The Romance Writers of America organization is known by writers of all genres for providing professional education opportunities. While at the National Conference the other week, I met several writers who have only “romantic elements” (or less) in their stories and yet participate in RWA because of those opportunities.
This year, for the first time, I attended the RWA conference as a member of PAN, the Published Author Network. At the conference, PAN members are eligible to attend special published-authors-only workshops geared toward those with more experience.
Several of the PAN workshops focused on numbers, industry analysis, and market forecasts. Yes, lots of math for my not-math-oriented brain. *smile*
But I want to share some of the highlights from those workshops because I know even most RWA16 attendees didn’t get to see them (much less those that didn’t go to the conference). While these workshops were focused on the romance genre, I think we can all benefit from many of the insights.
Highlights from Data Guy
For those who aren’t familiar with Data Guy, let me back up…
In 2014, Hugh Howey, the successful self-published author of Wool, teamed up with an anonymous database expert (who became known as Data Guy) to provide reports on ebook sales based on scraping information from Amazon’s public sales pages for ebooks. They’ve now compiled several of these reports on their website, Author Earnings.
As Hugh said in the introduction of the first report:
“It’s no great secret that the world of publishing is changing. What is a secret is how much. … Distributors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble don’t share their e-book sales figures.
This lack of data has been frustrating. … I have longed for greater transparency so that up-and-coming authors can make better-informed decisions. …an author with advanced coding skills…created a software program that can crawl online bestseller lists and grab mountains of data. … And now we finally have some answers.”
Data Guy himself came to RWA National to present findings from his analysis of the romance genre. (Yes, I’ve met Data Guy in person—he really exists.)
Data Guy specifically looked at the romance genre because it sells strongly in the digital format and, as many self-published authors will agree, Amazon is responsible for most of the sales. In other words, the romance genre lines up with his most successful data-scraping techniques.
(The data in his report focuses on Amazon U.S. Kindle sales, not other retailers, international Amazon stores, print/audio, etc.)
According to his data, over 50% of U.S. Romance sales are of self-published titles, and 67% aren’t tracked by traditional metrics (such as Nielsen/BookScan, which we’ll get into below).
Now, much can be argued about the validity of his data collection methods (and thus their accuracy for analysis), but the same can be said for the numbers that came out of the Nielsen presentation (which I also attended and was less impressed by). So rather than arguing about whether a number should be 58% and not 67%, etc., I want to look at some of the big picture highlights I picked up from Data Guy’s presentation.
(I recommend looking through his presentation for more details. I’ll be touching on only some of the points here.)
Kindle Unlimited Titles Might Outperform
His analysis covers only one day of data, but on that day, while 1/3 of the titles were in Kindle Unlimited (the exclusive-to-Amazon-Kindle-Select option), those titles accounted for 1/2 of the Kindle sales earnings.
(Note to newsletter readers: Click through to today’s post to see all the images, or just check out Data Guy’s presentation slides linked above. Click on the images themselves to see full-size.)
Romance titles on KU earn nearly two and a half times as much as non-KU romance titles, but of course, the consequence is the requirement to be exclusive to Amazon. (Earnings from other retailers aren’t captured here, but if they were, that money might help balance the second pie chart from those non-KU authors’ perspectives.)
Data Guy observed that many authors with larger catalogs mix and match, with some titles in KU and some non-exclusive, in order to get the best of both worlds.
Again, I don’t want to get into arguments over the specific numbers, but I think we can take away this lesson:
As we increase our backlist, we might want to revisit our decision of whether or not to enroll in KU, perhaps enrolling some titles and not others.
Self-Published Titles Might Perform Better over Time
“Long tail” is a sales term to describe how well a product continues to sell over time. Data Guy discovered that while traditionally published romances sell well in their first month, they tend to drop off significantly in later months, especially when compared to self-published titles.
In the first month, traditionally published romances average earnings of $43/day, and self-published romances average $25/day. However, by the second month, their earnings are neck and neck, and from the third month on, self-published titles earn about twice as much as traditionally published romances.
One thing to know about statistics is that correlation isn’t the same as causation. (Just because there’s a connection between two facts doesn’t mean one causes the other.)
Yes, self-published books make more money over the long tail, but is that because they’re self-published? Or just because self-published authors are *cough* smart enough to not let their backlist catalogs languish, as so many traditional publishers do?
(If you’re looking at the full presentation, note that while the Amazon-Imprint books look really good in comparison in the full chart for this breakdown, Data Guy suspected that was heavily influenced by their low number of releases and not necessarily significant.)
No matter how we publish, I think we can take away this lesson:
If we’re traditionally published, we can ask our publisher about their long-tail sales plan, and regardless of our publishing path, we can promote our full backlist and see results.
Authors Might Not Need to Be Release Machines
Now we’re getting to some of my favorite slides. However, these can be very confusing on their own without Data Guy’s explanation, so I’ll try to clarify the information, but feel free to ask questions in the comments.
We’ve probably all heard that to be successful, we need to release multiple books a year. For a slow writer, the advice to release once a quarter (or even more frequently) can be cause for outright panic.
Logically, we know that the more titles we have out, the more opportunities readers have to discover our books. But is there a point of diminishing returns?
Perhaps a too-frequent release schedule burns out readers? Or intimidates new readers from digging in? Or maybe a too-big catalog indicates (in truth or in reader-impression) poor editing?
This first chart shows the earnings per title per day for our catalog size, which seems to show diminishing returns above 16 or so titles. What that means is that adding new titles will increase our earnings—because we are expanding our catalog—but the “halo” effect of each new release attracting new readers for our other titles might diminish.
