Are there more Authors than Readers?

My time on Twitter makes me wonder more and more about something I’ve suspected for a long time – There might be more Authors than Readers.

Questions worth Pondering

  1. Are there more Authors than Readers?
  2. What’s stronger – The Desire to Read OR The Desire to Be Read?
  3. Is it really true that 80% of Americans want to write a book? Note: I’m in no way endorsing that site.
  4. Now that it’s so easy and straightforward to write and publish your own book – How many of those 80% of Americans will write a book?
  5. Is writing a book a means to make yourself immortal and/or leave a legacy?
  6. Is writing a book one of the deepest ways to actually communicate with others?
  7. With all these companies serving readers, who serves authors’ needs?

We could go on and on.

The world of Books and Publishing is changing. A lot of people are very focused on what happens with Publishers and the Top 100 Charts.

However, the real questions have to do with Authors and what happens in the Long Tail. The area between the Top 250 and the 10,000s in sales rank. Who are the authors who are getting read? Who are increasing their readership?

If we consider human communication, there is obviously value in the people who reach tens of millions of people and what they have to say. However, most of the truly meaningful conversations are in much smaller groups.

Are the Small Successes in Books more important than the Big Ones?

Let’s contrast two situations –

  1. A bestselling author writes a book that’s good entertainment and it sells 1 million copies. A few hundred thousand people read it and enjoy it and consider it good entertainment.
  2. An author writes a book that’s very targeted at a particular audience and it sells 10,000 copies. Half of those people read it and are really moved by it. For a few thousand people it’s a life changing experience.

There are, of course, bestsellers that can be a life-changing experience too. However, the more targeted you get, the higher the chance you have of really impacting people and speaking to their hearts.

That, in my opinion, is one of the major reasons that so many people want to write a book. As humans we pass on our lessons and experiences via stories. Writing a book does that – It allows us to progress and evolve and share our learning and experiences.

You want to tell your story. Just as stories you heard from your parents and grandparents helped you form a better picture of the world, you want to let people benefit from your life experiences.

The more you narrow down your audience and speak specifically to them – the higher the chance you impact them. Of course, with sufficient skill you can write a very general book that touches tens of millions of people very deeply.

However, what about the hundreds of millions of people who have valuable things to share but are never going to get ‘bestseller writer’ level of skill or publicity? What about them? They should have a means to reach people too. Even if it’s just a few thousand or a few hundred.

That’s what we are seeing with ebooks and ereaders. An immense number of people are suddenly getting the opportunity to share their stories with the people they need to share them with.

Everyone has a story to share. How many people are willing to listen?

We have hundreds of millions of people around the world that are reaching the stage where they have enough rich life experience to write meaningful things. We also have nearly as many people who understand the nuances well enough to write things that thrill and give pleasure and scare and excite and connect.

Even among the younger generations we have some fine writers.

Unfortunately, of the billions of people around the world, we might not have as many people who are willing to listen or read or even be open to the stories being shared.

How many talkers do you know? How many good listeners?

If writing a book is telling a story, and if reading a book is connecting with that story, it’s worth asking – Is it easier to read a story or to write a story?

A World where everyone has a Story to Share and a Means to Share It, but Perhaps No One to Read It.

With self-publishing so easy now, we might see a shift where people being to think of writing books the way they thinking of starting a blog – Let’s just do it.

There’s no risk. It’s easy. It’s straightforward. You don’t need to invest much money.

The rewards are pretty great. For a lot of authors, even a handful of people reading your book is a win. Anything is better than not being heard. Anything is vastly better than not taking a shot.

So, we end up with almost every single person who has a story to share thinking writing a book is a great idea. A Book – it holds so much more meaning than a blog or an online journal or a profile on a social network.

On the other hand, how many people are willing to read these books? In particular, are there enough readers to take a chance on all these first-time book authors?

Even before any actual reading happens, how do all these new authors reach readers. There are already over a million ebooks available in most ebook stores. The only books that actually get any visibility are the ones in the various Top 100 charts. Some people search but there are just too many books. If there are 150,000 romance ebooks, how are readers going to get through all of them? Do all the new authors have any way of standing out?

If Authors keep increasing, at some point of time they will exceed Readers

As more and more people share their stories and publish books, we’ll see the number of Authors exceed the number of readers. To make matters worse, people writing a book have less time for reading. It’s not inconceivable that we end up in a world where –

  1. There are more authors than readers.
  2. The biggest challenge shifts from ‘getting your book published’ to ‘getting your book noticed and read’.
  3. Finding readers becomes the key skill set that differentiates successful authors (not quality of writing).
  4. Readers just get swamped with choice. Imagine having 10 times more books than we have now, while the number of readers at most doubles.
  5. Authors start evolving more and more interesting strategies. There are already authors offering books for free, buying ad slots, offering gift cards for a review, and other crazy things. What happens once the situation gets worse?

Here’s the twist – I think it’s ALREADY happened. There are already more authors than there are readers.

