The publishing industry is awash with various sales figures from different sources, and a hell of a lot of smoke and mirrors.
AuthorEarnings.com does a great job of highlighting indie sales on the various stores, showing the indie share of ebook sales and income rising. Their latest report for May 2016 goes into the numbers of indie authors making income from Amazon specifically.
On the other end of the scale, the AAP has the data from traditional publishers showing that ebook sales are decreasing, although these numbers don't include the 30% of ebooks sold without ISBNs in the US.
Both of these sources are aggregated reports and they are difficult to equate with specific authors and specific books.
So I think it's important to be as transparent as we are able about our book sales and income in order to help each other make decisions. Obviously data from one author (me!) is only anecdotal, but it's all I have, so I offer it to you. Make of it what you will.
Here are my total sales and income figures based on book sales
My company, The Creative Penn Limited, has a financial year running May – April. Last year, I reported on my income breakdown and various reports on my books. It was the first year I cracked a six-figure income as an author-entrepreneur since leaving my day-job in Sept 2011.
As a comparison to the previous report, the company income has almost tripled, meaning that my husband was able to quit his job in October 2015 🙂 I make income through course sales, affiliate income, professional speaking, and podcast sponsorship, all of which stems from my writing. [More detail on all of this in How to Make a Living with your Writing.]
But most authors are only interested in book sales and what impacts them, so this report covers May 2015 – April 2016 and will go into more detail on book sales specifically.
Total book sales income: US$95,000 (approx £66,000)
Total book sales volume: 40,667 (does not include free books)
Price points range from $2.99 – $16.99 (the higher priced boxsets are not on Amazon because of the $9.99 cap), and I ran various price reduction promotions during the year.
I'm not a breakout success in any genre, and my books are rarely in the top sales ranking on Amazon, so this demonstrates what you can do with a long term approach of building a back-list that sells small numbers consistently on multiple platforms.
Some of you will think this is amazing … and some of you will think this is pathetic!
Such is the way of authorship, when there are always people to compare ourselves to. But the best comparison is to where we were last year, and this is essentially double what I made with my books 2014 – 2015. I'm also very happy with making (almost) six figures from book sales alone, especially as a practically unknown author writing cross-genre with no breakout success books.
And as Hugh Howey has repeatedly said, this is the real story of self-publishing. It's not the outliers who make 7-figures or get movie deals, it's the many many many authors who are making a decent living now. We are not top of the charts but we put out quality books that people read and we make good money on the way … happy times!
All the following calculations and graphs are based on income split, since ultimately, that's more important that sales volume. You can't eat sales figures but you can eat royalties!
Breakdown by vendor
It won't be a surprise to see that Amazon still dominates, making up 56% of my book sales income through KDP, Createspace and ACX (Audible).
But that is a LOT less than many authors, especially those in KDP Select, and a lot less than many traditional publishers. It is also down on last year's Amazon total percentage of 74%.
I'm gratified by this as I made a decision back in the days of the Amazon/Hachette price discussions in 2014 that I would not let one company have dominant control over my income.
I love Amazon but I'm thrilled that Apple and Kobo now make up 40% in total (up from 19% last year) and I intend to grow both in the coming year.
I've also just gone back to selling direct using Selz (and exempting EU buyers because of the VATMOSS pain – updated post on this here), so next year I will hopefully have a wedge of sales that are purely from my two websites.
[What's not included: I don't count Nook as my sales there are so dire. I'm not on Google Play as I'd like to use Draft2Digital for that to avoid tech pain and currently that's not possible. I'm also not counting translations or stores like Tolino, 24 Symbols, and any other small stores in this analysis as the sales are so tiny right now. I'm also not counting occasions when my books have been included in bundles or other boxsets when I don't have the direct sales data. So this is all conservative.]
Breakdown by format
Definitely no surprise here as ebooks are generally where indies make their money.
Let's also just emphasize again that this is over 36,000 ebooks and over US$86,000 that are NOT counted in any official publishing reports, as I don't use ISBNs on ebooks or audiobooks and I use free Createspace ISBNs for print.
(If you're wondering why, it's because I clearly don't need ISBNs to make a living and I don't focus on print sales as a core part of my business. If you want to, then consider purchasing your own ISBNs and using IngramSpark for extended distribution. More on that here.)
According to AuthorEarnings, over 30% of ebooks purchased in the US don't have ISBNs as indies have no need to use them, and this is the missing data that makes the traditional publishing industry think that ebook sales are dropping and print is rising in comparison. In reality, it's just that they are not counting all the data.
