Growing from a seed to a full-fledged entity does not happen overnight. It takes time, nurturing the right conditions. We want to present the data from this year’s author survey with this analogy in mind. From just starting out and publishing your first book, to hiring a marketing assistant and publishing a 40th book, we’ll discuss the evolution and lifecycle of an author over time.
First, some notes and disclaimers. As always, this data is from our voluntary author survey that was completed by over 1,000 authors. We think our sample is large enough and our audience is honest enough to learn some interesting things, but this is not a double-blind study.
In this post, we will be breaking authors into groups based on income by month, but we recognize that making money from writing is not always the goal. This is simply think this is an interesting and useful way to cut the data, but an author’s income is not necessarily a marker of their “success.” Every author’s journey is different and some of these findings won’t apply or be true of your experience.
The goal of this post is to help self-publishers learn about other authors. It can be difficult to find an author community (especially with a worldwide pandemic limiting in-person conferences), so we hope this post will provide some insight into how authors are doing. In each section, we’ll call out the major differences from the stage before. While these might not apply to your experience directly, we hope that this data can help authors decide where to focus.
Feedback from past surveys has asked us to break authors down into more granular groups based on income earned per month, and this year, we’ve done it! Here is how we have defined our author stages.
Stage One: $0-$249 per month
Stage Two: $250-$999 per month
Stage Three: $1,000-$4,999 per month
Stage Four: $5,000-$9,999 per month
Stage Five: Over $10,000 per month
The image below breaks down the general differences between each stage, but be sure to keep reading for analysis and more takeaways than are included here.
Before we get into the evolution of an author, let’s talk about the main event of 2020: Covid-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone over the past year, and authors are no exception. In our survey, we focused on how the pandemic has impacted authors’ writing habits, earnings and outlook.
Over 50% of authors in Stage Five (earning over $10k per month) said their sales had increased during Covid. In contrast, only 18% of Stage One authors (earning between $0-$249 per month) said this was the case for them. For all other stages, at least a third of authors said their sales had increased. If you were a high earner before COVID-19, you were more likely to see an uptick in sales during the Covid pandemic.
Authors are a resilient bunch! Overall, 75% of all authors surveyed said that their outlook on self-publishing was unchanged by the pandemic. Authors across every stage except Stage One were more likely to say they had a more positive outlook on self-publishing than a more negative outlook.
Writing Habits since COVID-19
Responses to this question truly revealed how different the world of COVID-19 has been for various authors. Some authors are finding quarantine to be a source of inspiration, saying that more time at home has increased their time spent writing. Others have less time to write due to having to care for children or a loved one.
Some authors said they were able to focus more after the pandemic hit, while others said that they had a hard time focusing even when they had limited distractions. And at least some authors in every group said that things really hadn’t changed that much for them.
Overall, book sales are up and authors largely have not changed their outlook on self-publishing. In a year of difficulty, we can be grateful that self-publishing, on the whole, seems to be a resilient industry.
The Phases and Stages of Being an Author
Now, without any further ado, let’s dive into our evolution of an author, starting with Stage One.
Stage One: $0-$249 per month
Not every author wants to move out of stage one, but it’s safe to say that almost everyone was here at one point in their author journey.
Authors in Stage One are likely to have around 6 books published. They also are more likely to have a day job unrelated to their writing than any other stage. Not surprising!
Stage One authors are building and learning to lean on their author community. They are most likely to have a friend or family member, or another author, edit their work. As a result, 50% of authors in this stage pay between $0 and $49 for editing services. This is a far larger percentage than any other stage.
Some might scoff at spending so little on editing, but it’s hard to plow money in if you aren’t seeing the returns. Authors in this stage are getting by with a little help from their friends.
Amazon is the dominant self-publishing platform, so Stage One authors go where there is the most opportunity. 88% said that Amazon drives the most sales for them, and a majority have at least one book enrolled in KDP Select.
Stage One authors were more likely than any other group to say that direct sales from their website drove the second-most sales for them (behind Amazon).
These authors are the least likely of any stage to have a relationship with a professional cover designer, and over 29% design their own covers. This makes sense. Cover design is expensive, but, as we’ll see, putting resources toward covers quickly becomes a priority for authors. 55% of Stage One authors spend less than $100 per book cover.
Most authors in Stage One are both learning and experimenting with book marketing, and a lot of them find it to be a difficult thing to pick up. They tend to spend around 6 hours a week working on marketing.
Every one of our stages ranked marketing as the most challenging part of being an author. There are a couple of different ways to take that news, but, to stay on the optimistic side, authors should know that almost everyone finds marketing challenging. It’s not “just you.”
44% of Stage One authors said that making a book free was not an effective marketing strategy. This was the highest of any group, but it makes sense for authors in this stage. If you have a small backlist, giving away a book for free will generate fewer backlist sales. As authors move to the next stages, they start to invest more in free promos.
Authors in this stage generally find promo sites and social media to be their most effective marketing techniques.
Stage Two: $250-999 per month
You guessed it, Stage Two authors are likely to have more published books than they did when they were Stage One. To be more precise, these authors average 17 books. They are also committing more time to writing. On average they are spending 23 hours per week, up from 16 hours for Stage One authors.
The jump from 6 books in Stage One to 17 in Stage Two is a large one, and it’s important to note that these numbers are averages. Some authors have published less, some have published more. The average just gives us some direction. It’s safe to assume that authors on the higher end of Stage Two have published more books than those earning closer to $250 per month.
