A Call for Writers to Organize: Hugh Howey Interview

11 February 2014 iStock_000011883583Small photog UygarGeographic texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. “To Call for Change Within the Publishing Community”
  2. “To Stand Up for Each Other”
  3. “A New Era of Openness”
  4. “I Didn’t Have a Social Life Before”

uPublishU Author Hub Bestsellers #BEA14 Andre Freethy Howey Lyons

“To Call for Change Within the Publishing Community”

This is how a movement might start:

  • Indie authors are outselling the Big Five. That’s the entire Big Five. Combined…in the most popular and bestselling genres on Amazon.
  • Indie authors are earning nearly half the total author revenue from [leading] genre fiction sales on Amazon.
  • For the top-selling genres, Amazon is currently making nearly as much profit from indie ebooks as from Big Five ebooks.
  • For Big Five-published works [in the top-selling genres] the publisher makes more than twice what the author makes for the sale of an ebook.
Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

And this is how a call to action might sound:

I want all authors to stand up for each other, ask for better pay, fairer terms, saner contracts. This only works if writers of all stripes get together and do what the screenwriters were able to do when Hollywood digitized. That should be our model

What you’re reading above are, first, several top-line assertions I’ve excerpted from a report on an all-new set of calculations. They lie at the heart of a new website and author-advocacy effort, AuthorEarnings.com. On Twitter, it’s @AuthorEarnings.

Second, you’re reading comments made to me by Hugh Howey shortly after the report on those calculations went live on the Author Earnings site.

The points I’ve culled from the report are not independently verified results, and the report is titled just that, The Report. It has a February 12 date on it but it was made visible during the afternoon Tuesday, February 11, by its authors, Howey and an unnamed associate who is working on this project with him.

The site was temporarily crashed Tuesday shortly after the report went live by high levels of traffic, Howey confirmed to me. Author Joe Konrath posted a copy of The Report at his own site, with commentary, during the AuthorEarnings.com outage. The tweeterie was quickly bustling with authors telling each other about it. Buzz and debate are likely to grow all evening and into Wednesday.

AuthorEarnings.com is, as its no-nonsense homepage tells you, dedicated by its creators to “helping authors make better decisions.”

Its short mission statement:

Our purpose is to gather and share information so that writers can make informed decisions. Our secondary mission is to call for change within the publishing community for better pay and fairer terms in all contracts. This is a website by authors and for authors.

There are five activities offered by the new site.

  1. You can read the lengthy report, which asserts, “The benefits are moving to the reader and the writer.”
  2. You can take a short author survey to “help other writers better understand this rapidly changing market.”
  3. You can sign a petition “to allow us to advocate for you.”
  4. You can sign up for email from Author Earnings.
  5. You can download an Excel spreadsheet with the data on which the report is based.

The austerity of the site, the concision and economy of its statements, may surprise some in the established publishing community who would expect any effort in organizing entrepreneurial authors to be all funny hats, whimsical fonts, motivational aphorisms, and phantom unicorn lovers.

Not so. There are no faeries at the bottom of this garden. This looks serious.

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“To Stand Up for Each Other”

Author Earnings“I hope to start a dialog,” Howey tells me, “about what’s really happening in the publishing world rather than talk about what we hope might be happening.

“Seeing reports on the flattening of book sales, penetration rates of 25% for e-books, and comparisons between all of self-publishing and only the top 1% (or less) of traditional publishing is doing real harm for writers,” he says.

“The real story is visible in the trenches, at writing conferences, in forums, in private Facebook groups. Better data will support that picture. I’ve always suspected this.

“What I didn’t suspect was that the real picture is even more biased in the direction of self-publishing than I’ve been saying it is.”

Here are some more of the data points being generated by the report that Howey and his associate are making at Author Earnings.

Again, I’ve excerpted them, and the calculations that produce them have been made, Howey says, on three leading genres: mystery/thriller/suspense; science fiction/fantasy; and romance.

  • Indie and small-publisher titles dominate the bestselling genres on Amazon.
  • 86% of the Top-2,500 genre fiction bestsellers in the overall Amazon store are ebooks.
  • 92% of the Top-100 bestselling books are ebooks.
  • More self-published authors are, on average, earning more money on fewer books [than are traditionally published authors].


This first snapshot of estimates based on information found at Amazon.com comprises a look at 7,000 genre titles. Already, another round of calculations is being processed, Howey says.

“Right now, we’re pulling 50,000 titles at a time. And we’re going to do B&N next.”

Howey tells me that he’s not alone in his pursuit of data and analysis of it.

“Authors who hope to make a living at this, are on the verge of making a living at this, or who already are making a living at this,” he says, “are very keen for as much data as possible.

