SFF Death Report Greatly Exaggerated

Longtime readers may remember when I posted this graph:

2016 Genre Fiction Sales

That image made the rounds and caused a bit of a stir in certain indie quarters a couple years back. Most of us sensed that the market for science fiction books had drastically shrunk since the good old days. A lot of us, including me, were shocked at just how much our genre had withered.

The prevailing wisdom was that post-1980 realism, romance packaged as SF, and SJW convergence had driven most of the traditionally male readership from the genre. This sobering realization filled many of us indie authors with grim resolution. We were determined to make SFF flourish again, but it wouldn't be quick or easy. We had a long row to hoe.

Then Author Earnings gave a slideshow to the pink-haired mutants of SFWA at May's Nebula Awards Conference. If you're new here, Author Earnings is a data research operation run by a techie friend of author Hugh Howey. AE was the first outfit to cut through the anecdotal evidence and survivorship bias being flung around early in the tradpub v indie debate and look at the actual numbers from Amazon.

Sure, Howey's politically deranged, but he had the chops to strike it rich back in Amazon's Wild West days. His Data Guy knows his stuff, too. One way you can tell AE is reliable is their habit of unflinchingly confronting the data. They've got an open indie bias, but they don't fudge the numbers or gloss over inconvenient facts if the data's not in their favor. If one of their predictions fails, they stop, take a look at the data, and do their best to figure out why.

Another feather in AE's cap is that they're always digging for more and better information. They put a lot of effort into coming up with new ways to plumb the murky depths of KDP and shed light on the digital dark matter.

That brings us to Author Earnings' report to the Nebula Conference. I won't reproduce the whole spiel; just the slides that are of greatest interest to my readers, who tend to favor science fiction.

First up, a couple of charts that seem to confirm the old graph above:

SFF print sales

SFF online print sales

I'm no data scientist, but my gut hunch on the cause of print SFF's post-2009 nosedive has to do with the Kindle taking off. Yes, that sounds counterintuitive since we're talking about print sales, but keep in mind that Amazon's marketing relies on product recommendations targeted by users' purchase histories. Consider also that Amazon is now the English-speaking world's biggest print book retailer, as well.

Anyway, that's the story on print SFF. Now take a look at what happened when AE factored in eBook sales.

SFF trad ebook sales

Then they threw in audio as the cherry on top. Audio sales appear in yellow.

SFF trad ebook & audio sales

To my untrained eye, it looks like the big drop in tradpub's print SFF sales coincided with the height of KDP's Wild West period. The Kindle's novelty was still a strong selling point, and indie authors with a little business know-how could pull down six figures without understanding Amazon's algorithm. The eBook boom dominated the market and grew it. Then audio cut into eBook sales but also grew the genre around 2016, which is when the first chart in this post was compiled. That could be our explanation.

AE went on to break down trad SFF sales by publisher. Ready for a laugh?

SFF sales The Handmaid's Tale

Remember what I said about post-80s "realism" and romance disguised as science fiction? Turns out Houghton Mifflin has surpassed Tor as the biggest kid on the trad SFF block, and most of their unprecedented sales are due to The Handmaid's Tale. That's a pattern we'll be seeing again.

AE's presentation may have been comforting to the denizens of SFWA thus far, but it turns out that rosy picture of tradpub's fortunes was just Lucy promising to hold the football so Charlie Wendig could kick it.

Chuck Wendig

Legacy pub SFF is only surviving because of eBooks supplemented with audio, yet newpub represents a clear majority of SFF eBook sales.

SFF sales by price

It's not hard to see why. Newpub authors are selling eBooks at reasonable prices while tradpub persists in gouging readers. Recall that the Big Five NY publishers' rationale for charging outrageous eBook prices was to prop up their failing print sales while quashing the rise of eBooks. Now it looks like they partially succeeded at the former while utterly failing at the latter.

After that, AE decided to throw SFWA a bone. The following chart shows that while indies outnumber their tradpub counterparts two to one, Amazon top 100 selling trad authors outnumber indies in the top 100 by the same ratio.

