In our initial Author Earnings report, we revealed some amazing data on the health of self-publishing on Amazon [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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63 Responses to “Bookscan Report – Print vs Digital – 2014-02-14”

  1. Thank you for continuing to shed light on the choices for writers in a thoughtful and respectful manner. The more we understand about various options the clearer the picture will be. You and your silent data partner are providing a service to the book business that will resonate for years to come.

  2. Indies may be leaving money on the table WRT lack of access into brick-and-mortar, but as you pointed out, Hugh, the trend is away from physical stores stocking inventory and moving on-line. What I think we’ll see happening, and what isn’t captured in the data, is the trend of authors selling physical books through their own digital stores. You do it; so do I. The income from these sources is still small, but will grow to the point of becoming significant (market-wise). Even though the demand for print may decrease, but there will always be those who want to read (and own) a physical book.

    Bottom line, the trends favor indies, and I would venture to add that indies who assume more responsibility for their own distribution of POD books will continue to do better than those who choose to go traditional.

    • Thank you Hugh for this fantastic resource, and to the authors helping increase the knowledge base via comments.
      I chose to self pub my non fiction title in both Kindle ebook and paperback, and have been surprised to find only 20% of my sales are ebook. As you say, managing the printing and distribution myself via my own eStore has proved more profitable than distributing via bookstores, but I believe it’s a worthwhile sacrifice getting into chain stores to reach readers who aren’t comfortable buying online.
      I’m deciding how to pub my next book, and this data is making me more and more comfortable to stick with the self pub route. It is hard work though, and requires business skills that not all authors are interested in.
      Thanks again, I look forward to your next instalment.

      • Karl Keating says:

        Lyndel, I see that your book is about dealing with Aspergers. That’s a problem being dealt with mainly by young(ish) parents who have a young child who has been diagnosed with the condition. Such parents are not typical of book buyers: because of the needs of their children, they commonly have less free time in which to read, and they commonly have less money with which to purchase books. (Most book buyers are older and without the same kinds of family responsibilities.)

        This makes me wonder whether you experimented with pricing for your book? It’s listed at Amazon at $9.99, which strikes me as a figure that likely would be perceived as expensive for the book’s intended audience, given what I wrote above. Did you try promoting the book at, say, half the price (or even less) to see if digital sales would be stronger?

  3. Thanks for doing this, Hugh.

  4. Barbara Sturgill says:

    What insight into how to earn what we have worked for! Thanks for bringing this to light Hugh!

  5. Libbie Hawker says:

    Awesome. Fantastic. This is so clear and easy to follow. I wish I’d had data like this back in 2010.

  6. Ann Christy says:

    Good work, Hugh and Data Guru Extraordinaire (DGE)!

    I suppose my only question with this is based on something that has been tickling my mind for a while. A publisher, while trying to sign me so there is that caveat, said that today ‘print drives ebook sales, not the other way around.’ (I put the paraphrase because there may have been a word or two I missed.)

    In effect, my only concern with not being able to find a mechanism that will get a few print books in stores is that the tendency is for people (including me) in print stores when we see an interesting title is to click on our phones onto Amazon. There I read reviews, compare the wonderfully low price of ebook (or not if it is inflated by trad pub). Then I either click to buy the ebook version or I put it on a wishlist to get at the library because I won’t pay over-inflated traditional publisher ebook prices.

    So, and this is just my first thought, I wonder how much of that feedback loop indie authors are losing by not being able to get a single copy of a book into a brick store. Or, because they can’t afford to compete for table space, would it matter? It’s an interesting question.

    But as the graph above shows…it appears not to matter. It is such a small slice, how much might be earned? Better dividends are likely to appear by focusing on reader exposure in an exclusively digital realm, with POD a nice side for those who just can’t do digital.

