Survey Indicates Indie Publishing is Pot of Gold for Some, Work in Progress for Many
Survey responses from nearly 2,000 indie authors, half of them entirely indie published, give insight into the industry and advice on how indie authors can make a better success of their business. Marie Force, the New York Times-bestselling hybrid author of more than 30 indie-published titles, conducted the survey through Survey Monkey with questions developed by Marie with input from many other indie authors. It was widely publicized through indie author groups and social media. Nearly 90 percent of responding authors were female, the majority between the ages of 41 and 50. More than 60 percent of respondents identified a subgenre of romance as their primary genre. Five percent were science fiction authors, five percent were mystery/thriller authors and four percent were fantasy authors. The survey was live from Oct. 8 to Nov. 8, 2016.
When asked the reason for taking the indie publishing path, authors cited greater revenue as their primary reason followed by greater product control. Conversely, their greatest frustrations with being indie authors are the perceived lack of a level playing field on the retail platforms and industry instability. However, 29 percent reported they are indie authors because the frustrations are minimal. More than half the respondents say the biggest benefit to being an indie author is agility and the ability to pivot when needed.
Most of the authors surveyed write in the 50,000 – 100,000-word range, most (41 percent) price their indie titles at $2.99 and most write series and/or a mix of series and single titles. In a question that asked respondents to cite all applicable answers, 99 percent of the respondents publish in ebook format, 71 percent publish in print, 15 percent publish in audio and 4.5 percent publish in foreign markets. Half of those surveyed reported that ebook revenue makes up 90 percent of their total revenue. Half the respondents reported that print revenue makes up less than 10 percent of their total revenue. Seventy-three percent reported no revenue in audio, and 82 percent reported no foreign translation revenue.
On an average day between releases, 1543 authors, or 49 percent, report selling between zero and five books while on the other end of the spectrum 8 authors, or 0.43 percent, report selling more than 1,000 books on an average day between releases with another 13 authors, or 0.69 percent reporting selling more than 500 books on an average day between releases. In an average month between releases, 608 authors or 33 percent, report making between zero and fifty dollars on their books. On the opposite end, 15 authors or 0.80 percent, reported making between $30,001 and $40,000 in an average month with no new releases, with 15 others reporting revenue in the higher ranges, and 1 reporting average monthly revenue in excess of $500,000. The numbers increase during release months with most reporting income at $10,000 or below for new releases. At the upper end, 18 authors reported release month income exceeding $100,000.
More than 13 percent of respondents report that their writing income fully supports their family. Another 26.8 say it partially supports their family, while more than 18 percent say it pays for some extras, like dinner out and movies. Four percent say it pays for a nice vacation once a year while 3 percent said it pays for two annual vacations. Some 17.5 percent of respondents say they’re still waiting to make money from their writing.
The majority of the authors who report they have made no money on their books (251 out of 338 or 74.26 percent) have 0-5 books on sale. The outlier in this category was the author with more than 100 books on sale who has yet to make any money. The data was further examined by taking a look at the breakdown of author categories within the group waiting to make money on their indie titles, which is as follows: about 75 percent are indie-only authors, 17 percent are hybrid published (meaning they are both indie and traditionally published), 5 percent are former hybrid and 3 percent did not answer the question about how many books they published.
What surprised us were the hybrid-published and former hybrid authors who report making no money from their indie titles, despite having a number of books published. Operating under the assumption that these authors have worked with traditional/small press/e-publishers, know enough about the industry to create a quality product to generate sales and have some sort of built-in following, the quality and quantity of the product did not necessarily correlate to number of book sales in this no-income category. On-sale prices for authors in this category were, on average, $2.99.
More than half the authors surveyed were full-time authors with no other jobs. Survey respondents reported making between $50 and $30,000 in an average month—the majority of making $2,000 or less—without a new release. As expected, authors make more money in a month in which they release a new book. The format of indie author books was linked to revenue, with the majority of the authors— more than 87 percent—earning 70 percent or more of their revenue from ebooks. This compares to 3.8 percent making 70 percent or more of their revenue from print, .2 percent from audio and .2 percent for foreign editions.
