New Author Earnings Presentation Out

This one slipped by me while I’ve been too busy offline: Author earnings did a presentation on Science Fiction & Fantasy at the 2018 Nebula Conference.

Impressions? Thoughts? I’m still fairly swamped, so I’m betting I’m going to miss a few things on my initial read-through.

(And you see that book I put up in the image? It’s an excellent book. I’m getting to read the fourth one right now, because for some crazy reason, Margaret thinks I can write blurbs. If you want hijinks and hilarity, grad students and grackles (think raven, but smaller and even more annoying), check it out!)

And guess what? The sequel’s out! An Opening In the Air has campus protests, outside agitators looking to volunteer students to be martyrs, even more grackles, grad students who just want to math (and teleport. and fly), and really that wasn’t supposed to be on fire… Check it out!


  1. It says that SFF sales have doubled over the past ten years, boosted by the explosive growth in independent sales. This sharply contradicts the narrative that SFF is dying because people just don’t want to read it anymore.

    It also says that traditional publishing is doing fine, having grown modestly over that time. This contradicts the narrative that traditional publishing is dying.

    What is stagnant is sales of physical books as opposed to eBooks. What is declining is sales of physical books in physical bookstores.

    1. When 2/3 of the books purchased belong to your competitors (the indie market) and your one remaining major brick-and-mortar outlet (B&N) is on the verge of going under, a few years of tepid growth (while the rest of the market grows explosively) does not mean you’re not dying. All it means is that it’s going to be a long, drawn-out death. Once B&N goes under, that tepid growth is going to reverse direction and become a slow decline at best. Tradpub is still in trouble, it’s just that most of the reasons they’re in trouble aren’t visible in the overall sales graph that you’re looking at.

    2. “This contradicts the narrative that traditional publishing is dying.”

      Indy is outselling them in volume by a mile, according to this. They’ve gone from being the only game in town to one-third of the total SFF market. That’s all sales, including on-line and e-book.

      How old are e-books? Ten years? Less? That’s a -precipitous- decline. From 100% of the market to 33% in ten years.

      Furthermore Greg, all their authors left them for Indy. That is not a growth business model.

      It also brings into question the SF/F awards. Two thirds of the market is indy. None of the awards pay any attention to indy at all, except Dragon. What use are awards that deliberately exclude 2/3rds of the market?

      Pretty much everything that Larry Correia, Sarah Hoyt and the rest of the Mad Geniuses have said on the Tradpub issue over the last several years is proven out.

      1. Bujold publishes her Penric stories as an independent, and they’ve been nominated for a Hugo twice now.

        The problem is just marketing. She already has a huge readership from her days in traditional publishing. But I think few (or no) other authors publishing that way have anything like her numbers. Independents have a large volume collectively but as individuals, they have a very hard time matching the top traditionally published authors.

        I suspect that someone will eventually split out the marketing function of traditional publishing, and the old traditional publishers will become the top tier (or else disappear). What’s unnatural right now is the dichotomy between traditional and independent. It ought to be more of a gradient.

    3. I think in your haste to say ‘traditional publishing isn’t dying’, you missed this ‘Most Traditionally published SF&F sales were deep backlist (published prior to 2015). Most Indie sales are still frontlist. I suspect the ‘health’ you’re seeing amounts essentially to trad selling the family silver (digitizing their backlist – With the real possiblity (as has frequently showed up online… and then abruptly vanished -the hallmark of out-of-court settlement non-disclosure), without the contractual consent of the author. That, as I’ve said before, is something that will end in tears and probable bankruptcy if and when (and I think it likely) that dam bursts and all the people with writer’s estates hear about it, start searching and saying ‘hang on, there’s the book, where is the agreement or the money?’

      When a publisher’s backlist is outselling their frontlist (see the graph) they’re in medical terms the racing pulse-rate keeping the patient (whose blood-pressure shows they’re bleeding out) upright. It can’t last indefinitely.