SFF top selling authors

Those figures would appear to reinforce the old canard casting indie pub as a crab basket where thousands of authors struggle in obscurity while tradpub gives its authors the visibility to break out from the pack. Once again, the data present a couple of inconvenient wrinkles.

SFF sales backlist vs frontlist

First, tradpub is mainly selling backlisted SFF titles like The Handmaid's Tale. Meanwhile, indies are mostly selling their newer releases. Those facts paint an ugly picture for new authors striving to break into tradpub.

Long story short, tradpub is good at exploiting the visibility of Boomer authors who built their brand recognition while the building was good. They're not so hot at raising new authors' profiles, as the total obscurity of this year's Hugo nominees attests.

That was just the appetizer. Here's the main course. Hint: it's crow.

SFF tradpub vs indie royalties

Gate Crashers vs. Galaxy's Edge

Patrick R. Tomlinson be like:

Patrick R. Tomlinson

Jason Anspach, Nick Cole, and Chris Fox are always right. Find your market. Give them what they want at a reasonable price, and give it to them fast. Then the publishing world will be your oyster.

If you want mind-bending space adventure that won't break your bank, check out my award-winning Soul Cycle today!

The Soul Cycle - Brian Niemeier


  1. This is my first time catching an AE report. What struck me right off, aside from the data itself, was the easy to read story the slides were presented as. Then digging into the data you can find all these interesting subplots. Educated and entertained.

  2. Based on his book cover and his embarrassingly smug tweets, P.R. Tomlinson should wish he was in space.

    "P.R.", as in "needs better". Heh.

  3. My mission at the recent LibertyCon 31 (which I think you'd enjoy, BTW) was to talk to indie authors and get a grip on how they're doing. The atmosphere among the indies at LC was not merely upbeat but borderline manic. Most are making money. Some are even making a decent living. The curves all seem to be trending upward.

    Quality is way up. I saw indie books (good example: Lydia Sherrer's) that were as good as or better than the best tradpub titles I see in what's left of B&M book retailing. Pro-quality art, pro-quality layout, pro-quality everything. Promotion remains the tough nut, but that's not a new problem in any genre.

    Tradpub needs to let go of the notion that you can count sales by tracking ISBNs. That hasn't been true for years. ISBNs have become an expensive luxury on the indie side, and I continue to use them mostly because I bought a hundred of them back in 2001. AE is the best we can do for now. I recommend it to all aspiring authors.

    Odd aside: I realize that it's probably been a year since I read a tradpub SFF title, and that was from John C. Wright. It's a wonderful time to be an indie SFF writer, and an even better time to be an SFF reader.

    1. Thank you for the field report, Jeff. Your dedication as a data hound rivals AE :)

      "Quality is way up."
      Nick Cole recently dropped a bombshell on Facebook by telling indie authors that if they want to rise to the top and stay there, they need to be spending at least $7k on art, editing, and formatting for each book. That's before spending an undisclosed amount on AMS, FB, and Book Bub ads.

      "I realize that it's probably been a year since I read a tradpub SFF title, and that was from John C. Wright."

      Same here.

    2. Yes, I read that item from Nick Cole. I think he's high by about $3000-$3500. Laying out a book isn't (resists overused simile) quantum physics. People who can use a word processor can use layout tools like Jutoh or even InDesign. Editing/proofing is a tougher call, and I recommend retaining professionals for those tasks. It's hard to catch all your own mistakes. I think Nick's point was that you have to produce a quality product, however it can be done. If you can't do it yourself (and few of us can; e.g., I'm no artist) you'll have to pay others for the service, and good service doesn't come cheap.

    3. "I think Nick's point was that you have to produce a quality product, however it can be done."

      That was my takeaway as well. I did see Nick's clarification that he was laying out what it takes to stay in the 6-7 figure club.

      Now, I don't take Nick's publishing advice as an article of faith. But, he's got such a sterling track record that anytime I find myself at odds with his opinion, I take a long, hard look at my position and ask myself where I might be wrong.

