It’s All About the Data… and boy, do we have data!

Liz Bemis and Jenn Stark are delighted to report that the 2015 Author Experience Survey (AES), which we hope to become an annual event, was a great success! As we mentioned in our introductory post, we’d hoped to get 100 responses to feel like we had a reasonable sample of authors. We almost doubled that number!

In this article, we’ll summarize the respondent set, then highlight the top five findings from our initial review. Want to know more than the top five findings? See below!

Respondent Pool

The AES drew a balanced mix of authors, with the vast majority completing all applicable questions (even though there were 74!). But certain trends prevailed among the 196 respondents.

Among authors surveyed, nearly half (48%) had published between 2-5 novels, with another 20% having published between 6-10 novels.

Surprisingly, though, 69% of respondents had only published 1 novella or less—with the majority (44%) of respondents indicating that they’d never published a novella.

The survey drew the more-recently published as well, with the majority of respondents indicating their publishing journey started in 2009 or later.

Traditional (35%), Indie-only (31%) and Hybrid authors (34%) were all pretty evenly represented.

Genres were highly diverse, with the top three genres represented Contemporary Romance (42%), Young Adult (29%) and Historical (24%). Bearing in mind that many authors publish in several genres, it was still clear that Contemporary Romance is a key focus for our respondent pool.

Top 5 First-Glance Takeaways

 1) The majority of us aren’t making a ton of money – but enough are to make it worth the hunt

Earnings were all over the map, but we can break it down across our three respondent types. Note that Indie includes those who indicated they were formerly Traditional, but now are totally Indie.

We’ve arbitrarily established four categories, below, which include the top and bottom of the range:

Reported Earnings $0-$1k $10k-$50k $100k-$250k More than $250k
Indie 36% 27% 8% 2%
Hybrid 26% 23% 5% 6%
Traditional 19% 35% 3% 2%

Across all author types, 70% reported gross earnings of $20k or less. Then again, 8% reported earnings of $100k or more.

2) Promotion is critical… and there’s no consensus on what works

Respondents have tried virtually every type of promotion, but a few notable methods stand out. Facebook (95%) and Twitter (91%) top the most used methods, followed by blog tours (57%), leveraging friends to promote on social media (54%) and Goodreads giveaways (53%).

Although it (erroneously) wasn’t included in the dropdown list: Newsletter promotions was the #1 write-in answer.

But as to what seems to work, authors aren’t just divided, they’re at a loss. Answers varied from “it’s a total crap shoot” to “none of it works, but you have to try” to “it’s constantly changing—what worked a year ago isn’t working now.” Perhaps our favorite comment: “Start early and assume whatever you’re doing won’t work. Be happily surprised when it does.”

In the midst of all of this, however, there were some positive trends. Book Bub was mentioned several times as a paid advertisement worth the cost. Taking the approach of a slow build is better for most authors – that visibility takes time. And, this was one area where taking on a promotional assistant is worth the extra money.

3) Support can be beautiful, if it’s managed correctly

 Street Teams/Reader Teams

The vast majority (81%) of authors don’t currently use a street team or reader team, but those that do use them to generate advance buzz and reviews on Goodreads or retail sites. That said, those who have used a street team remain challenged on how to track the efforts of those teams, both to ensure they’re doing what they promise and to reward them for their loyalty.

Personal Assistants

Interest in securing an assistant is fairly high among authors as well, with 18% of respondents already working with an assistant, and another 30% indicating they want to seek an assistant out.

For those who do have an assistant, nearly 70% utilize the services of a virtual assistant vs. a local one. Tasks for assistants run the gamut, but the most popular include content uploading (62%), contest coordination (58%), marketing strategy (55%), support for mailings (52%), and graphics/design work (52%).

And this help doesn’t come at a premium! The majority (64%) of respondents with assistants paid those assistants between $11-$20/hour, and used them less than 10 hours a week (67%).

What would make an assistant even more valuable? Training. Speaking of…

Authors want to learn more, more, more

Whether for themselves or their assistants, survey respondents were keen to sharpen skills in a variety of areas. In today’s fast-paced market, it can be more difficult to find the information/training/mentoring that many authors received from fellow authors at the dawn of the indie publishing movement. That hasn’t stopped the need for such training though. Top needs?

  • Advanced marketing and promotions (67%)
  • Book positioning (metadata, blurb writing, etc.) (54%)
  • Social media (49%)
  • Time management and productivity (44%)
  • And what was the most indicated “need” for authors? Time Management, followed by Marketing/Promotional mastery.

4) And the secret of selling more books is…

This was perhaps our favorite question of the survey, and we broke it out between traditionally-published and Indie-published authors.