My own print sales (8%) have remained a similar percentage of income to last year (7%), but my audiobook sales have dropped from 5% to only 2% of income. Many indies have seen a similar drop in audiobook sales as the subscription model takes hold and listeners can get audiobooks for cheap if they own the ebook.
Breakdown by fiction vs non-fiction
This is better as a line chart as the split is so different by store.
The numbers are based upon:
FICTION: 9 full-length novels, 3 novellas and a short story series. Stone of Fire is permafree on all ebook platforms and is not therefore counted. I also have 4 boxsets at various price points including a 7 book box-set on Kobo
NON-FICTION: 4 full-length books, 3 shorter-length. Successful Self-Publishing is permafree on all stores and is not therefore counted.
The split is explainable thus:
- Apple and Kobo sales are based on merchandising opportunities, which come up for fiction more often than my particular type of non-fiction, so my fiction is more highly visible there.
- I am not in KDP Select, so my Amazon sales are based on driving my own traffic or people using Amazon as a search engine. My non-fiction books have SEO book titles and I also have traffic from this site, which drives sales, as I primarily use Amazon affiliate codes in blog posts. I'm happy to see that my fiction sales still outweigh the non-fiction, which they should be based on number of books available, but you'll find that my sales ranking is usually pretty low, so hopefully it's encouraging to see what you can make on a decent base of books over time, even without breakout success.
- ACX/Audible sales are dominated by my one non-fiction book, Business for Authors: How to be an Author Entrepreneur, which I narrated and produced myself, so I get higher royalties. I also push traffic to it from this site, and my fiction has a lot less visibility. I'm going to continue to narrate my own non-fiction but am probably more likely to sell it direct from this site in future until there are other options around audio.
- Overall, the split (70:30) is representative of my number of books across fiction and non-fiction, and is pretty similar to last year's split (60:40).
Breakdown of ebook sales by country where books are sold across Amazon, Kobo and iBooks
This will be the first year analyzing this data as I wanted to baseline it going forward. It's hard to get country specific data on all formats, on all stores, so this is only ebook sales data from Amazon, Kobo and iBooks. I'd like to urge the retailers to include this in data downloads so it's easier to manage!
Those who read this blog regularly or listen to my podcast will know how bullish I am on global sales and how I fully expect to see the majority of my income coming from outside the US over the next few years, especially as streaming internet speeds spread to the rest of the world.
But I didn't expect that to have happened already for ebooks!
You can see from the chart that only 46% of my ebook sales are now from the US. It may be even less since the Amazon.com sales may also come from other countries without their own specific stores.
The ‘Other' wedge is made up of 56 different countries, most of which have a few sales each, but I expect that to grow in coming years. Only Kobo provides a cool sales map as part of their reporting!
What accounts for sales doubling? How did I sell and market in 2015 – 2016?
The primary reason my book sales income has almost doubled is because I have published a number of books, thus increasing the volume of intellectual property assets and also giving readers a better chance to discover my work. In the 2015 – 2016 financial year, I wrote and published:
- Deviance, London Psychic crime thriller #3 (full-length)
- Risen Gods, co-written with J.Thorn, a dark fantasy thriller set in New Zealand (full-length)
Destroyer of Worlds, ARKANE thriller #8 (full-length)
- How to Make a Living with your Writing (short non-fiction), which was listed on Inc.com as one of the top 100 business books in 2015
- Co-writing a Book: Collaboration and Co-creation for authors, co-written with J. Thorn (short non-fiction)
- Successful Self-Publishing: How to self-publish an ebook and print book. Free on all ebook stores and leads into my other books (short non-fiction)
- An English Country House & Garden Fine Art Coloring Book, co-produced with my print-maker Dad, Arthur J. Penn
- 4 single author box-sets, London Psychic box-set containing the trilogy, ARKANE Boxset 2 containing books 4-6, plus a 7 book ARKANE boxset, and also the Writer's Toolbox, with selected non-fiction.
In case you're wondering how I publish and market:
- I go direct to Amazon KDP, Kobo Writing Life and iBooks, as well as ACX for audio and Createspace for print. I use Draft2Digital for other ebook sales. I do have minor sales on other platforms but these are the dominant ones. More on how to self-publish here.
- I'm not in KDP Select and I actively promote books on the other platforms.
- I pursue merchandising on Kobo, iBooks and D2D and foster relationships by going to live events and actively promoting the other platforms as a vocal advocate for going wide, rather than staying exclusive.
- For non-fiction, I write books that my audience (you lot!) ask for or indicate by your interest that you would like. I also use SEO book titles.