“Writers are wordsmiths, but I’ve never seen such a rabid group of number-crunchers in my life. Authors take daily snapshots of sales and graph them to look for trends. They want to know as much as possible about what’s selling and to whom. As a group, to generalize, authors are mad for data.”

And Howey explains in the introduction to his report that his process is one of comparing sales rankings and earnings experience:

I had charted my daily sales reports as my works marched from outside the top one million right up to #1 on Amazon. Using these snapshots, I could plot the correlation between rankings and sales. It wasn’t long before dozens of self-published authors were sharing their sales rates at various positions along the lists in order to make author earnings more transparent to others [link] [link]. Gradually, it became possible to closely estimate how much an author was earning simply by looking at where their works ranked on public lists [link].

A contact from his associate on the new project moved Howey from tracking his own sales and comparing notes with other authors to interpreting numbers being run by his report co-author. He writes:

I received an email from an author with advanced coding skills who had created a software program that can crawl online bestseller lists and grab mountains of data. All of this data is public—it’s online for anyone to see—but until now it’s been extremely difficult to gather, aggregate, and organize. This program, however, is able to do in a day what would take hundreds of volunteers with web browsers and pencils a week to accomplish. The first run grabbed data on nearly 7,000 e-books from several bestselling genre categories on Amazon. Subsequent runs have looked at data for 50,000 titles across all genres. You can ask this data some pretty amazing questions, questions I’ve been asking for well over a year [link]. And now we finally have some answers.

Those answers offer some intriguing observations.


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“A New Era of Openness”

Author Earnings site homeThe report is imminently readable and even those who may have been put off in the past by shrill and hostile rhetoric from the self-publishing wing of the authors’ corps will find that Howey writes without anger. If you tuned out the voices of the entrepreneurial author community because you once found them vengeful and sneering, it’s time you started listening again. Howey writes with an earnest, personable, light touch.

For example, he makes a point about writers in the wider creative community, without rancor but with deft perception, in pointing out that publishing is laboring under a crippling lack of data because of major retailers’ proprietary handling of their sales information:

Other artistic endeavors have far greater data at hand, and practitioners of those arts and those who aspire to follow in their footsteps are able to make better-informed decisions. The expectations of these artists and athletes are couched in realism to a degree that the writing profession does not currently enjoy.

In trying to begin remedying that dearth of information, Howey and his associate compared average review ratings with average pricing on those bestselling ebooks.

They noticed, among other things, that self-published titles, priced generally lower than the traditionally published titles, were drawing higher ratings on Amazon’s five-star system. He writes:

Is it possible that price impacts a book’s rating? Most readers don’t know and don’t care how the books they read are published. They just know if they liked the story and how much they paid. If they’re paying twice as much for traditionally published books, which experience will they rate higher? The one with better bang for the buck…Are publishers losing money in the long run by charging higher prices? Are they decreasing the value/cost ratio and thereby creating lower average ratings for their authors and their products?

And he returns to his key theme late in the report, in a section called “An Easier Choice,” writing:

Choosing which way to publish is becoming a difficult choice for the modern author. This choice has only grown more challenging as options have expanded and as conflicting reports have emerged on how much or how little writers can expect to make. Our contention is that many of these reports are flawed, both by the self-selected surveys they employ, the sources for these surveys, and, occasionally, the biases in their interpretation. Our fear is that authors are selling themselves short and making poor decisions based on poor data. That is the main purpose for fighting for earnings transparency: helping aspiring writers choose the path that’s best for them.

I pointed out to Howey that his own survey on the Author Earnings site is self-selecting, itself. His response is that the key is full and transparent disclosure, not only of questions asked in a survey but also of  a survey’s nature and of the responses coming in.

“I think surveys are great,” Howey said. “Presenting them as a whole picture is dangerous, especially if the source is limited both in audience and in time. Our survey will stay open. Anyone can see the questions. We can add to it over time based on feedback. The full data is available to all.

“We aren’t trying to generate a profit or run a business off of this,” Howey said. “We are interested in the truth. And we are going to augment that with real sales ranking data and with a call to many outlets to get as many authors as possible to participate in a new era of openness.”

12 December 2013 iStock_000009864589Small photog uyrk texted story image-2Most recently, the self-selecting-sampled survey produced by Digital Book World (DBW) and Writer’s Digest has come under fire from Howey and others for what they say is an incorrect way of comparing self-published and traditionally published authors’ earnings. That controversy is extensively covered in Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go. Results of that survey have now been packaged by DBW under the title What Advantages Do Traditional Publishers Offer Authors?


As Howey states in his report, a secondary goal of Author Earnings — after the generation of data useful to writers in their career decisions — is:

To pressure publishers to more fairly distribute a new and lucrative source of income. Operating in lockstep in offering authors only 25% of net is not just unfair but unsustainable, as more and more authors are going to jump to self-publishing.

