Inspired by the Author Earnings report, I’ve taken a quick whack at looking at what percentage of Kindle ebook sales self-publishers represent by genre. To get there, I simply look at the top 100 bestsellers in each genre—romance, mystery/thriller/suspense, science fiction, and fantasy—and split them up by method of publication. Note that, unlike the Author Earnings study, this is merely a breakdown of the raw number of self-published titles on the bestseller lists, not the number of total book sales within each genre.

Also, instead of five categories of publisher, I use four: self-published, small/medium press, Amazon Publishing, and Big 5 (including, where appropriate, major genre publishers like Harlequin and Baen). For books where the publishing method was unclear, I did a search of the house. If the house published only a single author’s works, I listed it as self-published. If the house published multiple authors, even if it was obviously an author collective, I listed it as small/medium.

Okay! Without further ado, the numbers:


ROMANCE

Self-published: 49%
Small/medium: 11%
Amazon: 9%
Big 5/Harlequin: 30%

MYSTERY/THRILLER/SUSPENSE

Self-published: 11%
Small/medium: 5%
Amazon: 16%
Big 5: 68%

SCIENCE FICTION

Self-published: 56%
Small/medium: 9%
Amazon: 5%
Big 5 (plus Baen): 30%

FANTASY
Self-published: 49%
Small/medium: 7%
Amazon: 7%
Big 5: 37%

One of these things is not like the other! At an immediate glance, one thing is clear: if you’re publishing in romance or SF/F, self-publishing is an extremely viable method. Roughly half of all the bestselling books in each of these genre is self-published. That’s pretty remarkable.

For mysteries and thrillers, however, it’s a different story. Of course you don’t have to be a bestseller to make a living as an independent author, but it’s equally remarkable that just 11% of the top 100 mysteries and thrillers are self-published. That suggests two things. If you’re a thriller author, you may want to keep querying agents. Or that there’s a market inefficiency in thrillers, where there aren’t enough good indie titles to meet demand. It’s also possible that both of those things are true! I couldn’t say.

Also, it should be said that this is just a look at the top 100 in each genre out of hundreds of thousands of total books. It’s quite possible, perhaps even likely, that a broader look at the data would present different trends. However, it does match up well with the Author Earnings study of these genres combined, so I’m not sure a bigger sample would be that much different.

Of course, there’s one more big factor here: each genre’s total share of the Kindle market. Fortunately, that’s really easy to ballpark. By looking at the #100th-ranked book in each genre and dividing that by its overall Kindle rank, we get an estimate of what percentage of the entire Kindle market each genre represents. For instance, if the #100 book in Romance were #1000 in the Kindle store, we could figure that 1 in 10 sales, or 10%, are of romance books.

Here’s how it shakes out:

Romance: 40%
Mysteries/Thrillers: 20%
Fantasy: 6.33%
Sci-Fi: 5%

You’ll note that adds up to 71.33%. Hugh Howey’s much bigger and better sample suggested these four genres comprise 69% of total Kindle sales (though it didn’t break it down by genre). To me, this means the above numbers should be pretty accurate, despite the crude methodology used to determine them.

Obviously, romance is the runaway winner. There is a huge market for it and self-publishers do very well there. Fantasy and science fiction are about neck and neck: fantasy is a little bigger, market-wise, but self-publishers have more share of the science fiction market. Mysteries and thrillers have a very big overall market—half as much as romance, and a fifth of all Kindle sales—but taking advantage of the size of that market appears to be a challenge for self-publishers.

Also, if the Author Earnings report didn’t already make this perfectly clear—holy shit self-publishers sell a lot of books. I knew we’d taken over a big part of the market. I didn’t know that, within three of the four most popular genres, we’d taken half of it.

