Writing can be a very isolated occupation. I found that out this week when I came across an item on The Daily Weekly blog, part of the Seattle Weekly Blogs. Not only had I somehow managed to miss this piece when it came out back in April, but the content frankly astounded me.
The blog details an open letter from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in advance of a shareholder meeting held later that month. Or, more particularly, a small section of that letter:
“Kindle Direct Publishing has quickly taken on astonishing scale - more than a thousand KDP authors now each sell more than a thousand copies a month, some have already reached hundreds of thousands of sales, and two have already joined the Kindle Million Club. KDP is a big win for authors. Authors who use KDP get to keep their copyrights, keep their derivative rights, get to publish on their schedule - a typical delay in traditional publishing can be a year or more from the time the book is finished - and ... saving the best for last ... KDP authors can get paid royalties of 70%. The largest traditional publishers pay royalties of only 17.5% on ebooks (they pay 25% of 70% of the selling price which works out to be 17.5% of the selling price). The KDP royalty structure is completely transformative for authors. A typical selling price for a KDP book is a reader-friendly $2.99 - authors get approximately $2 of that! With the legacy royalty of 17.5%, the selling price would have to be $11.43 to yield the same $2 per unit royalty. I assure you that authors sell many, many more copies at $2.99 than they would at $11.43.
“Kindle Direct Publishing is good for readers because they get lower prices, but perhaps just as important, readers also get access to more diversity since authors that might have been rejected by establishment publishing channels now get their chance in the marketplace. You can get a pretty good window into this. Take a look at the Kindle best-seller list, and compare it to the New York Times best-seller list - which is more diverse? The Kindle list is chock-full of books from small presses and self-published authors, while the New York Times list is dominated by successful and established authors.”
The part of the letter which most gained my attention is this bit:
“…more than a thousand KDP authors now each sell more than a thousand copies a month, some have already reached hundreds of thousands of sales, and two have already joined the Kindle Million Club.”
Looking at the usual rules of marketing-speak, “more than a thousand” means not many more than a thousand, otherwise he would have said “almost eleven hundred” or something similar.
Another way of looking at this is, that of the huge numbers of indie authors using Amazon’s KDP program to achieve their publishing dreams, less than eleven hundred are selling more than a thousand books a month.
That’s quite a sobering thought.
Then in May a survey of 1007 indie authors was carried out by The Guardian newspaper. They discovered that despite the publicity afforded to indie superstars like Amanda Hocking and EL James the vast majority of indie authors do not make enough to live on.
The survey, carried out by Dave Cornford and Steven Lewis for Taleist, claims that the average earnings of indies last year was $10,000 (or £6300 at today’s exchange rate). If that still sounds pretty good, those figures were lifted (perhaps artificially) by the small percentage of high-earners ― less than 10% earned more than $100,000/£63,000. In fact, half the writers questioned earned less than $500/£315 and many failed to recover their production costs.
However, those who invested in professional editing and proofreading earned 13% more than average, and pro cover design increased earnings by another 34%. Writing romance, it seems is another good way to up your take-home pay. Romance authors earned 170% more than the $10,000 average (if I’m reading this correctly) while literary fiction authors tended to earn just $200/£126.
The survey also discovered that moving from a conventional publishing background into self-publishing increased the chances for success, with those authors earning 2.5 times more than authors who went straight for the indie option. Oh, and it helped to be female, in your forties, dedicated to writing hard, and educated to degree level.
“It shouldn't have surprised me that 75% of the royalty pie is going to 10% of authors: that's life in many industries. If I'm being honest, though, I'd hoped self-publishing might be a bit more democratic. Someone asked me if I thought this might deter authors from self-publishing, but actors don't stop heading for Hollywood despite the odds against them," Lewis told the Guardian.
There's a clear link, he said, "between earnings and the amount of help, and therefore feedback, that an author is willing to take on board. Authors who engage editors, for instance, end up with more royalties. Readers are excited by having access to new voices, but they've not been waiting for unedited, unproofread and amateurish books. There's more to being a successful author than finding the 'Save and publish' button on Amazon, but there are a lot of authors who haven't realised that yet. In that sense, the low earnings were not surprising.”
Until I read these two reports, months after they were first published, it had not occurred to me how incredibly lucky I am. Apart from the ‘educated’ bit ― I opted out of mainstream education at the age of twelve ― I realise that I tick all those boxes mentioned above. (OK, so I don’t write romance, although there is an emotional element to my novels ― does that count?) I just had no idea that the success I’ve achieved by indie-publishing my Charlie Fox backlist puts me in such an elite club.
And, quite frankly, the whole thing has astounded me.
Working in isolation, I’d kind-of assumed that anyone who held the rights to backlist titles lying dormant could put them out there and do as well if not better than I was doing. Yes, I’ve been careful with the presentation, and my cover designer, Jane Hudson at NuDesign, has done a brilliant job, but it’s been a huge learning curve.
I find myself not only honoured and humbled by the response of readers ― ie, they are buying the books and coming back for more ― but also that I am inspired to Get On With It just that little bit harder.
I’m fascinated to hear about the experience of other indies. Has self-publishing been like winning the lottery for you, or merely winning a ticket to another lottery? Do you feel the results of these surveys present an accurate picture of what it’s like out there, or are they further proof that there are ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’?
This week’s Word of the Week is trangem, a worthless article or knick-knack. The origin of the word isn’t clear, but it might have some connection to the Scottish trankum, meaning a trinket.