Earning the Authors a Say


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20 February 2014 iStock_000011862511Small photog UygarGeographic texted story image


Just When You Thought It Was Safe

Ah, but the verbiage is less heated this time.

The claims are more cleanly stated.

And, more importantly, the focus of the intent is sharper.

As an exercise in industry conversation generated by authors—as opposed to one spurred by the corporate sector—Hugh Howey’s AuthorEarnings.com project probably is unparalleled.

18 February 2014 iStock_000027456753Small photog catalinr texted story imageShould you need to catch up, we can offer you our initial interview from February 11, A Call for Writers to Organize: Hugh Howey Interview; a follow-up here on the Ether from February 13, Howey’s Convention: “Organized Advocacy”; and an Issues on the Ether writeup about reactions at Publishing Perspectives, Do Hugh Howey’s AuthorEarnings Add Up?

One very early report this morning is talking of “traditional-publisher vitriol.” That’s a reference to what is a cheap sideshow to the real importance here.

Your time is being wasted by those who say the point or the “fun” of this development is self-publishing and traditional publishing  forces lambasting each other. You have to wonder how much salable material such people might produce in the time they spend trying to insult each other. They could be a lot more productive.

If anything, this outing will disappoint them.

Author EarningsThe Author Earnings report lodged on the site overnight and dated February 19 should come as an almost genteel follow-up.  It’s called The 50k Report for its approximately 54,000 ebook titles sampled in another scraping of Amazon.com book pages,

Much shorter and quicker to go over than the initial report, this edition takes into account information interpreted from approximately 11,000 titles in genre fiction; 900 in literary fiction; 30,000 in non-fiction; and some 10,000 in children’s (not YA) fiction.

Howey has, since the first report, adopted a more frequent use of the term “spider” for the software his still-unnamed associate is deploying. And this time, he includes a short explanatory note on how this digital arachnid does its work:

The spider works like this: It crawls through all the categories, sub-categories, and sub-sub-categories listed on Amazon, starting from the very top and working its way down. It scans each product page and parses the text straight from the source html. Along with title, author, price, star-rating, and publisher information, the spider also grabs the book’s overall Amazon Kindle store sales ranking. This overall sales ranking is then used to slot each title into a single master list. Duplicate entries, from books appearing on multiple bestseller lists, get discarded.

Dear AuthorCritics will not be mollified to learn that, again, this is a single day’s snapshot. The complaint about one day’s view being extrapolated to a year’s performance is probably the single most frequently heard retort to the effort’s mode. One of the most adamant denunciations of  Howey’s approach, Sunita’s How (not) To Lie With Statistics at Dear Author,  Terming the one-day snapshot of the first report as a “cross-section,” she writes:

Cross-sections cannot give you trends. Trends need more than one data point. You cannot determine a trend from a single observation. If a book is #1 today, that doesn’t mean it will be #1 tomorrow. You cannot infer anything about the past or the future from a single data point in the cross-section.

This time, Howey addresses the one-day element of his observations, himself:

As before, our spider is looking at a snapshot of sales rankings for one particular day — in this case February 7, 2014. Extrapolation is only useful for determining relative market share and theoretical earnings potential. Our conclusions assume that the proportion of self-published to traditionally published titles doesn’t change dramatically from day to day, and the similarity of this dataset, collected 9 days after the previous one, lends that assumption some support. By comparing successive reports over the coming months, we will be able to answer the day-to-day variance question more completely.

And as you think about points of interest from this new report, the over-arching goal is good to recall: This is an effort to fortify the opinion that self-publishing may be a more financially viable route for authors to take than some have believed or said it was in the past.

Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey

It’s Howey’s belief that authors may be misled by what he sees as wrongly assumptions and/or assertions that more money is always to be made in traditional publishing than in self-publishing.

Yes, there are flaws in the approach and there are plenty of people eager to tell you that. He is one of them.

Yes, there is a crippling lack of actual sales data here because the major retailers decline to release it.

