Well I guess most of you have heard the news since it seems to be doing the rounds of the blogosphere. Digital Book World and Writers Digest just did a survey of how much writers earn and came up with some figures suggesting it isn't much. Jeremy Greenfield then did a review on the survey and came up with a summary. http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeremygreenfield/2013/12/09/how-much-money-do-self-published-authors-make/
In essence he says Indies have a median annual income of between 0 and $5,000, trade published authors have a median income of between $5,000 and $10,000, and hybrid authors between $10,000 and $15,000. (Median is used as a better indicator of the middle of a distribution when there are a few extreme outliers which could distort an average).
So what does this mean?
First, and this needs to be stressed time and again, in the days before self publishing the median income for indies would have been zero. So any way you look at it, this represents an improvement for the writing lives of millions of authors.
Second, and this is the thing that surprised me most, trade published authors typically aren't doing that well either. Less than $10,000 per anum - that's not enough to live on in most places.
As for hybrids doing the best, that doesn't surprise me. Hybrids with books in the trade publishing world and indie published world usually arrive in this situation in one of two ways. Most often they're established authors with extensive back catalogues who have gained the publishing rights to their old books and are putting them out themselves. Thus they have plenty of books for sale and perhaps more important - a name. Alternatively they become a hybrid from first being an Indie and then because of their success get picked up by an agent and publisher. So they already have success.
Now as to the numbers. Why are the numbers so low?
Well for indies, the reason is simple - there are an awful lot of books put out there that never sell at all. This may be for a variety of reasons, they're poorly edited, have poor covers and blurbs, aren't well marketed, are on topics that aren't popular, they may actually be thinly disguised ego trips or rants, and often enough the writer never intended to make any money from their book and so just gives them away. There's no shortage of reasons why a book won't sell. And unfortunately there's no shortage of indie authors who simply aren't willing to invest in their craft. It's simply a sad fact of life. Not every author cares.
However, if we take this chunk out of the equation and look only at indies who do take their writing seriously I believe we'd see a whole new picture. The median income for indies would rise and it might well rise to the point where it matched or surpassed the median income for trade published authors. Naturally I have no figures for this - it's all guesswork, but it's based on one very sound principle. Trade publishing, like it or lump it does do one thing. It provides an entry barrier to the industry, one that prevents this same group of people entering their part of the market. That has to boost the median incomes of the trade published authors. And when you take that together with the fact their median incomes aren't that much higher to begin with, it suggests it wouldn't take much for the two incomes to meet.
Now having said that, the median income for the trade published is still surprisingly low. There are two reasons for this in my view. First the return per book sale. As an indie I receive between 35% and 70% of the price of every ebook sale as income. (Paperbacks aren't nearly so good). Trade published authors receive far less as the publisher takes a massive cut. They have to rely on selling more books through having professionally edited and marketed books to make the same income.
The second reason though is more to do with the inefficiencies in the trade publishing system - specifically it's slow. Actually it's glacial. This year I published seven books. I can't think of one trade published author who could match this output. The reason is that every step along the trade publishing way is filled with people dragging chains. Cover design takes weeks and months. Editing goes through multiple phases and cycles and sometimes multiple editors. Publishing is set to hit certain marketing schedules, not the author's timetable. Yes sure, maybe this does result in a product of the highest possible quality (though there have been some shocking exceptions) but at some point you have to ask whether you're guilding a lily - or polishing a turd! Either way the ratio of the additional reward for the work being done is starting to slide - and not in the author's favour.
To put this in perspective, if you are a trade published author, and you are hampered by the system so that you can only put out one book per year compared to my seven, and your cut per book is say 10% compared to my 70%, you start off behind the eightball. To match my income - which isn't really that great - you have to sell forty nine times as many books.
So where does this leave us? More correctly where does it leave the industry?
For the indies the answer is obvious. If the median income for an indie is somewhere between 0 and $5000 per anum and we know that a vast chunk of other indies out there are producing unsaleable books, then you know you can make better money than this simply by putting effort into your work. I'm not saying you will get rich, but I am saying you can do far better than this figure would suggest.
For the trade published the answer is equally obvious. If you want to make more money go hybrid if you can. Get the publishing rights for your out of print books and learn a few new skills. What have you got to lose? Also, have a bit of a beat down on your publishers about their slowness. That does not work in your favour.
And for the publishers? Well much as I hate to give advice to the enemy (sort of) - guys lift your game. If you want to earn your authors more money and at the same time protect your market share against the tide of indies, you need to sell more books. That means if an author can write five books in a year you need to be able to publish them within the same sort of time span.
Anyway that's my take on the survey. I'm sure you can find many others.