WRITING ON THE ETHER: Which Has More Impact? The Chicken or Self-Publishing?

25 July 2013 iStock_000001142272XSmall photog LaserLens texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Trying To Count the eBooks We’ve Hatched
  2. “Without Gatekeepers Who Need To Publish Blockbusters”
  3. “The Analysis…Is Already Weighted Against eBooks”
  4. A Barnyard by Moonlight

Trying To Count the eBooks We’ve Hatched

As the effluvium gathers today, this is Writing on the Ether No. 100. Thank you for reading this hot air, hosted so faithfully by our great friend and colleague Jane Friedman.

ereaderUPDATE on Friday, July 26: The Bookseller in London—the work of which figures prominently in this post—has announced that it’s going to begin publishing a monthly ebook ranking with sales figures from all the major publishers in the UK. More publishers are to be added.

The distinction here is that these will be publisher-reported figures, not compilations and sortings of existing rankings. The weekly Digital Book World ranking, for example, is a helpful observational calculation drawn from online retailer ratings of book sales and from other best-seller lists. At times, it spots strong ranking contenders among self-published as well as traditionally published ebooks. The methodology for that one is discussed here.

The Bookseller ranking, instead, will produce a monthly Top 50 list of ebooks drawn from direct reportage by majors, comprising 51 percent of the total print market in the UK and 81 percent of the total fiction market there. “Majors” means, at the outset, Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and Bloomsbury.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt BuchmesseDrawbacks? No self-publishing representation of ebook output, one of the two key elements of this Ether. (I’m not throwing a stone there, just stating a fact. At present, there’s’ simply no known mechanism to get reportage of sales from self-publishing entrepreneurial authors.)

And notice that, of course, Amazon, the biggest producer and seller of digital books, is not represented, per its policy of holding its numbers proprietary and not making them public (also mentioned later here).  

Philip Jones in communications with me knows these points well, of course—they’re the foundation of his own excellent post, “The Invisible eBook,” after all. It comes into play below. But he’s right that this development of a ranking of ebooks—directly reported by the majors, (and per the degree of accuracy we each assign to their statements, we must add)—is a big step toward getting some understanding of an as-yet largely “invisible ebook.”

This new ranking, then, is good news, we welcome it and congratulate The Bookseller team on creating it. UK publishers who want to add their data are invited to contact “the other Philip”: philip.stone@bookseller.co.uk

The first ranking is to come out in the Friday, August 2 issue and will cover June. 

The announcement story at The Bookseller is here. (No paywall, you can read it without subscription.)

And as the summer wears on, two forces are circling each other in the publishing hen house.

Our biggest problem? We don’t have a good enough picture of either. The chicken is crossing the road blindfolded.

The change is self-publishing, and my friends, it is huge.

Barbara O’Neal is not wrong.

E-book sales are headed in only one direction: that is up.

Philip Jones is not wrong, either. To consider the timeliness and specificity of their messages to us, we need to hear from each. Jones and O’Neal have something important to say this week. Back to Table of Contents


“Without Gatekeepers Who Need To Publish Blockbusters”

18 July 2013 iStock_000024022247Small photog Ixpert Texted Story ImageLast week here in Writing on the Ether: Is Publishing’s Star System Cuckoo?, we looked at the star system and the blockbuster dependency on which many traditional elements of the industry! the industry! seem to be running. This is part of what O’Neal is getting at in her new post when she writes about:

…the ability to price, package and reach your own audience without gatekeepers who need to publish blockbusters. It’s a tremendous amount of creative freedom that has already created some new sub-genres because there was no editor or marketing panel to say, “We don’t think stories about post-high school will sell.”

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones
Barbara O’Neal

And one of the things that makes this RITA Award-winning author’s The Sea Change of Self-Publishing at Writer Unboxed so significant is that her article comes from the deepest, pinkest heart of the romance world. Her post is a look-back at the Romance Writers of America’s (RWA) national conference in Altanta last week. Surprised? Me, too. Surely, if anybody understands self-publishing, it’s the Shirtless Men Kissing Beautiful Women crowd. But as we learn from our good colleague O’Neal, the “sea change” at RWA this year meant “the swell was washing over every aspect of the conference.” Romance Writers of America 2She writes of a serious power shift:

For the first time I can remember, ever, editors and agents were wooing authors. One notable workshop featured editors from major houses presenting the things publishers could do for authors. Meanwhile, speakers on the self-pub track, assembled single-handedly by self-publishing millionaire Barbara Freethy, packed the room. The ballroom. 