But there is also a shift in the discussion, what Dublin-based observer Eoin Purcell calls “the start of more mature conversation around change in publishing.” His comments appear in my write-up of our #PorterMeets interview in The Bookseller, on the stands in London on Friday.

Tracy Bloom

Tracy Bloom

And it was just yesterday that The Bookseller carried the first report I saw of self-publishing author Tracy Bloom being signed to a four-book contract by Random House UK’s Cornerstone (under its Arrow division). Such stories as Cornerstone buys four from self-published Trace Bloom give new interest to the question of whether an author will, actually, do better in such a traditional deal than in self-publishing.

Certainly, Bloom feels the path from self-publishing to traditional deal, brokered by agent Araminta Whitley at London’s LAW Ltd, has been right for her. She’s quoted by The Bookseller’s Sarah Shaffi, saying, “I have learnt a huge amount during the process and I’m now delighted to be joining Arrow who I know have the skills and expertise to bring my writing to an even greater audience and help take my career to the next level.”

At the same time, the logic of what Howey and his associate are demonstrating in their work rings right for some, even if the methodology and some of its assumptions can’t overcome that fundamental lack of actual sales data. Coolest heads remind us that the Bloom case is a perfect example of how both self-publishing and traditional publishing can be of use to the same author, potentially to many more.

As Purcell puts it, it’s essential for self-publishers to understand that traditional publishing doesn’t have to die for self-publishing to succeed.

The result, then, is that authors face a more deeply explicated range of options.

And for your consideration, meanwhile, here are  some of the highlights from Howey’s new report, in short-form:

  • Of this second report’s areas of genre fiction, literary fiction, children’s books, and non-fiction, genre fiction appears to account for some 70% of the whole. 
  • In genre ebook bestsellers, the AuthorEarnings report shows those self-published and those traditionally published roughly even in unit sales. 
  • Also in genre ebook bestsellers, the report sees “indie authors as a group making more than traditionally published authors,” in part because self-published authors make higher royalty rates than publishers provide.
  • Self-published authors, the report says, “capture 22% of the total share of earnings in non-fiction.”
  • Similarly, “e-literature and e-literary fiction…pay better for self-published authors than the traditionally published”

Because some have complained that using the top-selling titles for his reports skews Howey’s estimates, this report also tries removing the top 1,000 bestselling Amazon ebooks in the sample. Howey writes:

Frequently, self-publishing success stories are explained away as rarities. If this is true, once we remove the top 1,000 from consideration, we should see the needle move toward the traditionally published mid-list authors who are making a steady living further down the charts…Once we look below the Top 1,000, indications are that the indie midlist is healthy indeed. Or it could be that we’re glimpsing the rising swell of tomorrow’s new Top 1,000. All of this remains to be seen.

A Barnes & Noble scraping is next, Howey writes, in the ongoing series, and his report again offers .xslx downloads of the numbers used in this analysis.

Questions for you:

Do the observations coming out of the AuthorEarnings.com reports surprise you about the relative strengths of independent and traditionally published work? How closely are you following the introduction and/or reactions to AuthorEarnings? And for all the difficulties in mounting a study when actual hard sales data is not available, do you think the AuthorEarnings material is showing self-publishing to be, as Purcell termed it in his interview with me, “a clear, viable, and sustainable alternative” for authors?


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Grab a space alongside these charter members of BookExpo America’s all-new uPublishU Author Hub for entrepreneurial authors:  Bella Andre, Barbara Freethy, Hugh Howey, CJ Lyons and H.M. Ward.

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Main image – iStockphoto: UygarGeographic

  • http://josephratliff.com/ JosephRatliff

    I wish some folks would quit worrying about what this data is NOT, and focus on what this data IS.

    It’s the first viable attempt at using available data from Amazon (and B&N next) to paint a true(er) picture of the publishing industry itself. So what if it doesn’t paint more than a day’s picture?

