Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go

12 December 2013 iStock_000009864589Small photog uyrk texted story image-2

Table of Contents

  1. Is Our Margin of Error Showing?
  2. If You Don’t Get It Yet: Let’s Try It This Way
  3. Quality of Data and Good Intentions Are Not in Question
  4. And Another Thing: Authors at Work
  5. Calling the Question

Is Our Margin of Error Showing?

Here comes another article on how very little self-published authors earn!…With self-publishing, ALL books and authors are counted. In traditional publishing, only a small fraction are.

Hugh Howey in Paris during his recent two-month tour on the Continent. HughHowey.com

Hugh Howey in Paris during his recent two-month tour on the Continent. HughHowey.com

Hugh Howey has become an articulate commentator on publishing, as I said on Monday while interviewing him for this week’s #PorterMeets column in London’s The Bookseller. (It’s on the stands tomorrow, Friday.) And as his sales grow, so does this author’s ability to speak with sometimes uncomfortable precision to the establishment.

Digital Book World’s (DBW) Jeremy Greenfield used his Forbes spot earlier this week to promote a series of DBW posts by Dana Beth Weinberg previewing the coming Digital Book World Conference & Expo’s update of the always-interesting What Authors Want survey. It’s put together by DBW and Writers Digest’s (WD)Phil Sexton. (Info on the conference is at the end of this column if you need it; best advance prices end Friday.)

Greenfield headlined his survey teaser How Much Money Do Self-Published Authors Make? and his first line is: 

In short, not much.

DBW Conference 2014He writes that the coming DBW Conference update in January will tell us that “the median income range for self-published authors is under $5,000 and nearly 20% of self-published authors report deriving no income from their writing.” And then he tells us about the other side of the fence, according to respondents to the survey, emphasis mine:

By comparison, authors published by traditional publishers had a median income range of $5,000 to $9,999 and ‘hybrid authors’ (those who both self-publish and publish with established publishers) had a median income range of $15,000 to $19,999.

Jeremy Greenfield

Jeremy Greenfield

The basic shape of this information is not a surprise. Since its inception, the What Authors Want summary has told us with dependable consistency that respondents suggest hybrid authors do better than either traditionally-only published authors or self-published-only authors;  and that self-published-only authors make the least from their writing.

But look again at the word I’ve highlighted in Greenfield’s sentence: published. It’s the whole crux of the crucial point Howey now brings us.

Howey has gone to his blog page with a short essay, You’re looking at it wrong. He quotes Greenfield this way:

“At the high end of the spectrum, 1.8% of self-published authors made over $100,000 from their writing last year, compared with 8.8% of traditionally published authors and 13.2% of hybrid authors.”

And then Howey writes:

But that compares ALL self-published authors and only a small fraction of people who go the traditional route. I’ve been hammering this point home for years, but it still gets left out of these comparisons. When you look at earnings and sales figures for traditionally published books, you have to take into account the huge percentage of books that never make it out of the slush pile. Why? Because those are authors and books attempting to go that route.

His clearest statement of the problem:

With self-publishing, ALL books and authors are counted. In traditional publishing, only a small fraction are.

I’m hunkering on this because Howey is right. And he’s “hammering” at something we need to confront head-on if we’re to benefit from such extensive survey work as DBW and WD are doing for us.

An important point to get into place right now is that nobody’s ox is being gored here. This is not an “attack,” just put that word away before you even say it. As Howey makes very clear, what we need in order to do this correctly isn’t available. Nobody’s bad or mean or evil here. So remain calm, no holiday hysteria is required today, don’t make me come over there with the defibrillator.

But. Howey is right. We have to stop leaving this truth out of such survey comparisons. And when I say “we,” mea culpa: I mean those of us who report it as well as those who present it without disclaiming this problem. We can’t, as Howey puts it, keep pretending the distinction isn’t crippling this element of survey interpretation.

I’m going to quote Howey at a bit of length because we’ve heard these types of stats from various authorities (not just DBW/WD) for quite a while; it’s time to really listen to the counterpoint coming from the other side of the cathedral:

Because these numbers are impossible to wrangle, we simply pretend the distinction doesn’t exist. A fair comparison would be to know (here’s the impossible bit) how many manuscripts are submitted to agents and how many of those are never self-published. These are part of the traditional equation. Period. If you’re going to count among the self-published works every copy/pasted Wikipedia article or rough draft that is just tossed out there with no love and no editing, then you’ve gotta lump the slush pile into the traditional tally. Plain and simple.

