Thursday, 30 August 2012

Indie publishing ― the bottom line by Zoë Sharp

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.


  1. Fascinating, Zoe, and well put together. I think it would be unrealistic to expect the percentage of successful authors to be higher than it is (what percentage of traditionally published books ever earn out?) in part because there are so many new ebooks every four or five days that the signal-to-noise ratio is deafening; and also because, at the rate we're going, the authors will outnumber the readers sooner or later. But everything Bezos says about the author-friendly aspects of KDP is true, and it does represent a pathway to get one's book out there that has pretty much shredded the old pejoratives about self-publishing, and that's to the good. Yes, there's a lot of crap up, but there's ALWAYS been a lot of crap. And every now and then I read an indie ebook that really opens me up to the stranglehold traditional publishing held over what we all could read.

    And then, like you, I'm thrilled to find a viable marketplace for my backlist and a place to publish a series -- the Junior Bender books -- that was turned down by New York publishers.

    1. Hi Tim
      Thank you, and I'd agree that Amazon's KDP is very easy to use. It's a scary thought that readers might outnumber authors, but every author I know is also a voracious reader, so maybe there's hope yet!

      I'm thrilled that the Junior Bender books are finding new fans - they certainly deserve to :)

  2. Interesting thoughts, Zoe and Tim, and well spoken. I'm still trying to find my way through the maze with clients who do exceedingly well in the ebook/indie arena and other clients who don't. What KDP offers is certainly enticing, and I love that I can find Charlie wherever she turns up! But there's obviously more to it than meets the eye.

    I'm really curious to see what we'll be saying about the whole thing this time next year. I don't think it's a flash in the pan, but I do think it's still evolving. Good thing we're flexible, eh?


    1. Hi PJ. I think the formats are definitely still evolving, but just in the same way that mobile phones were a novelty when they first came out, now I don't go anywhere without mine. I think that certainly multi-purpose tablets, which include some form of e-reader, will become very much standard equipment for huge numbers of people. And if that means they're reading more, that's got to be good :)

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks, Lee! You were definitely one of my inspirations when it comes to e-publishing :)

      Oh, and if I have to rush off in a hurry, it's because I'm waiting for my flight to be called ...

  4. Nicely thought out. I'm very leery of this statement: 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.

    Is there a citation for that? Because another way of looking at it (I do this with media stories about scientific studies all the time, which they almost always screw up), is simply that the authors who can afford to hire editors, which can cost thousands of dollars, are already MAKING good enough money to warrant hiring an editor. Which I suspect is often the case. Not always, but a significant amount.

    My sales are improving. My sales with traditional/legacy publishers, sucked. I do better with ebooks on my own. Is it price? Maybe. Is it ebooks? Probably. Is it that publishers bailed on me before my series could gain a readership? Uh, yes, undoubtedly. Is it as random as the lottery? Maybe not that random, but it ain't all predictable.

    1. Hi Mark
      Very succinctly put. I, too, have done better since I published my own backlist than my conventional publishers ever did with it. I think a good deal of it is down to distribution. The one big advantage with ebooks is that they are available instantly wherever you upload them, and they're never out of stock. Not always the case with conventionally published books.

  5. Good post, Zoe. I especially agree with the idea that those who were originally trad-pubbed had a leg up on the rest of us. You had a worthy backlist that had been in the marketplace, you had a fan base, and you probably had an active emailing list, so it makes sense.

    My books (I have nine titles, including five novels) are all professionally-edited and formatted. I use professional cover designers on all of them, with some of the covers costing me around $600 each. But I must say, I'm very disappointed with the results. In 2011, after heavy self-promotion, I sold around 800 books total spread out over five titles.

    In 2012, things got a little better, but still way out of proportion to the cost of playing. Continuing the heavy self-promotion, I sold over 1000 books in January (my best month ever, by far), then I've had one month over 700, with all the rest under 500. This month, I'll be lucky to hit 150. My writing has slowed way down -- I can't get excited about plowing through my novel-in-progress, and at the earliest, it won't be out till next summer.

