Despite the fact that the Author Earnings Reports, published by writer Hugh Howey and his anonymous partner Data Guy, has added fodder to the traditional vs. self-publishing debate, for many independent writers the reports are not at all surprising. The stated primary purpose of the site is "to gather and share information so that writers can make informed decisions." Independent writers, however, are finding that the reports mostly confirm what they already knew, and their decision-making processes have changed very little, if at all.
The Author Earnings report separates the categories Indie Published and Uncategorized Single-Author Published and Small or Medium Publisher. Data Guy has publicly stated that most of the books from uncategorized single-author publishers are likely self-published by authors who own their own publishing imprint, and there may even be some independent writers in the small or medium publisher group. The reports are heavily weighted against independent writers in order to avoid overstating their earnings.
The most recent Authors Earnings Report, released in July 2014, shows that 66% of the bestselling romance books on Amazon are self-published. Established romance authors have to look no further than their bank accounts to know that independent publishing can be a lucrative career move. Bestselling contemporary romance author Christine Mackenzie says she is "very far" from alone in making a living as a self-published author. She continues, "The Author Earnings Report has not surprised the majority of self published romance authors who have been selling well for two years."
Janet Angelo, who is an editor and owns a small company called IndieGo Publishing concurs. "The reports did not change my mind about anything at all concerning the publishing industry today. I am not surprised that indie authors are doing as well as they are. I have edited book manuscripts primarily for indie authors since 2005, and I am now a publisher too, so my heart is with the indies." Angelo did find one surprising fact in the July report that spurred her to make a change in the way she publishes books. The report showed that books with Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) activated do not sell as well as those without the controls. "I always set DRM on the books I publish, but from now on, I probably won't based on the data in this report," Angelo said.
Even though most writers seem to feel more validated than surprised by what they are finding in the reports, they are seeing value. For instance, the July report specifically looked at how long books tend to stay on the bestseller lists, or how much churn there is among bestsellers. Writer John Brown says, "The power curve and churn reports especially highlight the fact that a lot of books don't make a lot of money in either indie or [traditional] venues." Claude Nougat, economist and writer of Boomer Lit -- stories aimed at baby boomers -- says that the most recent report confirmed her suspicions. "A few make it big, most don't. But when you say ‘most,' that's a big, big majority!" she says.
If authors already knew that self publishing is a viable path, and were not surprised by much of anything in the reports, why do the reports remain so popular? Brown, who debuted through a traditional publisher, says that for him the reports offer a feeling of belonging. "The data also gives me a sense of empowerment. It's not the only source for this feeling, but the data helps me feel like I'm part of a group. I'm on the map. Indie isn't just some back alley choice. Seeing the numbers also gives me hope because it isn't just a handful of indie authors doing well. I know the odds are still exceedingly long, but they're not as long as I thought." Self-published authors still may not have much chance of becoming superstars, but the Author Earnings reports are making it clear that they have the opportunity to make a living through writing.