On my way home from the Romance Writers of America National Conference in San Antonio, Texas, I met a fellow writer in the airport. She was so dazzled by the success stories spotlighted at the conference, the growing number of indie and hybrid romance authors who reported earning substantial and even impressive income from their writing by taking advantage of self-publishing. After attending workshops with titles like “How to Make Six Figures Quietly as an Indie Author,” she was ready to jump in with both feet and try her luck. She planned to quit her day job to focus on her writing, even though she had not yet completed a manuscript. My stomach sank as I considered her prospects and the incredible risk she was taking based on the undeniable success of several select authors. Had she been given false hope, or were her chances as good as the hype suggested?
The news is full of exciting stories about bestselling indie authors, and romance certainly has the largest share of indie stars, many of them like Bella Andre and Barbara Freethy, who count among the first and biggest indie successes. Yet, surveys in the US and England both suggest that these successes are relatively rare and that few authors are making a living, let alone a lot of money from their books.
Some indie advocates contend that the survey samples have simply missed the flood of people earning cash from the indie gold rush. Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive data source on the publishing industry that captures sales or revenue or even that illuminates how big the population of authors truly is. The data that do exist are proprietary and cover different pockets of the market, for example, sales by particular publishers or retailers. As a result, we don’t know how the majority of indie authors are faring in this market. Moreover, even knowing how much a publishing house is making might not translate into information on how much money individual authors receive. Perhaps the case is more optimistic than I suspect. However, there’s strong reason to believe that there aren’t as many indie—or even traditionally published—authors earning substantial income as we might hope. Let’s consider a few additional sources of data.
According to Bowker’s Books in Print, a catalog of all books with ISBN numbers that were published for sale in North America, the number of books published every year has grown exponentially in the last decade. (Note that not all self-published books use ISBN numbers, and so these number might underestimate the number of books available.) Not having to go through a publishing gatekeeper has opened the door for many authors who would have previously been barred from entering the market, but these indie authors are not the only contributors to the flood of books. While reprint publishers have been the biggest contributors by introducing hundreds of thousands of recycled works to the market, traditional publishers have also contributed as many, if not more, books than indie authors.
It might go without saying, although the point has been lost in much of the “Author Wars” conversation, that in order for all of these books to turn a profit for authors or publishers, consumers actually have to buy them. The royalty split between authors, publishers, and retailers is moot if there is no sale to split.
So who is buying all of these books that are supposedly paying the bills and replacing the day jobs of the new authorpreneurs? Has there been a surge in spending by consumers, their money supplying the gold for this gold rush? Or perhaps, given the lower prices of ebooks particularly those by indie authors, there’s been an increase in the number of books consumers are buying and reading, such that there’s a spreading of the possibly increasing wealth to include a greater number of authors? There’s no evidence of either trend.
In the Consumer Expenditure Survey, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks the amount of money American households spend on various items, including reading. Under their definition, expenditures for reading include magazines and newspapers as well as books. The average amount spent per household was $145 in 2012. The trend in expenditures has remained relatively flat, fluctuating within the same $32 range since 2005, well before the digital explosion.
Other data provide a similar set of findings. The Pew Research Internet Project, which used a nationally representative sample of American adults, reported that in 2013 the median number of books read, but not necessarily purchased, in a year was 5. The mean was 12 per year. The project also reported that neither number was significantly different from previous years.
Consider the findings from yet another source. Since January 2009, before the digital and indie boom, the PubTrack Consumer Survey conducted by Bowker and now Nielsen has been asking panels of American bookbuyers about the books they have purchased in the last month. My analysis of those surveys suggest that the median number of books purchased by each respondent in their adult sample in 2013 was 2 a month, with a mean of 5 per month. Like the Pew Research Internet Project results, this pattern also has not changed significantly compared to previous years.
Together these data suggest there has not been a substantial change in the number of books Americans buy or read or in the amount they are spending. At one extreme, if demand were spread out evenly across the population of books, each book would at best sell a few copies. At the other extreme, a few books would be blockbuster best sellers that would capture most purchases, contributing to high earnings for those lucky authors.
While the number of books available grows every day, there is no evidence that demand for books is increasing at a similar pace, let alone in a way that would support the writing careers of the multitude of authors, or even a majority of them, even if e-books and indie publishing increase the share of sales that individual authors receive.
Authors and publishers face an oversupplied market and a steady level of reader interest and spending. Currently, it would seem there’s not enough money to feed everyone. If the pie is really only so big, then the key question going forward is, who gets a seat at the table, and how big is her spoon?