      You are however correct that traditional still have a display marketing advantage. If B&N folds that will be badly hurt. I suspect the ‘also bought’ and ‘recommended (as a result) will improve. The difference here is – except for their own imprint – Amazon has more to gain by NOT gaming these, and really giving readers books they like. Publishers had largely lost that as they simply didn’t have the tools to implement it to their buying strategy.

      1. Backlist/frontlist issue is clearly important, but I don’t like the slide Data Guy made for that. Indy portion of the front list is much bigger, so ceterus paribus, indy will have more of the backlist in the future. He simply relabeled his chart and drew a larger backlist to show that. However, that kinda suggests more certainty than anyone should have.

        Indy are pretty much by necessity new entries, and there’s apparently been a certain amount of churn in the indy highest earners in the AE data, IIRC. Yeah, the trad to indy transition by professionals. Still a new way of doing business for those professionals. How long are the current top sellers in indy going to be producing and active? How many will retire or pursue other opportunities? There’s a good chance indy will eventually take the backlist, but there are uncertainties. Trad probably has more capital for buying the assets of a retiring indy producer, and the indy producers who can also make such purchases may not want to.

        There are also the BN, regulatory, etc uncertainties that make ‘if this goes on’ a big IF.

        1. I agree with you Bob. Indy should have a long tail, but a slowly diminishing one.
          And BN is a big if, but it certainly appears to be losing ground.

      2. I used to be a Senior Manager at Amazon, and my team ended up having to do a fair amount of unplanned work owing to what I viewed as unreasonable, anti-customer demands from major publishers, so, believe me, I don’t have any love for them either. They’re short-sighted, technophobic, and astonishingly greedy. And they’re pretty good at getting the public to blame Amazon for things they’re actually the cause of. (E.g. why you can’t buy most US ebooks in France even though you can buy printed copies. And vice versa.)

        I had some long conversations with folks in the Books division at Amazon about what the future of books might look like. I visualized a world where writing, editing, and marketing were completely separated from each other, and where Amazon (or someone else) would manage a reputation system for people who specialized in those areas. So a brand-new writer might have to pay cash to hire a seasoned editor, but a brand-new editor might agree to edit for (say) 15% of the profit. A more seasoned writer might be able to extract an advance from an up-and-coming marketer but a top marketer might do that only for top writers.

        Freelance editors seem to be pretty common now, but freelance marketing doesn’t seem to have happened yet. Unlike the other two, it’s got big dependencies on capital and name-recognition, and I remember people arguing that it wouldn’t be feasible. But I note that there are quite successful indie authors today who do all their marketing by themselves. That makes me think that someone who’s good at that really could make a career of it.

        But I thought Amazon would have to create the infrastructure to really make it work. Something to guarantee that once the three parties had reached a deal, the royalties would be distributed fairly and automatically. Not to mention the credit for a successful book.

        1. Amazon seems to be heavily based in AI, making replication by possible competitors a challenge. Over on ATH on yesterday’s post, someone linked to an article claiming that AI has been vastly overhyped, and that we are due for a correction. That could be relevant to Amazon or to the Amazon successor.

          An e-retailer side profit distribution system for author, editor and marketer would have complexity costs over just distributing to the author. An author might want to change marketers or editors for a given book. If the e-retailer takes over that business from the author, they have to deal with that. Which probably means that the e-tailer’s legal team needs to write up standard contracts between the parties for various jurisdictions, and have the IT people involved enough that those integrate into the system. If anyone in any business ever has the budget for trying an integrated IT/contract system between a bunch of different changing partners, I would be interested in finding out how it works.

    1. I think that Data Guy may have lumped them in with “medium sized” publishers for political reasons. This was the SFWA, remember – too many snowflakes would have stuck their fingers in their ears and run for the exit to their safe space.

      This was quite interesting, though – and rather reassuring. If the market picture holds up, I’m right on target.

      1. They could also be “other large publishers”, in which case they might be the largest single ebook publisher.

      1. Data Guy scrapes data from Amazon and other big sales websites. It is not clear he could do that to webscriptions even if he wanted to.