Barbara Freethy, left, and agent Kristin Nelson at BEA on May 30
Barbara Freethy, left, and agent Kristin Nelson at BEA on May 30

Barbara Freethy, of course, is the three-million-copy-selling author of 34 books who, as we reported at Publishing Perspectives has just signed with Hugh Howey’s agent Kristin Nelson. O’Neal tells us of comments about self-publishers’ earning capacity from author Bella Andre, a Freethy and Howey associate in the #Indie6 group of “Indie Bestsellers” who took a booth together at BookExpo America (BEA) this year. O’Neal adds:

Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble sent their teams to hold meetings, present workshops, and even offer a wine-tasting. Authors were wooed here, too—by merchandisers and editors for the indies.

Writers Digest West 2013 WDCWLast spring in New York City, we saw the same upswing in the self-publishing dynamic as Writer’s Digest Conference East staged a daylong conference-within-a-conference on self-publishing. The same will occur in Los Angeles on September 27, when I’ll be moderating a panel with Amazon’s Jon Fine and WriterCube’s Kristen McLean in Writer’s Digest Conference West’s self-publishing day program. O’Neal’s piece is enriched by her frank comments about how far apart many authors are on the issue. She writes that despite the high-profile stories of strong (monthly!) income and creative control:

Many [authors] are very frightened. Some haven’t made any money at all—and the reasons are as numerous as in any other field. Some have a bad product. Some have terrible packaging…or a non-existent understanding of web marketing. Other authors are just afraid. Afraid of change. Afraid of looking foolish if they try it and fail. Afraid they won’t be taken as seriously if they self-publish. Afraid to leap.

The Writer Unboxed community, as usual, has no fear of leaping into generous, lively discussion of the self-publishing phenomenon with O’Neal.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road Press
Donald Maass

Particularly interesting are comments from agent Donald Maass, who on two days this week at the site has written to authors, “The industry needs you more than you need it.” Of special interest to those who have followed our coverage of the ebook royalty debate (see A Major Publisher Jumps the Shark), Maass now writes in a comment: Surprised? Me, too. Surely, if anybody understands self-publishi

Publishers sooner or later will escalate e-book royalty rates. Believe it. It will happen. It’s already happening around the edges. It’s called competition. And as their royalty rates rise, their bad deal for authors–compared to the true margins of do-it-”yourself”–will start to look not so bad. Publishers have not yet grasped the sea change in the world of authors. Authors in this giddy time have not yet grasped the true cost of going it alone.

Writer UnboxedAnd as for the trickiest part of the self-publishing debate? We simply don’t know how many authors are trying to self-publish. And so we certainly don’t know how well they’re doing. Our information is frequently anecdotal, guesswork, extrapolation. Throughout the comments that follow O’Neal’s post, you read folks mentioning “the writers I know have told me…” And this is because the self-publishing dynamic is, by definition, non-aligned, neither easily counted nor categorized, impossible for standard survey and research operations to fully track, and as broadly decentralized as traditional publishing once was concentrated in New York. CONTEC Frankfurt 2013How many are “succeeding?”—success for one author may be something else to another. With this new, entrepreneurial energy comes a diffusion of goals and proving points; the traditional model’s standards for “success” may not all apply. This is one reason I’m looking forward to another moderating gig at the CONTEC Frankfurt 2013 conference on October 8, when we’ll be addressing the implications of self-publishing for traditional publishing, itself. In the meantime, O’Neal brings us candor and optimism amid the quandaries:

My prediction for the coming year is that we’re going to see more and more big name authors jumping into the [self-publishing] waters—and finding great success. I also predict a lot of new writers are going to go with their creativity and their guts and create new genres and subgenres all over the place.

And before that golden egg gets fully away from us, let’s look at the other major part of the puzzle we can’t yet figure out: those ebooks. Back to Table of Contents


“The Analysis…Is Already Weighted Against eBooks”

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, Books in Browsers, Internet Archive, StoryWorld, Writer's Digest Conference, O'Reilly Media, Tools of Change
Philip Jones

The Bookseller’s editor Philip Jones in his new FutureBook gets the egg rolling this way:

There is talk of sales plateauing at around 30% [in the US], as in the UK they appear to have coalesced at around 25%. Except, I’m not really convinced by this. There is a sense that ebook sales are “booming” and yet there is no data to back this up.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road Press
Sam Missingham

Jones is aided, as he notes, by an earlier write at The FutureBook by his colleague Sam Missingham, In search of a happy ending, in which she wrote of some in publishing who want to say, “We’ve got digital licked. Nothing to see here, please move along.” While you need to read Missingham’s calculations of what can be known and deduced, part of her concern is captured in this sentence:

A market that has gone from zero to conservatively 706 million ebooks in 5 years in the US is not plateauing.