As authors progress to Stage Two, fewer are doing their own editing, and we see more use of professional editors. In fact, authors in Stage Two use professional editors at close to the same rate as authors in Stage Three and above.
Authors in Stage Two are dialing in their pricing. Over 50% of these authors have priced their most expensive book between $3.99 and $5.99, a trend that holds true in future stages. Authors in Stage One are more likely to have a more expensive book. But, by the time they get to Stage Two, they’ve learned that those higher-priced books make it hard to generate sales.
68% of Stage Two Authors also priced their least expensive book at free or $0.99. These authors have more of a backlist, and they are learning that an inexpensive book helps generate more sales of other titles.
Stage Two is when we first see authors start to experiment with audio in meaningful numbers. A majority of authors in this stage had published at least one book in audio format. This trend is tied to income (audio can get expensive) as the majority gets stronger on each of the following Stages.
Stage Two authors tend to spend 10 hours per week on marketing, and it’s starting to pay off for many of them. They’ve likely recognized how important marketing is, and have embraced trying new platforms or techniques to see what works for them.
Stage Two authors love promo sites, with 64% ranking them as highly effective.
Stage Three: $1,000-4,999 per month
Stage Three marks our largest jump in the number of books published, coming in at an average of 29. These authors are also focused on writing, but spending no more time than their Stage Two counterparts. On average, Stage Three authors are spending 23 hours per week writing. So, while they aren’t spending much more time writing, they probably have been at it for longer, or have been consistent to get their number of published books up.
For Stage Three authors, quality editing is important. Only 16% of Stage Three authors do their own editing, and a majority spend over $250 on editing per book. So, while they aren’t putting in more hours writing than they were in Stage Two, these authors are more focused on ensuring quality.
Amazon is an even bigger player for many authors in Stage Three, with 95% of those surveyed saying it was their top driver of sales.
Stage Three Authors are also starting to invest more in high-end cover design. They have more income and have developed relationships that they rely on. 67% have a relationship with a cover designer, and a majority are spending over $100 per cover.
Authors in Stage Three are spending around 10 hours per week on marketing. Like hours spent writing, this is roughly the same as their Stage Two counterparts. This might be surprising on the surface, but there are several reasons why these authors are earning more with a similar level of effort.
Every author is different, but we can speculate that Stage Three authors have figured out what works for them, and are seeing more returns because they have a much larger backlist. Authors in Stage Three are benefitting from experience and investment more than just hours per week spent working on ads.
If you are seeing good returns on promotions and ads, two big ways to increase effectiveness, even more, are to improve your covers and add to your backlist. Stage Three authors are certainly focused on both.
One stark difference from Stage Two is how these authors view Amazon Ads. A third of Stage Three authors ranked them as highly effective, up from less than a quarter of Stage Two authors.
Stage Four: $5,000-$9,999 per month
Authors in Stage Four average over 36 books published. No small feat! As authors progress to this stage we see that more and more are supporting themselves, and sometimes their families, off of their writing.
With more financial security, these authors also have more time to write. On average, they spend 26 hours per week writing.
Amazon is still the dominant retailer, but Apple has started to emerge as an important platform as well, with a plurality of these authors saying it drives the second-most sales for them.
At 42%, Stage Four authors were the most likely to have a book listed as free at the time of taking the survey. This could mean that these authors have a large enough backlist that they have started making books permanently free as a way to drive consistent downloads.
Stage Four authors are spending more time on marketing than those in Stage Three; about 12.75 hours per week on average. But, about 30% have a marketing assistant or intern that works with them, so the total number of hours spent marketing their books could be higher.
With their large backlist, 77% of Stage Four authors thought that making a book free was an effective promotional strategy.
These authors have figured out Facebook Ads. 42% ranked them as highly effective. This is a sharp increase from our other stages. Why? It could be that these authors have established large audiences that they can target on the platform. Experience also likely plays a role.
Stage Five: >$10k per month
Surprising no one, as authors progress into our highest-earning stage, they have published the most books. This group averaged 42 books published per author. That’s a lot of books!
Authors in Stage Five were more likely to list “Writing the book” as the most challenging part of the publishing process. This makes sense as these authors have figured out marketing, cover design, distribution, etc., and have the resources to invest in additional help. So, their main challenge is to publish more books.
Once again, Apple starts to be a bigger player here. Over a third of these authors said it drove the second-most sales. Are authors in later stages able to see more success on Apple because of how established they are? Or do they just have the bandwidth to try different retailers? Let us know what you think in the comments.
Stage Five Authors invest heavily in brand and cover design and see the benefits. They ranked Bookbub deals as more effective than authors in any other stage. This isn’t surprising as these authors have a higher likelihood of being accepted for a Bookbub Deal, and they can afford it.
Only 49% of Stage Five authors do all of their own marketing. 36% do some marketing but also have an assistant or intern, while 9% pay a book marketing expert to do their marketing.
In this post we’ve broken authors down into five different stages, but there is still lots of variability within each stage. Not every Stage Three author is spending $250 on editing (some are spending over $1,000 per book), and not every Stage One author is spending 16 hours per week writing. What the stages do illustrate is some general changes in focus and investment over time. As authors earn more, they begin to invest more in editing and cover design.
Authors who feel bogged down by marketing should take heart that marketing tends to be a part-time activity for authors across every stage. You don’t need to put in 40 hours a week to see success. As authors gain skills, they are working smarter, not harder.
We hope this post has helped you gain some insight into how author behavior differs and how the COVID-19 Pandemic has impacted authors. Has 2020 changed how you feel about self-publishing? Let us know in the comments.