Author Earnings: Springtime for UK indie ebooks

Author Earnings: Springtime for UK indie ebooks

Welcome to the UK, Author Earnings

Unlike the US, where collective indie ebook earnings long ago surpassed that of all Big Five authors combined, in the UK indie-published authors and Big Five published authors are still earning neck [and] neck. 

As we gather this morning (4th December) to open the fifth annual FutureBook Conference here in London, a new Author Earnings report from the author Hugh Howey's technologist associate "Data Guy" acknowledges the UK as "the world's second largest market (after the US) for digital books," based on figures from the International Publishers Association (IPA). 

He is called Data Guy because, he tells us, he is an author who fears there could be industry repercussions if his identity were known. Now with an "appearance" scheduled for the industry-facing Digital Book World conference in March, that cloak of invisibility, embroidered with his use of a spider image (see right) may begin to look more like shtick than stealth. But he or she remains, when in contact, a convivial person, always responsive and pleasant to work with.

I'm especially pleased to find that this report seems to have been written without so much of the us-vs.-them negativity that coloured a recent US entry at Author Earnings.

Taking the IPA's figures as a basis for international rankings in ebooks seems curious, in a way, for Author Earnings, which normally mistrusts most numbers that the publishing establishment might disseminate about itself. (And if you've paid attention to reports of China's ebook retail interests, it's hard not to wonder whether that country's ebook market may not be larger than the IPA suspects.)

Nevertheless, the next assertion seems a no-brainer: "Amazon.co.uk is the second largest retailer of English-language ebooks in the world." 

It's good to see the Author Earnings formulation applied to Amazon.co.uk. This is something we asked Mssrs. Howey and Guy more than a year ago to consider doing. Until now, the Author Earnings effort (begun in February 2014) has remained focused on US-based stats. 

As the author and commentator Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes in response to this report, "I do hope that Hugh [Howey] and Data Guy will eventually look at all of the retailers servicing the UK market—and maybe even the Eurozone—to get a bigger snapshot of the world market."

And there are important caveats here.

For example, the Author Earnings approach is a comparative model that uses what the "spider" can see of sales-page records and what working authors report to be their experience of earnings. It's a methodology that's not universally welcomed. Many detractors are particularly sceptical of its sales-page data-"scraping" and one-day snapshots, which are extrapolated over time. 

What's more, the intent of the Author Earnings project is important to bear in mind. The goal of these reports is to demonstrate to authors that self-publishing might offer earnings that rival or surpass those of traditional publishing. Presenting indie publishing as a viable option is the interest here. And the inexorable march of indie ebook gains sketched by these reports' results seems to be always quite close to what their producers would like to see. That does not mean that they're wrong or incorrect, nor dishonest. But it does mean that Author Earnings does not seem to encounter significant dips or setbacks for indie ebooks. Things just keep getting better, according to these reports.

Nevertheless, fans point out that unlike info-gathering programmes that are dependent on ISBNs or on sales reports from booksellers and/or publishers, the Author Earnings effort spots its own version of core data for itself on the pages of online retailers. That much seems true, whether or not one may have reservations about the interpretations of that data. 

In terms of what the new report announces, here are some highlights.

Market and unit share by publisher

"Compared to our recent look at Amazon.com in the US, the distribution of publisher types is almost identical—it’s so close that we almost couldn’t tell them apart. The breakdown of best seller slots held by every type of publisher lies within 1 to 2 percent of what we saw for that type of publisher in the US."

While it's interesting to see that there's such a close parallel between ebook sales among major houses, Amazon, small or medium publishers, and indies, etc., Data Guy steps quickly on to look at where the unit sales lie, writing:

"Here, we see our first significant difference between the UK and the US markets. Ebooks by indie authors make up more than 26 percent of all ebooks sold on Amazon.co.uk. But even so, the indie share of all books sold on Amazon.co.uk is far smaller than in the US, where indies sell well over 38 percent of the ebooks sold on Amazon.com."

Here's an interesting observation:

Although the UK ebook market is less than a fifth of the size of the US market in unit sales or revenue terms—Amazon.co.uk still sells more ebooks than any of the non-Amazon US retailers do in the US.

If you accept the figures that Data Guy is using, then this is an impressive description of Amazon UK's dominance.

And along the way, some more proposed conclusions:

  • Kindle Unlimited, the Amazon ebook subscription service, accounts for 66 percent of bestselling independent books at Amazon.co.uk, Data Guy writes, while in the states, it's 68 percent. 
  • Small and medium-size publishers in the UK, make up some 25 percent of unit sales, only 19 percent in the US. 

​Big Five titles, Data Guy writes, account for more unit sales in the UK than in the US—31 percent in the UK vs. 26 percent in the US.

  • In the UK, Big Five ebooks on average sell for prices that are only 50 percent more than small or medium publishers' UK ebooks, and just slightly over double what UK indie ebooks are selling for.
  • In the US, under the new agency contracts, the Big Five publishers are pricing their ebooks far higher...than they are actually able to sell them for in the UK—fully twice the average selling price of US small or medium publisher ebooks, and almost four times what US indie authors are charging.

