Author Earnings: Amazon a Majority of the Print Market; Indie Publishing Vindicated

author earnings - Amazon eBooks

My stance on indie publishing has changed significantly in just a few short years (not coincidentally, over almost the same period covered by the graph above).

I'm one of those rare folks whose minds can be changed by data. When I first set out to become a professional writer, I did my homework. Reading books, blog posts, articles, and reports on the publishing industry led me to the following conclusions:
  1. The Aspiring Author Who Works Hard to Land an Agent and Finally a Book Deal that Makes Him an Overnight Superstar is a pure fairy tale. Movies and TV shows perpetuate this false view of reality because audiences like a good Cinderella story. Also, it boosts the screenwriters' egos.
  2. Even if you're among the 1 percent of aspiring authors who do land agents and book deals, chances are all you'll get is a $3000 advance for giving up all rights to a book that will languish spine-out on Barnes & Noble's shelves for a few weeks before getting pitched to make way for next month's contestant. The circle of life goes on.
  3. Despite 1 & 2, traditional publishing is still the only viable game in town.
But I kept up on my research, and after a couple of years, my thinking shifted to the following position:
  • The publishing industry as a whole still sucks.
  • Amazon has now made indie publishing a viable option for certain people, e.g. traditionally published authors who've recovered the rights to their big midlist catalogs.
  • Either way, expecting to make money is the wrong reason to get into this business.
Rather recently, after reading all of Joe Konrath's eye-opening Newbie's Guide to Publishing, I further modified my opinion.
  • Traditional publishing is broken.
  • Some authors are actually starting to earn a living by self-publishing.
  • Indie publishing is the right choice for me, but that's a call each author needs to make based on his own circumstances.
I've been self-publishing for a year now, and the amazing results have more than vindicated my decision.

Sales of my first two books placed me among the top half of Amazon writers, even before Larry Correia's BOOK BOMB!

Enough people read and liked my writing to nominate me for science fiction's most prestigious award for new authors.

As for what I might've given up by rejecting the tradpub route, I've already out-earned the standard advance for a first-time author. Except I don't have to pay that money back before earning ongoing royalties.

Royalties which are 5.6 times higher than those earned by most traditionally published authors.

Yeah, going indie has worked out pretty well for me. But I still wasn't ready to recommend indie publishing to everybody until I read the latest Author Earnings report.

The Definitive Study of Author Earnings

The May 2016 Author Earnings Report expanded its scope to include 82% of Amazon's daily eBook sales. This study shed light on many dark corners of the market that had been hidden from the public--until now.

Here's what AE found, specifically in regard to indie vs. tradpub earnings.

Author Earnings May 2016 midlist

This graph shows the number of authors in the midlist (here defined as making at least $25,000 a year), divided into four categories based on date of first publication.

Not only do indie midlisters dominate every category, they do so even when pitted against traditionally published authors who've been working for decades and have substantial catalogs under their belts. We're talking everybody who's debuted since 1916, including Hemingway, Tolkien, Heinlein, Card, King, Martin, Patterson, and Rowling.

Then figure in the fact that Amazon has only been around since 1994 and the Kindle has only existed since 2007.

Yet indie authors have remained on top of the midlist regardless of when they started out, while the number of tradpub authors lucky enough to make even 25 grand per year keeps getting cut in half.

But 25k is chump change, I can hear the tradpub diehards say. Surely, if you want to make it big, a big deal from a big publisher is the only way to go!

Author Earnings May 2016 7 figures
Not so much.
The power of big New York publishers to hand out golden tickets capable of turning struggling authors into millionaires is an artifact of the 20th century. Now? As Moe Greene would say, they don't even have that kind of muscle anymore.

If you were an aspiring author trying to break in prior to the 1980s, New York publishers were your best shot at the big time. Since 2006, indie has stolen tradpub's thunder to the extent that you're now four times more likely to make seven figures by going indie than by signing with a traditional publisher.