For Traditionally-published authors, the top five ranked “secrets” of selling well are…

  1. Producing new books consistently, at least one a year
  2. Getting a big enough deal that your publisher is committed to promoting you
  3. Strong presence of your books in book stores
  4. Active social media presence
  5. Advertising (print or online)

For Indie authors, the top five ranked “secrets” of selling well are…

  1. Producing new, high-quality books consistently (55% say authors should have 2-3 releases/year, 32% say the number of releases should be 4-6)
  2. Active social media presence
  3. Advertising (print or online)
  4. Buy-site reviews
  5. Goodreads reviews

RE: Buy-site reviews… With Netgalley holding sway as the most predominant reader review service out there, and its prevalent use by readers who post primarily to Goodreads or other non buy-site locations, most respondents remained ambivalent about the cost-vs-return equation on review services. Interestingly, in the write-in comments, reviews were consistently touted as a key way to secure buy-site visibility. Time will tell how that trend evolves!

And that’s the first cut at the data!  If you would like to get the rest of the scoop, sign up here. We will be sharing our full findings (and lots of other fun stuff) at a few exclusive “Global Domination Breakfast Meet-ups” at RWA. If you’re not going to RWA, never fear! We will share our report on the Ruby Blog after the conference (and will let you know via that signup). If there’s any specific information you really want to know, tell us in the comments! We’ve learned a lot already and next year’s survey will be refined further to ensure it is as valuable as possible.

35 responses to “It’s All About the Data… and boy, do we have data!”

  1. June Love says:

    Liz, wow! Y’all did an awesome job on this survey. Such a wealth of valuable information. Thank you for conducting the survey and for sharing. I look forward to seeing more after conference.

  2. Marnee Blake says:

    Thank you for this. What a fascinating read!

    And it’s always good to have the most recent information! 🙂


  3. A lot of great information here. Thank you, ladies and thank you to the authors who answered the questions.

    What I found interesting is that the Indie authors in this survey felt they had to release SO many works in a year’s time. Why did they feel this way? Are they speaking of full-length novella or a combination of novels and very short reads. In my opinion, at some point, the quality of writing would suffer. I know mine would.

    • Jenn Stark says:

      Autumn, it’s a great question! And I do actually think the respondents were referring to “full length” work, since surprisingly few indicated that they’d even written a novella before.

      I think it has a lot to do with staying top of mind for readers, capitalizing on current trends, and holding onto a reader once you’ve found one who loves your voice. I agree, writing will eventually suffer if you push too much too many works in a given year, but I think the pressure is on to make those books happen!

      • Bria Quinlan says:

        Ladies, this is great!

        Autumn & Jenn –> Unfortunately, it’s a double edge sword. You can publish on your own timetable, but bc of that, the expectation grows. I’ve had several readers say that I don’t have to wait on a publisher’s timetable to put a book out, so why can’t I publish more quickly.

        Visibility is also harder in a lot of ways. So if you’re drifting further out of visibility you’re on your own to gain it back.

        Also, I have a lot more thoughts, but who wants to read an entire blog post in a comment.

      • Talia Surova says:

        Also, which I think Bria alludes to in her comment, there’s the notion of vendor algorithms, particularly on Amazon. Visibility falls off a cliff after 30 days and another, steeper cliff after 90 days. So an ideal release schedule would be one book a month! (Yes, some wildly prolific indies pull that off!) Closer to the realm of humanly possible, many try for one every 90 days, i.e.: 4 books per year. If they’re short enough and streamlined enough and don’t require intensive rewrites, it’s doable.

        Great survey, Liz and Jenn. I’m surprised social media did so well, but maybe that’s just my own personal bias speaking.

  4. Jenn Stark says:

    Thanks, Marnee and June for posting! The first thing we realized in looking at the 145 pages of data was… whoa. There’s a lot of data here. So we look forward to having more to report once we’ve spent some time with it!

  5. elise hayes says:

    Liz and Jenn, THANK YOU! It’s so often difficult to get a sense of how much people are being paid for their writing–particularly among traditionally published writers–so that information was really interesting to see. And I loved that you had such even representation among traditionally published, indie-published, and hybrids.

    I still find utterly daunting the expectation of writing one book a year, let alone 2,3,4, or more. That’s something I need to keep thinking about, in terms of what’s feasible for me.

    You noted that you were surprised most people *hadn’t* written novellas. Why the surprise? (Just curious)

    • Jenn Stark says:

      Elise, another great question! For us, it comes right back to your comment about the idea of writing multiple books a year. I would have thought with the advent of more rapid releases, the popularity of low cost or perma-free “entry” books into a series, and programs like Kindle Unlimited (which seems uniquely suited to shorter-format fiction), novellas would have been something more authors have tried. And maybe many will in 2015, as KU gets some age on it. Time will tell!

  6. Tamara Hogan says:

    Liz, I have to admit I felt very conflicted taking the survey, and in reading the results. As I suspected would be the case, the results indicate that my personal perspectives, practices and attitudes about my writing career are VERY much off the beaten path.

