And If the Readership Pulls in Different Directions?

13 March 2014 2014-03-13_7-21-44 photog StrahilDimitrov texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Wait a Minute. Where Are We Going?
  2. ‘Bifurcation’ of Publishing: And of the Readership?


Wait a Minute. Where Are We Going?

Mike Shatzkin handles blog whiplash better than most.

London Book Fair LBF14 2014The sort of spunk he’s just shown this week makes it all the cooler that he’s going to be on London Book Fair’s Great Debate lineup on April 8 (11a-12:30p, Earls Court, Conference Centre Rooms 1 and 2). He’ll be joined by Ken Brooks of SVP Global Supply; Faber & Faber’s Stephen Page; Diversion Books’ Scott Waxlman Copyright Clearance Center’s Michael Healy, and chair Susan Danziger of Ziggeo—all of them bent on sorting out the proposition:

It’s Always About Size,. Bigger Is Always Better.

This is one of my favorite LBF events, and you’ll be most welcome, of course, to follow hashtag #LBF14 if  you’re not able to join us in person.

Mike Shatzkin

Mike Shatzkin

Author’s warning: this post is largely wrong! The following post was written based on a fundamental misunderstanding, assuming that Mark Coker’s post was talking about ebook sales in units when he was talking about dollars.

Not quite the opener you expect from one of our senior statesmen of the regime, is it? Especially the fastidious Shatzkin, who could fisk the Protestant Reformation in 48 seconds flat, don’t tempt him.

But, lo, here it is. In Sometimes one more calculation can make what looked first like revolution resemble what it really is: evolution. (Mike’s headlines alone are worth the read.)

Mark Coker

Mark Coker

We’re not going to spend much time on this particular post since, as Shatzkin tells us, it was actually based in a misreading of SmashwordsMark Coker’s much-discussed Huffington Post listicle e recitativo,  10 Reasons Self Published Authors Will Capture 50 Percent of the Ebook Market by 2020.

But the first point here to be made is that Shatzkin did the responsible thing, and it’s an object lesson for the many bloggers I walk around kicking who don’t do this well. 

(1) Shatzkin owned up to the mistake, big time. In one of the many comments on the piece, he is gallantly determined to apologize to Coker—who is generous in return, by the way Shatzkin promises to create a new post, which he does do.

(2) Shatzkin then leaves the errant post in place, fully marked, as you see above, for its inadequacies, but preserving a valuable comment chain and taking full responsibility for the initial confusion:

I am leaving it up because I have to admit to my errors (this is the first time in five years I have had to do this), and because there were some useful comments. (And who knows? We may get more.) I will write another postreflecting on Mark’s [original article] in the next couple of days, this time giving observations based on a correct interpretation of what he says in his.

Clear, open, frank revelations of gaffes are the only correct course. They’re embarrassing but important if we’re to be able to trust each other in the dire debates of our digital indecorum.

So it is that while i may not always agree with Shatzkin’s positions on things, I can go to the mat here to say that the man knows how to take his mistakes and register them properly, and I appreciate this.

Now, to his followup column and its messages for us.

In (another leggy Shatzkinian headline) Getting Mark Coker right this time and agreeing with him up to a point, Shatzkin’s course correction explains that Coker’s original story was talking about dollars, not unit sales (numbers of books sold). Coker’s basic assertion was this:

By my estimates, self-published ebooks will account for 50 percent of ebook sales by 2020.

The spreadsheet of estimates and projections he used (a la Hugh Howey’s reports) is available for download on the story and it’s there that it’s made clear that he, Coker, is talking dollars, not unit sales. But, as Coker, himself, volunteers in comments on Shatzkin’s first outing, the Huffington Post op-ed piece from Smashwords doesn’t make that distinction clear. Hence Shatzkin’s wrong assumption that unit sales were at issue, not dollars.

With that confusion sorted, Shatzkin is able to return to Coker’s piece and write this:

What Coker did was point out that the 15% ebook dollar share for indies was within the estimated 30% of the market that is ebooks, 70% still being print. Doing math with his share number, he concludes that self-published ebooks are taking 4.5% of the dollars in the overall market. I’d put them at somewhere between half and two-thirds of that.