We aren’t yet aware of this because most of the authors have tiny followings and no visibility. However, gradually it’ll become clearer and clearer that the number of authors is ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE. That it threatens to dwarf the number of readers.

What happens to Books and Publishing then? Perhaps the same that happens to any market where Supply massively exceeds Demand.

Indie Authors can react MUCH faster to a Hot New Market

One of the things that has struck me in the last few months has been the number of ‘Billionaire’ type titles that enter the Top 100 Lists in the Kindle Store and the Nook Store. It shouldn’t really be a surprise – 50 Shades of Gray created a hot new market. Now everyone wants to read about billionaires who can tie more types of knots than a drunken sailor.

The thing that is really intriguing is that a lot of them have been indie authors. Riding a Hot New Market to hit the Top 100.

It’s a replay of what happened when YA and Twilight and Sparkling Vampires suddenly became big. A lot of indie authors were able to take advantage of the trend before Publishers could.

At first, this seems strange.

  1. We have the Big 5 Publishers with thousands of people, hundreds of millions of dollars, specialists in every area. They have all the expertise, all the tastemaker skills, all the polish and refinement tools.
  2. We have indie authors who are mostly one-person crews. Most of them have never had a hit before. Some of them have never even written a book before.

How are Indie Authors able to outpace Big 5 Publishers to the opportunity?

Well, it’s quite simple.

Publishers move like Giant Dinosaurs, Indie Authors move like Cheetahs

Here’s what happens with a Publisher –

  1. A book like Twilight or 50 Shades of Gray shows there’s demand for a particular type of book. Basically, it validates the existence of a lucrative market. Let’s call it the ‘Hot New Market’.
  2. Publishers start trickling this information down to Agents and Authors. Perhaps it takes 3-4 months until Publishers decide which authors should try and tap into this Hot New Market and get a few of them to agree.
  3. The Author takes 3-9 months to finish the book. Perhaps longer.
  4. Then, and this is the surprisingly slow part, it takes ONE ENTIRE YEAR for the finished book to be polished and readied and published to the stores.
  5. The End Result: Approximately 1.5 to 2 years after the Hot New Market was found, Publishers have books catering to that market. Sometimes, Publishers move faster and get the books out in 1 to 1.5 years. However, it’s usually 1.5 years or longer.

So, and you can see this if you check some of the new Young Adult novels coming out from authors who haven’t written YA novels before, a Hot New Market gets catered to after 1 to 2 entire years have passed.

Readers just have to twiddle their thumbs while their need for new books in the Hot New Market goes unfulfilled.

This was quite alright when Publishers controlled the distribution channels and were the gatekeepers. During those dark and dreary 1 to 2 years of waiting, no one else could cater to the Hot New Market and the demand went unfulfilled – sometimes it increased, sometimes it died away. However, no one except Publishers could cater to it.

Indie Authors, who can now reach readers quickly and easily, without needing the blessings of a Publisher or a Bookstore Chain, can react much quicker than Publisher Dinosaurs.

  1. A book, let’s call it Book X, proves there’s a Hot New Market with HUGE demand.
  2. Indie Authors who are quick can make a call within a few months. Perhaps even a few weeks. Let’s be conservative and say 2 months.
  3. Indie Authors, if they manage things well, can finish the book in 3-6 months.
  4. Optionally, Indie Authors can take a few months to polish the book.
  5. That’s it. They are ready to release. They can send out the ebook quickly and easily. The minute it’s done, it’s ready to be sent out and readers can get it the next day – No printing, no shipping, no distribution, no shelving, no complicated business deals.
  6. Total Time: 5 to 9 months.

Whereas Publishers take 1 to 2 entire years to respond to a How New Market, Indie Authors can respond within 5 to 9 months. A few Indie Authors are even faster.

What is that Hot New Market going to do in the Interim?

Here’s the timeline –

  1. Day 1: Book X launches.
  2. Year 1: Book X proves the existence of a Hot New Market. So an entire legion of readers discover and fall in love with this Hot New Market.
  3. Year 1 and Year 2: All these readers, who now love this Hot New Market, wait for more. But there’s NOTHING for them.
  4. Opportunity for Indie Authors: During Year 1 and Year 2, there are not going to be ANY Publisher published books catering to this market. There might be a sequel to Book X – that’s it.
  5. Publishers: Take their 1 to 2 years. By end of Year 2, or perhaps as late as Year 3, they launch books that cater to the Hot New Market.

Indie Authors get 1 to 1.5 years where they have –

  1. A Hot New Market that is DEMANDING more books to satisfy it.
  2. Publishers unable and/or unwilling to meet this STRONG DEMAND for the entire 1 to 1.5 years.

Basically, Indie Authors become the only Hamburger stand at a Carnivore Convention.

Meeting Demand Quickly is more important than Price

Publishers seem to fixate on ‘low prices’ of books by indie authors. However, the real danger indie authors pose is SPEED.