The other side of the Coin: Dark Matter

Indie publishing might be going like gangbusters at the midlist and seven figure levels, but what about the low end? Are self-published authors also over represented in the shadow market of books that never make the category best seller lists?

In short, yes. But that's not the whole story.

Author Earnings May 2016 Dark Matter authors

Only 14% of authors on Amazon have eBooks on category best seller lists.

Author Earnings 2016 Dark Matter earnings

But authors with eBooks on Amazon's best seller lists earn 58%  of the Kindle pie.

Author Earnings May 2016 Dark Matter sales

And just as they account for a majority of best sellers, eBooks by indie authors make up 52% of Dark Matter sales.

It would appear at first glance that going indie gives authors a nearly equal likelihood of being totally invisible or becoming best sellers. But appearances can be deceiving. According to AE:
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.
Even though a few indie authors are quietly making six figures in the Kindle Store's black hole, 160,000 indies are among the 750,000 worst sellers on Amazon.

But as tragic as that sounds, tradpub authors have it even worse.
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...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.
[Emphasis mine]
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.
The takeaway: the Big Five have lost their power to make winners and losers. A traditional book deal doesn't guarantee more sales or visibility than going indie. Even if your self-published book ends up among the lowest sellers on Amazon, you'll still average $250 a year instead of zero.

Several factors the AE study didn't take into account:
  • Of the highest/lowest earners, which authors commissioned effective covers?
  • Which of them had their books professionally edited?
  • How many made sure their books were formatted properly for Kindle?
  • Which authors published just one book, and how many have series?
  • How many authors treat publishing like a job?
  • Which of them do any marketing, e.g. blog regularly/release podcasts/engage fans on social media?
Publishing is still a gamble, but there are steps all authors can take to improve their chances. The AE report proves that self-publishing shifts the odds in your favor more than any other step.

Get off the manuscript submission carousel. Stop waiting for agents and editors to give you validation like a fat kid hoping to be picked for kickball. Seek validation from readers. Write good books, get professional editing, formatting, and covers. Then publish them yourself on Amazon.

And check out my category best selling books.


  1. There's another major factor that should be taken into account with the "dark matter" books: the long tail.

    With traditional publishing, if your book gets confined to the "dark matter" stacks, your career is DONE. Stick a fork in it. You failed to earn back your advance - no publisher will ever touch you again.

    With self-publishing, if your book is confined to "dark matter" then... well, suck it up, try the next book, leave the first one in print, and see what happens. Rinse and repeat long enough, and if your stuff is any good at all, eventually you'll get noticed. Then you'll get fans. Those fans will buy the back catalog and lift you out of obscurity.

    And if you're not "any good at all" then you weren't going to make it as a writer anyway, and trad publishing wouldn't have helped with that.

    1. Exactly right.

      And not only will the Big Five drop you like a hot potato if your book is among the lowest sellers, the insane jockeying for shelf space means that writers once considered *midlist* are having their contracts cancelled.

  2. Great to know. But succeeding in this would require hard work -- a lot of it.

    1. You're right. Self-publishing means taking on all of the responsibilities of an author _and_ a publisher.

      But these days, unless you're among the handful of Big 5 favorites who get major advertising money, bookstore co-op, and shelf space, so does traditional publishing.

      Whether you're trad or indie, the days of being able to "just write" and let others handle promoting your brand are over.

      Publishers control authors' careers. So take control for yourself.

    2. I'm about to try and tackle this from the RPG end of things. Wearing nearly all the hats (not art, cause I can't. Not layout, same reason. Never edit yourself. Indexing because I can farm it out to someone that needs the work and is good at it. Other than that, it's all me.)

      It's grueling work, and done on top of a day job. And by and large, the market rewards the underlying skills more than the product itself (project management? Go make six figures. Purchasing and sourcing of whatever? Same deal. Chief Everything Officer? Geez.)

      Still . . . it's a hell of a ride. We'll see if it works.

    3. I know what you mean. Yours is not an enviable task, but the rewards...

      God speed, sir.