Notes on self publishing for a friend

UPDATE 1: Additional thoughts, and a quick look at the July numbers are at the end.
UPDATE 2: In the second comment, I look at the whole $14.99 versus $9.99 thing. Bottom line: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” is still true today.

Author Hugh Howey posted a spreadsheet of ebook sales from a day at the end of April, 2014, as part of his quest to answer questions regarding independent author earnings versus traditionally published authors.

I downloaded that spreadsheet in an effort to answer a different question: What can a friend of mine – a novice author – expect to earn from self-publishing his book?

The most likely earning, according to Howey’s spreadsheet, is zero. And he may actually lose money due to the cost of additional services like editing and cover design.

The spreadsheet has about 104,000 titles in it – of those, about 85,000 are ranked and have information on earnings as well as categories such as independent author or genre fiction. Many are in more than one category.

I believe this is a snapshot from a single day in April. All were apparently on some kind of bestsellers list, sometimes in a subcategory, on the Amazon Kindle store. I do not know if their sales are rising or falling, and the threshold for getting on the lists likely rises and falls depending on the day and/or category or subcategory.

It’s worth highlighting this: These are ranked titles that have sold best on the kindle store – they had to have significant enough sales at some point to make it onto a bestsellers list. Titles not on a bestsellers list at any time performed worse than these.

The rank at which $0 first appears in the spreadsheet is 10,002.

I used pivot tables in excel to group the titles by author – names had been replaced by numbers but they could still be grouped. I then compared the performance of authors with more than five books to authors with 2-4 books and authors with only one book. I did this for all authors, for titles marked as genre fiction and for authors marked as independent. Finally, I went back to genre fiction and looked at the performance of independent authors and uncategorized publishers with a single author.

For the math challenged, average is when you add up all the numbers and divide by the number of numbers. Median is essentially the number you find in the middle of all the numbers, if you line them up in a row sorted by value. Mode is the most commonly found value.

So, if you have 10 authors and one made $10,000, two made $50, four made $10 and three made $0 then the average for that group would be $1,014 and the median would be $10. $10 is also the most commonly found value with four.

You can see how one big number can skew the average results – nine out of those ten authors didn’t make anywhere close to the average – which is why I put more emphasis on the median result.

Here’s what I found:

Results of my messing with Hugh Howey's spreadsheet of author earnings from April.

Results of my messing with Hugh Howey’s spreadsheet of author earnings from April.

- For all 89,000 titles by 51,138 authors, nearly 70% of authors with one book earned zero. Their median earnings were also zero. Average earnings were pushed up to $27 by a few earning more at the top of the list. Authors with 2-4 books fared a bit better, but 42% of them still earned nothing, and median earnings were less than $12. Authors with five or more books fared the best, but even then more than 20% of them earned nothing.

- Results for genre fiction titles were closer to what you would expect for books on a bestsellers list.
Authors with more than one book did far better with median earnings and there were far fewer earning zero. But genre authors with one title earned a median of less than $12, and 37% of them earned nothing.

- I was also able to estimate how many authors this is out of the entire genre category. There were only about 16,000 titles by 7,193 authors – a small percentage of authors in the spreadsheet and even less if considered among all genre titles.
I estimated about 450,000 genre books on the kindle store with an average of about three titles per author – just a guess as I’m putting this together months after the data was collected.
The number of books and authors per book is probably high, but I have no idea if or how many titles are listed in more than one of the genre categories of romance, mystery and thrillers and SF&F, so I took the number of estimated authors (150,000) as the same number of actual books, which is probably very low. In other words, my estimate of actual books in the kindle genre fiction categories is actually a third of what was listed and so the percent I offer likely skews higher.
With that estimate, the genre authors on this list make up less than 5% of all genre authors. And 62% of them have only one book and likely made less than $12.

- There were 12,606 independent authors with 20,520 titles on best seller lists. 63% of those titles made zero. 70% of Indy authors with one book made zero. Their median earnings were zero. 40% of authors with 2-4 titles made zero, and median earnings were less than $9.

- Finally I went back to genre authors and looked at what I call crossovers – Indy authors who also have traditionally-published books vs. purely Indy authors. I also broke out “uncategorized single-author publishers” although I don’t know what that is exactly.
Unfortunately, although I have Excel at home I don’t have Access, which is a database program I could use to break out all this information and present just the earnings for the Indy titles from traditionally published.
Basically it means that the numbers are all gross sales together so comparing between the categories is problematic, but comparing to the results for all genre authors is fine.
That said, Indy authors alone had the highest percentage of titles making nothing while being on a genre bestsellers list. They did less well than the norm for all bestselling genre authors, with median ($26.91) and average ($220.25) earnings lower than the norm and a slightly higher percentage of authors who made nothing (515, 27.3%).
Indy authors who also have traditionally published books or books with uncategorized single-author publishers had very few zeros and their median and average gross sales were far higher.

