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The Evolution of an Author: How to Go from Zero to $100k from your Writing

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. 

Diagram of plant growth stages

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.

Our groups:

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. 

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.

Sales

 

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.

Outlook

 

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.

Writing

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.

Publishing

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.

Marketing

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

Writing

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.

Publishing

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.

Marketing

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

Writing

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.

Publishing

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.

Marketing

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

Writing

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.

Publishing

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. 

Marketing

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

Writing

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. 

Publishing

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.

Marketing

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 Summary

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.

 

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25 comments on “The Evolution of an Author: How to Go from Zero to $100k from your Writing
  1. As a “Stage One” author, my goal has never been earnings. I do have a day job that pays well, so I am not dependent on any income from my writing at all. Instead, my goal has been to tell the stories I hear in my head to readers. Running my books for free has been a great tool for me. It enabled me to sell 5,000 copies of my first book. I have a background in marketing and advertising, and I have found that promo sites, like Written Word, are a great sales driver. I do not ever see myself getting rich from my writing. What I do see, and what I have already found, is that the shared experience of having readers enjoy my books is worth more than gold. That is my reward.

    1. I’m looking for someone who can guide me on “marketing strategy” for my books.
      I believe I’ll be able to learn a thing or two from you.

  2. This is a fascinating survey. I found tips by reading about the activities of writers in all the bands, not just my own. Some are encouraging – I’m doing it right – and others usefully point to where I could make changes.

  3. Interesting survey responses. Thanks for sharing! I think publishing more books is the major key. Wonder if authors at higher income levels also have their own, larger email distribution lists (e.g. author newsletters). Do they do more radio and TV interviews? Are they panelists at more book conferences/festivals?

  4. Excellent article. Thank you for collecting this data and sharing it. My personal writing journey is an outlier to your stages, but maybe it varies also by genre? Your article did give me at least one new idea to try.

  5. I find surveys like this both informative and frustrating, the latter because it doesn’t take genre into account. I’d like to see exactly the same survey performed, but with excluding any and all romance, erotica or any categories that can tap into that market, and the very formulaic writing it supports. I’m not criticising romance—good romance takes skill to write—but it has conventions that make producing 49 titles much simpler than most other genres, and a voracious readership that can be quite accepting of those formulas.

    1. That’s a very good point! I’m also curious whether authors who publish different genres under different pen names count their total books published collectively or separately for each pen name.

  6. As the “fearless leader” of Wide for the Win, I read this with great interest. I’m not surprised to see your numbers in re: to income on Apple, personal websites, etc.

    It’s not hard to have “sales from your website” be the #2 source of income for you if you’re not making much to begin with. If you’re literally only making $175 a month from Amazon and then you make $20 a month from your site, that’s #2 for you! That’s a legit summary of the situation.

    But if you make $7k per month off Amazon and then $20 off your website, chances are REALLY HIGH that you’re making more than $20 on the wide storefronts (and if you aren’t, you might want to look at your strategy, bc you’re probably doing it wrong). So the $20 from your website doesn’t even register for you.

    What I’m trying to say is: Sales off websites don’t scale. Readers don’t like buying direct. So the very little that you’re making off your website at Stage 1 is still the same amount that you’re making off your site at Stage 4. It’s just that everything else has grown.

    Second, I think Stage 4 and 5 authors have found so much success with Apple bc they reward authors for going wide and STAYING wide. If you’re making $10k+ a month as an author, you’re established. You’re not floundering around, trying to figure out your strategy. IF you’ve chosen to be a wide author, then you’re WIDE. You’re not hopping in and out of KU like a kangaroo high on sugar. This helps you make a lot more as an author, bc Apple (and all wide storefronts, actually) reward you (through also love) for sticking to wide. That begins to really pay off.

    Thank you for the awesome survey! I really appreciate the work you did here. ❤️

    And if authors of any stage want to learn how to be a successful wide author, find us on Facebook. We’d love to have you. ❤️

    1. Erin, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. A few of them, actually. I hate to say that, after insisting on being wide for several years, I have only recently converted most of my work to KU and have doubled my meager sales by doing so. I would so much prefer to be wide, but I theorize that many of us may have to get “established” first via KU’s more powerful positioning before going wide will do much for us.
      I’m sure there are arguments on both sides and I’m not trying to start a war here! Just agreeing with you while unfortunately having to disagree (meaning not being wide anymore). Thanks.

  7. Thanks very much for the summary and analysis. I would love to see in future surveys perhaps the range of average monthly page reads for authors in all categories. I think the average is around 50% of the income, but in terms of numbers, I’m interested to know for instance what a top earner sees during the peaks of June, July, and August. Thanks!