  7. I hate to be gloomy, but I believe big pubs can’t pay more than 25% eBook because, well, they can’t.

    If you correlate these reports with the prior churn on how royalty statements are not passing the sniff test (my favorite was the authors with the same royalty statements for eBooks as if they were copy and pasted) and the picture gets darker.

    I believe the common reaction to these reports as they go along will be histrionics, not significant changes for the better.

    But that’s just it, isn’t it? Technically, in a reader-centric world, the numbers presented don’t have to get better. Publishing becomes a massive zero-sum game with the reader as the winner and the loser the obvious loser from Report 1.

    • Sean says:

      The reason they won’t offer over 25% is because some authors have royalty-matching clauses. As those clauses are usually only obtained by rockstar authors, it would be prohibitively expensive to increase digital royalties.

      • Rockstar authors really don’t make their money from royalties. Basically they are in a perpetual “unearned advance state” – where they are never expected to “earn out.” Basically the publisher and the author look at a given book and say – okay so this is going to bring in $7M — We’ll give you a $2.5M advance. It really doesn’t matter what the royalty rates are because they already have what they are expected to get for the sales.

        So even if the royalty rate went to 50% (because of a “matching clause”) they likely won’t switch over to a “now earning royalty state.

  8. J.A. Konrath says:


    And that’s for the Top 100 print bestsellers, right?

    I’d guess midlist author paper sales on bookstore shelves are much smaller, percentage wise, than their ebook sales (legacy or self-pub).

    So the conclusion seems to be that the added paper sales in stores for legacy pubbed authors doesn’t make up for the income missed by not self-pubbing.

    Who would have ever thought that?

    Well, except for me, who was posting numbers that said something almost identical in 2009.

    Apparently I’m not an outlier after all…

  9. Man, I love this stuff, Hugh. Thanks so for much for doing it. One little quibble, though: Most authors never earn out their advances, so the effective royalty is much higher than 25% of net. Traditional publishers make plenty of bets, subsiding the majority of them on the backs of bestsellers.

    Now, if you’re playing the long game, and you’re pretty sure you’ll earn more than your advance, then this becomes a smaller issue. Plus advances keep dropping. And believe me, I’m totally on board with the larger points that indie publishing, overall, is a much smarter bet, and that publishers should pay higher digital royalties. But it’s a caveat you might want to mention.

  10. Susan says:

    Thanks for this, Hugh and DGE! More really important info.

    Wow… just wow.

    After reading H.M. Ward’s post about turning down deals, and reading your two posts on author earnings, it’s pretty easy to see that authors have been screwed for years by legacy publishing. For those doing really really well, it’s great, but mass bestsellerdom is something that only a few authors can attain. For everyone else, for midlist authors, legacy publishing sounds pretty crappy beyond the ability to say you are published by So-And-So and repped by So-And-So.

    I’d like to see you compare midlist legacy and self-pubbed authors to see whether the relationship holds between earnings and sales for them as well as bestsellers. I suspect it’s even more true, but would love to see the data.

    The truth is this — huge sellers like H.M. Ward, Joe and Hugh are the extreme outliers. You can dream of reaching their heights, but it’s as likely as winning the powerball. But it’s getting more and more possible for midlist authors to find an audience of appreciative readers and make a living or at least pay some bills as self-published authors and it’s because of the rise of eBooks and online distributors like Amazon.

    Isn’t making a living or at least paying bills on a regular basis better than languishing in slush piles, waiting for months and months and in some cases, years while your manuscript sits on some agent’s or editor’s slush pile? Or being picked up with a mediocre advance and being dropped after a half-assed effort on the part of a publishing house to market your new release that they have already decided is not going to make money?

    When you self-publihs, at least your fate is in your own hands and any money your book earns (after the distributor’s cut) is yours…

    The info is terrific. Keep it coming!

    • Hugh Howey says:

      This information is even more important for the non-outliers. Many authors have a choice between making ZERO dollars and making a little money. But that’s not how DBW and others frame the decision. They make it seem like you have the choice of being in bookstores or making very little money.