ISBNs across the water

"Just over 25 percent of the ebooks sold each day through Amazon.co.uk lack ISBN identifiers." writes Data Guy. "Again, significantly less than the 37 percent we see in the US. But still, indicative that the number of ebooks sold in the UK is at least one-third-again larger than traditional, ISBN-based statistics are measuring."

Endlessly contentious, the question of independent authors' ebooks being produced, frequently, without ISBNs is certainly real and considered crippling to many traditional efforts to quantify a market. 

What Data Guy thinks he is seeing in the UK is this:

One out of every four ebooks purchased by UK consumers is an untracked ebook without an ISBN—and nearly £1 out of every £6 spent in the UK on ebooks is currently going to untracked ebooks without ISBNs.

Author Earnings at Amazon.co.uk

Repeating the quote from our lead, this is where we seem to see the most useful suggestion in the new report:

"Unlike the US, where collective indie ebook earnings long ago surpassed that of all Big Five authors combined"—according to his studies, of course—Data Guy writes that "in the UK indie-published authors and Big Five published authors are still earning neck [and] neck."

He goes on to allow, "As this is our first look at the UK market, it remains to be seen which direction this is trending over time."  

But Data Guy feels confident in terming "indie sales on Amazon.co.uk" to be "healthy indeed."

And yes, indie bestsellers do better internationally, too

Data Guy reserves his loudest drum roll for a finding that of the 100 top ebook bestsellers at les deux Amazons, independent ebooks—quelle surprise!—did better than traditionally published ebooks. That is to say that indie bestsellers, in this estimation, have a better chance of being bestsellers in both markets than do traditionally published bestsellers. 

To his credit, Data Guy does talk of testing this out several ways. For example, he tried it going from the US to the UK, instead of the other direction. And guess what: "Indie US bestsellers were far more likely to also be UK bestsellers as their traditionally-published counterparts, and nearly twice as likely as their best selling Big Five-published ebook peers." 

The chart you see here offers one treatment in which, Data Guy writes, "Let’s limit our scope...to only the overall UK Top 1,000—or ebooks that are selling at least 15 to 20 copies a day in the UK alone...More than 75 percent of indies selling in the overall UK Top 1,000 also appear in the US Top 1,000, compared to fewer than 25 percent of the Top 1,000 Big Five titles."

And here is a line that's both gracious and predictable for these reports:

We’re not quite sure what to make of this—it seems to fly in the face of one oft-repeated argument for going with a traditional publisher: that publishing traditionally gives an author better access to international sales.

Well, actually, pretty much everything that Author Earnings looks at "seems to fly in the face of one oft-repeated argument  [or another] for going with a traditional publisher." And that's the way these guys roll. 

Golly, gee, they've done it again, huh? It's a bit like hearing something in a language you can't translate for yourself, isn't it? Got your own spider? Me either. We're dependent on that translator.

Time for an independent review?

We end, as in so many of these always-interesting Author Earnings reports, basically scratching our heads because both the data and the interpretation are in the same hands.  

Is it possible to consider having an independent review at some point? Perhaps if Data Guy and Howey were interested in this, they could engage the services of—ready?—a unit of Nielsen or Forrester or another outfit knowledgeable in the ways of data collection and review but without a horse in the race. 

From the beginning, Author Earnings has been most welcome as a new line of harmony and/or dissonance on the analytical scene. But also from the beginning, there's been no way for those who have neither the time nor expertise to really study the process here, try replicating the data, independently interpret the result. 

Perhaps an expert and non-affiliated report could be helpful. 

This is not to diminish, by the way, the time and expense to which Howey and Data Guy already have gone, entirely on their own as far as I know. Let me invite them to spend even more of their resources, right? 

But coming up on two years and now with this potentially useful expansion to the UK market, is it time to look for some new level of accreditation? Much of what's here sounds fairly logical in terms of comparisons between US and UK markets, frankly. But once we're off into transatlantic success being likelier for an indie bestseller than a traditionally published bestseller, we remember that it all lies on Data Guy's screens and in his interpretive purview.

And, truth be told, the agenda is, quite plainly, there, isn't it? Yes, it is. 

In the final lines of the report, the orchestra swells up and those bluebirds of self-published happiness are on the wing once more, as the report waltzes us out into sunny pastures of Our Indie Future when we'll gather lilacs in the spring again: 

Sweeping change in the publishing industry...a global phenomenon...What once might have been true about publishing, no longer is...[Cue the choir:] While no one knows what tomorrow will bring, we believe that for authors the current trends are extremely positive...The future of global literature is very bright...today more authors are able to reach readers and earn a living selling their art than ever before...It's hard to see much downside... 

What can you say?

One word: Maybe.

Main image - iStockphoto: CaronB - Shrewsbury, UK, the Dingle formal gardens at Quarry Park, Shropshire
Charts - Author Earnings, November 2015 report