So far, so good. Shatzkin and Coker are describing a smaller current standing of independently generated sales than some entrepreneurial authors would like to think is there, but they both allow for what Shatzkin refers to as “enormous growth in the number of indie-published ebooks we will see.”

I think a grain of salt is needed about how economically significant they will be either for the industry at large or for the vast majority of individual authors following that path even though they are bound to grow quickly.

In fact, with a nod to Howey’s work, he puts it this way:

Indie ebooks are not yet commercially important if we think about consumer dollars. (But, of course, as Hugh Howey and Coker point out, the author keeps a lot more of those dollars.)

And I like what I would describe as the mechanical questions he brings into the mix next, two of them:

(1) How fast will the indie self-publishing ebook market continue to grow at the expense of publishers who do it for profit? (All of the calculations from Coker and Howey about the benefits to indie authors assume they do it themselves, not through some new-fangled indie-first publisher or aggregator. If they do it through anybody else, new or old, the author share will decline. Every participant takes a cut.)

(2) For any individual author, how does the decision of whether to do it themselves or sign with a publisher look?

Guess where he’s headed: the bifurcation many of us are talking about.

Back to Table of Contents

‘Bifurcation’ of Publishing: And of the Readership?

I think one key question is whether we now have a bifurcated market: one group of people reading the bulk of indie books and another group reading the bulk of published books. … only the retailers really can know for sure.

Many of us are starting to suspect this is the case. This graphic created by Coker for his article as “Modeling the Rise of Indie Authorship” certainly won’t steer you far from the idea of two trains running.

Mark Coker, Smashwords, from "10 Reasons Self-Published Authors Will Capture 50 Percent of the Market by 2020," the Huffington Post

Mark Coker, Smashwords, from “10 Reasons Self-Published Authors Will Capture 50 Percent of the Market by 2020,” the Huffington Post

And many entrepreneurial authors like to boast of readers who choose to read “indie only.”

As Shatzkin speculates earlier in the piece:

If indie readers form a “separate” market, is it growing or is it static? In other words, do indie ebooks draw on a particular pool of readers, so that we have two separate competitions going on for eyeballs and ebook sales?

And later:

I believe we do have two markets. Part of that is genre-driven. Many readers who habitually consume romance, thrillers, and sci-fi have found less expensive digital-first and author-published alternatives perfectly satisfying. They read lots of units. So it is likely that a concentrated cohort of readers is responsible for a big chunk of the indie books.

And then, the kicker, a reason, in fact, that independent authors might not feel so cheery about the indie-only readers base they say has arrived:

If that is the case [that there are indie-only readers avidly feeding the indie-book community of authors], then indies [authors] compete with indies [their fellow authors] more than they do with publishers. And since we believe that a big part of indie sales growth will be driven by indie title growth, it could be that the sales will have trouble keeping up with the titles. That would mean the path to success for each individual indie author would get harder.

However you see the future of independent publishing on traditional—and however much of the proverbial “pie” we keep talking about may be taken home by self-publishing authors versus traditionally published authors—one interesting question to consider here is when does a “bifurcated” industry evolve into, basically, bifurcated competitions for sales. Or do they? Are we likely to see traditional-vs.-traditional competition and independent-vs. independent competition overtake traditional-vs.-independent competition?

It’s possible.

How many of our most successful self-publishing authors have told us about the pressure from readers to publish the next installment, the next chapter, the next book? “Give us the next book! Hurry up!”

We could see a day when a fairly stabilized community of self-published book readers finds themselves hounded instead by their authors, who exhort that audience to read faster. “You haven’t read my tenth installment yet! Hurry up!”

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Roz Morris, dirtywhitecandy, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Dave MorrisHere’s a passage from Coker’s Huffington Post piece that Shatzkin does not get into: the anger of the authors. I’ll give the whole thing to you, this is his tenth and final point in the piece:

Writers are angry. After centuries of living near the bottom rung of the publishing ladder, writers are feeling their oats and relishing their new-found independence. Writers are rejecting rejection. They know they no longer need to bow subservient to the whims of publishers. Writers are placing new demands upon publishers, asking for higher royalty rates on ebooks, faster sales reporting, faster payments, more transparency, more generous reversion clauses, more control over cover design and packaging, and more post-publication marketing support. Publishers are digging in their heels and labeling these demands as unrealistic. Writers are upset that several publishers have launched vanity publishing imprints powered by Author Solutions — imprints that exploit uneducated writers by selling them overpriced publishing services. Writers view sins against their writerly brothers and sisters as sins against all authors. In total, these perceived publisher transgressions are undermining the goodwill and loyalty that writers once felt toward publishers. If publishers are unable to close the rift, the deal flow of new authors will diminish and existing authors will defect.

