Self-publishing survey: what it does and doesn’t tell us

Author Beverley Kendall set out to dispel the myth that only a handful of authors were doing well self-publishing – those making millions of dollars a year or those being offered substantial deals with traditional publishing houses. She ended up with a survey of 822 self-publishing authors and a ton of data, which she has compiled into a fascinating report which you can now read on her blog. If you’re an author who self-publishes or is thinking of self-publishing it’s well worth your while reading it. If you’re interested to know why so many authors are starting to self-publish some or all of their books, you’ll get a good understanding of that, too.

One of the headline stats is that over 200 authors who took part in the survey earn enough from their self-publishing to have quit their day jobs. That’s pretty awesome and it certainly proves her initial point. The range of income is also interesting, because it’s not all or nothing. There are authors in every band between $0-$10,000 and $500,000+. Some people are making a reasonable living, some are making a substantial supplementary income, some are pulling in a lot more than they could ever have dreamed of. Nearly half the respondents earned over $10,000 from self-publishing in 2013. If you simply want to be able to say, ‘There are hundreds of self-published authors earning very good amounts of money’, this survey has given you the evidence you need.

However, before we get too carried away and try to extrapolate from the survey to making more general statements, I do want to point out a couple of cautions.

First: this is a self-selecting sample.

One of the most important foundations of statistical analysis is the random sample. You can get surprisingly accurate results from relatively small samples, provided those samples are taken randomly. By contrast, if there is a bias in your sampling method, then it doesn’t matter how large your sample is, it will not be representative. 822 authors responded to Kendall’s survey, which is a good number. But there is absolutely no way of knowing how representative they are of the whole group of self-publishers. There may be geographical bias (are US authors over-represented, for instance?), language bias (how many, if any, respondents were publishing in a language other than English), digital bias (there are still some people doing print self-publishing). Almost certainly, there is survivorship bias.*

There is one form of bias that we can see from the survey results themselves, which is genre bias [p6]. I did wonder whether it would be possible to use the data from this question to weight some of the rest of the analysis. That could be useful with the genres which are best represented, but for the smallest genres, the actual numbers are too tiny to make it a significant sample. For example, 1% of the respondents write children’s fiction. That’s about eight authors. I don’t think you can conclude much of anything about self-publishing children’s fiction on the basis of this survey. Anyway, Kendall rightly points out that there is a large representation of romance authors, but she adds, “Having said that, I also believe that the percentages represented in the pie chart below is a reflection of what is selling, especially when it comes to digital books.” I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not, except in the very broadest terms, that romance sells more than any other genres. Maybe that’s all she meant to imply.

[Side note: I actually wonder whether there could be some useful data to be mined by extracting the results for the largest genres represented and treating that separately. What if the romance results were considered, for instance? Or even the different romance subgenres? I do realise that was well beyond Kendall’s goals and it’s not meant as a criticism of her report, just something I’d be curious about.]

Given the nature of the sample and its potential biases, I do not think it is possible to draw any statistical conclusions about self-publishing as a whole on the basis of this survey. I do think it is useful for identifying several other things, in a non-quantitative manner. But it cannot be used (and it should be said that Kendall does not do this) to calculate average self-publishing income or likely self-publishing income. It is not, sadly, proof that the oft-quoted, never-proven saying that the average self-published author makes $500 is not true. We don’t know, and for a lot of very good reasons, we probably never will (see below for why this doesn’t actually matter all that much).

Second: the survey does not compare self-publishing with traditional publishing.
Or at least not directly. What it does do, a little bit, is compare the earnings from various kinds of publishing (traditional, digital-first, self) for hybrid authors. It does NOT compare the income of solely trad-published authors with digital-first authors or with self-published authors. That is a different thing. For hybrid authors, self-publishing can have an effect on income from non-self-published books, just as their traditionally published books can have an impact on their sales of self-published books. You can see this in figure 3, where the respondents are divided according to their entry point into publishing and it seems clear that hybrid authors who began with traditional publishing do, in general, have higher incomes from their self-publishing than those who started with either digital-first or self-publishing. I actually think this insight into the value of being a hybrid author is fascinating.

