Last year we conducted an extensive author survey to tease out the strategies and tactics successful authors were using to achieve their success. It was one of our most popular posts in 2016 so this year we did it again! Last year, we focused on emerging authors and financially successful authors, isolating what the financially successful authors do differently than the emerging authors. This year we tweaked the survey to reflect changes in the publishing industry while also revisiting many of the same questions from last year. Thanks to everyone who completed the survey. We (literally) could not have written this post without you 😉

Introduction

Last year we looked at authors earning over $5,000 per month vs. lower earning authors to tease out the differences. This year, we compared authors making over $100,000 in a single year vs. authors who earn less than $500 / month from book sales.  We’ll call these two groups 100Kers and Emerging Authors. The following article will examine the differences between these two groups of authors with an aim towards helping authors get to that $100k goal. Approximately 11% authors surveyed fell into the 100K bucket, so it’s a pretty exclusive club but also one that is within reach.

100kers = Authors who have made $100,000 or more in a single year from book sales

EAs = Emerging Authors who earn less than $500 / year from book sales.

Disclaimers

The article below is based on self-reported data from our Authors. Authors are, on the whole, an honest group and we are trusting their input for these results. If you are a market research professional or statistics professional, take a deep breath. We are drawing conclusions based on survey data, not doing heavy statistical analysis. Some of the findings run into the causation vs correlation challenge, and in those cases we do our best to tease out the relevant takeaways.

Finding #1: Success Takes Time

We wanted to look at the amount of time an author has been writing, but since that’s a tricky question, we focused on the publication date of their first book as a proxy for how long they have been in the publishing game. 88% of 100kers have been writing more than 3 years, compared to only 59% of Emerging Authors. On average, that means 100kers have just been at this longer. Experience counts for a lot and emerging authors shouldn’t get discouraged. It takes time to build an audience for your books.

Finding #2: Indie Publishing is a Viable Pathway to Success

We wanted to know if there was any correlation between how an author was published and whether or not it got them to the 100k club. The results were pretty surprising to us. Of all 100kers none were purely traditionally published.  To be fair, only about 5% of overall respondents were solely traditionally published (James Patterson did not take our survey), so traditionally published authors didn’t make up a big part of the surveyed audience, but none of them were in the 100K club.

Of the 100kers surveyed, 72% were indie and 28% were hybrid. Publishing Independently rewards authors with higher royalty rates which means it is easier to start generating meaningful revenue when you self publish. The Author Earnings reports are showing a trend in which indie authors are taking share from traditional publishing, despite the fact that titles of indie books are priced lower than traditionally published titles.  In May 2016 Author Earnings also reports that “the vast majority of traditional publishing’s midlist-or-better earners started their careers more than a decade ago. Their more-recently debuted peers are not doing anywhere near as well. Fewer than 700 Big Five authors authors who debuted in the last 10 years are now earning $25,000 a year or more on Amazon — from all of their hardcover, paperback, audio and ebook editions combined. By contrast, over 1,600 indie authors are currently earning that much or more.” The takeaway here is that publishing as an indie author may be the most viable path to financial success.

Looking at the graph below, you’ll notice that there was a much higher prevalence of Hybrid Authors among 100kers than Emerging Authors (28% vs 17% respectively), which means a lot of the 100kers have signed a publishing contract for at least one of their books. This can mean two things: 1) For some authors, publishing as an indie enables them to then get a contract with a traditional publisher. So indie comes first and traditional publishing comes second. Anecdotally, we’re hearing from publishers that they are looking for authors who already have a track record and a reader following before they extend traditional publishing contracts. So this lines up. It can also mean that 2) some authors who have traditional contracts are then subsequently publishing as an indie due to the higher royalty rates and earning power an author achieves as an indie. This means that publishing independently gives authors a greater opportunity to make more money from their books and achieve monetary success. As we wrote about earlier this year, hybrid publishing gives authors the perks of both paths: access to the support that a publishing house provides while also earning higher royalties per book on the sales of their independent titles. Many very successful authors are taking advantage of this “best of both worlds” scenario to facilitate success and earn more.

Finding #3: The Great Wide vs. Exclusive Debate is not Settled

The term ‘going wide’ is used to describe authors who have books available on multiple retailers (for example, Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Nook, etc..). They are available through many stores, so they are casting a ‘wider’ net. Compare this to authors who have books in KDP Select, where those books are required to be exclusive to Amazon (for more on this read our article What is KDP Select). The pros and cons of being Amazon exclusive is a big topic of conversation among the author community. Overall, more people in both groups chose KDP Select over going wide, but the breakdown was the same in both groups. This means 100kers are not doing this differently than EAs. The takeaway here is that the choice to go wide or stay with Amazon doesn’t change your probability of making it to the 100k club. 100kers are doing the same thing emerging authors are doing here, experimenting. Knowing your audience and having a solid marketing plan has a larger impact on success than KDP Select enrollment alone.

Finding #4: 100kers Have Professional Covers and pay less than $1,000

Last year we found that 68% of financially successful authors spent over $100 per book cover. This year we found strikingly similar results. 68% of 100kers spent more than $100 on book cover design, whereas only 44% of Emerging Authors spent more than $100 on their cover. Interesting to note, this percentage of Emerging Authors moved up from last year when only 39% of emerging authors dedicated that much money to cover design. This indicates a trend that Emerging Authors are starting to spend more on book cover design. We’re happy to see this, as we know book cover design is a hugely important factor in determining a book’s success. Another interesting note, NONE of the 100k club spent more than $1,000 on a book cover, which means that there is a reasonable cap on what authors should be paying for this service.