        I don’t know enough about Baen’s finances to estimate what scraping Amazon would show.

        It is likely that he doesn’t capture all of Baen’s sales, and there are ways he can justify not showing it in the more detailed breakdowns.

        I suspect Baen is classified as a medium publisher, and thereby excluded from being considered a traditional publisher. If the my theory of what sub-genre breakdown charts mean is correct, I would expect Open Road Media to be an other large publishing company and likely a publisher of dystopian fiction.

        1. I wasn’t reading WO’s post when I assigned Baen as medium. That’s either an independent conclusion, or based on the same thing I see. (I originally wrote small, but changed it before posting when I’d realized I read the key wrong.)

    2. In a prior Author Earnings report, Data Guy mentioned that Baen is a medium-sized publisher. It’s not near as big as the Big 5, even if it is bigger than specific imprints of the Big 5.

  2. One of the things I wonder about – in the subgenres where trad pub dominates the percentage of books sold, is that because there are trad pubbed bestsellers in the line, or because it’s mostly backlist being sold? Or are there not that many indie authors in the niche, so the trad pub outweighs them?

    1. Sci fi: my guess is that adventure, classics and hard sci fi are mostly backlist. Time travel and alternate history strike me as something that might be backlist, or difficultly of an author being able to enter and gain a following. How hard is something to do well, in the eyes of dedicated fans, and do low sales indicate that you are mainly chasing dedicated fans? Hard sci fi is on the first list for sales reasons.

      Hard sci fi writers need a sense of science or engineering, and alt history writers need a sense of history. Neither are trivial to acquire, so you expect the really great writers to be rarer. The people with the combination of interests, ability and dedication to write the best stuff may have disproportionately already been published, leaving fewer with the opportunity to go indie. On the other hand, there are some really solid people that tradpub hasn’t liked. Has the 163x project had the effect of collecting potential indy alt history types?

      Continuing sci fi, short stories are where one would expect a tradpub marketing advantage, and adaptations a licensing advantage. Dystopia may be more what tradpub pushes as propaganda than what people really want to read and write.

      Fantasy: The specialty publisher presence is interesting.

      Action, magic realism, military, humor, and especially classics strike me as backlist. Fantasy alt history probably has a skill barrier to entry, like sci fi alt history. The weaker tradpub dominance in shorts/anthologies seems notable. The gaslamp is probably an artifact of decreased popularity and tradpub heavily pushing it in the past. Epic may be game of thrones. Historical? Amazon seems to argue against skill barrier to entry.

      I’m struck by how much weaker tradpub is in fantasy. I might expect to hear noises soon about fantasy being dead. On the other hand, fantasy unit sales per subgenre seen by tradpub are twice that of sci fi.

  3. Notice It’s mostly the “crappy” SF that’s selling well?
    Isn’t Baen associated with Simon & Schuster?
    And I’ll be the a**hole to say it. Isn’t a lot of SF/F problems in tradpub related to a perception that we’re a bunch of autistic geeks, and who wants to deal with those?

    1. Baen uses S&S for printing and distribution if I recall but handles their ebooks themselves. Baen is pretty midsized as a publisher with 3-4 new titles a month and 2-3 reprint titles (aka paperback) a month.

      I’m sure the fact they sell a LOT of ebooks directly from webscriptions makes it hard for DataGuy to collect the information unless they would give him numbers he would trust. eARCs are probably also a bit weird to fit into his data models since they aren’t traditional ebooks exactly and no one else does them as far as I know. Sell great for Baen though!

  4. Open road media seems to publish dystopia. I see mention of a lot of authors that would be backlist heavy.

  5. I still can’t decide if “first book in KU; second not” is brilliant or evil. I’m leaning toward brilliant because if I like book two, I’ll go back and buy book one, which gets the author paid twice and I really only pay for it once.

    Off to read it, now…

    1. A follow up just in case someone ever goes back and reads old threads: The second one is as much fun as the first. I love these. Amazon review, tomorrow.

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