But there is no data in the survey about solely trad-published authors and therefore no conclusions can be drawn about trad vs. self-publishing. To be clear, this is NOT a criticism of the survey. It wasn’t intended to do that and if that’s what you’re interested in, you’ll have to do your own survey.

What can we learn from the survey: the habits of high-income authors
So, if we can’t draw quantitative statistical conclusions from the data, and we can’t use it to compare self and trad-publishing earnings, what can we say? I think what we can do is talk about the ‘habits of high-income authors’. More precisely, the habits of the high-income authors who participated in this survey. These are more likely to be true of high-income romance authors than, say, high-income children’s authors because of the genre bias in the sample. They may only be true of the group of ‘high-income authors who have 3 degrees of separation from Beverley Kendall’ or ‘high-income authors who have time to procrastinate by filling in online surveys about their income’ (okay, that’s all authors). The reason I’m calling these habits is because it’s very difficult to be certain about causality – for instance, does spending money on a professional cover generate sales, or is it that higher earners have more spare money to spend on professional covers? The data from this survey doesn’t help us answer that.

The habits of the high-income authors in the survey are:
1. Using professional covers and professional editing
2. Writing books in a series
3. Making a book in a series free
4. Having a sizeable backlist
5. Pricing at $3.99 or $4.99
6. Having self-published for 4-6 years
7. Being traditionally published first

These things don’t necessarily cause authors to earn more (and not all of them are possible to control), but the authors who earn more tend to do those things.

Kendall has done an amazing job in collecting and analysing a lot of data and I think a lot of authors will be as grateful to her for that as I am. There’s much more detail in her report and I encourage you to read it carefully and work out for yourself what you can learn and apply to your own publishing career. And if you are a reader, then do take her reader survey here.

Why doesn’t average author income matter?

Because there isn’t an average author.

If you were thinking of going into, say, teaching, you could look at the average teacher’s income and it would give you a good idea of what you were likely to earn. That’s because teachers are all paid much the same amount. You’d know that if you were promoted to headteacher, or perhaps if you moved to a private school, or whatever, you’d earn more. But there’s a fairly limited range of salaries within which the vast majority of teacher’s incomes fall.

That is not how it works with writing. Some people are J.K.Rowling and some are me. Quite a lot earn even less than me. The range is huge and unpredictable. Over half of Kendall’s respondents earned less than $10,000 last year. But at the same time, a quarter earned enough to give up their day job. It doesn’t matter what the average author earns because, unlike teaching, that is not a reliable guide to what you are likely to earn. There are authors who only ever want to self-publish the one book of their heart and are happy to sell a dozen copies to their family and friends. Is their income relevant to you, if you are serious about writing as a career? There are authors who publish obscure guides to niche non-fiction subjects. Is their income relevant to you, if you are writing fiction in a popular genre? What might be more relevant is what average authors like you are earning – in your genre, with a similar rate of productivity, for a start. But even then, it’s hard to predict why one author sells a million copies of a book that seems much like any other. The average income is not a likely income.

*Several people on twitter pointed out, quite rightly, that all surveys of author income are self-selecting and that it would be virtually impossible to do anything else. I think that’s probably true. If Amazon ever released its kdp figures, that would be amazing, but until then this is probably the best we can do. I still think it’s important to understand the limitations of a self-selecting survey and to be careful about the conclusions which can be drawn from it.

Money

Every so often I like to do a post about money. Mostly this is because it used to be SO HARD to get any information at all about what authors with different levels of success were making. I think it’s becoming a bit easier to find out, especially for self-publishing. Check out the boards at Absolute Write and KBoards as a starting place. Brenda Hiatt’s Show Me The Money has some figures for romance authors. And if you google, I’m sure you’ll find even more information. But anyway, here’s something about mine.