~

Quick edit: I should make it perfectly clear that these percentages are very preliminary. Where the Author Earnings report samples nearly 7000 books, including about 2600 of the top 7000 titles in the Kindle store, I’m only sampling the top 100 in each genre. In a sample that modest, even a small variance from the norm might throw things out of balance. For instance, if just five of the books in fantasy were switched from self-published to Big 5, the numbers of each would be nearly equal. I will try to remember to run this again in another month or so and then again later in the year to see whether the results hold.

That said—there are several signposts the data’s pretty accurate. For one thing, among three genres, the percentages are pretty similar across the board. For another, although I divide things up differently, and am only measuring number of titles instead of number of sales, my results are pretty close to those of the Author Earnings survey—which was taken, to my knowledge, 2-3 weeks ago. The lists I looked at today were certainly comprised of many different titles, yet the number of self-published titles on both studies is pretty close. This makes it less likely that either study is an anomaly.

Ultimately, though, time will tell.

62 Responses to Self-Publishing’s Share of the Kindle Market by Genre

  • spajonas says:

    Fascinating! Looks like I’m self-publishing in the right genres :)

  • I loved that author earnings report. I pulled it into Excel and played around with more analysis, too.

  • Ben Mathew says:

    Wouldn’t have guessed that Mystery/Thrillers are so out of line with Romance and SFF. So Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler are in a genre that’s quite behind on self-publishing! (Though Amazon imprints seem to have penetrated this segment the best.) Not sure why there’s such variation across genres. I’m guessing it’s driven more by slower adoption of ebooks by readers than by lack of supply. Why that’s the case I don’t know. I’m interested in the laggard genres because I’m pretty sure I’m in one (economics). I’m guessing it has a lot to do with volume. Romance readers are voracious. So they’re the first to adopt ebooks because saving a few dollars per book translates to saving big money over a year. People who read ten books a year or less aren’t as price sensitive and have less incentives to adopt ebooks. I can see this explaining why lit fic, history, economics, etc. are lagging. But I don’t know if this theory would apply to thrillers. Are thriller readers that much less voracious than romance and SF/F readers?

    • Ed Robertson says:

      I think you may be on to something, but at the same time, it seems like plenty of thriller readers have made the move to ebooks. 20% of the entire Kindle market is thriller sales. It could be that’s low relative to print, but I’m not sure that’s true; at most, it’s not *that* much lower.

      It’s really puzzling. Thriller readers being less voracious feels right, and could be part of the explanation. Yet it feels like there has to be something on top of that. Maybe they’re also more author-loyal and tend to stick to big, established names? I really have no idea.

    • There’s a difference between thriller readers and mystery readers: mystery readers, particularly those who read cozies, are generally over 50, i.e., less likely to have moved to ebooks because they’ve grown up thinking book=paper.

  • Lindsay says:

    I wonder if the difference between #s of self-published thrillers/mystery books and the others, esp. SF/F, has something to do with the frequency with which the big name authors in the genre publish. It seems like those mystery/thriller authors are always pumping them out, but with epic fantasy, it’ll be a much longer wait between books from favorite authors, so maybe eager readers are more likely to go digging and find indie authors to try.

    • Ed Robertson says:

      That makes a lot of sense, but trad romance authors are really speedy too, and self-publishing’s doing fine over there. Then again, romance readers are in a class of their own. Would be interesting to take a look at the trad authors in the top 100 of their genres and see whether thriller writers really are faster than SF/F authors.

  • jnfr says:

    In the fantasy list, a large percentage of the trade published best sellers are GRRM, either single books or box sets. He skews the whole market just by existing. I sample the fantasy lists every few months and he’s always there.

  • Jim Self says:

    Ed, this is EXTREMELY useful information. One of the advantages of being indie is that you can cross over genre boundaries and have your books listed in a way that reflects that. Being a fantasy writer, now I’m going to consider my projects based on which bigger genres I can tap into. If you look at the big indie successes, you can easily see how their books cross genres.