- For non-fiction, I use content marketing i.e. putting out free useful information that brings people to my site. I have a weekly podcast and talk about my writing update every week, fostering interest and I'm also able to tell people when books are ready. I also blog on lessons learned here, plus I share on Twitter and Facebook and people mainly find my books this way. I've been doing this consistently for nearly 8 years.
- I have free email list signup offers and continue to build my email lists: Author Blueprint for this site and my non-fiction, and Day of the Vikings for my fiction.
- For fiction primarily, I use price promotions and associated advertising (paid e.g. Bookbub, Freebooksy) and also merchandising, which I apply for directly to Kobo and iBooks.
- I use permafree for fiction (Stone of Fire) and also for non-fiction (Successful Self-Publishing).
- I've started to use Facebook Advertising for the boxsets in particular and also video ads for the recent launch of Destroyer of Worlds. More on how I use Facebook Ads here.
These are the main ones, but I do dabble in many other marketing things. Check out How to Market a Book for more ideas.
Conclusion and decisions for financial year 2016 – 2017
Based on these numbers, I will:
- Write more books 🙂 More books make more money, even if they are not bestsellers. That's the magic of multiple streams of income based on intellectual property assets, selling in multiple formats and multiple countries. Oh yes, and creating is what I love doing with my life, so more books makes for a happier me!
- Focus on more fiction merchandizing and advertising at Kobo and Apple. I'll be finishing the ARKANE cycle of 9 books, so I will make that into a 9-book-boxset which I can sell for higher prices (as there's no royalty cap at $9.99). I've also got tons of other ideas.
- Write more non-fiction with SEO book titles for Amazon, in particular. Obviously my fiction will sell there too, but as I write cross-genre, I struggle to get traction and as I'm not KDP Select, fiction has less visibility overall.
- Record my own non-fiction audiobooks and sell direct from my website. I'm also intending to launch my next novel, End of Days, with the audiobook, print and ebook at the same time to try and boost audio sales. Fiction will continue to be done with pro narrators.
- Focus on growing the direct sales route to maximize revenue and collect email addresses. [To encourage this, you can get 10% off any books or audios you buy direct from me on this site by using promo code: CREATIVE on checkout. Click here to see all the books and on each page, you'll find a button to buy direct from the author on sales page.]
- Try some wild cards and maybe the lightning will strike. I'm always looking for ways to get my ideas into new markets. I'd definitely consider a traditional publishing deal if the right opportunity came along. I'm writing a screenplay. I'm working with an Indian company to get Destroyer of Worlds into Bollywood. I have a book I want to write and pitch for gaming companies. I'm dipping my toes into VR … we live in such exciting times!
OK, I hope you found that interesting or perhaps even useful for your own author journey. If you share your sales figures on your site, no matter how big or how small, then please do link it in the comments. Or you're welcome to leave a question or a comment below.
Adam Alexander Haviaras says
Congratulations on your success, Joanna! As ever, you’re an inspiration to all of us. I know I would not be as far along on this exciting journey were it not for your example and daring. Thanks for keeping it real!
Joanna Penn says
Not sure about daring 🙂 but thanks, Adam!
It sounds like you’ve had an epic year! Congratulations, it’s really great to see that it is possible to make a good living from writing. I hope to get there one day! My first book is going to a second edition and I’ve just finished my first fiction book. I’m slowly getting there… Don’t think I’d manage to write as much as you do in a year though!
Jessica Rachelle Greene says
Congrats on your accomplishment! Thanks for the information, too. I always find income breakdowns interesting!
Penny Taylor says
You seem to have such a boundless amount of energy. Are you sure you haven’t been cloned and your other selves are doing part of all this work? Congratulations on success well deserved. You are a fresh, hopeful beacon of light at the end of dark writing tunnels where before we only saw trains.
Donna Cook says
Thanks for sharing this information with us. It’s encouraging! I’m wondering what you use to track this data? I have an Excel spreadsheet set up to track mine but sometimes wonder if there’s a better way. 🙂
I’d like to know the same thing!
Joanna Penn says
I use Trackerbox – which is PC only. All the tools I use are on this post: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2016/07/27/behind-the-scenes-tools/
Donna Cook says
Thanks so much! You just saved me loads of time, since I now have three author names to track (mine and a pen name, plus an author I’ve brought in under my publishing house). Very helpful!
Tim Moon says
Fantastic information, Joanna! Thank you for sharing and giving us all hope of creating a successful career.