The UK tax year starts in April, so that’s how my accounts are done. 2013/2014 is, therefore, only a provisional amount. I’ve given the actual amount so far plus my best estimate of what it will be in April. The figures given only include income from writing, not any of my other work. I have not actually been surviving on this income! Dollar approximations in brackets are not exact, since I keep my accounts in sterling.
2011/12: £50.16 ($80)
2012/13: £1776.56 ($2900)
2013/14: £5326.89 (actual); £5900 (estimated total), ($8750 (actual), $9700 (estimated)).

Here’s how that compares to books published:
2011/12: Reckless Runaway, Tycoon’s Convenient Wife, All I Want for Christmas
2012/13: Table for One, The Oil Tycoon
2013/14: Flirting with the Camera, Last Night of the Summer

My biggest seller in 2013/14 by far is The Tycoon’s Convenient Wife. All I Want For Christmas has also contributed a large chunk, mostly because of foreign rights sales.

Total from Entangled books: £2731.11 ($4500)
Total from self-pub books: £3265.71 ($5400)

However, my self-published titles did not really start selling until after the Entangled books came out. I think there is a fair chance that if I had only self-published I’d still be making something more like the 2011/12 figures.

So, that’s where I’m at. It’s all going in the right direction and I’m excited to see what will happen this year.

Going in the right direction

salesfigures

Monthly income (averaged over three months, to smooth out the effect of quarterly payments) from sales of my books over the past 19 months. In £.

I’ve also just been working out the total royalties paid so far for each title (in order of publication):*

RRATR (self-pub, 21 months): $530.72
TCW (self-pub, 20 months): $1620
AIWFC (Entangled, 16 months): $1254.33
TFO (Entangled, 14 months): $710.87
TOTAHSS (Entangled, 9 months): $1076.76
12D (self-pub, 4 months): $55.27

I would never have guessed that The Tycoon’s Convenient Wife was going to be my biggest seller. I really don’t think it’s my best book. I think that the two short stories which came out with Entangled have more than earned their keep. They’re both under 12,000 words and were quick to write. I’m a little bit disappointed with sales for the Oil Tycoon and Her Sexy Sheikh. I love that book and I would have hoped it might have sold more. But it is still selling and it may pick up again at some point. Twelve Days came out in a rush just before Christmas and although it had some amazing reviews, sales never really took off. I’m planning a re-launch in November.

*NB: this only includes royalties actually paid up to the end of April. Most of the royalties mentioned in the previous blog post are still to come. They are included in the graph, however.

Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

So, a few months ago, I decided to make Reckless Runaway at the Racecourse free for a few weeks. It got a lot of reviews, a few thousand downloads, and I saw a small increase in sales following the promotion. Enough good things to make me think it was worth doing again with The Tycoon’s Convenient Wife.

Which has now had approximately 100,000 downloads. It was #1 in the Amazon UK contemporary romance section and in the top ten of all free books on Amazon UK for several weeks. It didn’t reach quite the same heights on Amazon US but was comfortably in the top 100 for a month. It’s also had a good number of reviews during that time and sales of my other books have improved. But, for reasons I do not completely understand, it was not free everywhere and it is now only free at Amazon UK as far as I know. So it has also sold quite a lot of copies. In the last two months, my royalties at B&N have been around $800. And at Amazon, about $1500. That’s more than in the whole 18 months prior that Reckless Runaway and Tycoon had been on sale. About ten times more, in terms of Amazon sales alone (I had been selling a lot better at B&N before, for some reason).

If you bought the books – or if you downloaded them for free – thank you very much!

Maximising income

Originally published, um, sometime in 2011? Can’t find a date.

I am not an economist. Please don’t blame the recession on me.