This is all correct, from my own observations. I think Coker is capturing the tone here. I think the author corps and the publishing establishment are growing farther apart, not closer. That bifurcation may be as close as we’ve seen it yet to a done deal, and I’m not sure the publishers can salvage it. There are questions of whether most publishers want to salvage it, after all; of whether they see such a divide as significant to their interests. Some do, I think.

"Agent Orange" is a London-based literary agent who writes under a pseudonym, frequently for The Bookseller

“Agent Orange” is a London-based literary agent who writes under a pseudonym, frequently for The Bookseller

But I’m reminded here of the lines from the pseudonomynous “Agent Orange,” a literary agent, at The Bookseller’s blog pages on Monday, in a piece called Divide and Conquer:

As an industry we are disdainful of this self-published KDP world…The hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people who self-publish are incredibly valuable: as super consumers of books, as avid reviewers and spreaders of word-of-mouth, and for the data they reveal about the market. We alienate them at our peril.

So add, then, the question of the readership. While lots of authors are fond of saying that readers don’t care whether something is traditionally published or self-published, many of them also want to tell you there’s this marching army of indie-only reading author. So which is it going to be?—they’ll read anything? or they’ll read only free-range indie books?

And if those two readerships square off? You tell me.

Good times, huh?

Back to Table of Contents

Main image – iStockphoto: Strahil Dimitrov

Posted in Writing on the Ether and tagged , , .

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.

Join the conversation

14 Comment threads
15 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
13 Comment authors
Dale PhillipsTop Picks Thursday 03-20-2014 | The Author ChroniclesAnd If the Readership Pulls in Different Directions? - Porter Andersonxist publishingWilliam Ash Recent comment authors

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest oldest most voted
Notify of

While I admire that Mike Shatzkin could admit his understanding of the numbers was wrong, I do find it ironic that he criticized Hugh Howey for his data and then bases his whole theory of a bifurcated readership on anecdotal data. While I think there is a price-sensitive group of readers, I think it’s QUITE a jump to say they are reading all the indies since Mike Shatzkin personally knows no one who reads them. He probably does know people who have read indie books, and doesn’t know it. I read both, and while I am not price-sensitive at all,… Read more »

Porter Anderson

Hello, Mr. or Ms. Dust. 🙂 Thanks for your input. While I don’t find the way Mike Shatzkin writes about a possibly bifurcated readership as offensive as I think you do, I’d certainly agree — and I think he would, too — that there isn’t hard evidence for this. He phrases it, in my understanding, as a potential, a possibility, with such phrasings as “it is likely” and “if that is the case.” I’ll just say, though, that it’s entrepreneurial authors who have been the most vocal about such a supposed cadre of all- or mostly-indie-reading consumers, in my experience.… Read more »


I admire how diplomatic you always are. 🙂

It just annoys me that Mike S. throws stones for no data and then does the same thing–but I think you picked up on that!

Porter Anderson

Well, you know, we all have some shortcomings when it comes to how we throw stones around, lol. I have at least two faces in operation most of the time, I’m afraid, we’re all like that. Not to worry, if we can all be patient for a bit, all fo this will become clearer. Time has a way of catching up with everyone and setting straight what our Fabulous Disruption confused. 🙂
Thanks again!


[…] Table of Contents Wait a Minute. Where Are We Going? ‘Bifurcation’ of Publishing: And of the Readership?  […]

AJ Sikes
AJ Sikes

Hi Porter, I’m struck by the similarities between this bifurcation of readers and what I’m seeing as a bifurcation of consumers in general. The zeitgeist feels very much to be about choosing loyalties. We’ve seen the rise, fall, and resurgence of the Occupy movement, with their clamoring to Buy Local! Buy Organic! and Boycott Big Money! Will readers decamp in so great a measure, though, actually stage protests of some sort? Will we see them choosing only independent authors? Actively boycotting New York titles? I don’t know. A good bit of my buying is done at the independent shelves, but… Read more »

