We talk a lot about a wide range of strategies for making money.
Making money isn’t why most creators create–authors write because they love to write. But authors also do need to eat. Earning income from your writing is the pathway to doing what you love all day, every day.
With that in mind, today we’re going take a look at the data from Author Earnings for 2017. For those authors out there who really want to set themselves on a trajectory to write full time and earn a living from their creations, tracking trends and understanding the market will be critical.
For those unfamiliar with Author Earnings, they are a collective of authors and data analysts who track and compile sales data across the publishing industry. Without the diligent work of this group, publishers would remain largely in the dark regarding hard data. While this might not be as big a deal for giants like Ingram and Amazon, who do their own private data gathering, for small and medium-sized publishers, as well as self-published authors, this data is of immense value.
What does this data mean for you? Let’s dive into it.
The Big Picture
Ready to be blown away?
In the nine months Author Earnings tracked sales in 2017 (April to December), they recorded “$1.3 billion in individually tracked ebook sales, $490 million in individually tracked audio-book sales, and $3.1 billion in individually tracked online hardcover and paperback purchases.”
Between all three formats, that’s nearly $5 billion in book purchases. $5,000,000,000.00. I think I got all the zeroes in there.
Yes, a few wildly popular and profitable authors claimed a portion of that income. But not all of it by a huge margin. The earnings for books sales spread out across a variety of publisher types and genres.
The compiled data here has two important take-aways:
- The majority of books sold online were Ebooks
- The highest earning books were Print
Now, the Report gets into some very granular information about genre specific publishing trends that will be interesting to some authors and less so to others. I’m going to stick to higher level information surrounding those two points above.
Ebooks outsold Print
Overall, ebooks had a good year in terms of overall unit sales. Author Earnings lists over 266 million ebooks units sold, with only about 187 million print books.
A few factors contribute to this. Price is one of them, and we’ll see in the next section a little more about how pricing skews the numbers when it comes to determining the value of a specific publishing type. In terms of unit sales, the lower average price for ebooks helps push more sales. It’s rare to see an ebook listed for more than $9.99, and if you do see one priced higher, it is likely a popular author and a newly listed title.
For print books, it’s not likely to find many books listed under $9.99. This leads budget conscious readers to lean toward ebooks, particularly when sampling a self-published work, they might not be familiar with. This shouldn’t come as a surprise at all. Would you spend $20.00 on an author you’ve never heard of? Not likely. How about $3.00? Maybe?
That’s the line of thinking many independent authors are relying on. Naturally, it means having more emphasis on ebooks and the Author Earning report shows this trend with their higher number of ebook sales.
Print out-earned Ebook
Despite selling fewer units, Print books out earned Ebooks in 2017. Author Earnings identifies major cause of this disparity: Textbooks and Children’s books. These specific books generally list at a higher price and are almost uniformly more desirable in print, leading to a focused market.
In total, they show 63% of spending was on print books. Removing those high-ticket items and looking at just adult fiction and non-fiction brings print earnings below 50%, but only barely. Even looking at the fiction side of print, the per unit earning for print beats ebooks.
We know this is based on the price difference common between print and ebook. This gap widens because of textbooks, but it’s also important to note that text and academic books are among the most sold and highest earning print books.
What does it mean?!
Basically, print is used predominantly for textbook, academic, children’s books, and business book purposes. Ebooks, on the other hand, are showing the best sales for literature, mystery and thriller, and romance genres.
The chart highlights the upper end of genre sorted sales, but as you can see, it clearly shows the dominance in each format—textbooks for print, fiction and literature for ebook.
Capturing this data is all well and good. But what does it mean?
We need to draw a very important line here. Something the Author Earning report can’t speak too because they only compile and provide data. Authors should publish in multiple formats.
I’m not saying anything I haven’t said before. I bet you’ve heard it before too. Just because Fiction sold less in print does not mean the format should be abandoned. And thanks to print-on-demand, it doesn’t actually cost anything to make your book available in multiple formats.
Don’t believe anyone that tells you it has to be one or the other. Diversify. If you’re a fiction writer, create a paperback, a hardcover, and an ebook. You might sell one hardcover for every ten ebooks, but if you earn $10 on the hardcover and $1 on the ebook, you’ve earned the same amount! Best of all? Eleven people bought your book! If you’d only published an ebook, you’d only have ten sales.
Use data, don’t let it use You
The age of big data is still in its infancy. We’re gathering and being propelled forward by a non-stop, ever-increasing barrage of data.
The challenge is for a self-published author is to know how to use this data. Does it really matter that the biggest selling genre in print are textbooks? Not if you’re a fiction author. Not really. It’s interesting. But it doesn’t tell you much that matters.
What does matter is to use this broad data from Author Earnings as a benchmark. Compare their trends to your own.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you write Mystery/Thrillers. You’ve got a website and you sell directly to your readers, with paperback, hardcover, and ebook. You’ve got four books published. To keep this simple, we’ll set the price the same for all four books:
- Paperback = $12.00 / $7.00 revenue
- Hardcover = $18.00 / $6.00 revenue
- Ebook = $5.00 / $3.00 revenue
Looking back at 2017, let’s imagine some sales numbers:
- Book #1 – Paperback – 12 copies / $84.00 revenue
- Book #1 – Hardcover – 3 copies / $18.00 revenue
- Book #1 – Ebook – 40 copies / $120.00 revenue
- Book #2 – Paperback – 2 copies / $14.00 revenue
- Book #2 – Hardcover – 3 copies / $18.00 revenue
- Book #2 – Ebook – 19 copies / $57.00 revenue
- Book #3 – Paperback – 10 copies / $70.00 revenue
- Book #3 – Hardcover – 5 copies / $30.00 revenue
- Book #3 – Ebook – 70 copies / $210.00 revenue
- Book #4 – Paperback – 17 copies / $119.00 revenue
- Book #4 – Hardcover – 2 copies / $12.00 revenue
- Book #4 – Ebook – 22 copies / $66.00 revenue
If we add all this up, here would be the total revenues for the year from all books, by genre:
Paperback, 41 copies sold = $287.00
Hardcover, 13 copies sold = $78.00
Ebook, 151 copies sold = $453.00
You might not be surprised by this. And the Author Earning data certainly supports that this falls within their trends, right?
What it doesn’t point to and what is key for authors to be aware of, is that even if ebook is the most profitable format for fiction authors, print is still important. In the above example, print accounts for a 45% of your earnings!
Rather, what you might learn from this data is that ebooks do sell very well for volume, so you might need to use the ebook when directly linking new authors to a product. But for a new release, you might display the hardcover on your website’s homepage, since new releases tend to appear in hardcover first in bookstores.
Conclusions and the Big Picture (again)
At the risk of beating it to death, I’ll say this one more time:
- The majority of books sold online were Ebooks
- The highest earning books were Print
For volume, look to ebooks. For revenue, look to print. Think about your genre while considering this (of course) and pay attention to those outliers. If you publish textbooks, your focus will be on print, even if you expect and aim for high volume. If you publish serialized romance, ebooks are going to be your bread and butter, but offering a print option allows you to capture a small demographic of readers at a high return.
And most important of all, keep all of this in balance. Print-on-demand makes publishing free, so offering books in various formats, even if you don’t sell many of a particular format, costs nothing.