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The Author Earnings report: point/counterpoint

By now you’ve probably encountered self-published author Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings report – which debuted online yesterday – in some form or another, whether through a direct link or via alarmist headlines such as io9’s ‘This chart ought to make the publishing industry very nervous‘. Superficially, at least, the latter might not seem like excessive hyperbole: extrapolating from his own Amazon sales reports, coupled with the expertise of ‘an author with advanced coding skills who [has] created a software program that can crawl online bestseller lists and grab mountains of data’, Howey reports back some startling figures. Most attention-grabbing: for the top 2,500 genre bestsellers on Amazon (mystery, thriller, suspense, sci-fi, fantasy, romance), 86% of sales are digital. For the top 100, that figure rises to 92%. Self-published genre e-books garner only 24% of total daily earnings, but take 47% of the daily revenue to authors. As for daily unit sales: 39% self-published versus 34% from the Big Five combined. Conclusion: the self-publishing revolution is well underway.

Countering that is author and Guardian columnist Damien Walter, who rightfully points out that Howey’s figures are by no means authoritative (although given that Amazon and the Big Five are in no rush to publish their own detailed sales figures, they might be the best we have). Though Walter concords with Howey that figures like those cited above are astonishing to consider, particularly when contrasted with pre-Kindle sales figures for self-published books, he parts ways with Howey’s interpretation of those figures: where Howey sees an appetite being met for genre fiction amongst mass audiences by self-published authors, Walter instead suggests that the success of those genres has more to do with how abundant and easily accessible e-books are – whether by tablet, phone, computer, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, whatever – and how much of a marketing hook genre can be for people who previously might not have been regular readers, and are now impulse buyers browsing Amazon.

Walter also invokes author Chuck Wendig’s wonderfully-named concept of ‘the Shit Volcano’ of self-publishing: a boom period before the dust settles on the new technology where regularly putting out poorly-written genre knock-offs to take advantage of inexperienced readers can make people a healthy living. Calling the belief that this period will become status quo ‘very naive’, he concludes: ‘As the ebook market matures, it will have to steadily rise in quality or collapse. If the Author Earnings report data isn’t all solid fact, the need for quality certainly is.’ Whichever side you ultimately come down on (and, if you’re regularly reading this site, I think I can take a pretty solid stab at guessing which), Howey’s report and Walter’s analysis are both worth reading and musing over.

Chris Ward

Chris Ward

Chris Ward writes and says things about books and music and films and what have you, even when no one is reading or listening.
He was chief hack and music editor of webzine Brazen from 2006 to 2010, and hosted Left of the Dial on Subcity Radio from 2008 to 2011.
He can be heard semi-regularly on the podcast of Scottish cultural blog Scots Whay Hae ('20th best website in Scotland!' - The List), and in 2011 founded Seen Your Video, a film and music podcast and blog based in Glasgow. He has a Masters degree in Scottish Literature from the University of Glasgow that will never have any practical application. You are on a hiding to nothing if you follow him on Twitter expecting any kind of hot publishing scoop.

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