Porter Anderson

“Instead of squaring off, I get the feeling it’ll be more like having the in-laws over for dinner.” You’ve just said it all, Aaron, perfect summation of the issue, and I trust dessert will be served. Thanks so much for the comment. You’re echoing, in fact, some of the distinctions I’m making in my own comments below (we have such a rich round of folks here). This thing of the industry! the industry! divided against itself just isn’t making a lot of sense. Where we find some unity? … no predictions, please. We shall see. 🙂 Cheers! -p. PS, thanks… Read more »

Nina Amir
Nina Amir

What does they’ll read anything really mean? Indie or traditional, they don’t care? Or it just has to be quality? I fear that if the indies are pushed to write fast and furiously, they won’t produce quality up to the standards of the traditional publishers, which has been the issue in many cases historically. It seems to me a bit of cutting of your nose to spite your face to just categorically say, “I only read self-published books.” I do dislike the practice of legacy publishers lining up with vanity publishers–and making any promises that using them will somehow give… Read more »

Porter Anderson

Hey, Nina, As you know, I worry about the quality question and about the speed with which many try to get their work to market these days, just as you do. I’m generally shouted down, I think, by those who feel the pace is right and quality survives the hustle. This doesn’t make me feel any better about it. I also agree that announcing one will only read self-published books is a peculiar stance, clearly something that’s much more to do with industry politics than with literature. I have had authors tell me, however, that they are read by such… Read more »


Hi Porter. I always enjoy your mashups. I don’t think bifurcated is the right word to describe what’s happening, assuming anything is happening. Bifurcate implies two different branches where the tips of the branches don’t meet. I think a better label to describe readership would be dumb bell, as in the weight lifting sort, and along the dumb bell you’ve got the prices at which readers are purchasing books. On one bulbous end you’ve got the FREE to $4.99 price points, then in the skinny middle you’ve got maybe $5.00-$7.99, and then you’ve got $8.00+. And I’m not even convinced… Read more »

Porter Anderson

Hey, Mark, So glad you’ve come by and left this comment — I really find a lot of what you’re saying very compelling. Actually, I’m sure “bifurcation” is, indeed, an overstatement (using a term not really mean for economic and cultural trends, I suppose, in the first place), although I’ve found it quite useful simply to indicate to people at times that there do seem to be two — and occasionally more — opposing views and concepts forming in various parts of the industry. I like your lumpy cylindar model, lol, because, yeah, as you say, there are so many… Read more »

xist publishing
xist publishing

Mark- As a reader, I think you’ve totally nailed my thought process when it comes to buying books. Excellent analysis! As a children’s publisher operating with a strange mix of the traditional and indie toolkit, we’ve found that most of our authors and illustrators are looking for help, but are also looking forward and want to maximize their income. So we’ve built a business around getting our children’s books in the places that legacy publishers aren’t yet putting their muscle – first it was digital retail, now it’s libraries and schools, but in a way that makes sense for the… Read more »

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Predictions are tricky. They too often rely on current trends and a look at the past, and we can’t see what new variables will be introduced tomorrow. Some years ago, Stephen King looked at the ability to publish his own ebooks and predicted that authors such as himself could become “Big Publishing’s worst nightmare.” His experiments weren’t hugely successful (they may have been ahead of their time), but he clearly saw what was coming. And it’s the big variable that will make everything Mike is saying completely moot and dead wrong. The next stage of this shift in publishing power… Read more »

Porter Anderson

Hey, Hugh, Great to have you, and thanks for this comment, it’s a really apt distillation of many things you’ve been our lead voice on in recent months, particularly with the initiative and the debate around it. For example, in the past, you’ve written very well to the idea that predictions must, perforce, be so rooted in our present and past experience that they can’t possibly give us a look forward in any meaningful way, which I think is true. Then I love the fact that you close your comment here with predictions, LOL. The subtlety of a good… Read more »


Indie-only reading? How odd. A book cover, the description and the first couple of pages sell me the book. So, I’ll read anyting, whether it’s famous or obscure, tradpub or indie. But I won’t read a famous book if I’m repelled by language or book description.
I can’t wait to attend LBF. ReadRussia is preparing awesome program this year. Hopefully, the political events won’t screw this up for us.