And she adds:

The number of self-published authors will continue to grow; in general their ebooks are cheaper; we will see more rapid growth in unit sales here.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, Books in Browsers, Internet Archive, Tools of Change, Pearson, Penguin, Random House, O'Reilly MediaJones, in this week’s The invisible e-book, then takes up the point—not unfamiliar to Ether readers—that regular means of evaluating ebooks don’t include actual figures from the biggest players, from “the self-publishing market or of Amazon’s own digital publishing” because Seattle doesn’t report those numbers. The biggest force in the field holds its sales data private, as proprietary information. That’s a perfectly legitimate corporate tactic, but it keeps us from knowing what’s actually going on. What’s more, Jones adds, “The half-year data also does not take into account the significant boost the digital market may get this summer, or the impact of runaway bestsellers such as Fifty Shades—or, potentially, The Cuckoo’s Calling.” And this, emphasis his:

But most importantly, the analysis, based on print book bestsellers, is already weighted against ebooks. The top-selling print books may not also be the top-selling ebooks. 


This is the key. It almost certainly is not the case that the ebook market is a digital mirror to the print market. The point has been reflected in O’Neal’s write-up, as well, when she notes:

Romance novels are definitely at the forefront of the digital revolution. Erotica has long been read in ebook format, and now contemporary and new adult romances are rocking the digital lists. Other genres are doing quite well, however. Science fiction is growing, and mysteries are very strong. Sooner or later, there are bound to be cross-overs in literary and non-fiction.


And in his own, parallel thinking, Jones goes past the frequent custom of looking at ebook activity in the market as a print-to-ebook translation of the main sellers in the standard market:

Almost all of the data we have about the ebook market is rooted in how ebooks are doing when compared to print books. When we talk about ebook growth what we have really been talking about is digital migration. I have now seen some data for the biggest selling standalone ebooks, and a different picture emerges. While we report that the average P to P+E ration [ebook to print+ebook ratio] is around 25% for books featured in the Top 50, for books that are ebook bestsellers, that percentage leaps, almost to 50%. This means for that some types of publishing, and certain styles of books, talk of a deceleration may seem way off.


And now the probable breadth of that “invisible ebook” begins to emerge. Jones opens the door to the barn:

What we have so far failed to measure is ebooks that are ebooks first, be they self-published ebooks, or books that have simply outperformed in digital format. There are many, many, ebooks that are selling in the thousands that have little or no relation to the performance of their print book equivalent, if indeed they have one. They may be Amazon published, or released via an agent’s White Glove list; they may be part of a backlist digital list such as the Bloomsbury Reader, or put out by one of the growing range of front-list digital lists, such as [Little, Brown UK’s] Blackfriars; or they may be self-published.

Jones is talking mostly about digital-first and/or digital-only material. Some of it lies unreported and untracked by standard means because many self-publishing authors don’t use ISBNs as identifiers for their ebooks. And it’s huge, of course. Like a parallel estate to the known terrain of major publishing and e-versions of traditional books, the native-digital ebook ranch is bustling along to different patterns of interest and engagement with its readers. Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookIn a separate report Wednesday, Digital fiction to overtake paperbacks in 2014, says Nielsen (this one is behind The Bookseller’s news paywall), Jones looks at Nielsen’s optimistically titled “Understanding the eBook Consumer” report for July and sees the general lower price points of ebooks coupling with a decline in print revenues. He assesses the Nielsen report: “Sales of hardback and paperback novels are falling faster than sales of fiction ebooks are rising.” And that, needless to say, may be good for no one in publishing. But again, we don’t have a clear picture of what ebooks are doing. Such analysis is made without a complete view of the market. Back to Table of Contents

One of VQR's "instapoem" series, this one by Adam Chiles.
One of VQR’s “instapoem” series, this one by Adam Chiles.


A Barnyard by Moonlight

The service provided us by O’Neal and Jones this week is like good flashlight work on a darkened landscape. Chicken and egg, ebooks and self-publishing seem to be functioning as mutually enabling forces. Because we have that 2007 date on which Amazon’s Kindle began making ebooks the viable force they are today, we probably can beat the old rap and tell, at least, which came first in terms of current dynamics.

Once the first successful e-reader was in place, the efficiency of digital production and the marketplace generated by the Kindle made self-publishing a workable avenue for many writers. This led other players—among them Kobo, iBookstore, Barnes and Noble’s troubled Nook effort, Smashwords, etc.—to begin working in the e-self-publishing space. Today, however, neither self-publishing nor ebook publication is adequately tracked or understood.


We do know, thanks to O’Neal and others, that traditional publishing elements see reason to court the entrepreneurial author at one of the great US shrines of romance-category diversity, the RWA convention.

And we know, thanks to Jones, that we’re not crazy: when the print market contracts but we don’t seem to see ebook numbers taking up the slack, it very well may be because we dont’t have those ebook numbers. And we need them.

He says it well:

eBook sales are headed in only one direction: that is up. But this market is also broadening out, and taking on a life of its own. eBooks have a commercial reality that is different from the print market. What we interpret as a slowdown may actually be sales disappearing from sight.

What do you think? Do you feel hobbled by the uncertainties of markets and publishing paths about which we can only make educated guesses?

Back to Table of Contents



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