      For mid-listers, the evidence is all around you. These are the authors dropped like hot potatoes who are finding success self-pubbing their backlist.

      As for the outliers, you have Holly and myself, who have turned down 7-figure deals because we can do better on our own. And we’re not alone.

      These are the three categories of potential. Nobody knows where they lie until after the dust has settled (after the readers have had a chance to weigh in), and in all three categories, self-publishing has more advantages than disadvantages.

      My goal, personally, isn’t to rub those advantages in anyone’s face, but to talk about them, to create competition, and to force major publishers to offer more to their authors. That’s all I hope to accomplish. There are so many people with that same goal, that I think it’ll get done.

      • Susan says:

        I have never taken your discussion of your own success as rubbing our faces in it but rather, an attempt to make the whole process more transparent so authors can make informed decisions, rather than ones based on misinformation or fear. I do think that this information will push publishers to change because, hopefully, it will help authors demand more or do it on their own.

        So thank you!

    • You are correct that the real important questions are at the midlist level as few authors will be in the outlier cateory. I’m going to do some analysis off of the raw data for rankings at various levels.

      1,000 – 2,000 Rankings – High performers
      2,001 – 5,000 – high midlist
      5,001 – 10,000 solid midlist
      10,001 – 25,000 lower midlist
      25,000 – 50,000 – earning some money to pay some bills.

  11. Tom Brosz says:

    Brosz I’d like to see this series continue, and move into issues other than simple sales and revenues.

    One issue is that traditional publishers still handle a lot of things many authors have trouble with, like editing, artwork, and professional formatting of the end product (e-book or p-book).

    Another issue is that traditional publishers still have a lot more access to the traditional marketing routes. As a self-published author, I am still confronted with stores that won’t carry self-published paper books, and major reviewers and awards that won’t touch self-published work at all. Creating the books was a lot easier than getting them to stand out in the crowd.

    To be sure, an author might get shoved out into the cold by a big traditional publisher in favor of more “marketable” works, and end up in the same boat I am. It’s another point in favor of smaller indie publishers, who probably aren’t as likely to pull this.

    I hope that when this series is completed, a link to all of the installments ends up on the front page.

  12. Phoenix Sullivan says:

    Love that you’re including the raw data for download. Thanks!

    I do have a question about how that data is being analyzed post-capture. For example, I note that Feb’s Kindle First Picks are all included in the data at list price and are being extrapolated from that. Since several thousand of those “sales” are to Prime members as free downloads, how are those being accounted for? For instance, I don’t know whether the Amazon Imprint is getting reimbursed for each free download at list price from the Prime pool, or whether the imprint isn’t getting paid for them at all. Unclear too is whether Prime is paying the author’s cut on the free titles or whether the imprint is bearing the cost. Since these types of sales account for maybe 20,000 of the units moved daily, I think it’s a fair question to ask.

    The other question would be around books in the Top 100 during the capture that are there because they were the KDDs or BookBub deals from the day before. While their current list price might be $3.99+ at time of capture, it would be remiss to assume they sold 1000+ copies at current list to hit the Top 100.

    If you factor in that type of list behavior, I think the number sold and revenue on the ebook side are both going to be noticeably less. I may be missing it on a quick peek, but is the data also factoring in a 35% royalty on the 99c books, or is it taking a straight 70% on gross sales?

    Right now it does look a bit like there’s a bias to bolster sales on the ebook side despite the claim that the advantage is being given to the print side ;o). (Note I’ve got lots of horses myself on the ebook side and none of my own on the print side, so no pro-trade agenda on my part pointing this out.)

    And yes, I do realize that means a lot more man-hours to interpret the data. Still, that information is all publicly available now via ereaderIQ and/or Tracker to cross-check the previous day’s pricing.

    Again, LOVE the raw data to be able to go back to and reinterpret from! And as more data becomes available and we get more eyes on it, I think the analyses of these reports will get ever more refined.