When you consider this, the 1.8% vs. 8.8% is pretty amazing. Especially considering the $100K traditional club are the people getting all the promotional energy and dollars from major publishers.

We cannot “simply pretend the distinction doesn’t exist” anymore.

Back to Table of Contents

If You Don’t Get It Yet: Let’s Try It This Way

The point Howey is making is a little tricky to get at first (which is why so many of us haven’t spotted it right away). Subtlety gives way to elegance as quickly as you grasp it, however. If you haven’t grokked it yet, this section of the column today is for you. If you have, jump to the next section and we’ll finish up.

Consider yourself an author with a book ready to go. We’re going to look at you first as a traditionally aspiring author, then as a self-publishing one.

Traditional

(1) If you wanted to be traditionally published, you’d shop your book to agents. Let’s say no agents liked your deathless prose, alas, and you ended up with one of those badge-of-honor piles of rejection slips and an intense interest in sharing my Campari.

(2) If I then came around doing this survey for DBW and Writer’s Digest, I wouldn’t even know to ask you how much money you’d made from that writing in traditional publishing. Why? Because you’d be invisible to me. If you shop your book around with no luck, it vanishes. This happens to most books. (If you didn’t know this yet, you’ll need that Campari now.) This is what Howey means by “the huge percentage of books that never make it out of the slush pile.”

(3) So your lack of income from your writing wouldn’t be counted in the survey. Because you weren’t published. And the only thing the surveys count on the traditional side are published books and their authors’ income.

Now, we’re going to do it again.

Self-Publishing

(1) Your book is ready. You’ve done everything people like me tell you to do to produce it beautifully: you’ve taken the time to write it well, not rushing it out prematurely; you’ve paid for professional developmental and copy editing and cover design; you’ve built an adoring community just ripe for that book; you’ve had it expertly rendered in every e-format in the digital firmament; you even have placed some POD copies in stores by taking lunch to the store managers and telling them how great they look. And yet, that book doesn’t sell. Nightmare Uno is in effect. Pricing experimentation, free promotions, blog tours, speeches at every Kiwanis breakfast within 400 miles, blurbs so good you cry when you read them, but…the damned thing won’t budge. It’s a dud.

(2) And oh, good, here comes Porter Survey Taker in his little necktie and vest sweater. Great timing. After punching me out simply for saying “Good morning” (and I don’t blame you), you then answer my question by telling me that no matter how many candles you light on the Altar of St. Amanda the Hocking, not even your mother will buy your book and thus you cannot show me one penny of writing income.

(3) Remember how when you tried to do it traditionally, the no-income thing meant it just vanished? No accounting of it was made of it in the survey, right?—because you didn’t get published, right?  Well, this time because you did get published, albeit self-published, your unhappy experience in the revenue department is counted on the survey.

Put crassly:

  • Bomb out as a traditionally aspiring author, and there’s no effect on surveys of author income.
  • Bomb out as a self-publishing author, and your flat-line is counted against the overall self-publishing earnings track record.

Howey wants us to understand that this is a double standard. He is not wrong. We cannot count the dollars made by traditional authors only if they get published, but count those made by all the self-publishing authors, no matter how they fare in the open market.

If we want to count all the self-publishing authors, then we need to count every hapless no-income-from-writing wanted-to-be-traditionally-published author who gets nowhere and ends up at the bar next to me discussing the superb color that Milan puts into Campari.

  • Our surveys are counting the self-publishing losers as well as winners.
  • Our surveys are counting only traditional publishers’ winners.

Back to Table of Contents

Quality of Data and Good Intentions Are Not in Question

As Howey’s exasperation came to light Wednesday in his post, the good Greenfield—my colleague on at the Live Tweet Command Center at every DBW event—may have misunderstood him. In a comment on Howey’s post, Greenfield wrote:

The only thing I don’t agree with is the quality of our data. It’s good. And I respect you for wanting to look at this from a different angle. We are looking at it from that angle, too. in fact, the first thing we published from this report was motivation as to why authors publish…and it’s not for the money!

On that not-for-the-money motivation question, Howey and Greenfield are in accord. But Howey was not questioning DBW’s data. Howey responds in his own comment to Greenfield, and I’m underlining the key phrase:

I don’t think the problem is with the data. The problem is that the data we need doesn’t exist. What we need is an estimate of how many books submitted to the slush pile make it out and into retail [in traditional publishing], and then compare all traditionally published works with that same percentage of self-published works.