- Those figures are also for authors with one or more books. I went back and looked at (but didn’t insert onto the chart) the numbers for Indy-only titles for authors with only one book.
And their numbers were worse, comparable to Uncategorized single-author publishers neither traditionally or independent:
– Number of Indy only authors with one book: 1,270 out of 1,884, or about 67% of Indy only ranked authors.
– Average gross earnings for Indy only authors with one book: $79.90
– Median: $10.89
– Percent of titles earning zero: 37%. 470 titles earned zero. In other word, most of the titles that earned zero for independent genre authors not otherwise published were for authors with only one book.

- But those numbers include books published a while ago – arguably more recently published books should perform better.
It turned out about 600 of those authors – less than half of the 1,270 – were published in the first four months of 2014. And their average and median earnings were better: average gross sales were $134.47 and median was $23.96.
With such a small sample, I was also able to look at it visually. The scatter plot chart with a black trend line shows earnings by release date.

Earnings for independent authors not otherwise published, first four months of 2014

Earnings for independent authors not otherwise published, first four months of 2014

It’s a great way to illustrate why averages can be so different from the median. You can see that there are authors who made significant money and their sales drove the average up. And you can see the great number of books all along the bottom of the timeline. Again, these are authors that somehow made it onto a bestseller list in a category or subcategory so we should assume that they made money at some point.

What do I think it all means?

I am honestly happy that many of my author friends can bring their backlist back in print and profit from it. And I agree that it looks like the big publishers are taking too much of the ebook pie from their authors, and that should change. Not everyone is able to go it alone, but the price for staying with a big publisher seems pretty high – especially if they’re not supporting a midlist as they once did.

But while it’s great to be inspired by success and valuable to learn what worked for successful authors, it’s also important to realize that their experience is not everyone’s experience. You tend to hear the stories that people are most motivated to tell and many people who aren’t successful tend not to share their stories.

So I think beginning authors should not just look the top of the scatter plot chart and ignore the bottom. Being able to make more per book doesn’t mean much if you’re not making much to begin with.

Put it this way: If you write in one of the genre fiction categories and spent $1,500 to publish your ebook, it would take you more than 62 days at $24 a day to break even. Those are gross sales, of course, so the length of time would be longer.

And that’s if you write genre fiction and your title makes it onto a genre bestsellers list. There are strong audiences for genre titles for authors to plug into.

If you’re not writing popular genre fiction, it’ll be harder to find your audience.

This is NOT an argument against self-publishing. I and many other cartoonists have been self publishing on the web since 2000. And there is a grand and respected tradition of self-publishing in the print comics field that stretches back decades.

All this does is lend credence to the conventional wisdom that most books do not make back what publishers invest in them.

And if you self publish, you’re the publisher.

Update: Thinking about this a while, here’s a few additional thoughts.

- Don’t be discouraged by these numbers. This isn’t a prediction of future performance for any specific author. You should not let these keep you from pursuing your goals.

- You have to realize that the players in this industry all have different goals.

Traditional publishers seek books that will make them money (and they’ll try to get terms from authors that maximize that).
But they are wrong a lot of times – most books they publish don’t make a profit. The trick for them, though, is to be right enough times about a book or author that they do turn an overall profit. In that respect, they have an incentive to be a gatekeeper.
Self-publishing services have different goals. They don’t have to be a gatekeeper – their profit comes from providing the services regardless of whether a book will be successful or not. They can and do use news of successful books to sell their services, so in that sense it’s good if the people who use their services are successful. But aside from that, if you want to publish your book, they’ll take your money.

- Recently, an author I know argued self publishing is about control. I disagree – it’s about responsibility. And aside from all the other details of self publishing your book, the biggest responsibility is being your own gatekeeper. Just because you can self publish doesn’t mean you should.

And I’m not talking about the quality of the book. Can you afford to lose money? Most books do. And, if you do lose money – or even if you don’t make enough money to feel successful – is that going to discourage you from writing? How much of an investment would you be making in money and self esteem? Does this move you forward, or will it be a step backward?

There’s a lot of hype out there about all this, and I think that’s a real problem. People with agendas, personal biases or resentments are dominating the conversation.

Stop listening to them. These are questions only you can answer. Whatever choice you make, good luck.

Update 2
Howey posted July numbers so I took a quick look.

Short answer, the spreadsheet had more authors and more books, but there wasn’t improvement in the overall numbers.

The ratio between the groups was similar, with about 4.5% of all the authors having 5 or more titles, 18.7% with 2-4 and about 77% with one title.

