To see an earning snapshot that compares overall Amazon ranking with lower prices factored in is quite extraordinary. For non-fiction and literature both, the results here show that genre fiction is not the only place for self-published writers to carve out a portion of Amazon sales.
Quickly and without commentary, a look at children’s books, which does not include YA and represents only 3% of bestselling titles:
The Overall Picture
Now let’s put all of these categories together and look at the relative market share for the entire 54,000+ titles, combined:
Across the entire range of e-books, fiction and nonfiction, adult and children’s, genre and literary, indie authors make up a large slice of the overall Amazon pie. While indie market shares in bestselling nonfiction, literary fiction, and children’s fiction are still catching up with genre fiction—where indies already beat out the Big-5—indies have already made surprising inroads into those other categories, too. We see also that including all the other genres alongside the three top-selling categories of our first report did not appreciably alter the distribution of self-published titles across the lists. Once again, no matter how we tweak the relationship between daily sales and bestseller rank, the effect on all titles is more or less evenly distributed. That means the market share by publishing type holds steady. This can be buttressed by running more reports over time.
Indies All the Way Down
Let’s try something interesting. What if we ignore the top 1,000 e-books and look at the 49,000 titles that follow? By removing the most extreme outliers, we can see if the lists are top-heavy for traditionally published authors or if the most extreme self-published bestsellers are the exception as some claim. Frequently, self-publishing success stories are explained away as rarities. If this is true, once we remove the top 1,000 from consideration, we should see the needle move toward the traditionally published mid-list authors who are making a steady living further down the charts.
Here’s the top 50,000+ e-books again:
And here we have the same group of e-books but with the top 1,000 bestsellers removed:
It’s indies all the way down.
Once we look below the Top 1,000, indications are that the indie midlist is healthy indeed. Or it could be that we’re glimpsing the rising swell of tomorrow’s new Top 1,000. All of this remains to be seen.
The picture emerging from relative ranking on Amazon bestseller lists is that self-published authors have captured a large piece of Amazon’s total market share, more than any other single publisher and often more than all five major publishers combined. Looking at daily sales rankings for 54,000+ titles reaches well beyond outliers and beyond even what might be considered midlist e-books.
Our next report will step away from Amazon for a moment. Our spider has been crawling up B&N’s waterspout. What we have discovered there surprised us. Stay tuned.
All of our data can be downloaded below. This data can be used for any purpose except to profit.
Download the raw data for all 54000 titles (.xslx)
Download the raw data for the 11000 genre titles (.xslx)
Download the raw data for the 30000 non-fiction titles (.xslx)
Download the raw data for the 900 literary fiction titles (.xslx)
Download the raw data for the 10000 childrens books (.xslx)