This little ditty revealed itself to me recently: Self-publishing: under 10% of authors earn living, and if you are an indie publisher, you should read it. According to these findings, you have the greatest chance of success if you are a 40-year-old female with an agent who has never been rejected by traditional publishers or who has previously been published and who writes romances. It also states that half the respondents failed to earn $500 in royalties in 2011.
Sounds bad, right?
There are many ways I could take this blog response, but I will focus on this question: in comparison to what? If half of all indie authors only earned less than $500 in 2011, then how does that compare to trad-pubbed authors? If only 10 percent of indie authors earn a living at writing, then how does that compare to trad-pubbed authors? Ten percent would indeed be bad if 100 percent of trad-pubbed authors earned a living. But do they?
I would like to cite some numbers that put this into perspective for me. From the Author’s Guide to Publishing and Marketing by Tim Ward and John Hunt, which was published in 2009:
In a survey of 1.2 million books in the US,
- 950,000 sold fewer than 100 copies
- Another 200k sold fewer than 1,000
- 25k sold 5,000
- Fewer than 500 sold 100,000
- 10 sold 1 million
Average sale: 500 copies
Five hundred was the average at the time of this survey. 500! Can you earn a living with only 500 sales on traditional royalties? I don’t think so.
So where exactly in that scale does earning a living start? Let’s just say it’s at the 5,000 sales mark for kicks and grins, and this is being extremely generous to account for other factors and differences in the surveys. That means out of 1,200,000 books in this survey, 50,000 were earning their authors a living at the time. What percentage is that?
But let’s look at some more numbers. What about here, which is a survey of “typically experienced writers – that is, with multiple books published, with an agent, and boasting both overseas and domestic sales.” These 321 respondents had published more than 1,000 books among them, most of which were produced by one of the Big 6. You can find the full dataset here.
And one more stat before I continue. According to this NYT essay, only 3 out of 10 books earn back their advances.
Okay, back to the survey of authors.
When asked about advances, here is the response:
Most authors were paid an advance equaling less than $7,755 in today’s dollars. Can they live on that? If you move to the next bracket, they were paid $23,265. That’s income barely above the poverty level in the US in 2011 for a four-person family. So that means that 22.4 percent of these writers, most of which are published by the Big 6 and considered successful are making a living for one year off their advance, and according to the stats in the NYT article, which may be low considering the set of those who were polled in this survey, only 3 out of 10 will earn anything beyond that. And that doesn’t account for the rest of the authors out there who are published traditionally, but by smaller presses.
When you read the indie stats in comparison to traditional stats that are available online, two things become clear. First, the writers of that article wanted you to assume that the results of their survey proved something negative about indie pubbing. Did they? I’d say that 10 percent of indie authors earning a living is pretty damn good in comparison to the data I found.
Second, traditional authors may have prestige, but they also have to live off something else: money. It’s a fact of life.
Note: I could not find a hard statistic on how many traditionally published authors are earning a living. I crunched these numbers myself. Remember I’m a writer not a mathematician, so don’t go citing these numbers until you verify them yourself.