    Actually, since Amazon’s sales overall are fairly consistent (unit and $$$) on a day to day basis (Amazon isn’t a startup), there’s something to be said for basing the one day’s worth of data on a consistently reporting data set, no? (I might be totally off base with that, not majoring in statistical and data analysis)

  • http://PorterAnderson.com/ Porter Anderson

    @JosephRatliff:disqus

    Hey, Joseph, and thanks for the input here.

    I know how you feel about naysayers on the AuthorEarnings material, but we have to remember that skepticism is healthy in these things. It’s probaly more important than it might be, too, since, of course, the actual data we need cannot be had. In such a situation, as we work with what we do have — and Howey and his associate are doing one committed job of producing it — I think it’s probably right to keep a wary eye on everything and look to the trends as the most important barometers we’re seeing.

    The good news in much of this second report for many will be that it shows a reassuring consistency with the first report, on a different day, using a much bigger and broader sample. The B&N material to come could be hugely helpful, too, in giving us another window on these questions.

    I think the one-day cross-sectional approach you’re describing will be an automatic feature of this work going forward and comparisons of those snapshot/cross-sections should be useful, too.

    Thanks again and all the best,
    -p.

    On Twitter @ Porter_Anderson

  • http://josephratliff.com/blog JosephRatliff

    I’m 100% with you Porter, and another excellent Ether.

    Be skeptical, yes, 100%… not everyone knows Hugh (neither do I, personally), and anyone should look at the data with a skeptical eye for sure.

    I suppose my main beef is with the comments that resemble “The data doesn’t show ______, and it should…” or “This data cannot be right because it doesn’t show long-term trends, it’s only a snapshot of one day’s worth of sales…” etc…

    So what?

    Focus (with a skeptical eye) on what the data DOES show. Heck, it’s the first deep analysis of what IS available that we have to look at. :)

    What the data “isn’t” will develop over time. :)

  • Bob Mayer

    Any self-pubbed author who signs a trad deal needs to be interviewed two years later to see what they say (I can think of one or two who signed a couple of years ago to great hullabalo and seem to have disappeared into, hmm, let’s say the Ether). If they have no experience in traditional publishing, then what they say at signing has little meaning as they’re pretty much clueless of what’s going to happen. They envision large print runs, book tours, NY Times bestseller lists, yada yada. Reality might be a bit different.

    Sort of like artillery: looked good when it left the tube.

    As Howey’s tweet notes: The key is not earnings, bestsellers, etc. The absolute most important issue for authors these days is rights. The musicians who survived digital did so one of two ways: they toured (not likely for authors) and/or they controlled the rights to their music.

    The authors who will be standing five years from now are the ones who control at least some of their rights.

    I’m glad the rhetoric is toning down because as Denzel Washington keeps saying in Man On Fire: This just business.

  • William Ash

    Unfortunately, we simply don’t know what the data are and what they represent. I think it is great that someone is taking this on and have at least come up with one method of mining data from a retailer. But this particular sample is simply too limited, too uncertain.

  • http://josephratliff.com/blog JosephRatliff

    I get what you’re saying William, but…

    “too limited” for what? “too uncertain” for what?

    The data has presented its given points… maybe not for what some folks want to know (or want to hear in terms of the limited scope of truth it presents), but it has its own value (which is “very” valuable).

    One day’s snapshot is good enough to determine a general idea (not specific, not scientific) of what is going on, I can’t imagine “more days of data” being all that different when you consider this is based on Amazon’s website, an established company with consistent production. Of course it is possible it would be different.

    I’m sure the future holds “multiple” days of data… but for now, the discussion around one day is enough. It’s a start, like you pointed out William. :)

  • http://PorterAnderson.com/ Porter Anderson

    @disqus_pulfedR2HO:disqus

    Hey, Bob,

    Thanks for jumping in here, and yeah, the rights issue is becoming so clearly important. In fact, did you see Howey’s write on that from a couple of days ago? You might enjoy it, it’s here, headlined, “Our Eggs Don’t Break” — a pretty enlightening look at how important this issue really is for authors. http://bit.ly/MChiAP

    And right on the rhetoric, too. Cooler is better, every time.