  1. Speed at which Indie Authors can react to a Hot New Market.
  2. Speed at which Indie Authors can publish sequels and series.
  3. Speed at which Indie Authors can switch from one market to another.

For that 1 to 1.5 year gap, when the Hot New Market is waiting for ANY Book that will satisfy the insane demand, Publishers have nothing to offer. Price isn’t even a factor.

Indie Authors, on the other hand, can deliver quickly and repeatedly. It will take Publishers 1.5 years to 2 years to refocus an existing superstar author on the new market opportunity, polish the book, and ship it. In that same time period, a superstar Indie Author can deliver an entire 3-book series. The first might arrive within 6-9 months.

It’s not even a contest.

That Hot New Market can either wait for 1.5 years, or it can read the books Indie Authors are delivering. A LOT of readers pick the Indie Authors. That’s why we see a non-stop stream of ‘Billionaire’ indie titles hitting the Top 100. It’s a trend that’s going to get much stronger – Indie Authors are getting better and better at catering to Hot New Markets long before Publishers can.

Are Indie Authors 12% of ebook sales? 25% of ebook sales?

The Bookseller is using data from Bowker Market Research that claims 12% of all ebook sales are indie author sales.

It also adds this gem –

 the self-published share of e-book volume sales more than 20% in areas such as crime, science fiction and fantasy, romance and humour.

The one strange thing about this survey is that it claims ebooks were 13% of total book sales in Q1, 2013. This is directly at odds with what Publishers themselves are reporting i.e. 25% of book sales in 2012 were ebook sales.

Update: Thanks to Thad for clarifying this. Bowker is UK. So UK is seeing 13% ebook sales and US is seeing 25% ebook sales. Then it makes everything else fall into place. In UK indie authors are 12% of ebook sales and in US they are 23% to 27%.

There’s a comment at The Digital Reader that add some interesting figures about ebook sales share for indie authors (The B&N one I’ve seen and is precisely what B&N said, the rest I didn’t know about) –

The obvious answer is to go by what the retailers willing to talk tell us:

B&N has been bragging that 25% of their sales are indie/self-pub.
Amazon is going to be higher, say 30%.
Kobo is reporting their Writing Life self-pubs are 10%. Add in their share of Smashwords and it could easily double.

Factoring in the retailers’ market share, I’d peg the number at 25%, minimum. It might even be as high as 30%.

Well, let’s make some guesstimates and see where we end up.

Please Note: We aren’t trying to win a Nobel Prize in Statistics or Economics. Just making some guesses.

What percentage of eBook Sales are Indie Author Sales?

The one hard fact we have is B&N’s claim that 25% of its ebook sales are indie authors and published authors who have become indie.

Let’s look at the Top 100 Lists and see if actual sales rankings reflect this –

  1. Kindle Store has 3 indie titles in the Top 10, 7 in the Top 20, 20 in the Top 60, 27 in the Top 100.
  2. Nook Store has 3 indie titles in the Top 10, 6 in the Top 20, 15 in the Top 60, 23 in the Top 100.

Note: I’ve not included Publishers like Crimson Publishing, Chronicle LLC, Modern Mythology, etc. where I had no idea whether they were indie or existing smaller Publishers.

If we look at these figures we get some rather striking data points –

  1. 30% of the Top 10 and 30% to 35% of the Top 20 are indie titles.
  2. 23% to 27% of the Top 100 are indie titles.

The Top 100 Lists in the Kindle Store and the Nook Store would suggest that indie titles account for 20% to 25% of unit sales. This matches what B&N is saying (25% of sales are indie authors) and somewhat matches what the survey found for genres like romance and fantasy (20% of sales are indie titles).

However, it clashes with the claim that indie author sales are just 12% of total ebook sales.


An interesting observation: There are LOTS of books from Amazon Publishing Imprints in the Top 100 in the Kindle Store. Never seen that before. Do they deserve to be there? Is this the beginning of Amazon using its power in the Kindle Store to pump up its own published titles? Who knows.

Another interesting observation: The existing Big Publishers are trying lots of discounts. First time I’ve seen them have 10-20 books under $5 in the Top 100, including lots at $1.99.

Are Indie Authors 20% to 25% of eBook Sales? Or are they 12%?

Bowker’s Research says 12%.

However, B&N has claimed 25% and our rather unscientific study shows 23% to 27%.

This suggests that the actual share Indie Authors have of the eBooks market is closer to 25%. It’s quite stunning actually –

  1. 25% of total book sales are now ebook sales.
  2. 25% of ebook sales are now indie author sales.

Could it be possible that in 3-5 years we see –

  1. 75% of book sales are ebook sales.
  2. 50% of ebook sales are indie author sales.

I wouldn’t bet against it.

We have Amazon using its marketing prowess to push up its own published titles (which is just wrong, no matter how you look at it – there has to be separation between store and publishers). We have the Big Publishers fighting with $1 and $2 and $3 and $4 books. However, my money is on indie authors. They are relentless, they are hungrier, and they are infinite.