  • Scott says:

    A couple of quick questions and a comment: First, where would “Horror” fall? SF/Fantasy? Second, is it possible to do this same thing with Barnes and Noble or do they not list their best-sellers in the same fashion? (I don’t know because I’ve only published on Amazon and haven’t had time to check out the others yet.)

    The comment: As a dentist, I see patients read in the chair during down-time (for them, like when they’re getting numb or when they’re getting impressions and such), and I’ve noticed that far more of them are reading on e-devices (Kindles, Nooks, iPads) and kids are reading more on their phones. But of the people who still bring in a book, most are thrillers, with a few romances in the sample. I should try to mark it down every time I see someone bring in a physical book. (Hardly anyone looks at magazines anymore…)

    • Ed Robertson says:

      Barnes and Noble doesn’t display their lists quite as cleanly, and I think books are often listed in more genres than in Amazon. But they are sortable by rank and you can dig down as far as you want (unlike Amazon, which only lists the top 100 in a category), so you could grab a lot more results. In fact, I think Author Earnings is about to post a bunch of BN data.

      I didn’t look at Horror in these results. A quick look at the bestseller lists indicates it’s about 2.3% of the market (although it’s probably less than that, depending on how you want to classify things, since a fair amount of SF/F is also categorized as Horror). I don’t know how the self-pub/trad ratio breaks down. Would be interesting to see if it aligns with SF&F.

      Neat stuff about patient reading habits in your office. Would be fun to have tracked that since the introduction of the Kindle. :)

    • Brilliant idea! Please do this and let us know – this could be very, VERY useful and practical info… Just what are people taking to read to the dentist/doctor/vet whatever appointment… In my experience, it’s what I’m already reading at home, just you get to see. Let us know!

  • Alan Tucker says:

    Have you, or have you heard of anyone who’s noticed a difference in the weight of Select borrows vs. actual sales with regard to ranking? I’ve got two books in Select and two that are not. I’ve been watching my numbers closely this month because I just did a promotion and wanted to study the results. It’s impossible to correlate directly because of the uncertainty of when a sale or borrow hits your KDP report vs when the rankings change, but it has seemed to me like my rankings have bumped higher when I have some borrows vs. sales.

    • Ed Robertson says:

      I’m all but certain borrows and sales are weighted equally toward bestseller rank. But if you’re seeing something funny, keep watching; this is how we grow our understanding of how all this crazy stuff works.

  • This I knew. Nice to see it confirmed by someone else.

  • Jan Springer says:

    Thanks, Steve for the interesting report. :-)

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  • Paul Draker says:

    Here’s an alternative viewpoint.

    I publish mainly Mystery/Thrillers/Suspense. In other words, right in the heart of “Big-5 Territory.” But I don’t feel disadvantaged at all by the fact that my competition is mostly Big-5. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    In its first 6 months, my debut Mystery/Thriller novel has been in & out the Top-100 five times, blowing past name-brand Big-5 titles left & right.

    I find it a lot harder to compete in Science Fiction, where instead of Big-5 novels, I’m up against the Hugh Howeys, A. G. Riddles, Rysa Walkers, and Ryk Browns–in other words, great writers with the same indie agility, price flexibility, and reactiveness that I have.

    Instead of looking at the Big-5 dominated niches and thinking “In those genres, you need a traditional contract to compete,” perhaps the right interpretation is, “Wow, what an opportunity! You’ll be up against overpriced, slow-moving marshmallows instead of whipcord mean, razor-sharp indies.”

    • Hugh Howey says:

      This. 1,000 times this.

      The genres where self-publishing is not dominating are the genres authors should most consider self-publishing in. If your cover and blurb are ace, customers will only notice that your price is better. And if the book is good, word will spread.

      Non-fiction, literary fiction, thrillers . . . these are the areas enterprising writers should be attacking, not shying away from.

    • Paul: I agree completely. I’m mostly in sci-fi, but I publish another author who writes mysteries, and she’s really making progress (it helps that she’s writing so many so fast). My next series (well, ONE of my next series-es) is going to be mystery, for that very reason.