    Thanks again!
    -p.

  • http://PorterAnderson.com/ Porter Anderson

    I get what you’re saying, Joseph, and you’re not wrong, of course. I do think publishing is laboring under an unusually bad kind of blindness here, so I’m prone, I think, to have a bit more patience for the “what it doesn’t show” commentary. It’s like the auto industry suddenly having no serial numbers on cars, so no way to track them and “see” them in circulation, ascertain their ownership history, repair history, the works. Not sure I’ve ever seen a case of an industry so blindfolded.

    Still, as you say, as long as what a study’s indcations are couched in the right terminology, it’s good to have the input and I won’t differ with you for a second on the value of what Howey and his associate are doing. I think this has enriched the industry-wide conversation in a big way and is going to keep doing so. AuthorEarnings.com is making some signal differences in how things are discussed in a short time already, which is great to see.

    -p.

  • http://josephratliff.com/blog JosephRatliff

    Sorry to belabor the point Porter, but what you are eluding to (to me) is exactly the point of AuthorEarnings.com (again, to me).

    I’m wrong, you’re wrong, we’re all wrong about publishing… but we’re all “right” as well. People keep changing the discussion to where there is a “right” and a “wrong”… making their case if you will.

    There is no case to be made. This isn’t a trial, because Hugh has earned enough respect to add to this discussion in this way, and to me, his project comes with an inherent value because of that trust he has rightfully earned.

    This data expresses a result of some type, something we cannot really dispute, so long as we don’t expect an expression this data isn’t supposed to deliver in the first place (e.g. long-term trends because it’s based on one day).

    I don’t think Hugh is basing the entire future of the publishing industry on his project… he is simply “breaking the ice,” hopefully resulting in better data being reported.

    In short, I agree with you Porter :)

  • http://PorterAnderson.com/ Porter Anderson

    Exactly, Joseph, exactly.
    Thanks!
    -p.

  • William Ash

    Joseph, even before these data, we knew that self publishing was a viable method for authors. These data reflect that to some degree. The trouble is that there is no more we can take from that. Personally, I am looking for useful data on self publishing–I am a self publisher.

    In my other life, I do work with data. I think people have to be very careful to too read much into them–certainly annual income cannot be extrapolated and Konrath’s analysis is way off base. Unfortunately, there are folks on both sides trying to use data to validate a position–data rarely does that. I think authors are getting caught in this unhealthy noise of winning/losing. I think it is important to understand these data are really limited, beyond, as I said, that self publishing is a viable path. However, we still have no idea how viable and these data do not show that.

    My problem of the data set is fairly simple. Publishing is a complex system. It is a volatile system were the volatility is unknown. The data takes a small percentage from the top, which is really not indicative of the general population, and then only takes a single measure. Since we have no control or baseline, we simply have no idea if this measure reflects a “normal” state in the system. Imagine going into the stock market and taking one days data of the Fortune 500. What conclusions can we make especially if we have no baseline or previous knowledge of the system? We cannot even argue that publishing is less volatile than the stock market because we simply do not know. And what can be said about the market outside the Fortune 500?

    Yes, the fact that self publishing returned a significant share simply states it is a viable option. But like I said, we knew that already and these data don’t shed anymore light on that. We also cannot conclude that that share is somehow “normal.”

  • Alan Tucker

    People will believe what they want to believe.

    How many times have you changed a strong opinion you had about something when presented with a contradictory argument? You may be swayed by a meaningful presentation, but probably only if you were on the fence about an issue or not really convicted in your belief.

    Bill Nye’s debate/discussion with Ken Ham a couple of weeks ago regarding evolution vs. creationism may have been entertaining and informative, but how many people’s opinions were changed by one speaker or the other? I would guess the number is extremely close to zero.

