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Opinion: Author Earnings Through Author Business

Opinion: Author Earnings through Author Business

Headshot of Orna Ross

One of many ALLis at Digital Book World, Orna Ross reports in as the conference kicks off

ALLi Director Orna Ross reports in from Digital Book World on a pressing issue likely to be front of mind for conference delegates: – author earnings, and the need to treat a writing career as an author business in order to thrive. Something that indie authors are uniquely well placed to do…


Writers used to think of our job as a career but the coming of digital technology changed that.

The day we sell our first book through a self-publishing platform like KDP, Kobo or IngramSpark, we move from having a career to running a business. The author community is only just beginning to take the full implications of this on board.

This is the topic we’re going to be exploring, alongside every branch of the publishing industry, at  Digital Book World.

Inclusive Incarnation of the Super Bowl of Publishing

logo of Digital Book WorldThe event, which is being called “the Super Bowl of Publishing’ has taken a turn: from old-style to new publishing, from the establishment to the fringe, and from NYC to Nashville.

Yes, howdy y’all. Alexa, our self publishing advice conference manager and I are here, together with lots of other author ALLis, some of our key partners like Ingram and Amazon.

We love that it’s flung the door open to publishers of every sort and size, from Big 5 publishers to to micro indie-publishers from tech leaders to university publishing and yes, to micros publishers and  self-publishing authors.

In its new incarnation, DBW fully recognizes the importance of the indie sector to today’s publishing landscape, so ALLi is delighted to partner with this newly-imagined and now innovative conference.

We very much align with DBW’s embrace of the broadest possible definition of “book” and “publishing”, and its approach to innovation in storytelling.

Don’t worry if you’re not able to be here, we’ll be bringing you the highlights in our Self-Publishing Advice Conference Saturday next. Sign up here if you haven’t already. It’s all online, 24 sessions over 24 hours, and all free.

Author Income 1

Our main message to independent authors at DBW will be about growing our independence by building sustainable author businesses.

As an independent authors’ organization, we acknowledge that true independence is commercial independence, and are interested in informing and empowering authors to become as independent as possible.

So one of the sessions I’m most looking forward to here at DBW is the one from Data Guy, about author earnings. Data Guy, for those who don’t know, is a talented and data analyst, specializing in the publishing industry. He is one of very few analysts who has put together an accurate picture of the overall state of publishing and the only one to freely share that information, periodically, with authors.

The loudest line on publishing income and author earnings, as ever, shout of doom and gloom. I’ve been working in media and publishing for 30 years now and honestly, it was ever thus. Every year or so, headlines about new research claiming author incomes are on the decline, and demanding publishers or arts councils or grant agencies should do something about it, make news.

  • The most recent was a report from the UK Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) (download here) which found author earnings sliding down by 42% over the past ten years.
  • A 2015 US Authors Guild-commissioned survey found that just 39% of the authors polled could support themselves through their writing. Professionals with more than 15 years of experience experienced the largest negative change in income between 2009 and 2015.
  • Publishing industry consolidation could be a reason behind shrinking author incomes, Mary Rasenberger, executive director of The Authors Guild, argued in a 2016 article on The Billfold. “As publishers feel increased pressure to meet the bottom line, authors’ advances are often the one negotiable line item in the budget,” she said.

Except, despite much hand-wringing, it seems trade-publisher earnings are not shrinking, but are very healthy indeed, thank you.

Last month, HarperCollins reported $490 million in sales for the previous quarter, up $83 million from the same quarter in 2017. The UK Publishers Association also recently reported good news £5.7 billion in book sales income, up 5% on the previous year. As in self-publishing, audiobooks are at the heart of the rise. Digital audiobook revenue rose 32.1% across the publishing industry in 2018’s first quarter. Simon & Schuster even saw digital audio rise 43%.

But ebooks are healthy too—US ebook sales totaled roughly 545 million units for the last 12 months, up from the 510 million & 525 million in 2015 & 2016—and the much touted decline in print hasn’t happened.

According to Data Guy, dollar sales are down about 7%, to just over $3.04 billion, but this reflects a continued shift away from high-priced Big Five ebooks toward lower-priced indie and Amazon-imprint published ebooks, not a fall off in reading or book sales.

So is this a story of greedy publishers now getting richer at authors’ expense, and the golden days for authors now over forever? No it is not.

Author Income 2

Most author income research comes with a big in-built flaw: it’s doesn’t include self-publishing authors. Says Data Guy:

Legacy data providers like PubTrack Digital and the AAP are effectively blind to vast sectors of the consumer ebook & audiobook market. And those non-traditional sectors are precisely where ebook sales have continued to grow… As a result, what was once a small blind spot in the industry’s online-sales numbers now blocks half the view.

Data from PubTrack and the AAP is now missing two thirds of US consumer ebook purchases, and nearly half of all ebook dollars those consumers spend.

There are also many unspoken assumptions underlying the methodology of much research into author income. Jane Friedman has a comprehensive post explaining the problems, noting how these reports and their reception follow a tired trajectory:

“Media coverage claims writers’ incomes are plummeting, a few big-name authors come out and try to shame publishers or even society for not valuing writers properly, debate ensues, then everyone gets back to work—until a new study emerges.”