    • Good points, Phoenix. And hi, don’t think I’ve talked to you since we were on each other’s “also boughts” a couple years ago!

      Anyway, I think most of what you point to (though maybe not the borrows) has to do with the fact that this is just a snapshot of data. There are plenty of valuable conclusions that can be drawn from it, but having numbers from a couple times a day for a month would allow a number of additional conclusions to be drawn.

      Obviously it’s an order of magnitude more difficult to get and organize that data, so it’s in no way an indictment. Just that it’s one of the major considerations when interpreting the data.

      • Phoenix Sullivan says:

        Hey, Mr. Talbot! Nice to see you around again :o)

        You’ve hit the proverbial nail with the “snapshot” comment, I believe. That, too, is why I think having the raw data for others to work with will be invaluable. Trends rely on data captures over time, and future analyses will need to deal with the discrepancies in BookScan data, books being pulsed on single-day promos, those 4 books per month whose thousands of free downloads are being counted toward the bestseller ranks, and many other anomalies. Refining daily captures over 4-6 weeks to discount the discrepancies and biases will yield clean(er) data soon enough. And having more worker bees cleaning and validating that data and identifying anomalous activity will only accelerate the refinement process.

        As far as the editorial around the analysis so far … I do think Hugh might be leaping a little prematurely to some of the conclusions he draws. Perhaps the cleansed and trended data will bear him out, but there are a couple of points where I’m not necessarily drawing the same conclusions he is when looking at the same data. But there, too, I’m only looking at a snapshot. The analysis should only mature from this point on.

  13. Great data again!

    Authors who have a choice between tradpub and self-pub have one calculation to make. But some of us have not ever been picked up by an agent or publisher. We have a somewhat different calculation to make – do we keep submitting or go ahead and self-publish?

    I chose the latter three years ago because I did a check of how much time the submission process was taking. To be professional about the submission process to agents and publishers requires a LOT of work. Each one has different guidelines and different standards and many of them are very direct about their expectation that those standards will be followed exactly (e..g. a two page outline, not one or three). Agents change what they are looking for semi-regularly as well. People move from agency to agency. My estimate was that an appropriate submission process for a thriller novel would take me minimum 150 hours. Any less and I shouldn’t expect a positive outcome. That’s the time I actually spent on submissions for my second novel – I probably spent longer on the first one since I was new to the process.

    In 150 hours, I can write a complete draft of a 100K word freaking novel. So I have to weigh that against not only the pros and cons of the numbers Hugh puts up here but also against the opportunity cost. Every single book I submit for represents one less book written.

    For me, even more than what in 2010 were the already obvious pros of self-publishing, that was the “a-ha” moment.

  14. Kathy Rowe says:

    Interesting data. Having now been published for over 4 years, and self-published at that, I can honestly say that I have a 200:1 ratio of ebook to print copy sales. I keep my ebook prices reasonable, and pretty much the same with print, but the market is leaning so heavily toward ebooks that I decided a couple years ago to quit trying to go trad and enjoy being an Indie author. I’ve gone from $3-5/mo in royalties to a few hundred now each month. The more books you publish, the more market you gain. And publishing in a variety of genres will increase your chances at readers finding you. Yes, it’s a numbers game, and the more numbers you have, the better your sales will eventually equate to.

    • Rachel T. says:

      It’s good to read this, Kathy. I’m looking to get into self-publishing later this year, and I write in multiple genres. I’ve read some who say “stick to one genre” and “if you write in multiple genres, use a different pen name for each.” This has never made much sense to me – when I find an author I like, I want to read ALL of their books!

      I’d love to see hard numbers comparing those who write multiple genres under their own names vs those who write under pen names, and see who really comes out on top.

  15. Sean McCarthy says:

    Just a couple of quick questions about the methodology:

    1) Was there an average list price used in the traditionally published gross sales chart? A hardcover royalty is much higher due to the more expensive list price and better rate, and would be a more sizable chunk of the gross revenue.