    The bottom line: it's damn near impossible to get noticed in the free-for-all KDP marketplace.

    1. Hi Mike
      I agree that there does seem to be an advantage to having been through the conventional publishing mangle. As P!nk says, "I wouldn't trade the pain for what I've learned." But if you think that's an easy option, I wouldn't be so sure ...

      I don't know what to suggest when it comes to e-marketing. We're all groping around in the dark. I do surprisingly little BSP, on the whole, but I do interact with people on social media as much as possible. If you find out what works, please come and do a guest post about it!

  6. Fascinating post, Zoe.


    and writing of course. ;-)


    1. Thanks, Col

      Right, sorry, got to go - they're calling my flight. Will answer the rest when I get back, honest!

  7. Hi Zoe,

    It's fair to say many mid-list authors at conventional publishing houses were and still are lucky to clear £10,000 -£12,000 per year, so that's on a par with KDP if they can get the marketing right.

    Some of mine have done well, others have bottomed. Strangely, the ones that have bottomed are re-published editions of conventionally published books. ;)


    1. Hi Francine.

      Firstly, my apologies for taking so long to respond. I've been having difficulties getting on line while I've been away.

      Thank you for the comment. I think you're right, many mid-list authors would be VERY lucky to clear £10,000-£12,000 a year. Are you including all earnings - advances, royalties and PLR in those figures?

      My early books went out of print quite quickly in the UK and although the prices rose dramatically on the collectors' market, they remained unobtainable for some time. I will be bringing out my first digital originals before the end of this year, so it will be interesting to see how they do.

  8. I'm happy with a month like this one in which I sell 18 copies.
    Strangely enough the ''most professional'' cover on 'Redemption' isn't my bestselling item. That is Tough As Leather. I AM pleased with the fact slowly sales are building now after more than a year of ups and downs.
    The main reason why I keep writing and publishing though is that I love doing it, that I love interacting with other readers and writers. Not because I make money...

    1. Hi Jochem

      I think that unless a writer is very lucky indeed, they will have to demonstrate their stubborn persistence for a long time before their efforts are rewarded. I write because it's a compulsion and I love weaving stories. I'm very fortunate that I am now able to give up the last vestiges of my day-job to write fiction full time, although I've been making a living out of words and pictures in one form or another for the last 24 years. But this is a very strange business we find ourselves in, where quality is no guarantee of success and it's very hard to predict what will make it and what won't.

  9. There are many truths in our situation, and many ways to consider the answers and narratives that are out there.

    For example, I don't trust the Taleist report very much. First, it's self-reporting figures, so the results are dependent on which mix of individuals responded. If you had a thousand better-selling writers responding, you'd have a different set of results.

    Two, if we want to know what kind of writing career to anticipate, I would want, say, Smashwords, to release sales figures for writers who have sold at least four novels in any one genre. There are plenty of writers who have sold one and quit. By the time you reach four, you're either selling your backlist or you're writing for the longhaul.

    I'd also would love to see that broken out by genre. It seems there are better sales in romance / romantic suspense / romantic thriller / romantic sparkly vampires than in your genre, noir.

    (I'd also love to hear more details about your sales, Zoe, but understand you're under no obligation to do so.)

    1. Hi Bill

      Self-reporting figures are always going to be subject to query but at this stage of the game any idea of averages is interesting information.

      You raise a good point about the number of books a writer has available. It didn't state the average sales per title, only per author. The more you have out there, the better your chances of making some serious money.

      I usually describe my genre as crime thriller, but I'm flattered to have the noir label attached, too.

      I hope you'll forgive me if I am a little cagey about my sales figures - it's the reserved Brit side of me, I expect. However, I am willing to share that I'm in that ten percent I mentioned above on Kindle alone, and am about to launch across all other e-formats, plus printed versions, as well as having two further backlist titles reverting shortly, and two brand new digital originals due out soon :)