Investigating Author-Publisher Dynamics: 2015 Author Survey Results

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

A New Lens for a Challenging Landscape

authors publishers indie self-publishingAs ebook growth levels off industry-wide, many traditional publishers and indie authors alike find themselves in a more sobering landscape, in which the chances for success appear slimmer than they sometimes have in the past.

Even though last year’s Amazon-Hachette dispute saw many authors rally to the publisher’s side, the tenor of the debate underscored just how far publishers still have to go to convince authors and readers of their importance. On the other hand, recent grumblings that Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited service shortchanges authors of income has intensified concerns among many that earning a living from their writing is an ever more difficult goal to achieve.

It’s against this backdrop that the report based on the 2015 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey proposes a new framework for thinking about which paths to publication leave authors satisfied and why. The growing array of options for authors is fast collapsing the familiar boundary between traditional and self-publishing, even if those new tools and services, on balance, don’t yet appear to be spurring widespread commercial success for the authors who utilize them.

Instead, we might imagine authors’ various publishing options as existing along continua of risk-sharing, reward-sharing and investment. On one side of the risk continuum is the self-publishing model, where authors shoulder the entire burden of risk for a project, making all the necessary investments. At the other extreme, the traditional publisher assumes all risk (and pays the author up front).

Across the risk continuum, investments in projects can range from low to high, as measured, for example, by decisions about production cost, distribution, marking and so on. The division of rewards from a project follows a continuum as well, with all profits to the author on one side and all to the publisher on the other (as in a work-for-hire model). Finally, while these patterns of risk and reward are closely entwined and impact the levels of investment different types of publishers and authors make overall, both make investment decisions on a project-by-project basis as well.

This model lends a new vocabulary for asking familiar questions differently: What is the nature of the contract between authors and publishers? What is given, and what is expected in return? Are there differences in what publishers and indie authors do, such that some are more successful and some less so?

Last year’s report asked what advantages traditional publishers offered authors (you can download the executive summary of it here). We found that while publishers claimed to offer authors higher production quality, wider distribution and better marketing, many authors were not satisfied by their experiences, and their sales and earnings did not reflect the touted advantages of traditional publishing.

However, we also found that few authors in our sample were making much money from their writing and that most books were not selling large volumes of copies—no matter how they were published.

Presenting these findings at the 2014 Digital Book World Conference + Expo, I pointed out that the customary arguments traditional publishers made about their value to authors were falling into question. In the meantime, the rise of self-publishing was shifting power to authors, allowing many—especially mid-list—authors to compete with their own publishers should they decide to go it alone.

Findings from this year’s survey bear out both of those insights, and the new report, The Author-Publisher Relationship in a Changing Market, offers a new lens for understanding them.

Risks and Rewards

This year, 2,545 authors completed the Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Survey, and 1,879 of the respondents were published authors. We asked them many of the same questions as last year, plus several new ones. The survey provides a snapshot of the experiences of the authors who volunteered to respond. It is not a scientific survey, and the findings very much reflect who responded.

In one important change from the previous year, we made a concerted effort to recruit highly successful indie authors, reaching out to many of them directly and asking them to forward the survey links to others. As a result, this year’s sample includes a substantial minority of high-earning authors, with about 10% earning $100,000 or more and 4% earning $250,000.

Still, the results for authors’ income were strikingly similar to findings from the last two years, and despite the different nature of the respondent samples each year, there has been marked consistency across the three years of findings. Most authors in the latest sample aren’t making much money, and most books still sell very few copies. We also found that traditionally published authors and authors who combine traditional and indie publishing have higher annual incomes on average than indie-only authors. (Who are these high-earning authors, and what are they doing that sets them apart? I’ll explore this issue in greater depth in later posts.)

Annual Writing Income for Indie, Traditional and Hybrid Authors

Understood in terms of investment, risk and reward, many of our findings seem like common sense. For example, publishers and authors who take on the greatest risk also expect the greatest share of rewards in terms of royalties and rights. Not surprisingly, investments matter. While greater investments are no guarantee of higher earnings, and while types of investments certainly make a difference, there is a definite positive link between investments and earnings (a pattern we first discovered last year among indie authors), such that projects backed by bigger investments also tend to achieve greater earnings and sometimes greater sales.

It’s also no great shock that the traditional publishers and indie authors who make the most investments and stand to reap the largest share of rewards also tend to see the highest earnings. In the case of this year’s survey, that typically means larger, advance-paying publishers on the traditional side and authors who publish through their own companies or LLCs on the indie one.

Interestingly, advance-paying publishers eclipsed royalty-only publishers and indie authors in terms of numbers of books sold, selling a median of 1,000–4,999 copies compared to 1–499 copies for all other types of publishers and authors we studied.

Authors who published with advance-paying publishers also tended to earn substantially more money on their last books, $5,000 –$9,999, with those earnings tending to reflect the advance received as well as a mix of print and digital sales. Indie authors who published through their own companies or LLCs saw the next highest median earnings, $750–999, while royalty-only authors, indie authors publishing on their own and indie authors publishing through vanity presses all showed the same median earnings of $1–$499.*



Earnings from Latest Book by Type of Publisher

My next post will explore the correlations we found between authors’ earnings and their degree of satisfaction with the choices they made, and what this might tell us about the business outlooks of the authors in our sample.

The complete report, The Author-Publisher Relationship in a Changing Market: Risks, Rewards and Commitment, is available for purchase here.

* Technical note: We asked authors about their sales and earnings from their most recently self-published or traditionally published books. Asking about the latest book is a survey design technique known as “anchoring.” Were we to ask authors about their experiences in different kinds of publishing without such an anchor, we would get all kinds of impressions drawn from the range of their experiences. Anchoring makes the answers more specific and more likely to be reproduced were the same question asked again, and this greater accuracy is important for analysis. We heard a valid concern among respondents that authors whose latest book was published in 2014 might not yet know their sales or earnings or might be at a disadvantage relative to authors whose books have had more time on the market. In preparing the report findings, I ran several cross-checks, comparing the 2014 publication date results to other years and examining the results with and without the books published in 2014, but I found no differences in the median results or the overall pattern of results despite the large number of respondents who published a book in 2014.

2 thoughts on “Investigating Author-Publisher Dynamics: 2015 Author Survey Results

  1. Danielle Forrest

    I have a question. You say income, and I’m wondering what you mean exactly by that. After all, there’s a big difference between income and sales for Indie authors. For example, I might make $1000 through amazon, but if I spent as much in that year on editing, book cover design, and marketing, I have no income.

  2. Alex Newton

    Dana and team – excellent survey summary. Thanks a lot. For me the most interesting data point is that more than 50% of indie-only authors earn less than $1,000. This obviously not enough to pay the rent, quit a day job, feed the family, dog, cat or whatever one’s financial obligations encompass. At the same time thought, the number of ebook titles keeps growing – e.g. some 70,000 new books on Kindle every month (which translates into ca. 25% annual growth in ebook supply on the platform. We conducted an in-depth analysis of all the 350+ book sub-categories and some 2000+ sub-sub categories on Kindle. There are some book market niches where you can still earn quite some money and face relatively few competing titles. However, many authors or want-to-be authors go into the market completely blind. I mean, you cannot expect to get rich if you publish fifteenhundredth junk paleo breakfast recipe title… I wonder when the laws of supply and demand will kick in and slow in the influx of new indie books. I also wonder when Amazon (and other platforms) will introduce some quality control stage gate to slow the influx of low-quality books into the market. Again, thanks for your nice analysis of the market.
    Alex Newton
    ebook market intelligence for success



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