See what he’s saying? Untold numbers of people (untold because we can’t track them) have no luck getting published traditionally. But a lot of people self-publish and then don’t sell well. Those are not untold, they are told, if you will: we count them, and we count them against the money-making capabilities of self-publishing authors. We don’t count the authors who fail to make it traditionally, so a far smaller number of writers in traditional—i.e. the ones who get contracts—are the only ones being counted on that side.

In our Monday interview for The Bookseller, Howey positioned the community of self-publishing authors as a Big Sixth force in the industry—the equal of one of the Big Five. This is why the inestimable Kat Meyer and I worked to put together a very large town-hall style panel at Frankfurt Book Fair’s CONTEC Conference on the implications of self-publishing for the industry. (It’s covered here by Ether host and Scratch co-founder Jane Friedman at Virginia Quarterly Review, where she’s Web Editor.) At my request, both Howey and his agent Kristin Nelson joined us on that panel.

Howey sees a far more potent presence in the maturing self-publishing movement than the kind of imbalance these surveys are hobbled with. More from him in his comment back to Greenfield. I’m going to underline a sentence in which he says it really well:

Even if you just guessed at the number of [traditionally] submitted manuscripts that make it to publication being at 1% (which I think is awfully generous), you would immediately see a completely different landscape. Take the top 1% of self-published books and compare their earnings with traditionally published books. That would be something to behold.

“Something to behold” because that, in fact, would include his earnings. Howey, as you know, is one of the most successful of the global self-publishing network of entrepreneurial authors. As of the last figures I had, he was closing right in on his first one million units sold. And I can give you a quick rundown on some key elements of his career at this point:

  • Sand Part 1 by @HughHowey30 foreign publishers;
  • A two-month tour, meeting some of those publishers and many more readers on the Continent;
  • That New York Times bestselling trilogy (WoolShiftDust);
  • Part 1 of a new NaNoWriMo-written work, Sand, releasing on Sunday (yes, this Sunday, December 15);
  • WOOL: The Graphic Novel treatment releasing its first installment on February 11 in association with Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Jimmy Broxton;
  • A Vonnegut-vibed fan-fiction work coming to Amazon’s new KindleWorlds program (in which other writers are creating work based on his Silo Saga, by the way);
  • An editing-and-writing project, The Apocalypse Triptych, with the iconic science-fiction editor and anthologist John Joseph Adams for June;
  • Eight other books and at least seven short stories, all of it here and some of it available for you to read free of charge;
  • A special limited-edition hardcover release ahead of the Silo Saga books; and
  • That Hollywood option for which the screenplay has been written. He tells us in tomorrow’s The Bookseller #PorterMeets: “20th Century Fox is on board [although it’s] a long way from being green-lit.”

Howey and I differ, to some degree, on the question of ISBNs, by the way. In his tweet exchange Wednesday with Greenfield, he pointed out something we’ve gone over many times here and at Publishing Perspectives: we’re dependent on the ISBN as the standard identifier sold and tracked in the United States by Bowker.

As a journalist—I readily declare this bias—I’d like to see all authors put ISBNs on all their works. I think we need a clear, comprehensive vision of how much work is out there if we’re ever to understand the impact of the digital dynamic and self-publishing on the industry. I think authors should want to be a part of that vision, making sure their works are counted.

Absolutely, I would prefer self-publishing authors not have to buy their ISBNs. (It’s $250 for 10 in the States, and there are some holiday specials at Bowker at the moment.) In some countries, ISBNs are provided through government cultural subsidies, while in the States and the UK and other nations, they must be bought.

But either way, I don’t see ISBNs as a device of traditional gatekeepers, as some folks do. I say that without their consistent use, we don’t yet have a way to “see” all the work out there. And I think the effort to survey and understand our industry—the impetus for surveys in the first place—is meaningful, healthy, and important.

I fully agree with Howey on his call for sales data from the major retailers who currently hold these numbers in confidence as proprietary information. As long as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and others keep this information as trade secrets, we don’t know what we’re looking at. Obviously their corporate interests tell them they need to decline to report, and that’s perfectly legal. But that doesn’t help us understand and evaluate the industry’s output.

Amazon's Jon Fine speaks with author Boyd Morrison in late September at Writer's Digest West, where he talked about the 25 percent of 2012 Top 100 books on Amazon being self-published.

Amazon’s Jon Fine speaks with author Boyd Morrison in late September at Writer’s Digest West, where he talked about the 25 percent of 2012 Top 100 books on Amazon being self-published.

