SFFMP 44: How Many Books Does It Take to Make a Living as an Author with Amelia Smith

On this week’s show, we chatted with fantasy author Amelia Smith about a bunch of data that she crunched based on the Author Earnings Survey over at Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings Report website. The survey and the raw data have been online for a while, but nobody seemed to have tackled putting it together into useful information until Amelia came along. We asked her a bunch of questions about what she found in regard to author income, books on sale, and whether indie or trad publishing is more likely to get a person to a living wage (which she defined as the U.S. average of $32,000 a year).

Here’s some of what we covered:

  • What is the Author Earnings site and where does this survey come in?
  • Who responded (indie, trad published, hybrid, small press, etc.) and how many authors were interviewed?
  • How many books do people have out on average before they reach that living wage?
  • As Amelia says in her analysis, “The majority of authors will never make a living at this, but chances increase both with number of books written and with years in the game. They get as good as 50/50.”
  • Were authors of certain genres more likely to make a living than others (not surprisingly, lots of romance authors of all kinds are doing well, and very few short story, poetry, memoir, etc. folks are making significant money)?
  • What was the common theme with the failure stories (authors with a lot of books out but a low income)?
  • Did it matter what year people started publishing in, or could they put out a lot of books in their first year and get to that living wage quickly?
  • Were slower writers penalized because of the 30/90-cliff and the way the Amazon algorithms work?
  • Were small presses helpful or were most indie authors better off on their own?
  • Amelia’s own experience with Netgalley (she mentioned the Patchwork Press Co-Op as a way to buy into Netgalley, a big company that assists with getting book reviews, for less than an individual membership)

Check out Amelia’s first epic fantasy book for free through the end of September, and visit her website for updates on other projects.

Read the results of the survey and see her graphs over at An Analysis of the Author Earnings Survey Data.


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  • You had a question about recent, quick success that I failed to answer in the podcast. I took the survey respondents who said they’d first published in 2014 and 2015 and sorted them by income.

    Among the 13 (out of 125 total) of them reporting incomes of $30,000 or more, 7 listed 2 or more trad published titles… so I’m thinking maybe they didn’t understand the question as I did. The remaining 6 self-published authors who were doing well right out of the gate had the following numbers of titles; 2, 2, 3, 9, 10, and 120 (that’s what he/she said, anyway). So some are managing to hit it just right with their first releases, while two just put out a lot of books fast. I don’t know what’s going on with the guy/gal who is putting out 2 titles a week.

    So while early success can happen, it’s rare and doesn’t follow a formula I can find in these charts. The other 6 authors in this group who’d published 9-10 titles in the past year had incomes ranging from $0 (3 of them) up to $3000, better odds than those with just 1 or 2 titles, but still not a lot.

    • SFFpodcast

      Thanks for the additional information, Amelia! 120 books, huh? Someone’s an overachiever. 😀

  • This was a very interesting podcast (and I’d read Amelia’s blog post beforehand in any case). Despite the stats, I found it encouraging!

    I did just want to say that with this kind of data based on self-reported surveys, you know, it can give a very unrepresentative snapshot of what’s really happening out there. Not only in terms of the math, but the reliability of the reports (the guy publishing 120 books a minute or whatever it is).

    Still, I think as food for thought, it remains an interesting project and it would be even more interesting to do some kind of analysis taking into account the data over the course of several years to see if there are any reliable trends.

    One thing that is perhaps worth taking away is that the sales hierarchy in Indie publishing precisely mirrors that in Traditional publishing. So, in both worlds Romance is the top seller, followed by SF and Fantasy and everything else jostles for place after that – with poetry, memoir and short story always struggling to find a stall at the market.

    One major difference that has come out of my own research is that MG/YA is a massive market for the traditional publishers and a far harder sell for indies focussing on the ebook market. On the other hand, Lindsay’s books, for example, appeal to a very broad age category, from teens through to gray-beards such as me. I guess it’s worth bearing in mind that YA isn’t a genre, it’s an age group and so it’s not so easy to see what’s going on there.

    I’m just finalising my business plan to start up a self-publishing business as an ‘authorpreneur’ as well as running my current business as a freelance copywriter. My aim is, when I’ve enough good books out there selling well, to tip the balance so far that I can give up copywriting forever – yes, please!

    At the same time there are certain books which I think would be a hard sell as an indie and might actually have a better chance via a traditional route. So, my current plan involves being some kind of hybrid.

    Any way, thanks guys for all your work and input. The stuff you share so openly is enormously useful and encouraging. An inspiration.

    • SFFpodcast

      Thanks for listening, Austin! There’s definitely going to be a certain audience (probably a more self-pub savvy one) that pays attention to Kboards and sees these kinds of surveys posted.

      Yes, I’ve run into some people who can do well with a YA series (especially if it has crossover appeal for adults), but MG/YA does seem to rely on paperback purchases and bookstore placement a lot more.

      I think you can get a lot out of a hybrid model in just about any genre. Self publish some stuff for the higher earnings, but then have more visibility among organizations, libraries, bookstores, etc. because of the traditionally published stuff. Of course, it can be tough to get those trad deals!