    2) Were there any adjustments to the publisher’s share of the gross revenues (e.g. the cost of printing, shipping, and storing physical books; salaries/benefits to editors, copyeditors, designers, etc; rent)?


    • Hugh Howey says:

      Yes. We determined HB or TP based on price, and applied what we felt was an appropriate royalty to each. We were very generous in all cases of favoring the other side’s argument.

  16. Karen M says:

    “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.”

    I’m really digging these reports and data, so thank you for that. For established authors, this information is quite encouraging, but for new writers looking at publishing their first book, there are open questions. One thing these kinds of survey data don’t illuminate is the career length of the self-published versus the traditionally published authors and its impact on earnings.

    Sales data for a week, month, or year ignore the length of time the authors have been publishing. How does audience size figure into this? For the 100 top-selling tradpub books vs. self-published books, what is the average length of time the authors have been published (i.e., building an audience)?

    If we examine, say, an author’s first three or four years of publishing, are self-published authors having more success or less than traditionally published authors?

    It’s a rare writer who hits it out of the park with their first published book (EL James, I’m looking at you). If I were finishing my first novel and trying to decide whether to shop it around to publishers or go the self-publishing route, I’d want to know how new authors fare in both worlds. If it turns out that authors do best when they tradpub first and then go indie (Joe Konrath and many, many others), that would be useful to know, too.

    • Rachel T. says:

      As one who is looking to get into self-publishing this year, these reports haven’t dampened my enthusiasm AT ALL. In fact, they’re what DECIDED me! I’ve got literally hundreds of ideas for books, and I’m patient. I’m willing to take the time to build up my backlist, to make sure my audience gets the best experience possible from me (and from what I’ve got in mind, it will be an EXPERIENCE, not just a read!). Cheers!

  17. Mark Terry says:

    Well, as far as I can tell, bookstores (as opposed to Wal-Mart, Kmart, Meijer and other non-book retailers of books) have something for the modest-selling author: the so-called three-book death spiral (or perhaps, The 3-Book Death Spiral). In other words, if a bookstore orders 10 copies of your first book and sells 7, the next book they order 7, which may then only sell 4, which will be the last you’ll sell to any bookstore because your publishers will have given up on you. That doesn’t happen with ebooks, at least not if you’re self-publishing.

  18. As one of the midlist authors mentioned above, I’m happy to say that, since I turned indie in 2010, after an eighteen-book traditional career, I earn as much in a month as I did in a year, trad-pubbed (even in a bad month).

    If anyone’s interested, here’s the link to the guest post I wrote on this for thestoryreadingape’s blog:

    • Hugh Howey says:

      This is a story I’ve heard at least a hundred times in blogs, comments, and real-life conversations.

      I’ve yet to hear from an author who went self-pubbed to trad-pubbed and is over the moon with excitement. In fact, I’ve heard from some of the biggest names who have done this, and they are miserable. 7-figure deals, and they are miserable.

    • Julianna says:

      Thanks for the link to your blog post, Geraldine! I enjoyed reading it, and it certainly fits in with what Hugh and his cowriter are saying. 🙂

  19. Hugh, I must have missed this, but where do you take into account that Bookscan captures only about 10%-50% of print sales?


    • Hugh Howey says:

      I’ve heard it captures 70% to 80%. Where did you hear 10%?

      • From an author who compared her Bookscan numbers to the sales figures her publisher shared with her.

        It’s not unusual to see Bookscan numbers at 1/3rd sales or even less. If they catch 50% the author is lucky.


        • Harry’s information (30%) used to be correct for mass market paperbacks that get mass merchandiser distribution (Walmart, Target, etc).

          Hugh’s figures (70-80%) most likely relate to hardcover, which has higher sales in the bricks-and-mortar stores (Bookscan figures derive primarily from there) and less sales in the mass merchandisers.