I’ve asked Howey if, in fact, he thinks that an author-advocacy effort like Author Earnings could have been mounted before the substantial rise we see today of the entrepreneurial-author dynamic, which is so focused on community and, in many instances, on mutual support. In other words, could this have happened when traditional publishing was the only game in town?

“No,” he says. “Publishers refuse to compete with one another. They operate in lockstep in a way that seems to violate both good business sense and antitrust laws.

“Self-publishing,” Howey says, “is a new and viable alternative, and so now we have real competition.

“And let me be clear,” he adds, his own background as a yacht captain showing in his choice of metaphor, “the people in publishing are great people. I know quite a few of them, and they agree that these changes need to happen. But at the very top, you have skippers who don’t want to turn these boats.

“They want to grab whatever dwindling wind they can get rather than turn now and avoid the reefs ahead. ”

The Author Earnings petition, in fact, Howey says, is directed toward publishers, he says, “publishers who pay 25% of net on e-book sales and want rights for life of copyright with laughable reversion clauses. ”

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“I Didn’t Have a Social Life Before”

Howey, of course, is the author of the Wool “Silo Saga” trilogy and the new Sandhere is my report for The Bookseller on his new contract with Random House UK’s Century imprint for both the print and digital publication of the new book in the UK.

He is already is seen by some as perhaps the most visible and outspoken of the high-earning pantheon of bestselling independent authors. Howey, with more than 2 million copies of his books sold, has been making it clear for several weeks now, in a series of essays, that he is personally committed to addressing what he sees as an established industry’s tendencies to obfuscate the best career paths for authors.

With Author Earnings, he tells me, he’s footing the bill, himself. ” I’m spending my own money on hosting and web design. I won’t do any advertising, and I don’t hope to gain a thing from this for myself. The writing community and profession have already given me more than I deserve or know what to do with.”

Some will not be surprised at this formalization of his interests.

30 January 2014 iStock_000001433232Small photog GregAIT texted story imageAs I wrote in Publishing, Between Revolution and Revolt, in Howey’s essay  Bread and Roses, he focuses on why he sees the Author Guild as completely inadequate to the task of supporting and advocating for writers, and he writes:

I stand for the ability of those who choose to write for a living to have the best opportunities possible. It’s a narrow focus, but it’s one I’m passionate about. I’ve been passionate about this for longer than I’ve been writing. It goes back to my book review and bookstore employee days. As a reader who loved stories, I cared for those who created them. Now that I’m on the other side and have become friends with storytellers, this cause is strengthened. And the more I learn about the abuses authors suffer, the more I want to speak out.

It’s unlikely that Howey is alone in wanting “to speak out.”

A fast-maturing level of discourse on the entrepreneurial author movement has been met—in some cases, not in all—by a more prudent, pragmatic, mutually respectful tone of dialog than marked the wider writing community even a year ago.

And this widening conversation is being matched by a new rise in author-facing conference events, some of which frankly echo the sense of unrest and purpose being found in a newly coordinating author corps.

London Author Fair Writers Unite

Authoright’s inaugural London Author Fair, set for February 28, for example, includes in its branding graphics a fist with a quill pen in the style reminiscent of WPA-ear artwork, and the legend: Writers Unite.

Howey, himself, is a speaker on the roster for the London Book Fair’s Publishing for Digital Minds Conference, April 7 at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster.

London Book Fair Digital Minds 2014 small bannerLondon Book Fair also presents an Author HQ program sponsored by Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing and its London Book and Screen Week events culminate in a London Writers Fair on April 11.

The new PubSmart Conference in Charleston , April 16-18, has Howey and longtime international publishing commentator Jane Friedman (host of the this site, JaneFriedman.com) as its keynote speakers.

Publishers' Forum BerlinHowey is also a presenter at Klopotek’s influential Publishers Forum 2014, which is scheduled to take place this year in Berlin on May 5 and 6.

And Howey will be working side-by-side with some 155 of his fellow authors in the all-new uPublishU Author Hub at BookExpo America, May 29-31, headlining the space with his fellow independent bestsellers Bella Andre, Barbara Freethy, and CJ Lyons.

Howey says he’s ready for what will inevitably be considerable push-back from some in response to the Author Earnings material.

In the body of the report he writes:

We expect many to disagree with our analysis. We expect flaws will be found in our reasoning and our sampling methodologies. Discovering those flaws will lead to better data, and we look forward to that process.

So, as we watch Author Earnings roll out, and that schedule of appearances looming, I ask him if he isn’t worried that his author-advocacy work is going to eat into his writing time and career.

As usual, Howey is ready with a good answer.

“My writing allowed me to quit my day job,” he says. “My new day job is geeking out over all things publishing, advocating for writers, connecting with readers.

“I didn’t have a social life before, and I’m not about to gum up my schedule by developing one now. ”

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Main image – iStockphoto: NewMediaProjects

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