    But for me, off the beaten path is very familiar space. * shrug * Why should writing be any different? 🙂

    • Tammy,

      While I do think that for indie authors, releasing 4-5 books per year in a series of connected books, that are well-written, well-edited, and well-packaged is a good way to gain readership and momentum, there is NO LAW that says “YOU MUST DO IT THIS WAY OR YOU WON’T BE SUCCESSFUL”!

      If people love your characters and your voice, they will wait to buy your next book! (So don’t be too distressed or conflicted!) Just as there is no one way to write, there’s no “one way” to publish!!

  7. Fascinating! I look forward to even more info. I too was shocked at how many works the indie pubbed authors feel like they need to put out a year. I’m in the middle of writing 3.5 full length books this year under a traditional contract and am DYING! Because, it’s not just the writing, it’s all the edits, and then the promotion. I have ~25-30 hrs a week to write typically, but can work more if I have to, and I will have to in order to meet these deadlines. I worry about quality as well. Putting out 5-6/yr seems nearly impossible!

    I also saw where KU paid out its lowest “dividend” to writers last go-around. Do you think KU is here to stay if none of the traditional publishers buys in?

    • Jenn Stark says:

      Laura, I’m right there with you. I am balancing multiple pen names and trying to make sense of my schedule – it’s nuts sometimes!

      And re: KU, I think Amazon will keep it as long as they have financial incentive to do so. If publishers and the most popular authors don’t have a presence there, though, I could see it dying away. Though that’s admittedly just me trying to manifest it. 😉

      Thanks for your post!

  8. Excellent post, Liz and Jenn! These are some of the areas where authors are generally stumbling around in the dark. Good to have cohesive information.

  9. Fabulous information! Thank you so much for gathering and putting it into something I can understand : )

  10. OMG Liz and Jenn this is fantastic! I’ve often wondered if what I’m doing is right and if the questions I have are the same ones everyone else does, but now I know that I’m not alone. I’d love it if you’d take each one of these points and make them into how to blog entries…like how to find the best personal assistant or online advertising what works and what doesn’t.

    Thanks for putting this together.

  11. Thank you for sharing the statistics – knowledge is power, right? 🙂

    • It is, Anne Marie! I absolutely look at my first release as just data by which to judge all other future data! I’ll be curious to see what my second release does for all my data points when it launches!

  12. Cia says:

    Wonderful post, Liz and Jenn! Thanks for taking the time to put this together. As others have said, it’s so hard to get information on what’s happening in the market.

    What I’d love to know is how traditionally published,now Indie authors earned Vs how Indi only authors earned. It may shed some light, hopefully, on how coming into the indi market with some degree of ‘visibility’ from the traditionally published route affected indi sales.

    3,4,5,6 books a year? Mission impossible!

  13. Cia,

    For this year’s data, we didn’t ask WHEN they became indie authors, which would help us infer the answer to the question you just asked. We’re planning to repeat a similar survey next year, which may differ based on changes in the market, and the answers we wished we could get from the dataset we have this year!

  14. I love data! Thanks for putting together such a comprehensive & informative survey, and making the results available here.

    I’m relieved (I guess!) to see that I’m in a comfortable majority with my career at the moment, though it sure would be dandy to be in that top 8%. 🙂 With this information, I’m able to assess what changes I should make and hopefully start to climb on up there.

    Great job, team!

  15. Awesome work!

    I still believe that the #1 secret to selling like gangbusters is to write an amazing book that gets people TALKING, and therefore BUYING. I’d like to think that these books are always the most well-written, innovative, and insightful books on the shelf, but we all know that isn’t always the case…

    • Jamie, I absolutely want to agree. And I think it sometimes happens that way! I instantly thought of Sonali Dev’s Bollywood Affair. AMAZING book. And so different than anything else that’s out there. And people talked about it all over the place. (And I read it devoured it the first week it came out.) But there are probably dozens of other really amazing books that have come out in the past year, that no one heard about. (Love & Oreos for instance ~wink~.) And I think authors that are fabulous, but don’t have a significant point of differentiation, get a bit lost in the crowd until they can gain traction through volume.

  16. Kay Cassidy says:

    Fabulous survey, ladies! I had to laugh at this response: “Start early and assume whatever you’re doing won’t work. Be happily surprised when it does.” It definitely feels that way sometimes. 🙂 I won’t be at RWA this year, but I’m looking forward to your future blog posts that expand on your findings!

  17. Marie says:

    Wow. So much valuable information. Seems pretty close to Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings Report. Really appreciate you sharing this! The constant 2-6 annual release schedule for indie authors seems like a daunting task.

  18. Amanda Brice says:

    Fascinating! So much to think about. Thanks!

  19. What FANTASTIC information!!! Thank you, Liz and Jenn! I, too, was conflicted as far as ‘Am I a hybrid or not?’ I had one novella in an indie anthology that was up for 3 months, so I guess I am, but I hate to compare what I do/have done to indie authors who are out there killing it with their amazing books and awesome promotion techniques.

    I just find it all so fascinating! Great job!


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