Author Earnings’ million-title survey shows the Changing of the Author Guard in the ebook era and explodes the Midlist Myth

The new report from Author Earnings shows conclusively there has been a major changing of the guard for authors, with indies now dominating earnings across the market.

It has been two years since Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings published its first report on the ebook business and revealed the invisible dark matter of the indie market and this time AE’s Data Guy has sent his search spider further into the ebook stacks to delve even deeper than before.

The spider has previously crawled across Amazon’s best-seller lists, which represent 200,000-plus titles that make up around 60% of Amazon’s daily sales but for the May report the AE spider was programmed to follow links to also-bought recommendations and through each authors’ full catalog, resulting in a massive dataset covering a million titles.

This meant it was possible to tally up how many indie authors, Big Five authors, small/medium press authors, and Amazon-imprint authors are making enough from sales to land in a number of “tax brackets”. With this report, Author Earnings claims to be capturing and breaking down a full 82% of daily Amazon Kindle ebook sales.

The May survey first looks at the question of how much of a boost do non-bestseller-listed titles add to a best-selling author’s bottom line?

It shows the results in terms of the incremental percentage of author earnings they add to those authors’ bottom lines.

Indie authors with one or more bestseller-listed titles are, on average, getting a 30% higher increment of additional revenue from their other, non-bestseller-listed titles than Big Five authors who have listed bestsellers, for whom their other titles add 21%.

For small or medium publishers who have listed bestsellers, the additional contribution from their non-bestselling titles is only 13%, while authors with Amazon Publishing imprints surprisingly only get an additional 5%, although AE points out this could be due to Amazon’s marketing power keeping a higher percentage of titles on the bestseller lists.

Author Earnings also collected Amazon sales data on 900,000 top-selling print titles and 67,000 top-selling audiobook titles, which makes this survey the definitive study of what authors from all publishing paths and all levels of sales success are earning right now from

  • More than 50% of all traditionally-published book sales of any format in the US now happen on and around 85% of all non-traditionally published book sales of any format in the US also happen on

  • There are 9,900 authors who debuted any time in the last century and are currently accumulating income at a rate of $10,000 a year or more from their Amazon US sales alone. Almost half of those 9,900 authors also appear in the $25,000-plus bracket, and some of them in the brackets beyond that.

The midlist in book publishing has been reckoned to have been hit hard in recent years but the AE survey shows the death of the midlist is much exaggerated.

Over 4,600 midlist authors earn $25,000 or above from their sales on and 40% of these are indie authors getting at least half of their income from self-published titles, while 35% are Big Five authors with the majority of their income from Big Five-published titles, and 22% are authors who get most of their income from titles published by small or medium-sized traditional publishers.

Looking at only debut authors from the past five years, there are now more indie authors earning $50,000 or more than all of their Big Five and small/medium publisher peers combined, as shown in the graph at the top of this article.

Author Earnings points out that these figures show the so-called death of the midlist has been mistaken for the changing of the professional author guard.

1,340 authors are earning $100,000 a year or more from Amazon sales and half of them are indies and Amazon-imprint authors while most of the remainder belong to trad publishing’s longest-tenured old guard.

Fewer than 115 Big Five-published authors and 45 small or medium-publisher authors who debuted in the past five years are currently earning $100,000 a year from Amazon sales. Among indie authors of the same tenure, more than 425 of them are now on six figures.

The author earnings’ gap between publishing paths is so wide among these six-figure-earning authors that bricks-and-mortar print sales and the like cannot significantly alter the picture.

AE uses the scenario that Amazon totals already include roughly 40% of all US print sales that trad published authors are making anywhere, while many high-earning indie authors have significant additional non-Amazon revenue from their titles that aren’t Amazon-exclusive. Even applying the overgenerous 2x multiple to the trad published authors’ earnings, AE reports:

  • There are twice as many indie authors who debuted in the past five years now earning six figures than Big Five authors who were first published in the same time period.

  • There are four times as many indies earning six figures as small or medium-press authors who launched in the last five years.

Even in the income areas of earning $250,000 a year and $500,000 a year on Amazon — excluding trad publishing’s longest-established stars — there are more recent-debut indies making $250,000 or $500,000 a year on Amazon than Big Five and non-Big Five trad-published authors combined.

In the million-dollar a year bracket and higher, only three Big Five authors who debuted in the past five years are currently making seven figures from their Amazon sales — print, audio, and ebook combined while 14 indies who debuted in the same time period are each pulling in over a million bucks a year.

The survey also reveals the ‘invisible’ authors who earn $100,000-plus a year without showing up on any Amazon category bestseller lists.

The AE spider discovered 43 of them, including one author ‘invisibly. earning more than $250,000 a year. Thirty of the invisible 43 — including the top earner — are self-published indie authors, with most in the Romance Fiction area, but one in Cozy Mystery Fiction, and one in Literary Fiction.

At the lower earnings’ level of $50,000 a year, AE found 142 ‘invisible’ authors earning that much or more on, without any of their titles appearing on any category best-seller lists and 105 of those 142 are self-published indies.

You can and should check out the whole survey complete with graphs and detailed commentary at as it’s very extensive and a fantastically valuable resource for indie authors.