Finding #5: 100kers Almost Exclusively Have Professional Editors

The results here were crystal clear. 96% of 100kers choose a professional to edit their books, and most Emerging Authors made the same choice (56%), but that still leaves a big portion of Emerging Authors who weren’t using a professional editor. In fact, almost 20% of Emerging Authors edit their books themselves. It’s been shown time and time again that having a second pair of eyes read your work helps minimize typos and unclear writing.

How much should you pay for editing? While prices certainly vary based on quality, about half of 100kers spend between $250 and $500 on editing, and 20% of 100kers spent between $500-$1000 for editing services. Emerging authors definitely skewed lower, selecting the bargain price of under $50. However, our takeaway is that 100kers consider editing to be very important, and always pay a professional to button up their novels. If you want to ensure good reviews and a good reader experience, then planning to pay $250-500 for an editor should be in every author’s launch budget. That said, we know lots of authors simply don’t have that money to spend. If you don’t have the budget to pay a professional editor, at least have someone else who is not you do the editing. Authors swapping editing services is a decent option: you edit mine and I’ll edit yours.

Finding #6: 100kers Use Paid Marketing Techniques and Handle Marketing Themselves

At Written Word Media, we’re marketers. We love marketing and we love helping authors with marketing – it’s our jam – so this topic was of particular interest to us. When we looked at who handles marketing for authors, the overwhelming answer was that they do it themselves. For both 100kers and Emerging Authors, over 90% of them report doing their marketing themselves. The only difference is that 100kers can hire some help. 45% of 100kers reporting having a ‘helper’ like an intern or assistant who helps with marketing. This makes sense, once you make $100K, you can afford to hire someone. Learning how to market your books yourself is very important part of the process, but once you have figured it out and have some budget to spare, it becomes a prudent business choice to hire help so you can focus on writing. Here at Written Word Media, we work with lots of Author Assistants who book features with us on behalf of their Authors.

To take the Marketing question one step further, we wanted to know which promotional techniques 100kers were using. In the graph below, notice that 100ers use 3 techniques more than EAs: Discount Deal Sites, Facebook Ads, and Amazon Ads. All of these are paid marketing techniques that require a budget. Additionally, notice that there are 3 techniques used more by EAs than 100kers: In-person signings, social media, and Book Giveaways. All of these are mostly free or very low cost but are more difficult to scale and may not be as effective. The pattern is clear, paying for marketing works, and 100kers have figured that out.

Finding #7: Don’t Quit Your Night Job

Many authors have day jobs to pay the bills. Writing takes time and not everyone can financially afford to take the leap right away. Of Emerging Authors, 66% have a day job (either by themselves or a member of their household) that pays the bills. Additionally, almost 20% of 100kers reported having a day job that supports their writing. Our takeaway is that having a day job or relying on a spouse’s income is pretty typical for writers of all kinds. Work during the day, write during the night, and never, ever quit your night job!

Finding #8: More Hours = More Books = More Success

Emerging Authors spent 19.8 hours per week writing, compared to 100Kers who spent 28.6 hours per week writing. That’s a 46% increase! The 100kers write a lot more than the emerging authors. This is pretty consistent with what we found last year. All that extra writing pays off. When we look at the total number of books published we see a huge difference. The 100kers have on average 30.3 books in their catalog! Emerging authors had around 7 on average. Averages don’t tell the whole story when we looked at the 100Kers the maximum number of books was 63 and the minimum was 7. Which means the 100ker with the least amount of books still had 7 books in their backlist! Spending more time writing yields more published books, which appears to be a successful strategy.

In Their Words

These findings are based on the data, and what we see in the marketplace. We work with over 34,000 authors at the time of writing this post, so we have a lot of experience to draw from. That said, there’s nothing like hearing advice from a peer to lend credibility, so we collected advice from our 100Kers and put some of our favorites below. The quotes are pasted verbatim from the survey results.

Don’t expect to get rich. Don’t expect to sell a lot of your first book. This is a journey.

Write and don’t stop. Get the next book ready, but take your time to make it excellent. Try to write and hold a book in a series so you can release the books more closely in time. And marketing is important, so learn how to do it, but don’t spend all your time doing it.

Commit your body and soul to producing the best work you can. Every reader is precious and connecting with them the most important thing you can achieve.

Being an Indie Author is a profession best done independently. Write what you love, write the way you want to, and forget everything. However, market trends should not be ignored in cover design and book title. Learn the market and how to promote within it yourself. Every aspect of your business. Authors are their own best marketing tool. Don’t trust someone else to do for you want you haven’t bothered to learn yourself.

Use a professional cover and hire an editor. If you can’t hire an editor right away, find a teacher or someone with excellent grammar. Also, when starting out, Kindle Unlimited is probably the best route to go unless you can market heavily and pay for advertising.

Write every day. Don’t wait for inspiration. If you were an accountant, you wouldn’t wait until you were inspired to go to work.

Never give up! I was told I could never make it, but I proved everyone wrong. I was rejected by one 300 agents and publishers. And it was a blessing in disguise!!! I now run my own ship and make my own rules. I keep 70% of my earnings! Getting shot down by publishers was the BEST thing to ever happen in my entire life! I wish I could give them a hug! They did me a huge favor and I found indie publishing.

Share your experience as an author in the comments below.