Average and median gross sales were lower for everyone. Partly that could be due to this list having more authors than the April one did (+20,000), but total earnings increased only slightly ($4.85 million vs. $4.7). More authors, flat earnings = lower averages and medians.

However, a higher percentage of all authors in all cases made nothing. This is still only two data points, but still – these are books on a bestsellers list in a category or sub-category.

BTW, all the books from both reports I looked at had a price attached to them – none were on sale for $0:00.

Here’s the numbers from July:

total gross: $4,851,836.03
Avg. per author: $66.38
Median per author: $0.00
Mode: $0.00
# of authors: 73,088
Number making $0: 50,331
% making zero: 68.9%

5 or more titles
total gross: $2,420,409.64
% of total gross: 49.9%
Avg. per author: $746.35
Median per author: $67.92
Mode: $0.00
# of authors: 3,243
As percent of ALL: 4.4%
Number making $0: 795
% making zero: 24.5%
As percent of ALL making zero: 1.6%

2-4 titles
total gross: $1,464,487.81
% of total gross: 30.2%
Avg. per author: $106.94
Median per author: $2.97
Mode: $0.00
# of authors: 13,695
As percent of ALL: 18.7%
Number making $0: 6,708
% making zero: 49.0%
As percent of ALL making zero: 13.3%

1 title
total gross: $966,938.58
% of total gross: 19.9%
Avg. per author: $17.22
Median per author: $0.00
Mode: $0.00
# of authors: 56,149
As percent of ALL: 76.8%
Number making $0: 42,828
% making zero: 76.3%
As percent of ALL making zero: 85.1%

If I have more time I might go back and do the detailed analysis I did before. But probably not.


3 Responses to “Notes on self publishing for a friend”

  1. This is surely the most detailed discussion of this hugely important topic for writers, editors, publishers, musicians, cartoonists…all of us doing publishing of any sort. I have read many, many discussions of this issue but none so in depth as this. Thanks for getting this information out in a clam, cool, collected way. I have long ago taken my path and it has led be to write sixteen books in as Original to Kindle titles place on Kindle amazon after reviving 40 previously DEAD books, so I am in the thick of such RESPONSIBILITY as you say is the chief reason to self-publish, to take responsibility for one’s work and to see to all the decision making.

    Thanks for posting this, Tim.

  2. If you haven’t already gotten sick of all the rhetoric out there between Amazon and Hachette, I looked at books priced $10 and above versus books priced under $10.

    First of all, 80 percent of the books on Howey’s July spreadsheet were priced below $10. Yet, books priced more than $10 averaged gross sales of about $54 versus $37 for books priced below $10.

    Median and mode for both were 0.

    How about books priced at $14.99 versus books priced at $9.99?

    Well, in Howey’s spreadsheet only 735 books – or 0.6% of the total – were priced at $14.99. Their average earnings were $137.40.

    For $9.99 books – 14,975 or 12.5% of the total – average earnings were $29.71.

    Median and mode were once again 0.

    But that includes books by authors with more than one book in the spreadsheet. So for authors with only one book on the list, How does that match up?

    For books priced at $14.99 and $9.99, about 57 percent of each group were for authors with only one book.

    For $14.99 books, average gross was $27.99 versus $14.73 for $9.99 books.

    Not much difference for $9.99 books, but for authors with books priced at $14.99 it’s more than a $100 difference in gross sales!

    Which says if you’re a popular author you’d be nuts not to price your books at what the market would pay.

  3. Can you tell I’m studying statistics? Here’s another way to look at all this
    Looking only at authors with one ebook on Howey’s July spreadsheet:

    For authors with ebooks costing $14.99
    - 28.5% grossed more than the average gross for authors with $9.99 ebooks ( $9.99 ebook authors averaged $14.73). In other words, 28.5% made more than $14.73.
    - As that average is less than the price of a $14.99 book, 28.5% is also the percent of authors who sold at least one book.
    - 11% grossed more than the standard deviation for gross earnings of $14.99 ebooks ($107.92). In other words, 11% made more than $107.92.

    For authors with ebooks costing $9.99
    - 7.8% grossed more than the average gross for authors with $14.99 ebooks ($14.99 ebook authors averaged $35.41). In other words, 7.8% made more than $35.41.
    - 22.4% sold at least one book.
    - 5.1% grossed more than the standard deviation for gross earnings of $9.99 ebooks ($67.86). In other words, 5.1% made more than $67.86.

    It’s also important to note once again that these are bestselling ebooks in categories or subcategories – I have no idea what the numbers would be if the data included all ebooks. But since these lists theoretically include the books that sell the best, I don’t think there would be a very dramatic change let alone a severe flip in which group grossed more.

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