Last time, you included a breakdown of books vs. other income streams (speaking, affiliate, etc.). I’m curious if books still comprise 50% of revenue? Or has that grown?
Also, do you plan to do any merchandising or other things to build out from your fiction? Between 99Designs and sites like TeeSpring, it’d be very low cost for you to do limited edition t-shirts. For example, a popular quote from your podcast or a reader shirt w/ the key to the Gates of Hell, or a short graphic novel series, things like that.
Joanna Penn says
Hi Tim, Thanks for the question. Book sales are around one third of my revenue now. I am considering merchandise and am currently looking at Society6.com. Once I test some of the products, I’ll be talking about that on the blog 🙂 Thanks for the suggestion.
Dean Kutzler says
Simply amazing sales! Kudos, Joanna! I cannot think of a more deserving author!! 😀
Edmund Pickett says
I’ve been a dedicated reader of your blog for about four years and thanks very much for your generous help to all indies. But I’ve never read one of your novels and don’t plan to. Why? Because I’m allergic to the word “supernatural.” I will promise you, however, if you ever write a novel that has no supernatural elements to it, I’ll buy it gladly. Just a suggestion for another way that you could expand your readership. Also, in the above post you mention several times that you have had no breakout best sellers and then you always seem to explain this by saying “I write cross-genre.” That sounds defensive. If you think that is the real reason, and yet you would like to have a breakout best seller, then test that hypothesis. Write a novel that is not cross-genre. I think your skills could please a very wide audience but you have self-limited yourself to a very narrow niche. Thanks again for your very valuable services to indie authors everywhere.
Joanna Penn says
I don’t write to market. I write what my muse is interested in. I love supernatural thrillers as a reader, and it’s what I want to write. I know it’s a smaller genre, but that’s fine with me. I use the “no breakout” example because many people think you need to have a breakout book to make a living, but you don’t. I appreciate that you and 99.9999% of readers will never read one of my thrillers – but again, that’s fine, because I hope you will enjoy other author’s books and also write the books that YOU want to read. We live in a world of abundance where we can all find the stories we love.
I love what you replied here, as this is my motivation to write. I worried that this was a ridiculous reason, but bottom line is I want to write stories that I’d love to read for my own enjoyment, and wouldn’t it be amazing if I could make a little pocket change while doing it! I just discovered your website today in fact, and am thrilled with all of the advice, plus the links to other fellow authors and informative sites, not to mention the recs for software tools etc. You are an incredible inspiration, thank you!!!
its posts like this Joanna that make you the MASTER teacher and endear you to your followers and loyal readers! All success is what you deserve. Thanks for another quality lesson!
Joanna Penn says
Thank you 🙂 I’ll be posting another years figures in a few months 🙂
Beth Scott says
Joanna, I just want to thank you again. I’m currently a copywriter – still a writer, but very different to what I eventually want to do! Gotta pay the bills, sadly, and copywriting allows me to earn while I finish my novel.
I check in with your blog regularly and it really helps to keep the dream alive – seeing you experience this level of success, obviously loving what you do, and seeing the REAL NUMBERS behind it all, is so inspiring.
Your posts just make publishing a real, tangible step forward for me, instead of just something I’ll do ‘one day’. I know that when I finally self-publish this thing, I’ll owe you a debt of gratitude.
So stay awesome, and thank you! <3
Joanna Penn says
I’m glad you find the info useful 🙂 Happy writing!
Neil Stevens says
Hello, I am doing a critical analysis for my Writing for publication module in southwales uni, do you know how I can find out the gross sales per genre for books per year? thank you.
Joanna Penn says
There’s no way to find that. Each publisher would have their own figure, and Amazon doesn’t release granular figures like that. You can get some rough estimates if you google various reports – try AuthorEarnings.com for a specific snapshot indicating romance might be 40% or more of the US ebook market.
Wow. I never knew writing can fetch these figures.
La Wanda Hadnott says
I am brand brand new to this, however I am confident in my writing abilities which I’ll admit definitely helps in not immediately becoming way overwhelmed & diving onto my bed and pulling the covers over my head.
I suppose it’s possible to just do the writing & hire someone else to do THE REST right?? Thank you so so much for the huge amount of knowledge you have provided here.
I’m a pretty good writer but starting the process makes me nervous. What is step 1?
Joanna Penn says
Yes, you can write and hire someone to do the rest — that’s pretty much traditional publishing! Get and agent and a publisher and they will do it for you, in exchange for a percentage of your royalty.
If you want to publish yourself, you can find steps in my free ebook https://www.thecreativepenn.com/successfulselfpublishing/
All the best.