          With the demise of Waldens, then Borders, etc, and the shrinkage of B&N, then Bookscan for mass market paperbacks, even the bestsellers, is barely worth noting. The current % print sales that Bookscan reports for mass market bestsellers has to be way less than 30% now. 10% perhaps?

          And for mass market print bestsellers (who are the ones who get the wide distribution, of course) online print sales are generally in the neighborhood of 10% (Amz and everyone together).

          Just FYI. I appreciate this sort of analysis isn’t at all easy when there’s so little publicly available data to be found.

          • Data Guy says:

            BookScan’s numbers are no doubt inaccurate. The lack of accurate data to help with analysis and decisions is frustrating.

            I would hope that print sales data from the BookScan Top-100 would be more accurate than books with lower sales–because the within 20% number is frequently cited by industry insiders.

            It would be helpful if industry players would bring some accurate data of their own and contribute to the discussion.

          • This is in reply to Data Guy below (FYI, no Reply is appearing beneath his post):

            Those % I cited above were/are for Bookscan’s Top-100. I’m not referring to books with lower sales – just the bestsellers.

            Your assumption of within 20% is likely accurate for hardcover (it would be in my experience) – and that’s what the “industry” talks about, hardcover. But that assumption is not true for mass market bestsellers, which is most of the romance bestsellers. You will need to separate formats if you are going to use BookScan figures to derive your print sales numbers.

            And that’s just the numbers. I’m not sure how you’re going to calculate royalties, as trad print bestsellers are not paid on the basis of royalty per book but by advance, which is usually sufficient to throw those per-book royalty figures out the window.

            Yes, I know. It’s an unholy mess. But congratulations on pulling some of the most interesting raw data I’ve seen in over 20 years in this biz.

          • This is also a response to Data Guy, for the reason Ms. Laurens cites: No reply button.

            Bookscan became less accurate when Borders went out of business and it’s become notoriously inaccurate. What’s more, I understand it’s even more inaccurate for bestsellers because so many of those books are sold through vendors like Wal-Mart and Target, who don’t report to Bookscan.

            GIGO is the rule. As much as I would like this analysis to be correct, I don’t see how it can be.

  20. JLOakley says:

    Thanks for all the data. Math is not a strong point with me, but I know I made the right decision when I went indie. My next novel will be out soon. I do use Bookscan through my author central account and it’s been interesting to see how many books I do sell through bookstores. Still modest, but it’s income that is growing. I take pride in what I write, have a team of editors and beta readers to make it read well and I have an audience that is growing. Enjoy all your postings and findings.

  21. This data is certainly enough to put off an indie author from contacting publishers in the hope of getting a contract. But the other question is how does this trend effect the relationship with an agent. If I was to approach an agent now, let’s say to represent my next book which I intend to self publish, how many of those agents would be willing to take me on if I was only prepared to sign a print contract in order to keep my digital rights?

    These figures change the relationships throughout the print world, and do not reflect only earnings, but the whole structure.

    • Jim Johnson says:

      You don’t need an agent to self-publish. If you self-publish and start getting offers from traditional publishers or international deals or Hollywood, then consider getting an agent or an IP lawyer to help you with the contracts.

    • Jim Johnson says:

      Also, anecdotally from discussions on the Kboards and Passive Voice, several major hybrid writers have noted that the Big 5 aren’t so much interested in print only deals–they’re looking for erights too. (Not surprising, given the data.)

    • Julianna says:

      Hi Michelle,
      I have only a single datapoint for you regarding agents, but will give it for what it’s worth –

      I flatly asked a fairly well known West Coast agent I know if there would any point in my contacting her once I indie-published a novel. She told me if I sold 5000 copies of my book online, to contact her – she might very well be interested in representing me for foreign sales rights, movie and television rights, and, if I were interested, potentially a traditional contract for my book w/ one of the “Big 5” (the latter not required).