The ALCS survey includes all kinds of writers, from journalists and author-illustrators to poets and translators. “These obviously represent very different fields with varying levels of commercial potential,” says Friedman. “By mixing them together, it makes it difficult to draw valid conclusions about earnings trends for, let’s say, the average novelist.”

See her post, “Author Income Surveys Are Misleading and Flawed—And Focus on the Wrong Message for Writers” for more.

As Friedman explains at length, in her book The Business of Being a Writer, the writer who makes a living from book sales alone has always been the exception. There never was a golden age for writers. What there was is an individual writer who did well under certain conditions, who harks back to those conditions after they’ve passed.

If they’re a famous and influential writer, their remarks are noted and picked up, by the press, on blogs and social media, and a myth is born and believed.

Indies are not immune to this “golden aging”.  I was The Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera last week and it was widespread among the authors there (before we had a chance to look at it in depth) that the golden days for indies were over.

“Now I have to buy ads and hustle,” said one formerly successful writer. “it’s so much harder now.”

Anyone who has spent time on author-boards will come away with this impression of it being much harder for indies now and self-publishers not doing as well. Except again, it’s not true.

Today’s top selling indies making as much or more than the top selling indies from prior years were. More authors making more good money than ever before. Authors are growing in confidence, learning what it means to run a sustainable author business. So where’s the myth coming from?

“Here’s the kicker,” says Data Guy:

  • A lot of today’s top-selling indies are relatively new names. We didn’t recognize a lot of them.
  • And a lot of yesteryear’s pioneering indie superstars no longer even make the Top 50.

“These early pioneers are telling their large author followings that “nobody” is making big money anymore. The data proves them wrong. What it shows instead is a changing of the author guard.”

Author Income 3

What is new for us in these digital days is the opportunity to run a successful author business. We couldn’t do this before digital technology took books online.

If you don’t have any control over your metadata, your marketing, your pricing, your distribution network, or your rights, you cannot be in business as an author.

Other people have licensed your assets. They are in business, you are more akin to a supplier of raw materials.

Without any input into the marketing or distribution, you’re a piece worker, at the financial mercy of a system that’s built around a few big-winners and a great majority of losers.

Of course self-publishing doesn’t guarantee anyone an income but it does deliver equal opportunity. It gives you the means to build a business, step by step, sale by sale, asset by asset, just as any other business must grow.

Authors may relish these challenges or may quail at them, but poverty for the majority of authors is not systemic as it is in trade publishing, built into the actual business practices and contracts.

That is why only authors who include self-publishing in their mix can build a profitable business, one they can rely on into the future.

Self-Publishing 3.0 Campaign

As the publishing business fragments across a digital landscape (switching from being a top-down, publisher controlled market powered by physical processes to a bottom-wide reader controlled market, powered by digital processes), all is changing.

Consumer trends like the rise of personal branding, mindful consumption and mobile phone reading all are moving in favor of those authors who have developed an independent, creative and empowered mindset, who understand the value of their intellectual property, and who can benefit from these opportunities.

This is what ALLi will be encouraging at DBW and talking about in our plenary session about our Self-publishing 3.0 campaign  (#selfpub3.0).

  • #selfpub3.0 encourages authors to ensure we have a diversity of earning streams through our own websites, which become the hub of our successful publishing and media enterprises. Income streams might include direct sales, subscription models, crowdsourced patronage, online teaching, affiliate income and more.
  • #selfpub3.0 also means using retailers and other services to distribute our books as widely as possible, in as many formats as possible.
  • Mostly, #selfpub3.0 is about the shift in mindset needed to take control of your author business rather than unthinkingly assigning all your intellectual property, your most valuable creative asset, to a business owned by another, whether that is a trade-publisher or a single self-publishing service. No matter how good a publishing services might be, whether publisher or self-publishing company, they are author-services.

True independence, for authors as for anyone, must incorporate financial independence. If the self-publishing revolution is a success it will deliver many more writers into earning a living doing what they love.

Part of Self-publishing 3.0 is educating our readers. As authors, we often underestimate our influence here. As part of our self-publishing 3.0 we have badges you can give to your readers and put on your own website:

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Orna Ross

Orna Ross is an Irish novelist and poet and Director of the Alliance of Independent Authors.

This Post Has 5 Comments
  1. I’ve always looked at my writing as a business. Sure, the storytelling is the art, but nearly everything else is about business.

    I want to bring in a sustainable income from my writing, ergo, I treat it like a business.

  2. Great opening. Thanks for the links to Jane Friedman’s work. She is always on top of things in the industry.

    Do you know if Data Guy is going to make a general announcement somewhere with his usual graphs and analysis? I always look forward to this each Fall.

    1. @janefriedman is a hero! Data Guy was at the conference and we had a chat. He is doing his best to keep up with his workload but has assured us that he will always do periodic reports for authors. We are also investigating whether there might be a sliver of data that ALLi can buy, as collectively we fulfil his 10m sales requirement. There are data protection issues to resolve first, though. We’re trying.

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