(It’s also possible that the large catalogs of 20 or more titles are dominated by traditionally published authors who have been around forever to write all those books, and that their lower royalties are skewing the earnings data downward toward the right of the slide. Regardless, the leveling off between several of those buckets is telling.)
Keep in mind that romance readers are known as being voracious. It’s not unusual for a romance reader to inhale a book or more a week. So if the romance genre doesn’t require a double-digit backlist to succeed, other genres are likely even more forgiving.
This second chart is even more interesting to slow-writer me. *smile* While the chart above shows per title per day earnings based on our overall catalog size, this chart shows those earnings based on our release schedule.
That is, if we haven’t released anything in the previous year, we’d fall into the zero bucket. There’s a big jump in earnings from zero to one release a year, and a similar jump from one release to two or three releases a year. After that…?
Again, each new release would add to our earnings—because we’re growing our catalog—but… The halo effect from a new release expanding our readership for our other titles levels off. Our income will increase the same for each new title whether we release it this year or next.
Personally, I think this is great news for those of us who don’t want to feel “guilty” about releasing too slowly. I can aim for a goal of one to three releases a year and still see the biggest impacts on my overall earnings.
I like the idea of not needing to stress ourselves out (or burn ourselves out) to maintain a multiple-releases-per-year schedule. (Says the woman who’s now suffering health effects from that quarterly schedule last year.) One to three releases a year to see the greatest jumps? That sounds more doable. *smile*
What lesson can we take away from this point?
Staying top-of-mind for readers with regular releases does help, but that doesn’t require a punishing release schedule—just one or two releases a year will still see most of the impact.
Data Guy includes even more information in the comments of his report, digging into the Mystery/Thriller/Suspense and Science Fiction/Fantasy genres and explaining more about how all of adult fiction is skewed toward ebook (which is why the standard tracking systems are close to worthless).
He also points out that averages are always influenced by the millionaire outliers. So “in the case of Romance Kindle sales, only 10% – 12% of the titles in each category are earning the average value shown or more.”
(One of the commenters on his site explores the surprising First-in-Series-Free results as well.)
Other Data Insights
Results from the Stanford Survey
Over the past few years, Christine Larson, a researcher at Stanford, has surveyed RWA members, and in a PAN workshop, she presented her findings. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Romance authors are more highly educated than the general population, and 35% of them write in other genres in addition to romance (non-fiction, other fiction and genres).
Underestimate them at your peril. *grin*
- Over the same period of time, an Authors Guild survey showed author income declining from $6K to $2K per year, while the Stanford survey showed an increase from $4K to $7K.
Romance writers have been quicker than others to adjust to the changing publishing landscape and embrace entrepreneurship—learn from them.
- SFWA and MWA, the science fiction and mystery writing organizations, refused to participate in a similar survey, as they’ve historically been more competitive and less open to sharing information than RWA.
In a gig economy, our network matters, and writing organizations that encourage education and support also help members stay on top of rapid industry changes.
And finally, this tidbit is huge:
- Unlike the earnings gap between traditionally published white authors and authors of color, among self-published authors, the racial earnings gap does not exist.
Gatekeepers are causing the racial earnings gap, not the market. Traditional publishers who claim the target market for diverse stories doesn’t exist are holding authors of color back.
Results from the Nielsen Romance Summary
Nielsen, the same company that tracks the popularity of TV shows, also tracks book sales. They sponsored an additional-fee, “Romance Summit” event the day before the PAN workshops, filled with information geared toward agents and publishers. However, they also gave a scaled-down summary of their findings to PAN authors the next day.
They purport to capture 85% of print sales with their BookScan data, but their ebook information (and thus, much of self-publishing) is spotty or non-existent. The claim during the Summit was “55% of the romance readership is buying their books in bookstores.”
By their own figures, that amounts to 28.5 million print books. By Data Guy’s figures, 174 million romance ebooks are sold on Amazon U.S. each year (not including the 61 million ebooks on other retailers). 28.5 compared to 235 is not 55%, so…? Even if Data Guy’s information isn’t quite right, it’s not off by that much.
(I sat a few chairs away from Data Guy during this presentation, and I wondered how hard he had to bite his tongue when the Nielsen presenter seemingly decided to arbitrarily add 25% to her figures to “account” for the missing ebook and self-published sales. His figures don’t include print sales beyond Amazon, but they showed over 89% of romance sales are ebook and 50% of romance sales are self-published. A teeny discrepancy, yes?)
Another reason I wasn’t impressed with the Nielsen data is that the presenter was excited about the growth in the trade paperback size of print books and was proposing that publishers should re-release mass-market paperbacks in that size to grab the “trend.”
Er, any self-published author could have told her that self-published print books are sold in the trade paperback size due to the print-on-demand options. So the “growth” is most likely attributable to self-published authors growing their print sales.
I try not to be a rah-rah self-publishing cheerleader because I know everyone’s goals and needs are different, but the Nielsen presentation felt like the last “no need to panic, traditional publishers!” gasp from those unable to see how much their data no longer speaks to reality.
That said, she did include interesting information about the future of the romance target market, especially when it comes to diversity. Most U.S. population growth comes from multicultural consumers, and 55% of women are interested in gender/sexual orientation diversity in their stories, with that percentage growing at each younger generation.
*whew* That’s my rundown of facts, figures, opinions, and insights from the PAN workshops at RWA16. Let me know if you have any questions about any of these presentations! *smile*
If you attended any of these workshops, did you come away with different impressions or insights? Do you disagree with any of my conclusions? Which of these insights was most interesting to you and why? Do you have any questions for me?Pin It