      I personally think there’s as very definite market for agents knowledgeable in foreign and other media rights among indie authors. It will be interesting to see how that all develops in the coming years.


      • Rachel T. says:

        Interesting (and good) to hear, coming from a West Coast agent, where working across industry lines seems to be more common.

        I also think having a good entertainment lawyer is going to become more important.

  22. Paul Witcover says:

    Hugh, when you refer to “indie published” in your analyses here, what specifically are you referring to? What is the definition of this category?

    Thanks for this incredibly useful site, which I’ve bookmarked for my writing students!

  23. greg schulz says:

    Great piece and interesting timely analysis.

    I have done several books via traditional publishers who produce / deliver them via e-book/print variants and with each new project the decision to self-publish vs. leverage existing publisher becomes more difficult. I can still see pro’s con’s of both routes as well as exploring hybrid approaches. Perhaps time to finally test the waters with a self-publish project and then continue to reassess future projects on a case by case basis…

  24. Hey Hugh, As an author of one pretty lucrative self pub genre (Adult Thrillers) and one not so lucrative self pub genre (Middle Grade) I sure would love it if you guys would gather more data based on genre. To that end, do you plan on modifying the author survey so that it will capture the different genres of the authors who are reporting? That would be awesome to see that genre specific data grow over time.

    Thanks and keep up the great work! DK

  25. D.A. Casey says:

    Wow! This is a lot of work. Thanks for sharing it with the rest of us.

    (Hugh, please tell David the Excel Guy that there are a bunch of #REF! and #DIV/0! errors near the top of the “Amazon Top-100” sheet in the Excel file.)

    With all the work you put into this project, I’m sure you want us to take a close look at the data.

    It appears that David has multiplied the gross Amazon eBook revenues ($923,067.68) for all 100 bestselling eBooks by 70% to calculate the total indie/self-pubbed authors’ revenues, even though only 35 of their eBooks are included in this 100. We also see a lot of 99 cents and $1.99 eBooks that likely only earned 35% royalties. And David has also multiplied the gross Amazon eBook revenues for all 100 bestselling eBooks by 20% (80% * 25%) to calculate the trade-pubbed authors’ revenues, even though these authors’ eBooks only account for 52 of the eBooks. I think it’s safe to say that neither the indie/self-pubbed authors nor the trade-pubbed authors pocketed the loot for ALL 100 bestselling eBooks, so it’s unfair to compare how much each group of authors made on that day with these calculations.

    If we were to break down the eBook earnings by group (and adjust the six Kindle First eBooks to $1.99, the “Buy Now” price, instead of the regular $4.99 list price), we’d have the following:

    Total Earnings:

    indie/self pub authors’ eBook revenue: $77,468.87
    indie/self pub authors’ POD revenue: $36,125
    = $113,593.87

    big5/sm/med pub authors’ eBook revenue: $128,682.25
    big5/sm/med pub authors’ Bkstore revenue: $236,058
    = $364,740.25

    Amzn pub authors’ eBook revenue: $31,345.08
    Amzn pub authors’ Bkstore revenue: unknown
    = $31,345.08

    Earnings Ratios:

    indie/self pub authors: 22.3%
    big5/sm/med pub authors: 71.6%
    Amzn pub authors: 6.1% (+ unknown print book sales)


    indie/self pub author eBook revenue: median: $970.68; mean: $2,766.75
    big5/sm/med pub author eBook revenue: median: $1,915.20; mean: $2,737.92
    Amzn pub author eBook revenue: median: $2,274.77; mean: $2,411.16

    What kills the earnings of the indie/self-pubbed authors are the numerous 99 cents and $1.99 eBooks at the 35% royalty rate.