But in the dim and distant past, I did study economics for a couple of years at school. One of the few things I remember is the supply and demand diagrams (they have a name, don’t they?). It seems to me that this basic method of determining how to maximise profit has been forgotten by many people. Let me give you two, wholly unrelated examples.

The M6 Toll Road
Most roads in the UK are not subject to tolls. A few bridges/tunnels and other odd bits of road do charge for use. There is one part of the major M6 motorway near me which is notoriously busy and a few years ago, an alternative road was constructed which does charge tolls for use. I’ve used it a few times and it is always empty, or nearly empty. I try not to use it because it is expensive (£5.50 for cars, each way), but I travel that route a lot and often I’m a bit tired or running a bit late. The last time I drove down the M6, I noticed that they were announcing increases to the toll charge. Again. I’m not at all surprised that they want to increase their income from the road, since there’s so little traffic on it. I just think they’re going the wrong way about it. I think that if they were to drop the charge to, say £3.50, they would find that they doubled the amount of traffic and thus increased their income.

Publishing
Okay, this is a lot harder to pin down, since it is a huge and complex industry with lots of different sectors. But the issue I want to focus on is one which affects the whole industry: piracy. Since the introduction of digital books, which have the potential to be copied and distributed electronically, publishers have been panicking about how to prevent pirates from doing this. Piracy is both wrong and illegal and readers ought not to download pirated copies of books.

However, I still think that publishers ought to concentrate more on maximising their income (and thus authors’ royalties) than preventing piracy. It’s true that there is a relationship between piracy and loss of profits. A person who downloads a pirated copy of a book which they otherwise would have bought is taking away from publishers’ profits. The issue for publishers is whether to prevent this by spending money on expensive (and so far wholly ineffective) methods for preventing piracy OR to minimise it by making their books cheaper/more accessible/geographically unrestricted.

You see, I don’t think that it is in the publishers’ (or authors) best interests to make it their goal never to have a single book pirated. I actually think that will not maximise their income. It will require a lot of money to be spent on security and it’s already actively turning customers away. I think it is in the publishers’ (and authors) best interests to maximise their income. Like the toll road, this may be counter-intuitive, but it’s not rocket science. More customers can mean more income, even at a lower price. Don’t price yourselves out of the game.

But even if they’re not prepared to compromise on price, publishers can ensure they get more customers simply buy making it easier for readers to buy their books legally. Get rid of DRM* and geographical restrictions. Give your customers confidence that when they buy one of your books, they’ll always be able to read it. More customers = more purchases = higher income.

Sure, tackle piracy when you see it. Issue DMCA notices. Fine people who misuse their purchased content. But concentrate your efforts on the business you are in. There is HUGE potential for the ebook market to spiral beyond your wildest dreams. Why would you want to do everything in your power to prevent that?

*There’s another point about DRM which I really don’t get. As far as I understand it, publishers are the ones insisting on DRM. But surely it’s the booksellers (especially Amazon) who benefit most from it? If I’ve bought a Kindle, I have to buy Kindle format books. Which, by and large, means I do my shopping at Amazon. Without DRM, I could buy books elsewhere, even if I had to use a tool like Calibre to convert the format. In fact, I could even buy books direct from publishers, cutting out the middle man altogether. I used to do this a lot with Harlequin/M&B before I got the Kindle. But now I have to wait for a month, get the Kindle version, and give Amazon some of the profit which could have gone to the publishers and authors. How is this a good idea?

The value of free

I am having a very exciting moment as one of my books is currently in the top ten list at Amazon. I know, right?!

It’s in the top ten Kindle free books (at Amazon UK. It’s only #41 at Amazon US.). That means I have given away more copies of this book than all but six other books on the site. That’s a lot of books. It’s about 35,000 books, actually. If I had sold 35,000 copies of that book at full price that would be about £70,000 in royalties due to me. £70,000 would be a HUGE sum of money for me (FIRST CLASS CABINS).

So why would I just give that away?

