How Much Money Are Authors Making?

The situation is probably worse than you think.

AuthorEarnings, a company that uses data services “to call for change within the publishing community for better pay and fairer terms in all contracts,” has issued a May report that it calls “the definitive million-title study of US author earnings.” Among the report’s findings is data on the infamous “dark pool” of books that “appear on no category best-seller lists at all.”

“Our methodology,” AuthorSolutions writes in the report, “employs a software spider that crawls across Amazon’s bestseller lists.” This “spider” (they continue), “collects cross-sectional data on the more than 200,000 books listed on Amazon’s best-sellers list,” which apparently accounts for 60 percent of all Amazon book sales. For this “definitive” report, the company simply broadened the list crawled by its spider:

So for this report, we went deeper. Instead of just looking at Amazon’s bestseller lists, we had our spider follow links to also-bought recommendations and also through each authors’ full catalog. This resulted in a million-title dataset, our most comprehensive and definitive look yet at author earnings. We were able to tally up precisely how many indie authors, Big Five authors, small/medium press authors, and Amazon-imprint authors are currently making enough from Amazon.com sales to land in a number of “tax brackets”.

The study admits that “[m]ore than 50 [percent] of all traditionally-published book sales of any format in the US now happen on Amazon.com” — which would leave out 50% of traditional book sales (in, say, brick and mortar stores) — but it also points out that “roughly 85% of all non-traditionally published book sales of any format in the US also happen on Amazon.com.” It’s impossible to ignore Amazon, in other words, if you want a broad view of how much authors are earning.

So how much are authors being paid for books sold on Amazon? The numbers are either dismal or inspiring depending (of course) on your point of view. To begin with, around 9,900 writers are earning $10,000 or more from Amazon, which, as AuthorEarnings points out, is “a nontrivial supplementary income.” But it’s important to remember that this number includes authors making more than $10,000. It’s also important to point out that independent authors generally outperform those published by the Big 5 publishers, especially if you consider authors published in more recent years. This pattern would seem to confirm our earlier report that says Big Publishing’s market share is in decline.

Maybe $10,000 a year from Amazon sales is not enough for you. In that case, there are around 4,600 authors making $25,000 a year or more from Amazon sales, and these numbers breakdown in a similar way (to the $10,000 category). Unfortunately, this means that “[f]ewer than 700 Big Five authors and fewer than 500 small-or-medium publisher authors who debuted in the last 10 years are now earning $25,000 a year or more on Amazon.”

In the higher brackets, the numbers are more depressing. If it inspires you to note that 2,500 authors make $50,000 — arguably a middle class salary — you might remember that only 220 Big Five authors and around 100 small to medium press authors now earn this amount from Amazon sales. $100,000? There are 1,340 of those, and only 115 from Big Publishing, at least among authors who debuted within the last five years.

But, again, remember that these numbers also include those making more than $50,000 or $100,000 a year from their Amazon sales. What about the upper reaches of publishing big and small? “As of May 5, 2016,” the report says, “only 3 Big Five authors who debuted in the past 5 years are currently making a seven figure run rate from their Amazon sales — print, audio, and ebook combined.” This means that “household names” bolstered by Big Publishing dollars — authors like James Patterson and David Baldacci — are disappearing.

Some aspiring writers and industry “experts” argue that publishing money has migrated to the “dark pool” of unlisted or self-published writers. But if the AuthorEarnings research is accurate, this argument is misguided. According to the report, there are only 43 “invisible” authors who have earned $100,000 or more from Amazon sales, and only one who has earned more than $250,000.

Update: This piece has been changed to reflect that the 1,340 authors who make more than $100,000 from Amazon sales (and the 115 Big Publishing authors) include only those who debuted within the last five years.