Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Financial Realities of Writing

Early in May 2016 I posted a blog entry that set out my first year experiences in self-publishing. View it here:

In it I listed download totals and reviews, and set them in the context of books sales in general, and ebook and self-publishing on Amazon in particular. I hoped at the time to suggest that books sell in far few numbers than most readers would suspect and that authors, in general, make far less money than most readers would suspect. Most writers who are not writing for hire, but working on their own writing projects, will not make a living on writing. It's a part time job, or a full time job that pays part time wages.

The latest Author Earning report was recently released that analyzes Amazon book sales. You can find the full report here: http://authorearnings.com/report/may-2016-report/

One takeaway is that they found less than 10,000 authors making more than $10,000 a year from paper, audio and ebook sales combined on Amazon. Amazon sells about half the traditionally published books in the US and about 85% of the non-traditional books, i.e. self-published or indie-published books.

In the comment section, the Data Guy, the fellow who compiles the data, set out to explain why there are so few writers who are making $50,000 a year writing (something like a living wage).

Americans spend about $15 billion a year on trade books of all formats. After retailers and publishers take their cut, at most $3 billion actually lands in author pockets. Divided up perfectly evenly, that $3 billion could theoretically support 60,000 authors at the $50,000 level…
But instead, it’s getting divided up among at least 1,000,000 authors, if not more… including the estates and heirs of deceased authors. (I can see at least a million author names in our Amazon ebook data and top-selling Amazon print-book data, and that doesn’t even start to include the 32 million(!) lower-selling print book titles listed on Amazon right now, whose sales are too low to be captured in one of our scrapings.).
But lets imagine that there were only a million authors sharing the $3 billion right now. Which is an average of $3,000 each, if it were evenly distributed — but of course, it isn’t evenly distributed. Not even close.
It’s a Pareto distribution. And it’s one where the top 1% of authors — the top 10,000 — take home 50% of that $3 billion, making the average income among those top 10,000 authors around $150,000 a year. Here’s the thing, though: averages are pretty meaningless in a Pareto distribution. Because the top 1% of that top 1%, or just the top 100 authors — folks like James Patterson, Danielle Steel, Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, and the like — take half of the half. (Those 4 names alone account for 10% of it, if you believe Forbes magazine’s estimates.)
So the remaining 9,900 authors in the top 1% have to split what’s left: $750 million. And the next 10% down — or 1,000 of them — take nearly 50% of that, leaving only $375 million to be split among the remaining 8,900 top-1%-ers, bringing their average income to $43,000 or so. Which means that every single author below that top 10,000 — and the majority of those in it — are actually earning less than $50,000 a year from their writing.
All of which is a painfully longwinded way of saying that there just aren’t enough dollars being spent on books in the US to make “tens of thousands” of $50K-earning authors even a remote possibility.
Throw in foreign sales (again, concentrated in the top few thousand traditionally-published authors) and movie rights (which, again, are mostly going to the top 1% of 1% of traditionally-published authors) and we could maybe talk ourselves up to high single-digit thousands of authors earning $50K.
...Anyone who sets out with an expectation of earning a living from their writing is setting themselves up for almost certain disappointment. At best a low single-digit percentage of writers are ever able to. But that’s actually good news: before indie publishing became viable, the odds of doing so as an traditionally-published author were far worse — and for unpublished-but-querying traditional aspirants, basically infinitesimal.”
As a boy and man, I wanted to be a science fiction writer. I wrote several novellas, a fantasy novel, planned some others and YA mystery, but I lacked the never-say-die attitude needed to make it through all rejection slips into traditional publishing. Still, looking back, I may've dodged a bullet, given the odds and the meager rewards of success. However, In my old age, I don't need to tackle the publishing business, and I don't need to make money, so that for me, these days are the ideal days to write. The long odds of getting traditionally published and the meager rewards (and they're even more meager these days) no longer matter. I can do it purely for fun. And that's why, given my druthers, I share rather than sell my books.

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