      P.S. I was just about to ping Hugh and ask him if he’s read this… and he’s already on it. One of those razor-sharp indies. Heh.

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  • J. R. Tomlin says:

    So you are saying that if the majority of sales in a particular genre aren’t self-published that self-publishing in that genre is non-viable?

    I absolutely do not agree.

    • Ed Robertson says:

      Where did I say anything remotely like that? I noted that self-publishing is flourishing in three of these four genres, but that it may be more of a challenge to self-publish mysteries and thrillers. At the same time, I said that could alternately be a market inefficiency for self-publishers to take advantage of.

      I also specifically stated “you don’t have to be a bestseller to make a living as an independent author.” Spending time on KBoards, and chatting it up with other writers, it’s clear some people are doing just fine across pretty much every genre there is.

      At the same time, this little glimpse at the four biggest Kindle genres indicates the landscape may be radically different between genres. If you’re writing in an area where self-publishing hasn’t taken off yet, like middle grade — or where trad publishing appears to have crumbled more than elsewhere, like romance — that may change your decision on which path to pursue and how exactly to pursue it.

      Even if self-publishing were a complete no-show in a certain area, I’d never go so far as to say it “isn’t viable.” All that would mean is that no one’s accomplished it yet. That would imply the risks of self-publishing would be much higher there — but the potential rewards would be just as high.

    • J. R. Tomlin says:

      I’ll simply repeat my response from over on Kboards:

      That very much seemed to be what you were saying, Edward. For example you say that because most mysteries and thrillers that are best sellers are from publishing companies that “taking advantage of the size of that market appears to be a challenge for self-publishers” and “If you’re a thriller author, you may want to keep querying agents.” If not that they are non-viable, you certainly seem to be saying that authors should avoid them.

      On the contrary, I would agree with Hugh that if indies don’t have a majority of the market it is a great opportunity that authors should take advantage of.

      Of course, by your calculations, I am not ‘self-published’ which is also a definition I would question.

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  • Hi Ed! It might be a good idea to clarify in the introduction that you mean Amazon.com’s top 100 bestsellers in each genre, and to say if you checked only the Kindle bestseller lists, or if you also checked the book bestseller lists. I think they are separated.

    • Ed Robertson says:

      Yeah, it’s only looking at the Kindle lists. The book bestseller lists are kind of weird and I wouldn’t really trust the results.

  • As usual, analysts of such data throw mysteries and thrillers (each with all sorts of sub-genres) in the same pot, making the results of little value. I write historical hardboiled mysteries, with dollops of humor, seduction, and even paranormal elements. I wouldn’t call my books “thrillers” or “cozies” by any stretch, but they do fit into the Chandler-Spillane-Hammett American mainstream.

    Romance on the other hand goes forward only with some iron-clad “rules”–yes, dammit, they claim HEA or HFN without cheating as defining Romance. So, Romance is much more homogenous than the catch-all “Mystery-Thriller.”

  • Ed – thanks for the (as usual) fascinating and useful info. I’m curious whether the top 100 lists you analyzed included free as well as paid books? If it included free books (most or all of which were presumably indie, as compared to traditionally published books), then the numbers may be distorted by people that download many more free books than they ever actually get around to reading. If free books were included, it would be very interesting to see how the numbers would come out if you used only the paid books list. Stated another way, if there was a way of calculating the percentages based only on books that actually got read, the publisher percentages might be a lot higher.

    The second reason this would be intriguing is to get a more accurate picture of how much business the traditional publishers are actually losing to indie authors. If you’re using the paid list, then it’s reasonable to assume that at least a very significant percentage of the indie titles actually got read, thereby filling reading “slots” that, absent the availability of indie choices, would have resulted in sales for traditional publishers.

