Updates on the Internet and its social and public policy implications, useful websites, political/cultural musings and more from a UK-based academic, internet consultant and journalist
28 February 2011
Filed under:new authorship, publishing, research at10:30 pm

A recent discussion about e-book sales among “indie” authors (those who have not been published traditionally or with minimal experience of conventional publishing) has inspired some interesting number crunching and (it seems to me) some rather overoptimistic speculation about the prospects for new authors who attempt to bypass the publisher system altogether by doing their own publicity and publishing electronically.

One of the most vociferous proponents of the “go it alone” model for authorship is thriller writer Joe Konrath, but critics of his approach often say that his success with self publishing could be due in large part to his already having been a conventionally published author before moving aggressively into online sales. Robin Sullivan, a guest on his blog, unveiled an analysis of 54 ‘indie’ authors who revealed on an electronic publishing message board that they were selling more than 1000 books a month. On top of that list is Amanda Hocking, who claims to have sold more than 450,000 titles in January alone.
Robin, who is the publicist for (and wife of) Michael Sullivan, an author on that list, provides some more detailed information about the economics of being an author of this kind in her posting. Derek Canyon also discusses the economics and provides a breakdown of the authors on that list by genre and by number of books in “print”.

It is undeniably true that, as Robin and Joe claim, it is possible to “do well” self publishing without having been published already conventionally- only six of the 54 authors on their list had been published by major publishers, for example. Nonetheless, some caution is in order. A few concerns leap out at me:

  • This is a self-selecting sample out of an unknown population providing self reported statistics. Leaving aside the question of whether they have an interest in exaggerating their sales,  this gives us no information about how easy it might be for others to follow their leads.
  • no information is provided about the balance of sales between e-books and regular books (although given the source is kindleboards.com one can imagine that the proportion of e-book sales would be high), and more importantly we do not know the price at which each book is sold. This is important because it is possible to sell one’s book on Kindle for as little as $.99 (and if you do you only get $0.30 per book sold).
  • The implicit definition of “doing well” as an independent author is, it seems to me, a rather undemanding one.  As Derek Canyon puts it:
  • If you assume that the cover price of the book is $2.99 (the minimum required to receive a 70% royalty from Amazon), then the author is making just over $2,000 per month, or $24,000 per year!

    Median income of workers in the US in 2009 was $36,000 for men, $26,000 for women – for graduates (and I am guessing most writers are), this rises to $62k or $44k. If earning $24k a year is success, then “don’t give up your day job” (and many writers don’t). Mind you, things look a lot better if you compare only to other writers. A survey of UK writers in 2005 found that even those who spent more than 50% of their time writing, earned 64% of the median wage.

  • If you look at the list of primary genres for the authors who are included in this self-selecting survey, it does not include literary fiction or poetry. Whether this is because “literary” authors do not hang out on this particular bulletin board, because such authors are not interested in ebooks, because literary fiction or poetry have a hard time selling as e-books or simply because they always have a hard time selling in the market as a whole compared to “genre” works is unclear.

Clearly it is very early days in the development of electronic publishing and e-books. It remains very possible that bypassing conventional publishing to market and sell e-books will indeed become a viable option for many authors or even, potentially, a dominant one as e-book reader technology continues to develop and as the devices become increasingly popular. I think that individual case studies and small-scale surveys like these can provide an interesting snapshot of the current state of development, but I also think it is a mistake to read too much into them.

I hope in the coming years to be able to shed more light on this fascinating subject myself – stay tuned!

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