    Big publishers won’t significantly change their ways, no matter how much data we throw at them. Neither will most agents or authors who are entrenched and happy with the system they grew up with. The real hope with the AuthorEarnings reports is that fledgling authors will now have some facts to examine when it comes time for them to make a choice regarding what to do with their work. Before now, all we really had was anecdotal evidence and rhetoric — from both sides of the equation. Now, there are real numbers, with more to come, for anyone to take and massage however they’d like.

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  • http://www.erniezelinski.com/Bio-and-Contact.html Ernie Zelinski

    I agree. You are totally right in saying, “People will believe what they want to believe.”

    Indeed, self-delusion is one of the greatest creations of the human mind.

    You also say, “The real hope with the AuthorEarnings reports is that fledgling authors will now have some facts to examine when it comes time for them to make a choice regarding what to do with their work.”

    By stating this, however, you are assuming that all “fledgling authors” have the critical thinking skills to properly examine the so-called facts (whether true or not). My guess is that most do not.

    Somewhat related to this is yesterday’s great article called “Blissful Incompetence” by one of my favorite writers (Robert J. Ringer) about why the incompetent think that they are competent and why the competent have doubts about their competence.

    http://robertringer.com/blissful-incompetence/

    This quotation applies in regards to the article:

    “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt.”
    — Bertrand Russell

    Incidentally, Robert J. Ringer is the only person to the best of my knowledge to write, self-publish, and market three #1 “New York Times bestsellers. Ringer’s first book, “Winning Through Intimidation”, was published in 1973. After the manuscript was rejected by over 20 major publishers, Ringer chose to self-publish the book. Surprise! “Winning Through Intimidation” became a true bestseller, spending 36 weeks at the top of the “The New York Times” Best Seller list.

    Ringer self-published his second book in 1978. “Looking Out for Number One” was also a “New York Times” bestseller as was “Restoring the American Dream, which was published in 1979. Not so long ago the first two of Ringer’s books were listed by “The New York Times” among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

    In short, the “real numbers” ultimately will be how be how many copies of your own books (whether traditionally or self-published) that you sell and how much money your have made from these books. Not to mention the number of people who write, phone, or email you about how your books have changed their lives. Results don’t lie, in other words.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  • http://PorterAnderson.com/ Porter Anderson

    Hi, Alan,

    Thanks for your input here.

    To some degree, you’re right, of course. Someone talking to me recently posited the difference in those who are willing to be led and those who must be convinced. The latter make it very hard and, for the most part, are not those who are open to being helped. In whatever mode or moment they stand, we can wish them well and realize that change is not what they’re interested in. Time and market conditions will take care of them.

    I feel sure that what can be offered by the AuthorEarnings initiative — as with anything in life — will be most effective for those who are open to it. The others have their own struggles and we wish them well.

    Cheers,
    -p.

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  • Alan Tucker

    This sounds like you’re taking the position that all newbies are dumb, so why bother helping them? Of course, not everyone will avail themselves of information or help when presented, but some will. Isn’t it better to offer help to a few than refuse to help any?

  • http://www.bigskywords.com/ Greg Strandberg

    For those making a couple hundred bucks from their books each month or less, this is inconsequential.

    There’s some good viewpoints here, but I can’t help but think many authors reading these things should just keep writing and tune it out.

    I think the majority self-publishing are not thinking too much about the traditional route and just want to get their work out. Things like these reports might help us out down the road, but right now they’re a distraction from writing and publishing on Amazon.

  • http://PorterAnderson.com/ Porter Anderson

    Hey, Greg –

    And if you need to tune out these carryings-on, buddy, that’s totally good and fine and exactly what you should do.

    Ironically, the intent of what’s in these reports is a reassurance for you that you can be just as successful in your self-publishing as you could be traditionally publishing. But that’s not anything to worry about if it’s distracting.

    Stay focused, and all the best with it-
    -p.

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