    If that’s the case, then between price pressures and the loss of market shares you show above, the traditional houses are really getting pounded in these categories (and the timing of Harlequin’s owners in selling couldn’t be better).

    • Josh says:

      It’s the Paid List. Amazon doesn’t mix Paid and Free list together.

      For example,

      ‹ Any Department
      ‹ Kindle Store
      ‹ Kindle eBooks
      Romance

      Best Sellers in Romance

      Top 100 Paid Top 100 Free

  • Fascinating discussion for an as yet unpublished author. Should I take the risk of indie publishing a “mixed genre” story? Or should I try for that undefined genre of “commercial” that editors want? Like horror stories, my adventure novels do not fit in any category in demand. If I only knew what “commercial” meant…

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  • Josh says:

    Hi Edward, when was the snapshot taken? February XX? April XX?

    For those that haven’t seen it yet, here is a follow-up post 2 months later:

    http://edwardwrobertson.com/followup-self-publishings-share-of-the-kindle-market-by-genre/

    ROMANCE

    Self-published – 59%
    Small/medium – 3%
    Amazon – 12%
    Big 5 – 26%
    MYSTERY/THRILLER/SUSPENSE

    Self-published – 26%
    Small/medium – 1%
    Amazon – 15%
    Big 5 – 58%
    SCIENCE FICTION

    Self-published – 53%
    Small/medium – 7%
    Amazon – 12%
    Big 5 – 29%
    FANTASY

    Self-published – 45%
    Small/medium – 6%
    Amazon – 8%
    Big 5 – 41%

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  • Ed, I was wondering why you listed Amazon and self-publishing separately. I always considered Amazon (CreateSpace) to be self-publishing. If this isn’t the case, then what do you mean by “self” publishing? Do you mean like Author House? Or iUniverse? Just list a few self publishers and I’ll get it. The amazon numbers were, in every category, the lowest. Would that suggest that CreateSpace wouldn’t be a good choice when shopping for publishers? Thanks for your input.

    • Ed Robertson says:

      Oh, by Amazon, I meant Amazon’s own publishing imprints like Montlake, 47North, etc. Given how few titles they represent, they seem to be doing pretty well for themselves.

    • Josh says:

      Amazon Publishing is HUGE. 3rd biggest publisher on Kindle

      From Publishers Weekly:

      “We owe our growth to a talented group of authors, such as Helen Bryan, whose sales across her two Amazon Publishing books War Brides and The Sisterhood recently surpassed 1M copies,” wrote Belle in a note soliciting recruits.

      At present Amazon has 15 publishing imprints and, according to Belle, it ranks #3 on Kindle in the U.S. for paid units, and #1 on copies sold per new release.

      Some of their publishing imprints:

      AmazonEncore
      AmazonCrossing
      Montlake Romance
      Thomas & Mercer
      47North
      New Harvest
      Amazon Publishing
      Grand Harbor Press
      Two Lions
      Skyscape
      Little A
      Jet City Comics
      Day One

  • Robert Runte says:

    Another possible interpretation of the data is that a high percentage of those self-publishing are writing science fiction and fantasy; that entry level writers are drawn to these genres or believe they are easier genres to break into than, say, mystery. If it turned out that SF attracted 100,000 self-published writers, whereas mystery only attracted 10,000 self published writers, and then it would easily make sense that SF and Fantasy would have 10 times the number of successful self-published writers in the top 100 best sellers. Or, to put it another way, just because SF and Fantasy have a higher % of DIY authors in the top 100 does not mean that one’s odds of breaking into the top 100 are better in SF than other genres: it could easily be that only 1 in a thousand self-published authors gets into top 100 whatever the genre, it’s just that the pool is bigger in some genres than others….
    Of course, top 100 doesn’t relate to income since many DIY authors routinely get themselves into top 100 by offering their book for free or near-free, either as a short term promotion to push the title up in Kindle rankings, or to promote rest of the series. So it may be misleading to look at top 100 as success stories, if success is defined as earning money or being read, rather than just being downloaded.