1. 35,000 downloads of a free book is not the same as 35,000 lost sales. The book was previously averaging sales of about 10/month at Amazon (it was selling quite a lot more at Barnes & Noble). It’s been free for about a month. So I’ve actually lost about £20 (in Amazon sales. I haven’t got the figures yet for B&N and elsewhere).

2. But what about future sales? All those 35,000 people might have bought the book one day. Now they won’t have to. Well they might have done, I suppose. But I think it’s unlikely because people download free books for a lot of different reasons than they buy books. Some people only read free books. A lot of people use free books as a way of trying an unknown author. It’s easier to take risks on a book that’s not your normal genre or style if it’s free. I can’t quantify how many future sales I’ve lost by giving it away, but I’m very sure it’s not 35,000 or anything like that amount.

3. Also, there is a very odd thing about my kindle royalties which I do not understand. They seem to be paying me a (very small) amount for the freebies. Less than a cent per book, but at 35,000 copies, even that adds up to more than I would have anticipated if the book had been on sale at full price. I honestly have no idea what’s going on with this. It is a price-matched freebie, not a Kindle Select one, which may make a difference. Dunno.

4. Sales of my other books have increased while this one has been available for free. Not dramatically. Not £70,000 worth. But a bit. I am selling more of my other two self-published works than I would have expected at the moment, and I think I’m selling a few more of my Entangled books, too. Again, it’s hard to quantify how much is because of the freebie, and it’s also impossible to know how long this effect will last, even beyond the free promotion.

5. Barnes and Noble ranking. This is a big one and was the main reason I decided to do the promotion. I’d had one of my other books free for a month or so in December. It never took off like this one has at Amazon, but it did sell well at B&N. It reached an overall ranking of just under 2000. And, crucially, at B&N it maintains that ranking once it goes back to full price. At Amazon, the free and paid books are ranked separately. As soon as the book stops being free, its rank drops right back to the beginning. But at B&N it doesn’t. That’s meant that the sales of the book after the free promo has ended have continued at a steady pace. Not as many as when it was free, but a LOT more than before the promo. I’m hoping the same will be true for this second promo book.

6. Reviews. This was the other motivation for the free promotion. In the first 18 months of having Reckless Runaway on sale, it got 3 reviews at B&N. It now has 56. Similarly, when I began the promotion on Tycoon’s Convenient Wife, it had 2 reviews at B&N. It now has 13 and more are being added every day. I plan to leave the book on the promo until it hits 50 reviews. Reckless Runaway didn’t get many extra reviews at Amazon, but Tycoon’s Convenient Wife is beginning to get some more there too. Of course, when a book is free, it is more likely to be read by people who aren’t huge fans of the genre, and so there are maybe more negative reviews than you’d expect. But as long as there are good reviews too (which there are), I’m pretty happy with more reviews of any kind. I’m also getting a handful of new Goodreads reviews. The reviews will be there after the promotion ends and though it’s unquantifiable, more reviews do help sales.

7. Brand awareness. I’ve no idea how much this helps, but I think it can’t hurt. 35,000 people have downloaded a book with my name on it. Next time they see a book with my name on it, they are more likely to take a second look.

I’ve seen authors lamenting the idea that anyone would give away their work for free. I’ve seen some who even resent the idea that people can read library books for free, or pick up books second hand without paying a royalty to the author. I am not in any way suggesting that my work is worthless by giving it away. I do think I deserve to be paid. But the reality is that this is a business. It’s about the bottom line. And giving away my book is better for my bottom line. I have earned more in the last month by having a book available for free than I would have done if it had been on sale at full price. I fully anticipate that I will continue to earn more when it reverts to full price than I would have done had it not been on the promotion. It’s worked for me before (with Reckless Runaway) and it’s working for me now (with Tycoon’s Convenient Wife). I am not advocating this as a method for all books and all authors. I am just pointing out that for me, with these books, free has been worth a lot.