    Even if we assume Amazon has only 2/3 of the eBook market (and so add 50% to account for the revenues in other eBook stores) and assume the indie/self-pubbed authors’ 99 cents and $1.99 eBooks were KDP Select Countdown deals that earned these authors 70% royalties, that only increases their earnings to $167,890.16. As a percentage to the others, we get:

    indie/self pub authors: 29.8%
    big5/sm/med pub authors: 64.7%
    Amzn pub authors: 5.6%

    (Realize that we’re not yet tallying the estimates from other distribution channels, because that info isn’t available yet.)

    The bottom line is that Amazon’s eBook market is not yet big enough to cover the losses the top selling indie/self-pubbed authors lose out on by not being widely distributed in physical book stores in the U.S. Of course, this disadvantage is mitigated over time because once the trade publishers stop pushing their new releases, these books’ sales typically decline, but indie/self-pubbed authors can keep their market pushes going indefinitely, and they can publish new books more frequently than once a year. And that shelf space in physical bookstores? It’s shrinking.

    Thanks again for the data, guys.


  26. Chris Eboch says:

    Self-publishing does not necessarily lose out on print sales, either. I sell far more POD copies than digital of my middle grade novel, The Eyes of Pharaoh, even though the print is higher-priced. I make a couple of dollars per copy, same as with the e-book. And really, this is in comparison to zero sales, because I tried to sell the book traditionally years ago but heard “historical fiction isn’t selling” or “we already have an Egypt book.” Yet teachers seem to be finding the book somehow!

    I’d love it if you eventually address children’s novels. I know more kids are reading digital, but there are still issues with getting into schools and libraries.

    Thanks for sharing the data.

  27. Leanne says:

    Thank you for forging ahead with this research and analysis in the face of a press that simply wasn’t interested in exploring the truth about ebook sales and earnings. But here’s my rather significant concern about the future of print books: I don’t think it’s a good thing for them to go away. I think it is an overall net loss for our culture if print books disappear, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that the death of print books means the ultimate death of bookstores.

    Now, if we’re talking about a soulless Barnes & Noble, that may not be such a terrible loss, but if we’re talking about Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, or any of the smaller indie bookstores struggling to survive but which are providing an unduplicated cultural service to their communities, that’s reason for rethinking the “death to print!” battle cry.

    What I would like to see is twofold: 1) long-term, the reshaping of the publishing industry so that the production of print books continues, but with major changes that include authors receiving a much fairer cut of the profits, and 2) shorter-term, some brainstorming by indie authors and indie bookstore owners on ways for both entities can effectively and profitably partner for the good of all.

  28. Once again – a nice job. One thing I should point out…we really should increase the bookscan numbers because as we all know they don’t capture 100% of the point of purchase sales. They say they get 70% – For my books I think it is getting about 68%. Scalzi mentioned that for his hardcover books he is seeing 66.6% reported through bookscan. I think it’s reasonable to assume that 65% – 70% of print sales are getting captured.

  29. Sean OBrien says:

    One of the major risks with e-publishing is the Kindle Store Terms of Service (TOS). Amazon reserves the right to change the terms at any time. This is not a traditional publishing contract which is pretty much carved in stone. The Kindle TOS is a unilateral declaration by Amazon, it is fluid and completely arbitrary. Amazon is a for-profit corporation. It can immediately and frequently change the TOS to improve the bottom line.

    Today the TOS are favorable and encourage indie publishing. That could change tomorrow, and Amazon could choose to immediately delete all our books, or raise their fees to 50% or higher.

    Amazon today chooses to be content neutral. But tomorrow they could implement a left-wing liberal policy and delete any hint of conservative content. Or they could go FoxNews on us and delete any hint of liberal thinking.

    We publish in the Kindle Store solely by the good graces of Amazon is not a public institution and it has ZERO commitment to the long term existence of any content.

    • Rachel T. says:

      You’re right, Amazon is free to change its terms at any time, unlike a traditional publisher under contract. But unlike a traditional author under contract, writers are also free to walk away at any time. As someone who’s worked for at-will employers my whole adult life, that’s a fair deal.

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