    • Ed Robertson says:

      All of that is absolutely possible. Truth is, we can’t really know what any of these numbers mean, particularly as advice for people trying to decide whether to self-publish. What looks like a warning flag could easily be a big fat opportunity instead.

    • deb smith says:

      Amen.
      And consider this re: the dominance of the romance genre: erotica is the driving force in that market, and erotica readers were the earliest adopters of ebooks; romance readers in general adopted ebooks earlier than other genre readers. Romance authors moved to self-pub earlier than most and moved their backlist to ebook, which adds to the sales. There are many factors and the analysis here is looking for simple answers instead. Also, extrapolating gigantic self-pub sales based on Kindle bestseller snapshots is faulty to say the least, and btw, there is no evidence that any but a small percentage of self-pubs or trad pubs are earning a living as authors. No matter what Hugh Howey says or how anyone piggybacks info on top of his numbers.

    • Ed Robertson says:

      I don’t think “piggybacks” is the word you’re looking for. The Author Earnings report referenced work done by several different authors, including myself. It’s a conversation, a cumulative effort to figure out what the hell’s actually going on in our new corner of the industry.

  • Josh says:

    To Edward Robertson:

    Will you make another report for June?

    It would be interesting to track this over time.

  • I’m curious about the authors whose books are doing very well on the self-publishing market, but who came to it AFTER being traditionally published first. Bella Andre (romance writer) is one example. After her traditional publisher dropped her, she came out with her Sullivan series books. Since Bella already had somewhat of a following, the sales took off, and now she’s broken all kinds of sales records. I think she’s up to Book 13 in that series, or something like that. (I think since then, one of the Big 5 has sat up and taken notice, and re-approached her for a contract).

    So, although this would be an extremely difficult study to complete, I would be interested to know just how many FIRST TIME authors who self pub make a decent splash with their books.

    • deb smith says:

      Very few. Very, very few.
      Almost all the success stories are hybrid authors. The enormous machinery of the big houses builds an audience for authors in ways that go wide and deep. The distribution to trad bookstores and booksellers leaves a major impression, and authors absolutely, positively benefit from that background when they go indie.

      Of course self-pubs with no Big House history can build a career, and many are. But “many” is still a tiny number, percentage-wise. That’s like saying “many” people find good work as actors in Hollywood. Thousands of them, yes. But they are .1 percent of all the actors competing for those careers.

    • Josh says:

      I would say more than half of the very successful self-publishers are FIRST TIME authors.

      Here’s a link to available sale figures from SP authors who willing to share the figures

      http://www.kboards.com/authors/
      From the top 20 authors on that list:

      HM Ward: first time author
      Amanda Hocking: first time author
      Liliana Hart
      Hugh Howey: he made it big with Self publishing Wool
      Theresa Ragan: first time author
      Darcie Chan: first time author
      B. V. Larson
      Russell Blake
      Michael Wallace
      Michael J. Sullivan: made it big with SP, then got signed by a NY Publisher
      M. Malone
      Eve Langlais

      etc…

      From that top 20 list, authors who got a good start from NY Publishing:

      Bella Andre
      J.A. Konrath
      Marie Force
      Courtney Milan
      Ralph Cotton

      Not sure about the rest of the top 20…

    • Ed Robertson says:

      Yep. I stalk the SF charts pretty hard. Virtually everyone who’s found success self-publishing in SF began their careers indie.

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  • Russ Linton says:

    Note too, that the traditional publishers tend to go balls out for Mystery / Thriller promos and those things ride the bestseller lists for a few weeks and disappear. They then lock an author into a formula and keep cranking them out. That may help explain the gap between self pub and traditional pub in that category.

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  • Georgia Shuler says:

    Thank you! I was begining to do this myself and thought . . . I bet someone else had this thought. :) Many thanks.

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  • Josh says:

    Will you do another report for June or July?

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