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July 28, 2014
By Betty Kelly Sargent
Some statistics from two recent self-publishing surveys are starting to shake up conventional wisdom about indie authors -- at least a little.

Statistics are funny things.  Sometimes they teach us a lot, sometimes they are confusing, and sometimes they are intentionally misleading, but some of the statistics from two recent self-publishing surveys are starting to shake up the conventional wisdom about indie authors -- at least a little. The first survey is actually the third quarterly Author Earnings report, compiled by bestselling indie author Hugh Howey to “gather and share information so that writers can make informed decisions.” The report comes to the conclusion that “the indie movement in literature is not a blip and not a gold rush.” It is definitely here to stay.

The Author Earnings report takes its data from 7,000 top selling digital genre titles on Amazon's category bestseller lists. It found that:

  • The Big Five traditional publishers now account for only 16% of the e-books on Amazon’s bestseller lists. 
  • DRM (digital rights management) “harms e-book sales at any price point.”
  • Self-published books now represent 31% of e-book sales on Amazon’s Kindle Store.
  • Indie authors are earning nearly 40% of the e-book dollars going to authors.
  • Self-published authors are “dominating traditionally published authors” in sci-fi/fantasy, mystery/thriller, and romance genres but -- and here is the surprise -- they are also taking “significant market share in all genres.”

Not so surprising is the finding that the sale of literary fiction is fairly weak. This, the report says, is because literary fiction is “an anemic segment of publishing overall.” (Note: this study does not reflect sales of print books.)

The report recognizes that though the upward trend in sales in indie titles for the last three quarters may slow down or even reverse during the upcoming holiday season, what is clear is that strong indie sales will continue and indie books are now a significant and permanent part of the book publishing landscape.

The second survey is from Mark Coker founder of e-book distributor Smashwords. He has also come up with some surprising findings.  For example, what would you guess the sweet spot for e-book pricing is?  Just last year it seemed that 99 cents was the magic number and that giving away free books, at least for awhile, was almost guaranteed to jump start future sales. Not so anymore. At least not in the way it used to be.

In his 2014 Survey, Coker took a look at the aggregated retail and library sales data of Smashwords books. Its catalog offers over 250,000 titles from over 70,000 authors and publishers. He examined $25 million in customer purchases through retailers including Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, the Smashwords online store, Sony (now closed), Diesel (now closed), Oyster, Scribd, Kobo, and public libraries.  Notice that Amazon is not part of this list.

Here are some of the key findings from the 2014 survey:

  • $2.99 and $3.99 are currently the pricing sweet spots for most e-book bestsellers. In general, authors who price their books modestly earn more than those whose average price is higher, but 99 cents is “no longer the path to riches.”
  • Readers prefer longer e-books. In fact, bestselling books tend to be over 100,000 words. This came as a big surprise to us.
  • Series books outsell standalone books -- but series books under 50,000 words are at a sales disadvantage.
  • Free still works as a marketing tool, especially when an author offers the first book in a series for free, but it is much less effective than before -- primarily because so many authors are taking advantage of it.
  • Pre-orders give authors a sales advantage. “I think pre-orders today are where free was five years ago,” says Coker. “The first authors to effectively utilize pre-orders will gain the most advantage, just as the first authors to enter new distribution channels gain the most advantage,” he says.
  • Non-fiction earns more at higher prices. This was a real shocker for us.  Non-fiction buyers are less price sensitive,” says Coker. “It appears as if most non-fiction authors are underpricing their works, and they should experiment with higher prices,” he says.

Coker is quick to point out that this analysis is based on his own interpretation of the findings, and should only be used to provide authors with possible clues to help them make informed decisions about how to market their own unique books.

Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of