      I won't gainsay his 7 grand number to reach and stay at six figures because I'm not at that level yet. I do suspect a bit of survivorship bias, because other big fish like Joe Konrath, Hugh Howey, and Dean Wesley Smith have espoused the "Do as much as you can yourself" approach you mentioned.

      What I can say is that a book with zero total production costs can succeed, for certain values of success, because I've done it.

  4. I see I have some crow to eat on the common wisdom.

    Hey, here's a question. Where's Baen in these stats?

    1. "I see I have some crow to eat on the common wisdom."
      Really? In regard to what?

      "Where's Baen in these stats?"
      I'm curious about that as well. It's possible AE doesn't consider Baen tradpub. They've got some odd, highly granular categories.

      On the other hand...

      A fellow author friend and Liberty Con attendee (who isn't Jeff) expressed some concern about Baen. He illustrated his point with an anecdote from this year's convention.

      Larry Correia and Chris Kennedy had signings right next to each other. Both had equally long, huge lines. The average Larry fan would bring up a hardcover copy of Son of the Black Sword, the whole Grimnoire trilogy, or maybe a bag of MHI paperbacks.

      One guy came up and slammed down six Monster Hunter books for Larry to sign. Larry shot a good-humored smirk at Kennedy, only for Chris to smile right back since one of his readers had just laid down eleven Revelation Cycle paperbacks.

      Larry waved it off and said, "Whatever. I have more books than that in print."

      To which Chris responded, "Larry, these are from the past _year_."

    2. 1) I parroted the conventional wisdom quite a bit. These charts say what I thought wasn't necessarily so.

      2) I've said before that we will likely lose Baen before we lose Tor, as indie gutted Baen's bench and Baen's purpose as the safety valve of tradpub. Anecdotes like this only cement that opinion.

      I can also believe the anecdote based on comments from Larry's blog. I don't think he realizes that entire series come and go between his vaunted two books a year. (To be fair, two books a year is good for tradpub, but even one book a season is now slow for indie.)

    3. 1) Thanks. It takes a big man to admit it. FWIW, I wrongly thought the Big Five's tactic of overcharging for eBooks to drive customers back to print would fail.

      2) We can hope that prediction is wrong. Sadly, I keep hearing similarly troubling accounts. Even a smaller publisher like Baen simply can't release installments in a series as fast as serial readers demand.

      As for Larry, he's a smart cookie and a numbers guy. He also has a tight rapport with his fans. We've been asking for House of Assassins for two years now. I know it irks him, partly because he understands that his most avid readers feel underserved. Larry was preaching "Be prolific!" even before Nick. I think he knows which way the wind is blowing. But he is rightly loyal to Toni, and his royalty checks are still nice and juicy. He's an exceptional guy. Hopefully he can be an exception to the new long-term publishing trends.

    4. So Baen is dictating Larry’s publishing pace? I’ve been chomping for the sequel to Son of the Black Sword and my wife has griped for two years now on the pace of release for the main story MHI novels. We both thought Larry had just slowed down or was busy with side projects...never considered the issue might have to do with tradpubs pipeline.

  5. Brian,
    Thanks for this. Gee the hoary advice is confirmed: give what the customer wants at a reasonable price while being professional.

    Could you clarify Nick's 7000$ on art, etc. Is that total or per item? I suspect the Bookbub etc ads are another 7000$.

    I haven't bought a printed book in the last 6 years and that was an Osprey.
    I'd like to know who are the biggest indie publishers/writers

    1. You're welcome. Nick says it's $3500 on the cover, $2500 on editing, and $1000 on formatting per individual book.

  6. Brian,

    Thanks that clarifies. Follow up questions:
    1) who controls the cover art? I assume that it's the artist but I could be misinformed
    2) Formatting refers to professional formatting using the tools of the trade (Indesign, etc)?
    and where can the aspiring writer find that service?

    Thanks again,