Wednesday, June 21, 2017

$100K Authors

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Written Word Media recently published a survey titled "What Makes a $100k Author?"

You can read the write-up here.

They shared 8 major conclusions:

1- The vast majority of  authors earning $100k per year or more have been writing for more than three years.

88% of the $100k authors have been at this for over three years. No surprise here. It takes time to build a catalog and and audience. This shouldn't be construed as a negative; only that patience is often required.

While I technically started self-publishing in 2004, the first several years were paperback-only, and then paperback plus Kindle in its nascence. If you include the first year Kindle was open to indie publishers, I was in my fourth year when I had my first $100k year. I was working full-time and busy with family and graduate school at the time, so it's doable even if you have a day job.

2- The majority of $100k authors responding to the survey were indie authors.

72% were pure indie, 28% were hybrid, although the numbers are skewed by the fact that almost all the respondents to the survey were pure indie. None of the traditionally published authors who responded to the survey earned $100k last year.

Struggling writers often like to dismiss the accomplishments of successful hybrids by saying, "You springboarded off your trad-pub career." These results demonstrate that pure indie is a viable path to publication.

3. The Wide vs Exclusive debate continues

Survey data indicates that 64% of 100k authors were in KDP Select, and the other 36% were "wide." This would seem to indicate that Select is the more viable path, but it's difficult to draw that conclusion without knowing other factors. For example, some genres perform much better  than others in Select. What we can say is that both are viable avenues to success, and KDP Select performed well for many authors in 2016.

4. $100k authors pay for cover art, but they don't pay through the nose

42% of authors earning less than $100k spent between $0 and $50 per book cover.
88% of $100k authors pay more than $50 per book cover
68% of $100k authors pay $250 or less for a book cover.
Only 20% of $100k authors paid more than $500 for a book cover and none spent over $1,000.

Some of this is chicken-and-egg. As an author earns more from publishing (s)he can afford better cover art. That said, I recommend at minimum budgeting for affordable, pre-made covers.

5. $100k authors use professional editors, but they don't pay as much as you might think

96% of $100k authors paid for professional editing.
44% of lower earning authors paid nothing for editing.
52% of $100k authors paid between $250 and $500 for editorial services and 68% spent $500 or less.
Only 12% of $100k authors paid $1,000 or more for editorial services.

These data points ruffled a lot of feathers among editors and elicited a variety of angry and or condescending comments. A few thoughts:

All authors don't need the same sorts of editorial support. Depending on the skills you're bringing to the table, your knowledge and experience, and the expectations of your readership, you might not need things like developmental edition. If you write clean and really know the rules, you might not need several rounds of proofing.  I've corresponded with and seen early drafts from successful trad-pub authors who have great ideas, tell fairly good stories, write engaging characters, but absolutely need that kind of support. They leave plot threads hanging, have continuity errors, are clueless about spelling, grammar, and usage. It all depends on what you need.

The average reader in most mainstream genres is looking for a clean, entertaining read with engaging characters. Most will forgive a few errors. Many won't even recognize most errors. (And an annoying few will complain about errors that aren't actually errors.) That's not to say you shouldn't try to make your book the best it can be, but you can enjoy commercial success without paying through the nose for the most expensive editing options.

6. $100k authors handle their own marketing, and use paid techniques

59% of $100k authors purchased paid advertising from Facebook, Amazon, and discount newsletters, as did 45% of lower earning authors. 
Lower-earning authors made 50% more in-person appearances/promotions/signings than did $100k authors.
Lower-earning authors made greater use of book giveaways than did $100k authors.

While the article did not specify, I think it's fair to assume that, while the percentages of authors using paid advertising are not substantially different, the dollars spent are likely skewed heavily in the direction of $100k authors.

It's interesting to me that two strategies I've found ineffective for generating sales (in-person appearances and book giveaways) are favored more by lower-earning authors. 

7.  A surprising number of $100k authors still have a day job

20% of $100k authors reported having a day job to help support their writing.

Earning $100k from writing isn't all it's cracked up to be. Taxes are a killer. You have no health insurance. Those two factors alone take a large chunk out of your income. If you're paying for cover art, editing, and advertising, that's a consideration as well.

There are, of course, other reasons to keep a day job. Some people enjoy their job and don't want to quit. Others like the security of a steady paycheck, given the uncertainty of publishing as a vocation. Some people don't like the solitary nature of the writing life, and enjoy having a job to go to. The findings illustrate that you can have both a job and a successful writing career if you wish.

8. The more hours you spend writing, the more successful you will be.

$100k authors spend 46% more time writing than lower income writers, yet they devote an almost identical amount of time to marketing (12 hours a week compared to 10.)

The average $100k authors has 33 books published, compared to 7 for lower earning authors.

-This probably doesn't need explanation. More books=more products for sale=more income. 
-An author needs to earn a little less than $274 a day to make $100k. That's a lot more attainable with 33 books than it is with 7.
-Before you freak out and wonder "How am I going to earn $275 a day?" remember- your new releases will have substantial sales at launch, meaning your back-catalog doesn't need to earn nearly that much a day, especially if you are publishing regularly.
-Remember that $275 figure includes all formats: ebook, audio, paperback.
-The article doesn't specify, but based on my observations, it's likely that the $100k authors with 33 or more titles are writing a lot of novellas and short novels. They aren't cranking out 30+ epic fantasies.

In summary:

I'm a big believe in patience and determination. It might take time to achieve commercial success, but you can do it. And, you can do it without breaking the bank. Don't be discouraged by those who will tell you that you have to spend thousands on cover and editing for your first book or subsequent books. Depending on your strengths, skills, and resources, you can work within a budget and improve your product as you go. Keep writing, and keep striving to improve.

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