A majority of authors surveyed reported that 2016 has been the best year since 2010. They attributed their success this year to a number of factors, including an increase in skills, such as improved writing and marketing, more books published, and sales of backlist and front list that grow each year. The data implies that with each successive year, authors employ many more strategies than they did in 2010. Overall, in every category of authors (indie only, hybrid published and former hybrid) the trend is more authors citing their best year as the most recent year. With the increase in market knowledge and strategic planning in publishing and marketing, data suggests that 2017 will likely be another great year for all categories of authors, and that it’s still a good time to enter the market. This is good news for many authors who are looking forward to ‘more’ in the next five years—more books, more revenue, more readers.
Respondents said the key to making more revenue from their indie books was pretty simple: write more top-notch books to feed a hungry readership, followed by offering the first book in a series free or permanently free and scoring BookBub featured deals. Authors told us that while they’ve become more attuned to factors that help their business—and many say one of the biggest lessons they’ve learned is that writing IS a business and needs to be treated as such— 43 percent still consider their indie career a work in progress while 36 percent see it as a career.
Regarding the marketplace, indie publishers have had almost equal success with publishing their indie books at all online retailers and exclusively at Kindle Unlimited (KU). They experienced the most growth in the last year with Amazon compared to Kindle Unlimited exclusively. Of the author respondents who published before KU’s 2014 inception, 21.3 percent say their income has remained steady since the platform debuted, 13.3 percent say it surged, 12.3 percent say it declined somewhat, 10.3 percent say it slowed in growth and 9.1 percent say it tanked. Thirty-eight percent of those surveyed are not on KU at all, while 33 percent report their average daily page read is up to 1,000 pages.
The vast majority of authors (more than 45 percent) were evenly split with half spending either $25 or less and the other half spending between $101 and $250 promoting their book, while 28.2 percent spend more than $250 and more than 26 percent spend between $26 and $100.
The largest number of respondents, 49.7 percent, spend $25 or less promoting their backlist in an average month between releases. Other successful marketing and promotion strategies included newsletters, hiring public relations help, contests, giveaways, author events, commenting on other blogs with a link back to the author’s website, and cross-promoting with other authors.
Newsletters were ranked highest as the most important marketing tool for indie careers, followed by Kindle Unlimited and Facebook ads. Respondents named quite a few other marketing tools they found helpful, including writing blogs and participating in giveaways and other promotions, author events and ads in smaller venues.
Scores were close when it came to the question “In regard to traditional publishing” where 25.8 percent indicate they plan to remain mostly indie published with an occasional traditional project, 24.5 percent say would like to someday be traditionally published in addition to indie published, and 23.3 percent say they have no interest in being traditionally published. Eight percent have been traditionally published and are never going back while only 1 percent indicated a desire to be fully traditionally published at some point in the future.
The path to publishing varied tremendously among the authors surveyed, and many were eager to share their hard-earned lessons. We heard from the male chief technology officer of a high-tech company who wrote hot romance and kept it a secret from his wife—until he had to tell her about it because “in a stunning result, the book sold more than 33,000 copies that first month, which meant it had to go on our taxes.” A 56-year-old contemporary romance author on track to earn six figures in her first year of self-publishing waited until she had nine books written before publishing them.
“I purposefully held back publishing until I had nine books,” she says. “I know. Crazy. However, in retrospect, this was a smart move, not only because I had a built-in back list coming out monthly for a while, but I also was able to define my brand and understand how the books could work together. They are all standalone with very small tie-ins, but the covers are obviously a series. So, I published four books at once in late 2015 and then released one book each month for the next five months. I really did no marketing at all until most of them were released. This took off the pressure in so many ways.”
She suggests that in a crowded market, authors need to write quality books and learn about the business end of indie publishing. “This isn’t a gold rush any longer. Take your time and be good right out of the gate. It makes the whole ride easier when you know what you’re doing.”
Data extracted and compiled by indie author Jacintha Topaz. Read her report here.
Read the next post for indie success stories from authors who answered the survey.
By: Marie Force and Cheryl Serra, Director of Publicity for Marie Force