Porter Anderson

Grisha! Still remembering your good questions at London Author Fair, thanks again for coming and joining in! I agree, I’m a little thrown by this idea of reading only self-published work (or only traditional work), although I do try to respect all authors’ personal preferences, of course. It just seems the least helpful of criteria, somehow, though an interest in supporting entrepreneurial authors is definitely laudable. My guess is that the number of people actually reading “only” one or the other is small. It might seem a nice thing to say to a selfpub author friend (“Oh, I read only… Read more »


[…] been reading articles about the potential of a bifurcated market in books right now. Some people believe that there could be actually two different groups of readers: those […]

Robyn LaRue
Robyn LaRue

Thank you for helping make sense out of a sometimes confusing conversation. I try to stay up on the doings, stats, and dialog. Coming here helps a lot. 🙂

Porter Anderson

Such kind words, Robyn, thanks very much for reading the Ether and dropping a note! The conversation is almost always as confusing as it is interesting during such transitions as this, you’re hardly alone!

Orna Ross

Thanks Porter, as always, for the succinct nail-hitting. I agree with you and Mark that there are many patterns in publishing and no one strand ever tells the whole story of this kaleidoscopic business but a bifurcation can be identified, I think, though it’s a lot older than indies v trade publishing. It’s creative v commercial. I’m with Mark and Hugh, though I don’t speak numbers — not my language — but it’s clear the surge in creative self-expression afforded by the new technologies is only winding up and for writers, it’s not all (or I would think even primarily)… Read more »

Porter Anderson

A very cogent point, Orna, thank you for this, I agree with you that a great many folks in publishing whose view matches “Agent Orange’s” characterization — disdain — actually don’t seem to realize that this is what comes across to others. It seems almost impossible to those looking on from the outside that these folks can be as condescending as they are without knowing it. (The non-publishing public can recognize this in a heartbeat. You hear comparisons to medical specialists who look down on their own patients and to tech support people who consider their customers to be idiots.… Read more »

Mary Burns
Mary Burns

Hi Porter,
Readers who buy books can choose between self-published or traditionally published authors, but what about library patrons? Many of my readers have found my books at the library long after they disappeared from bookstores, the kind you walk into. However, as a relatively new indie, I am finding a reluctance among librarians and also literary festivals to consider self-published books on a par with those that have been accepted by the literary establishment, ie, traditional publishers. Has anyone surveyed libraries re policies on shelving self-published books?

Porter Anderson

Hi, Mary, You’re bringing up a good question. In terms of how a self-publisher gets his or her work INTO a library, I was impressed when I wrote the Ether on Shanna Swendson to learn that Nelson literary’s new NLA Digital program (supported self-publishing) is something some authors choose precisely because Kristin Nelson and her associates create special catalogs for libraries. Here’s that Ether, in case you missed it: To my knowledge, there isn’t a survey of library policies on self-published work. I do know that librarians have spoken to me (this is anecdotal, not a policy stance) of… Read more »

Mary Burns
Mary Burns

And thanks to you for such a thorough response.

Dale Phillips
Dale Phillips

Mary, it can be done, but the process involves work. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a great post today on how to get your books into bookstores and libraries: Essentially, it’s doing what the Big 5 Publishers do to get them in. Takes time and money and attention to detail, following particular rules. Librarian book-buying follows certain procedures- they don’t have the time or inclination to comb through thousands of self-pubbed titles, many of which they believe to be sub-par. Many are still afraid of the Scarlet Letter ‘S’ for self-pubbed. For my part, I’ve been able to get my… Read more »

Mary Burns
Mary Burns

Encouraging, Dale. Thank you.

William Ash
William Ash

Every time I read something like this, I think what are folks trying to win? It seems to be about two sides trying to get bragging rights. I think it is not really useful to try to interpolate industry stats to individual authors and that kind of connection is happening too much. Amazon is becoming a publisher. They are joining the Big 5–they will be number 6. They have used a free workforce to make a catalog. Amazon is certainly not afraid to change terms when they can benefit from it. With bigger authors signing up, I imagine at some… Read more »


[…] Writing on the Ether: And If the Readership Pulls in Different Directions? […]


[…] Anderson explores the possibility that there might be 2 separate readerships emerging, and what this might mean for self vs. traditional […]