  8. Thank you for this – interesting results – but I would have liked to see the graphs – which would also have shown the ‘outriders’ – for example I was (pre-covid) on the borderline between Stage 2 and 3 by author income, but all over the place for other things – only 5 novels published / paying top whack for editing and cover design / ebooks /kdp / Amazon only 10% of income/ 2 audiobooks out and a third on the way – not done by royalty share. It would be even more interesting to know if many self-published authors had a significant focus on non online sales and paid events. (Most of my income came from author events – book festivals etc – and associated paperback sales, along with direct sales at craft fairs / though shops and other paid writing activities – so covid was catastrophic in that respect and I had to quickly adapt to focusing on online sales – I will do both when things return to normal.

  9. Thank you for a great survey.
    I find it really reassuring to know that, based on the number of books I have published, I’m on a par with lots of other authors in the same ‘stage’ as me.
    I really appreciate the additional stages you’ve introduced this year, and will be using these results to make sure my author plan for 2021 is focussed on the right things to help me reach the next stage!

  10. Great article and collection of data. I think the biggest surprise for me was how little a lot of authors apparently pay for editing.

    It’d be great if we could have a more scientific analysis done but I recognize that’d cost money to do and a LOT more time and resources than a survey like this. Great job guys.

  11. Interesting. Data is always good. I think everyone’s situation is unique. I’ve been earning a living writing for three decades and have seen many trends. A big factor not covered here is genre. My take is romance writers do much better going wide, especially with Apple, than other genre writers. I remember meeting with Apple reps over a decade ago; the same with Nook reps. The former never emphasized their bookstores and the latter screwed things up. I gave Nook the idea for Nook First and had the very first book in it; sold 52,000 copies in one month. But then they diluted the program. These days my sales on other platforms than Amazon are negligible. Bookbub is both a curse and a boon. I used to run at least one Bookbub a month when it first came online. I haven’t run one in years. Why? There used to be a spike and then a slow decline. Now there tends to be a spike and back to normal the next day. I do think we’re pricing ourselves into oblivion, especially since trad publishers have taken over most of Bookbub ads. But that’s a reality we can’t change. AMS ads is another area. If you calculate actual royalty vs cost, it’s difficult to see a positive return. But if you don’t do it? My matra for decades has been: you must promote, but you can’t. But you must. But you can’t. Thanks for the info.

  12. Great survey, it really puts things into perspective for me to see which bracket I am in and what I can aspire to. Though I am in the lower end of these groups I can see a lot of room for improvement and where my focus needs to be. It’s also nice to see that I am not alone when it comes to the steep learning curve that lays before all indie authors.

    That being said, perhaps part of the next survey should include monies spent on investing in author gurus. Experts who offer multiple courses for “small” investments to fix your marketing/image or author platform woes. I often wonder how many authors have fallen into these traps and lost more than they have gained.

  13. I would like to see another category or survey result. These numbers are kind of frustrating for new authors. I have one published book as of today. I can at best write three books in a year. I did it in 2020, and expect to publish them all in 2021. I’m hoping to write and publish 15 books by age 70, which will be in five years. According to your survey, I can expect to earn in the range of $250 to $1,000 per month at that point in my career.

    Obviously, I started late to the game, but I can’t help but wonder if others have written 15 books and are making closer to $5,000 per month.

    So, I’d like to see a range breakdown by number of books written. For example:
    1-2 books – $0 – $1,500 a month (Because there’s that one author whose written a great book and figured out how to market it.)
    3-5 books – $0 – $2,500 per month
    6-10 books – $100 – $5,000 per month.
    Show us the authors that aren’t making it with 6 books and the authors who are rocking it with 4 books.

    That’ll give us a handle of “Yeah, if I work at this, with 15 books, I can retire and do quite well.” Anyway, that’s my Christmas wish.

    I think it’s a great survey and really appreciate you taking the time to run the survey and dig through all the information.

  14. Thanks for the survey! I love numbers and it’s nice to be comparing myself to the “average” rather than the exception for a change. In fact, I’ll be talking about that a bit on Monday’s episode of The Fearless Storyteller podcast (December 21, 2020).

  15. This is very interesting, thank you for putting it together. I’m assuming the survey/results are mainly concerning fiction? As a non-fiction author it would be great to see what other non-fiction authors are doing. I appreciate there are somethings that are the same between fiction & non-fiction but I’m guessing there is also quite a lot that is different, esp number of books in the different earning brackets. Also I appreciate more non-fiction authors would earn money from up-selling, (I don’t, I purely only write), but it would still be interesting to see their pure author earnings. Thank you again for this. Happy New Year.

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