Check out these points from his comment back to Greenfield. They include that 25-percent-of-Amazon’s Kindle 100, which I reported in early October from Jon Fine’s presentation at Writer’s Digest West and Jane Friedman reported from his comments in her October piece from Frankfurt but our friends at the Guardian only caught up with last week.

Things we do know: 25% of bestsellers at Amazon, which sells more books than anyone else, were self-published in 2012. Those books make five times the royalty rate as their traditionally published counterparts. But they also retail for less than half as much. Still, you’re looking at a 2X or 3X earning rate. And you’re looking at a higher percentage of top-100 bestsellers among indie authors as you have for most major publishers. Someone did this with the top 300 fiction titles and found the percentage of indies to be even higher than 25%. It gives me the impression that a comparison of all traditional books to the top 1% of indie books (a fair comparison of the two routes to publication) would be a trouncing for indie authors.

Back to Table of Contents

And Another Thing: Authors at Work

Howey has a second reason the standard survey’s comparison of traditionally published (only) authors’ earnings to (all) self-published authors’ earnings don’t work. This is the softer issue, but if you’re a book person at all—if you realize that “the product” is actually the result of a creative drive to self-expression—you must take it into account. This time, the emphasis is Howey’s:

Hundreds of thousands of voracious readers with a dream of writing a novel sat down and did just that. They wrote out of love and passion, just like a kid goes out and dribbles a basketball for hours every day or kicks a soccer ball against a garage wall. Of these hobbyist writers, thousands now make a full-time living from their work. Thousands more pay a huge chunk of their bills from their hobby. These are part-time artists who have thousands of fans and hear from readers all over the world. Some of them go on to get offers from agents and publishers and score major deals. All because they are doing something they love.

This is the argument with which Manhattan in the aggregate has the most trouble dealing: the love-of-art argument. it’s one of the reasons the industry! the industry! talks more about itself than about its books. Publishing’s business infrastructure is not set up to handle the peculiar, humid aesthetic desires on which its very existence is founded.

Almost every individual player in the industry I’ve met loves books, loves the authors who write them, knows exactly what I’m talking about here, and reveres the inexpressible effluvium that gathers every now and then to produce genuine literature’s greatest moments. But the business isn’t about that. This is the case in many businesses based in art: film, museum work, dance, music, publishing is not alone in this.

But the business is running the surveys. And those surveys, Howey tells us here, are missing the boat not only on the technical point of how it compares earners but also on the actual impetus to write.

There are tens of thousands of authors out there now making $20 or $100 a month doing what they would happily do for nothing. In fact, if you told me I had to pay a monthly “writing fee” for the privilege of making stuff up and pounding it into my keyboard, I would do it…Many self-published authors are doing much better than not-earning-a-penny. And this revolution is only a few years old! Just wait until more and more talented writers forego the slush pile altogether and skip straight to self-publishing. Or when more authors jump from traditional to self-publishing. These numbers are going to look better and better for indie writers.

Back to Table of Contents

Calling the Question

As hearty as he is hardy (his level of output and career management is astonishing), Howey is doing our summation for me today, emphasis his:

Two things to keep in mind: The number of authors going the traditional route is not reflected by those who happen to land an agent and then go on to get published; their number includes those in the slush pile who do not go on to self-publish. This is a fact that must be dealt with.

And there we have it. The man has called the question. “A fact that must be dealt with.”

Remember, this is not anti-surveys, it’s anything but anti-DBW, and it’s fully pro-clarity in publishing. Nobody gets up in the morning eager to confuse somebody with survey comparisons that don’t work. Everyone’s doing her and his best with what data is available.

But at the least, surely, this requires disclaimers about such survey interpretations, disclaimers that none of us is making very well so far.

So I’ll call that question with Howey, and willingly: How shall we deal with this, folks? 


Both DBW and Writer’s Digest are verticals of David Nussbaum’s F+W Media, which this year is staging the Digital Book World Conference & Expo January 13 to 15 at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers, we’re back at Seventh Avenue and W. 53rd this time. Register by tomorrow, Friday, midnight when a round of price breaks expires. You’re most welcome to use my code PORTER14 to save 5 percent on a full registration or a Total Access pass. Our hashtag this year is #DBW14.  Back to Table of Contents


Wool trilogy Random House covers

Cover artwork for the Silo Saga by Jason Smith, Random House UK.

Main image: iStockphoto – uyrk

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Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

View posts by Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.

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