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Self-Publishing 3.0: Author Earnings through Author Business

Orna Ross What is an authorpreneur

Orna Ross, Director of ALLi

Authors used to think of our job as a career but the arrival of digital technology changed that and created a growing group of writers for whom authorship means business. ALLi's Self-Publishing 3.0 campaign aims to 

The day an author sells their first book through a self-publishing platform like KDP, Kobo or IngramSpark, they 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.

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.

Collective indie ebook earnings long ago surpassed that of all Big Five authors combined in the US and, more recently, in the UK and that trend will continue as self-publishing gains a foothold in new territories. Yet the loudest line on author earnings is, as ever, doom and gloom. 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.

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”. 

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 Earnings through Author Business

This opportunity to run a successful author business is new for authors. 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, and who operate selective rights licensing with publishers, rather than giving all rights away on an exclusive basis, can build a profitable business, one they can rely on into the future.

Author Earnings Through Author Business: ALLi's 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 encourages through our Self-publishing 3.0 campaign  (#selfpub3.0).

  • Self-Publishing 1.0 began in the 1990s with desktop publishing and print-on-demand technology.
  • Self-Publishing 2.0 kicked off with the Kindle in 2008, and quickly saw the rise of digital publishing, reading and listening to e-books and audiobooks, together with online bookstores and book distribution.
  • Self-publishing 3.0 sees authors emerging with independent publishing businesses, owning and trading in their own intellectual property on a non-exclusive basis.

This era is powered by four drivers for authors: direct sales, wide publishing, selective rights licensing, and author collaboration.

Self-publishing 3.0 is both a concept and a campaign. The concept is that digital technology gives any author (who has acquired the necessary writing and publishing skills) the means to increase their income through building a sustainable and scalable author business.

The campaign aims to raise the average income for authors and poets through enterprise education and author empowerment. We lobby the literary and creative industries in seven global territories and advocate for true independence for authors.

  • The campaign has two main aims:
    1. Author education around the realities of successful self-publishing and the development of three skill sets: writing, digital publishing, and author business.

    2. Publishing sector education around the realities of what it is to be an author in today’s digital and entrepreneurial environment. To that end, ALLi approaches various government bodies, creative industry leaders, and other influencers in the publishing and bookselling industries, aiming to create a more informed conversation about the indie author experience and facilitate skills training.

    True independence, for authors as for anyone, must incorporate commercial as well as creative independence. The self-publishing 3.0 campaign fosters a climate that encourages commercial independence through author business. And encouraging authors:

    • Towards an empowered and independent mindset.
    • Towards the realization that they are in business and can learn from other authors how to write well, publish well and run a good author business.
    • To own their own transactional e-commerce websites while also using online retailers, other publishers, and publishing services to distribute their books as widely as possible, in as many formats as possible.
    • To ensure they have a diversity of income streams, including direct sales, subscription models, crowdsourced patronage, and income from other activities like online teaching and affiliate income (learn more).
    • To see trade publishing as an author service. An independent author sits down to a publishing offer with an informed and empowered mindset, expecting a partnership of equals which should be reflected in the publishing contract.
    • To beware of exclusivity and take control of their author businesses rather than putting all their intellectual property into any single business owned by another.
    • To be aware of the value of their intellectual property and creative assets.
    • To relish the freedom and control inherent in being an indie author. To recognize the opportunities provided by today’s digital tech and tools, welcome the challenges of developing the art and craft of writing and publishing, and take pride in being the creative and commercial director of their books and their business.

Making full use of all the opportunities provided by digital publishing (including innovations like the blockchain) has the potential to deliver true creative and commercial independence to authors. It could also revolutionize the books trade, making publishing an author-led industry for the first time in history.

It would complete the self-publishing revolution started by Amazon back in 2008, returning publishing to authors and providing the commercial expression of the rights inherent in copyright.

Author Earnings Through Author Business: Educating Readers

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


Author: Orna Ross

Orna Ross is a bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction and inspirational poetry, and a creativity facilitator. As founder-director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, she has been named one of The Bookseller’s Top 100 people in publishing. 


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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