Thoughts on Author Earnings

The Author Earnings report is out for this quarter,  and as always it’s quite interesting. Especially fascinating is the the part near the end about the “shadow books” and the enormous gap in sales reporting that makes most of the usual mechanisms, such as Nielsen and AAP, wildly inaccurate – by their own admission. Apparently they’re missing at least 20% of the market, and that 20% is almost all indies, so we’re being under-reported.

While I’m talking about author earnings, let me address Digital Book World’s recent claims in articles they’ve shopped to the mainstream media, such as this one  wherein they claim traditional authors still earn more than indies, which directly contradicts what Author Earnings has, IMO, proven with data. They claim that the median traditionally published author earns $3K-$5K per year, while the median indie earns $500-$1000 per year. This is all based on a self-reported survey of fewer than 2000 authors, by the way.

The biggest problem with this claim is that they are comparing apples to oranges. Traditionally published authors by definition have made it past the huge hurdle of the gatekeepers to be selected for publication. Indies, however, can call themselves indies if they’ve thrown a book up on Amazon or elsewhere. It’s rather like comparing Olympic athletes, who have made it through all the trials and challenges and been selected to go to the Games, with anyone who calls themselves an athlete. Of course there will be a large portion of the latter who don’t measure up, along with some that do, but are otherwise ineligible or did not want to go.

To put it another way, if selling one book to a traditional publisher nets a minimum of (for example) a $5000 advance (often the only money an author will see from a book, at least, for several years until the book earns out and royalties kick in), it’s only fair to include indies who make more than $5000 during the first year for publishing one of their books. (not a perfect comparison, but it’s fairly close). Other indies who earn less should be discarded from the data set, or at least their data should be given less weight.

By contrast, the Author Earnings reports scrape hundreds of thousands of pages of Amazon book data and compares many data points such as rankings, prices, author status, etc., to get a pretty good approximation of what’s really going on. With all that data, it becomes clear that working, full-time indie AUTHORS’ earnings (not publishers‘ earnings, mind you) are comparable to and often greater than those of traditionally published authors.

While there’s no perfect methodology for comparing these apples and oranges, at least Author earnings tries to compare the fruits and their trees by productivity, weight, marketplace value, and yield for the farmer, to stretch a metaphor to its breaking point. While I bring my own experiential bias to the table in favor of indies, I believe both the data and the anecdotal evidence (so many stories of miserable and unrewarding experiences with publishers) support the claim that going the indie route is a perfectly viable alternative to traditional publishing, and is in many ways better.

Would be traditionally published if someone offered me a contract? I sure wouldn’t turn it down outright. I’d examine the terms closely and if I thought the benefits outweighed the burdens, I’d do it. One finding by the DBW survey that seems particularly telling is that hybrid authors – those being published both ways – out-earn traditional-only authors, which shows that each model has advantages and the smart author takes advantage of both, if s/he can. The key is often in the contract terms.

Hugh Howey is a case in point. He successfully negotiated a contract for WOOL that let him keep all the ebook rights, a fantastic deal for him, as for the author, ebook royalties are far higher than print royalties. That’s truly the best of both worlds, but as ebooks continue to grow and print to decline, that kind of deal will get harder and harder to get.

I have a couple of bestselling author friends who tried the traditional route (after making their bones as indies) and they weren’t able to get terms like that. I suspect they would have to get better deals to be enticed to do a traditional book contracts again, as their traditionally published books don’t make them nearly as much money as their self-published books, and are also far less under their direct control for things such as pricing, making changes, etc.

Looking ahead, the next new thing with my name on it will be book 12 of BV Larson’s Star Force series, tentatively titled Trinity. That will wrap up the trilogy storyline, bringing Cody Riggs and the crew of Valiant back to Earth, with some surprising twists along the way.

Once that project’s done, I’ll be launching an all-new space sci-fi series this summer in a completely different universe from Plague Wars/Stellar Conquest. I’m very much in the concept phase, so if you have suggestions about what you’d like to see in a new series, feel free to email me or comment on the blog or the Amazon forum.

Also, In a Bind, Cal Corwin Book 2, is out in Audiobook format, and Comes the Destroyer, the last book in the Plague Wars series, is finished and sent to the ACX reviewers. It should go live on Audible in about two weeks.

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